Areligious experience and warranted naturalistic belief
April 11, 2012 — 14:01

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 14

An acquaintance of mine, paleoanthropologist, regularly handles ancient hominid fossils – part of the job requirement. One day, while holding one of these objects (a skull if I recall rightly, but perhaps my memory is infected by imagery of people holding skulls in paintings and plays), he got a profound “areligious experience”. Suddenly it hit him that he was going to die, and there would be nothing beyond his present life – his memories and self-awareness would simply disappear. In the future, the only thing that would be left of him (if he were buried, placed in congenial archaeological context, with an environment that isn’t too dry, too acid etc.) would be a skull similar to the one he was holding, and perhaps a few large bones like the femora. Prior to this, the paleoanthropologist was already an atheist, but the areligious experience intensified his conviction that the natural world is all there is. His areligious experience was strong, non-inferential, and elicited in him a powerful belief in the non-existence of God–an experience in some respects analogous to religious experience.

Christopher Hitchens in God is not great argued that have some people have “blinding moments of unconviction that [are] every bit as instantaneous, though perhaps less epileptic and apocalyptic (and later more rationally and more morally justified) than Saul of Tarsus on the Damascene road.” He does not present this as an argument from areligious experience, but he does suggest that areligious experience can be “rationally and morally justified.” Just sticking to rational justification here, I am wondering what sort of justification Hitchens is thinking about. Suppose one is an externalist with respect to justification (or warrant). If God exists, there is a rather straightforward externalist route to warranted theistic belief on the basis of religious experience, by virtue of a properly functioning cognitive apparatus that successfully detects the divine presence (a la Plantinga), or by virtue of analogies between religious and perceptual experience, and by arguing that the religious experience, like the perceptual one, is properly grounded (a la Alston).
If God does not exist, then the human brain is the product of a purely naturalistic evolutionary process. I will here assume that the evolutionary argument against naturalism is unsound. Authors like Evan Fales have argued that we can expect that our metabolically expensive and complex brains produce, on the whole, more true beliefs than false ones, since it is more advantageous to have true beliefs than false beliefs. Under the naturalistic worldview, human cognitive capacities are truth-tracking. For example, our ability for induction, which we also use in scientific practice, could have warrant because it is the output of a properly working cognitive system, and the best explanation of why our cognitive system evolved the way it did, i.e., as a system that spontaneously makes inductions, is that nature is indeed uniform. So, taking this naturalistic account of properly functioning cognition (which is truth-conducive because of its selective benefits), a naturalist could say that naturalism is warranted because it is the product scientific inquiry, which is the result of a properly functioning, truth-conducive evolved cognitive apparatus.
Moments of unconviction have a spontaneous, non-inferential character. One plausible cognitive mechanism that lies on the basis of them is mental time travel. Humans, along with a few other species, have the ability to assess future scenarios or reminiscence about their experienced past. According to Suddendorf and others who have worked on mental time travel, the adaptive, proper function of mental time travel is that not that it allows us to recollect past events or project the future per se, but to enable one to anticipate and predict future events on the basis of past experiences. This allows us to construct possible scenarios, which can be compared in order to optimize future behavior. However, the proper evolutionary context of mental time travel is not to have a sense of what happens after one’s death.
If metaphysical naturalism is correct, moments of unconviction are conducive to a correct belief, but I cannot come up with an evolutionary scenario where they could be somehow be properly linked to the truth of naturalism in an externalist way. If so, there is – at least for the externalist – a disanalogy between areligious and religious experience with respect to justified belief. While religious experience might be a source of warrant for religious belief, areligious experience cannot – it seems to me – have such a justificatory function.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I agree with your analysis and conclusion. It seems that a necessary condition for there being warrant is that the belief it leads to coheres with there being warrant.
    As for Evan Fales’ argument, it is clear that on naturalism evolution invests in a brain which will produce adaptive behavior, and not in a brain that will produce true beliefs. And given that behavior is caused not by beliefs alone but by a combination of many factors some of which may fit better with false beliefs, it is not clearly the case that “it is more advantageous to have true beliefs than false beliefs”. Plantinga argues that all things considered the probability that on naturalism evolution will produced a truth-tracking brain is either low or inscrutable. It’s a counterintuitive claim, but, surprisingly enough, one which is not easy to counter. If anyone is interested, Evan Fales’ argument as well as Plantinga’s response are included in “Naturalism Defeated?: Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism”, edited by James Beilby.

    April 12, 2012 — 5:33
  • Helen De Cruz

    Danielos: Thanks, I agree I should have added a qualification about EAAN. Under the naturalistic assumption, the brain will produce adaptive behavior, and the link between adaptiveness and truth is something to be argued for separately. Evan Fales and others have argued that true beliefs are on the whole more conducive to adaptive behavior than false beliefs. Plantinga provides counterexamples, but I don’t find these particularly plausible (e.g., a false belief that consistently elicits an adaptive response, e.g., tigers are cute and cuddly combined with the behavioral rule “run away from things that are cute and cuddly”). The problem is that one cannot realistically construe a brain with a whole web of false beliefs that functions adaptively in this way (e.g., one would run away from one’s cute or cuddly baby). So while I do not think the link between truth and adaptiveness is established a priori (or can be established a priori), it still seems a plausible hypothesis to me, and one I have argued for in this recent paper in dialectica:

    April 12, 2012 — 5:51
  • Helen:
    I basically agree with there being an asymmetry of the sort you posit between religious and irreligious experiences, in that the irreligious ones run the danger of being self-undermining.
    Do you think the same line of thought can show that ethical beliefs aren’t going to be appropriately linked with ethical truth if naturalism holds? I am inclined to think so.
    But let me try to argue the other way, in the case of irreligious experiences. When I used to do serious mathematical work, I would have “provability experiences”: I would see that something can be fairly easily proved without seeing what the proof is. These experiences were very reliable indeed (as confirmed by the fact that if I worked at it, I almost never found myself unable to prove the claim). There are two stories I can think of here: (1) my mind and/or brain non-consciously saw a proof; (2) my mind and/or brain recognized the situation as relevantly like other situations where I had seen a proof, and applied induction.
    On both hypotheses, the mind and/or brain evaluated a body of evidence and came to a conclusion, which conclusion was consciously presented to me as a provability intuition. And there may not be anything deeply mysterious about how the evaluation of the body of evidence was done: it was the sort of evaluation that one might consciously make.
    So, maybe the irreligious experiences are simply the outcome of a non-conscious evaluation of the evidence. If so, then they would inherit their truth-directedness from the truth-directedness of our general-purpose non-conscious evidence-evaluation processes, and the latter have evolutionary truth-directedness because they are often used in fitness-related contexts.
    If this is right, then there is still an asymmetry between religious and irreligious experiences, in that the irreligious ones, if naturalism is true, do not provide reliable fundamentally new evidence, but only an evaluation of other evidence, while the religious ones could provide an evaluation of other evidence but could also provide reliable fundamentally new evidence.
    Am I making any sense?

    April 12, 2012 — 9:21
  • Helen De Cruz

    Alex: the ethics discussion is a messy one. It seems that many evolutionary ethicists agree with your conclusion (e.g., Michael Ruse who in several places insists that the objectivity of ethics is an illusion foisted upon us by our genes, so that we are better cooperators, which is fitness-inducing). But there are alternative views, such as James’ proposal that there is an objective morality, albeit one that is constructed contingently as part of our evolutionary history. I have no strong intuitions one way or the other.
    The mathematics example is a useful intuition pump. Using this, we can see that religious experience may be a basic source of basic knowledge, but that areligious experience, although it might be a source of basic knowledge cannot be a basic source of basic knowledge. Basic sources of knowledge are mechanisms like perception and a priori intuitions; nonbasic sources of knowledge are sources like testimony.
    This claim would be significantly weaker than the original one I made, but might be more accurate.

    April 12, 2012 — 10:10
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Please put yourself in Plantinga’s shoes for a moment. He holds that reality is theistic, and that we are all endowed by God with reliable cognitive faculties. On the other hand he thinks that if reality were naturalistic then we should not believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable. For his argument then to strike us as plausible, we should imagine ourselves as existing in a naturalistic world – but this is impossible, for as a matter of fact being of our nature do not exist in a naturalistic world. What I am saying is that if Plantinga’s position is the right one then his argument *must* strike us as implausible.
    I remember how when I first read the EAAN I thought that there must be something obviously wrong with it. We now know that there is nothing *obviously* wrong with it, but its prima facie implausibility is still a bother. One way I have found to deal that implausibility is to consider this: When a frog sticks out its tongue to catch a fly in mid-air, the frog’s brain has quickly solved differential equations. But from this it does not follow that the frog knows many true beliefs about mathematics. Similarly the fact that in a naturalistic world intelligent beings would evolve and would, say, construct airplanes – does not imply that they know many true beliefs. In general, from the fact of sophisticated behavior which from *our* point of view appears to require much knowledge it does not follow that there is such knowledge.
    In any case I think it is overkill to argue for the general non-reliability of our cognitive faculties. Consider the following version which argues that on naturalism and evolution just our *metaphysical* truth tracking capabilities are unreliable. It is based on the premise that the truth of metaphysical beliefs offer no adaptive advantage. After all, correctly understanding whether realism or anti-realism in respect to the tiger holds, or what grounds the tiger’s existence, or the ultimate meaning of the tiger being hungry – have no effect on how we should react when facing a hungry tiger. So here is the revised argument:
    1. Metaphysical truth tracking capabilities offer no adaptive advantage.
    2. On naturalism and evolution, we have evolved only capabilities which offer adaptive advantage.
    3. Therefore, on naturalism and evolution we have not evolved metaphysical truth tracking capabilities.
    4. We should not believe in beliefs evolved through capabilities which are not truth tracking.
    5. Therefore, on naturalism and evolution we should not believe in metaphysical beliefs.
    6. Naturalism is a metaphysical belief.
    7. Therefore, on naturalism and evolution we should not believe in naturalism.
    The corollary here is that any naturalist who understands the above argument should stop being a naturalist and become an agnostic or a non-cognitivist. One way or the other it looks like Plantinga’s argument does render naturalism an epistemically self-defeating position.

    April 13, 2012 — 4:53
  • DL

    Helen De Cruz: Plantinga provides counterexamples, but I don’t find these particularly plausible (e.g., a false belief that consistently elicits an adaptive response, e.g., tigers are cute and cuddly combined with the behavioral rule “run away from things that are cute and cuddly”).
    Plantinga’s example is of course whimsical, but it’s only hard to imagine “a whole web of false beliefs that functions adaptively” if we assume that the world is more or less the way we think it is; and that’s precisely what is under question. If the universe, down to the laws of physics, were utterly unlike what we imagine, how could we say that our delusions of it don’t “fit”? (We wouldn’t even know what the criteria are for “fitting”!)
    In any case, I agree about the asymmetry: a genuine religious experience can be caused by an existing God, but a genuine irreligious experience cannot be caused by a non-existent God. And to follow Alex’s suggestion, there is a further asymmetry in that the genuine natural experience can provoke only a natural conclusion, whereas the genuine supernatural experience could go beyond any natural cause.

    April 16, 2012 — 23:02
  • Trent Dougherty

    Haven’t read any of the comments but wanted to note that Gerome Gellman’s work is relevant to this, especially Gellman 1992. Chris Tucker brought Gellman 1992 to my attention after I gave a defense of (internalist!) non-inferential justification for atheism from irreligious experience at the Australasian Philosophy of Religion Association meeting in Auckland last year. This is the subject of my Phil Rel grad seminar this Fall at Baylor, where I plan to examine Gellman’s work further.
    Also, it should be noted that perceptual models of religious epistemology don’t have to be externalist. Chisholm noted Hugh of St. Victor’s “Oculi Contemplationis” in 1966 (Theory of Knowledge, 1st ed. Plantinga is mentioned as having carefully read the 1977 edition).
    Chris Tucker offers a combined model in the Clark and VanArragorn book, reviewed by me here:

    April 17, 2012 — 11:14
  • Helen De Cruz

    Trent: thank you very much. This is very helpful. I’d still have to look at how this cashes out in internalist terms…

    April 17, 2012 — 15:31
  • Cres

    Helen, I would be interested to know what you think about the following analogy (a little rough around the edges but I think the idea is there with a bit of charitable interpretation):
    A scientist gives you a mysterious device which he claims to be a working and reliable ‘sanity detector’. It reads ‘1’ for sane, ‘0’ for insane. The catch is, you don’t know whether the device works or not. But you do know that a sane scientist would definitely give you a working device, and that there is at least a chance that a mad scientist would give you a faulty one.
    Now, let us imagine that there is no one else around on whom to use the device, except for the scientist (you can’t use it on yourself). So you point the device at the scientist, press the ‘test’ button, and the screen flashes up ‘0’. You press the ‘test’ button a few more times and get a mix of ‘1’s and ‘0’s.
    What does this tell you? Well, you know that if the scientist was sane, you would have been given a working device, which in turn would have said ‘1’ every time due to the scientist’s sanity. The fact that you sometimes receive ‘0’ means that you can conclude that the scientist is insane.
    I hope the way this logic applies to the case of religious experience is clear. The mystery device is an analogy for our cognitive faculties, reliable (‘working’) or unreliable (‘faulty’). The sane scientist corresponds to the God who would definitely endow us with reliable cognitive faculties. The ‘0’s and ‘1’s are observations of individuals’ having areligious and religious experiences respectively.
    The argument that could be made, then, is that (big if to follow) if God would definitely give us reliable cognitive faculties (in the way that would make any religious experiences we might have truth-tracking) then, by the same token, the genuine occurrence (I think disputing these occurrences is probably the starting point for attacking the argument) of an areligious experience would rule out the possibility of such a God’s existing, by the logic of the analogy given above.

    April 18, 2012 — 9:42
  • Helen De Cruz

    Dear Cres: this is an interesting analogy. It does seem that religious and areligious experiences are somehow connected to the problem of divine hiddenness. Would a God who sincerely wanted a relationship with his creatures not have made cognitive faculties that provide reliable religious experiences? From perusing ego-documents, I notice that even sincere believers regularly regularly experience difficulties in prayer – experiences of closeness of God are followed by experiences that no-one is listening.
    One could explain this by invoking noetic effects of sin, or alternatively, by constructing theodicies that offer reasons why God would choose to withhold his presence from us. So under these construals, a theist would have to argue the areligious experiences might be a failure of the subject to recognize what are really religious experiences, or they might be somehow caused by God for some greater good. But I agree that a theist will have to give a reason for why there are areligious experiences at all.
    So, in sum, we do not need to assume that God would definitely give us reliable cognitive faculties in the sense that they never yield areligious experiences.

    April 18, 2012 — 10:13
  • Cres:
    “if God would definitely give us reliable cognitive faculties (in the way that would make any religious experiences we might have truth-tracking) then, by the same token, the genuine occurrence (I think disputing these occurrences is probably the starting point for attacking the argument) of an areligious experience would rule out the possibility of such a God’s existing”
    That’s a neat analogy. But the “rule out” in the conclusion is too strong. After all, reliable cognitive faculties can go wrong, as long as they don’t usually go wrong. So the question is going to be: Are such experiences more common than we would expect on the hypothesis that there is a God and the cognitive faculties are reliable?
    And there, I think, the answer is negative. These areligious experiences seem no more common than things that are uncontroversially failings of reliable faculties.

    April 19, 2012 — 8:58
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi Helen,
    You say, “If metaphysical naturalism is correct, moments of unconviction are conducive to a correct belief, but I cannot come up with an evolutionary scenario where they could be somehow be properly linked to the truth of naturalism in an externalist way.”
    Maybe not on a causal theory of knowing, but it seems that the areligious experience would be reliably connected to the truth. (Or, the process producing the belief that naturalism is true, where that process involves areligious experience, would be a reliable one.) Or how about Plantinga’s proper function view? You seem to be arguing in your third paragraph that a belief produced on the basis of such areligious experiences would be produced by reliable, properly functioning, truth-aimed faculties in their proper environment. Couldn’t those be the externalist ways?

    April 22, 2012 — 14:09
  • Helen De Cruz

    Hi Andrew, thanks for the comments. I’ve been thinking about the question of areligious experience for some time, but not yet in a qualified philosophical way (more in a sort of experiental way, i.e., what is it I am experiencing when I have an areligious experience?) It seems to me that this question is more challenging to answer than: what is it I am experiencing if I have a religious experience? If metaphysical naturalism is true, then areligious experience would be truth-directed, the question is: how? I can see how reasoned, reflective propositions about naturalism are warranted under this view, but I don’t yet see how areligious experience can fit within a proper function view – how might the proper function of areflective cognitive outputs be connected to discovering metaphysical truths? Steve Stewart-Williams has some nice work on how we can expect that under a proper function view we will have some non-reflective true metaphysical beliefs (e.g., the belief that there are other minds seems a useful belief if other minds are indeed an emergent property of material brains; the belief that the external world exists outside of my thoughts is useful if I want to survive), I’m interested in specifying how this might connect to metaphysical naturalism.

    April 23, 2012 — 5:07
  • James

    I’m not trying to write a post, so I’ll leave alone the problems you (or it could be me) are having with brain/cognition theism/evolution, even though it appears to have played a major role in your thought processes. Correcting them would be superfluous, I think. I’ve picked up a quirk from my instructor, probably to my own detriment, in disdaining jargon. One of his main reasons being that it limits the number of people that you can converse with on important topics without insulting them and thus ruining a perfectly good chance of expansion of onesself and others. The other reason is that it takes you a good 20 or 30 years to use it correctly anyway and until then you are just stringing utterances and not your own together a bunch of disparate phrases in a seemingly cogent manner and not your own true ruminations on a given topic. Be that as it may.
    Anyway, I’ll get you started in thinking this thing through more thouroughly. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble throwing the appropriate jargon and terms back into it. What would be religious or areligious, belief justified or not and on what grounds, warranted or not. Is mental time travel plausible or even relevant or not, properly functioning cognitive systems or not, truth conducive or not. You follow?
    Let us get to it then: Titanic
    All of the crew and passengers had an ‘experience’, except one which we will save for last. Some lived and some died as you well know. All but a few (just being realistic) ‘wanted’ to live. Of those that wanted to live; some ‘thought’ that they themselves would live and were ‘correct’; some ‘thought’ that they themselves would live and were ‘wrong’; some ‘thought’ that they themselves would live and that the others would live, they were ‘partly correct’ and ‘partly wrong’ for themselves, the others, and some of the others, obviously; some ‘thought’ that they themselves would die and were ‘correct’; some ‘thought’ that they themselves would die and were ‘wrong’; some thought that they themselves would die and that the others would die, they were ‘partly correct’ and ‘partly wrong’ for themselves, the others and some of the others, obvious again. You can work out the few last remaining permutations on your own. Let us get to that one guy, well he was drunk before, during and after the ‘event’ and therefore didn’t have an ‘experience’. This can also go for the newborns and unborns. Conversely their may have been those that were drunk or otherwise before, during and after the event that also did not have the ‘experience’ and died.

    May 3, 2012 — 18:32