Someone at the Sunday ACA Lecture series alerted me that my (brief) introductory topic on the last show I cohosted might have confused some people. They asked if I could provide some examples in order to clarify what I was trying to describe. I’m always appreciative when someone lets me know I’ve been unclear, as it provides me an opportunity to clarify. And so, with that, I offer my clarification.
There are many examples to choose from. I have conversations in everyday life that could illustrate this, and there are also examples among famous figures that demonstrate it well, but the most clear and concise example I recall is the story of Steven LaBerge.
Questioning Our “Reasonable” Assumptions:
LaBerge is a psychophysiologist who established the phenomena of “lucid dreaming” as a reality that is now part of routine sleep and dream research.
In a nutshell, LaBerge had the capacity to lucid dream, and it was something that interested him. As part of his field of study, he ended up doing research on the history of the phenomena and discovered many historical accounts of it and references in the writings of some prestigious individuals. He decided to present a paper on the history of lucid dreaming, drafted his idea and submitted it for presentations and publication at symposiums and in professional journals in his field. He was rejected across the board. And the explanation given was that there was no evidence this phenomena was what he interpreted it to be.
In case anyone is unfamiliar with a lucid dream, it is the phenomena of becoming aware that you are dreaming, while you are dreaming, and continuing on in the dream while conscious of the fact you are dreaming. For people who have had this experience routinely, the response is generally something like “Oh yeah, I’ve done that,” along the lines of “Yes, I’ve had the dream where I’m in a room full of people in my underwear.” For people who have never had this experience, there can sometimes be doubts about this even being possible. And LaBerge encountered this sort of reaction among his peers.
The criticism was, “How do you know you are conscious while you are dreaming, and not that you are dreaming you are conscious?” In other words, is this simply one more form of dream, such as the “maze” dream, the “underwear” dream, the “unprepared for a test” dream, and the “dreaming I’m awake while I am dreaming” dream?
LaBerge’s initial reaction was disbelief that people would doubt what was, to him, a very mundane occurrence. But as the rejection letters piled up, he began to understand his critics and reassess his own assumptions. Ultimately he realized no matter how subjectively “real” this phenomena “felt” or “seemed” to him, he honestly did not have any way to know it wasn’t a dream about being conscious, rather than really being conscious. His subjective experience, and the experience of others, did not provide anything to differentiate between those two possible scenarios. And so, “belief” in one or the other scenario was not merited. For LaBerge, it didn’t become a quest to prove he was right. It became a quest to actually determine if he was correct or confused in his interpretation of his personal experience. And it is a perfect example of how all of us should approach such assumptions that are based on “it seems to me,” and not verified or verifiable.
Why Verification Matters:
But, how to demonstrate or verify that a person who feels conscious in a dream, really is conscious within that dream, and not only dreaming they are conscious? If I’m honest, I would, personally, probably have thrown my hands up and declared we’ll never know the answer; because how, exactly, one would test for this would not have occurred to me. But LaBerge knew he was obligated to demonstrate this, not only for his peers, but for himself, if he wanted to know what was really happening to him, and if it really was what it “seemed” in the subjective experience. Were his interpretations reliable?
He chose body parts that do not go into paralysis routinely during sleep, and he focused on the eyes. LaBerge found subjects who claimed to be efficient at entering into lucid dreaming, and controlling the dreams. He also worked with other researchers who study eye movement during sleep to come up with what they would agree were not normal REM eye movement patterns. Then he instructed his subjects to enter a lucid dream, and move their eyes in an agreed-upon, nonrandom pattern, that could be tracked during sleep, to signal they’d entered the conscious dream.
The research was a success. The subjects were shown to be able to enter dream states and signal the eye patterns, repeatedly. LaBerge did all sorts of testing and signaling for many different reasons, and opened the door to a lot of new information about how similar or different dreams are to the brain than is reality. But the main thing to take away was that he showed that his subjects recalled the instructions given to them while awake, took them into their sleep/dream states, and were able to relay that information back to researchers while sleeping. So, the consciousness the subject experienced was not a dream of consciousness, but the same consciousness experienced while awake.
When LaBerge began working on lucid dreaming, his work was based on “It seems to me” this is something real. It just “made sense” to him. He felt no need to verify, because it was so obviously true, in his mind. But confronted by critics, although he initially was defensive, he ultimately realized he wasn’t justified in his belief this was what he interpreted it to be. He realized he could be wrong, and the only way to know if his belief was true or not true, was to find some means to verify it—to differentiate between being in a conscious state versus dreaming you are in a conscious state. Without that, he could not say lucid dreaming was what he claimed it to be. He could not call it true. He could not be justified believing it. “It seems to me” is not justification for accepting an idea as true. It was not sufficient justification to expect others to accept it. And it was not even sufficient justification for him to believe it, once he realized that was all he had. No matter how strongly he felt that his consciousness in the dreams was legitimate conscious brain activity—he really could not justify or honestly promote it as correct.
When he was able to verify his claims, he was congratulated, and his findings accepted—most of all by his critics.
Carl Sagan’s “Dragon in My Garage” essay, in his book Demon Haunted World, is a wonderful example of the need for verification in order to justify beliefs—ideas we label as true. His summary is quite correct that “If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.”
LaBerge went from being unable to differentiate between a world where his interpretation was correct, and one where his interpretation was not correct, to being able to differentiate. While you cannot make that differentiation, labeling something as “true” because it “makes sense” to you, is sloppy reasoning that shows an utter lack of concern for the truth value of claims you accept as being true.
No matter what a theist has to tell me, in the end, if he’s not going to offer any method to demonstrate his god exists, then all that talk was wasted. He has a nice story, an interesting idea, and might even get me to say “I see why you think this makes sense.” But what he won’t have is any justification to assert this idea is true, nor any traction in getting me to be so sloppy as to accept his ideas as true. Like LaBerge’s ideas about lucid dreaming, it may be very interesting. I may see why you believe it warrants a good looking-into. But until that time, you and I have no reason to think there’s anything “true” about it. Anyone who has ever been wrong before knows that “it makes sense” can still result in wrong conclusions. So, stopping at “it makes sense,” and not bothering to move on to the next step of “but are we right?,” means acknowledging that truth of the claim is not going to be established.
Additionally, “convincing Tracie” is not the metric of whether or not claims are true. Convincing Tracie to agree does not justify your beliefs in any way. Convincing 1,000 other people that your thinking “makes sense,” is a form of the Argument from Popularity fallacy. You’re simply working it backwards. Rather than saying “I believe it’s true, because it’s popular,” you’re simply saying “I believe it, and if I can make it popular, it will be true.” And I should not have to explain why this is problematic.
In the end, having some justification to suspect a claim might be true, is not justification for accepting it is, in fact, true.
Claims We Don’t Care About:
One area where this tends to not come into play would be claims about which we don’t actually care. Claims that do not impact our lives in any meaningful way, we simply do not assess as true or false, because we don’t need to.
The “I had eggs for breakfast” claim is generally not questioned, because many people have eggs for breakfast, and I simply don’t care if you actually had eggs or not. This is sometimes described as “believing” mundane claims with little evidence, but I tend to think it could be more correct to say we don’t even assign a truth value to such claims, out of a lack of concern for their truth value. I don’t care if it’s true you had eggs or not—so I don’t bother asking for evidence. If someone came along after Sally told me she had eggs for breakfast and added, “That’s not right, Sally. You ordered the eggs first, but then you changed your order, and got the pancakes,” and Sally replied, “Oh, that’s right, I did have pancakes, not the eggs,” my world is hardly shattered. If you ask me if I “believe” Sally had pancakes, I would find that question odd, because I don’t care if she had them, as it is no matter to me whatsoever what Sally eats. I don’t even bother to consciously assess it as true or not true, and would find a request that I do so, absurd and useless.
Why Coerced Decision-Making Is not Ideal:
Another area is forced decision-making. Religion tries to make people believe we are in this category with claims of god. They put “hard sell” tactics on the table. “If you don’t buy this car today, the price will be double tomorrow!” They toss in hell, and remind you that you have to answer this burning god question before you die—or else! They even have an apologetic where they try to compare it to a burning building—saying, “If someone yells fire, you’ll get out, you won’t wait around asking if it’s true.” Note what is actually being said: “Don’t worry about whether or not it’s true, worry about avoiding even a fake threat of fire, just in case there really is one!” It’s not even an attempt to demonstrate the truth of their claim, but, rather, an attempt to get you to merely conform, without assessing the truth of the claim.
But if you merely run from the building, without regard to the truth of the claim “fire!,” is that a “belief”? Is that the same as assessing the claim as true? Is acting like it’s true, just in case it is true, really the same as accepting it as true? I don’t see how that would qualify as a belief.
It’s not news that decisions made in pressured negotiations are often regretted. When someone doesn’t want to give you time to consider the information, and attempts to pressure you to make a decision, be wary. This is what we are forced to do in courtrooms, and sometimes in business or emergency situations. People in these situations aren’t necessarily subscribing to beliefs. They’re trying to make a smart gamble. “I think A is more likely than B,” is clearly not justification for asserting that A is true. A may be more likely, but we all know the “more likely” scenario is not always the correct one. Ask any gambler who has ever cashed in on a long shot. Religions, like Christianity, pressure, threaten and rush you to decide. They explain they can get you as far as “it makes sense,” but then you must “take that final leap of faith” to move from “it makes sense” to “it is true.” It is a truly horrible arrangement that results in a sloppy, but sadly effective, method of getting people to adopt unjustified beliefs.
Everyone understands the trial by jury system is woefully imperfect. We know we convict innocent people who are exonerated after spending years in prison, or even after being placed on death row, or worse, put to death. Many people who would support the death penalty in principle, cannot support it in practice due to our inability to verify jury decisions. The fact is, it’s simply not the best method of determining truth. It’s a good country mile behind verification by the scientific method (which is just a fancy label for “the best way we know, to determine the truth value of a claim”). And so, those, thankfully, few times we are in the horrific position of having to make a coerced decision, knowing we don’t have sufficient justification to call a claim “true,” but can only give our best judgment as to some level of reasonability, we do the best we can, knowing that if we fail, we will have caused a great deal of unjust harm and consequence. Nobody should envy this situation. And nobody should willingly subscribe to it when it’s not absolutely necessary to do so.
But this is what a religion like Christianity asks you to do. They ask you to lower your standards, because, they claim, you simply have to make a judgment without sufficient evidence and information available to determine the actual truth value of their claim that god exists. To try and coerce your decision, they make threats about your limited time in this life and the horrendous consequences if you do not come to the conclusion “god exists” and join their group. When you protest that you do not want to suffer horrible consequences, but there is not enough evidence to make such a determination, they respond by telling you to just “take that leap of faith” and save yourself from death or eternal torment. As the saying goes, faith begins where the evidence ends. You can’t verify, but you have to decide, so just move yourself from “it’s reasonable enough,” to “it’s true,” even though there is not a valid means of connecting those two assessments without an interim step of verification.
Consider that I ask you to adopt a belief in the existence of fairies. I would expect most adults to assert there is no such thing, based on the overwhelming lack of evidence for their existence. If I tell you the fairies will torture you if you don’t decide they do exist, before you die, it’s unlikely you will take that threat at all seriously, and it is likely you will still come down on the side of “I do not believe they exist.” Somehow, Christianity has gotten people to give it deference in the form of taking its claims and threats with some level of seriousness, without first (or ever) demonstrating the god exists and can make good on any of these threats. Classic “cart before the horse,” but when it comes to religion, people often don’t notice the switch that has been made there. Use “fairies,” instead, and suddenly it becomes obvious.
Coerced decisions should remain the extreme exception, and not the rule. Why anyone would subscribe to the far less reliable and problematic method of assigning a truth value using this forced decision-making method, when they are not required to make an immediate decision about the truth value of a claim, escapes me. If you go around assigning “true” to important claims, that you have not verified, you’re simply being sloppy and showing a great lack of concern about whether or not your beliefs are likely to be true. This may be fine when we’re talking about Sally’s breakfast choices. But it’s an extremely disadvantaged method to use when you’re building the foundation of a worldview.
As a side benefit to LaBerge’s story, he, himself, actually recognized something I agree with, and something some people have a problem understanding. There is a saying that “your personal experience justifies your belief, but I haven’t had your experience, so it can’t justify it for me, since I only have your claim.” But LaBerge demonstrated that his personal experience wasn’t sufficient to justify his beliefs. Personal experience, depending on what it is, is not automatic justification for adopting a belief—especially if you are forced to admit you aren’t personally able to confirm your interpretation of what you experienced. When you tell me you saw a ghost, I not only wonder how you plan to verify that to me, but how you ever managed to verify that to yourself? And if you didn’t, then you are no more justified in your belief you’ve had a ghost encounter, than I would be.