The following is a short essay written by Greta Christina, published May 18, 2008 on her blog. Her arguments also seem relevant to facets of LDS epistemology.
I’ve made a minor grammatical change, added topic headings drawing upon the essay itself which represent my own judgement on natural subdivisions and appropriate topic headings, and updated missing links to appropriate substitutes.
The trope: Logic and reason aren’t everything
There’s a trope I’ve noticed in debates about atheism, about skepticism, about science. And the trope goes something like this:
“Logic and reason aren’t everything. Not everything in this world is rational. Not everything that we know in the world is known through logic and reason. Sometimes we have to use our intuition, and listen to our hearts. There are different ways of knowing than just reason and evidence.”
The thing is?
I actually think there’s a lot of truth to this.
And I still think it’s a terrible argument to make against atheism, skepticism, and/or science.
Let me explain.
There are absolutely areas of life in which logic and reason don’t apply. Or don’t predominate, anyway. Love, of course, is a classic example. The classic example, probably. Nobody decides who to fall in love with by making a cool appraisal of the pros and cons. Nobody decides who to fall in love with, period. It’s an emotional, irrational, impulsive, intuitive, largely unconscious act.
Personally, I think a lot of people would benefit from a little more rational, evidence-based thinking in their love lives. It might stop them from making the same damn dumb mistakes over and over again, for one thing. But ultimately, decisions about love are made with the heart, not the head. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Or take art. The part of us that loves music, images, stories… it’s not a logical part. Not entirely, anyway. A huge amount of it is personal, emotional, visceral. And it should be. Scientists and art critics and philosophers can analyze why different people like different things in art, and they’ll come up with useful observations… but the actual experience of art isn’t mostly analytical.
Sure, there are some commonly-accepted criteria that can be applied to art. Plus, the degree to which we appreciate art emotionally or rationally can depend on the art… as well as on the appreciator. And certainly our appreciation of art can be increased by a better understanding of its history or structure. But ultimately, art either moves you or it doesn’t. And when it does, the experience of being moved is not a rational process. It’s subjective.
And most artists will tell you that an essential part of the creative process is getting the rational part of their brain to shut up for a while. While the editing or modifying process often involves a critical, rational eye, the actual creation part of art comes largely from a non-verbal, non-linear, non-rational place. The experience of art is not primarily a rational one… for artist or for audience.
I can think of oodles more examples. Humor. Sexual desire. Friendship. Sentiment and nostalgia. Tastes in food. I think you get my drift, though. Many of the most central, most profound experiences of human life are things we experience emotionally, intuitively, irrationally.
Matters of opinion
But have you noticed a pattern to these examples?
They’re all matters of opinion. They’re all matters of subjective experience.
None of them is concerned with trying to understand what is true. Not just what is true for us, personally, but what is true in the external world. The world we all share, as opposed to the ones in our own heads and hearts.
And these questions—the questions of what is true in the external world—are where logic and evidence leap to the forefront.
This is why. We know—as well as we know anything—that the human mind can be fooled. It is wired, for very good evolutionary reasons, with some interesting distortions of reality. Among other things, it’s wired to see what it expects to see; it’s wired to see patterns even when none exist; it’s wired to see intention even when none exists.
And intuition, especially, is a deeply imperfect form of perception and understanding. Yes, it can often be a powerful tool for making leaps and seeing possibilities we couldn’t even have imagined before. But it can also be a powerful tool for showing us exactly what we expect to see, and telling us exactly what we want to hear—regardless of whether what we expect or want are actually there to be seen and heard.
Now, for subjective questions, these imperfections aren’t particularly important. If you think you’re in love, then you are in love. If you think you like Radiohead, then you do like Radiohead. If you think broccoli tastes like fermented essence of evil, then it does. To you, anyway. With subjective questions like these, there’s not really a difference between “what you think is true” and “what really is true.” Or if there is, it’s not a crucial one.
What’s true in the external world?
But when we’re trying to figure out what’s true in the real world—not in the subjective world of our own feelings and experiences, but in the external world—there is very often a difference between what we think is true and what is true. An important, measurable difference.
And if we want to understand what’s true in the real world, we need to acknowledge, recognize, and correct for that difference. When we don’t, it’s disastrous. Think of all the people in history who “intuitively” knew that black people were mentally inferior to white people; who “intuitively” knew that mental illness was caused by demonic possession; etc., etc., etc. The human race’s track record of trying to answer non- matter- of- opinion questions about what is and is not true in the external world by “listening to our hearts” is a pretty abysmal one.
So if we’re trying to understand the external world, we need to be very, very careful to screen out bias and preconception as much as humanly possible. And the best way we have to do that is with logic, reason, and the rigorously careful gathering, examination, and analysis of the evidence.
In other words—the scientific method.
Which—with its double-blinding, careful control groups (including placebo controls when appropriate), transparent methodology, replicability, falsifiability, peer review, etc. etc.—has specifically developed over the decades and centuries to do one thing: eliminate bias, preconception, and human error, as much as is humanly possible, in order to get the closest approximation of the truth that we can.
It’s true that the history of science is full of stories of scientists coming up with important insights and breakthroughs in irrational ways: through dreams, sudden revelations, etc. Yes, irrational inspiration can be an important part of the scientific process. But it’s an important first part. After all, the history of science is also full of scientists coming up with ideas through irrational inspiration that then turned out to be full of beans. (Nikola Tesla comes to mind.) You just don’t read about them as much.
Inspiration gives scientists ideas, points them in new directions. But they then need to test those ideas and directions. And they don’t do that intuitively. They do it using the scientific method: rationally, logically, and rigorously.
God: a hypothesis about the real world
So what does all this have to do with atheism?
Here’s what. The question of whether God does or does not exist is not a question of opinion. It is not a question of subjective experience. It is not a question that can be answered, “Well, maybe that’s not true for you, but it’s true for me.”
A belief in God is a hypothesis about the world. The real, external world. It is a hypothesis proposing an explanation for why things are the way they are: why the natural world is the way it is, why human nature is the way it is, how life came to be, how the universe came to be, how cause and effect works in the physical world. (Or to be more precise: it’s thousands upon thousands of hypotheses. What with all the different and conflicting religions.)
It can be a broad hypothesis, like, “The universe was created by an intelligent, intentional creator,” or, “Human beings have a non-corporeal soul that is connected to, but not dependent on, the physical brain and body.” Or it can be as specific as, “If enough people pray, God will cure my daughter’s cancer,” or, “There was a devastating hurricane in New Orleans because the city tolerates homosexuality.” But except in the cases of the most abstract concepts of God—deities so far removed from the real world that they scarcely deserve the name “deity”—a religious belief is a hypothesis about the workings of the real, external, non-subjective world that we all live in.
And therefore, it is not appropriate to use irrational, emotional, intuitive ways of knowing to try to evaluate whether the God hypothesis is accurate, or plausible, or the best explanation for the current evidence.
You can find out whether you’re really in love by listening to your heart. You can’t find out how to predict tornados, or how HIV is transmitted, or whether eating beef increases the risk of getting colon cancer, by listening to your heart. And the God hypothesis is not in the first category. It’s in the second.
Wildly positive results
Don’t believe me? Don’t believe that the rational scientific method is a demonstrably better way to understand the real world than the intuitive religious method? Let’s look at the results.
The rational, scientific way of knowing the world? Big success. Wildly positive results. The scientific method has increased our understanding of the real world, and our ability to affect and predict it, to a truly astonishing degree. We can send telescopes to other planets, take detailed pictures of those planets, and send them back to our own. We can see the structures of cells. We can predict weather patterns both large and small: not perfectly, of course, but with a greater degree of accuracy than at any time in human history. We understand the natural process by which life on the planet developed. We can identify, prevent, and treat diseases that were utterly mysterious even a hundred years ago. And our understanding even of how our own brains and minds work is increasing every day. Etc., etc., etc.
Yes, of course there are unanswered questions and ongoing debates on the frontiers of science. No scientist would argue otherwise. But there are basic fundamental realities about the world that we now know—as well as we can possibly know anything—that we didn’t know, say, five hundred years ago, or even a hundred. Science doesn’t tell us the absolute truth about reality… but it gives us a better and better approximation of it all the time.
The intuitive world: divided
Now. The intuitive, religious way of knowing the world? How has that worked out? How has that increased our information and understanding of the real, external world?
Not so much.
What we have now is pretty much what we’ve had for thousands of years of human history. We have different people squabbling, with greater or lesser degrees of hostility, over which religious intuition is the right one. And none of them are able to support their claim with anything other than the circular, self-defining “evidence” of their own religious texts and authorities… and, of course, their own intuitions. We are not moving towards general agreement and consensus on certain basic issues, the way science is. When it comes to religious beliefs, we are every bit as divided now as we have ever been in all of human history.
You’d think that, after thousands of years of religions intuitively gathering knowledge about the world, we’d have… well, more knowledge. Better techniques for praying; more accurate prophecies; something. At the very least, you’d think we’d have come up with a method for determining which religious claims are more likely to be correct. We don’t. All we have is a different set of opinions than we used to, modified to suit the culture or sub-culture that holds them.
Not completely beyond evidence or reason
And here’s the thing. That whole trope about how religious beliefs are completely beyond evidence or reason? I don’t think that’s really true. I mean, if you’re talking about the extremely abstract, “God is love” God of much modern liberal theology, the one that’s been abstracted so far out of the real world that it barely deserves the name “God”… then sure. But if you’re talking about a God who acts on the physical world in any way whatsoever, then that is a hypothesis that is absolutely not beyond evidence or reason. Sure, we might not be able to see God directly; but we can’t see quarks directly either, and we know they exist… because we can see and document their effects in the physical world. If God acts on the physical world, we should be able to see and document that effect.
And we can’t.
This is the point Ingrid keeps making. If there really were an all- or nearly- all- powerful God who intervened in the world, it would not be subtle. We’d know about it. We would see laws of nature visibly violated on a fairly regular basis; we would see prayers visibly answered; we would see followers of one religion doing visibly better than followers of every other religion.
And we don’t.
As Julia Sweeney said so succinctly in her performance piece Letting Go of God, “The world behaves exactly as you would expect it to, if there were no Supreme Being, no Supreme Consciousness, and no supernatural.”
The “God’s existence or non-existence is a question beyond evidence or reason” trope is really just another way of saying, “I believe in God, even though there’s no good evidence for it.” And the increasing abstraction of God into what is basically an intellectual concept with no discernible effect on the real world—or the belief in a God who really is all-powerful and interventionist but who, for no apparent reason, goes to great pains to conceal his power and interventions… well, those are really just ways of hanging onto a belief in God even though the concept has become untenable.
The reality is that we do not see the effects of God on the physical world, in any way that we can recognize and document and agree on. And the best explanation for that is not that God is unknowable, or abstract, or in hiding. The best explanation for that is that God does not exist.
Vulcan or the Middle Ages?
I have great respect for irrational intuition. I’ve made some of the most important decisions of my life on a sudden, strong impulse: the rushing together of all my instincts into one clear, quiet voice telling me what my next move should be. And most of the time, those decisions have been right.
And the world, in my opinion, would be a sad, dull place without irrationality. I have tremendous value for the sides of life that are fundamentally irrational. Love and art, absurdity and sentiment, passion and humor: all of these make life worth living. I would hate to live in a world where nobody hung on to the stuffed animal they had when they were a kid; where nobody drove for two hours to take a midnight hike in the woods, just because it seemed like fun; where nobody ever dressed up as a traffic cone and ran into the street chasing cars. I don’t want to live on Vulcan.
But I don’t want to live in the Middle Ages, either.
I don’t want to live in a world where we think we can cure diseases by touching the relics of dead saints; where we think our personalities and actions are shaped by celestial battles between angels and demons; where we think women are naturally wicked because Eve caused original sin… just because it seems to make intuitive sense and is what everyone else believes.
And I don’t want to live in a world where this intuitive “knowing” is generally accepted as a perfectly good way to answer questions about what is and is not true in the real world.
I care about reality. I think reality is interesting—way more interesting than anything we could make up. I want to understand it, as best I can with my puny Earthling brain. I want to live in a world where we have a good, road-tested, ever-improving method for figuring out what is or is not true about reality.
And you know what? We do live in that world. Or we could. We have that method. I want us to use it. Sure, I want us to use our emotional, irrational intuition as well… but I want us to use it for those parts of life where it’s appropriate. And that most emphatically does not include the attempt to figure out what is or is not literally, factually true in the real world.
Which includes the question of whether God does or does not exist.
Some of the ideas in this piece were inspired by—not to say stolen outright from—Ebonmuse’s piece on Daylight Atheism, The View From the Ground. Thanks, dude.