Friday, November 17, 2006

Belief in God, Rationality, and Irrationality

Last month, I stated that belief in God is irrational. That got me wondering why I believe in God. How did I arrive at that conclusion? And why the Christian God instead of another? I concluded that my belief was rooted in personal experience of God's presence -- one that confirmed himself as the Christian God.

This struck me as empirical knowledge, so I wrote it in a short post. To this, Keith McIlwain replied:

You're assuming that personal experience is objective, but it is not.

One definition of "empirical" is, "capable of being verified or disproved by observation or experiment."

The existence of God is experienced by different people in different ways; some would say not at all. God's existence, while I personally believe it to be absolutely true, cannot be objectively verified (or disproved, much to the chagrin of atheists).

This is an incorrect definition of empiricism. What Keith is defining is the Scientific Method, which is a subset of empiricism, but not the entirety.

I think that knowledge exists in three kinds:
1. logic
2. empiricism
3. faith

The first two I am labeling as "rationality". Now, assume Assertion A:

I saw Richard Hall run across my front lawn this morning wearing nothing but a smile.

Assertion A is not arrived at through formal logic. And it would only be arrived at by faith if, let us say, I said it to Dave Warnock and he believed it, although he did not witness the incident itself nor is familiar with Richard engaging in this activity. That leaves open only the possibility of empiricism. Under Keith's definition, it would only be empirical knowledge if I could verify it through observation and experimentation. But unless, like Jeff, one has a front lawn dotted with surveillance cameras and land mines, it will be impossible to verify Assertion A.

Yet the person who says Assertion A in full honesty nonetheless knows that it is true. It is not faith nor logic, so what kind of knowledge is it?

It is empiricism. What makes knowledge of an empirical nature is not that it can be verified, but that it has been experienced.

The following are empirical statements:
1. Water boils at 212 degrees.
2. Jonathon Norman has blue skin.
3. My dog just scratched himself.
4. An angel of the Lord appeared to me.
5. I love my wife.

Some of these can be verified through observation and experiment (1&2), but some cannot (3, 4&5). But even 1 and 2 are not known at first through observation and experiment. If this were not so, you would not be able to make these statements unless you had actually boiled water and examined Jonathon's skin under laboratory test conditions. Rather, we have either experienced the event ourselves or accepted the experiences of others (e.g. a science textbook).

Some of these statements are conducive to the level of verifiability of the Scientific Method, but all are empirical statements and are first known through experience. It is not even enough to say that they are known through sensory data. Statement 5, whether it is accurate or inaccurate (it is accurate), is nonetheless known.

Religious experiences are therefore, be they sensory or nonsensory, known. That is, they have been experienced. To those who have experienced them, the existence of that experience is undeniable. Religious experiences are thus empirical knowledge. This may not be sufficient reason for belief for anyone else (as my original argument proves), but it is sufficient reason for those who have experienced them.

1. Theism is rational for those who have had religious experiences.
2. Theism is irrational for those who have not had religious experiences.

Here is a more detailed explanation:


Anonymous said...

I'm still trying to understand what you've just laid out. It's Friday afternoon, so my mind isn't that sharp right now.
I'll try again later. Have a good weekend.

Brian said...

I think this is kind of a "ships passing in the night" moment. Keith's definition of empirical is *one* of the correct versions, and is commonly used in the social sciences. I think his point was that while you can have an experience, it is impossible for it to be externally verified. That doesn't mean it isn't real to you, or isn't based on your experience, but I can't validate it. If I claim to have seen the flying spaghetti monster, that experience may have been empirical to me (in that I experienced it through observation), but it is not verifiable. This is neither here nor there, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

That's right. Your experience can be verified by you, but not by anyone else. That's why objectivity regarding one's personal experience isn't possible...and why Scripture and Tradition (and some would say Reason) typically get priority when the elements of the Quadrilateral are ranked (I suppose that opens up another can of worms!).

Andy B. said...

Furthermore, one's experiences can be tricky to interpret. Richard Hall may have been wearing some kind of loincloth, but one's subconscious desire to see Richard in the buff may have tricked one's mind into remembering him that way. ... just for example.

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute, Jonathon Norm is blue. I have seen him!

John said...

The Flying Spaghetti Monster (may you be touched by His Noodly Appendage) can be verified by pirate attack data.

But notice that the Richard Hall event, though it was percieved by the senses, cannot be externally verified. So if this is not empirical data, what is it? What makes me think that I saw him?