Saturday, July 04, 2009

Reason and the Senses

I wish us to consider the means whereby we acquire knowledge of the world and which of those means are at work in our knowledge of the transcendent. (“God” will be my short-hand for the transcendent.) Now, one might suppose that the only way to gain knowledge of God is through some sort of causal interaction with God on one end and humanity on the other. On this model, God would be sensed much as would tastes or smells; and we would have to suppose that we have an organ of sense whose natural object is God. If one did suppose this, one might be tempted to reject the possibility of knowledge of God. Why? Science has given us no evidence that we have such a sense-organ, and science seems as well to rule out the possibility of a God-world causal interaction.

I wish us, then, to consider this claim, the claim that the sole possible access to God is through sense. In the end, I will reject it. It provides an overly restrictive account of the myriad ways in which we come to know the world.

The so-called senses – sight, taste and the rest - cannot be the only means whereby we come to know the world. Indeed even if we were to assume that our senses were increased in number and we thereby came to have access to aspects of the physical world hidden to us now, they still would not be, could not be, the only means whereby we come to know the world. Let me explain. The senses place us in causal relation to the world. The world acts, the senses receive; and at the end of this process, the brain takes in the input of the senses and produces a mental representations that bears the distinctive marks of the sensory modality that gives rise to them. (The mental representations of sight have color and shape, for instance.)

But our knowledge of the world is not always receptive in this way. Not all knowledge can be reduced to sensory representations. But what else is there? What is the source of this other sort of knowledge?

Reason must be part of the answer. Consider, for instance, a proposition like one that Reitan considered in his post on Logical Empiricism.

All genuine propositions, that is all propositions that actually manage to mean something or other, are empirical in the sense that their truth makes a difference in the empirical order of things.

This proposition self-refutes. (It itself has no empirical content – its truth makes no difference in the empirical order. Thus if true, it implies that it itself means nothing. Thus it cannot be true, and if it cannot be true, it must be false.) Thus we know that its negation is true. But its negation is a non-empirical proposition, and so some of what we know we come to know in a non-empirical way. How might we describe the way in which we come to know this? It looks like philosophical argumentation to me, and I know of no better name for the ability to do that than “reason”.

A point here about reason. It cannot be labeled as subjective. The little philosophical argument above is, it seems to me, quite objectively cogent. It does not merely report how I feel. It results in a conclusion that tells us a bit about the world outside our heads, and everyone, it seems to me, is obligated by sheer logic to grant the truth of its conclusion. (I grant that the knowledge it gives us is negative and thus not really that informative. But we do know something when its over that we did not know before, and that something is really quite important. We know that some genuine, non-empirical propositions are true.)

A second point about reason. Its deliverances aren't like the those of the senses. It has no distinctive phenomenological character as do each of the sense modalities. There's no color, taste or sound to it. There's no way that it feels. Moreover, there is no organ of reason as there is for sight or the other senses. There are no eyes of reason, or ears or nose. Reason is not a faculty whereby the world acts upon us and we as a result build up internal representations of one or another aspect of that world. Reason is rather of the nature of a mental activity. With this, we show that a certain view of how we come to know the world around us is false. On that view, all cognitive content, all that we know, can we reduced to sensory representations. Reason gives us truths that are not sensory in character.

Last point: it seems to me that, once we open to door to non-sensory means to acquire knowledge, we cannot assume that we've got a good grip on what those means are, either their nature or their number. Might there be moral knowledge, for instance? I suspect so, but if this post shows anything, it shows that we cannot rule such a possibility out from the get-go.

(Now, it is of course a very good question how the brain accomplishes this activity I've called reason. I don't have an answer. Indeed I'm not even convinced that the brain could do any such thing as this. At times, I suspect that a soul must be posited as the seat of reason. But my ignorance about this issue does not in the least undermine my argument. Good questions need not be objections.)

Let me reiterate: there are sources to knowledge of the world that do not require that there be a means of transmission of information from world to mind via any sort of causal interaction. Of course some sources of knowledge do require this, and these are the senses. But there is also an intra-mental source of knowledge whereby by reflection alone we can come to discover truths which before we did not know. Knowledge does not in all cases require interaction with the external world. Thus we cannot say that if we know anything of God, we must do so through a sensory apprehension of him. There are other possibilities.

I understand very well that the waters are deep here. I've said little about what I take reason to be, and I've said about how it relates to sense. Moreover, I've only barely hinted at the possibility of other non-sensory sorts of knowledge. But there is a germ of an idea here that I think the theist wise to seize. (I'll speak in metaphors for a moment. I can do no better at present. I apologize.) God is not wholly outside us. He is within us too, and thus we ought to expect to meet him in reflection upon ourselves. Indeed this is the only way in which we meet him. There is no organ with which to sense God, nor need there be. God is met when the mind detaches from the concreta delivered up by the senses and asks after such things as ultimate origin and ultimate purpose. The God who is in us – the only God there is or could be – is not to be found in sky or earth. There are found only the creations of God. Only when in reflection we turn to questions of the origin of the world and its significance do we find God.


Burk Braun said...

This post is exhibit A for why I bring up psychological forms of explanation for theism. As a classification of epistemology, the division of basic sources into sensory, logical, and subjective is unexceptional. We can reason about logical relations, but have no need, desire, or premises to do so until we have sensory input. A brain without senses would not reason either, I think.

Anyhow, all this is no reason to hold out the possibility of yet other modes of "knowledge". You would have to have better evidence for those than assertions like "God is not wholly outside us" and the like. Gathering all the evidence of human psychology, higher criticism, anthropology, comparative religion, etc. leads to the inescapable conclusion that such claims of theistic "knowledge" are purely imaginative, driven by social authority structures and concomitant suggestibility and/or personal mystical experiences touching on culturally patterned as well as universal themes of wish-fulfillment, guilt/expiation dynamics, and similar psychodynamics that are powerful- so powerful as to undermine reason.

This by no means obviates the need to do philosophy, which is why I am here. But it helps to explain why, even after the relevant philosophy is done, (say, by Hume), the creation of gods by humans documented, and the old supersitions packed away, the same ideas keep popping up time and time again.

Specifically for this post, I'd suggest you investigate the nature of perception of deities and souls, along the lines of the work of William James and successors in cognitive science), before leaping into a defense of its luxuriant products. One example is the book supersense.

David B. Ellis said...

Sure, there are nonsensory forms of knowledge.

I know mathematical truths and logical truths.

I know my own consciousness.

Thus we cannot say that if we know anything of God, we must do so through a sensory apprehension of him. There are other possibilities.

The fact that there are some forms of knowledge that are nonsensory doesn't mean that knowledge of God is possible by nonsensory means.

You haven't said anything in this post to establish that nonsensory knowledge of God can actually be achieved.

Its unclear from your final paragraph whether you have in mind direct mystical apprehension of God or inferring the existence of God on the basis of philosophical argumentation (the early part of the paragraph sounds like you mean the first while the end sounds like the latter). Maybe you mean both are possible.

If so I'd like to hear an actual argument to that effect. Personally, I don't reject the possibility of nonempirical verification of God's existence because I rule out nonempirical knowledge of any kind (I accept some kinds of nonempirical knowledge as I've already said). I reject the possibility because

a) in the case of mystical apprehension of God there's no way (other than through empirical verification) to know that what's experienced isn't a figment of one's imagination. And

b) in the case of nonempirical philosophical arguments for God's existence I've found none that's not subject to quite reasonable objections. I don't rule out the possibility that someone will come up with a good one eventually. But I strongly suspect it can't be done.

In the end, though, one thing is clear. Nothing comes close to good empirical evidence as a basis for justified belief in God.

If God allowed the dead to visit earth one day a year and tell the world of what the afterlife is like, it would do vastly more to verify God's existence than 10,000 philosophical arguments could ever hope to accomplish.

Franklin Mason said...


We're closer on the issues here than you might suspect. I agree that the standard arguments for God's existence are not conclusive (where by "conclusive" I mean an argument that commands rational assent). Nor do I think that one can prove that mystical experience of any sort has God as its source or object. I do suspect that I give more weight to these things than do you, but faith does not have their sole or even a major source in them.

Perhaps I was not clear, but my intent in this post was only to undermine a certain objection to the possibility of knowledge of God's existence. On that objection, we cannot know God if we have no sense organ that takes God (or the transcendent in general) as its object; and it is enough to undermine the objection if one can show that it assumes an overly restrictive account of the sources of knowledge. Note that I do not suppose that reason does or can prove God's existencde. I only argue that, if that possibility has not been ruled out, one cannot suppose that if one proves that there's no God sense, as it were, one has proven that we cannot know God.

One last little point. It seems to me that a self-consistent agnostic (or atheist) would not be persuaded by an event like the one your describe - visitation by the dead. There's always another hypothesis for any such event, no matter how spectacular, than the God-hypothesis. (Perhaps alien technology or some as yet unknown purely physical mechanism.) There's nothing that could happen that would force the God-hypothesis; and I suspect that with sufficient ingenuity, another hypothesis could be created that would account for the data equally well. Consider this, too. To suppose that God is the cause seems to suppose more than is necessary. For any phenomena of which we are aware could, it seems, have been brought about by a finite power. Thus to suppose that infinite power was the cause - and this is the God-hypothesis - is to suppose too much. One overdoes it when one posits God. One could always do with less.

Steven Stark said...

Hi Franklin,

I enjoyed your post. I can't really agree with you on reason too much, because I believe that reason is inference based on observation. We experience through our senses how the world seems to work and then, through our imagination (thinking mind, visualization, whatever you want to call it), we use the same laws for things we can't directly observe.

However, I agree with many of your thoughts on God - especially that God is what we experience through our consciousness, rather than a third person deity separate from us.

Many atheists I know, I consider to be spiritual people, and I have much more in common with them than literalist believers. The reason I love religion, however, is because even if an ancient mode of thinking may be outdated, I don't think the source of that thinking is outdated. Religion is the product of the thinking mind, our visualization/imagination. But what are we trying to describe through this language? The mystery of being - our existence, our awareness, the great I AM of life.

Sometimes when a secularist criticizes religion (which it often deserves) or the term “God”, for instance by giving evolutionary theory on the origin of the religious impulse, I feel that it’s similar to trying to enjoy a novel while someone is sitting next to you saying, “Why are you enjoying this? You know it’s all just made up don’t you? It’s not real.” The same with the tennis match I just watched and enjoyed. “Don’t you know your enjoyment of this is just because of evolutionary biology and the competitive instincts it gives you? Can’t you see that tennis is an arbitrary game invented by human imagination?”

But the truth is that the novel, and perhaps the tennis match, are symbolic ways to communicate the deep truths of existence. Some prefer essays, I often choose poetry. Though both are essential.

Thanks again for you point of view.

Franklin Mason said...


There are points of agreement between us, but I think we might differ in certain respects. That would depend upon to what degree you think that God is subjective. I've just now come to the view I expressed here, the view that God is to be met in consciousness that turns in on itself. But I would wish to add to this that God is not only there. There is a reality that transcends us that yet resides in us. (Sorry for the metaphor. I can't think of any way to make my point that is not metaphoric.)

About reason: I don't see my way altogether clearly, but I suspect that it does not simply make use of material provided by the senses. Consider the proposition at the center of the argument of the post: "All genuine propositions, that is all propositions that actually manage to mean something or other, are empirical in the sense that their truth makes a difference in the empirical order of things." We can know that it self-refutes, we know that through reason, but the argument I gave does not rely upon sense contents in any way that's obvious to me. This looks like an application of reason that's independent of the senses; and if that can happen in one place, no doubt it can happen in many others too.

Steven Stark said...

I still have a hard time seeing how reason can be employed without the senses. Surely reason is memory employed to make inference based on sensory observation. If a person had no senses (and never did, otherwise memory of sense could be employed), would a string of thoughts be possible? hard to know. I try to think without language all the time and that is tricky too! But worthwhile to pursue.

As far your proposition being self-refuting - isn't that more about the idea that any string of thought has to start with an axiom? an assumption? It does doesn't it?

Is God subjective? It definitely depends on how we define God. But from my experience, God tends to be a personal construct - a way for the consciousness to interact with itself, as you suggested. I am definitely not ruling anything out - I am open to possibilities beyond our wildest dreams - but in this life, it seems that the ball is in our court. Spirituality is the perspective we choose in dealing with the phenomena of existence. The subjective construct of God is a way to interact with the "real" God - however we define that - Being itself. the subconscious. etc. etc.

And God is just a word. God doesn't need that word, but it's still useful to me.

"There is a reality that transcends us that yet resides in us."

I like this.

Sorry for scattered thoughts, but wanted to interact without much time.....

Franklin Mason said...

About sense and reason. I do agree that, if there had never been any sensory contents, reason would never have awoken. But it seems to me that, though this is true, reason doesn't always have to act up, or use, either sensory contents or the memory of them. When I think, for instances, that 2+2=4, I do not think about anything I've ever seen, heard, tasted etc. Now, it might be that, if I'd never seen, heard, tasted etc. anything, I would never have come to know that 2+2=4. Nonetheless, that very proposition, though no doubt it applies to sense contents, does not incorporate them as part. 2+2=4 is much too general for that; it potentially applies to an infinity of sense contents but does not actually incorporate any of them.

So I would insist that reason sometimes applies itself to something other than info. derived from the senses.

About God and self-consciousness: it does seem to me that, as Schleiemacher said, this is where God first appears. But I for one would not wish to say that God is only there. I wish for God to be a check on my mistakes, a correction for my faults; and for this, God cannot be in me alone. I have no good idea how God serves this role, but if He does not, I have no use for him. God's existence is not in the first place a theoretical proposition. It would say that it's primarily practical instead. We're all a mess; we all need help. And if God can' help, can't give us a way to become more compassionate, happier, wiser, etc., then I think we should chuck the idea of God.

Steven Stark said...

I feel your thoughts on this one. I will add that I think that everything is in our heads, ultimately. We all think we know or seek objective truth, and that it applies to all, but we only have our subjective perception (and perspective!) to comprehend it.

I think of Woody Allen's movie Crimes and Misdemeanors. An otherwise respectable man has his mistress killed. And he gets away with it. At the end of the movie, he now has to live in the godless world without justice that he has created for himself. A blind rabbi is shown in contrast - one who has made different choices. The respectable man is an optometrist.

I also think of the Hindu mystic who said that looking for the grace of God is like being neck deep in water and thirsty.

Thanks for sharing elements of your journey with us.

Steven Stark said...

I meant to add that I have considered 2+2 = 4 quite a bit.

Imagine two apples in two sets. We scoot them together. none of the apples have disappeared. We label this new grouping as 4. 2 and 4 are labels for phenomena we see.

Anyway, always interesting to turn consciousness/reason/logic on itself. and worthwhile.

Steven Stark said...

sorry I keep thinking of things...

Buddhism is all about practicality. Compassion creates happiness so practitioners meditate to cultivate compassion. While there is an extensive amount of philosophy and mythology associated with the religion - self practice is the ultimate authority.

The parable of the arrow is a great story about whether we should worry about where the arrow came from, or if we should just go ahead and try to remove it. Your comments made me think of it.