Issues in Epistemology: A Response to Inside/Out

calvin knowledge

I didn’t really touch on it in depth in my theology post last week but my view of theology entails being able to give reasons for why one asserts what one asserts. The emphasis then was in how we read. Underneath it all really was Eco’s view of the ideal reader who pays close attention to the process of interpretation. That reader is an ideal reader because they can explain why they read the way they do.

It was with some interest then that I read the inaugural post at Patheos’ new blog, Mormonism Inside and Out with Patrick Mason and John Dehlin.[1] They started out with the whole topic of epistemology or how we know. It turns out one of the several half finished posts I have planned engaged deeply on these issues. Rather than going through my thoughts on epistemology I thought I’d respond to a few of the issues they brought up in their discussion.

The discussion really starts with a common critiques of religious experience from John Dehlin.

From a non-believing perspective — and I will admit up-front that this is a very fraught over-simplification — believers seem to base their positions on “spiritual experiences,” which non-believers would likely describe as emotional experiences, while non-believers often view themselves as basing their positions more on facts/evidence, maybe with a little bit of emotion thrown in.

First there’s the whole issue of what constitutes a spiritual or religious experience. The term is exceedingly vague and seems to include pretty diverse experiences and claims. After all someone encountering an angel might be a spiritual experience but so too might be a particular burning and feeling of confidence when a topic is thought about. And a simple emotional experience when singing a hymn might be termed a spiritual experience as well. Yet I’m not sure any of these really are similar epistemologically. Put an other way, I’ve long thought that talking about religious experience is unhelpful unless we’re more specific about what we mean. But of course that’s difficult when talking about other people’s spiritual experiences. They rarely will go into detail over them with others. Further many people just aren’t used to the careful self-reflexive analysis that would let us figure out what they’re really doing. At best we can discuss what a smaller class of ‘intellectuals’ might defend as experiences.

This problem of the overly broad category of “religious experience” is why critics can raise the problem of how we can appeal to religious experiences if people come to different conclusions. The problem can be seen if we just remove the religious modifier. How can we appeal to experience if people come to different conclusions from experience? Yet while we’d never say that any experience can ground anything we’d also not discount experience as providing a ground for knowledge. In the same way while not any old religious experience necessarily grounds knowledge neither does it mean no religious experience can ground knowledge.

Critics are apt to dismiss such experiences as “mere emotion.” While I think that’s problematic for emotional responses in general[2] it’s really problematic I think for many people’s religious experiences where the important content seems to non-emotional. John notes that the emotion move is an oversimplification but I think it’s important to note that “emotion” really does avoid many aspects of the central experience.

Their discussion then took an interesting turn, given recent discussions of Taylor’s A Secular Age by Rachel here at T&S. John asks, “to what extent do you embrace secularism as a foundation of your Mormon epistemology?” He doesn’t think many would accept secularism at all. Again I’m not sure this establishes much. First because it’s not clear what is meant by secularism. (A point John seems to recognize when he later mentions how it’s typically used in a pejorative sense in most LDS conversations) I think in the broader, more careful sense of secular (as opposed to the loose sense of “with religion removed”) things get a bit more complicated. Although I must confess that even after reading Taylor and participating in the discussions here at T&S I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the question. I’m not sure I’m really able to answer it ultimately. Perhaps that’s because I think through my religion in a thoroughly secular fashion relative to medieval conceptions. Put an other way nothing about religion that I can think of really are in massive tension with my more secular commitments to science and general inquiry. This isn’t a secularism in opposition to religion but just a general way of engaging with the world that I think is as open to religion as it is science.

John raises the question of whether upon encountering a new religion akin to Joseph Smith and the controversial aspects of Mormon history in Nauvoo that I “would not take this person seriously for a second.” But of course that’s a bit of an odd question because it avoids the starting place I begin my inquiry. Anything I say to that seems false because I can at best provide paper doubt. After all I really do think Joseph was a prophet. To be able to engage in the thought experiment John offers requires me to somehow not already believe what I believe. I can at best say, is it conceivable that God would give me justifiable reasons to believe? I think it’s possible even for things that at present I don’t believe. The problem with approaching the problem in this fashion is that it involves paper doubt[3] rather than things I’d really doubt or believe. As a believer I’d have to say it’s quite plausible that I’d encounter such a person and believe. The key thing seems to be I wouldn’t believe just based upon what John says about the man and his religion. Something has been left out. That something seems pretty important.

Patrick starts off a rejoinder to John talking about how secular thinking is in the air we breath and fully part of how we think. I really liked that part and think it true. However he loses me when he says,

Now, do I have to use a different part of my brain when I open myself up to non-rational, non-verifiable religious claims and experiences? Yes. But as I said earlier, I think that’s part of what makes us human — authentically encountering a world of wonders, from love to poetry to religious mystery, that requires us to approach reality in a different way.

My complaint is that I just don’t see that my religious thinking in fundamentally different from how I think about everything else.

From what I can tell Mormons think the light of Christ is given to everyone, so I think it a defensible position that what underlies religious experiences is part and parcel of all thinking. Is the scientist with the flash of insight that makes them yell “Eureka!” really doing something fundamentally different from the religious believer who has a similar experience on a religious topic? It seems a common LDS belief that God is inspiring people ranging from the founders preparing the Constitution to discovering the printing press to a lot of scientific inquiry. It’s perhaps unsurprising that at least some secular scientists have similar views. The noted physicist Paul Davies wrote about how “some scientists and mathematicians claim to have had sudden revelatory insights akin to…mystical experiences. Roger Penrose describes mathematical inspirations as a sudden ‘breaking through’ into a Platonic realm. Rucker reports that Kurt Gödel also spoke of the ‘other relation to reality,’ by which he could directly perceive mathematical objects…” (Davies, 228)

I don’t want to say Davies or his examples necessarily establish much beyond perhaps showing the lines between the revelatory and secular are more blurry than they first appear. Even if we think Davies, Penrose or Gödel wrong, clearly they demonstrate that there’s a wider range of views than some portray.

From a Mormon perspective a person can easily be inspired without knowing at the time they were inspired. I certainly have had experiences where when looking back it seems like I was being guided in ways I wasn’t aware at the time. Put an other way, the interesting part of the LDS conception of revelation is that we don’t need know what is or isn’t revelatory in a clear way. (Although of course we may in certain cases be aware of what is revelation – although even then I think one can always second guess oneself) So just as perhaps reason and emotion are quite as separable as sometimes thought, I think revelation and empirical reasoning also aren’t necessarily as separable. That is, we have to distinguish between how we justify to others an idea and how we come to believe. How Gödel thinks he experiences mathematics simply isn’t the same as the proofs he presents in his papers. Again he may well be wrong but I think that distinction between why we believe and how we defend a belief must be kept always in mind.

I also think one can be fairly empirical or pragmatic as one conducts ones religious inquiry. To the degree revelation is a real phenomena then it’s effects must make a difference to be a difference. And that difference as a difference must be at least reasonably empirical. It might not be public, which is an other matter entirely. But I think I stick with my view that separating religious experience as a difference in kind from regular experience is just wrong.

All of this is to argue against Patrick that I don’t think one really is doing anything necessarily different in religious experiences. Part of this again is the blurriness in our categories though. If we can’t make clear what distinctions are important then I’m not sure we can say much. I just remain far from convinced that the topic of religion is a significant difference.

I’m actually quite sympathetic to John’s final rejoinder to Patrick. He says, “a huge part of my personal downfall with regards to the LDS church was in never being able to personally replicate any of the wonderful storie or miracles that I heard about at church.  If God was willing to appear to Joseph Smith, why couldn’t he appear to me?” (emphasis in the original)

In a certain sense it is replication that matters the most. Where I differ with John is over what has to be replicated. I don’t think I need see the angel Moroni to know that Moroni visited Joseph. In the same way, I don’t have to experience mathematics the way Gödel did to know a mathematical theorem is true. Rather there are things I can replicate and build conclusions out of certain experiences (whether they be symbolic, mathematical or religious).

Ultimately I think one can come to know God without losing ones critical stance. That is, it seems to me the real question for Patrick and John isn’t how the typical person comes to believe in God but how people like they are can come to believe in God. The most interesting question of epistemology is less about the Church in general but how those reading this (whom I assume are all critical thinkers) can justify their beliefs.

Davies, Paul Mind of God. Simon & Schuster 1992.

[1] I’m assuming most readers are familiar with John Dehlin who is a bit of a controversial figure. I had actually thought this joint effort was going to be a podcast, not a blog. I think a blog is actually better since they have a time to think through questions and look up answers. Apparently Patheos first approached Dan Peterson as the second figure to John Dehlin. Given the tensions between them that would really have been quite interesting. Given the past it’s probably not surprising Dan Peterson turned it down. While I’m sure many were a bit surprised Patrick Mason took up the role I am quite curious to see how he responds to Dehlin.

[2] Cognitively it’s fair to say that emotions are frequently a shortcut kind of judgment and response the brain uses. Strong emotions are often tied to important situations such as trauma or love. To dismiss emotions epistemologically thus seems deeply problematic given modern psychology and cognitive science. Emotions came to be disparaged in epistemology primarily due to certain trends in philosophy in early modernism. Emotion and reason were often opposed such that reason was seen as being “dispassionate.” (A trend that arguably goes back at least to the Stoics) Without descending into the deep hole of the philosophy and cognitive science of emotions I’d just say things are more complex than they appear at first glance.

[3] The term “paper doubt” comes from the philosopher C. S. Peirce who used it for people still using the Cartesian method of doubt to find out what was true. Descartes felt like there were basic beliefs we couldn’t doubt out of which all justified beliefs could be built – so his process was to doubt everything one could. The problem is that the things we say we doubt and the things we actually doubt typically aren’t the same. I might think up a thought experiment where I’m actually a brain in a vat hooked into the Matrix but really I just can’t make myself believe that.

19 comments for “Issues in Epistemology: A Response to Inside/Out

  1. ji
    September 23, 2016 at 7:25 am

    From a Mormon perspective a person can easily be inspired without knowing at the time they were inspired. . . . Put an other way, the interesting part of the LDS conception of revelation is that we don’t need know what is or isn’t revelatory in a clear way.

    I agree.

    I also agree with the following from another posting:

    “One thing about this so-called philosophy of religion that is very undesirable, lies in the fact that as soon as we convert our religion into a system of philosophy none but philosophers can understand, appreciate, or enjoy it. God, in his revelation to man, has made His word so simple that the humblest of men, without especial training, may enjoy great faith, comprehend the teachings of the Gospel, and enjoy undisturbed their religious convictions. . . . God has revealed to us a simple and effectual way of serving Him, and we should regret very much to see the simplicity of those revelations involved in all sorts of philosophical speculations. If we encouraged them it would not be long before we should have a theological scholastic aristocracy in the Church, and we should therefore not enjoy the brotherhood that now is, or should be common to rich and poor, learned and unlearned among the Saints.”
    Joseph F. Smith, The Juvenile Instructor, Vol XLVI No. 4 (April 1911): 208-9
    (copied from

    I really like President Smith’s thoughts.

  2. Clark Goble
    September 23, 2016 at 8:36 am

    I don’t think anyone needs philosophy to believe. Philosophy is always technical and always is a way to understand in a certain narrow way.

  3. ji
    September 23, 2016 at 10:02 am

    I agree one doesn’t need philosophy to believe. But no one can satisfactorily use philosophy to explain my beliefs to me, or your beliefs to you.

  4. Clark Goble
    September 23, 2016 at 10:30 am

    I’m not sure that’s always true. Remember that good philosophy is a dialog. So in that dialog we can often come to understand ourselves better and at least aspects of why we believe what we believe.

    Although in saying that I just don’t think our reasoning is fully transparent to ourselves. Often how we think we’re reasoning turns out to be more complex. A lot of times we unconsciously are justifying some decision we’ve already reached without understanding why we reached it. I think with inquiry we can deal with that fact so I don’t see that as a problem. The way in the early modern era reason was conceived just seems wrong. I think a lot of people when they think of philosophy think of those ideas that by and large were rejected or at least problematized in the 20th century. Both by philosophy but also science.

  5. ji
    September 23, 2016 at 11:07 am

    I understand where you’re coming from. But I want to stop short of the conclusion arrived at by many who go down this path (not necessarily you), namely, that a belief based on reasoning that is not wholly understood or clearly explainable is an invalid belief. In my perspective, a belief of mine can be entirely valid even if I don’t fully understand why I feel it and/or if am unable to explain it to someone else’s satisfaction.

  6. p
    September 23, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    “My complaint is that I just don’t see that my religious thinking in fundamentally different from how I think about everything else.”

    Hmmmm…. this from an individual who believes BoM civilizations actually existed. Reaching that conclusion absent, let’s face it Clark, evidence, is most certainly “fundamentally different” from how you think about everything else, otherwise you would not function as a normal human being. It is, for instance, physics, not faith, that assures you the jet w/ you & your family in it stays aloft.

  7. Mark S
    September 23, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    “Is the scientist with the flash of insight that makes them yell “Eureka!” really doing something fundamentally different from the religious believer who has a similar experience on a religious topic?”

    Yes. The religious believer is basing belief on a much larger set of unsubstantiated traditional assumptions than the scientist. The religious believer is less willing to question these assumptions than the scientist. If the scientist is a good scientist, then s/he has discovered something that has predictive power. On the whole, scientific thinking has provided much more reliable and predictable explanations of the universe around us than religious thinking.

    “I also think one can be fairly empirical or pragmatic as one conducts ones religious inquiry.”

    That depends upon what the religious claim is. You could say that the idea that not smoking tobacco will enable a healthier and longer life is a religious idea. In that sense, yes. However, religion is based on lots of truth claims that are objectively unverifiable. Absolutist insistence of the truthfulness of such unverifiable claims does not constitute an empirical or pragmatic approach to knowledge. So many religious claims amount to “x is true because y authority said so” or “x is true because of y private evidence.” Private evidence is weak evidence. A good historian is reluctant to make an assertion about history because of a single private account. Before doing so, they seek as much corroboration as possible, which comes either in the form of another account expressing the same witness or because the account fits identifiable patterns in nature and collective behavior. And even then, a good historian has to be careful. Lots of people claiming to have witnessed the apparition of the virgin Mary in Portugal in 1917 doesn’t make it true. There are lots of other explanations that are more valid as to why thousands of people supposedly thought that they witnessed the virgin Mary. But I don’t know, are you willing to accept that account as true, Clark?

    As I read your thoughts, they come off as unconvincing and shot through with doublethink. First, I highly doubt that you would apply the same sort of seemingly lax standard of determining something as being within the realm of possibly true, with which you treat Mormon truth claims, to the truth claims of other religions and religious figures. I can’t imagine that you would think that Christopher Nemelka’s claim to be the reincarnation of Hyrum Smith and to have translated the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon to be possibly true and pragmatic and empirical in the same way that you might regard great thinkers like Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein to be. The same goes for James Strang and his claim to have translated the plates of Laban. Second, you pivot in an out of relativism and absolutism whenever convenient. You make bold claims that objectively unverifiable phenomena such as the light of Christ and revelation are true and influence thought. And then you claim that whatever propositions that people make are possibly true and based on pragmatic thought because of private evidence, thus suggesting that you are prone to believing that truth is all in the eye of the beholder. What you’re doing is making excuses to justify a particular set of traditional beliefs that you most likely arrived at at a young age and/or have been deeply socialized in for years. You’re not willing to actually subject these beliefs to serious scrutiny and you do whatever you need to in order to protect them. This is not reflective of general trends in scientific thinking, which is based much more upon questioning and demonstrable evidence. Sure, tribalism and knowledge-by-authority exist in scientific communities too, but not nearly to the extent that they exist in religious communities. You ignore a crucial difference between religious and scientific thinking, which is in the EXTENT that tradition, authority, groupthink, and socialization inform claimed knowledge. Your failure to recognize this distinction does not come off as a sincere articulation, but really a smoke and mirrors denialism.

  8. ji
    September 23, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    Private evidence is weak evidence.

    That depends, doesn’t it, on the purpose? Where the goal is saving one person’s soul by convincing and strengthening him or her in matters of faith, for example, another person’s simple testimony with the support of the Holy Spirit can be very powerful and fully efficacious — and entirely valid. However, where the goal is to forcibly change the opinions of others, such as in an academic setting, another kind of evidence is more likely to bring about the desired outcome. Two settings, two approaches, each approach valid for its setting.

  9. Tiberius
    September 23, 2016 at 8:52 pm

    I’ve never understood the people who try to pretend that all of their beliefs and actions are based out of some experimentally or observational principal. Everybody has non-empirically grounded beliefs that their life operates out of. There’s no evidence that free will exists, and some evidence that is in fact an illusion. Yet when somebody maliciously and intentionally harms you you fundamentally treat that case and different than if they were mentally ill or otherwise inculpable. There’s no equation or evidence for why someone shouldn’t steal that is itself not based on non-empirical premises. I could go on, but the point is that unless you wake up and literally only see synapses and molecular mechanics, you are basing some of your motivating beliefs and actions on non-empirical grounds. What did people do before he scientific revolution? Roll over and die because science hadn’t demonstrated a reason to survive?

    The question is whether these non empirically grounded beliefs have themselves been empirically falsified (not that there’s no evidence for them, but that they’ve been falsified) or whether we’d expect to have found evidence given the parameters (like the Loch Ness monster). And it’s this point that people have conflicting views on in regards to the Church’s claims, but the idea of I only base my life around that which has been demonstrated in a lab means that people haven’t really thought through the implications of what that would look like. We all base things on emotion.

  10. Clark Goble
    September 23, 2016 at 11:46 pm

    P (6) but you are assuming I reached that conclusion absence evidence. That would be incorrect.

    JI (5) most contemporary AI techniques involve sufficient complexity we can’t understand why a conclusion was reached. We can just determine if the system is accurate in the area in question. While I don’t think neural nets work like the brain nor other AI techniques like hidden markov models, latent semantic mapping or so forth, I think it does suggest that having to explain every part of the reasoning process isn’t necessary.

    Mark (7) again though I’m not speaking of the regular religious believer but as my last paragraph noted whether people with skepticism and an attempt at rigorous inquiry can have religious belief.

    To science, my point was that how scientists come up with ideas isn’t necessarily how science as a social phenomena functions. Science is a limited way of knowledge more tied to a community and it’s attempts to replicate within that community.

    Certainly whether one is pragmatic depends upon the claim and reasons. I’d never imagine otherwise.

    To private evidence, again you’re conflating two issues. A certain communal knowledge and justification with individual knowledge. Of course private experience isn’t persuasive to someone who hasn’t had that without knowing the reliability of the person in question. Testimony witnesses, while obviously invaluable in many settings also seems undeniably weak. But what is weak evidence to the community isn’t necessarily weak evidence to the individual. The individual obviously can know more about that private experience than the person who didn’t have it. And that matters a lot epistemologically.

    From what I can tell because you are conflating community knowledge, evidence and reasoning with individual you are missing the main points. Right now you are doing something. I think that whatever that is, you know it with a great deal of certainty. However by your own words that doesn’t count as much for the rest of us. That doesn’t mean truth is in the eye of the beholder in the least. It just means direct evidence is stronger than indirect evidence and repeated evidence stronger than a single example.

    So this isn’t doublethink at all but fairly easy to demonstrate features of human knowing quite independent of the topic of religion.

    As to testing my beliefs, I think I am quite willing to test them. I’ve done so repeatedly. What survives continual inquiry it is quite hard to disbelieve.

  11. September 24, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    Speaking of Godel, I believe he makes the point quite emphatically that, using empirical methods, you can prove things that are not true and you can disprove things that are true. The rational does not always conform to reality, and as an epistemology, deduction and induction and empirical methods have problems of their own. Popper shows that all cosmologies are metaphysics, and the methods employed to construct a cosmology are always limited by initial suppositions. In other words, all worldviews are products of precepts constructed by faith and even the non-rational.

    For most of human history the word “religion” did not exist. And this is because the concept of “religion” did not exist. Religion as a category is a product of literacy, and we have hung ourselves by this construct for centuries now. Dubison makes a great point in his The Western Construction of Religion that the term is so misused in every possible way that the only way to talk intelligently about “religion” is to stop using the term. He prefers “cosmographic formation,” or all the values and suppositions one employs in creating their worldview. Interestingly, one’s worldview is really a sort of cosmology, culturally created or otherwise.

    Meanwhile, few people, I believe at least, actually use revelation as an epistemology. Even when revelation is had it is often poured through the sieve of authoritarianism, which is the ultimate of all epistemologies, rational or otherwise. Science has always had the same problem as religion has had with its epistemological fundaments: deferring to the guy in charge (whether the guy is an individual, a committee, a cultural idea, or a zeitgeist) . We like to tell ourselves that it is not so with science; or with variation, religion; but the is not so is exactly so. And so is so.

    The few times I have used revelation as an epistemology it has been wondrous indeed. I think it is the best way to live.

  12. Joel
    September 25, 2016 at 10:27 am

    I have really enjoyed the patheos series so far between Dehlin and Mason. I think that very few of our personal beliefs are arrived at through empirical or secular means. Most of us arrive at our beliefs subconsciously, based on our family and social network, available information, emotional experiences, etc. We then construct post-hoc rationalizations for those beliefs, the “reasons” why we believe, that feed our narrative that we are consciously driving the ship and choosing what we believe. How revelation or spiritual experience fits into that, I don’t really know. But Dehlin’s point is well taken, that people in every religion receive revelation and describe spiritual experiences that reinforce what they already believe or want to believe. And it’s true of political ideologies and group identities. We can’t escape the subconscious process of belief, but we can try to correct and manage it, to save ourselves from major errors. We do have the capacity to change our beliefs, to test our beliefs, to challenge our own assumptions. But it is uncomfortable to do so.

  13. Clark Goble
    September 25, 2016 at 7:13 pm

    Confirmation bias is always a danger. I’m not sure that means that’s all there is. That’s where I think Dehlin falls down.

  14. Martin James
    September 28, 2016 at 1:15 pm

    Mark S.,
    The trouble with science is that it isn’t that useful in most of what we care strongly about. Science doesn’t have an explanation of why things feel a certain way, it doesn’t give us any explanation of what is good or bad, it doesn’t tell us what to love or not love, and it doesn’t tell us whether it is better to be alive or dead.
    I think science does tell us that life is absurd in that we don’t have the free will that we think we have. The best scientific theories we have would say that Clark is engaging in his particular form of what you call denialism because he is Clark and that is what a Clark does. Practically by definition if one has a real choice then science offers us no guidance about the right choice because we have no scientific formulation of what a choice could possibly be. It is just irrelevant.
    Scientifically speaking all religious belief is a fact based on the way things are.
    This is not to say that this equates scientific behavior with religious behavior but Clark does have a point that they at least share the similarity that they are both produced by human beings and in that sense likely have much more in common than not. To the best of our knowledge they are just chemistry. Your chemistry is producing a feeling in response to Clark’s chemistry. Does the chemistry differ if our beliefs are true or justified or religious or secular or stupid or useful? Of course not. Everybody just is and that is pretty much the end of the story scientifically.

  15. Martin James
    September 28, 2016 at 1:24 pm

    I agree that most people act like they believe in free will but I really have never understood why. I have never wanted an apology and never understood why willful actions were different from those deemed inadvertent or unintentional other than if that distinction made it more or less likely to happen again. In fact, an inadvertent action almost seems worse to me than an intentional one because that makes it a mistake, which does no one any good. At least if someone intentionally did me harm, one of us obtained their objective and that seems a net positive overall.The mentally ill have always seemed more threatening to me. Would we feel better about a leader starting a nuclear war knowing that they were mentally ill and couldn’t help it? I can’t imagine why.

  16. Martin James
    September 28, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    I am very interested in your position that we don’t have a really good method of telling religious from non-religious experiences. Isn’t it more important for the religious than the non-religious to have a way to distinguish the two. Let me give you an example. A non-religious person has no reason to not have other Gods, or to worship a particular way or not to sin or to make anything sacred or to identify a method of receiving revelation. Nothing is at stake for them if something is religious or not because they don’t have anything at stake in that distinction.
    But it would seem to me that a belief in God and sin and truth and the sacred and miracles and the after life makes it extremely important to know what makes something a religious experience.
    Let’s just take the notion of a sacrilege. It seems you either believe this is so vague you can’t tell what is a sacrilege or you can tell the difference but don’t think you know that something is a sacrilege using any other faculty than you do for determining other distinctions. But this to me is the root cause of the issue in the church right now. We can’t agree on the difference between how we determine whether something is moral and something being a sin. It seems to me that the religious are losing the ability to sustain their religious practices because they don’t have a way to distinguish the two which becomes a moral critique of religion and a decline in the extent of the sacred.
    I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you about the lack of differences but I do think trying it makes religion pretty arbitrary. You may be making the weaker claim that there really are differences but they are hard to define but we know them when we seem them. I think the consequences of that vagueness is a very slippery slope where losing the ability to distinguish differences in words and thought clearly leads to a lost ability to distinguish the difference.

  17. Clark Goble
    September 28, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    Martin, I think philosophy inspired by science tells us we likely don’t have the free will we think we have. I think it safe to say that most folk theories of psychology mostly have turned out to be incorrect. However while I’m a bit of a skeptic regarding our intuitions of free will I have to confess things really aren’t that clear cut. (This has been a topic of debate between Blake Ostler and myself over the years)

    I don’t think science in the least tells us life is absurd. Again that’s usually philosophers, literary authors or pundits. (Absurdity is a common theme in one vein of existentialism for instance) People are always free to draw conclusions from science but typically the topics are outside of the field of science. Of course individual scientists are free to chime in, but there’s often more diversity of view than is often portrayed.

    I’m not sure what you mean by denialism so I can’t comment there.

    Regarding telling apart the religious from non-religious. Let us say we found the real gold plates. It becomes a scientific object open to scientific analysis. Let’s say somehow it gets translated and the translation bears reasonable similarity to the Book of Mormon. Is that a religious experience or a scientific one?

    I recognize many doubt that could happen because they fundamentally think Mormon claims false. But the issue isn’t whether this would happen but to consider what it means about how we label experiences. All I’m saying is that there are experiences and we label some religious or non-religious not on the basis of some feature of the experience but on the basis of how we categorize the topic the experience is related to. It’s largely arbitrary.

    Certainly in terms of topic I’d agree that discussing God, the sacred and so forth are religious topics. I’m not sure what that tells us about whether an experience is religious.

    To your final point I more or less agree. A big shift culturally is the very meaning of sin is more or less being lost outside of ever narrowing communities of believers. In its place the ethical and especially an ethics grounded in terms of it harms others tends to get privileged. While this isn’t quite utilitarianism (there are plenty of Kantians out there for instance making similar moves) the shift from religious grounds is huge. First trusting a command from God because it’s believed to come from God simply doesn’t matter anymore. Each demand must be grounded in a public fashion independent of any traditional standards. That is the authority of culture, the authority of scripture and the authority of tradition simply don’t matter. That’s a very big shift.

    Given that shift, there will intrinsically be conflicts over any ethical demand in religion that can’t be publicly grounded in this fashion. (The fact that the harm requirement can’t be grounded doesn’t matter since most simply accept it yet don’t treat it as authority) This means many religious dictims such as no sex before marriage, restrictions on various substances, and especially homosexuality all lose their power. Further they don’t merely lose power they become a point of intrinsic conflict that will drive people out of the religion if they don’t already accept the authority of the religion. When it’s the authority of religion in question this means those without strong spiritual experiences are highly incentivized to leave religion.

  18. Martin James
    September 28, 2016 at 3:53 pm

    Is the harm principle a spiritual experience? Are spiritual experiences inherently religious?
    As for your Golden plates example, I think you describe a scientific and not religious experience. That is because a religious experience requires a concept of sacred and I didn’t see that as present in your scenario.
    Based on what you have said, I am interested in the status of your own and other people’s spiritual experiences. What makes them spiritual? How important are the spiritual experiences of others to your life?
    What do you mean when you use the word religious since you find it vague? Would it be easy for you to never use the world and still communicate everything you would like to communicate?

  19. Clark Goble
    September 29, 2016 at 10:00 am

    I think the problem is largely a semantic one and deals primarily with adjective we use to modify “experience.” That is without narrowing down in a particular discussion the senses I’m not sure it’s that helpful.

    To me the golden plates in a scientific context could easily be described as religious. I just don’t see religious experience requiring a concept of the sacred. It’s fine if we use that as a criteria for a particular discussion of course. But then you run up with the problem of things like praying for help finding ones keys. Where’s the sacred in that?

    As I use the modifier “religious” I simply mean related to topics traditionally designated as religious. But I don’t think there’s anything inherent to these that necessarily is religious. And that’s even skipping the problem of dealing with traditions outside of the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition – Our categories are poor not just for Buddhism or Confucianism but even things like pagan religion in the neoPlatonists of late antiquity.

    In saying all this let me note I’m fine with associating the luminous or sacral as part of the phenomenology of religion. This more narrow sense has a long history. I’m just not sure it gets at the topic of experience in epistemological terms.

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