After some discussion about the merits of Joe Hinman's use of empirical data to make claims that belief in God has scientific justification, Joe presented a succinct version of his argument for God belief based on empirical observation. I'll review and critique his argument here. This argument is a distillation of the material he presents in his book The Trace of God: a Rational Warrant for Belief. I will not discuss the book, which I have yet to read. I will limit my discussion to the argument as presented by Joe in this post.
Joe starts out from a very reasonable position, which is basically that if God interacts with the physical world in some way, then we should be able to observe the effects of that interaction. If we can know that some observed evidence is the result of divine interaction with the world, then we can infer the existence of a divine being. The pertinent question is:
How do we know this is the effect, or the accompanying sign of the divine?All this is quite reasonable, and Joe's argument purports to answer that question. But of course, the devil is in the details, as we shall see.
First, Joe presents what he calls "criteria" for what we should expect from an encounter with the divine. By that, I presume he means that these are testable predictions that would ensue from his hypothesis. And here's where we run into the first problem. What is the hypothesis? It is never clearly stated. But let's assume that Joe's hypothesis is simply that a divine being interacts with the world in a way that affects what happens in our world. If this is the hypothesis, then in accordance with the spirit of scientific method, we should be able to make some testable predictions about it. Joe's "criteria" are:
A. Life Transforming and vital in a positive life=affirming senseAnd here we see the next problem with the case Joe is trying to make. The first two criteria are somewhat nebulous, but we'll ignore that. However, the third criterion sets the bar too low. What if the first two criteria are met by some completely natural cause? What if Joe tries to argue that even though it has all the appearances of a natural cause, and can be adequately explained as such, it was really the result of divine interaction, and you can't prove that it wasn't? OK, it's not really possible to prove anything absolutely. But this means that Joe's criteria, as described, don't provide a means of falsification. A natural cause could indeed produce the observed phenomena, and all of Joe's criteria would still be met. If we want to be confident that the hypothesis is true, we need to put it to the test. Therefore, I will propose an alternative to Joe's third criterion:
B. It would give us a sense of the transcendent and the divine.
C. No alternate or naturalistic causality could be proven
C. Any naturalistic causality should be ruled out as a reasonable alternative.If we are able to rule out natural causes, then we will have made a much stronger case that it must be a divine cause.
All this is just the prelude to Joe's logical argument, which I repeat here:
(1) Real effects come from real causesLet's break this down.
(2) If effects are real chances are the cause is real
(3) the effects of mystical experience are real
(4) Therefore, the cause of mystical experience is real.
(5) the content of mystical experience is about the divine
(6) Since the content of ME is divine the cause must be the divine
(7) Since the cause is real and it is divine then the divine must be real.
(8) Therefore belief in the divine is warranted by ME
Statements (1) and (2) both say the same thing, but (2) puts it in a weaker form. We can all agree that effects (or outcomes) are the result of causes. But, what is meant by "real"? Let's stipulate that if an effect is observable, it is real. And because all effects are the result of causes, those causes must be real, too. I would add that causation is complex. Any given outcome is generally the result of many causes, all acting together. It would be a mistake to say that some outcome is the result of one and only one cause. However, in some cases it might be acceptable to refer to one thing in particular as being the "proximate" cause of the outcome. For example, we can ask, what makes a tree grow? There are many causes - the placement of the seed, soil conditions, weather, shading, etc. In this case, there is no single proximate cause that produces the outcome. This is an important consideration because human behavior is influenced by many causes, and often those causes are hidden from observation. It is rarely (if ever) the case that a single proximate cause produces a whole pattern of behavior.
Statement (3) seems to make the mistake I outlined above. In speaking about "effects", Joe seems to be making the assumption that a single event is the proximate cause of observed behavior that follows. We can say that having a mystical experience plays a role in the subsequent behavior of the subject, or that it is correlated with behavior, but it would not be reasonable in most cases to say that it is the proximate cause of observed behavior, which is always influenced by a myriad of factors - beliefs, previous experiences, etc.
But there's another crucial point to make here. How is "mystical experience" defined? Is it the kind of thing experienced by most humans - a sense of awe and wonder that we all feel at times with various degrees of intensity, and is often, but not always associated with a sense of spirituality? Or does Joe mean something else - like only the subset of those experiences that are seen by the subject as being divine in nature? I'll have to let Joe answer that question. But if his answer is the latter, then how would he justify that selectiveness? For this discussion, I will use the term "mystical experience" in the former sense.
Statement (4) is a non sequitur. In statement (3) Joe posited a mystical experience as the cause of some effect. He did not posit the mystical experience as the effect of some cause. He said nothing at all about what causes the mystical experience. Therefore statement (4) does not follow from statement (3). However, we can stipulate that if someone has a mystical experience, that experience is the result of some set of causes, which may or may not be known to us.
Statement (5) raises the question once again about how we define "mystical experience". This has to do with the beliefs of the subject. Whether one interprets his experience as being divine is entirely dependent on what he believes. If Joe's definition is the more selective one, he must justify his selectiveness. There are certainly people who have essentially the same kind of experience, but who don't ascribe it to divine powers. To eliminate those experiences from consideration is just selection bias that serves Joe's purpose by focusing only on the divine.
Statement (6) is completely unjustified. Statement (5) says the content of mystical experience is about the divine. It doesn't say it is divine. So to conclude that they must have divine causation is nothing short of a leap of logic. There is nothing in the argument, and certainly no empirical data that would support this. It is entirely possible that people can have experiences where they think they feel the presence of the divine, but in fact those experiences are entirely natural. And in fact, this has been demonstrated.
Statement (7) would be a logical conclusion IF we could accept the validity of statement (6). However, we can't accept that without committing a leap of logic. The argument is invalid.
Statement (8), too, is not justified from this argument, because the argument is invalid.
In summary, Joe's argument suffers from several problems. One is selection bias, which causes him to consider only the set of mystical experiences that help him to make his case. This problem can easily be seen in his criteria for testability. Natural causes would meet the same criteria, but he doesn't consider those. If Joe insists on considering only those experiences that are seen as having religious significance, for example by using a measurement device to select only a specified subset of these experiences, then he might easily be fooled into thinking that they ALL have a universal aspect of divinity.
Joe does not understand causation. If a person's behavior changes after having a mystical experience, that behavioral change may or may not have been influenced the experience, but it is wrong to think that it was caused exclusively by that experience. It would be reasonable to think that the experience reinforces the beliefs and motivations that a person already has. This is substantiated by the fact that not all experiences of this kind are seen as having some kind of religious significance. But it is the total psychological state of a person that defines his motivations, and that is certainly the result of many factors in addition to his experience of mystical awe.
Furthermore, Joe has not presented an argument that is logically valid. Both statements (4) and (6) do not follow from the premises. Even if it were the case that ALL mystical experiences are about the divine (which is not true), and that those experiences in fact are the proximate cause of improved life conditions (which has never been demonstrated), it would not be valid to conclude that they must have a divine cause. What Joe needs to do is to eliminate natural causes for this kind of experience, and he has not done that. At best, he attempts to eliminate some of these experiences (not their causes) by simply failing to consider them. And that is intellectually dishonest.