Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Warrant for Skepticism

Joe Hinman has been ubiquitous in many internet forums, always urging people to buy his book, "The Trace of God: A Rational Warrant for Belief".  This article is not a review of Hinman's book, but a commentary on his approach to scientific examination of an issue.  Hinman calls mystical experience "empirical evidence of the supernatural".  The thesis of his book is to show that the scientific evaluation of empirical data relating to mystical experiences provides a rational scientific basis for belief in God.  However, if that were really the case, the scientific community would be buzzing with the news of this empirical evidence for God.  It is not.  The fact of the matter is that the scientific community has yet to recognize the existence of any such evidence.

What Hinman has done is a survey of studies done mainly in the field of psychology of religion that correlate mystical experiences with positive outcomes in the lives of people who have them.  He also relies on Hood's M-scale to distinguish "genuine" mystical experiences from other similar phenomena, such as drug-induced experiences.  He makes an argument based on these studies that mystical experiences are the result of a supernatural power, and that they have a transformative (or life-changing) affect on the subject.  It is this transformation that provides the supposed warrant for God-belief.  By citing all these studies, Hinman claims he has taken a scientific approach to arrive at his conclusion of warranted belief in God.

But there are problems with this approach.  First and foremost, any scientific approach must take into account all available evidence, not just the evidence that suits your purpose.  Why limit his examination of studies to those in the field of psychology of religion, which seems to be dominated by religious believers, rather than the broader field of psychology in general?  Could it be that the broader scientific community doesn't support his goals as much as the mostly religiously oriented studies that he cites?  Cherry-picking evidence to support previously held beliefs is the hallmark of pseudo-science.

Even the name Hinman uses for these experiences indicates his bias toward religious explanation: "mystical", as opposed to "peak".  The broader scientific community generally uses the term "peak experience", which was coined by Abraham Maslow to describe the phenomenon, without giving it a presumption of religious or spiritual content.  While it is true that many people attach a religious significance to these experiences, it is certainly not the case that they must have religious significance.  In fact, peak experiences occur to all kinds of people in many contexts that have little or no relationship to religion or spirituality at all, as described by psychiatrist Bruce G Charlton.  But Hinman ignores that inconvenient fact.

And this is consistent with his reliance on measuring and assessing these experiences with the M-scale (Mysticism scale), developed by theist Ralph W. Hood and geared toward the religious/spiritual aspect of the experience, as opposed to more generalized alternatives such as the Peak Experience Scale and others that are more broadly recognized by psychologists in general, contrary to Hinman's claims.  These scales do not not neglect feelings of spirituality often associated with the peak experience, but neither do they attempt to distill the experience to primarily spiritual or religious content.

A major assumption made by Hinman is that mystical experiences are transformative.  Although many studies show a positive correlation between the experience and psychological well-being, it would be a mistake to assume that the experience causes an improvement in well-being.  In fact, many psychologists believe that people with a higher level of well-being are more prone to have peak experiences.  A common theory is that the peak experience follows an instance of mental clarity or insight, and serves as a kind of reward for having accomplished a cognitive feat.  If that's true, then Hinman has the cause and effect backwards, which weakens rather than strengthens his argument.

The most egregious assumption that Hinman makes is to attribute the peak experience to a supernatural source in the absence of any supporting evidence.  Of course, by taking a pseudo-scientific approach that cherry-picks his data, and evaluates it in light of theistic criteria, he feels that he is justified in making this conclusion.  But there is absolutely no genuine scientific justification for it.  There is no empirical data that indicates any supernatural source - just interpretations of the data based on theistic assumptions.  As I mentioned earlier, if that were the case, the scientific community would be abuzz with the news.  

Of the book reviews available on Amazon, only one, by Dan Lawler, takes a skeptical view.  It reveals the starry-eyed approach Hinman takes.
The pragmatic test 'Does it work?' is the author's substitute for truth. "Working equals truth in the epistemic field of our assumptions." (Loc. 5295.) Mystical experiences "work" because they allow one to better cope with the "human problematic" of life being nasty, brutish and short. Magic mushrooms work even better.
Hinman's claim of warrant for belief is founded in his mistaken assumptions that peak experiences actually cause an improvement in well-being, which has not been demonstrated, and that they arise from a supernatural power, for which there is zero evidence.  So much for his scientifically based "warrant for belief".  This is religious pseudo-science.


  1. I am regularly subsumed into that wonderful sense of transcendence through peak experiences, that thoroughly delightful feeling of being at peace with oneself and in harmony with the world.
    How does Hinman account for that, and the incalculable numbers of others like me, in his 'scientifically based' warrant for belief? And I am most assuredly not a god-botherer.

    In fact I'm experiencing that feeling right now as I write this comment. Must be the coffee. Oops! I think I may have blown Hinman's thesis right out of the water, scientifically, that is.

    Hinman's woefully callow scholarship is redolent of that form known as EISEGESIS. Get it? I-SEE-JESUS.


    1. Hinman even posted a polemic against scientism the other day. The usual tripe about how atheists are cold, sterile, devoid of humanity. etc. The criticism of science is the usual response of Christians who understand that science doesn't support theistic belief. Non-overlapping magisteria, and all that. But it's funny to see how they try to latch on to science if they think it can be used to their advantage.

    2. Scientism or Theism as testimony to evidential and factual truths?
      No doubt about it. My money is on science as the model with explanatory power that is unquestionably orders of magnitude more powerful in both explaining about and understanding us, our environment, the world, the universe.

      Christian-tainted theism? Not so much.

      In contrast, christian theism is underwhelmingly provincial and parochial in both outlook and character to the extraordinary but epistemologically grounded acumen of the sciences. In folklore and fantasy literature theism is a giant among dwarfs.