Sunday, January 29, 2017

Hearing Voices in Your Head

Recently Christian apologist James Anderson published an article titled How Do You Know That the Bible Is God’s Word? in the Christian Research Journal. In it he defends a magical form of knowing known among Reformed Christians as “the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.” This notion is essentially a safely lever which apologists can pull when their apologetic defenses are shown to be the fault-ridden vehicles they are, so it’s not unsurprising to find Anderson producing a defense of this notion, since it stands as a refuge in which apologists will inevitably need to seek shelter.

In setting up his case, Anderson makes reference to John 10:27, which inserts the words “My sheep hear my voice” in Jesus’ mouth. The idea here is that, if someone doesn’t believe (presumably on first hearing), then that person is to be dismissed as not numbering among “the Lord’s sheep.” Of course, none of this constitutes an argument; rather, such claims are asserted in place of an argument, much like a slogan or platitude, and has no more substance than “Four out of five dentists surveyed…”
Before exploring Anderson’s defense of the notion of “the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit,” I want to make an observation. Christian apologists love to barrage their non-believing critics with the question “How do you know?” and they repeat this question over and over even in cases of very obvious things, such as: How do you know you’re conscious? How do you know 2+2=4? How do you know you standing here? How do you know you’re not dreaming now? etc., all along insinuating that on their “unbelieving worldview,” they couldn’t know anything all. It is most ironic, as is the case, that in insisting that non-believers address these questions to the apologists’ own satisfaction (which apologists will never allow), apologists are making enormous demands for rigorous, detailed defenses on matters that people commonly take for granted (which in itself does not mean they should not be explored), but for which appeals to magic would never be acceptable. Such demands, loaded as they often are with citations of Hume, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Royce, Popper, Russell, etc., are hard to reconcile with the claim that one has his knowledge from a ghost speaking directly to his mind. After all, how does he know he’s not imagining?

But what exactly is this “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit”? What is learned from it? Is anything of value learned from it? How can it be tested for its truth value, assuming it has any? How can it be tested as actually being sourced in transmissions of “the Holy Spirit”? How can one know independently of “the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” that “the Holy Spirit” and alleged “testimony” one claims to have internally are real phenomena and not merely imaginary? Anderson does not address these concerns. Rather, he takes a different path.

Anderson writes:
An analogy may help here. I imagine most readers have had the experience of receiving a phone call where the caller’s opening words are simply, “Hey, it’s me!” Even though those words could be said by anyone, I’d wager that nearly every time you’ve receive an “It’s me!” call, you knew immediately and certainly who the caller was. But how did you know, since the speaker didn’t give a name? It’s simple: you recognized the person’s voice. You didn’t engage in some process of deduction from various “evidences” that you identified in their speech. You directly perceived the identity of the caller.
It’s true that I have had the experience of someone calling my phone and simply announcing “It’s me!” However, there have been occasions when this has happened in which I did not recognize the voice. Some have been wrong numbers, but some have actually been acquaintances or colleagues of mine and they just caught me at a disadvantage; I frankly did not match the voice I heard over the phone with the person I knew. But even in those cases when “It’s me” was sufficient for me to recognize the individual calling, my success in identifying the caller was invariably dependent upon already having familiarity with the person’s voice in question prior to receiving the call.

Moreover, when identifying a caller by only his voice, the voice itself is originating outside my mind. It is an external phenomenon, and my awareness of it is acquired by looking outward as opposed to looking inward. If I “hear voices” in my mind, what pray tell would suggest that its source is something other than psychological?

Unfortunately, this is where Anderson’s analogy breaks down, and it does so significantly: if I heard a voice in my head announcing itself as the voice of the creator of the universe, how would I be able to recognize it as such? If I had never heard the voice of the creator of the universe before, I would have no previous familiarity on which I could base any recognition of its owner. Even worse, if, in addition to a universe-creating deity which has the ability to pipe voices directly into a person’s mind, I also believed in nefarious spirits whose purpose was to subvert devotion to said deity by means of supernatural mischief, how could I make any confident determination that the voice I was hearing did not belong to an “unclean spirit” instead of “the Holy Spirit”? Anderson’s analogy does not eliminate this problem by any stretch.

But Anderson’s analogy suffers from further weakness. Hearing a “voice” in one’s mind does not entail that someone is actually speaking. Suppose I have a dream about a friend of mine, and in my dream I “hear” my friend’s voice. In the context of my dream, I associate the voice with my friend, but my friend in real life is not actually speaking. Similarly, if I am daydreaming and I imagine my friend talking to me, thus “hearing” my friend’s voice, my friend is not actually speaking. He could be vacationing in the Greek Isles. But here I am, “hearing” his voice many thousands of miles away.

Finally, voices are physical; they are produced by physical processes, transmitted physically through a medium, and received by physical receptors. However, we are constantly told by believers that the Christian deity is non-physical, so immediately all commonality between the Christian deity and vocalization is dropped, thus detonating to smithereens any opportunity for analogies between the two. Of course, given that believers in fact have something magical in mind (“supernatural”), these problems are brushed over since they can be overcome by magical means (like wishing the entire universe into being by an act of will).

Nevertheless, in spite of these deficiencies, Anderson supposes that “the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” is analogous to a recognizing a familiar voice one hears over the phone, even though the “voice” in this case is not coming from without, and even though one would have no opportunity to have had face-to-face contact with the creator of the universe in order to match the voice with that person.

He writes:
The Bible bears all the objective marks of a divine revelation, but we nevertheless need “eyes and ears” to recognize it as such. That spiritual apprehension is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. When we read or hear the words of the Bible, the indwelling Spirit brings about in our hearts and minds a conviction that these aren’t merely human writings. In short, the Spirit of God enables us to hear the voice of God speaking in the Word of God.
It’s hard to distinguish what Anderson describes here from sheer credulity and religious beguilement. If one approaches a text with the attitude that it is something sacred and that its author is some supernatural being, he is predisposed to projecting special qualities to that text and interpreting his reaction to the text as a conviction brought about by the will of is allegedly supernatural author. Without such “presuppositions,” the texts of the Old and New Testaments read like Bronze-Age folklore, fables, poetry, fantasy and fiction. Indeed, I have already pointed out in previous writings how the stories of the bible work to bring its characters to life in the imagination of believing readers. The same is the case with non-biblical fiction. Human beings have the ability to assemble the images described in fiction (and even non-fiction – think of a news article) against the canvas of their imagination, and given the degree of value one invests in the resulting portraits, the outcome of such a process can be very powerful emotionally, even intoxicating.

Moreover, if one thinks he has heard voices in his head and subscribes to a worldview which assumes the primacy of consciousness, he may very well be inclined to hoping those voices belong to something cosmically important. How belief in "internal testimony of the Holy Spirit" immunizes itself from such hysteria is not explained.

Anderson likes the “account” he proposes for two reasons. One, “it honors the doctrine of salvation by grace alone,” thus downplaying men’s chosen actions, informed as they may be by the information they integrate into their knowledge and on which they base their choices, and instead reducing men to automatons pushed and pulled about by supernatural forces beyond his control and resistance. I grant that Anderson’s thesis does have consistency with at least portions of the biblical record, though it is not at all attractive from a rational perspective. I’m reminded here of a point G.A. Wells makes in his 2004 book Can We Trust the New Testament? when he observes (p. 83):
At every turn in Acts, the Christian mission is promoted by supernatural forces, whether by the Spirit, or by angels, visions or directives from the exalted Jesus, sometimes making the human agents little more than puppets.
But Anderson finds reason for glee in his account because of its egalitarian implications: “ITHS puts all believers on an equal footing,” he writes. He continues:
Anyone, regardless of their level of intellect or education, can know that the Bible is God’s word. Saving knowledge of God is a supernatural divine gift, not a natural human achievement.
Such is the lure of the pretense to magical thinking: it requires no effort on man’s part – it is something deposited into his mind by mysterious forces possessing the bounty of omniscience, but can it truly be the case that believers are supposed all believers are “on an equal footing” in terms of all this magical knowledge? If believer Jones claims X while believer Smith claims Y, and claims X and Y are at odds with one another, even contradictory, where’s this “equal footing”? The problem gets even worse since, as Steve Hays tells us, “God controls our thought processes.” So human beings, reduced to mere puppets, are made by an omnipotent supernatural being to utter statements contradictory with one another, but the “equal footing” here cannot be in terms of knowledge, but in terms of their inability to resist an irresistible supernatural force.

A second reason why Anderson likes the account he has presented is that it “comports with the Protestant conviction that the Bible is a self-attesting revelation,” which explains why apologists pen thousands upon thousands of pages in their own feeble efforts to defend the mythologies we find in the bible as though they were all historically accurate (oh scratch that, it doesn’t explain this!). Speaking apparently on behalf of all Protestants, Anderson explains that “We don’t accept its authority on the basis of some other authority (the Pope, theologian, scientists, historians, etc.) but because God Himself testifies to it.” But this ignores the fact that we only learn that the bible is “the word of God” from other human beings, like James Anderson himself, just as children raised in a religious setting learn that the religious teachings their parents pass on are true from their parents and religious colleagues. When Anderson states that the bible “has the highest possible authority,” I’m learning this from a human being, not from a supernatural being. So this “virtue” crumbles under the weight of its own self-attesting weakness.

In presenting what he considers a “philosophical defense” of the notion of “the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit,” Anderson cites the work of Alvin Plantinga, specifically his “Warrant” series. Unfortunately, this does not move the matter forward, for nothing that I’ve seen from Plantinga (and granted, I have familiarity only with Warranted Christian Belief from his “Warrant” series) achieves the escape velocity necessary to untangle the matter from the problems mentioned above, and it invites further problems which call Plantinga’s epistemological approach into question to boot.

What Anderson presents here is indicative of what I’ve seen before. As is fashionable among apologists, Plantinga conceives of knowledge as a species of belief. As Anderson summarizes, “a person S knows some proposition P only if:
S believes P;
P is true;  
S’s belief in P is produced by a cognitive faculty that is (a) functioning properly in an appropriate environment and (b) successfully aimed at truth.
There’s nothing here about the conceptual nature of knowledge, and it ignores that knowledge in the form of concepts of objects in fact precedes belief-formation. Belief is an estimate of confidence in the truth of a proposition typically falling short of certainty. If my co-worker asks where the boss is, I might say “I believe he’s in the server room.” Am I certain that that is the case? No, and I convey my uncertainty by saying that I believe this is the case. But I cannot have this belief without already having formed the concepts ‘boss’, ‘server room’, ‘is’, ‘in’, etc. My answer was not “I believe ‘boss’ means our day-shift supervisory; ‘is’ means ‘existing now’; ‘in’ means ‘inclusion within the space of’ and ‘server room’ means ‘a portion of space within a building surrounded by walls’.” Rather, these are already known, and the form in which we identify and retain such knowledge is conceptual in nature. The belief that our boss is in the server room is an integration making use of previously formed concepts whose own epistemological integrity is not in question. (This is fundamentally why I reject the “justified true belief” account of knowledge that’s perennially in vogue among philosophy students.)

In Warranted Christian Belief, Plantinga wrestles pleonastically with the age-old religious problem of the inability of “our all-too human concepts” to apply to a being that is said to be infinite and transcendent, such as the deity of Christianity is said to be (cf. p. 5). Historically this problem has been used to discredit man’s mind for its supposed deficiency, never to call into question the imaginative notion of a supernatural being. And it appears that Plantinga falls right into this trap, for he never does apply or formulate an objective theory of concepts in his attempts to develop a solution. Instead, he starts off by marching in the wrong direction altogether, and never corrects course. As I’ve pointed out numerous times in previous writings of mine, Christianity has no theory of concepts. And, as Jason Petersen has conceded, “Concepts have no place in Christian epistemology” (see here). How can one claim that Christianity (and “only Christianity”) can “account for” knowledge when it has no theory of concepts? Blank out.

Anderson remarks:
Plantinga describes how this account can explain various kinds of knowledge we take for granted: sense perception, knowledge of the past, knowledge of basic moral truths, knowledge of abstract truths about logic and mathematics, even knowledge of the existence and attributes of God. (The last of these he attributes to a sensus divinitatis: a cognitive faculty that produces what theologians call “the natural knowledge of God.”)
But does the ‘S believes P’ account truly “account for” these things? I submit that it does in fact not account for them if “account for” signifies presenting a causal explanation that is useful in developing a comprehensive epistemology useful to man given the nature of his consciousness and its functions. Rather, Plantinga’s account takes the items listed entirely for granted while pretending to have dealt with them by merely paying lip service to them in passing. And we can be assured of this analysis given the absence of a theory of concepts which explains how man’s mind forms concepts based on perceptual input and demystifies universality (see for instance here), the very feature of conceptual knowledge that has befuddled philosophers throughout history.

And notice how one form of magical knowledge needs to be buttressed by asserting yet another form of magical knowledge (just as one government regulation requires the addition of further regulations in order to enforce the original regulation, and on and on we go into the self-constricting chokehold of bureaucratic immobility). Apologists posit the notion of “sensus divinitatis,” presumably a “cognitive faculty” which, unlike actual cognitive faculties, has no association with regions of the brain, sense organs, neural pathways, or even corrective methodology. When I asked Christian apologist Chris Bolt if it could be the case that the Christian god can communicate some item of knowledge to a believer via “the sensus divinitatis” and the believer still gets it wrong, he admitted “yes, this is the case.” And I have to add that, given the circumstances propelling this admission, I’d say Bolt really had no choice but to concede this. (For details, start here.) So appeals to magical thinking are not the cure-all that apologists would like them to be after all.

But even Anderson recognizes the need to make a concession here. He writes:
When it comes to knowing that the Bible is God’s Word, however, Plantinga recognizes that we possess no natural faculty that could deliver such knowledge. Nevertheless, ITHS can be seen as analogous to our natural cognitive faculties in a way that meets all of the necessary conditions for knowledge. If P is the proposition that the Bible is God’s Word, and S is someone in whom the Holy Spirit has brought about a recognition that P is true, we can say that S knows P because (1) S believes P, (2) P is true, and (3) S’s belief in P is produced by a kind of cognitive process — albeit a supernaturally enhanced one — that is successfully aimed at truth.
This is like saying that, although it is acknowledged that the sounds produced by a car colliding head-on with a trailer truck at 90 mph are not at all in line with the harmonic series, they are nevertheless harmonically analogous with the circle of fifths starting on C (perhaps because John Cage wants them to be). In fact, there is no such thing as an alternative to “natural cognitive faculties,” and assertions of having knowledge which is allegedly obtained by circumventing rational processes amount to an attempt to fake one’s mind and pretend to be in possession of something unobtainable to others (claims to being “on an equal footing” with others notwithstanding). This is endemic to all religions. But magical thinking, or wishing-makes-it-so by any other name (e.g., the “sensus divinitatis,” “the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit,” “women’s way of knowing,” tea-leaf reading, tree-hugging, Tarot cards, astrological charts, etc.), has nothing analogous to “our natural cognitive functions.”

Rationality is directed at securing our knowledge within the bounds of the primacy of existence throughout every level of the knowledge hierarchy, and it does so by granting primacy to empirical evidence, factoring entity-based causality into the inductive process, integrating concepts by objective standards, and building hierarchical relationships by application of logic (where proof is the art of making explicit those logical steps which reduce that which is not perceptually self-evident to that which is perceptually self-evident). A claim to have attained knowledge in a manner which abandons these norms cannot at the same time maintain that said manner is analogous to that which does adhere to these norms.

As for attempts to make appeals to supernatural source seem credible by claiming that they speak to (“account for”) how one knows by reference to the “justified true belief” conception of knowledge (in whatever variation thereof), all of this strikes me as an attempt to create the illusion of having a philosophical justification for confessional beliefs after they have been religiously embraced, when in fact they have no rational basis at all in the first place. We are told that this “internal testimony” provided by a supernatural being is “analogous” to “natural cognitive faculties” (as though there were an alternative to natural cognitive faculties), and yet to what aspects to man’s faculty of reason can proponents of such a view point as actual analogues to “natural cognitive faculties” to bolster such a claim? Not to any!

For example, in exploring the claim to have “internal testimony” from “the Holy Spirit” and that this form of knowing (a process answering to the “how” in “How do you know…?”) is analogous to “natural cognitive faculties,” what in that alleged process is analogous to sense perception of objects existing independent of one’s awareness? What in that process is analogous to isolating units in one’s awareness by means of differentiation and recognition of similarities? What in that process is analogous to abstraction? What in that process is analogous to applying objective standards to inductive generalization? What in that process is analogous to logically reducing that which is not perceptually self-evident to that which is perceptually self-evident? The Anderson/Plantinga route seems to have no room for these aspects in the knowledge process by “natural cogntive faculties,” and yet we are told that “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” is somehow “analogous” to such faculties.

Suffice it to say, I don’t buy it!

In his paper, Anderson does discuss some concerns about the ITHS thesis, and perhaps I will examine those in a future post. For now, I think this is enough for readers to chew on.

by Dawson Bethrick

1 comment:

Ydemoc said...

Hi Dawson,

No sooner had I started reading your latest than I felt compelled to comment after coming across the following:

"Of course, none of this constitutes an argument; rather, such claims are asserted in place of an argument, much like a slogan or platitude, and has no more substance than 'Four out of five dentists surveyed…'"

And/or, how about "4 out of 5 deists surveyed"?

Anyway, thanks again for yet another entry!