Sunday, April 13, 2014

On the Claim to Have Experienced “the Supernatural”

A frequent visitor to my blog recently posed the following question:
Also Dawson there has been something that i always wanted to ask you, what do you think of people whom always claimed to have experianced the supernatural? how do you explain stuff like that in an objectivist worldivew
So how does Objectivism explain people who claim to have experienced the supernatural?

First I’d say that I don’t think it’s specifically the task of a philosophy to explain things such as this. Rational philosophy has more important things to do. However, we can apply Objectivist principles to determine certain general points regarding such claims.

Objectivism does not deny that people have experiences. If someone claims that he experienced “the supernatural,” we can readily grant that he probably did have some kind of experience. This in itself, however, does not validate the claim that what he experienced was “supernatural.”

The question at this point is epistemological in nature: How did he determine that what he experienced was in fact “supernatural”? Is it simply that he experienced something strange, did not understand what he experienced or what caused his experience, and on the basis of this ignorance chalked it up to “the supernatural”? If so, then clearly his claim is essentially grounded in ignorance, not knowledge, and therefore should be dismissed.

On the other hand, if he insists that his claim is based in knowledge and not ignorance, then I would invite him to state his relevant definitions and also give some details about the experience he had. For example, what precisely does he mean by “supernatural”? Typically those who affirm the reality of the supernatural define it primarily in terms of what it is not rather than what it is. This can be acceptable in limited contexts when it comes to some abstractions. But “the supernatural” is supposed to be a real phenomenon, not merely an idea or notion set in contrast against another, positive notion. So defining in terms of negation would not be acceptable. He needs to give some positive substance to what he’s talking about, otherwise it’s contentless.

Presuppositional apologist Greg Bahnsen devoted an entire chapter on “The Problem Of Knowing The ‘Super-Natural’” in his book Always Ready (chapter 31, pp. 177-191), which I have examined at length in my own paper Bahnsen on “Knowing the Supernatural”. In his treatment of the issue, Bahnsen denotes “the supernatural” as “whatever surpasses the limits of nature.” In reaction to this, I wrote in my examination of Bahnsen’s views:
What does it mean to “surpass the limits of nature”? Bahnsen, in all his renowned precision and brilliance, does not bother to explain. In fact he doesn’t even seem to recognize any need to explain further, even though the title of his chapter implies that his task is to clarify how one can know “the supernatural,” suggesting that he intends to divulge the workings of a process by which one can acquire knowing awareness of “whatever surpasses the limits of nature.” Wouldn’t an explanation of exactly what he means by “whatever surpasses the limits of nature” be germane to such a task?  
This conception, whose subject is represented by the pronoun “whatever,” is probably more open-ended than Bahnsen would have liked, but ultimately this cannot be avoided when it comes to such matters as “the supernatural” and Christianity’s claims. However “the supernatural” is to be defined, it needs to be wide enough for Christianity to fit neatly within it. The expression “whatever surpasses the limits of nature” fits the bill for Bahnsen, and can refer to just about anything one can imagine. And as I have concluded elsewhere, a believer’s imagination is crucial to the survival of his religious beliefs.
Thus my concern regarding this definition is that it is so vague as to admit anything one might imagine as a qualifying member of the class of “supernatural” things. The invisible magic dragon which I dream up in my imagination surely “surpasses the limits of nature” since it can do whatever I imagine it can do, including “surpassing the limits of nature.” One might object to this by pointing out that the invisible magic dragon that I imagine can only do the things I imagine it can do within the confines of my imagination, a point which I happily concede. But nothing in Bahnsen’s definition rules out such examples, and in fact the ones which Bahnsen himself affirms (i.e., the Christian god and associated supernatural beings) are likewise available to us only by means of imagining them.

But supposing the theist does give a positive definition of some sort, I would ask him to explain how he formulated such a definition. Did he just repeat some source which provided a definition that he found useful or convenient, or did he form the concept firsthand on the basis of positive input which he acquired from what he calls “the supernatural” by looking outward at reality? If so, what he find when he looked outward, and by what means did he look outward? Typically theists claim that “the supernatural” cannot be observed by means of the five senses. This would seem to rule out observation by looking outward and drive the matter inward, into something that is likely ultimately sourced in imagination.

If the theist posits some sort of “ESP” as the means by which he discovered “the supernatural” by looking outward, we can ask him to explain what this extrasensory form of perception is, what if any physical organs are attached to it, and how it works. Also, by citing ESP, the theist would be implying that he has such a faculty, and this could be tested. But more importantly, merely perceiving something is not the same as identifying what is perceived. Unfortunately, theists often ignore the distinction between perceiving and identifying what is perceived, and appeals to ESP are not immune to such oversight.

If the theist gets beyond these hurdles, he then needs to give some specifics about the occasion on which he claims to have experienced something supernatural. Where did this happen? What were the circumstances? What state of mind was he in? What exactly happened? What exactly did he see, hear, feel, etc.? Then we need to burrow into the epistemology of the matter: How did he determine that what he experienced was “supernatural”? What specific steps did he take to come to this assessment about his experience? How did he go from experiencing something to identifying that something as “supernatural”? Assuming the claimant has provided a suitable definition of ‘supernatural’ (which, in my experience, never happens), this is where things start to really fall apart.

I have known many who have made the claim that they experienced an impressive manifestation of “the supernatural,” some even akin to the type which Acts describes the persecutor Saul experiencing on the road to Damascus (an experience which Paul himself, in his letters, does not describe as it is found in Acts). However, whenever I have probed such claims using the above approach (i.e., getting the theist to state his definitions and probing the particulars of his claimed experience), the theist typically finds some reason not to allow the discussion go any further (either by ending it or trying to redirect the discussion away from his claim to have experienced “the supernatural”). Apparently I am expected simply to accept his claim on his own say so, which is quite ironic if these same individuals fire off the question “How do you know?” in response to everything I affirm about my worldview!

Motivation is another factor to consider. Believers want their religious beliefs to be true, they want to see themselves as on the right side of those beliefs, and they want their own experience to be relevant to what they claim to be and preach to others. They want to see themselves as numbering among “the chosen” and rescued from “the damned.” But this only sets things in motion. The zealous believer will want something essentially to boast for all his devotion, not only to impress others (a motivation which cannot be downplayed, given emphasis on evangelism), but also to give one’s devotions credentials in his own mind. Thus the desire for a testimony of having personally encountered “the supernatural” can be irresistible. While it is true that we are weaker when we exaggerate, we should not overlook the models held up for believers by the biblical record itself. Its heroes are always distinguished from the on-looking laity by visitations from a supernatural realm, by the working of wonders, by the claim to have “received” some kind of “revelation” directly from the creator of the universe itself. Such a testimony can only add clout to one’s confessional investment, particularly when it comes to compelling those on the outside to “come in” and join the fold.

Recall Ayn Rand’s penetrating observation that “faith in the supernatural begins as faith in the superiority of others” (For the New Intellectual, p. 128). I suspect that believers, particularly those who have chosen to evangelize for converts, implicitly recognize this truth. Psychologically, then, it is crucial that the believer somehow make himself bigger than he really is in the minds of those he seeks to win over. Such behavior is evident in the New Testament epistles as well as in the portrait of Jesus in the gospels and the actions attributed to Peter and Paul in Acts. In all cases, a presumption of superiority – whether by means of allegedly possessing superior knowledge, ability, or relationship with the creator of the universe – is key to persuading individuals and entire crowds. Implausibly, for example, in Acts Peter is able to convert entire crowds of Jerusalem Jews by his preaching (implausible not only because the speeches include references to the Old Testament in the Greek translation of those “scriptures” – which would hardly impress orthodox Jews since that translation mangles the original Hebrew text, but also since this activity supposedly took place only weeks after the leading figure of the Christian sect, i.e., Jesus, was executed by the local authorities). The gift of persuasion, particularly for religious orators, cannot reside in the citation of facts (for religion has no facts going for it), but in the pushing of the right emotional buttons in one’s audience. Persuasion in a religious context invariably requires some form of subterfuge. This is why it is tempting for many apologists for a religion to put themselves on a higher plane than their intended audience. Since they cannot deal with others as intellectual equals, the need to amplify one’s own credentials in order increase the likelihood of impressing others comes with the territory.

Philosophically, the notion of “the supernatural” invariably involves the presumption of the primacy of consciousness metaphysics. Those who claim to have experienced “the supernatural” typically have no informed understanding of this, and simply take the primacy of consciousness for granted in an implicit manner. While all conscious activity does in fact involve a relationship between the subject of consciousness and its objects (i.e., whatever is perceived and/or considered in conscious activity), thinkers are generally not accustomed to considering the nature of this relationship and its implications for thought and knowledge. Consequently, thinkers are very often unaware of the conflict between certain claims they make and the implications of the relationship between consciousness and its objects. I have raised many times the example of the commonly heard adage that wishing doesn’t make it so. Most adults readily concede the truth of this recognition. But what they do not often grasp explicitly is the reason why this recognition is true. It is typically taken for granted as a kind of self-evident truth, but beyond that no further thought is usually given on the matter. It apparently does not dawn on thinkers that the fact that truth is impervious to wishing has its basis in both the very nature of consciousness as such as well as the task it performs on behalf of the organism which possesses it. It is also not helpful when the worldviews that have enjoyed wide currency in virtually every culture throughout history have consistently failed to draw attention to the relationship between consciousness and its objects and, even worse, often blur the distinction between both in a subtle or overt manner.

The notion of “the supernatural” entails the notion the notion that wishing makes it so. Physical objects, theists tell us, were “created” by a supernatural intelligence. Essentially this supernatural intelligence simply wished physical things into existence. It did not fashion them from pre-existing materials; it did not procure them from some other realm. Christians tell us that their god “spoke” the universe into being. But this could at best be allegorical, for the Christian god is supposed to be non-physical and incorporeal (i.e., not having a body), which means it could not “speak” in a literal fashion – it would have no mouth, no lungs, no larynx, no tongue, no teeth, no lips, no palate, etc. Such things belong to biological organisms, and the Christian god is not supposed to be a biological organism. So the Christian cannot feasibly maintain that his god literally “spoke” the universe into being (as though mere speaking as such could result in the existence of physical objects to begin with). Indeed, since the Christian god is not supposed to be a physical being, no physical action could, on Christianity’s premises, be involved in the creation of the physical. And since all physicality on this view is supposed to have been created in the first place, nothing physical would have been available for the creation of the physical.

So the believer is driven by his confessional commitment into affirming that everything physical was created exclusively by some form of conscious activity as such. Again, this points to the belief that a form of consciousness essentially willed or wished the universe into being.

Why believe this? What suggests that such a consciousness is really possible, let alone actual? What facts suggest that wishing makes it so? As I have stated before, I can, along with the believer, imagine such a phenomenon. But I already recognize the fundamental distinction between the imaginary and the real.

So the burden is squarely on the believer’s shoulders. He needs to show that what he calls “the supernatural” is not merely imaginary. For so long as we can only imagine what he is claiming, the suspicion that his claim to have experienced “the supernatural” remains unchecked and unabated. Since the notion of “the supernatural” entails the assumption that wishing makes it so, the believer has the onus of proving that wishing can indeed make it so. If he responds to this by conceding that his own wishing does not make it so, can he then produce a consciousness other than his own whose wishing does make it so? Or, are we left with no alternative but to imagine this as well? Or, does he expect us to accept his claims on his mere say so?

I know that emotions can be very powerful. And some experiences can be emotionally overwhelming. But we should not allow emotion to unseat our honesty. If we are claiming more about our experiences than they objectively warrant, we should acknowledge this fact and let our experiences be what they really are. How can our experiences be more to us if we deliberately fake their nature, what caused them, or what they represent? If we mischaracterize our experiences, they will cease to have the value that they can provide to our lives.

So I challenge believers to come forward and be willing to discuss any claim they make to have experienced “the supernatural.” If they are honest about what they have experienced, what do they stand to lose? If they are correct in identifying what they have experienced, they should be able to show this, and readers will learn from this. If they are wrong in claiming that they have experienced “the supernatural,” they should be willing to acknowledge this if they desire to maintain a positive orientation with truth, and readers would learn from this as well. If they prefer that the falsehood of their claims not be exposed, then they need only take a vow of silence and refrain from discussing the matter.

by Dawson Bethrick


Unknown said...

Good blog. Thanks Dawson.

Mez said...

Great post, Dawson.

The very word 'supernatural' strikes me as meaningless in the context of existence. Nature, by definition, is everything that exists. Any things said to exist - coffee mugs, planets, ghosts, goblins and gods - would be 'natural' by definition. If the apologist asserts that their god is "above" or "outside of nature" (whatever that means), then they are summarily defining that god out of existence!

95BSharpshooter said...

I'm a relative amateur when it comes to philosophy, but IIRC, when someone makes ANY claim, it's up to them to provide evidence, it's not up to anyone else, philosopher or otherwise, to explain it for them.