Open thread for show #778 »« Reply to Stephen Feinstein, round four

Matrix Apologetics again?

Guy emails us today:

If we cant trust our senses, how can we know for sure whats real or not? How can we justify saying we are sure that something exists and that we arent minds in a vat? This is obviously solipsism, but I was told by a christian that unless I believe in God, I cant trust my senses. I cant trust my senses to tell me when someone else confirms my senses either.

Tell him to prove that assertion. Or just mock him by saying, “All right, if that’s the case, then my senses, which are telling me that I’m standing here talking to a human being, are lying to me, and I am in fact watching a rabbit in a pink tutu dancing Gangnam style. Which suddenly makes you far more entertaining than you have been up to now.”

More seriously, you could simply point out that he’s created a dilemma in his argument. How else are we supposed to believe in God, other than through the use of our senses, by making a choice to adopt that belief? But if we cannot trust our senses before we’ve chosen to believe in God, how can we trust them, when making that choice, to help us know we’re making the right one? Or is there one special moment when we say to ourselves, “I now choose to believe in God,” and our senses obligingly click into place so that they are completely trustworthy for me to employ in making that one choice? How do I know my senses are not being deceived into believing in Gus the Magic Cosmic Hippo, thinking it’s actually the Biblical God?

There’s more! If a Christian tells me I can’t trust my senses if I don’t believe in God, I can’t trust him. I can’t trust anything he’s telling me about God in any way! Because the only way I can hear his message of God’s salvation is by using my senses, which I can’t trust! So I have no choice but to remain atheist. Thanks, Christian! That was easy.

Comments

    • M Groesbeck says

      I know, right? The people pushing these sorts of things as some sort of insoluble paradox seem to think that we’re entitled to absolute certainty in at least some sorts of knowledge. While I won’t state with absolute certainty that that’s impossible (look! I think I’m being clever!), it seems like it’s quite reasonable to stake out a position somewhere between absolute solipsism and absolute knowledge — something like replacing “this is what I absolutely know to be true” with “this is, as far as I can tell, what the evidence available to me indicates”.

  1. says

    My response to this argument us to adopt a Jack Sparrow swagger and reply, “Of the two of them, my epistemology is the only one that acknowledges our shared, logically coherent reality – a shared reality you implicitly accept, even while trying to convince me it’s unknowable. My epistemology, then, is the one we’ll be trusting.”

    In my experience, they’ve never considered the fact that if THEIR senses are unreliable, they would be incapable of determining the reliability of mine.

  2. jesse needham says

    I’ve heard that only a little knowledge learned can be damaging. This can sometimes be demonstrated, I think in this case. A very general overview in philosophy can raise a deep awareness, in epistemology here. If this new learning is not coupled with empirical science and more logic, one can take the little information of the evil genius and run with it, creating an unsound argument. when I read from DeCartes meditations, my head almost exploded. A year later, I understood it as a logical exercise, nothing more.

  3. Stan says

    Presuppositionalist nonsense.

    Apparently, without “God’s” authority to apply “its” logic and reason to questions regarding the nature of reality, we are without the tools to unravel the secrets of existence.

    Balderdash! If I steal my neighbor’s car, it’s still gonna get me to 7-11 whether I have his permission (read: authority) or not. Whoever wields them, the tools work.

  4. MarkB says

    The simplest refutation to this (if you think a refutation is necessary) is pointing out the multitude of devout believers who were demonstrably lunatics and ended up doing significant harm to themselves and others around them.

    • MarkB says

      Also, I’ve said this before but I think it bears repeating; you have to wonder why someone would try to make their arguments stronger by casting doubts on objective rality.

      “I know my arguments don’t make any sense, but then, what does?”

  5. says

    I’d point out that Francis Schaefer said that modern atheist philosophers didn’t believe in objective reality and that, more than anything else, is what made them evil. It’s ironic so many Christians have taken to arguing that you can’t really know anything about the universe because they don’t like that modern atheist philosophers do believe in an objective reality and it doesn’t match theirs.

  6. Fergus Gallagher says

    …that unless I believe in God, I can’t trust my senses.

    I wonder if that’s supposed to be “unless God exists, I can’t trust my senses”. This would seem to eliminate the requirement for belief.

    • Yellow Thursday says

      But then the believer would have no advantage over the unbeliever, and the believer would be unable to try to use this argument to convert people.

      • says

        Yes, they can. If the unbeliever can’t trust their senses, they can’t trust that they are having a conversation with an evangelist, so the argument is moot. If you are trying to argue that the fact they can trust their senses is evidence fo God, it works on anyone if they’ll buy it.

        • Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc says

          I never got this argument, mainly because of the supposed existence of miracles: If the Christian god exists I cannot trust my senses because that entity is known to disrupt causality. Everything to nothing that you experience could be supernaturally meddled with. Bollocks is an apologetic arguing for consistency…

          I absolutely agree that conversations become irrelevant once conditions like this get thrown down, though. “What conversation? How do I know that you exist? If you do why should I believe a word that you say? How do I know that whay you say is reliably transferred to my ears? Goodbye!” Hehehe.

  7. Cylis says

    What I tend to do in these situations is inform the theist in question that I agree with them completely.
    I then inform them that I am currently operating under the assumption that -while our conversation is actually just an illusion- my ‘impression’ of them trying to convince me that the christian god is real, is actually a malicious manipulation by Buddha to steer me away from the One True God, which is of course, Elvis.
    When they tell me that’s absurd, I remind them that they can’t be absolutely certain of that.

  8. Me says

    How can someone whose worldview includes a god that is able to change all the senses and thoughts of everybody, without any way of whether he has done it or not, think that their worldview provides any kind of trust in the senses. In that worldview the reason to trust ones senses is “Someone told me that God told him that God won’t deceive”

  9. Dexeron says

    Yep, the argument is actually a double-edged sword. Best way to defeat it is to turn it right back around on the person like that.

    And bonus points for tossing in the Psy reference!

  10. codemonkey says

    The Matrix isn’t enough. Even if I’m in the Matrix, I’m going to get hungry unless I “eat” “food”. Inductive reasoning still holds. It’s only when there is an observable difference between the Matrix and the “real” world when things start mattering, and until that time, the distinction is useless and philosophical masturbation.

    You need to go hardcore into soliphism, like a variant of Last Thursdayism where your memories are regularly tampered with, to make science useless.

  11. stoferb says

    It’s ironic that this rejection of empiricism always comes from people claiming certainty in some ‘higher truth’. They fail to realize that it equally destroys their own claims to truth.

    Whatever their stoic ‘wisdom’ relies on: Revelation wether experienced or written down, feelings, miracles, NDEs, OBEs, prophecies, anecdotes e.t.c. It all looses it’s credibility.

    For example. For us normal rationalists we reject the so called prophecies of the bible because 1. They are usually so vague that anything could fit the bill 2. They were for the most part written down AFTER they had been ‘fulfilled’ and 3. Some of them actually failed and it’s recorded in the bible!

    With our senses not to be trusted we suddenly have a new objection that beats the other three combined. Even if a bible prophecy mentioned correctly names, places and dates for the events and we saw it happen with our own eyes we couldn’t trust it because 1. We cannot trust our senses that the event really happened and 2. We cannot trust our own eyes that what we read in the bible is really written there.

    If anything this argument against the senses makes bogus claims even more bogus.

  12. EdW says

    My standard reply – “a brain in a vat is much more likely than God’s Mind in a vacuum. At least we know that brains and vats exist.”

  13. thebuachaill says

    “How else are we supposed to believe in God, other than through the use of our senses, by making a choice to adopt that belief? But if we cannot trust our senses before we’ve chosen to believe in God, how can we trust them, when making that choice, to help us know we’re making the right one?”

    Devils Advocate:

    Knowledge of God is of course a priori for all of us. We do not learn of God through our senses. Our awareness of God is emergent through a growing awareness of our own reality.
    Our earthly senses do not bring us knowledge of God, but over-emphasis on the senses can obscure our inherent intuitions of God. As such you Atheists [bunch of godless heathens that you are] drunk on the successes of the Sciences and the quantitative nature of sensory data, have become blind to all else; even that which is inherent in our makeup. Whereas those of us [nervous cough] who remain open to acknowledging the qualitative aspect of our experiences are thereby capable of knowing God, and having a wider and therefore a truer view of reality.

    • says

      While that is a far more sophisticated reply than I suspect an actual Christian might be prepared to make (short of a highly experienced debater/apologist), it still skirts the central question: by what means is the “growing awareness of our own reality” achieved? How do you comprehend something inherent in your makeup, other than by the senses? It seems perfectly conceivable that there could be something inherent in one’s makeup that one goes all through life never realizing, if this thing is immune to detection by the senses. There might be something deep in my brain that would enable me to perform telekinesis, but if I cannot employ my senses to discover and unlock this power, than I’ll never know I have it, let alone be able to use it.

      In short, you’ve thought up a brilliant rhetorical dodge for meeting burden of proof that will probably have actual Christians smacking their heads that they didn’t think of it first (though the fact it’s a dodge has already been noted here). :-)

      • thebuachaill says

        “by what means is the “growing awareness of our own reality” achieved?”

        By spiritual reflections which have arisen in some form or other since the dawn of human consciousness. These in turn may be “sparked” by life experiences through our senses, but that isn’t to say the input is reality. On the contrary, it seems evident to me that spiritual reflections arise not from the truth of what we witness, but the intuition that there is much more behind what we witness. The wonders of Science continues to illuminate this point.

        “In short, you’ve thought up a brilliant rhetorical dodge for meeting burden of proof”

        What proof could be given of a qualitative personal experience? Presumably all of us are capable of tapping into a broader view of reality [haven't we all considered the meaning of life at some point for example?] But apart from trying to verbalize a state of consciousness, how might one person enlighten another; particular those determined to consider only what can be quantified?

        • says

          But there’s a difference between “an intuition there is much more behind what we witness” and a conclusion that this “much more” is an anthropomorphic God who answers our prayers, sent his son to die for our sins, wants our worship, will reward us with eternal paradise upon death for adequate worship, and so on. The idea that there must be more is behind almost any scientific endeavor. But it’s in how you approach that question — through study and examination of evidence, or through “qualitative personal experiences” (aka “making stuff up”) that can in no way be examined or evaluated — that will determine the validity of your answers.

          • thebuachaill says

            Ok but I’m playing Devils Advocate on a particular point, not Church Advocate!

            Martin would you mind if I continue this via email? I’m actually trying to work out a point, but it might be overkill for the forum.

        • codemonkey says

          To thebuachaill:

          I have a rule in my philosophy: if science has positive evidence for a claim, then science wins over any other possible argument. Science is king.

          You claim we have some other “sense” besides the conventional, some sort of way or method to gain knowledge of gods. I call shenanigans. If this was true, then we would expect the people of the world to be converging on a single religion. Instead, the world has always had disparate groups with radically different beliefs of what gods are real, and today we are getting no closer to a single consistent vision. This is very good scientific evidence that your purported “god sense” is actually a complete fabrication of your own deluded mind — err, of your devil’s advocate position.

          • thebuachaill says

            Thanks for your comment. I don’t want to get into this too much as it’s likely to become a tangent to my main thread.
            While nothing else comes close to the successes of Science in mastering the natural world, as an atheist I am uncomfortable with absolutist “philosophies”. There is a humility associated with even the highest levels of Scientific knowledge (Scientific Theory) which should be maintained and promoted. What I am investigating is not whether there is something that could usurp Science, but whether there is something of human experience which cannot be covered (for want of a better word) by science.
            Its the point near which us atheists might say, ‘well now thats just Shananigans’, or ‘now you’re just making stuff up’.

            “…then we would expect the people of the world to be converging on a single religion”

            I’m as anti-religion as they come, but on this point it seems sufficiently obvious that religious expression is flavored by culture and tradition. But that doesn’t negate a perennial philosophy which underlies all religious expression.

          • codemonkey says

            it seems sufficiently obvious that religious expression is flavored by culture and tradition. But that doesn’t negate a perennial philosophy which underlies all religious expression.

            No no, no you don’t. Moving the goalposts. Earlier, you said:

            Presumably all of us are capable of tapping into a broader view of reality [haven't we all considered the meaning of life at some point for example?]

            You claimed the existence of some kind of “god sense” that reveals factual information about god, and more than just “god exists”. On that point, you have been refuted with scientific evidence that there is no such sense, or at the very least that this ability is limited to a very small minority of the population. Whereas most of the population seems to have a “deluded sense”; they claim they have a “god sense”, but they end up just “making stuff up”. (A longer and more accurate description is unneeded at this point – you get the point.)

            You cannot have your cake and eat it too.

          • thebuachaill says

            “You claimed the existence of some kind of “god sense” that reveals factual information about god, and more than just “god exists””

            I didn’t make that claim; though perhaps that’s what you’ve read into it. Nor has there been any moving of the goal posts.

            And the point hasn’t been refuted by scientific evidence because no scientific evidence has been provided :)

          • codemonkey says

            What? You’re trying to make the point that there might be a magic “spiritual sense” which most people have, and which can reliably inform us about.. something, anything? That is your claim. Your claim is demonstrably bogus, as there is no consensus on anything resembling spirituality across the world’s peoples. Saying “devil’s advocate” doesn’t make it less falsified, nor more plausible.

          • thebuachaill says

            You’ve latched on to an idea that because there are different religions, so therefore my point is falsified. You’ve tried to add weight to this with talk of Scientific evidence and “demonstrably bogus”, without actually providing evidence or demonstrating anything. And that quite apart from the fact that my point is not about religion.
            I don’t know what magic nor “spiritual sense” means to you. I certainly never stated either. That’s the second time you’ve tried to misrepresent my “claim”.
            Thanks for your comments. I’d prefer not to continue this with you.

          • codemonkey says

            I don’t know what magic nor “spiritual sense” means to you.

            Quoting you earlier:

            Our earthly senses do not bring us knowledge of God, but over-emphasis on the senses can obscure our inherent intuitions of God.

            Call it what you will. “Intuition”, “spiritual sense”, whatever. If that hogwash were a reliable means of learning truthful information, the the world would not be fragmented as it is today. Reductio ad absurdum, this “intuition” is not reliable.

  14. Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc says

    Call me crude, but isn’t this exactly the sort of crapping-in-the-pool that presuppositional apologists indulge in?

    “Erm, I’m not swimming in that…”
    “I win!”

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