Inner experience and doubtability
A little more on this puzzle about inner experience. No reason; I just find it interesting. I keep picking away at it. I suppose partly (or maybe mostly) because I know perfectly well that my instinct is simply to think the idea* is absurd – so that can be seen as a reason to try hard to consider the opposite. And there’s also the fact that Stannard obviously doesn’t think it’s absurd, and he’s obviously not just silly, so that’s another reason to puzzle. Plus it raises some interesting thoughts about memory and knowledge and so on – why some memories are harder to doubt than others, for instance. (In thinking about that I’ve had the mildly amusing realization that I can remember [just] brushing my teeth this morning, but can’t remember brushing my teeth on any previous morning whatever. Presumably all of us have precisely one memory of matutinal tooth-brushing, and all the others make up a blurred generic inferential group-memory.)
I conceded too much yesterday, I realized a few minutes after I abandoned the computer for the day. I think the problem is not quite with the inherent undoubtability of the experience itself – because it seems perfectly rational to believe one had a certain kind of inner experience – but with how one interprets it. Stannard seems to move seamlessly (i.e. without visible interpretation) from the experience to what the experience is. But that has to be the issue. He has An Experience when he prays; but it is just his interpretation that that experience is meeting God and understanding that God is love and forgiveness. I would say that’s the part that’s not rational. He takes it for granted himself, but that’s just what he shouldn’t do. He seems to be claiming that that is what he is unable to doubt – that that experience is one of meeting God, and what kind of being that God is. That seems different from, and stranger than, being unable to doubt one went running a few hours ago. One has a memory of traveling through space on one’s own legs, one remembers what one saw on the way, etc; one interprets that as ‘going running’ or ‘walking to the sculpture park and back’. That seems a not very far-fetched interpretation – and it is one that we could easily put into more precise terms (bipedal motion, X number of steps, T time taken, route on a map, etc). But interpreting an inner experience as meeting a loving forgiving God is a pretty different kind of thing. So – why is Stannard so unable to doubt it? I don’t think that is rational, and I’m not even sure I think it’s really reasonable any more.
Here’s one place I think Stannard makes a dubious inference:
‘I believe a lot of things about physics, not having personally done the experiments. And it is because I trust the people who have done the experiments. It seems to me that if you’re dealing with religious people, who all engage in this prayer activity, and time and again, they keep on coming up with the idea that they are in contact with someone, and yes, that someone does have the characteristics of love and forgiveness and all the rest of it – now that is repeatable, and I think to myself, well, why shouldn’t I trust these people that they are accurately reporting their experiences? What you look for is consensus…’
For one thing, what is ‘time and again’? How many is that? How universal is it? But for another, bigger thing, what is that ‘yes, that someone does have the characteristics of love and forgiveness and all the rest of it’ about? One, what someone? What does that ‘that’ refer to? Two, what does he mean the someone ‘does have the characteristics of love and forgiveness’? What does that ‘does’ refer to? He says it as if it’s as straightforward as size or weight, but (needless to say) it isn’t. Three, how do any of them know that this God has to have those characteristics? Four, how do they know their (cultural) expectation that this God will have those characteristics hasn’t simply shaped or indeed determined what their inner experience is? Five, what about all the reasons there are to think that a creator God would in fact not have those characteristics but other, more alarming ones? Six, what does the whole package mean – in what sense are they ‘in contact,’ in what sense is this ‘contact’ ‘repeatable,’ what is it about this repeatable contact that tells them this ‘someone’ has ‘the characteristics of love and forgiveness’?
And so on. And another thing (I raised both of these on the J&J blog earlier, but feel like raising them here too; excuse recycling) – there is a question about what kinds of experiences are more (rationally) doubtable than others. JS says he can’t doubt he went running this morning. Suppose you had a very intense inner experience this morning – suppose it exactly like the kind of experience Stannard has in prayer. (Obviously no one can confirm or deny that, so we can just suppose it.) I wonder if you would say or think you can’t doubt you had that experience – not just an experience, but that experience – an experience of that particular kind. I wonder if you would find it as inherently undoubtable as your having gone running – if you would find it undoubtable in exactly the same way.
I’ll volunteer the opinion that if I had such an experience, I wouldn’t find it undoubtable in the same way as a recent long walk down and up a steep hill. I can’t be certain of that, but that’s my guess. My guess is that as soon as I tried to think about it in order to see if I could doubt it or not, it would become too fuzzy to be undoubtable, in a way that a fresh memory of a walk down and up a steep hill doesn’t.
If I’m right about that, it seems to be another reason to think Stannard isn’t really rational to take his inner experience at face value. That kind of thing is or ought to be inherently more doubtable than other kinds of experience can be. (Maybe what I’m claiming is that inner experience is more like an older memory, which shifts and wiggles when you try to pin it down, than it is like a fresh one, which is more robust, and that that means it is more doubtable.)
*that it’s rational to take one’s own inner experience of meeting God at face value