The size of a grapefruit

There’s a post at Talking Philosophy called In Defence of Religious Belief. I would comment on it there but I can’t because I’m banned from commenting, so (since I want to say something) I’ll do it here.

It’s a thought experiment. You’ve been having hallucinations of a monster following you. You believe the shrink who tells you you’re mentally ill. ‘You’re a logical sort of person. If you weren’t too classy, you’d even consider becoming a New Atheist.’ But the experiences feel real.

And then it happens. It’s late at night. You’re alone in your bathroom, and the monster comes crashing in through the window – at least this is what you experience – and it’s on you. It doesn’t attack, but it’s right in your face, and you can smell rotting flesh on its breath. You close your eyes hoping it’ll just disappear, but you can hear its breathing, sense its malevolence, and in your head there’s this insistent thought: What if it’s real?

Well of course there is, with an experience like that.

At this point, given how high the stakes are, isn’t it reasonable to believe that the monster is real? Imagine yourself in that situation. What would you say to somebody who told you it was unreasonable or irrational to take evasive action? You wouldn’t be impressed, I suspect. Moreover, it’s not simply that you wouldn’t be impressed at the time – which is not particularly interesting, since you’re in a freaked out state – you wouldn’t be impressed afterwards either, you wouldn’t be impressed on calm reflection (with the claim that you were unreasonable to believe then).

That last parenthesis is important – I overlooked it at first, and objected, but then I went back and saw the parenthesis and my objection became superfluous. But given the parenthesis, the overall claim is a pretty narrow one – too narrow for the rest of the work it’s supposed to do. No, I wouldn’t be ‘impressed,’ or convinced, by anyone who told me I was unreasonable to be terrified by the hallucination while it was going on. That would be absurd. But I don’t think I know anyone who would say that. Of course a terrifying convincing hallucination is terrifying while it is happening.

But so what? That doesn’t translate to the claim that I would be reasonable to go on thinking the hallucination was real after it was over – which I thought was the claim itself, until I noticed that last parenthesis. That’s not the claim – but then what is the claim?

Well maybe it is the claim.

Clearly belief in the monster isn’t epistemically warranted: the perilousness of a situation is not part of that story (though this is not to accept that the belief is entirely without epistemic warrant – the fact that the experience has a verdical quality surely counts for something). But the belief is warranted in a certain kind of rationally defensible way. You’re not making a cognitive mistake if you believe: given how high the stakes are, given the fact that the experience seems to have a veridical quality, it’s reasonable for you to believe it.

This is in the present tense, so apparently the claim is after all that it’s reasonable to believe in the monster in general – not just during the hallucination but indefinitely afterward. I don’t think that claim is right. It could be right if ‘you’ had no knowledge of brain science, but the implied ‘you’ has gone to a psychiatrist and knows what hallucinations are, so that’s ruled out. So no, I don’t think it is reasonable for you to believe it, despite the veridical quality. At least not without asking a few questions first.

The monster came ‘crashing in through the window’ – so there would be broken glass if it were real. Is there any broken glass? Is there any physical evidence at all? Have you looked?

What about the fact that there was no contact? That’s very odd, isn’t it, if the monster is real? It’s ‘in your face’ but it doesn’t actually touch you? It goes to the trouble of crashing through the window (what floor is your bathroom on, by the way?) but it doesn’t attack you or touch you – well what kind of creature is that? Maybe not a real one? Eric MacDonald makes the same objection over there.

And then – if there is no physical evidence, and it didn’t touch you, then it certainly looks as if you had a very powerful hallucination. If that’s the case – there could well be something very wrong with you. You could have one hell of a brain tumor. The reasonable thing to do is go to a specialist, it’s not to go on thinking the monster is real as you did while it was (it seemed) breathing in your face.

The rest of the post of course makes an analogy with religion, but since the monster thing, as written, doesn’t work, I won’t bother with that.

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