Why 'I Feel It In My Heart' Is a Terrible Justification for God's Existence
By Greta Christina, AlterNet
"I just feel God in my heart. I sense his presence. Why should I doubt that any more than I doubt my senses?"
As I've written before: Most of the arguments I encounter for religion are dreadful. They're not even arguments. They're attempts to make arguments go away: attempts to deflect legitimate questions; bigoted attacks on atheists' characters; fuzzy confusions between evidence and wishful thinking; the moral equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling, "I can't hear you, I can't hear you!" Or worse.
But some arguments for religion and God are real arguments. They're not good arguments -- but they are arguments, sincere attempts to offer evidence supporting the God hypothesis. So I want to do these arguments the honor of engaging with them... and point out why, exactly, they don't hold water.
Today's argument: "I feel it in my heart."
"I just sense God intuitively. (Or the soul, or the metaphysical world, or whatever.) I feel it. His existence seems obvious to me, in the same way that the existence of the Earth under my feet seems obvious. Why should I doubt that perception -- any more than I doubt my perception of the Earth?"
This is a tricky one to argue against. Not because it's a good argument -- it's not -- but because it's a singularly stubborn one. Religious experiences can be very vivid, very powerful. I had them myself, back when I had religious beliefs. (I still have them, in fact: I just don't interpret them as religious anymore.) And they can feel real -- almost as real as physical perception, in some ways even more so. What's more, this argument is singularly resistant to reason... since, almost by definition, it's not very interested in reason.
But here's the problem. Well, one of many problems.
Our hearts and our minds can't automatically be trusted.
As vivid as the experience of our hearts and minds can feel, if we're going to treat it as evidence in support of a hypothesis, we can't give it any more weight than we would anyone else's experience. Intuition is important, but it's notoriously unreliable and subject to bias. We have to step back from it, and view it like we'd view anyone else's experience. And when we look at human experience in general, we see that our hearts and minds can't automatically be trusted.
For starters: Lots of people have personal experiences of God. And those experiences are wildly different. Even completely contradictory. Some people experience a loving God who only wants us to be happy and take care of one another -- others experience a vengeful God who rigidly judges every petty detail of our lives. Some people experience a nebulous World-Soul God, a fluid spirit animating all life -- others experience a personal God, with a distinct personality and strong opinions and feelings. (Opinions etc. that, again, vary wildly from believer to believer.) Etc. The feelings people have in their hearts about God are almost as varied as the people having them. And these feelings change significantly throughout history.
If all these people were perceiving the same God... why would that be true?
That's not true with our perception of the physical world. When we look at a tree, we can all pretty much agree about its basic features: how tall it is, what color it is, whether it still has leaves on it, etc. We might disagree about its taxonomy, or who it belongs to, or whether it's prettier than another tree. But for the most part, our perceptions of the basic properties of the physical world are remarkably consistent. Especially when compared to our "perceptions" of the spiritual world. Our perceptions of the physical world are pretty consistent. Our "perceptions" of the spiritual world are all over the map.
All of which strongly suggests that, whatever people are experiencing when they experience God, it's not something they're perceiving in the external world. It's something their brains are making up...
Monday, April 26, 2010
The God Question
There was a really thought provoking article posted on AlterNet on Saturday. Here's a portion of it.