Friday, October 19, 2007

An Argument For Belief

This is my first response to a comment Sombfaa left on a previous post. I know it's been a while since the post, but the last few weeks have been very busy, and I haven't had time to write a longish, properly thought-out essay (the first MMP post being the exception, as it was time-sensitive and had to take precedence).

Introduction & Recap

You write:
As far as the question of the existence of God is concerned, rather than evidence, I see a set of observations about the world that seems to me entirely open to interpretation. Let me give an analogy:

I love my husband. This is what I experince. While it is possible to claim that what we call "love" is a matter of genetic and social programming or elctrochemical impulses, I reject an explanatory framework that negates the validity of my experiences. It seems to me too much like soplipsism.

Is there a way to prove that love is real or to prove that scientific reductionism is the correct view? I do not think so. It is not a question of evidence for one and not for the other. It is the same evidence, interpretted differently, for both.

I experience the existence of God. While some people may wish to attribute this to misfiring axons, delusions or whatever,I prefer a framework in which I can trust my own experiences.
I take this to be intended, not as a logically compelling argument for the existence of God, but as a more modest attempt to justify belief in God as a rational choice, in the face of ambiguous evidence. However, I find that the first part which discusses the ontology of love is incoherent, and its connection to the second part is seriously flawed.

The Ontology of Love

While you have said what you think love isn't, you haven't said what you think it is. Related to that, you have not explained in what way you think that a neurological account of love "negates the validity" of your experience.

The experience of feeling love (or any emotion or thought) is real -- it's a real feeling, in the mind of the subject. By definition, no one else can feel your feelings as such, but the emotional lives of normal humans are standardized enough that we can recognize each other's feelings from their description. Moreover, the feeling of love usually leads to characteristic behaviours which we all recognize -- if (hypothetically) you consistently and unrepentantly treated your husband badly, we would have grounds to question the sincerity of your claim to love him. What I'm getting at here is that the experience of human love (whatever mechanism may underlie it) seems a reasonably well-established phenomenom, and "real" enough on that count.

As for the underlying mechanism of the experience, all the data we have indicate that love (and everything else we feel or think) is produced by the network of neurons inside our skulls. PET imaging technology is at the point where we can see thought and emotion happen in the brain, in real time, and know exactly what regions of the brain are associated with what kinds of mental states (currently at rather low resolution, but that can only improve). This is backed up by studies of brain-damaged patients -- physical damage to specific areas consistently produces characteristic deficits in cognition, emotion and behaviour. I suggest you read up on cases like that of Phineas Gage, or Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. And of course we all know how simple chemicals, taken either medicinally or recreationally, can profoundly alter mental functions. From this I draw two lessons:
  1. Observable brain activity associated with characteristic mental states seems plenty "real" to me -- real in the same sense as the chair I'm sitting in, or the computer I'm typing on (or the electrons and transistors that make it work -- even if I can't see them). What more "reality" do you need?
  2. Explaining mentition in terms of neurology doesn't prove there isn't "something more" to it, but if you still insist that there is a ghost in the machine, then I have to ask: where is it, and just what is it doing?
Another kind of "reality" you may be trying to invoke is the claim that human love finds its source in some Ideal Realm (identified by Christians with the Mind of God), and that without that "grounding" it is in some way rootless, or liable to dry up at a moment's notice. I have some sympathy for this view, having been heavily influenced by C.S.Lewis' Neoplatonism during my Christian period. However, in time my affection for Platonic Forms just wore off -- I came to see that at best they added nothing to (and at worst obstructed) actual understanding of my experiences, which are stable phenomena studiable in their own right.

Note that I do not claim that scientific reductionism is the "correct view"; I only claim that it is the view which allows us to make progress in understanding the world (including ourselves). In rejecting that as an "explanatory framework" (under the belief that it "negates the validity of" your experience in some unspecified way) you are in fact rejecting the only framework which actually explains anything, in favour of a pseudo-explanation logically indistinguishable from "It happens by magic!" So: I do not find your alternative to be an interpretation of the evidence so much as a superfluous gloss arbitrarily applied to it.

Mapping Human Experience to Religious Experience

To reiterate a point made earlier: subjective experience is its own justification -- if you feel it, it is a real feeling (even if its neurological correlates are not currently being monitored by EEG or other apparatus). However, your experience of God -- just like your experience of the computer you are reading this on, or the chair you are sitting on -- is both a subjective experience and is taken as implying an objective claim about the external world. Such claims are not justified by the experience alone, but are (potentially) open to verification or falsification against external reality. In my view, crossing that category boundary invalidates the isomorphism between your experience of love for your husband and your experience of God.

Conclusions
  1. A reductionist, neurological account of subjective experience does not compromise its reality in any meaningful way that I can see.
  2. Subjective experience is at least largely neurological, and there is no compelling reason (nor any explanatory value) in postulating additional components to it.
  3. There is not a valid isomorphism between the claims following on the experience of love, and those following on the experience of God.
I conclude that your analogy fails, and cannot justify a rational "choice of faith".

5 comments:

Jim Lippard said...

I agree with your first point. Robert Nozick's book _The Examined Life_ devotes an entire chapter to what love is. Can Sombfaa or others who think that love constitutes a counterexample to scientific explanation look at a chapter like that and specifically identify what features resist such explanation?

It's common to see love used as a counterexample for scientific reductionism, but I've never seen such an offered counterexample even attempt an analysis like Nozick gives, which makes me think it's just an argument from ignorance (or lack of imagination).

Sombfaa said...

I have not said what love is because I think it is far too complex to define. However, I am convinced that it is more than the sum of its component parts. Is there any area of life in which you recognize the existence of gestalt?

Related to that, you have not explained in what way you think that a neurological account of love "negates the validity" of your experience.

My point would have been clearer if I had included the word "only" in my explanation. To say that love is only or merely a neurological phenomenon is obviously an attempt to diminish its significance. I associate this dismissal of larger meaning with scientific reductionism. It is not simply a matter of saying that the underlying mechanism of love is neurological activity; it is saying that love is only neurological activity. (An essay with an understanding of reductionism similar to my own appears at: http://smith2.sewanee.edu/texts/
Ecology/OnReductionism.html

I experience love as profoundly meaningful and life-changing and reject language that belittles its importance as incompatable with my experience. I am being true to my experience because experience is my main anchor to reality. Similarly, I reject a dismissal or belittling of my religious experiences. This was the analogy that I was making.

Apparently you are willing to concede that both these experiences of mine exist as a subjective phenomenon, since you say:
subjective experience is its own justification -- if you feel it, it is a real feeling.

I'm not sure if you are making the same point when you say:
Observable brain activity associated with characteristic mental states seems plenty "real" to me -- real in the same sense as the chair I'm sitting in, or the computer I'm typing on (or the electrons and transistors that make it work -- even if I can't see them).

It is not clear from this whether you realize there is observable brain activity associated with the mental states involved in spirituality (although I think you must know this). I daresay you will consider this a "woo" site, but this article refers to valid research as far as I can tell: http://www.coloringtherapy.com/
a_biology_religious_experience.htm

Note this sentence at the bottom of the first page:
Consult manuals of Zen meditation, texts from Hindus, Sufis or Christian desert fathers on prayer and you will find the same generic description, couched in the language of that particular culture and tradition -- a description of unitary states.
This seems to meet your implied criterion for "real" experiences that they be "standardized enough that we can recognize each other's feelings from their description".

Towards the end of your entry, you state:
However, your experience of God -- just like your experience of the computer you are reading this on, or the chair you are sitting on -- is both a subjective experience and is taken as implying an objective claim about the external world.
Yet near the beginning, you correctly write:
I take this to be intended, not as a logically compelling argument for the existence of God, but as a more modest attempt to justify belief in God as a rational choice, in the face of ambiguous evidence.

I am not making an objective claim about the external world. I am saying that I have a subjective experience of God and must choose how to explain it to myself. I can treat my experience as somehow corresponding to reality or conclude that I am delusional and that I can not trust my experiences. How will I determine what is real, once I have done that? I am not saying that you should not think I am delusional (although I would rather you didn't) but that I undermine my entire ability to think and act if consider myself to be delusional. Given this result of deciding that I am delusional, I believe that the rational choice is for me to believe that my subjective experience somehow corresponds to reality.

Eamon Knight said...

A few quick reactions to Sombfaa's response before I go to bed:

1) I had a horrible feeling we were going to stumble over the meaning of the term "scientific reductionism". I don't have time right now to read and digest that essay (and some other sources that deal with the concept), so I will say only that what I (roughly) mean by the term in this context is that: all mental phenomena are reducible to neurological activity; ie. completely explicable with nothing left over.

2) I find language like "more than the sum of its parts" and "gestalt" rather too vague and meaningless. However, note that reductionist terms are frequently not useful in describing phenomena of interest -- life reduces to chemistry, which in turn reduces to the physics of valence electron interaction, but no one tries to describe the function of a whole organism in terms of quantum electrodynamics theory.

As a separate issue: even if love is entirely neurological, I fail to see why this belittles the experience and means it cannot be meaningful and life-changing. It's like saying that because food and digestion reduces to chemistry, it cannot taste good or nourish me.

I suspect a straw-man version of reductionism is being set up here (although there may be people who have used it for real).

3) I've read Newberg & d'Aquili's book (and also reports of Persinger's work) so of course I'm aware that subjective religious experience correlates with characteristic neurological states. I never said otherwise (in fact, I would find it more remarkable -- and spooky -- if religious experience left no neurological signs). The only question is whether it is reasonable to infer the existence of an external referent.

Eamon Knight said...

I've now read the Smith essay and digested it about as much as I'm ever likely to.

On reductionism: My (rather scant) reading indicates that reductionism -- exactly what it is, how useful is it as an investigative tool, etc -- is a live topic in philosophy of science. Obviously, I'm not going to settle that in a blog comment. You and Smith (and Frankl) seem to be reacting to a usage in which reductionism is taken as denying "meaning" and humanity to the concepts so reduced. This usage strikes me as illegitimately importing value judgements into what should be a plain matter of scientific explanation -- of causes and mechanisms (which is all I'm really interested in).

On "gestalt": The term you're looking for here is "emergent properties" (the Wikipedia definition is adequate for our purposes). Again, there seems to be some debate within science (and philosophy thereof) as to the status of emergence -- whether higher-level properties are reducible to lower-level, or are ontologically separate and unpredictable (see this post by Wilkins for a brief outline). Obviously, I'm not going to settle that argument either, (though I incline -- as in many things -- to Wilkins' view, that emergent properties are a function of a) which phenomena we happen to find interesting and b) whether we have the computational ability to derive the higher level from the lower). I also (for purposes of this discussion) don't much care which view is correct. Even if all phenomena are in principle reducible to some very low-level explanation (QM, quarks and the like) it remains the case that for many or most phenomena of interest we have not accomplished that reduction, and may never succeed for practical reasons. For that reason alone, we may as well continue to treat phenomena as "real" in their own right, obeying laws valid within their domain, whether or not we also have a lower-level explanation available.

All the foregoing is a long-winded lead-up to answering one of your questions, about what kind of reality I ascribe to subjective experience (whether religious, romantic or any other kind). My answer is that I ascribe them reality both as neurological (low-level) and psychological (high-level) phenomena. That fact that the latter can (in my view) probably be reduced to the former does not make it "less real" (and insisting it is a "gestalt" does not make it "more real" in any way I can see).

Somehow, I suspect my kind of reality is not going to satisfy you.

Your final paragraph is self-contradictory:
I am not making an objective claim about the external world. I am saying that I have a subjective experience of God and must choose how to explain it to myself...... I believe that the rational choice is for me to believe that my subjective experience somehow corresponds to reality.

Claiming that something "corresponds to reality" *is* making an objective claim about the external world, for all normal definitions of those words. You may be conceding that your evidence is of a type unlikely to convince anyone else, but you are still making a claim.

I.M. SMALL said...

"EXTRAORDINARY RENDITION"

To kidnap and export a chap
To someplace else, for torture,
Though it were on or off the map
Where it can be a scorcher,

Defies the Gospel message, as
A question plainly asked,
But whom would Jesus torture, has
Hypocrisy unmasked.

I strive to be a Christian--yet
Have prayed to God in heaven
That this whole lousy crew he let
Not off the hook, but even

"Render" them to the deepest pit
Where burning night and day
So they may linger on the spit
As flames upon them play.

Posing as Christians, yet they went
Against the utter spirit,
Breaking too laws of government
Forsaking need to clear it.

So they have doubly sinned: against
Both Christ, and our forebears
As by enlightenment commenced
A system for the years,

Whereby religion, held in check
Might yet be practiced free,
Yet never govern, as to test
Religiosity.

Yet now the Christian Club exclusive
Prohibits all divergent
Viewpoint, excessively abusive
When life is not so urgent:

So let the terrorists destroy one,
Ought one have any fear?
As much as crucified no coy one
Did Christ make meaning clear.