Thursday, May 28, 2009

Suppose God is Subjective. And ... ?

Once again, I've issued a comment on another blog only to edit and reproduce it on this precious, precious blog. This time, the point of departure is the claim by a visitor to Rust Belt Philosophy that

religion or God is a subjective experience that can’t be shared with anyone else, and that is why it has nothing to do with science.
I would be interested to hear the commenter or anyone offer the 'cash value' of the claim that god is a subjective experience. I've encountered that claim and like-sounding ones plenty of times but I'm not sure where it gets us. Frankly, I wonder if it ultimately delivers anything apart from an escape clause from challenges to the truth or falseness of the proposition that god exists.

Suppose we grant that god is a purely subjective experience. Isn't the same true of dreams? Is god a particular kind of dream? Perhaps, on this view, god is among the archetypal dreams we humans tend to have, along the lines of falling anxiety or the one where you type a really long comment and realize, even as you're typing it, that no one in his right mind will ever read it, and yet you can't seem to stop yourself? (Everyone else has that one too, right?)

If so, isn't it a worthwhile question to investigate why this god dream takes the precise forms it takes -- e.g., people have it while awake, its particulars often mingle with 'regular' dreams, people routinely exchange messages with it, or believe they are doing so. Significantly -- or so it seems to me -- people across time, circumstance, and culture consistently mistake it for something non-subjective, and get so entranced with it that they devote considerable resources to it, up to and including their own lives and the lives of others.

Considering all of the above -- and yet staying within the hypothesis that it is merely a subjective phenomenon -- don't we have the stuff of a profoundly rich scientific investigation, or rather a thick bundle of them?

Which is to say, as with dreams proper, surely the questions and answers are only getting started with the assertion that god and religious experience are purely subjective. The most basic grasp of the human condition would be lacking if it did not realize that dreams are subjective projections of the mind, rather than the product of external agencies (as has been believed); but that insight only opens the door to countless new inquiries, many still uncharted or poorly understood in the case of dreams, but surely not scientific non-starters in virtue of their being subjective. So it could be reasonably expected vis-a-vis the finding that god is subjective.

To name only several more possibilities: What are the evolutionary origins of god-as-subjective experience? What is the role of this subjective experience in childhood development? Are there varying genetic predispositions? What causes the experiences? What kinds of psychological, cognitive, and/or physiological states give rise to them? Are there different kinds of these experiences that we might fruitfully distinguish based on minute observation of physical correlates? Do men and women, young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, experience them the same way, with the same frequency, etc.? Do animals share versions of these experience? What effects do they have, if any, on the rest of the experiencing consciousness?

Are there particular brain disorders that alter -- enhance, suppress, intensify, whatever -- the subjective experiences in question? For example, in the world of dreams proper, narcolepsy is, according to the best available evidence, a condition of brain chemistry and physiology that, among other things, gives rise to particular kinds of dreams that non-narcoleptics never, or perhaps only rarely, experience. Might there be an analogous condition that generates subjective religious experiences?

In keeping with the spirit of Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, the assertion that god is subjective is a thoroughfare to a profound scientific program, not a barrier separating god from science.

1 comment:

Brian Moon said...

When, in the past, I have reached the point in the atheist vs. Christian debate where the Christian has no other place to go, and finally reaches what they obviously feel is the ultimate checkmate (or draw game) of "I just feel God's presence", my normal response (if I want to pursue the discussion further) has been to point out all the many ways that subjective feelings can be wrong.

I list example after example; the Earth "feels" solid, it "feels" like the Sun is the one that's moving across the sky, that time that they felt as though voting for George Bush would make it feel good to be an American again, and so on.

Even if my esteemed discussion partner agreed with me that yes, in those particular cases the feeling is wrong and led them to an incorrect conclusion, still they will not budge from their assertion that they feel God's presence. It's vastly frustrating, in many ways, but I do tend to get a tiny victory from the look of discomfort on their faces as they realize just how small a shield "I feel God's presence" actually is.

I'm just saying all this because I think that next time, if there is a next time, I shall keep in mind your point, and see if perhaps I can at least reach that part of the discussion where my esteemed discussion partner realizes just how small a defense they are left with sooner. It will save both of us some time.