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Argument from experience and emotion

June 26, 2010

After looking (very briefly) at two posts, I thought about the way I view things, and why I view them that way. The first post is the first of a series (right, Jon?) on why Jon doesn’t believe in the Book of Mormon. The second was a post from Tim “We All Need a Reason.” These two posts address why people believe (or don’t believe) things. As Tim writes:

…everyone comes to faith in a religious belief system through either experience, authority or reason (ideally all three would play a role).

Jon writes:

Some critics are too quick to dismiss the Book of Mormon. And while the burden of proof rests primarily with its believers, I nonetheless think we owe the Book of Mormon more than just an indifferent shrug or rolled eyes. That’s why I’m writing this series—to grapple honestly with the Book of Mormon.

These two quotations may seem unrelated, but my mind strung them together with thoughts I had been having. To me, what I believe is strongly personal, and based on personally compelling evidences. I try always to emphasize the personally compelling or personally persuasive aspect over the evidence or reason aspect. Most of my arguments for my beliefs or nonbeliefs can drill down to, “Because it makes sense to me.”

I suspect this is intellectually lazy, fallacious, whatever. But I feel too that I can’t really do much about it. To get at Jon’s point, my thoughts would be something like this: whether one considers or dismisses the Book of Mormon (or any other book) is a function of whether they are personally motivated to consider or dismiss it. How can we owe it more than an indifferent shrug or rolled eyes unless we personally feel we owe it such?

I recently (ok…maybe…half a year ago?) tried to read the Book of Mormon all the way through. I also got a “modern” “translation” of it, the Plain English Reference to the Book of Mormon. The latter was far easier to read than the former, and so I was able to get quite far through the latter (I think I got stuck in Ether…I have since gotten through Ether but haven’t trudged through Moroni.)

The problem is…throughout the attempt, I can’t seem to inspire much more than an indifferent shrug. I can’t help but feel that this book is utterly irrelevant. I mean, like good pieces of trivia, I feel it is sometimes cool to talk about it in church and be familiar with the stories, but I feel that beyond that, it is not all that useful. It doesn’t inspire me. It doesn’t even encourage me to “grapple with it.” Talking about its origins seems like a diversion that even I am not bored enough to engage in. A waste of time that even I, a jobless bum, am not fond of.

I understand that this book means the world for many people, and that faiths are built around it, churches are built around it, counterchurches and countercult movements are built around it, so on and so on, so I can see why Jon would say that we “owe” more than an indifferent shrug. Heck, since this is the foundation of my upbringing, should I know this history too?

But…all of this seems far away contrasted with the pressing experience and emotion that this stuff is not interesting to me.

Getting back to Tim’s post, it seems to me that I do have a “lopsided” foundation, and just as Tim described, it wasn’t good for any sort of faith.

There may be any number of people who are part of a belief system because of only one of the three (authority, reason, experience). But those people are probably most at risk for a loss in faith. The person who only relies on reason will find their spiritual lives stale. The person who only relies on experience will find their faith easily attacked by outside questions and may not weather through persecution or dark nights of the soul. The person who only relies on authority will only follow that authority so long as it doesn’t conflict with their outside experiences with reason or emotional/spiritual well-being.

I can see how each of these would lead to the “vulnerabilities” listed…but to me, it seems tough to say I would accept an argument on reason. Or that I would accept an argument on authority. In either case, I’d have to say that I’d more easily accept “reason” if it made sense to me (experiential). I’d accept the authority if they personally seemed convincing (experiential). As a result, I have no doubt that I have shoddy reasoning (because I’m actually going by what sounds right to me. Actual, rigorous logic often is incomprehensible to me. [P.S. I really ought to stop arguing with people with degrees and hobbies in philosophy.]) Counterintuitive, yet logically or mathematically solid truths do not endear themselves to me. And I have no doubt that I rebel from authorities I ought not to (because they don’t seem compelling) and agree with authorities I ought not to (because they seem compelling.)

What am I doing about it? Not much. I’m not personally compelled away…

In each scenario that I can imagine a great change to my being, it is from some kind of changing experience. I understand that people downplay the nature of experiences and emotions, but nevertheless, I can grapple with that. But I understand that things don’t always work like that, all the time.

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  1. Thanks for plugging my series, Andrew. I will try to write and post at least one installment to the series each week until…well, until I get bored with the bored and indifferently shrug it off lol.

    Andrew, I totally empathize with your sentiment. I tried to read the Book of Mormon last summer, and it was yawn-inducing.

    I have to struggle to care about the Book of Mormon. But that one has to struggle to care doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t care.

  2. I’m waiting for the explanation/argument (probably in your series, or maybe here, if you can condense it to a reasonably lengthed comment) for “But that one has to struggle to care doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t care.”

    (It seems to me that this argument relies on your already caring about something…e.g., what one “should” care about.)

  3. If the Book of Mormon is true, that fact should be important to all people. Surely that’s not controversial. Is your question then why should we care whether it’s true? I’m not quite sure what you’re asking. Sorry, Andrew.

  4. fact-value distinction.

    If the Book of Mormon is true, that fact doesn’t say anything more.

    But really, this isn’t quite about truth anyway. It’s about belief or conviction of truth. But if someone doesn’t believe or isn’t convicted, then why should they do anything more than shrug? The actual truth or falsity hasn’t been established, so it’s premature to even bring that up.

  5. Ahh, okay now I see what you’re getting at.

    I hinted at my answer in my original post. I think the fact that Smith was able to dictate a long, internally consistent, and relatively complex narrative in a short period of time and with his face in a hat is something that critics ought to scratch their heads at. To shrug something like that off is to wrongly ignore how impressive that feat is.

    When you go to a magic show and you see a really incredible trick, you want to know how it was done, no? That’s kind of my comportment toward the Book of Mormon, I guess.

  6. Could you elaborate a bit on what you mean when you say, “Counterintuitive, yet logically or mathematically solid truths do not endear themselves to me”? I read the post you linked to, but I’m not sure I get it. Do you mean that counterintuitive things which have been mathematically proven don’t really fully sink in for you? Or that you still believe the intuitive thing even after having seen the proof?

  7. Jon,

    I think your second paragraph gets caught up in your third paragraph.

    If I see a really incredible magic trick, it’s incredible not because anyone says I “should” find it incredible. No, it’s incredible because I *personally* found the trick incredible. If I am not personally impressed, no one would suggest that I *should* still want to know how the trick is done. So, if your comportment toward the BoM is as such, that seems to me that is because you are, in some way, intrigued or impressed.

    I mean, we could get into art, music, etc., We wouldn’t say, “Hey, the artist/writer/musician put a lot of work into it, so you should look into that.” People mostly self-direct themselves to genres they like, etc.,

    Anyway, this effectively negates the impact of the second paragraph for me. it seems like you’re saying, “many people find this impressive, so you should too.” I don’t buy that.

    • “If I am not personally impressed, no one would suggest that I *should* still want to know how the trick is done.”

      My argument is not that you should still want to know how the trick is done, regardless of whether you’re impressed. My argument is that you should be impressed in the first place!

      This is not an aesthetic judgment on my part. It’s not like my imposing music tastes on you. If you don’t find the Book of Mormon (or rather, the means by which Smith brought it about) impressive, then I don’t think you understand the Book of Mormon.

      “We wouldn’t say, “Hey, the artist/writer/musician put a lot of work into it, so you should look into that.””

      Maybe I’ll back off the claim that we owe the Book of Mormon further investigation. But would it be unfair to say, “Hey, the artist/writer/musician put a lot of work into it, so you should acknowledge that the/artist/writer/musician put a lot of work into it”? I don’t love Led Zeppelin, but I can respect them as musicians. Likewise, when I saw we owe the Book of Mormon something, it may just be the admission that what Joseph Smith produced (or at least how he produced it) was quite a feat.

      • I think we’ll have to agree to disagree, because I think it very much is like an aesthetic judgment, if not an aesthetic judgment directly. Saying, “You should be impressed in the first place” and “If you aren’t impressed, then I don’t think you understand it,” sound quite like, “You should be impressed by x literature, piece of art, genre of music, and if you aren’t, then you don’t understand it.”

        As for your final part, this just sounds too feel-good self-esteemy. Give them an A for effort. “Well, even though they didn’t win, they sure gave it a good try!”

        Actually, my respect will be tied to my personal sentiments. It is really condescending for me to say I “respect” something that I actually shrug at. It’s condescending when people do it to me. I’d rather have them say they shrug at it than to walk around on egg shells trying to be polite. (Of course, my ultimate goal would be to have them genuinely like what I have to say and agree with it, but I don’t accomplish it by saying that they “owe” it to me.)

  8. NFQ, yes, I meant what you had said. Both parts. I’m not quite sure if those are mutually exclusive..?

    I think that after hearing particularly counterintuitive mathematical proofs or logical chains, the reason I still believe my intuition is because the math or logic doesn’t “sink in.”

    For me, understanding mathematical or logical things is about understanding how these things sound right, not about how these things are sound.

    I mean, there are just some things I don’t get. Physics in general. Computer science. Math. In some cases (like the Monty Hall problem), the reason I get tripped up is because the truth is counterintuitive. In other cases, the truth isn’t particularly counterintuitive at all; I just can’t grasp it or feel it out.

    • Yeah, I guess one’s just a more extreme version of the other, ultimately.

      I don’t think I can really sympathize on this one, as the last several years of my life have been devoted to science and math. For me, when I see a proof of something I thought was counterintuitive, my intuition changes. (Quantum mechanics isn’t really that weird for me anymore — kind of sad in a loss-of-innocence way, actually.)

  9. Andrew, I’m not sure if this jives with what you’ve been saying, but in a way I can relate. Ultimately it’s emotion that causes something to “sink in.” I may write a post on this sometime… reminds me of the guy I learned about in a psych class who lost his ability to feel emotion after a brain injury, and was rendered unable to decide anything. He could reason quite well, laying out all the arguments for and against anything, but could not actually decide anything. Ultimately, we must rely on emotion to make a decision, whether it’s a “this impresses me so I must deal with it” re: Jon above, or a “this doesn’t impress me so *shrug*”, or “this impresses me, and my own use of reason suggests that it may or may not be true, and it also is the source of (positive/useful experience, etc.) so I choose to exercise faith in it.” Point being, I agree in the primacy of “strongly personal, and based on personally compelling evidences” – particularly the emphasis on “personally compelling” as there really is no “objectively compelling.”

  10. I think that is spot on…I look forward to the new post.

  11. I try always to emphasize the personally compelling or personally persuasive aspect over the evidence or reason aspect. Most of my arguments for my beliefs or nonbeliefs can drill down to, “Because it makes sense to me.”

    I think this is the most healthy and sensible way to talk about religious beliefs, and definitely the most intellectually honest.

    I suspect this is intellectually lazy, fallacious, whatever.

    Why? And even if it is logically fallacious, so? Why does that matter? The notion that your beliefs should stand up to formal logical scrutiny is itself a normative notion, a “should” that we sort of take for granted.

    I’m not saying I reject logic or sound reason; I’m just suggesting that when it comes to the world of personal “shoulds,” it’s not necessarily the trump card that people act like it is.

  12. Well, what I was thinking, Kullervo, is that part of what I want is to have a viewpoint that I think is sensible and coherent. If my viewpoint only makes sense to me, then I would have to face the fact that I may simply be insane.

  13. Glad to inspire some thoughts in you.

    I wonder if personal resonance is enough for us to go by. It for sure sets your beliefs apart in the sanctuary of your own personal preferences. No one can tell you what taste good to you.

    But what if the thing that personal resonates with another person is something unimaginably harmful to other people? Say, hijacking airplanes and flying them into skyscrapers?

    Where do you get a “leg up” on them to say that their beliefs are destructive? What if other people are part of a suicide cult? Are we content to leave the consequences of “taste good to me” to do their damage?

    Kullervo, unfortunately for many people the “shoulds” of logic and reason have a way of smacking people in the face on their own.

  14. ah, just read your comment to Kullervo. you’re a step ahead of me.

  15. Tim, while you already got my reservations with this kind of thought process from my response to Kullervo, at the same time, I have to say that I have issues here.

    To me, it seems that when we want to impose our beliefs on others, we are committing violence on them and their worldviews. We do this because we determine that it is more important to subdue people for our values (whether our values are our own or are shared) than for someone to be authentic. So, if we think that someone’s beliefs and values are destructive, we will limit their actions, impose negative consequences to their actions, try to disincentivize their actions.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t do this. However, many people aren’t aware that they are very much committing violence to people’s identities when they do this. I think we should be willing to bear the pain of knowing that we are doing such. (For example, right, wrong, or indifferent, I feel like whatever pain I feel from abusing the plane hijacker’s values simply does NOT outmatch the pain I would feel from letting him abuse my values.)

    The reason this causes problems with me is because I know that people who think I’m wrong, or who think I have the wrong values, consider me to be like the plane hijacker. I may not be murdering people, but in their eyes, I am so wrong that I should be stopped and neutralized immediately. This is extremely hurtful to me, and the callous way in which people do it is even moreso hurtful. So, I cannot demonize the suicide bomber without validating others’ demonization of myself, which I don’t want to do.

  16. So are you doing violence to my thoughts by objecting to them in your response? By challenging me aren’t you possibly destroying my authenticity? What if I find myself agreeing with you? Will you be able to forgive yourself?

  17. Well, what I was thinking, Kullervo, is that part of what I want is to have a viewpoint that I think is sensible and coherent. If my viewpoint only makes sense to me, then I would have to face the fact that I may simply be insane.

    Why? That’s a pretty drastic false dichotomy you are wielding there.

    A viewpoint is subjective by nature. I’m not saying that logic, reason, and whether or not it makes sense to other people are irrelevant, just that they are not dispositive of the issue.

  18. Tim,

    If I disagree with you, or if I do not believe something you believe, does that make me a challenger to you? For example, does my atheism alone challenge your Christianity or destroy your authenticity simply by virtue that I don’t believe in your god?

    I don’t think that this, in and of itself, is doing violence to your thoughts.

    I suppose that if your beliefs are that everyone (including me) should be Christian, then my nonbelief is a challenge. My statement that I should be me challenges your belief that everyone should be Christian. To this extent, I can concede that I am destroying and damaging your authenticity by limiting it to yourself. But this is one point where I’d be able to bear the pain of such harm.


    I guess I should start from scratch. One thing I try to seek is understanding and acceptance. Tolerance is a dirty compromise, but not the ideal. Why? How can I explain further? I don’t now how.

    Regardless of the subjectivity or not, I’m seeking something that can be shared with others. If my viewpoint cannot be shared with others, then I’ll deal with it, certainly, but it is a compromise solution.

    (I may not have even addressed your point, but I also don’t really know what you are trying to say…)

  19. No I think you misunderstood.

    What I was trying to say is that if you disagree with my worldview in any way to me that causes me to alter it, then you are “doing violence” against my beliefs. Even if the way you confront my beliefs is with passive non violence.

    A man once said to me that he didn’t believe in proselyting. I asked him if he thought other people should also not believe in proselyting. He said “yes”. It didn’t take long for me to show him how self-refuting it was to go around telling people about the benefits of non-proselytism. If he really believed it, he wouldn’t even say anything to anyone about non-proselytism.

    If you believe to change someone’s mind about a belief is to do “violence” to their worldview, then you had better stop talking to people. In fact you had better stop communicating all together. All this public blogging about why your an atheist might convince me to give up Christianity. That’d be violent to my worldview.

    I don’t think there’s anything violent about discussing ideas and pointing out errors in the thinking. It in fact can be a kind and loving thing to do. But you better not tell me I’m wrong about that, you better not even tell me why you believe differently. You might convince me otherwise.

  20. OK, I think I see what you’re saying. I don’t think that is the position I am taking.

    I think that persuasion through communication is far more bearable than persuasion through force, so if we’re making a calculation about it, then we can justify this a lot more often than something further (even IF both are violences.)

    But let me present a couple of scenarios.

    Let’s say I talk about atheism. Let’s say, even, that I try to convince someone to be an atheist (whether accidentally or purposefully). Let’s say I fail. If I fail, then I guess I fail. There can even be a point where I can say, “OK, I can see why you’re a theist, and I’m fine with that.” At some point, I don’t go any further.

    I think this is very different than if I were to, say, try o convince someone to be an atheist (whether accidentally or purposefully), and if I failed, I would try to enact all sorts of laws and heavy [negative] consequences for not being an atheist.

    I think there is a clear difference between the one and the other.

    And yet, we can think of instances when people feel perfectly justified in the other. If we fail to persuade the plane hijacker that plane hijacking is unacceptable, we move on to other messages to prevent or stop the hijacker.

    I think that there are going to be things that we feel so strongly about that we simply will say it’s worth it to stop the plane hijacker. But I think that people put far too many things in this category.

  21. I agree with you.

    By what basis do you think we determine what is unnecessarily placed in Category B? (and if you don’t see where this is going; I’m wondering what makes your ideas and values superior. Are you a moral objectivist?)

  22. I’ll probably disappoint you now: it’s our feelings. Our personal reactions, feelings, what makes sense to us. But this also affects what we think is appropriately placed in B, etc., etc.,

    Since people disagree on all of these things, I can’t say what makes my ideas and values superior except that they work for me, and I think they work well to explain why there are so many differences. Nevertheless, I cannot deny that that is what I feel, so I am not, say, paralyzed into inaction.

  23. well the next time you feel moral indignation. . . just remember that your favorite kind of ice cream is just different than the oppressor’s.

  24. Note that recognizing such does NOT negate that we feel passion for ice cream, or passion for moral indignation.

    • I guess I will leave an addendum.

      When I first heard the idea, I wasn’t entirely thrilled about it, but I suppose that if I had to think of an idea of objective morality, it would be in instances where there is absolute commonality. E.g., people generally seem to share a dislike of having stuff they own taken from them without their permission, of having their bodies violated or harmed without their permission, etc., This way, morality would be facts about what and how people feel about the well-being of themselves and other conscious creatures.

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