art christianity

the ‘other’ hitchens

Peter Hitchens Author Interview–The Rage Against God from Gorilla Poet Productions on Vimeo.

14 replies on “the ‘other’ hitchens”

Well, I never! Particularly liked the thought that it is often the subtleties of life that have the deepest impact. Very intriguing. Many thanks.

If you read what Peter has written about the subject, you will quickly note that his argument for the existence of god is very much based on a typical transformative experience he had… in his specific case the beauty of a painting. To him, this is proof enough for a virgin birth of a tripartite god whose earthly body can walk on water. Not a two part god nor a four but specifically a three part god. Why, heaven only knows because there isn’t a shred of evidence to back up the belief… including the painting for Peter, a waterfall for Francis Collins, and a veritable host of very worldly experiences for countless others.

To a scientist in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, who can duplicate the same kind of transformative experience by use of a specially built helmet that creates highly focused magnetic waves that can be aimed at very specific parts of the brain, Peter’s experience is evidence of something happening, subtle but highly important to him, but his conclusion about what caused it has been attributed incorrectly.

The transformative experience occurs in the brain but is often explained as a detection, proof, evidence, of an ‘outside’ agency in action by the person who has had this powerful experience. This explanation is highly unlikely to be correct because there is no corroborating evidence of or for the outside agency. Because we can duplicate the experience reliably by altering brain function through magnetic inteference, there is very compelling evidence that the identified agency does not reside somewhere in the aether or in a metaphysical realm but in the bicameral brain itself. For this we have evidence that is testable, repeatable, falsifiable, and consistent against which the god hypothesis has nothing but misapplied conjecture.

So let’s be truthful. If we honestly wish to understand the transformative experience, then understanding the process by which it occurs seems to me to be productive for yielding knowledge rather than jumping without intellectual integrity for a theological conclusion that furthers knowledge not one iota. After all, understanding the transformative experience will not be furthered by searching the cosmos or alternate realities in other dimensions for some supernatural deity strikingly unsuitable for our ways and means of knowing; rather, delving into better understanding neuroscience and brain function has much promise. As theologically inconvenient as it may be to some, that is where the evidence leads us.

your language is very slippery there, tildeb,
neuroscientists don’t duplicate an “experience”, they only stimulate neurological phenomena which resembles the neurological phenomena correlating the original ‘experience’.

The ‘experience’ of eating a cheeseburger is accompanied by neurological phenomena. To lesser/greater degrees of accuracy, this neurological activity can be reproduced, but clearly this says nothing at all about the reality of the original cheeseburger experience or any of its components (i.e. the cheeseburger external to the cheeseburger eater).

But there is evidence for the cheeseburger, evidence of ingesting something, evidence of digestion, evidence of waste. If all we had was brain activity, then your analogy might have some merit.

As for the language, when all one has is the subjective experience and one can duplicate the same experience, then one has pretty good evidence of where the experience is really taking place. The cause cannot be attributed to some outside agency unless and until evidence is provided that such an outside agency is a contributing factor. So it’s not the language that’s slippery; it’s the attribution of assigning agency to something for which there isn’t any evidence. And that’s why I write that the evidence leads us to one place only: brain function.

tiledeb, the point is that you don’t *know* ahead of time that “all one has is the subjective experience”. Proving a negative (‘all one has’) and all that…

Proving a negative? No, no, no. It’s not up to me to prove that all one has is the subjective experience; it’s up to anyone claiming otherwise to provide evidence of some other cause. By failing that task, the attribution you make that the cause lies anywhere when all the available evidence leads only to the subjective experience is simply not justified because it is informed by… nothing. The hint you gave about proving a negative should have alerted you that you were backing an unjustified assertion.

To make another imperfect analogy, this feels like someone trying to argue that plants grow from water and soil nutrients only and that there’s no proof that plants’ ‘sun experiences’ are anything other than functions of the plant growth phenomena, aided, as we know from the ‘evidence’, by water/soil-nutrients.

The analogy would be good if there was no evidence: that the sun existed, that the sun caused a chemical reaction in the plant, that the temperature variation had no discernible bearing on the plants, that the was no measurable change in the movement of the plant relative to the sun’s direction, and so on. We know about the importance of the sun not because the plant had some kind of unmeasurable self-reported ‘spiritual’ experience of something called ‘the sun’ but because we have evidence of the sun’s importance in various measurable, testable, repeatable, falsifiable way. That’s what informs our knowledge – evidence – whereas faith – belief without evidence – provides us no means to gain knowledge of any kind. An experience relates that something has happened, but how we attribute its cause requires more than belief without evidence if it is to be presented as knowledge.

As I said, the analogy is imperfect; and your outlining of how it falls down, doesn’t address the point of the analogy – demonstrating non-x in terms of y.

And we probably shouldn’t bother delving into the finer points of epistemology, what it takes to ‘know’ something, and the difference between ‘evidence’ and ‘belief’. I’ve certainly not got time for it this week anyway.

My point, Dale, isn’t to delve into the finer points of epistemology but reiterate the importance we grant to evidence. It is evidence that leads us to knowledge in general and evidence that leads us to knowledge about the transformative ‘spiritual’ experience in particular… the experience upon which so many people base their religious faith. The evidence leads us straight to the brain and not to some outside agency. The tack you take – that we can’t know there isn’t some outside agency – is a non starter because, as you have pointed out, the difficulty lies in proving a negative. But that doesn’t excuse anyone from avoiding his or her intellectual responsibility to what is true, what is knowable, what is informed by evidence, by attributing some outside agency to the experience when no evidence supports that attribution. In fact, such an attribution overlooks and ignores evidence that directly counters it. As Peter Hitchen’s other brother so eloquently says: What can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.

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