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Thu, 25 Jun 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 7: Dawkins Misrepresents Some Opposing Ideas and Thinkers

This post continues my critique of the ideas about religion found in Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion. You can find all posts in this critique, including the present one, here.

There are many things wrong with the line of argument in The God Delusion. Besides the faults I discussed earlier, there are two passages that misrepresent opposing thinkers so grossly as to strain belief. I will take up these two passages in turn.

1. Some Silliness about Dualism

One of the ideas that Dawkins criticizes is dualism - the view that the mind is something distinct from the body (pp. 179-180). This criticism is not surprising, since dualism is unpopular in academic circles today. Dualism was more popular among scientists and philosophers in the past. The great philosopher-scientist Descartes was a dualist, as was the Nobel Prize-winning brain scientist John Carew Eccles [1]. Even today, "property dualism" (a mild form of dualism) remains under consideration among philosophers.

In light of these facts about dualism, consider the following two utterly amazing statements by Dawkins (p. 180):

"Dualists readily interpret mental illness as 'possession by devils' []"

"Dualists personify inanimate physical objects at the slightest opportunity, seeing spirits and demons even in waterfalls and clouds."

When I first read these incredible statements, I thought, "Which dualists could Dawkins have in mind?" The answer came quickly: not any philosophical dualist I've heard of! The most prominent dualist philosopher of all time was Descartes. Descartes believed that humans were the only animals with non-bodily minds. To accuse Descartes of "personify[ing] inanimate physical objects at the slightest opportunity" is sheer claptrap. The same can be said about other serious dualistic thinkers besides Descartes.

What Dawkins calls "dualism" in this passage is not dualism, but animism. [2] Animism is a feature of some tribal religions. Animism is dualistic, but it is not a reflective or philosophical form of dualism. Scientifically aware dualists are not animists. You can like dualism or hate it, but either way, confusing dualism with animism is simply nonsense.

I don't pretend to know why Dawkins made this mistake. I wish I could give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he just goofed and used the wrong word, taking "dualism" to mean what's usually called "animism." Alas, his characterization of dualism on the previous page (p. 179) shows that things are not so simple. He knows the approximate definition of dualism, but he confuses dualism with animism anyhow. The resulting passage in the book makes dualists look far more foolish than any rational criticism could make them appear.

This confusion is rhetorically convenient. If real philosophical dualists believed in waterfall spirits, then dualism would be oh-so-easy to debunk!

2. Nonsense about a Major Psychologist

In another place (p. 50-51), Dawkins makes unsupported statements about the noted psychoanalyst C. G. Jung.

First, Dawkins makes it sound as though Jung were an unshakable believer in a supernatural creator. Dawkins repeats a famous quote, attributed to Jung, about the existence of God: "I do not believe, I know." From this quote, Dawkins infers that Jung was a theist and was 100 percent certain that there is a God (p. 50). (Earlier, Dawkins defines a theist as a believer in a supernatural God of a certain sort (p. 18).)

There are two things glaringly wrong with this reading of Jung's statement.

First, Jung almost certainly did not believe in the kind of God that Dawkins is trying to disprove. Jung's idea of God is not the God concept of theism as defined by Dawkins. Anyone who has studied Jung knows that Jung regarded God as having a psychological reality, in the sense that belief in God arises from a deep part of the unconscious mind. According to Jung, the God images of myth and religion arise from the conscious mind's contact with unconscious parts of the psyche (what Jung called the "archetypes"). These unconscious parts of the mind are not actually the gods of religion and mythology. Instead, they are elements of our inherited mental capacities. Their presence in us makes us tend to believe in God or gods and to have religious experiences. In Jungian psychology, "God" is "real" in the sense that the part of the mind upon which God-images are based has an objective psychological reality. It's safe to suppose that this psychological reality is what Jung had in mind when he said that he knew God was real. To suppose otherwise is to ignore the entire thrust of Jung's psychological theory.

Whether Jung personally believed in the supernatural is a difficult question. Like many scientists in his time, he was interested in so-called paranormal phenomena, but he tried to understand these as parts of nature. However, this distracting side issue has little bearing on his idea of God. Jungian psychological theory, and even Jung's idea of God, could exist perfectly well without the "supernatural" as Dawkins understands that word. Jung's concept of a psychological God, found in the depths of the human mind, is very far from the supernatural concept of God that Dawkins is trying to refute!

As if this confusion were not enough, Dawkins does something even sillier: he reads Jung's "I know" as meaning that Jung was 100 percent sure there is a God (p. 50). Why 100 percent sure? Why not assume instead that Jung was confident to a high level of probability, but less than 100 percent? This is what scientists normally mean when they say they "know" something. They do not usually mean they are 100 percent sure. So, why does Dawkins take Jung's "I know" to mean that Jung was absolutely certain? I don't claim to know the answer to this, but once again the confusion is rhetorically convenient. Jung's psychological theory, with its strong strain of spirituality, is a threat to Dawkins' antireligious world view. It's easier to make Jung look foolish if you paint him as a 100 percent confident True Believer.

I'd like to know exactly what Dawkins was thinking when he accused Jung of "holding a belief without adequate reason to do so" (p. 51). Has Dawkins studied Jung's clinical and historical research on the psychological basis for the God concept? I don't know, but based on what I know of Dawkins' ideas, I have serious doubts. If Dawkins is accusing Jung of unreasoned belief without first looking at Jung's reasons, then Dawkins is making an unreasoned claim. Jung, on the other hand, was trying to be scientific. Whether Jung succeeded is a separate question, but he did build up an interesting body of supporting information for his ideas.

Dawkins then attributes another belief to Jung: "that particular books on his shelf spontaneously exploded with a loud bang" (p. 51). Dawkins states this in a context that makes Jung seem silly. The truth about these so-called exploding books is far more complex, and far less helpful to Dawkins.

As far as I can tell, Dawkins' exploding-books claim is based on a well-known story found in one of Jung's books [3]. The story, in summary, is this: Jung and Sigmund Freud were in a room when Jung began to feel an odd physical sensation. Then Jung and Freud heard a loud popping noise in a bookcase. After the first noise, Jung felt strongly that there was going to be a second noise, and said so. Then there was a second bang. Jung's feeling that there was going to be a second bang is the only spooky thing about this incident. The bangs themselves, which seem to worry Dawkins, could have had many possible natural causes, such as accumulations of flammable dust from old books, or overloaded weak bookshelves. (A confirmed skeptic like Dawkins is not likely to be troubled by Jung's odd feeling of things to come, for a skeptic always can dismiss strange events as coincidences.)

If this really is the incident Dawkins had in mind, then he has reduced this incident (with two witnesses!) to a mere belief of Jung's. He mentions the affair in an inaccurate way that makes Jung seem foolish. Why? History supports the view that Jung did not merely believe in the noises; he heard them. So did another observer, Sigmund Freud, who is known to have had a skeptical streak. You don't have to be deluded to witness peculiar events. You don't even have to be religious.

Why does Dawkins portray Jung's ideas and experiences in such a bad light? Again, I don't know why (for I am not Dawkins). It's possible that Dawkins' misreading of Jung is just a random mistake. However, we must not forget who C. G. Jung was. Jung was a psychoanalyst who was not only scientifically inclined, but also took the spiritual side of human nature seriously. He thought the findings of psychology lent some credence to human spirituality. Jung saw grains of truth in the world's religions and mythologies, and he collected some facts in support of his position. If Jung was right to any degree at all, then his ideas represent a threat to Dawkins's fire-breathing antireligious crusade. Once again, the mistake is rhetorically convenient!

3. Concluding Personal Opinion

These gross misinterpretations of some of Dawkins' opponents - the dualists and Jung - helped to convince me that The God Delusion is off the map intellectually. It is good policy not to believe anything said in The God Delusion without first investigating the facts for yourself. Of course, that is good policy when reading any book tagged as "nonfiction." It is especially important for a book as problem-ridden as this one.



[1] Curtis, D.R., and Anderson, P. "Biographical Memoirs. John Carew Eccles 1903-1997." Australian Academy of Science. (accessed June 25, 2009).

[2] The word "animism," like many philosophical terms, has been used to describe more than one idea. Here I am using the most common meaning: the belief that natural objects are inhabited or controlled by spirits.

[3] Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Ed. Aniela Jaffe'; trans. Richard and Clara Winston. Rev. ed. (pbk.) N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1989. The story is on pp. 155-156 of that edition.

posted at: 01:48 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Wed, 24 Jun 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 6: Does All Religion Cause Evil?

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion. You can find all posts in this critique, including the present one, here.

One of the main lines of argument in The God Delusion is the argument that religion leads to evil. The book is chock-full of descriptions of the evils of religion. However, these examples, dramatic as they are, prove absolutely nothing about the existence of God. The examples do not show that belief in God leads to evil. They only show that certain beliefs about God lead to evil. You don't need to hold these particular beliefs to believe in God.

It is silly to jump from the premise that religion has caused evil, to the conclusion that belief in God causes evil. A careful observer of religions should be able to figure out that belief in God, by itself and without other beliefs, does not force you to do evil. What causes the evil is not belief in God, but certain beliefs about God. Specifically, the evil comes from two kinds of beliefs about God: beliefs that imply that people should harm others, and beliefs that cause harm to the people who believe them.

Here are a few examples of beliefs that imply that people should harm others:

  • The belief that God has ordered us to force our religion on others.
  • The belief that God has ordered believers to kill infidels.
  • The belief that God has ordained cruel laws and punishments.
  • The belief that God has ordered women to obey men.
  • The belief that God has told us to beat our children.

Here are two example of beliefs that cause harm to the people who believe them:

  • The belief that sinners or unbelievers go to an eternal hell. (Dawkins is right when he shows this belief can cause horrible unnecessary misery right here on earth (pp. 317-322).)
  • The belief that committing a sin makes God want to punish you, or otherwise puts some kind of spiritual stain on you. (Guilt about sin is one of the greatest of all evils inflicted in the name of religion. It lies at the basis of many of the other evils. I'm not talking about the simple moral belief that wrongdoing should be avoided. I'm talking about the theological idea of sin with all that it entails.)

Dawkins' book contains references to these beliefs and more. However, you can believe in God without accepting any harmful beliefs of these two kinds. It is these other beliefs that cause problems - not belief in God as such. Belief in God is not the cause of the evils that Dawkins points out. At most, Dawkins has built a case against religion as it exists today, with its many and sometimes strange beliefs. He has not built a case against the simple belief in God as such. That is something different.

Dawkins has failed to build a case that belief in God is evil. Has he built a convincing case that religion is evil?

Dawkins' examples of the evils of religion form a strong case against bad religion - that is, religious beliefs that deny fact (as creationism does) or that deny sensible, humane moral feelings (as jihad does). His examples do not form a case against good religion - that is, personal views of the meaning of existence that do not try to overrule testable fact or decent morality. Dawkins' book is not friendly to distinctions between good and bad religion (see, for example, pp. 301-308), but the difference is real. Some liberal, moderate personal interpretations of religion are examples of good religion. Whether or not these good interpretations are right, they are not causes of evil behavior, provided that they actually respect fact and real morality. A belief system that respects ordinary human decency (including the rejection of murder and cruelty) cannot approve cruel or murderous behavior, because its moral outlook frowns on such behavior. A belief system that respects scientific facts (including evolution) cannot endorse superstition, because its very essence is to deny superstition.

Do genuinely moral and fact-respecting forms of religion exist? Yes! Many religious believers already are following this kind of religion. They may claim that they belong to some traditional sect or other, but if so, they interpret the teachings of their sect in a humane and realistic way. I have known many Christians and Jews of this kind. I am confident that they have counterparts in all the other major religions. I have known Christians who focused almost exclusively on the Golden Rule and on the universal love that Jesus symbolizes. They believed in a good God, ignored the nasty stuff in the Old Testament and in Paul's writings, and did not really believe in hell. A skeptic might accuse such people of being selective about their scriptures (compare the example of nonviolent Muslims on p. 307). However, this complaint, even if true, pales beside the fact that these believers put kindness and reason ahead of authority and dogma. In any case, selective reading of scriptures can make sense if you do not believe your scriptures are literally true.

Dawkins also claims that faith is bad, even in liberal religions, because if people are encouraged to believe things on faith then they are more likely to become extremists (pp. 301-308). This argument ignores the obvious fact that faith does not have to be unquestioning blind faith. There also is such a thing as informed faith. Informed faith respects science, reason, and humane moral sentiments. It does not challenge these, but only takes stands on questions that science, reason, and ethics cannot answer. Examples of such questions might include the ultimate meaning and purpose (if any) of existence. Taking an optimistic stand on this question might be a desirable thing to do from the standpoint of human life, even if we don't know the answer. [1]

Faith might not even be necessary for belief in God. I've argued elsewhere that there are ways to know about God without faith. The God we find this way might not fit Dawkins' overly narrow idea of God, but still it is a supreme being.

Dawkins shows a tendency to carp on bad forms of religion and to downplay more plausible and rational forms. His book is full of examples of crazy or strange religions: cargo cults, militant sects, and the rest. Suggesting that these represent religion is like suggesting that a newspaper horoscope represents the science of astronomy. Just as there is good science and bad science (or pseudoscience), so also there is good religion and bad religion. Dawkins focuses on bad religion and thinks he is building a case against good religion too. You can't prove much about religious beliefs in general by focusing on the bad examples.

Has Dawkins built a convincing case against religion? No. Has he built a convincing case against ignorant and cruel forms of religion? Yes - but thoughtful believers already know these forms are wrong, without being lectured by an atheist.



[1] The philosopher William James made essentially this same point about faith, and argued it very well. See "The Will to Believe," in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Dover Publications, 1956).

posted at: 00:58 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Mon, 22 Jun 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 5: The Causes of Religion Cannot Prove Religion False

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion. You can find the entire critique here.

In this post I will comment on Dawkins' ideas about the causes of belief in God.

In Chapter 5, Dawkins points out several causes that might make people tend to believe irrationally in God or religion. Some of the causes have to do with evolutionary biology, mostly focusing on religion as a "by-product" (p. 172) of evolved tendencies or behaviors. Other causes are cultural; they have to do with the spread and persistence of beliefs and ideas in societies. By proposing these explanations of religion, Dawkins is trying to counter the common view that religion must be right because it is so widespread (see pp. 2 and 159).

It's interesting to watch how Dawkins prejudices the debate by using biased language to describe these phenomena. He uses the term "misfiring" to describe situations in which something in the brain starts to perform a new function that supports religion (p. 188). Regardless of this word's scientific connotations, it clearly suggests there is something wrong. (Why not use "redirection" or some other, more neutral word? Elsewhere Dawkins acknowledges that "misfiring" isn't always a bad word (p. 221). He sure doesn't insist on that point when he discusses religion.) When the alleged cause of religion is cultural, Dawkins often describes it in terms of the spread of "memes" (pp. 191-201). This post isn't the place for a debate on the merits of the meme concept in general. However, it is interesting that Dawkins uses language that paints mental pictures of the automatic spread of a disease germ. He even compares religion to a virus (pp. 186, 188). By using these loaded metaphors, Dawkins marginalizes the fact that the spread of an idea involves conscious, and sometimes even thoughtful, decisions by human thinkers. If you voluntarily decide to change your religious beliefs, that is your decision. The fact that you can make this one decision for yourself is more important than any amount of talk about how beliefs spread. The possibility that human behavior is predictable does not make this fact less significant [1].

Dubious language aside, Dawkins' argument about the causes of religion is irrelevant to the question of whether there is a God. His suggestions about evolutionary and cultural causes for religion are interesting, and may even be wholly or partly right. Dawkins' proposed causes of religion may indeed help to explain why religion is so widespread. However, these claims about the causes of religion have little bearing on the truth of belief in God. Why? Simply put, people sometimes arrive at correct beliefs for the wrong reasons - so the mere fact that a belief has irrational causes doesn't imply that the belief is wrong.

As Dawkins and many others know well, some widely held religious beliefs are grossly wrong. The idea that the world was created in seven literal days is one example. It is easy to imagine that beliefs like these gain their force from irrational causes like the ones Dawkins discusses. However, the vagaries of evolution and culture sometimes cause us to hold true beliefs, too. Evolution created the features of our brains that enable us to recognize that one plus one equals two. The fact that evolution prompts us to believe this does not make 1+1=2 false! Cultural processes, like evolutionary ones, don't just perpetuate false beliefs. They also perpetuate true beliefs. Probably you haven't personally verified every single "fact" that your teachers taught you in school. Perhaps you accepted most of these "facts" when they were taught to you - yet most of these alleged "facts" really are facts. (Dawkins recognizes that children absorb truth, as well as error, from authority figures; see pp. 174-176.) The fact that authority or irrational tendencies tilt us toward certain beliefs does not make those beliefs wrong. To think otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy - a logical mistake in which a thing (or a belief) is assumed to have the features of its source or cause.

If we want to find out how much of religion is true, we must examine specific religious beliefs to find out whether they are true or false. Finding out why we tend to favor these beliefs is not the same as finding out whether the beliefs are true. If we find that we are holding a belief for a stupid reason, then the belief still might be true. After all, people sometimes hold true beliefs for the wrong reasons. The important question is not "Where did it come from?", but "Is it right?"

In one especially funny place (pp. 184-186), Dawkins compares religion to falling in love. He suggests (mentioning Dennett as a source for the idea) that religion may be a side effect of the evolved mechanisms that produce romantic love. My first reaction when I read this was: Well, duh! Many mystics have known of the kinship between religious and romantic experience. This is not a new discovery, nor is it an argument against religion. Mystics of many different traditions know that emotions related to sex and love can be harnessed to produced unusual states of consciousness and spiritual insights. The Tantric tradition, especially its Hindu branch, offers some extreme examples of this. The romantic poets of all nations and traditions offer other examples. If Dawkins thinks the link between sex, romance and religion is a new discovery, he has some studying to do. Likewise if he thinks this link is evidence against religion.

Dawkins' arguments about the causes of religion cannot help to discredit religion. To think that they can is to commit a logical fallacy, and to ignore a basic fact about evolution and culture: "irrational" forces sometimes shape organisms so that the organisms hold true beliefs.

Dawkins' supposed causes of religion might form part of the reason why people believe. However, I'd like to offer another possible cause for the stubborn persistence of belief in God. (I've already said something about this subject, and the origin of religions, near the end of an earlier post.)

As I've explained elsewhere, certain subjective personal experiences seem to offer deep insights into reality that ordinary experiences do not provide. (I'm not talking about Dawkins' silly examples of so-called "religious" experiences (pp. 87-92); see here for the differences.) Often these deeper experiences show the world to be a unity, or "one," in an unexpected way. These experiences can reveal an awesome goodness and beauty in the universe - a goodness and beauty so perfect that one's immediate emotional reaction is one of soaring love. What is more, some of these experiences are accurate in a certain sense: they contain true insights even if they also contain an element of illusion.

A spiritual experience of this sort might prompt a person to believe that there is a single ultimate reality underlying the universe, or a supreme good that encompasses all other goods, or a supreme beauty of which all other beauties are visible manifestations. In other words, these experiences can lead people toward belief in a supreme being of some kind. This being isn't the same as the supernatural God that Dawkins likes to bash (defined on pp. 12-13 and p. 31), but it is a supreme entity nonetheless - and an entity that is not just "dead" matter, but is full of meaning, value, and other "mindlike" qualities.

If people have these experiences and understand them, that is real spirituality. If people have these experiences and misunderstand them, the result might well be belief in a dogmatic supernatural idea of God. A person with a limited background of ideas to choose from might confuse a perceived supreme good with a ghostly spirit of some kind, or with a mythical humanoid creator figure. This would be especially likely to happen in the early days of the human race, when mythological and supernatural explanations were the rule.

As I've argued in God: the Next Version and elsewhere, some real spiritual experiences actually do disclose a being worthy to be called "God." It isn't hard to imagine how people who have heard secondhand of these experiences might invent distorted supernatural beliefs about God. Eventually, when the original experiences are forgotten, confused or malicious people might hijack the resulting belief systems, and invent tragic perversions such as fundamentalism and fanaticism in the name of an imagined superbeing. The best response to these perversions is not atheism, but an effort to reproduce and understand the original experiences.

Many people have had legitimate spiritual experiences. Many have had them without even knowing what they had. (Perhaps they thought they only had a breathtaking moment of romantic love, or of amazement at the vastness of the cosmos, or of "being at one with nature.") If the possibilities of human nature include these spiritual experiences, that might help to explain why belief in God is so persistent.

Dawkins' explanations of religion might form part of the reason why we tend to believe in God. However, there might be another, nobler reason as well. People tend to have real spiritual experiences, and those experiences can show us a supreme being - even if we are not always smart enough to understand what that being is like.



[1] Note that I am not begging the question of the predictability of human action. Whether your decision was predictable or not, it was your voluntary decision. (Many philosophers think predictability is compatible with free will. This idea is called "compatibilism." See my own compatibilist article here.)

posted at: 21:49 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Sat, 20 Jun 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 4: Evolution and the So-Called Illusion of Design

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion. You can find the entire critique here.

One of the main ideas in The God Delusion is that the apparent design in the biological world is only an "illusion of design" (p. 2 and chap. 4; see also p. 79). Dawkins is convinced that evolutionary theory shows there is no real design in the biological world. He trots out the old claim that Darwinism refutes the design argument for the existence of God (p. 79). Chapter 4 of The God Delusion is partly a rehash of the old argument that evolution shows there is no design in the biological world.

No matter how it is stated or obscured, the central idea of the evolutionary argument against design runs along the following general lines. The evolution of life is simply a resultant of small natural events involving living organisms and their genes. None of these events involves any design; each of them is mechanistic, fully obeys all natural laws, and is caused by other natural events. Therefore, the products of evolution cannot really be products of design.

This argument sounds good at first, but there is something deeply fishy about it (evolutionary pun intended). To see how questionable the argument is, compare it to the following argument about the human brain: Human thought is simply a resultant of small natural events involving neurons and their connections. None of these events involves any design; each of them is mechanistic, fully obeys all natural laws, and is caused by other natural events. Therefore, the products of human thought cannot really be products of design.

If we applied the skeptics' standard for design to the human brain instead of to Earth's biosphere, we would conclude that humans never designed anything! So much for Michelangelo and Edison! According to the scientific view of the mind and brain, human thought processes are neither more nor less than sum totals of small physical events, no single one of which itself involves any design. To avoid the absurd conclusion that humans never designed anything (which is really just an abuse of language, twisting the meaning of the word "design"), we have to admit the possibility that a natural process, composed of small unplanned physical events, can add up to a process of design. Once we admit this possibility, the argument that nature's design is an illusion ceases to be convincing. As with human feats of design, the fact that evolution is purely mechanistic and natural does not imply that its products can't be real designs. Nothing supernatural is required.

Another common argument for the illusion of design points to the flawed and conflict-ridden nature of many of the products of evolution. These faults, according to the argument, show that the designer, if there is one, must be far from perfect. It's more reasonable just to assume the products are not designed. Dawkins pulls this gambit (p. 134). However, this argument is even shallower than the above argument about small natural events. By the standard of this second argument, we should conclude once again that human creations are not designed - this time on the grounds that the human brain often (even usually) produces flawed products and preliminary versions instead of perfect final products.

I will not continue this line of rebuttal here, since I already have done that elsewhere. For the rest of my argument, see this document - and if you like, also read my book God, Son of Quark. For now I will just point out that the argument for an "illusion of design" is not as strong as it seems. In fact, it unravels at the slightest touch.

Can those who believe the orthodox scientific version of evolution (as I do) live with this conclusion? Is there any alternative to the "illusion of design" besides supernatural tinkering? Yes! To learn what the alternative is, read the two documents of mine that I just mentioned.

posted at: 23:52 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Fri, 19 Jun 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 3: Dodging the Issue of Personal Religious Experience

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion. In this post I will look at Dawkins' argument against personal religious experience.

Dawkins tries to debunk personal experience as a source of religious knowledge (pp. 87-92). He builds his case in the weakest possible way: by giving flawed examples of so-called "religious" experiences. Some of the examples are experiences of real things wrongly interpreted. For example, someone hears the "diabolical" cackling of a bird (the Manx Shearwater) and thinks it is the voice of the Devil (p. 87). Other examples involve hallucinations, such as supposed ghosts or voices in one's head. Dawkins attributes these phenomena to the "simulation software" of the brain (pp. 88-90).

Despite Dawkins' apparent fascination with them, these experiences are not "religious" in any interesting sense. If Dawkins wants to build a rational case against religion, instead of merely a noisy case, he should know better than to use examples like these. Scholars of religion know of other kinds of experiences radically different from, and much subtler than, these simple mistakes. Some of these other experiences cannot be mere illusions or hallucinations, for reasons I will explain below.

There is one type of experience that, in a sense, cannot be wrong. I am referring to the experience of a property or a quality. [1]

Take, for example, Dawkins' example of the Manx Shearwater. The people who heard the noise certainly did not experience the Devil. They did not experience anything that really was devilish; the bird was not devilish, though it sounded that way. However, they did experience a sound which, as they perceived it, sounded diabolical. This quality of diabolicalness - of seeming devilish or overpoweringly sinister - is a real quality that some sounds have. This quality is not fundamentally mysterious. Presumably we could analyze it in terms of the reactions of the human nervous system, just as scientists do with other perceptible qualities of sound, like pitch, dissonance, or the phonetic qualities of speech. [2] Cultural factors, as well as physiological ones, may figure in this. Certain sounds seem devilish to some people under some circumstances. That much we know.

The people who heard the cry of the Manx Shearwater did not actually experience the Devil. However, they really did experience the quality of diabolicalness. They did not experience an evil being. They did experience a bird, but only tangentially (they didn't know it was a bird). But whatever else they experienced, they really did experience a quality. The sound really did seem devilish to them.

Experiences of qualities happen all the time in much less dramatic ways than this. When you see a red brick, you have experienced the color red, which is a quality. When you see one side of that brick, you see that it is rectangular; you perceive the quality of rectangularity. The interesting thing about perceptions of qualities is that, in some cases at least, the experience can contain a strong element of illusion and still be right. Suppose that the red brick turned out not to be red. Instead, it was yellow, but odd lighting and bright colors nearby, together with your expectation that bricks are red, made it look red. When the simulation software in your brain created the experience, it registered the brick as red instead of yellow. What happened here? You saw a brick; the brick was not actually red; but still, you really saw the color red. The property or quality of redness was, for a moment, an object of your awareness. The same idea works for rectangularity. Even if the brick did not really have rectangular sides (maybe some sides were trapezoidal but the brick was tilted), the property of rectangularity still was present to your mind.

Experiences of a quality may be reliable even if the object that seems to have the quality isn't there. To repurpose Dawkins' pink elephant example (p. 88), I would add that if you get drunk and experience a pink elephant, you have not really seen an elephant - but even though you did not see an elephant, you did experience the color pink.

What do these examples tell us about religious experience? Perhaps a lot - for, as it turns out, the only religious experiences worthy of the name are experiences of qualities. Based on what we know about colors, shapes, and the like, it's possible that these experiences really show what they seem to show, even if they also contain a strong element of illusion.

The best examples of these experiences come from a family of special states of mind known by several names: "poetical," "transcendental," "enlightened," "illuminated," or "mystical." (I prefer not to use the word "mystical," because people use that word for all kinds of silly things, including sheer occult folly.) Here I will stick with the more neutral term "spiritual experience." [3] Real spiritual experiences are not the silly experiences that Dawkins calls "religious." Instead, they are deep, refined states of mind that may happen even to the best scientists and artists. A spiritual experience is a subjective experience that seems to bring a powerful intuitive insight into the ultimate meaning of existence.

Real spiritual experiences do not happen only in connection with religion. Often they happen to poets and artists, to alert observers of nature, or to lovers. They may be called poetic insights, artistic inspirations, or moments of transcendent awareness.

Most spiritual experiences have several features in common. One of these features is the sensation of a supreme goodness or beauty that pervades or underlies the universe. Some spiritual observers come away from their experiences with the conviction that the universe is basically good, or that something perfectly and supremely beautiful lies behind the universe we see. Usually the observer also feels that he or she has gained a momentous knowledge of the true nature of reality - a knowledge that cannot be put fully into words. Interestingly, spiritual observers often feel far more awake or alert than normal. These spiritual states are not mere dream states. It feels as if consciousness expands to take in a truth deeper than anything that ordinary awareness can reach.

Can an experience like this be true? Can it give the observer genuine knowledge about reality? Elsewhere I have shown that the answer is "yes." Some experiences of this kind do yield knowledge of reality - and even knowledge that science cannot reach.

My argument for this point is laid out in my e-book God: the Next Version. (Those who want to criticize this post should read that e-book first; my full, unabridged argument is there, not here.) In that book I pointed out a way in which experiences of sublime beauty or love can give rise to experiences of a perfect being. At bottom, this perfect being is an abstract entity (actually a quality!) instead of a physical object or a ghostly "spirit." Just as with other abstract objects like redness and rectangularity, we can experience this abstract entity authentically, regardless of what in our brains is causing the experience.

Because this perfect being isn't supernatural, it doesn't fit Dawkins' definition of God. However, I showed in an earlier post that Dawkins' definition of God (p. 31) is hopelessly inadequate - it just doesn't capture most actual ideas of God. In God: the Next Version I showed that the perfect being has mental characteristics of a sort, and also encompasses the physical universe. If we regard this perfect being as God (and I think that is a logical thing to do), then some spiritual or poetic experiences really do yield knowledge of God.

This conclusion may sound mysterious at first. Certainly it will make the professional skeptics angry. However, there is nothing supernatural about all this - it's just a matter of logic! Perceptions like this can happen because the perfect being is partly an abstract entity. This brings us back to the most important part of my argument: the fact that some experiences of an abstract entity can be trustworthy, in the sense that if it seems that you have experienced the abstract entity, then you really have experienced it. I should say a few more words about this potentially upsetting idea.

The reason that even an "illusory" experience of an abstract entity can be right is that you can experience an abstract entity by means of the internal information processing that happens naturally in your brain.

Think about it this way. Ordinary sense experiences involve energies from the perceived object that cause events in the observer's brain. For example, when someone sees something, light travels from the object to the observer's eye, causing nerve impulses that in turn influence the observer's brain. For hearing, it is sound that causes events in the brain; for touch, stimuli like pressure do it; for taste and smell, chemicals cause the events. This is the way we perceive concrete physical objects with our five senses: the objects cause events in our brains.

However, not all experiences work this way. When you experience an abstract object, like a pattern or a relationship, the abstract object does not need to cause anything. Instead, your brain knows about the object by processing information that already is in your brain. One good example of this is the perception of a Moire' pattern in a print of a digital photograph. When you look at the photo, the colored toner on the print reflects light and causes events in your brain. You see the colored areas on the photo. You also notice the Moire' pattern. You don't have to reason about the pattern to see it. You just see the pattern, suddenly and intuitively. The pattern itself doesn't cause anything; only the colored toner on the print is causing events in your brain. However, you still can perceive the pattern. Your brain does this by processing information that's already in your brain from what you saw. In this way, you can verify that the pattern exists and learn much about the pattern - without once receiving a stimulus from the pattern instead of from the colored material.

Another example of knowledge without signals from an object is the understanding of a theorem in mathematics. No new sense experiences are needed. The brain just mulls over the information it already has, and a new insight emerges. In this instance too, you learn about abstract objects and relationships by processing information that's already in your brain. Your brain gains new knowledge by processing and analyzing information that it already has.

Neuroscience strongly suggests that the human self is an abstract object (a feature of the brain) instead of a separate soul. (See here and here for my take on this.) In God: the Next Version I argued that God also is an abstract object, combined with the physical and abstract objects that exemplify or show that object. If spiritual items like God and the self are abstract objects, then we should be able to learn a lot about spiritual realities the same way we learn about other abstract objects - through the brain's processing of existing information. In this way, spiritual intuition and illumination can occur without supernatural intervention. (This conclusion, by the way, is independent of my particular ideas about the nature of God and the self. If God and the self are at least partly abstract objects of any sort, then we might be able to know about spiritual realities through abstract intuition of some kind.)

The lesson from all this is that some "religious" experiences can be for real. Subjective personal experiences can indeed yield knowledge about the existence of God. I want to emphasize that there is nothing supernatural about this. It's all a matter of logic, and of the brain's capacity to recognize abstract features in existing information. Once again, the details of this line of argument are in God: the Next Version. Other relevant ideas are in my other blog, with the kindred title Religion: the Next Version.

As if I haven't said it enough, I wish to emphasize it again: Real, qualitative spiritual experience is completely different from Dawkins' silly examples of "religious" experience, such as cackling birds and voices in the head. Dawkins' attempt to debunk all religious experiences with these examples is simply too shallow and biased to go unlaughed at. Even an experience cooked up by the brain's simulation software can be a source of knowledge, as long as we focus on the qualities it shows and ignore the concrete objects it seems to reveal.

Incidentally, a correct view of spiritual experience also demolishes the argument that Dawkins gives in the section titled "The Argument from Beauty" (pp. 86-87). Dawkins points out that people often feel that the beauty of art shows there is a God. He dismisses this feeling on the grounds that no one has stated a logical argument for this link. Well, we just found the argument! Perceptions of beauty can lead to real spiritual experiences, and according to the argument in God: the Next Version, these experiences can disclose a perfect being. Perhaps the people who put forward ill-formed arguments from beauty are having spiritual experiences caused by beauty, but they just can't put their experiences into words. Dawkins' suggestion that the argument from beauty arises from "jealousy of genius" (p. 87) is as fanciful as it is nasty.

Spiritual experiences frequently give other insights besides the existence of a perfect being. For example, poets and mystics often feel that reality is unified in some deep way ("all is one"). Some mystics, mostly Buddhist meditators, get the impression that the physical universe is empty and impermanent. I won't say much about these other insights here, except to point out that they have a basis in fact. The natural world really is one, in the sense that everything is interconnected. A careful observer of nature can begin to realize this fact; no supernatural knowledge is required. A poet who focused intensely on this unity might have a sudden flash of insight that nature is One. The Buddhist who sees the universe as Void might seem to be in contradiction with the nature mystic who sees the universe as One. However, the Buddhist also is right: all physical things are impermanent, and since all physical things depend on other things for their existence, they are empty of any permanent and stable existence. The viewpoint of science and everyday consciousness, which tells us that the world is a collection of objects, also is right. Each of these three perspectives reflects a one-sided and biased view of reality, but each of them is correct in its own way. (Aren't all human experiences biased and one-sided?) Interestingly, the experiences of unity and of emptiness both involve a kind of abstract intuition: the discovery of new features in a universe that we already know.

Ironically, Dawkins comes close to recognizing the true nature of spiritual experiences. Judging by his book, he has had at least one such experience himself. Dawkins admits to having had a "quasi-mystical" experience of the natural world (p. 11). He describes his poetical attitude toward the physical universe (pp. 11-12), which could just as well be called mystical or near-mystical. The first chapter of his book is significantly titled "A Deeply Religious Non-Believer."

Dawkins obscures the link between religion and spirituality when he claims that his own deeply poetic attitude toward nature should not be called "religion" (p. 12). Dawkins is wrong about this. The poetic attitude, and the experiences that it fosters, can reveal deep aspects of reality and even can disclose the divine. What could be more religious than that? The professor whom Dawkins mentions on p. 12 was right: such experiences are indeed religious. Dawkins might have been able to figure this out if he didn't insist on a narrow definition of God that makes God supernatural (pp. 12-13, 31). Apparently, Dawkins thinks we are confused if we connect transcendent experiences to belief in God (pp. 12-13). In reality, the connection between spiritual experiences and God is real and perfectly logical. Experiences of the sublime and transcendent in nature actually are experiences of God, whether we know it or not. The God that they show us is a perfect being - not just a poetical name for the scientists' universe, as Dawkins finds some pantheists using the word "God" (p. 18). However, there is no reason to think that the God of spiritual experience is a supernatural being. Therefore, He, She or It is not quite the "God" that Dawkins is against. (Incidentally, a poet can use any of these three pronouns.)

In this post I have only begun to touch on the subject of religious experience. It took many words to do even that much. The important point is this: if Dawkins wants to address the subject of religious experience, he should concentrate on real religious or spiritual experiences, not on obviously flawed experiences. He should take into account the remarkable experiences discussed in the writings of contemplatives of East and West. He should take special account of the experiences that do not involve simulated visual or auditory images. Those experiences are the most likely to disclose something real. Dawkins also should study the insights of romantic poets from all over the world. Their poetic experiences often are spiritual to the core.

Whatever one thinks of real spiritual experiences, they are not the same as the simplistic mistakes, illusions, and mental simulations that Dawkins deploys as examples. These bogus experiences are nothing but straw men - easy to knock down if one wants to hide from the real intellectual challenge that religious experience poses. The problem of the validity of religious experience is a complex topic with many nontrivial philosophical angles. One cannot simply handwave away the whole subject, as Dawkins tries to do in The God Delusion.

Before wrapping up this post, I should mention my own view of the relation between spiritual experience and religion [4]. In my opinion, personal spiritual experience is the most important aspect of religion. It is the human mind's main method for exploring spiritual realities. I suspect that it also is the original source of most of the world's major religions. Here is how a religion might start. Some brilliant teacher, a spiritual genius, has personal experiences of the divine. This teacher, or his/her followers, write down what the teacher learned from these experiences. Since it is almost impossible to put these experiences into words, the writings are easily misunderstood. Thus we have the beginnings of an organized religion - a body of people who, though possibly well-intentioned, don't really know how to keep the original teacher's insights alive. If the original writings contain poetical words of inspiration or exhortation, these words are misunderstood and turned into dogmas and rules. Fear replaces love, and irrational faith replaces the spark of intuitive insight. In this way dogmatic religions are born - irrational systems of thought which are corrupted versions of great teachings, but which nevertheless contain grains of truth that a perceptive believer may be able to pick out from amidst the errors.

Such might be the origin of today's major world religions. Since you and I weren't there, who knows?



[1] Note to philosophers: I am bypassing the philosophical debates about infallibility and incorrigibility. If you read on, you will find out what I mean when I say that experiences of qualities "cannot be wrong." Feel free to interpret this according to your own ideas about infallibility and the like.

[2] Dawkins mentions the brain's handling of sounds and speech (p. 90).

[3] The general information on spiritual experience that I am using in this post has been distilled from the literature of religious mysticism and related topics, and also from the insights of poets. Most of the ideas are not attributable to any single source, but are part of general knowledge on these topics.

[4] My guess about the origin of religions is not original. It owes much to ideas widely held among experience-friendly thinkers on the subject.

posted at: 22:51 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry


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