On Some Questions for Supernaturalists

As luck would have it, a series of questions on beliefs and the supernatural were posted by Brent Arnesen writing at his blog Atheist Catalyst (his is a blog I just recently found, followed, and have been perusing – as I’m wont to do, I like to share the link as well). Though the questions are directed toward believers of the supernatural, Brent invites everyone to answer. Since I’m in the answering mood, I figure I’ll give it go.

On to the Questions

1. What is the best argument that defends the proposition:  The following don’t exist: Pixies, Santa Claus, Past lives, Lizard People, Greek Gods, Alien Visitors, Witches, Dragons and Atlantis? (Take out the ones you believe exist)

Since this discussion was framed around the supernatural, I don’t think it’s clear that all of these would be supernatural. I want to make a distinction between natural/supernatural and real/not real. If we’re only talking natural/supernatural, here’s how I’d break them down:

Almost Obviously Supernatural:

Pixies (they use magic dust)
Witches (they use magic spells and fly on brooms)
Greek Gods

Probably Natural:

Lizard People
Alien Visitors
Atlantis

Tricky/Depends on Definition:

Past Lives (is there a way to make past lives natural? Perhaps with a multiverse? I’m asking, not suggesting. Or, is there a reason to think a soul/life essence is actually supernatural? I don’t know.)
Dragons (the tricky part for dragons is the fire breathing, but I lean toward natural)

Supernatural but Obviously Not Real:

Santa Claus (we know the origin of Santa Claus)

As such, the best argument against their existence differs. Santa isn’t real because we know we made him up.

The best argument against natural examples is a lack of physical evidence (Atlantis, alien visitors) or physical limitations that greatly inhibit their likelihood (evolutionary history of lizard people or the travel time of alien visitors).

The best arguments against the supernatural is to point toward alternative explanations of our proposed experiences of them and combine them with a lack of more tangible evidence for them. Pixies, witches, and dragons all have physical bodies, so they could leave physical evidence. Greek gods could potentially leave physical evidence; however, there may be outs surrounding their godly ability to hide this evidence. Past lives will rely most heavily on providing alternative explanations for professed experiences of past lives.

2. What would you require to believe in any of the above enough to give you “Rational Warrant” to believe in one or others?

Well, alien visitors is easy. I know it has happened. Aliens (humans from Earth), visited another celestial body (Earth’s moon). Likewise, we have sent proxies to other planets (e.g., Voyager, the Mars rover). There is already warrant to believe in alien visitors. We’ve done it. What’s open is whether aliens from another celestial body have visited us. I’d argue it is rational to believe that aliens have visited Earth, I’m just not sure it is factual. Therefore, to believe, I want evidence of aliens visiting Earth (e.g., an unambiguous photograph of an alien craft–ship, satellite, whatever or evidence of panspermia).

Likewise, I think there’s rational warrant to believe in Atlantis. The city of Troy offers a good example of a city known via fiction that was unknown to be an actual city until it was discovered by archaeologists. It is reasonable to think Atlantis could be the same. One area where you may run into issues is how far advanced Atlantis was at the time of its destruction, but if we assume a reasonable level of advancement over other societies at the time, Atlantis doesn’t really pose an issue with rational warrant. Like alien visitors to Earth, the issue with Atlantis is factual. I need conclusive evidence that Atlantis actually existed (e.g., archaeological finds, other mundane literary sources).

For the Greek Gods, perhaps we can answer the whole “is it reasonable to believe in the Greek gods” with something like Reformed Epistemology to grant us warrant for belief. Prometheus giving us the fire of the gods instilled in us a warmth-based sensus divinitatis (I mean, is it not the case that bodies radiate heat?), and from that we can consider belief in the Greek gods properly basic. From there, say, a swan seducing my partner would provide pretty convincing evidence the Greek Gods are the pantheon in existence. I’d also probably accept a burly man hocking his ability to clean my stables in a day.

3. If the One True God represents 100%, what percentage of the qualities of God do you know? (Is God as you, basically, imagine? Or are His morals, his ways, his path to righteousness, etc.different that you imagine?)

I’m not totally clear on what this question is asking for, specifically. Here’s how I understand the question: Assuming there is an actual God, how much does this God comport to your expectations/image of God (please correct me if I’m misunderstanding):

As I briefly covered in my previous post on questions for atheists, I don’t think we know much of anything about God. Obviously, I would attribute this to God not actually existing, but assuming a god exists, it’s not clear our methods of knowing about God yield confirmed knowledge.

Approaching this differently by channeling a believer, I can think of three responses to this questions:

(1) How I imagine God to be is pretty accurate as my picture of God adheres to the image provided in my holy book as well as what has been demonstrated through philosophical theology.

(2) I would not develop a picture of God or hold a set of expectations about God’s image, path, morals, etc. That is not my place. God is not beholden to me or my expectations. It is my responsibility to follow God.

(3) God cannot be contained in a percent, perception, or image. God is infinite and without definition. Therefore, my picture of or expectations of God may all be accurate, yet defining God as such would be completely incorrect.

4. What argument do you use to defend #3?

For my personal response, I called it “sophisticated guess work” in my previous post. I really don’t mean that to sound like the work was a joke. The classic, Western conception of God was developed by or referenced some of the heaviest hitters of Western philosophy. The reason I question our actual knowledge of God is that there’s far more faith involved in the work to develop this concept of God than seems to be admitted for the assuredness of the description.

As for arguments for the three responses:

(1) Our greatest faculty, as humans, is our rationality, and this is the description of God at which we arrive when we apply our rationality to God. It is surely not 100% accurate, but it is as close as we can get.

(2) The activity bears rotten fruit, spiritually. By putting expectations on God when I have no right to do so, I risk both losing God’s grace and harming my own spiritual growth.

(3) The question simply misunderstands God. It is asking a question of God that has no answer.

5. If God exists, why is understanding anything more than “God Exists” important?

I can take this question in two directions:

A. If God exists, why is it important to understand anything theological beyond “God exists”: This probably depends on one’s conception of God. A deistic God or a chill pantheistic God probably doesn’t require further theological understanding. The Abrahamic religions’ conception of God requires further theology because it is relevant to human salvation.

B. If God exists, why is it important to understand anything at all beyond “God exists”: Again, believers of the Abrahamic religions might point out the importance of that human salvation stuff, but all could also make appeal to enjoying the beauty God has created/the beauty of God while we’re here and able to enjoy it.

6. How are people who believe in “crazy” supernatural beliefs different than you (assuming you are both sane)? What qualities between you and others lead you to have more accurate beliefs?

Actually, this is one of the areas where I find atheists can be a bit too easily dismissive of believers (and, to be fair, believers can be too easily dismissive of those who don’t believe in their particular brand of religion). I touched on this in my answers to the questions for atheists, but I don’t think believers of all stripes use fundamentally different ways of knowing from each other and nonbelievers.

I think the disagreements lie in emphasizing different areas and having different starting assumptions. I think this is what allows us to have such radically different subjective experiences yet we are able to relate to other’s experiences and convince/convert each other to our own worldviews.

7. What are the differences between other supernatural events? How do you disprove a supernatural event (aka, miracle)?

This is similar to question 1. It’s a quick and dirty list, but here are three areas for disproof: the evidential, the experiential, and the logical.

You can challenge the evidence or provide counter evidence (e.g., Sanal Edamaruku’s disproving of the crying statue). You can challenge the experience that people claim to have had (e.g., switcheroos like those Pizza Hut commercials where people thought they were eating fancy Italian but were actually eating Pizza Hut pasta). Finally, you can challenge the logic of something, showing it to be logically impossible (e.g., how a free-energy machine is logically impossible considering the law of conservation of energy).

8. How does anyone test their ability to have accurate beliefs about the world?

We can try to replicate our experiences to find consistencies. We can turn to external measures like other people or instruments. We can explore our beliefs rationally, examining how they hold up, logically. Also, we can apportion the certainty we have in our beliefs to the amount and quality of evidence for said beliefs.

9. How does one judge values in this world? How do you know if Honesty is better than Valor in a certain situation, or the other way around? Is it situational or absolute?

Ontologically, I’m not sure if it is situational or absolute (or something else). However, I think it is epistemically uncertain which values take precedent in which situations. To combat this, I take particular care to learn the lessons of my own actions and the lessons of others’ actions. The desired outcome is to grasp living with good character and virtue.

I may not know if choosing honesty over valor (for example) is the correct choice, but at least I can make it with reference to the best of my understanding of how these virtues apply to the situation at hand. In other words, I don’t strive to act with proper virtue, but as a person who is generally virtuous.

10. Are most people objectively sane and rational, and capable of reasoning beyond their emotions or ingrained beliefs?

Yes. Again, I think the seeming extremes in differences come from where we place different emphasis and focus when experiencing and coming to understand our experiences.

11. Can you disprove Solipsism? What problem does this present to any other possible world view?

Solipsism starts by noting that the only thing we have direct access to is our own mind. The external world is only experienced through your mental states. Metaphysical Solipsism proposes that the reason this is so is because only your mind exists. If the only thing that you have direct access to (and, subsequently, if the only thing that exists) is your mind, then the perceived external world is your mind. But, if it is your mind, you have access to it. However, Solipsism is supposed to provide an answer to why you don’t have direct access to the “external world”. If Solipsism is true, you’ve always had direct access to the “external world”–it is your mind. So, what was this thing you claimed we didn’t have direct access to? This thing was the whole point of proposing Solipsism.

I would couple this with an argument to undercut weaker forms of Solipsism. One might leave open the possibility of an external world but emphasize that we have no assured epistemic access to it. However, we can create warrant for treating the external world we experience as roughly the external world that exists by positing that our minds have to be somewhere, so why not the external world we experience?

I don’t think too much about Solipsism, so I’m happy to receive feedback.

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One comment

  1. Godless Cranium · August 15, 2014

    Interesting questions and replies. Nicely done.

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