I have a different post (different from my usual ones) that I’d like some reader feedback on (should you care to respond). I’d particularly like any critiques of my reasoning with this post. However, there is some background you need first. Read this post first to provide the context of my comments: Everyday Philosophy: Epistemological Realism vs. Epistemological Idealism.
On a different site that tends to be populated by rationalist commenters, a discussion of the existence of God occurred; I didn’t hesitate to jump in. Most of the comments were, of course, opposed to the existence of God. In response to someone I wrote the following:
[Two people not being able to have a fully rational discussion about God without both having experienced Him] might appear circular but it certainly is not solipsistic [which the commenter accused me of being]. I am a materialist [actually a monist but I’ll use the word materialist for ease of understanding even though philosophers would be horrified at my inaccuracy]; I believe that the external world exists and can be known (that’s one reason I’m a scientist). [As a side note, Mormons tend to be even stronger materialists [again, this is using “materialism” differently than what is typical] than many other people because we know that spirit is also matter, just finer than what we experience in this world. Matter matters because that’s what there is!] I also was not making an argument [in a formal logic sense with my previous comment, which is not included here because it is not relevant to this post], I was merely setting up the philosophical structure upon which a rational discussion of the existence or non-existence of God might be built.
In any case, let’s substitute pink unicorns [instead of God – the person to whom I was replying wanted to discount my statement because if you put in something fanciful like pink unicorns or fairies, on the surface, by comments then appear to be ludicrous. What I want to show is that my comments are completely rational even with something like pink unicorns put in instead of God].
Person X says, “I have seen a pink unicorn.” Can person Y, who has not seen a pink unicorn, say, “Pink unicorns do not exist”? Yes, person Y can say that but how does person Y know that? Has he omnipresently and omnisciently checked the entire universe and thus ruled out the existence of pink unicorns? No, he has not.
Now let’s say that person Z enters the picture. Person Z says, “I have seen a pink unicorn.” Person X says, “That’s great! The pink unicorn I saw looked like such and such.” Person Z says, “The pink unicorn I saw did not look like that.” Person X replies, “Oh, maybe you saw a different one or maybe you did not really see one.” Person Y chimes in, “You both were hallucinating.” Person Z states, “Maybe, but it was very convincing.” So who’s right now? Person X or person Z? Maybe they are both right or maybe they are both wrong. How can they figure it out? They could try and see the pink unicorn again. If their experiences keep not being congruent then maybe someone is wrong or maybe they really are seeing different unicorns. What if person Z had seen the pink unicorn and it matched what person X saw? Then both person X and person Z can talk about their experiences with each other in a way that persons X and Z cannot with person Y. This is because person Y, having not seen a pink unicorn, does not have the personal experience that is necessary for a fully effective discussion with those who have seen pink unicorns.
So who is right? Is the person who has not seen a pink unicorn right? Do pink unicorns not exist? Maybe but maybe not. Are the two people who have seen (or at least claimed to have seen) pink unicorns right? Maybe, maybe not.
Let’s say that there are now 80 billion people who have not seen a pink unicorn and 1 person who has (or, at least claimed to have seen one). Who is right? Are the 80 billion who have not seen correct? Maybe, maybe not. Is the 1 person wrong? Maybe, maybe not. Can the 1 person have a fully rational discussion with any of the 80 billion who have not seen a pink unicorn? Probably not. Does that make the 1 person irrational? Not necessarily.
I know that’s a lot of non-commital language but that’s the nature of empiricism (used in the broader, experimental sense and not necessarily in the sensory-based sense).
Now, what if the 80 billion people say to the 1 who saw a pink unicorn (again, at least claimed to see), “OK, we’re willing to believe you if you can prove its existence.” The 1 replies, “Good, here is how you do it. Go to the Ural Mountains, hike to the top of Mount Narodnaya, spin around 3.5 times, and you will see a pink unicorn.” Most of the 80 billion say, “You are crazy” and don’t do it. Some say, “Ok, we’ll try it” and then go and do it. They all come back and say, “We have seen a pink unicorn. The 1 was correct.” The rest of the 80 billion say, “There are no pink unicorns. We have done scientific experiments here and never have seen evidence of pink unicorns.” Those who have seen say, “You’re not doing the correct experiments; the 1 told you the process by which you can verify the truth of his claim but what you’ve been doing will not work. This does not mean that his claim is not true, it’s just that some of the methods you are trying are not suited to the question. A discussion of your claims of the non-existence – or, even if you want to remain agnostic about the matter – of pink unicorns and our claims of their existence, at least the existence of one of them, can really never be rational and fully productive until you try.”
That example might be severely flawed (there are some flaws: I could have expanded and added in that the pink unicorn might be invisible so you can’t see it, you have to experience it in other ways; that would lead on to another discussion about the nature of knowing, which is too long for now – philosophers have been debating this for 1000s of years). It might even seem completely fanciful, but I find this an extremely helpful argument [the one explained in the post I linked to at the beginning of this post] because it lays a groundwork of reproducibility. I claim X. I came to know X by doing Y. What does an experimentalist do? The experimentalist goes, “Ok, if I do Y, I can verify whether or not X is true.” So what if the experimentalist does Y and doesn’t find X? Does that rule out X? No, it doesn’t. Does it mean there is less evidence for X? Possibly, but it depends on if the experimentalist did Y correctly and if the experimentalist is honest. It’s also assuming that X is determined by Y, which is not the case when we are talking about God, which does not make a fully rational, experimental approach to this type of knowledge entirely possible. Not finding X does not make X false. Does finding X over and over make it true? Not necessarily but it’s easier to believe something based on X rather than base a categorical negative based on “not X”.
In another post, with someone continuing to ask for my evidence of the existence of God [while at the same time denying that I have any evidence], I responded:
What evidence would it take to convince you? Is there anything I could ever say on [here] that would convince you?
If you are anything like me then the answers to those questions are: Personal experience; no. Personally, I don’t find philosophical arguments for the existence of God helpful (yes, some are clever and thought-provoking but so is science and so are many other things). All are flawed in some manner – including the one I just proposed above. I like real evidence. However, the evidence I have cannot be conveyed to you, it’s based on a hypothesis you have to be willing to test yourself. Would it be nice to email you evidence? Yes, but unfortunately that’s not how it works (I know some of the counter arguments, which I’ve heard a number of times: yes, really convenient, isn’t it? It’s certainly a nice “out” from providing evidence, huh?). Does that mean that I have no evidence, as you say? Not at all. You cannot say I have no evidence just as I can’t say anything about you [I had no idea who the random person I was having an online discourse with actually is].
Could I send you evidence that I love my wife or children? No: pictures or lists of deeds or even their testimonies under sworn oath of “Yes, he loves us” will not work. I might tell them I love them or I might do things for them that they interpret as motivated by love but I could simply be misleading them. So where is the evidence of my love? Is it tied completely to my actions and words? Some people argue that but I find that insufficient because I know that people can be dishonest and that what they do is not always what they believe. I also find it problematic to completely operationalize things like emotions, which love is. Observable and measurable behavior is great (and important evidence) and it certainly supports the idea of my love but it’s not the entire picture; it’s necessary but not sufficient. But I do love my wife and kids. You don’t have to believe me but you also might not believe me even if I could produce evidence of it.
Furthering this discussion is useless [that’s not entirely true but it’s pretty close to the truth]. I would not believe the way I do without personal experience that verifies the truth of it. This is not knowledge I can convey to you but you could know for yourself whether what I know (or, believe I know) is true or whether I’m simply delusional, dishonest, or just misguided (or maybe all three). The scientific method will not work in this case (although some of the philosophical foundations of it apply); in order for you to find out whether or not I really am delusional you have to be willing to try a different method (one that involves faith, prayer, and a lot of work) but one with real results.
I’m not dodging your request for evidence; I just cannot transfer it to you. What I can do is tell you more about how you can verify what I claim I have as evidence yourself by having it yourself. That’s much better than me telling you. Yes, I could provide examples of some of what adds to my evidence but what is the real, strongest evidence is internal and no amount of other evidence that I can provide would work.
I think this is a fairer answer than you’d get from many other people because there’s no “trust me”; it’s all, “You can know for yourself”, you just have to be willing to do the experiments yourself.
So how do other people come to this same knowledge? Here is one other comment I made about the process.
Here is part of the method: “Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe. Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay… Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge. But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words. Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me. Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge. But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.” (Book of Mormon, Alma 32).
I’ve done that and have that experience. First you have to want to believe. Then you need to act on that belief. You have to have faith first if you want to know. As part of this process you also need to read the scriptures, which include the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and do this:
“Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” (Book of Mormon, Moroni 10:3-5).
The method thus far is want to believe. Act on that belief, read the scriptures (including the Book of Mormon), remember the mercies of Jesus Christ, really think about them, then pray to God in the name of Christ with a sincere heart, real intent, with faith in Christ. Then you will feel the Holy Ghost (Spirit) and know that what you have read and what you are doing are true.
It’s simple but you have to be willing to do it just like that. That’s the method, or at least a portion of it. If it came across as preachy, that’s the way it is. I’ve done all that and have the evidence provided by God’s Spirit that it’s true. I’ve seen other things, miracles if you will, but [this site] really is not the forum for sharing those experiences. I’ve seen this process change people’s lives, all for the better. You might counter, so can therapy or X or Y or Z but just because those can result in positive changes doesn’t mean personal experiences with God are not real.
There are other experiments that can be done but the process I wrote is the start and then you can go from there. You might ask, where’s the knowledge – that all seems like belief. That’s the start. Our traditional sensory experience is not sufficient for knowledge. Jesus walked and talked with people, people saw Him perform miracles, people heard Him say He was the Son of God but they did not believe him. Some did but most didn’t. Hard, sensory evidence is never enough without the feelings and thoughts and witness of God’s Spirit (the Holy Ghost). That is the primary evidence; sensory evidence (which is real too) is secondary. I know people of other religions and faiths would tell you different ways that led to their beliefs/knowledge and many claim that because I am a Mormon that I’m delusional but we’re not apologetic for our teachings. That’s the way it is. Yes, it’s audacious and bold but it’s not something that you or anyone else has to take my word for. I outlined a method by which you can verify the veracity of my words. You can take it or leave it; most leave it. But there it is.
Okay, without having all the background to my comments (but with the background from The Eternal Universe post), where are the flaws? Sorry, that’s not meant as a challenge (i.e., “try and find flaws if you can!”), I just haven’t had the opportunity to really think this through all the way and I’d like to hone my approach to the issue.