Monday, October 10, 2005

Varieties of Scientific Experience

I must take issue with a Professor of Psychology at Harvard, who is, according to his bio note, "generally considered the world's foremost authority in the fields of affective forecasting and the fundamental attribution error."

Writing in the web site The Edge, Professor Daniel Gilbert argues in an article titled "The Vagaries of Religious Experience" that belief in God is an attribution error: people attribute to God experiences that cannot be shown to have anything other than a natural -- or, if you like, chance -- cause.

Gilbert notes that "people don't believe in God simply because they are told to by their elders, but because they are compelled to by their own experience. William James understood that religious belief grows out of human exprience, and he urged scientists to investigate the experiences that spawned it ... ."

Gilbert thinks science would be investigating a phantom, though.

The most fundamental principle of science is that beliefs must be predicated on empirical evidence — things that everyone can see, touch, taste, and measure — and in more than two thousand years of recorded history, no one has yet produced a shred of empirical evidence for the existence of God.
Gilbert wants to debunk the currently highly controversial idea of intelligent design. The basic concept of intelligent design, he says, is the "watchmaker analogy" first proposed by the naturalist William Paley in 1802. If we happened to find a watch lying on the ground, Paley said, "the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker -- that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use."

Tosh, says Gilbert.
... [T]here are at least two problems with this explanation. First, explanations that rely on the inexplicable are not explanations at all. They have the form of explanations, but they do not have the content. Yet, psychology experiments reveal that people are often satisfied by empty form. For instance, when experimenters approached people who were standing in line at a photocopy machine and said, "Can I get ahead of you?" the typical answer was no. But when they added to the end of this request the words "because I need to make some copies," the typical answer was yes. The second request used the word "because" and hence sounded like an explanation, and the fact that this explanation told them nothing that they didn't already know was oddly irrelevant.
The second problem with Paley's argument, Gilbert says, is that "highly ordered phenomena can and do emerge from random processes."
If we toss a coin for long enough, we eventually observe some highly ordered strings such as "head, head, head, head, head, head" or "head, tail, head, tail, head, tail." Statisticians have sophisticated techniques that can help determine whether a particular pattern of coin flips is so unlikely that it (like Paley's watch) can only be explained by a non-random process. But research in psychology has shown that people have rather poor intuitions in this regard, and that they tend to mistake the products of random processes for the products of non-random processes but not the other way around.
He offers other examples of the mind's tendency to "seek explanations where none are needed." I recommend reading the whole article. He concludes: "But [science] cannot tell us whether there is a force or entity or idea beyond our ken that deserves to be known as God. What we can say is that the universe is a complex place, that events within it often seem to turn out for the best, and that neither of these facts requires an explanation beyond our own skins."

Within its own terms, Gilbert's conclusion is sound enough. The fantastical complexity of the phenomenal world, although it may fill us with wonder and awe, cannot prove that it was created by intelligence. But I question whether Gilbert is really discussing God at all in this article. In assuming that God is "a force or entity or idea" he is unconsciously stamping his materialistic scientific world view on a different order of being, the spiritual order.

Although Gilbert quotes William James (and his title is a play on James's Varieties of Religious Experience), he doesn't seem to understand what James was on about. The kinds of experiences James urged science to investigate were not just different from ordinary exprience: they were a different kind of experience. Certainly they far transcended notions of an ultra-large, ultra-smart inventor of a designer universe.

There is a science of spirit.

Rudolf Steiner put it this way:
If we get no further than natural science we arrive at the judgment or belief that a stringent science is only possible within the sense world, that it cannot rise to the eternal. If we take up the science of spirit, we know why the natural scientist has to say this if he does not get beyond the position of natural science.

But by developing our normal consciousness, by laying bare the spiritual forces slumbering in the soul, we recognize that man can penetrate into the eternal of his own being, into what is really immortal in himself, for this immortal part of him, in fact, makes its own existence known itself. The red color of the rose does not have to be proved. The spirit in us that goes through birth and death also testifies to its own existence when we are able to observe it.
Notice the quite scientific language: " ... when we are able to observe it." He is not speaking of interpretating the results of coin tossing on however sophisticated a plane. Steiner means spirit as an experience, and the implication is that spiritual states -- and ultimately God -- can be known directly, although not with our everyday senses.

Steiner's system of transforming consciousness so that it can apprehend spiritual reality is of course only one of many devised throughout human history, not to mention those instances of apparently spontaneous transformation known in the Christian tradition as "grace." When Gilbert says that "
in more than two thousand years of recorded history, no one has yet produced a shred of empirical evidence for the existence of God," he has a very limited idea of what constitutes empirical evidence.

The core teachings of the Hindu system are a highly scientific method for lifting the mind out of its ordinary consciousness into a state where it can experience spiritual truth as directly -- more directly, actually -- as the senses perceive matter. That system, as expressed in the Upanishads and even more directly in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, is no philosophical speculation.* Patanjali in particular is utterly empirical: do this, and this, and this, he says, and you will experience Brahman (God).

The Christian tradition has its own system of contemplation, which reached its peak in the Middle Ages; it was designed to lead aspirants to mystical union with God. Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism describes the process and the resulting experiences in great (sometimes tiresome) detail. Every religion has at least a niche for self-transformation leading to knowledge of God; even currently benighted Islam has a place for the Sufi order, which seeks to unite man and Allah in a loving ecstasy.

So, with respect to Professor Gilbert, who is no doubt a fine experimental psychologist as that is understood in the academic world, he has placed empiricism in a vessel too small to contain it. When he says that "
the universe is a complex place, that events within it often seem to turn out for the best, and that neither of these facts requires an explanation beyond our own skins," it is only a concept of God he finds surplus to requirements -- not the direct experience of God that can be attained, at least in some degree, through certain replicable scientific "experiments" that countless people have performed down the ages. Perhaps this comes under the heading of an attribution error.

* In the 1940s, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Swami Prabhavananda, Gerald Heard, and others tried to take the essence of Hindu spiritual science and re-cast it for Westerners under the heading of Vedanta. Unfortunately, in my view, the movement never got much traction; also, in my view, Huxley over-interpreted Indian teachings in terms of his own biases, turning them into a rather dualistic and Puritanical doctrine. Still, there is quite a bit that is worthwhile in the Vedanta canon.

1 comment:

FreeThinker said...

I'd love to see some "scientific" evidence of ANY supernatural being or supernatural power.