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.

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...


  1. The Hindus have the answer. These many perceptions of God are of Ishwara, the personal perception of God and unique to the individual.

    The sensing feeling of God in the heart, not with form is Atman. What they all resolve to is one true Godhead, Brahman, who is beyond the mind and reason.

    So, let the writer consider that, he has argued ok until now, but he has only moved a rung up the ladder in his quest.

    A quest that does ultimately end with no God, but ... one that also resolves to no you, no mind, no rational explanations, just a thusness - that, just to confuse the issue, any people call God.

  2. * last sentence 'many people' not 'any people'.

  3. i agree with ta wan... since my view is that "god" contains all possibilities, it's perfectly natural to experience contradictions in perception of "god"... this article is for people who think that god has a fixed persona.
    his argument is flawed in that the more specific the term, the more specific our mind's image is. for example, the image of "pencil" brings up a specific image... most people think of a yellow #2 pencil. the image of "house" is more general, so people might imagine their house growing up, an apartment complex, a mud hut, a trailer, a suburban house with a yard and a tree, a mansion, etc... because of the variation in experiences, no one proclaims that "houses do not exist!"
    variations get even more widespread when you throw in vague terms such as "love"... everyone's perception and experience with love is different, yet love exists! what about vague concepts like "technology," "civilization," "beauty," etc... are they also "made up" concepts just because everyone experiences them differently?
    i would argue that "god" is the most vague term of all and so obviously perception of "god" is going to vary considerably!

  4. "Our hearts and our minds can't automatically be trusted."

    I would ask what else is there to trust? What else does one have? The issue comes as both Ta Wan and Iktomi note in focusing on a small piece of what we experience and assume that is all there is. Our experience creates a great filter for our perception and the challenge is to grow our perception beyond the restrictions our experience creates for us.
    Your example of the tree can illustrate. Our experience will tell most of us it is what is named tree in our language, some more experienced will know it as an oak tree and even more experienced will know it as a red oak or water oak. Some with more insight/experience will know it as "an oak process" of acorn, oak, acorn. All of these perceptions are true as far as they go and each is only manifest in the mind. Each mind can experience the truth in greater or lesser degrees and it is no different with our perceptions of the 'spiritual'

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