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Faith is emotionalism, Part 2: Perception versus Emotion

Faith is emotionalism, Part 2: Perception versus Emotion

by David Veksler

(This is the second part of selections from a Facebook debate.  Part 1 is here.)


The key to my disagreement with the theist hinges on the question of “Can we know God?” or “Can have knowledge of the supernatural?”  The theist says yes, we use both experience and the “sensus divinitatus” to acquire knowledge of God.  I disagree – I believe that knowledge of reality can only be obtained through reason, and the supernatural is by its very definition opposed to reason.  Furthermore, the “divine sense” the theist refers to is just emotionalism.  In this post, I will focus on the essence of our disagreement by examining in detail the nature of this supposed divine sense and reveal it to be pure emotionalism.

To recap three key points from my last note:

  • I reviewed valid and invalid means of acquiring knowledge and concluded that truth can only be reached by perceiving it and integrating sensory data – e.g. reason.
  • Emotions are a kind of thinking that tells us about our mental state.
  • We can learn from others, but ultimately new knowledge is formed by integrating new evidence into our own experience of reality.

Introduction: Faith is emotionalism

My key criticism of the theistic argument for faith is:  it is emotionalism.   But emotions are not evidence of reality, only of one’s mental state.  Neither revelation nor any other evidence for the supernatural is possible.   I believe this argument is sufficient to disprove all religious convictions, as all other (i.e. “historical”) arguments for the supernatural are revealed to be absurd once a proper epistemology (e.g. reliance on the senses) is assumed.

The Nature of the Senses

Let’s begin with the senses we agree on: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.    This much has been known since Aristotle.  What is the exact nature and method of these senses?

The process is the same for all the senses in all species:

  • Some entity in reality interacts causally with a sense organ.
  • The interaction is either direct (touch) or indirect, through some intermediary particle (sight, smell, hearing)
  • The interaction is physical.  Some force of nature must influence the sensory organs, changing their chemical composition sufficiently to stimulate the nervous system.
  • The nervous system transmits a signal electro-chemically to the brain as chunks of raw data.
  • The brain parses the raw data according to the rules it has developed since birth, and searches for similarities and patterns.
  • Once a pattern is found, conscious awareness is possible.  As adults, we are not aware of raw sensory data – we perceive distinct entities are integrated by our minds.
  • If the entity interacts with more than one sense (for example, we touch, smell, see, taste, and hear the food we eat), the brain automatically attempts to correlate the sensory streams and presents it as an integrated unit to the conscious mind.
  • Once an entity is recognized, our brain automatically attempts to relate it to an existing concept, trying to bring it within the context of knowledge we have of that entity.  This is where conscious awareness normally begins.
  • If the entity is not recognized, the brain begins the process of associations, trying to ascertain the relationship of that entity to known entities and sets.  This happens on both subconscious and conscious levels.
  • Only after we are conscious of a unit as an instance of a concept, do we begin the process of using that information cognitively – such as learning about and interacting with it.

Note some important aspects of this process:

  • For us to be aware of an entity, it must have a physical presence and a causal interaction with our sense-organs.
  • The same interaction is possible to anyone with similar sense organs, even though they may interpret the identity of the entity differently.
  • We are not physically aware of entities, only or raw sensory data, which our minds interpret.  Our adult minds however, are consciously only of entities because the process of integrating sense-data is learned in infancy.
  • Our senses are infallible – they merely transmit raw data.  It is up to the fallible brain to correctly interpret the sense-data.
  • We perceive the world as a coherent, integrated whole.  We use all our senses to perceive an entity, and integrate them into awareness of a single existent.  There is not a separate sight-table and a touch-table, but only a table which we both see and touch.
  • Existence is primary – it provides the source for the content of consciousness.  No thought process is possible without existents first interacting with the mind.
  • The mind is not capable of interacting or affecting existence directly.  It is only an object of perception and integration, not creation.
  • Entities in reality have identity, but no meaning, relationships, or mental content.  It is the mind which identifies, relates, and gives meaning to the world.

Note how emotions differ from the senses:

  • Emotions are a kind of thought.  We are aware of thoughts only by introspection.
  • With thoughts, there is no existent outside of our minds to be aware of, but only of internal mental processes.
  • Emotions can be formed in reaction to memories or new perceptions.
  • Either way however, entities in reality do not contain any emotional content – it is our ideas which analyze the entities we are aware and which emotional reactions in response to that.
  • Sensation requires some existent in reality for us to be aware of (though we may misinterpret its identity), but our emotions can respond to both real and imaginary entities.

What is the exact nature of the “sensus divinatus?”

Imagine that you are an objective observer and feel the “sensus divinatus” (henceforth referenced to as the “phenomenon”) for the first time.  You know that you experienced something, but you need to identify the nature of your experience.  You know that you are aware of two kinds of mental entities: thoughts (which include emotions) and sensations.  With that context in mind, does the “sensus divinatus” match the nature of perception or emotion?

You make the following observations:

  • The “phenomenon” is dependent on your mental state.  Skeptics do not sense it.  If you are bored, distracted, pre-occupied you do not sense it either.  You only experience it when your mind contains certain ideas or emotional states which are receptive to the “phenomenon”.
    • This is not true for all the other existents that you are aware of.  You see and feel a table whether or not you believe in tables and regardless of whether you are having a bad day or not.
  • There is no inter-sensory integration between the perceptions of the “phenomenon”.  We touch, smell, see, taste, and hear an apple, but we only feel the “phenomenon”.  It is dis-integrated from our sensory organs.
  • No objective definition in terms of sensory data of the phenomena is possible.  We can describe in relative terms the specific nature (i.e. the “raw data”) of our perception of a table.  We cannot describe the phenomena in such terms.
  • By contrast, we can describe the phenomena in conceptual terms.  We can describe (with some introspection and self-examination) the ideas that the experience conveys.  We cannot do this with any entity we perceive.  We might not like tables, and become enraged upon seeing one, but the perception of the table as such does not convey any conceptual or emotional content.
  • Your perception of the phenomena changes with your ideas.  You might switch from atheism to theism and experience it and then switch back and lose the experience.   Your perception of a table does not depend on mood or your ideas.
  • No objective internal-personal correlation of the phenomena is possible.  Two people in a church service might both claim to experience it, but their particular observations will all differ according to the existing ideas about the nature of the supernatural.  One will think of a bearded man and the other will see a ghostly blur.  This can’t be said about a table. It has the same properties for all observers.
  • There exists no causal process which we can investigate.  We can observe, measure, and record light rays and sound waves, weight masses, observe monomolecular odorants and chemoreceptors in the tongue, but we have no way to detect the “phenomenon”.
  • There is no causal entity in reality to be aware of.  We are aware of causal entities because there is a causal interaction that goes on between the entity and the mental process.  In the case of the “phenomenon”, there is only the mental process. How do you know this?
    • The “phenomenon” is only available to the person aware of it.  Two people in a church will not both see a supernatural presence if one believes in it and the other does not.
    • In short, unlike all the other senses, no physical interaction or observation with the phenomena is possible outside of direct experience.

Therefore you conclude:

All awareness must be through some sense – some causal interaction between reality and a sensory organ, as interpreted by the consciousness which parses the sensory data.  But the essence of the “phenomenon” is its non-causality.  There is a mental cause, but no physical cause.  Any physical cause must be specific- it must have a certain defined nature, which is something and therefore not something else.  A non-causal entity is a contradiction.  An entity, any entity, must have a specific nature, which is revealed through its causal interaction with other entities.  There can be no such thing as a non-causal interaction, and therefore, no awareness is possible of a non-causal entity.   If “phenomenon” does not have a material cause, it must be a mental cause e.g. – it is a creation of your imagination and emotion without a referent in reality.

Anticipation of criticism: the true believer

To anticipate a common criticism, some claim that the reason that skeptics do not feel the divine consciousness is because it is only able and/or willing to reveal itself to someone if they have certain brain structures (i.e. you must be open to it).  This response has two flaws:  it is a logical fallacy and it not answer any of the criticisms of revelation.

The fallacy is that of begging the question. (i.e. “no true Scotsman”)  The skeptic must be open to the “phenomenon” to be aware of it, and since he is never aware of it, he must not be open to it.  But this evading the nature of the “openness” since no specific procedure of openness is ever sufficient until the skeptic is actually aware of the “phenomenon”.   In other words, the theist is claiming “you must already believe in the phenomena to experience the phenomena.”  But it is a contradiction to make the proof of a claim conditional on first accepting the claim as true.

Furthermore, this critique fails to address any of the criticism of revelation because it fails to provide the means by which revelation occurs.  It is true that if one believes in the supernatural, one will experience the emotions connected with that belief, but that emotion does not prove the existence of anything other than the belief.  None of my critiques of an extra-sensory perception are answered.

Conclusion: Existence has primacy over consciousness

At this point, I suggest first re-reading my argument for sensory data as the basis of knowledge, which I have isolated here.

I hope that my position is clear by now.  To know reality, we must first be aware of reality.  Our awareness comes from our sensory organs, which provide raw data that our mind integrates into a conceptual awareness.  Consciousness is therefore a tool of perception, not a tool of creation.  Extra-sensory perception is a contradiction in terms. To form a true understanding of reality, we must give existence primacy over consciousness.   To do otherwise, to treat the mind as creating reality, is to live in a delusional fantasy-world which cripples our ability to deal with the facts. 

This is true for any consciousness, including a supposed divine consciousness.  A consciousness cannot create reality – it is an organ of perception, not of direct manipulation.  Quoting Ayn Rand: “If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something. If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness.”

Faith – the acceptance of the supernatural as fact — places consciousness above reality by giving consciousness – whether human or divine – the role of creating reality.    But reality cannot be shaped by our thoughts.

Reversing the relationship of the mind and reality is the root of the evil of religion.  To live in reality, we must confirm our minds to it, not vice versa.  Expecting reality to conform to our minds cripples our ability to survive in it.  To concretize this, imagine a doctor who tells you “I will pray for you” rather than “I will treat you.”  Would you feel safe in his hands?  That is the attitude you assume whenever you place an “I wish” above an “It is.”

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