Thursday, September 10, 2009

Atheism and Conspiracy Theories

On this eighth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks there are still plenty of people who would rather believe that it was an enormous conspiracy carried out by the US government or Jews or whatever. Such claims are, of course, completely ridiculous, not to mention deeply offensive. The best one-stop shop debunking them is Screw Loose Change and the best essay doing the same is the one published by Popular Mechanics. Other refutations, more in line with the seriousness these theories deserve, have been done by Cracked and South Park. I place 9/11 conspiracy theories on the same intellectual level as theories that the Moon landings were fake or that the Holocaust didn't really happen.

In a recent debate with Alvin Plantinga, Daniel Dennett claimed that belief in God is also this absurd. I would argue that it actually goes the other way: atheism is, in a sense, a conspiracy theory. I'm not referring here to the ridiculous claim that Jesus never existed. Of course, that is a conspiracy theory, but I'm thinking of the more basic claim of atheism: that God does not exist, that there is no supernatural, that the natural world is all that exists.

I say atheism is a conspiracy theory in a sense because there are important senses in which it is not. Thinking that all the theistic arguments fail or that the problems of theism outweigh those of atheism does not make one a conspiracy theorist. God's existence is not blindingly obvious, so to compare those who disbelieve in Him to those who think there is a secret cabal of evil Jews running the world is, in many ways, inappropriate. So I don't mean to imply that atheism is on a par with conspiracy theories in general; only when looked at in a particular way.

The sense in which atheism is a conspiracy theory is with regards to religious experience. Throughout human history people have had experiences of "something" beyond the physical world. In fact, this is one of the most common experiences that human beings have. The atheist thesis would require us to believe that virtually all of these experiences are completely illusory. I find this about as plausible as claiming that our experiences of the physical world are illusory. Of course there are differences: everyone experiences the physical world while not everyone has religious experiences; the physical world imposes itself on us constantly, while religious experiences are usually temporary; etc. Nevertheless, the sense of the supernatural, of a "beyond," can impose itself upon us to a much greater degree than the physical world.

Some might object that atheists are not positing any actual conspirators, so to call it a conspiracy theory is misleading. However 1) atheists claim our experiences of the supernatural are simply by-products of how our brains evolved. Evolution is responsible for our having these experiences and thinking they're veracious when they're actually not. So evolution is functioning, at least metaphorically, as a conspirator, even though it lacks something that most other conspiracy theories lack -- mindful intent. 2) My focus is not on the cause of the conspiracy theory but on the effect. Atheists, by claiming that religious experiences are a widespread illusion, are making the same claim as other conspiracy theories: 9/11 wasn't what it seemed to be; the Moon landings weren't what they seemed to be, President Kennedy's assassination wasn't what it seemed to be, etc. Of course, many things aren't what they seem, but to simply dismiss the experiences of billions of people as illusory seems no more reasonable than to dismiss all the eyewitness reports that the Pentagon was struck by a large airplane and assert it was a guided missile instead.

Another possible objection is that religious experiences are radically divergent and contradictory, and this should make us skeptical of their veracity. I would argue that 1) the disagreements have been exaggerated. There are, of course, differing aspects of them and even contradictions, but there is also much more agreement than atheists are often willing to admit. 2) The fact that everyone tells the same story (that there is something beyond the physical world) is more significant than the disagreement of the details. It's therefore strange to claim that the answer must lie in precisely the opposite direction. When eyewitnesses give contradictory accounts of a car accident, we are not justified in believing that no car accident took place. 3) So at most the differences between these experiences would justify skepticism toward a particular account, but not to the phenomenon as a whole. 4) Again, this objection would apply equally to our experiences of the physical world. There are accounts of physical phenomena that neither I nor anyone I know has personally experienced. Such accounts can even seem to contradict the phenomena I have experienced. It would not be rational for me to conclude that all accounts of the physical world are therefore bogus, and all the experiences of it illusory.

Because I can, I'll end with a quote by C. S. Lewis.

If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)


berenike said...

But there is a secret cabal of evil Jews running the world. They have a website.

Timothy Mills said...

I can see where you're coming from with this, and the parallel you describe seems sound.

The general atheist attitude as I understand it (being an atheist) is that the "common experience" you're referring to is a cognitive or perceptual illusion (of which optical illusions are another well-known subset). In optical illusions, our mind reports a particular impression, but careful examination of the image reveals something at odds with that impression (ie, the lines are actually the same length, or the squares are actually the same shade). The impression is common across all or most people.

Following your reasoning, therefore, I think you would have to say that the claim that (say) the lines are actually the same length is a conspiracy theory in much the same way that the atheist explanation of religious experience is a conspiracy theory.

Jim S. said...

Hi Timothy, thanks for your comment. You point to optical illusions, and suggest this would be a conspiracy theory in the same way as I'm claiming atheism is. I disagree because I don't the parallel is close enough. Rather, the parallel would be if someone pointed to optical illusions and then suggested that this proved that all sensory experiences are illusory. Since our brains apparently have the capacity to trick us into having sensory experiences that do not correspond to reality, there is no need to go beyond this in explaining the experiences we have that make us think there is an external world.

So, in other words, pointing to the fact that some of our sensory experiences are illusory does not support the claim that all of them are illusory. In the same way, arguing that some of our religious experiences are illusory does not support the claim that all of them are illusory. If you think it's too much to contrast religious experiences with sensory experiences, then just compare them with a particular sense. For example, since we have some visual hallucinations, can we then conclude that all of them are hallucinations, and that there is no such faculty as sight?

The answer to this is not merely "no" but "that's insane." To seriously doubt that all of our sensory experiences, or all of our visual experiences, are illusory could only be suggested by a madman and/or a philosopher. Such suggestions would be conspiracy theories and should not be taken seriously. But claiming that all the religious experiences people have had throughout human history have never had an object seems to me to have the exact same problems and the exact same level of plausibility.

Timothy Mills said...

This depends on what you mean by "religious experience". You suggest that it is a distinct and coherent sense, like sight: there is a category of experiences or sensations that people have, all of which point in a particular direction: the existence of a non-material reality.

I would counter by saying that religious experiences (those experiences that people interpret as pointing to a non-material reality) are a subset of a more general category - let's call it "transcendent experiences". Now, perhaps all religious experiences are transcendent experiences. But not all transcendent experiences are religious: I have had powerful episodes which could only be called transcendent, but which I did not feel pointed to a non-material reality.

So, for me (and other atheists) to say that religious experiences do not imply the existence of a non-material reality is akin to saying that not all visual impressions are accurate impressions of the objects or images we're looking at (as shown by optical illusions).

In other words, the atheist position implies only that we can be mistaken in our perceptions. It does not to deny that our perceptions ever reflect reality.

Jim S. said...

Well I would simply disagree again that religious experiences parallel the case of visual hallucinations. I would argue that they more closely parallel a sense faculty at least. So they would not be a subcategory of a particular faculty but a subcategory of sensory perceptions. So to claim that all religious experiences are illusory is akin to saying that all visual experiences are illusory; that there is no such faculty as sight because there is simply nothing to see. And all of the visual experiences that people have had throughout history have no object.

I actually think this understates the case; I think that religious experiences parallel sensory experiences in general, not just one category of sensory experiences, such as sight. So to claim that all our religious experiences are illusory is closer to claiming that all our sensory experiences are illusory, and that there is therefore no physical world that we encounter.

Finally, I'm confused by your claim that you've had transcendent experiences, but deny that anything transcends us. If the experiences didn't point to something transcending us, then I don't see how they can accurately be called transcendent experiences.

Timothy Mills said...

We live in a universe that is almost 14 billion years old, yet we are lucky to reach 100 before we die. Light travels at 300 thousand meters per second, yet we get a rush when we hit 30 meters per second (108km/h, or about 68mi/h). The electromagnetic spectrum spans wavelengths from virtually zero (1.6 x 10e-35, according to this) up to ... well, who knows? And all we can see with our humble human eyes is wavelengths between 380 and 760 billionths of a meter.

I could go on. Suffice it to say, I think there is plenty of scope in a naturalistic world for things, ideas, and events that transcend our everyday experience of life - that transcend even our ability to experience things. And sometimes, when I open myself to the sheer now-ness of the moment, I feel like I catch a bit of that transcendence. Like, for a moment, I have stepped outside what any person has experienced, or perceived. I call that a transcendent experience.

And of course, since I interpret such experiences naturally rather than supernaturally, I am forced to suspect that others who have transcendent experiences may be mistaken in imposing a supernatural interpretation on them. Just because you feel that an experience points to the supernatural does not mean that it does. Such an interpretation is simply a hypothesis, an attempt to explain the raw experience.

(Along the same lines, in a scientific experiment, we have the raw data and the interpretation. The raw data are simple facts, which do not explain themselves. It is scientists who attempt to build explanations for the patterns they observe.)

Naturally, the same qualification applies to me: it is possible that my transcendent experiences really do emanate from a supernatural reality, and I am (incorrectly) imposing a naturalistic hypothesis on them.

I don't know.

But the point is, without denying the fact of transcendent experiences (and thus, avoiding the conspiracy theory your post describes), it is possible to deny the interpretation of those experiences as pointing to a supernatural reality.

Jim S. said...

Sorry to take so long to respond Timothy. You describe what you call transcendent experiences that don't point to a supernatural (or extra-physical or whatever) realm. But I don't see how they can rightfully be called transcendent. They just sound like unique experiences, contrary to what we usually experience. I've had those too, but the religious experiences I'm talking about are very different, and so do not constitute a subset of them.

People who have experienced God or the supernatural are not offering an interpretation; they're claiming that they directly experienced God, in the same way that when we visually experience a tree we are directly perceiving it (this is the consensus view of philosophers on sensory perception as far as I can tell). So it's not a matter of them having an interpretation of an experience, but of having a direct experience of something.

As I say, these are some of the most common experiences in the human race. To suggest that all of our experiences of a supernatural world are illusory is, as I've argued, akin to arguing that all our experiences of the natural world are illusory. It's not parallel to hallucinations, where our senses seem to tell us one thing and then another. It's parallel to our experience of the natural world. And if you think that's too strong, it should at least be seen as parallel to all of our visual experiences being illusory, something which is just impossible for us to take seriously.

Additionally, this raises a Wittgensteinian problem: if all of our visual experiences are illusory then "illusory" ceases to mean anything, since it obtains its meaning by its contrast with authentic visual experiences. Similarly, if all of our experiences of the supernatural are illusory, then there is no genuine experience of the supernatural to contrast it to, and we can no longer say that they are illusory.

Timothy Mills said...

Jim, thanks for responding again. As I'm up late, I'm afraid I have another lengthy response for you.

You say that transcendent experiences are among the most common experiences humans have. Are you inferring their near-universality from the fact that most people are religious? If so, I think this is a mistake: believing in the supernatural does not depend on having direct experience of the supernatural.

Even if all religious people were so because of transcendent experiences, however, there are enough non-religious people in the world to suggest that you are overstating your case. Surely if transcendent experiences as you describe them were one of the most common features of human existence, religious belief would be more nearly universal.

Also, many atheists were once religious believers. At least some of them have, at some point, had experiences of the type you describe. (Julia Sweeney relates some in her monologue "Letting Go of God".) This seems to back up my suggestion that transcendent experiences are something that can be reasonably explained in different ways. Otherwise, we would have a population who had directly experienced the supernatural and yet subsequently come to believe it does not exist. Are these people self-deluded? Lying? Or are they simply re-interpreting objectively ambiguous experiences according to an alternative hypothesis?

And again, I would simply reassert the likelihood of a parallel with visual perception. Optical illusions work because our brains are inclined to fill in missing information according to useful but occasionally misleading rules. (See, for example, the Wikipedia article on the subject.) Psychological science would seem to refute what you claim is a consensus view of philosophers. The brain does a fair bit of processing and interpreting before we are aware of visual sensations.

So, although the visual sense normally gives us a good idea of what's out there, sometimes the shortcuts it needs to take to do that mean that it misleads us. I don't think we're running afoul of Wittgenstein here.

I understand that you simply don't see transcendent experiences in this way. But I will assert here that my position is not unusual for an atheist. And, even if I'm wrong about the parallel with visual illusions, my position is nevertheless quite distinct from conspiracy theories as posited in your post. Rather than doggedly denying the experiences of people, I am simply re-interpreting them in a way which is informed by and consistent with a large body of scientific evidence.

(I may still be wrong, of course. But I'll be wrong as a failed scientific hypothesis is wrong, not as a moon-landing-denier is wrong.)

Timothy Mills said...

And one more thing, from the CS Lewis quote. The "main point" in all religions is, at least, a debatable point. Is it the existence of the supernatural? What about Unitarians, who call themselves religious but have no creed regarding supernatural belief? Many of them are atheists while still being fully members of a religious community.

What I see, as I talk with people of different religious traditions, is a common concern for uplifting the human experience. The supernatural beliefs often become background - necessary for some, unnecessary for others - to that enterprise. This is certainly my experience when participating in interfaith forums and events: the non-religious humanists fit in just as well as all of those who believe in the supernatural.

(This is all, of course, somewhat tangential to the whole conspiracy thing, which is why I've put it in a separate comment.)

Jim S. said...

Timothy, I'm sorry (again) to take so long to respond. Let me restate my point: if we're going to be skeptical of the veracity of our experience of the supernatural, then we should be equally skeptical of the veracity of our experience of the natural. You've suggested you've had transcendent experiences where you become very aware of your own finitude, but that these didn't point you to anything beyond the natural world. But I'm not talking about such experiences. I'm not even talking about experiences of the natural world that do point to something beyond. I'm talking about direct experiences of a supernatural reality. You can suggest that these experiences are illusory, but I suspect that for any reason you suggest for taking such experiences as illusory, I can suggest a parallel reason for suggesting that experiences of the natural world are illusory.

So if some people claim to have had such experiences and then later say they think it was illusory, I would point out that people who have had real veridical experiences of the physical world have later concluded (falsely) that their experiences were illusory. The simple fact that people sometimes reject their own experiences doesn't give me any grounds for thinking that they are correct in doing so, much less that all such experiences are illusory. I'm not suggesting that these people are wrong in their judgment, but simply that it doesn't give us grounds for denying all experiences of this type as illusory.

You mention visual experiences again, and I would just reiterate my previous point: the fact that some people sometimes have visual hallucinations does not give us grounds for denying the faculty of sight, or for affirming that there isn't anything to see. Again, I'm not denying that some experiences of the supernatural might be hallucinatory, just as some visual experiences are. My point is that we can't conclude from this that all of them are.

You've asked why, if these experiences are so widespread, there aren't more religious believers. If we're talking historically, there have been. As for today, I think you've given a reason for this yourself: Western culture does everything it can to explain these experiences away. I know this from personal experience. I was simply unable to seriously consider the possibility that the God of Christianity might actually exist.

I think the Wittgensteinian argument still holds. Unless we have veridical experiences of X, we can't say that all experiences of X are illusory. We would need a veridical experience of X in order to contrast an allegedly illusory experience of it. Without the veridical experience, it becomes difficult to explain how one knows that an experience of X is bogus.

Re: the Lewis quote. Well, I certainly don't think belief in the supernatural exhausts religion. I'd be perfectly willing to include other aspects in the center along with belief in the supernatural. We've run afoul here of the perennial difficulty in defining the term "religion." Some types of Buddhism are atheistic, some groups consider themselves religious despite a rejection of the supernatural, etc. But I would argue that these are by far the minority.

Timothy Mills said...

Jim, perhaps we are suffering from a slight disconnect of definitions. The atheist's definition of atheism (which I describe and defend here) is not one of certainty that the supernatural does not exist, but one of doubt. We have not seen sufficient evidence that it does exist, and so we withhold our belief. We tend to think of our own position as default, since we do not make a positive assertion one way or the other. Theists are under the burden of proof, since they do make an assertion.

Could you clarify what you mean by calling transcendent experiences "veridical"? If you mean "The correct perception of an object, that is, in agreement with the object's real properties" (source), then you are begging the question. It is exactly this property that we do not agree on. What is it about the subjective or other properties of these experiences that justifies your treating them as equivalent to vision?

(I, a seeing person, should be able to convince a blind person of the reality of the visual sense. This task is of a far different nature than that of a person accustomed to religious experiences trying to convince, say, an atheist of the reality of the supernatural. Does this not suggest that your equating of vision with "experiences of the supernatural" is inaccurate?)

I agree that "we should be equally skeptical of the veracity of our experience of the natural." At least, in the sense of skepticism that means we should not simply accept the experience as true because it "feels" true. We interpret visual and other sensory experiences as generally reliable, because they enable us to navigate the world (they have predictive utility). As I've mentioned before, we also know to distrust certain aspects of visual experience because we have evidence that they are misleading.

I have to acknowledge that atheists and theists are probably never going to converge on this point. I've heard religious people point out that their belief in God etc does help them navigate the world. It does have predictive utility. ("I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." - CS Lewis)

The atheist worldview also has predictive utility, and also includes an account of how people might have religious experiences even without a supernatural realm as their source.

Until you can provide persuasive support of your claim that supernatural/transcendent experiences are veridical, resorting to elements of conspiracy theory in order to explain atheism is unwarranted.

Re the attempt to "explain these experiences away", I'd say rather that atheism has arisen in the West from an attempt to explain everything, and in the process of investigating it has happened to yield alternative explanations for things that were traditionally attributed to God or the supernatural.

Re your point about Wittgenstein in the penultimate paragraph of your latest comment: I must be misreading you. It sounds like you're saying that, until we can definitely prove that X is real, we cannot meaningfully claim that X is false. This would of course be begging the question. Can you clarify? Remember that atheists do not deny that religious people have these subjective experiences; we simply prefer an alternative explanation of the source of the experiences.

Re your original Lewis quote: I agree that non-theistic, non-supernatural "religions" are and have been by far in the minority. But even for believers, the "main point" of religious adherence is not always the belief. Sometimes it is the actions. But, as I said, this is tangential to the whole conspiracy theory thing.

berenike said...

Wow, I'm such an internet matchmaker.

I have a very similar conversation with my resident octogenarienne (materialist atheist) about twice a month :-D

Noons said...

I've heard all kinds of conspiracy theories, but recently I heard a very creative one: Not only was the moon landing staged, but it was directed by Stanley Kubrick himself, and that The Shining is actually a coded confession.

MCPlanck said...

What? No.

Look, most societies for most of history have been racist. They derived and justified their racism through a variety of personal experiences.

Science tells us that those experiences, while real, are nonetheless mistaken. The reason black people in America are poor is not because their genes make them lazy and stupid, it is because of various historical socio-political factors. The fact that most people only see the poverty and are unaware of the effects of policy does not validate their conclusions.

In exactly the same way atheism is perfectly entitled to assert that generations of experiences do not lead to the conclusion people traditionally assumed. To argue otherwise is to fall into a dilemma: if historical experience is sufficient to prove God, then why isn't it sufficient to prove racism? Unless you are prepared to take The Bell Curve seriously, you have to commit the same act you've just castigated atheists for: denying the validity of generations of personal experience.

In exactly the same way everyone from the Hittites onward were mistaken about their racial experiences, people have been mistaken about their religious experiences. Yes, we know you really did see something, but it doesn't mean what you think it means. That religious experiences are real in no way tells us that the supernatural is real. For that we need consilence; we need another line of inquiry that starts with different data but leads to the same conclusion. All science depends on this: experiments in the lab with light validates observations of Mercury's orbit, which together validate Einstein's theory of relativity.

Where is the data for the supernatural other than people's heartfelt experiences?