Reason, evidence, god-talk, and trust


I’ve been trying to work on some reviews of books making the case for atheism that have been very interesting and invigorating to me, this past year, but haven’t found the time for more than the odd comment this week; so, that’s what we get here.
Today I’m posting two comments I made on a thread of comments on an article at Massimo Pigliucci’s ever interesting webzine, Scientia Salon [1]. The article is by Daniel Linford, “Do atheists reject the ‘wrong kind of God’? Not likely.” (

Linford’s article confronted a recent trend in theistic arguments to the effect that god cannot be properly addressed in language, and so can only be experienced through mystical experience, revelation, and faith. The strategy here is clear, since such a position effectively denies relevance to either demands for empirical evidence, or for logical coherence and demonstrations frequently made by atheists, most (actually, all) of which are simply unanswerable.

The comments took some interesting turns, since commentators not only included atheists and traditional theists, but those favorable to mysticism as well.

The comments below are responses to two other commentators [2]. Fred Eaker took a positive approach to the issue, claiming that belief in god requires an experience and loving openness, and hence needs no reasoning. Tom Dobrzeniecki took the negative position that god could not be contained in reason, and the incomplete state of the sciences indicates the weakness of reason altogether.

The common thread to both these comments is that theists, especially those of the mystical variety, are actually not one but two demands on our credulity. They not only insist that we believe god exists, but first – without saying so, but rather in the manner of their speaking – there is the demand that we accept their own credibility unquestioningly. So the continuing question is whether the speaker of the language in which faith in an ineffable god has warrant for our faith in him or her such that we can even begin to judge that language reasonably enough to consider such faith as a possible, reasonable choice.
The answer right now appears to be: no.

For the sake of time, I am posting these here with little alteration.

[My first remark to Fred Eaker:
“There are unfortunately a couple problems with what you say (claiming direct experience through love of god). First, while no one can deny this as your experience, it isn’t persuasive – and you want it to be – what you want to say (we’ve seen it often enough), is ‘if you would only open yourself up to god, you would know him and love him as I do!’ Maybe, but I can see no reason to do so, and I have no feeling for it either.
Secondly, while I know there’s no way I can convince you of it, the fact is that we know enough from the neurosciences to be able to say that your feeling here is the manifestation of neurochemical transmitters in the brain. Basically, god-thoughts trigger these transmitters in such a way as to sharply increase your feeling of well-being. This doesn’t say your interpretation is wrong, it might well-be god doing this for you; but there is neither reason nor evidence to confirm that this is so.”

From Eaker’s reply: “(T)his experience of existence falls under the same criterion that the mystics are asking us to experience God. So if you say ‘Prove that God exists,’ I would respond by saying, ‘Prove that you have a subjective experience of existence.'”]

Fred Eaker,
The suggestion that “Prove that god exists” is of the same phrase regime as “prove you have a personal experience” is simply false. The ‘separate minds’ problem is amusing but otherwise lacks purpose or point. We presume the personal experience of others because we recognize them as organisms like ourselves. I may not know precisely how sugar tastes to you, but, barring some physical difference in our taste buds not generally expected in other humans, I have some sense of what you mean by “sweet,” if we are speaking the same language in the same culture. That is how we share personal experience. It may be imprecise, but it is good enough.

“I cannot objectively prove to you that I have a subjective experience -” you can – you have – you wrote that comment. What the heck do you think language is for, anyway?

I’ve always said that personal experience forms a kind of knowledge that ought to be accounted for in epistemology, but that doesn’t liberate it, as knowledge, from the demands reason makes of the knowable. That is why we have semiotic systems by which to communicate personal experience. Signifiers used to demonstrate and validate personal experience can be found all around us. Unfortunately, absolutely none can be found for the existence of the divine, and the only persistently presented evidence of mystical experience is personal report. One doesn’t need to suspect the validity of the experience for the mystic, in order to reject the mystic’s own interpretation, given that there are explanations that can account for the phenomena without recourse to the supernatural.

No non-theist, that I am aware of, is any longer asking for ‘proof’ that god exists – that belongs to the day when people thought the problem could be resolved entirely deductively, and Kant showed that it couldn’t. But as science has acquired enormous explanatory force since then, what we now ask is simply for some evidence – any at all – that such an entity might exist.
And as far as I can tell, the only evidence we get are personal reports – whether from the authors of supposed scriptures, or poetry from mystics, or assurances from theologians. But eye-witness reports have to be confirmed by external evidence; otherwise we are not simply being asked to trust the report, we are being asked to trust the reporter; and not simply on the fact that there was an experience as reported, but the reporter’s interpretation of the report.

Or, to put it bluntly, you are not asking me to trust god; you are asking me to trust your interpretation of your experience. Thus, prior to ‘surrendering myself to god,’ I would first need to surrender my critical thinking to the authority of your interpretation. I reject that. Lacking empirical warrant for your interpretation of your experience, I must reject that, too. [3]

[My first remark to Tom Dobrzeniecki:
“(I)t does not matter if god is amenable to our reason; the question is whether talk about god is amenable to our reason; and since god-talk occurs in language, we have a right to demand that it is.”

From Dobrzeniecki’s reply: “@ejwinner: you wrote, ‘we have a right to demand that (god talk) is amenable to our reason.’
Question: do you assume that everything is encompassed by our reason?”]

Tom Dobrzeniecki,
You not only edited out but ignored the first part of my sentence: “it does not matter if god is amenable to our reason; the question is whether talk about god is amenable to our reason (…).”

Once this is taken account, the proper answer to your question, “do you assume that everything is encompassed by our reason?” is that the question is irrelevant. We are talking about what we do say, and language to be meaningful has to have some structure that can be reasonably interpreted.

Consider these verbal offerings:

Someone tells me, ‘I believe that there is a being about which nothing can be said.’ The grammar of this is clear, but there need be no reply on the topic, because the speaker has basically noticed no further discussion is possible concerning it, s/he is simply making announcement.

Then another speaker says, ‘I believe there is a being about which nothing can be said, and I think you should, too.’ This sentence no longer concerns only the speaker‘s beliefs, it also concerns mine, and it carries with it an implicit request for agreement. Here, social convention impels me to answer. Three replies that, by convention, are most readily available to me are 1) assent; 2) refusal; 3) request for more information.

This latter course has problems, however, in that the speaker has already insisted that no further information can be given. If the speaker replies, ‘if you believe you will feel so much better than you do now,’ depending on my mental state, this may or may not be persuasive, but it provides no new information. Again, the reasoning here is plain, and I would refuse the request.

So, the speaker says, ‘you must trust me, this being exists.’ This is a further complication, because now, if pressed, I must ask for more information, not only about the purported being, but about the speaker’s veracity, and the credibility of any reasoning that could suggest the being’s existence. Yes, here, I ask for some reasoning that would vouchsafe at least the possibility of the being’s existence, as well as give support to any determination of trust in the speaker. But the reasoning will necessarily prove weak, since there is nothing to be said of the being, and the person’s trustworthiness will not be strong enough on its own to warrant assent to belief in an unknown. Giving assent here would indeed involve a ‘leap of faith’ (a faith in the speaker), and one to which I do not feel tempted. So it is also here that I feel it right to request empirical evidence of the claim, thus relieving me of the need for any faith in the speaker’s report, but allowing me to judge the matter myself.

As for the incompleteness of the sciences [4], that is no argument on your side. Within given domains, the sciences do fine. Gray areas are only frontiers for further research – at least, concerning things that do exist and about which we can speak.

Finally, as supplement, I include here a remark I made to Coel Hellier [5], with whom I’ve had some disagreements before, but whose comment was pretty well on target on this one:
[From Coel’s comment:
“The whole point of such apophatic theology is to throw up a smokescreen of verbiage, such that they can pretend that behind the smoke there is substance. The last thing apophatic theologians want to do is discuss the claims on their merits; rather, they are trying to construct a conception of “God” that is quite literally meaningless and therefore unfalsifiable.”

My remark:
you have everything right in your comment. It’s as if one were to pronounce, ‘the hand in my pocket is holding a miraculous object that I can’t even describe; but if I were to take it out to show it to you, it would disappear.’ So while this person seems to be asking for is faith that the object exists, what he/she is really asking is faith in his/her testimony.”

[1] So, I’m posting these comments – because I rather like the writing in them – for any who might drop by this blog, but who don’t follow Scientia Salon.
But really, if you’re not following Scientia Salon, you should consider doing so; and comment there as well.
[2] I also posted a couple comments defending a secular reading of Buddhism, but they didn’t contain much I haven’t written about here before.
[3] Son of Sharecroppers especially liked this comment, so I visited his blog, I suggest a visit – quite beautiful and poetic photography. (It’s Mr. ejwinner, Son of Sharecroppers!)
[4] Tom Dobrzeniecki: “Many atheists believe in physics … can they prove that physics is coherent? That’s a rhetorical question … they cannot.”
[5] Coel recently posted an excellent discussion on the compatilibitist/incompatibilitst debate on his own blog:


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