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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Mysticism

As I said in a comment, I'm reading a book today, Why God Won't Go Away, by two neurologists who have shown that mystical states can be shown to be empirically real, and are like states involving the genuine perception of real things, and not at all like delusion or brain disease.

There are some sceptics whom, I believe, might be swayed by this -- as these neurologists were. But most will simply ignore it. Their resistance to any evidence on this issue is sometimes astonishing. Often, I feel I'm in a dialogue like the following. (The house and man metaphor aren't meant to be anything too profound -- I just happened to be looking at the path to my neighbors house as I was writing this.)

"There's a nice chap in the house at the end of that path through the woods."

"There's no house there, and there's certainly no chap!"

"No, I was just there -- there is a house, and a man lives in it."

"That's just a childish fantasy."

"Well, go down the path and look for yourself."

"No."

"Why not?"

"It's a waste of time -- there's nothing there!"

Of course, if no one else could walk the path and find the house and the man, there would be a good reason for me to start to suspect I'm a little off my rocker. But when I discover that thousands and thousands of other people have walked down the path, seen the house and the man, and described them in similar terms as me, and that those people otherwise seemed sane and intelligent, then the evidence is overwhelming: there is a house and a man down the path, it can be confirmed empirically, and atheists -- you just haven't gone down the path. If you're just not interested, or are still sceptical, fine -- we can still be friends. But isn't it a little arrogant to confidently declare to me that to "believe" in the house and man is nuts? ("Believe" is in quotes because I "believe" in God in the same way I "believe" in the tree outside my window.

15 comments:

  1. Anonymous8:58 AM

    Ok, I'll bite. Please present a person
    who has seen God. You say thousands and
    thousands have. Show me one. Your belief
    in God cannot be the same as your belief
    in the tree. You can walk right out
    there and hug the tree. All you can do to
    God is believe in your heart and mind
    that he exists.

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  2. Since God IS the tree, no problem.

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  3. Anonymous -- thanks for giving a perfect illustration of what I was saying.

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  4. Oh, and anon., I'll meet your challenge and note that I'm offering one since that's all you asked for: Plato. When he talks about heading away from the shadows to PERCEIVE a great white light, he is describing by metaphor an experience I recognize quite well.

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  5. By your definition, if one person sees God, it is a mental illness; but if 10,000 people see God, then it is a reality.

    But also by your argument, I cannot challenge your definition of reality unless I walk down the very same path that you walked down.

    Since no two people ever walk down the EXACT same path, nor observe the EXACT same sights, nor carry away the EXACT same memories, then no one can ever say what is, or is not, reality.

    If someone says you are making an unfair argument, then by your definition, they are making an unfair argument.

    My Bible claims to be infallible, and since the Bible is infallible, it must be right.

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  6. Anonymous2:17 PM

    I'd be interested to know your experience. Plato's white light is a metaphor for what? You've had an experience, and
    you think it proves God exists? With all due respect, really?
    You perceived something with your senses, your brain, your heart, and this is proof of what? The tree exists and so does God? Or maybe they
    both don't. Maybe what you're talking about is faith. Not the same as knowing, but also not the same as belief. You've had an experience and now you have faith God exists. Perfectly acceptable, a good way to live your life, but you can't expect another person to believe in God just because you had an experience, because many people claim to, just because thousands believe or have faith. It's a personal experience and shouting from the rooftops convinces no one, except the weak and ignorant.
    Scientists have been able to induce religious experience in people by the
    stimulation certain areas of the brain.
    They claim to have seen God, to have other religious feelings and experiences. Certain drugs can do that same. What does this prove, other than that the human brain is an amazing thing?

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  7. "You've had an experience, and you think it proves God exists?"

    Did you actually READ my post. I didn't claim it proves anything -- just that it provides good evidence for ME.

    "You perceived something with your senses, your brain, your heart, and this is proof of what? The tree exists and so does God? Or maybe they both don't. Maybe what you're talking about is faith. Not the same as knowing..."

    How in the world do you knopw anything except perceiving it with your brain, senses, etc.? You seemed to have missed the whole point of my post: I was not trying to convince someone of my point of view, but to show that materialists who dismiss it as even possible that I am right and they are wrong are operating from sheer prejudice, not from their purportedly "rational" assessment of the evidence. A true rational assessor would have to admit the possibility that maybe all these people DID see what they said they saw, even if he is still sceptical.

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  8. “Scientists have been able to induce religious experience in people by the
    stimulation certain areas of the brain.”

    I’m sure they could induce all kinds of experiences by stimulating certain parts of the brain. Maybe they could send a signal through there that makes someone smell roses, or hear a child laughing. Surely we can conclude from this that roses and children do not exist.

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  9. Ok, I'll bite. Please present a person who has seen God.

    Sure thing, I'll bite back: Moses.

    Now I'm sure at this point you're rolling your eyes. But what else could I have done, than report to you someone who claims to have talked directly with God?

    Now the less flippant answer: I used to be a "devout atheist" (my term). In undergrad we would have long sessions in the laundry room (waiting for our clothes etc.) and I would literally try to destroy the faith of born-again Christians. I wasn't doing it to be a jerk; I thought I was freeing them.

    In grad school I very quickly went from being an atheist to realizing I had been horribly (wonderfully?) wrong; the realization hit me very fast, like I changed my mind in about a second. (Yes there is obviously a long story here, that someday I will write out. My point here is that it wasn't a gradual withering away of my skepticism.)

    So in that moment, I felt horrible that I had done so much to try to ridicule belief in God, moron "intelligent design" people, Bible-thumping Christian idiots, etc.

    I said, "I'm sorry" (to God). It was the most sincere apology I have ever offered in my life.

    And I heard, "I forgive you" in my head.

    Obviously you can say it was my mind tricking itself to assuage my guilt, but that's what I heard.

    ========

    So, to tie this back to Gene's post, I am guessing your response is either, (a) Bob is lying to make a point or (b) Bob is nuts.

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  10. Dave:

    "By your definition, if one person sees God, it is a mental illness; but if 10,000 people see God, then it is a reality."

    I'm making the what, as I see it, rather uncontroversial point that we decide if what we perceive as real largely based on whether others can perceive it too. If I see a tree in my yard, but no one else does, I will doubt my perception. In fact, this is a bedrock principle of contemporary science: if a result cannot be duplicated by other experimenters, it is rejected.

    "But also by your argument, I cannot challenge your definition of reality unless I walk down the very same path that you walked down.

    "Since no two people ever walk down the EXACT same path, nor observe the EXACT same sights, nor carry away the EXACT same memories, then no one can ever say what is, or is not, reality."

    No two scientists can ever carry out the EXACT same experiment -- do you feel that all scientific findings should be tossed out as a result?

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  11. Interesting stuff. I’m generally skeptical of mystical claims or experiences, but I’m intrigued by the subject. A lot of arguments in this area somewhat circular: We know real mystical experiences don’t exist because there is no credible proof, and we know there’s no credible proof because anyone who claims to have experienced one is obviously not credible, since we know that real mystical experiences don’t exist.

    Neuroscience seems to spawn more bad philosophical conclusions than any other area of knowledge. I’d like to emphasize what Jor said, because it's such an important point that needs to be brought up more. To jump from "a delusional perception of X can be induced artificially" to "all perceptions of X are delusional" is completely invalid.

    For instance, it's apparently possible to zap a part of the brain's motor center and cause the person to reflexively move his arms- and yet the subject, if asked, will insist that he consciously chose to move. This is held up frequently as proof that our perceptions of free will are an illusion, but it's no such thing- it's just proof that our perception of free choice is fallible. That should be no surprise- our sensory perceptions of the physical world are fallible, too.

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  12. Bob and JOR, well done -- you have saved me a lot of time in answering other posters!

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  13. Bob and JOR, well done -- you have saved me a lot of time in answering other posters!

    I'm glad my experience with the Creator of the universe has convenienced you.

    And now you have time to answer Dick and me regarding proud Christians who thank God for their achievements.

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  14. Why do you libertarian nutjobs obsess over apologetics? if you believe, just believe. go to work.

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  15. Nun:

    1) Why do you think we are "obsessed" with apologetics?

    2) Maybe writing this stuff precisely is "going to work"!

    Bob:

    I believe God's gift of grace to you was done for my convenience, so that I can win the Nobel Prize one day -- at which point I will thank both of you in my acceptance speech.

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