Thursday, April 19, 2012

God and Neuroscience

This is from the blog Think: Just Do It! It's fascinating issue...


"Research shows that people can be made to have a "religious experience"--or "God experience"--by stimulating their brain using transcranial magnetic stimulation.




One might think that this research goes against arguments for the existence of God that appeal to religious experience. In other words, one could argue as follows:
  1. Religious experience counts as strong evidence for the existence of God only if the sensed-presence experience cannot be produced on demand.
  2. The sensed-presence experience can be produced on demand.
  3. Therefore, religious experience is not strong evidence for the existence of God.
What do you make of this argument? Is it sound?"

16 comments:

Chilpo said...

The first premise is obviously to be discussed.

It presupposes that the evidence for the existence of God must manifest itself independently of any human process (thought, science, and other means) for it to be reliable. That is, if the experience can be produced on (human)demand, then that's no evidence God exists. Why is it so ?

Then, even if God experiences cannot be dissociated from the mind, as it is the case with consciousness, how does one come to the conclusion that God does not exist ? By being a materialist ? God existing in your mind does not imply that it does not exist externally. One could argue that God created this brain area in order for humans to be able to communicate with it / him.

Anyway, as with most of philosophy of religion, the discussion is flawed because "god" is not defined properly.

Anonymous said...

To say of an argument that it is SOUND is to say both that the argument is VALID and that each premise is TRUE.

This argument clearly has a VALID form. The question now resides in whether premise 1 and premise 2 are TRUE.

In regard to premise 1, consider:

My seeing the keyboard in front of me is strong evidence for its existence only if my seeing it in front of me cannot be produced on demand (perhaps by ingesting some hallucinatory substance).

Is this a counterexample to premise 1?

Jesse Steinberg said...

Thanks for commenting.

Anon's example is an interesting one. I'd like to add that I can produce an experience of a keyboard by other means than ingesting some hallucinatory substance. I can look at my keyboard. Even though I can produce the experience of a keyboard on demand by looking at it, looking at it does seem to be strong evidence for its existence. So it's not clear to me why we're letting "produced on demand" do so much work here.

Further, how is Anon's example a counterexample to (1) exactly? It might show that one reason a person might have for thinking that (1) is true isn't such a good reason. And so in that sense it's challenges (1). That is, it might call into question the following principle:

An experience of kind-K counts as strong evidence for the existence of X only if that experience cannot be produced on demand.

But then our discussion leads us to something really interesting. What does the fact that a certain experience can be produced on demand have to do with whether that experience is evidence for a certain claim? And, thinking more about the argument under discussion, why exactly does a religious experience being produced on demand show that such an experience does not count as evidence for the existence of God? If we had a better grip on these issues, then we'd be able more fully explain why (1) ought to be rejected.

I do think (1) is problematic, but I think it's important (and fascinating) to see why.

THINK said...

I am not sure that anon’s counterexample is a counterexample to (1).

I take it that the counterexample is supposed to work as follows:

(a) My seeing the keyboard in front of me is strong evidence for its existence only if my seeing it in front of me cannot be produced on demand. [Assumption for reductio.]
(b) My seeing the keyboard in front of me can be produced on demand (perhaps by ingesting some hallucinatory substance).
(c) But my seeing the keyboard in front of me is strong evidence for its existence.
(d) Therefore, (a) is false.
(e) (a) and (1) are instantiations of the same principle, which says that an experience of kind-K counts as strong evidence for the existence of X only if that experience cannot be produced on demand.
(f) Therefore, (1) is false.

It seems that (c) is doing the heavy lifting in this reductio. However, it seems to me that (c) is a ceteris paribus claim. That is to say, the intuition that (c) is true is grounded in the fact that we take it to be a ceteris paribus claim that excludes the possibility that we are in a skeptical scenario. However, once we take into consideration the possibility that we are in a skeptical scenario (e.g., that we are brains in vats), then (c) is no longer true.

Similarly, in the post’s argument about sensed-presence, we are talking about an experience that is supposed to be produced by supernatural causes. Therefore, (1) is not supposed to be a ceteris paribus claim, i.e., it is not supposed to exclude far-fetched possible causes. I take that to be the difference between (1) and (a), which means that they are not instantiations of the same principle, i.e., (e) is false.

Jesse Steinberg said...

THINK's comments seem spot on to me. I'm curious what those in my M&E class think of this. I'm sure you're all studying for final exams (and/or enjoying this nice weather in Bradford). But hopefully some of you will chime in soon.

Anonymous said...

Well,consider the following keeping in mind that there is a difference between

1) something counting as "strong evidence" and

2) a claim to "know the fact for which there may be something that counts as "strong evidence."

Hearing a knock at my door and my sister's voice saying "Alan, it's Gail. Open the door." is strong evidence for it actually being the case that my sister is knocking at my door and wanting me to open it.

Now, of course it is possible that I am having an auditory hallucination or that someone is impersonating my sister or that I am a brain in a vat.

Based on the above, one might say that I don't therefore "know" that Gail is at my door. But, I think I can admit this and still hold that what I heard is strong evidence for her being at my door.

What this implies is that something can count as "strong evidence" and SOMETIMES fail to be "cnclusive evidence."

THINK said...

Anon,

I suppose we are using the term “strong evidence” differently. How strong does the evidence have to be (without being conclusive)?

It seems reasonable to say that the sensed-presence experience does not count as strong evidence for the existence of God because the God Helmet experiment is a sort of skeptical scenario by design, since it is supposed to recreate under experimental conditions an experience that is alleged to occur “in the wild.” Once the possibility of a skeptical scenario is taken into consideration, what usually counts as strong evidence no longer does. For example, seeing an image in the mirror usually counts as strong evidence unless I am in a mirror fun house. Hearing a sound usually counts as strong evidence unless I am under the influence of some sort of hallucinogen.

So, in the case of your auditory hallucination, we might say that you do not know that Gail is at your door. But it seems reasonable to also say that your hearing a voice that says “It’s Gail. Open the door” is not strong evidence that it is Gail at your door if we are taking into consideration the possibility that you are in a skeptical scenario.

Anonymous said...

Dear THINK:

It seems to me that there is a continuum of evidence, for example, from none, to meager, to weak, to satisfactory, to strong, to conclusive, definitive, impeccable, unimpeachable, etc. In ordinary pursuits, we can make these distinctions. Criteria for these levels of evidence may come into play in science (as we perform experiments to confirm or disconfirm hypotheses based on probability theory). Criteria for levels of evidence also are used in a court of law as the evidence is weighed to decide beyond a reasonable doubt about guilt.

The criteria at work here are things like: "p value is less than .001" and "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Now, the question is, does all this talk about skepticism call into question our everyday practices in regard to examining evidence in science and law?

Well, one answer that I have heard from scientists is that you can include the probability that skepticism is true (very low) and still get an equation that allows for determination of the strength of evidence. An unusual answer indeed!

Again, what's going on here is that there seems to be a distinction between "strength of evidence" and "knowledge of what the evidence is for." Why can't I keep my view about strength of evidence while granting that, in the end, it may not be possible on skeptical grounds to claim knowledge? After all, strength of evidece is about level of probability.

Anonymous said...

The picture and condition of philosphy today... imagine Philo making this argument to Cleanthes. I don't see how this confirms or denies any of Dr. Stanley's sermons.

THINK said...

“After all, strength of evidence is about level of probability.”

Precisely! Given the God Helmet experiment, the probability of p (=I’ve had a sensed-presence experience, so God exists) seems to drop significantly because the experience can now be produced on demand.

In other words, what’s a more likely cause of the sensed-presence experience: God or electromagnetic stimuli?

Anonymous said...

Well, now we get to a different point in the discussion. Take the question:

"What is more likely to have been the cause of the sensed experience: 1) something strange happening in a person's brain; or 2) a spiritual being acting as a causal agent in bringing about the experience?

How would we actually go about determining if the latter were the case? If there would be no way to verify that a spiritual being produced the expereince, then one could hardly talk about the liklihood of it. This would then reflect on the strength of evidence issue is a different way.

Anonymous said...

There aren't more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dream't of in your philosophy?

Anonymous said...

Brave new scepticism that would ex-communicate Hegel... I think the problem is that you are applying (logic) reason, which only operates on relations and substances. A brain is a substance; however, consciousness is a mode. Belief and doubt are sentiments. An appeal to cognition here is misplaced.

THINK said...

Anon wrote:
“Well, now we get to a different point in the discussion. Take the question:

‘What is more likely to have been the cause of the sensed experience: 1) something strange happening in a person's brain; or 2) a spiritual being acting as a causal agent in bringing about the experience?’

How would we actually go about determining if the latter were the case? If there would be no way to verify that a spiritual being produced the experience, then one could hardly talk about the likelihood of it. This would then reflect on the strength of evidence issue is a different way.”

First, (1) is hardly a fair characterization of the God Helmet experiment. But let’s put that aside.

Why is it that we cannot have evidence for or against (2)? I don’t know what you mean by “verify,” but here is evidence against (2):

(i) If (2) is true, then the sensed-presence experience cannot be produced under experimental conditions.
(ii) The sensed-presence experience can be produced under experimental conditions.
(iii) Therefore, (2) is (probably) not true.

Also, even if we cannot “verify” a claim, why is it that we cannot talk about its likelihood of being true? For example, perhaps I cannot “verify” the claim that “there are invisible goblins under my bed,” but I can be pretty confident that the probability of this claim is quite low.

Anonymous said...

Dear THINK:

Do you have any idea of what it would be like to find out that there WERE invisable goblins under your bed or that there WERE NOT invisable goblins under your bed; what would count as evidence or proof they they were there or not there?

If you say "Yes," then you are saying that it is POSSIBLE to verify your claim one way or the other. And in such a case, we can talk about invisable goblins.

On the other hand, if you say "No," then you are saying that there is no way to verify it one way or the other. In such a case, it is not clear what you really mean by "invisable goblins."

What I am suggesting is that if you can't say what it would be like for something to be the case or not be the case, then you are not talking about something meaningful.

Your thoughts?

KelseyMilliron said...

I do not think that this is a sound argument by any means. Yes the girl in the video may have thought she had seen things but this is not to say that that is why others have seen or experienced God before. Just because someone can screw with some electromagnetic fields and make someone think they saw something it does not give any proof that God does not exist. The cases in which people had seen or heard God they were different than the experience that Dominika went through. I do not understand how anyone can think that God does not exist based on this video. This video also did not show the prior mental state of this girl, also she did not say that it was God, I also do not understand the conclusion in this. Is Persinger trying to say that churches and other holy sacred places are filled with electromagnetic fields that only make people think that the feel or see God. I am not buying into this at all.