Monday, December 8, 2008

RtBotS, Part 6 of 9: Voices In Your Head Are Generally Less Reliable Than Voices Outside Your Head


(8) The last section dealt with point (5a) in the Rationalist Credo; I described it as "the most theologically radical notion of the whole Credo," but the majority of religious moderates don't have a particularly strong interest in theology (at least not in the context of American Christians). Of those Americans who attend weekly church services, only a small percentage have actually read their holy book of choice from cover to cover. In practical terms, this is the main job of clergy: to become "doctrinal lawyers" capable of filtering out the boring, irrelevant bits so the good stuff can be passed on to the flock.

Among the flock, the most radical notion of the Rationalist Credo is probably point (5b); not so much the scientific method itself, which is a tad too boring to generate much controversy, but the idea that the scientific method is the only reliable method for acquiring knowledge. As I said toward the end of (5), "I cannot irreproachably prove anyone wrong when they say that there are paths to knowledge other than the scientific method. I simply believe that there aren't."

Many people find this troubling, even offensive, because they interpret it as a denial of transcendent experience. I do not deny that people have transcendent experiences; I merely deny that those experiences are valid sources of information about the world. People can and do have experiences in which they are spontaneously filled with extraordinarily powerful feelings of joy, love, peace, connectedness, wonder, and the like. I don't think this is bad or wrong or incorrect or undesirable in any way. I think such experiences are wonderful when they occur and can give us new insights into who we are as individuals. Indeed, I have had such experiences myself. The only downside is that, when I was having them, I was clinically insane.

The stories of unbelievers coming to God through a religious experience are legion, but the ultimate consequence of my religious experience was to push me the other way. In early 2007 I was committed to a mental hospital and spent nine days there. The prior three months had seen a slow ascent of my psyche into clinical mania, during which my family and coworkers became increasingly concerned; and in the last week of 2006 the mania became "acute," meaning I had a full-on psychotic break from reality. During the acute phase, I was completely convinced (among other things) of the reality of God. I spontaneously renounced atheism and laughed at it for the same purely intuitive reasons that religious believers do -- how could such a sensorily rich and vibrantly beautiful world, seemingly alive in every respect, be anything other than God's creation?

It is mildly unpleasant for me to remember that time, primarily because, after I came back to reality, I heard stories of the bizarre and ridiculous (and occasionally harrowing) things I had said and done, and was acutely embarrassed. But if I make an effort to ignore those post-associations and instead summon to mind the experience itself, a very different picture emerges. Being acutely manic is a wonderful feeling. It brings a profound sense of brotherhood -- you love everyone you meet, and think that everyone you meet loves you. You feel as though you completely understand everything that you see and encounter. Most important of all, you lose the ability to think in the subjunctive; if you imagine something, you don't think of it as a projection of what could be. You think of it as a projection of what will be. Fantasy becomes prediction.

In (5) I mentioned that everyone thinks they're rational. I would even go so far as to say that, in fact, everyone is rational, at least in the sense that they act rationally based on what they believe to be true. The word "irrational" enters the discussion when there are disagreements about what is true. Having been insane, I'm convinced that insane people act just as rationally as sane people; the only reason their behavior is so bewildering and inscrutable is that it's impossible to know what they believe is true, since their beliefs are being continuously manipulated by spontaneous powerful feelings being tossed about by their own mental machinery.

I remember, during the height of my psychotic break, driving north on I-81, somewhere in Pennsylvania, and deciding that I didn't need my radar detector anymore, so I pulled it off its windshield-mounted suction cups and threw it out the window. The reason I decided I didn't need it was that I thought that I could see, with my eyes, the radar and laser pulses that the police might be using to gauge my speed. The reasoning was fine; the information being fed into the reasoning was the problem.

Can anyone prove to me that I was not witness to a bona fide miracle? Could anyone prove me wrong if I were to assert that the Holy Spirit had descended upon me and given me sight beyond sight at that moment? It felt utterly real to me; I was absolutely convinced of the reality of my radar-and-laser vision. If I had had a traveling partner with me in the truck, and found myself in a conversation with him about what was happening to me, I would have scoffed at his skepticism and written him off as someone whose sense of wonder, whose openness to nonscientific avenues of knowledge, was woefully blunted. I could have accused him, with utter conviction, of wilfully diminishing himself, closing himself off from what it means to be human.

I remember another incident during the psychotic break in which I was driving aimlessly through Nevada. That night I stayed in a cheap motel, but did not sleep at all. I worked on a screenplay. I wrote it out longhand on a legal pad. I wrote the whole thing in one sitting. (I ended up scrapping its characters and plot, but the ending was salvaged into another screenplay that I did ultimately finish, Zero State.) That night I felt gripped in an absolute white heat of creation. I felt not like the words were pouring out of me, but like they were being poured through me, like I had hooked up my brain and eyes and hands to some sort of linguistic fire hydrant whose source was far below any place I could probe or even imagine. It was exhilirating and unprecedented. It felt like a visitation from God.

Yet, looking back, I can see now that I was fucking nuts.

This explains why my "religious experience" drove me to atheism. It taught me that those sensations, intuitions, and transcendent experiences, while wonderful, are not reliable sources of information. The scientific method is epistemologically limited, but it is reliable. I would rather know what science lets me know and then admit ignorance of what remains than claim to know things that come only from inner, unreliable sources.

Even if there were an interventionist God – one capable of filling us with the Holy Spirit – He did not provide us with any reliable way to tell the difference between transcendent experience caused by divinity versus transcendent experience caused by insanity. I refuse to ever again run the risk of mistaking insanity for divinity, so, I must choose to distrust information that flows into my mind through transcendent channels. That leaves only the scientific method.

I think there is even a way to base this decision on purely moral grounds. Although I admit up front that it is a bit of a stretch, it nevertheless seems worth presenting.

Jonathan Haidt has done extensive research into the psychological underpinnings of human morality. His founding assumption is, forget about where morality "comes from" -- given that it exists, what does it look like? Does morality have a structure? He and his colleagues set about investigating that question by putting up a survey on the web, which so far 50,000 people from the majority of world's countries have taken. He presents these conclusions in an excellent TED lecture that I strongly urge you to watch.

His main conclusion is that there are five pillars of moral thinking, five considerations that can be taken into account in the determination of whether a given action is or is not moral:

(a) Harm/care. The idea that harming others is bad, and caring for others who need it is good.
(b) Justice/fairness. The idea that people should experience the consequences of their actions.
(c) Ingroup/loyalty. The idea that people should seek to act not just in their own interests but in the interests of the groups to which they belong.
(d) Authority/deference. The idea that people should respect authority, seek its counsel, and obey its pronouncements.
(e) Purity/sanctity. The idea that people can achieve virtue by tightly controlling what they do with (or put into) their bodies.

Haidt likens these five pillars to five channels in a stereo equalizer. An individual's moral sensibility is shaped by how loud or quiet each of those five channels is set. (Politically, he notes that while self-described conservatives rank all five channels in the middle, self-described liberals turn the first two channels all the way up, and the last three channels all the way down, which explains a lot about "the culture wars.")

For purposes of this discussion I want to focus on the fifth channel, purity/sanctity. Haidt notes that while the political right tends to express their valuation of this channel in the context of sex, the political left has a vocal minority that expresses their valuation of it in the context of food; this is why there are more vegan hippies than vegan hedge fund managers. The emphasis placed by Eastern religions on meditation is another manifestation of this; what could be purer than a mind emptied of thoughts and desires?

Making the decision to accept only information obtained through the scientific method could be viewed as an appeal to intellectual purity. It is the striving for virtue by tightly controlling what one puts into one's mind. It is the avoidance of potential psychological toxins and contaminants.

One last point remains to be made, and that is that the numinous and the intuitive can still play a role in the scientific world view. One of the steps of the scientific method is "construct a hypothesis to explain the observed phenomenon." Constructing a hypothesis is an activity that relies largely on gut feel. People are being amateur scientists when they begin sentences like "I think the reason McCain lost the election is..." or "It seems clear that the Phillies won this year's Series because...." Such statements draw on one's experience and intuition. Intuition is extraordinarily valuable in science. The only difference between the scientific use of intuition and the everyday use of intuition is that the scientific use prohibits the hypothesis from being openly advocated until after it has been subjected to testing in the real world. Science treats intuition as a raw material; the everyday treats it as a finished product.


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