Can our Senses be Trusted?

The Friendly Atheist posted a clip from a BBC show about Big Questions. The clip was addressing the question, “Is faith compatible with reason?” The clip was mildly interesting, and the non-believers certainly came out looking more “reasonable” than the spiritual folks (Christians, pantheists, etc.) There were a few points worth discussing further.

First, the representative reasonable figure noted the importance of confirmation bias for people of faith, meaning that they start with the conclusion (that God exists) and apply a massive filter to the information they receive. Information confirming their bias is accepted relatively easily, while information criticizing it is rejected very quickly. The bias is operative in other areas of life as well, which is why it is much more difficult to change someone’s mind once they have already “decided” something. It’s also a reason why 86% of people who become Christian do so between the ages of four and fourteen (according to this documentary).

Also noted was the difference between reason and faith as a difference between deductive and inductive reason. The first starts with the premises and reasons to a conclusion, the second begins with the conclusion and then finds premises to (in this case) affirm it. What I found most interesting, though, was an unchallenged comment made on the “reason” side that said the senses can’t be trusted. This was in response to a pantheist noting that her heart told her that her beliefs are true. Though I grasp the point the respondent was trying to make (that the warm fuzzy you feel in your heart doesn’t make God real), the principle that we cannot (or should not) trust our senses is problematic for me.

Let’s set aside for a minute the fact that we do trust our senses almost all of the time, though they do sometimes mislead us. For example, on the main drag of the town where I grew up, planters were placed at the sidewalk corners of the intersection, probably as part of a beautification project. Their inconvenient placement near the crosswalks means that nearly every time I drive that street, there is a split second where I almost begin to brake because I think a person is trying to cross the road. I might interpret that as my senses misleading me. (There is also some confirmation bias there, in that we tend to try, anthropocentrists that we are, to discern faces and bodies in places where they are not.)

But let’s try another scenario, that of the famous Romeo and Juliet. If I recall the climax of the play, it involves Juliet taking a drug that makes her appear dead. Upon finding her dead, Romeo takes poison and dies, and upon Juliet waking up, she finds Romeo dead and stabs herself to death. Romeo obviously experienced a great deal of sadness as a result of finding Juliet and his senses confirmed that she was dead. In turn, Juliet’s senses confirmed that Romeo was dead, and she too killed herself. The only justification we would have for saying Romeo’s senses deceived him and Juliet’s did not is that we know the outcome, that Juliet was not dead but that Romeo was. We have no significant reason to suggest that his senses were more impaired than hers. (They both seemed a little emotional, if you ask me.) Juliet was, for Romeo, dead when he saw her. His senses conveyed that truth accurately.

What I am arguing is that the claim that the senses lead us astray is not based just on the senses, but the reasoning that we do from them, reasoning done over time. We might argue that had Romeo waited a bit longer, his senses would have shown that Juliet was not dead, because she would have opened her eyes and sat up. What if took longer? What if it took days? Years? How long would we have Romeo wait?

There is a social element here. Let’s say several others came and confirmed Juliet was dead and she was buried. Hundreds of years later, her grave is accidentally disturbed and it is found she was buried alive. Would we say that the senses of all who confirmed her death deceived them? Why? From whose perspective would we make that judgement? Perhaps from a scientific perspective that might claim she was in a comatose state with an extremely low heart rate that nonetheless kept her alive for days. Assuming it could have been done, should extensive scientific testing have been done to confirm her death? What if it was done, and it also confirmed that she was dead? It would only be with the element of time that we would be able to know otherwise.

The point is that the senses are momentary, but that judgement is made over time. This implies no necessary limitation on the senses. I understand the argument that science needs to be empirical and not merely sensory, but this is not applicable in all areas of life. To shut off the emotions because they are connected to unreliable senses is to close off life itself. Sadness, anger, and love are all emotional responses that appear most real when one is feeling them, and may seem diminished or even inaccurate later. Do we explain that variance of emotion by imposing present reality on the past, by saying that from our current neutral state that the presence of emotion in the past was wrong? Or do we acknowledge merely a different emotional state, a different sensory perception than before? (I realize I’m slipping from senses to emotion, which are not necessarily the same thing, but feelings and reason are often contrasted in the same way in common discussion that senses and reason are.)

I find it a problem that the senses can be dismissed in favor of science. It seems to me another version of faith. Both argue, at one point, that what I sense around me does not give me an accurate representation of what there is. It cedes my ability to make judgment, to perceive reality, to an external system. For social purposes all must participate in this to a certain extent, but that does not necessarily or always relegate the senses of the individual to a secondary status. In the birth of the scientific age, scientific conclusions were often dismissed in favor of theological dogma; in the present day, the opposite is the case. Is the reason because we had a lesser grasp on reality in the past, that we were dumber? Or is it related to the fact that less people assented to a scientific worldview in the past than they do now? The basis of a greater acceptance of scientific or reasonable method is not because on its inherent truth, then, but because of its social acceptance.

Anyone have any thoughts?


The “Truth” of Interpretation

One of the things that has most influenced my approach to religion (and consequently, life) in recent years is the question of interpretation. We want the greatest possible support for our criteria for understanding the world. Yet in most areas of our day-to-day lives, we operate with principles that look reliable when they are radically contingent.

For example, our usage of cars as a primary mode of transportation is contingent on a number of conditions, including a well-functioning vehicle, good infrastructure, reliable road and traffic signs for interpretation, and the consistency of other drivers. Most of us don’t actively think that every passing car is going to veer into our lane. However, it could happen at any time, and when it does, we are surprised. Do we have any reason to be surprised, though? Certainly this kind of thing doesn’t happen to us all the time, but it does happen to others daily. Our surprise comes from the fact that our false sense of objectivity that helps us navigate our daily living has been temporarily shattered.

With issues of morality or the supernatural, it is comparatively easier to formulate universals because they are not subject to our usual methods of falsification. I cannot prove that there is a God, or gods, or none whatsoever. Even granting the existence of a divinity, however,  there must be an intersection, a point where it connects with our being. This becomes a productive point for the interrogation of questions of universality. We can, and should, also discuss the individual’s experience and understanding, but the most common intersection point for Christianity is the Bible. This privileging of the text is a part of modern Western culture, and not all religious traditions emphasize the text in the same way, but Christianity has.

The problem is that the common methods for grounding interpretations of the Bible are largely circular. For example:

“Why do you believe in the Bible?”

“Because it’s the Word of God!”

“But how do you know it’s the Word of God?”

“Because it says so in Second Timothy 3:16.”

“And what is Second Timothy?”

“A book in the Bible.”

It can, of course, be much more complicated than that. It might go something like this:

“How do you know the Bible is the Word of God?”

“Because that is what the Church believes.”

“What justification does the Church have for believing that?”

“ It has been believed for thousands of years. There are millions of people who have called themselves Christians throughout the centuries. How could they all be wrong?”

“But didn’t there have to be some evidence for those beliefs at some point?”

“Sure. The evidence has been there from the beginning, in the prophets and apostles, and in Jesus himself.”

“So those are all figures that we know about because of the texts in the Bible. How do we know that what they said is true?”

“Because they heard from God.”

“How can we be sure they heard from God? Do you hear from God?”

“Well, uh, not usually, but I could. There’s no reason why God couldn’t speak to me. But He has spoken to many other believers.”

“But why would you think God would speak to them and not you? Why wouldn’t we conclude that those people just thought they were hearing communication from a divine being.”

“Because the things God said to them actually came true. They actually happened.”

“How do you know they happened?”

“The stories are right there in the Bible.”

There are other methods for attempting to provide a universal ground for Christian truth, but they are not exclusive of the Bible. The other common conversation-stopper is faith. “That’s just what I believe.” Not much you can do with that. Lest I be unfair, much the same could be said of any other field of discrete knowledge, including science, which elaborates the same proofs with a sufficient quantity of data to obscure its lack of ultimate ground and takes advantage of an environment predisposed to belief in its principles, a predisposition once given to religion. A field establishes truths that are coterminous with the boundary of the field, and much public controversy consists of individuals throwing rocks at each other from within their respective boundaries.

Coming up, I plan to look at texts and ideas that critically altered my understanding of interpretation. Key questions: If there are multiple different interpretations, how do you know you’re right? If everyone claims the same ground for legitimacy (God, the Bible), then what?


Deconversion (or Disenchantment?)

Okay, so it’s not a real word…yet. Deconversion doesn’t even sound that great. It’s kind of clunky. I could not think of any better words that adequately describe my experience of leaving Christianity. Unconversion might be a possibility, but that sounds to me more like a complete and tidy reversal, and it is not so easy (nor possible, nor even necessarily desirable) to remove thirty years of enculturation. Deconversion implies to me a kind of excision, a forced or necessary removal of something that no longer has a place. I’m not sure whether in the metaphor I have excised something out of me or excised myself from the larger fabric.

The use of deconversion is not without precedent among former Christians. (See Camels with Hammers for another example) One problem is that deconversion implies a kind of instantaneousness that also accompanies the Protestant understanding of conversion. Change almost never happens that way. Christians particularly enjoy conversion narratives that are dramatic, representing a sharp turn of events, when real and lasting change is more gradual. Take the narrative of the average Christian’s conversion and it will not be hard to identify multiple factors that contributed over time to an individual’s receptiveness to consciously accepting Christianity. The same, of course, goes for many other changes as well. We like conversion, though, because it suggests the great power or will of the actor, be it God or individual. If I quit smoking, but it takes me two years of fits and starts to do so, and I still feel like I could use a cigarette, that doesn’t sound very permanent or appealing. If, on the other hand, I triumphantly announce that I quit smoking cold turkey and never wanted another cigarette again, it seems to attest to my amazing power of will.

In the same way, a quick and dramatic conversion story is a great testimony to the power of God, and these testimonies were once appealing to me. I was often disappointed that, since I had grown up in the church for as long as I remember, I had no great conversion story. No bad past filled with drugs, sex, and hard living; just a good kid who grew up with Christian parents and became a Christian at an early age. I wanted some drama. So I admit that using the term deconversion is a vague appeal to the same kind of story, suggesting a precise turning point. As I mentioned, though, I only recognized this turning point much later and superimposed it on the past for a clearer chronology. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this symbolic method, and we use it frequently to describe changes in our lives. This doesn’t mean the symbol should be used as a substitute for the thing itself. In other words, the story is not equivalent with the actual events; it is a representation of them, and representations can vary widely, between people and even in the same person over time.

There are many other words used to describe a change in religious affiliation, but they are almost exclusively the language of those who remain insiders. The early Christian church was very concerned with apostates (those who abandoned the faith), heretics (those who promoted an unorthodox faith), and the lapsed (those who betrayed the faith in a moment of weakness but have since come back). These all have a negative connotation in modern parlance.

Contemporary Protestantism uses more colloquial language, such as backsliding, leaving the faith, or abandoning the faith. It might speak in terms of belief, such as no longer believing, abandoning belief, etc. In the first examples, faith functions as a substitute for Christianity, implying that if you aren’t Christian, you don’t have faith. Period. Some people may have no problem with ceding the term to Christians; I am interested in what non-members using Christian terms to describe their relationship with Christianity implies for its influence on Western culture.

The same goes for belief. What I like about “not believing anymore” is that it suggests the ongoing social enchantment (support, what have you) necessary to best sustain religious affiliation. What I don’t like is that, like faith, it presumes that belief means belief in Christianity. The religion versus science debate common in the narratives of former Christians or New Atheists has to a certain extent democratized belief, but shares the implication that everyone has to believe in something. Each side accuses the other of denying the evidence. Maybe it is because of my resistance to Christian normativity, but I don’t think of my life in terms of a belief in something, and I don’t identify regularly with “unbeliever” or “nonbeliever.”

I do like the term disenchantment because it indicates the active effort that goes into sustaining religious community. It also resonates to a certain extent with my experience. My social and cultural environment produced an effect on me, encouraging me to view reality in a particular way. As some of the cracks in that version of reality began to show, the enchantment began to lose its hold. Of course, this happens all the time, which is why communities gather regularly to reaffirm their shared values and beliefs. Once I stopped attending church, however, I lost my source of re-enchantment, and since for a variety of reasons I was unwilling or unable to sustain it myself, I was, over time, disenchanted. Why do you think religious leaders try to get you into church?

This disenchantment is also applicable in many other areas. For example, I have also become somewhat disenchanted with Crossfit lately, although I would still consider myself a “Crossfitter.” It has gone through a cycle similar to that of a religion, and has now alienated some of its earlier members by attempting to extend its reach as broad as possible. I hear talk of breaking away and returning to the roots. Sounds a lot like religion, huh? Much more could be said, but I’ll save it for another post.

The point is that these terms are static and ultimately fail to capture a journey that is ongoing. Nothing is final; everything is in flux. I’ll probably continue to use the words deconversion or disenchantment while I continue to search for something more adequate.