Sago Boulevard

Friday, September 09, 2005

Intuition, Experience, and Theism

Last week, Godol Hador wrote about the role of intuition in justifying theistic arguments. I responded:
In daily life, we don't demand logical certainly. We believe certain things, and act accordingly, based on a combination of logic, observation, and intuition. For example, I just sat down on a chair. I assumed, justifiably, that the chair was secure enough to hold my weight. Although I would openly admit that from a purely logical perspective I had no good reason to believe that the chair would support, I maintain it was a perfectly reasonable assumption. It is unfair (and intellectually dishonest) to demand a higher level of evidence than the one we rely on so casually everyday.

Now the question is this: is the claim of God's existence so extraordinary that it indeed requires greater evidence than other claims? Orthoprax claims (in the comments to GH's post and on his blog) that "extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence":
You see chairs every day. You sit in them all the time. They almost always support you. It doesn't conflict with anything you regularly know about the world to assume this one will support you as well. It looks like it will and that's all the ordinary evidence you need for such an ordinary belief. For claims that we know are possible, you need less evidence because all you need to prove is that it happened at a certain time and place. Claim: "There's an asian elephant in the Bronx Zoo." Very possible, very believable. Show me a recent advertisement of that and I have no real reason to doubt it.
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And then still there are other claims which we don't think are possible, but hey, you never know. Claim: "The mansion down the block is haunted." Wow, haunted, that's incredible. I've never even seen a ghost or seen any reliable documentation of ghost sightings ever. Are ghosts even real? For this one claim, they claimant not only needs to prove that it is possible but that it did indeed happen.
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The claim of God fits somewhere along the lines of the haunted mansion claim and is far removed from "this chair will support my weight" claim.

Let's say I grant Orthoprax's point that I need "extraordinary evidence" to support the claim of God. I think I have it. I've never encountered a haunted house and don't personally know anybody who has. But three times day I pour my heart out to God, I address Him before and after eating meals, when I lay down at night and when I arise in the morning. Furthermore, I have available to me a tradition that tells me in great detail how to approach Him, how to learn from Him. My teachers, whom I trust, reinforce this by pointing out nuances and insights in the texts of the rabbis.

For somebody who has that primal experience on a regular basis, God is very familiar. As R. Soloveitchik asks (paraphrasing Kierkegaard), "Does the loving bride in the embrace of her beloved ask for proof that he is alive and real? Must the prayerful soul clinging in passionate love and ecstasy to her Beloved demonstrate that He exists?"

Orthoprax responded:
Have you seen God? Spoken to him (meaning that he actually returned a response)? Has anyone shared your experiences with you? Have you sensed him in any way but the emotional? If not, then how can you know that you've actually experienced something real and external to yourself?

I suppose the same way I know that I ever experience something "real and external" to myself. But I think something else is going on here in his argument. By demanding empirical or repeatable evidence, he disregards a major theological claim out of hand. The fundamental experience that a religious person has with God is a real one. I have just as much cause to trust it as I do any other experience, if not more.