The Total Life Experience (TLE) Argument
One of the unexpected joys of having written a book on atheism is the opportunity to have conversations with people of many different perspectives. John wrote to me out of the blue the other day, and we had a short back and forth. I happened to have been talking to my friend Bill Zuersher (author of Seeing Through Christianity: A Critique of Beliefs and Evidence) about arguments for God, so I looped him in too as this one was different from the classic cosmological, ontological, and teleological arguments.
With John’s permission, I’ve reproduced the conversation below, with only light editing for typos or context.
I cannot tell from your website what your worldview (eg, pantheism) preference is. Do you have one?
I have a Christian worldview, and my preferred epistemology is inference to the best explanation.
Thanks for your email. I was a Christian but am now an atheist. Both halves of that sentence are prone to misunderstanding so let me expound slightly.
On the first half: Some Christians have the view that ‘once saved always saved’ and conclude that I was either never a “real” Christian or that I still am and I’m on a complicated journey. I obviously cannot persuade anyone that I was a “real” Christian previously, but that’s what I was.
On the second half, I often get quibbles about the definition of atheist. I’m an atheist in the sense that I do not believe in God. I don’t believe there’s a God because I am not persuaded by the evidence I’ve seen (including personal experiences, testimonies, philosophical arguments, historical arguments, biblical arguments, scientific arguments etc). Specifically, I don’t reject god, or have a philosophical belief that there cannot be a god. It’s “I don’t believe in God,” not “I believe there’s no God.” The former position puts the burden of proof on the theist.
My training is in science and my epistemology is centered on that and generalizations of that to wider areas. I think induction and collaboration are our best methods for getting to the truth. (I’ve given a talk on “collaborative realism” which is probably on youtube if you’re interested. It’s a term that I coined, but is related to other similar epistemologies.) Probably not very different from you. Especially if you allow for a non-explanation of “I don’t know”. If you don’t, then that would be an area of difference.
I was probably in a similar position to yourself. I would say that my epistemology has stayed roughly the same though I’ve lost my belief. My book explains why I find a whole bunch of evidence and arguments unconvincing. It was aimed at my former self: a rational believer. So you’d probably enjoy it, even if it doesn’t ultimately persuade you.
Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
Also, I’d love to hear what provoked the email.
Thanks for your kind reply to my email.
I found your book on Amazon while doing a search for evidences for Christianity. […]
I looked over your website for a statement of your worldview (metaphysics/ontology), but I really couldn’t find it, so I asked you directly. I’m guessing that you are a materialist, solipsist, or agnostic. Are you one of these?
I became a Christian as a child because I trusted in the local church I grew up in, but I remained a Christian as an adult because the evidences for the truthfulness of the Christian faith are massive and the alternatives (and I have probed them) are vastly inferior in explaining the now 79 years of life that I personally have experienced. I do not expect to see any credible challenge to the truthfulness of the Christian faith.
Atheistic materialism is pervasive and influential in America and the West, but it is a defective ideology because it views all ideas as illusions. This view implies that atheistic materialism itself is an illusion. This view seems to function as an irrational escape from Christianity.
It seems to me that refusal to accept the truthfulness of Christianity on the basis of the evidence is a moral failure.
Do you know of any credible alternative to the Christian faith?
Based on what I’ve learned about you, I think you might really like Mind and Cosmos by philosopher Thomas Nagel. He is an atheist who believes that the materialist worldview is defective because it does not account for mind. He urges the atheist community to develop a better program.
Best wishes and regards,
Thanks again for your response. I am a methodological materialist. Above that, I would say I’m an empiricist (so I see materialism as being derived from empiricism). While there are some fascinating philosophical ideas out there, if they do not manifest themselves in the empirical realm, then they are essentially intellectual masturbation.
A couple of further responses to your email:
- You said: “It seems to me that refusal to accept the truthfulness of Christianity on the basis of the evidence is a moral failure.”
- I take issue with this statement for a number of reasons. First: I do not “refuse” to accept Christianity. I simply am unpersuaded by the arguments I have seen for it. For me to accept the supposed truthfulness of Christianity would be a moral failure, because I would be pretending to believe something that I don’t actually believe. Second: “accepting the truthfulness” is assuming that which needs to be established. Third: belief is an involuntary response (at least to an overwhelming extent) so tying it to morality is problematic for any reasonable definition of morality.
- Atheism and humanism provide a very credible alternative to Christianity. Specifically, “faith” is a problematic epistemology (depending on the definition of this slippery word).
- I must confess that I don’t find the philosophical need for dualism (ie mind/brain separation) to be very compelling. But, again, as an empiricist, I just don’t see the need for the assumption. It seems to me that minds are just complicated manifestations of neural/brain activity. I’ve not seen any good evidence against this idea, despite there being serious attempts to find it (e.g. AWARE: a study that sought to examine out-of-body/near-death experiences in resuscitation rooms). Again, I’m not rejecting the possibility, but I am highly skeptical. A comparable situation would be if someone claimed to have a perpetual motion machine. I’m curious, but go in skeptical and fully expect the mistake to be revealed in due course.
Perhaps I can ask you a follow-up question?
You have referred to massive evidences for the truth of Christianity. What would you say are the biggest ones for you? By biggest, I mean something that if it turned out not to be well-evidenced, you would abandon your Christianity.
Your follow-up question doesn’t apply to me because I have a non-foundationalist epistemology. That is, my beliefs rest on the totality of my experiences–not on just a few “big ones.”
Please reconsider your stance on dualism. Thomas Nagel is one of the most respected living philosophers on the planet among his peers even though most Americans have never heard of him. Here’s a link to the Wikipedia article on him: Thomas Nagel
Also, it seems to me that American “Christianity” is morally corrupt. I wonder if that might be a factor in your disbelief.
I will read Nagel with interest. As I mentioned, much of this seems like intellectual masturbation and sophistry, but I am not opposed to the idea in principle. I also could imagine a dualistic world without any god, so I don’t see it as a significant factor in the religious discussion. It would be sort of like discovering an aether.
Certainly, the corruption of Christianity is an issue. One issue I had, in retrospect, was that when I moved to the US, I realized that many people whose ideas I hated were undeniably sincere in their faith. I think that probably shook me a little, or at least, increased my willingness to look at the evidence more critically. I mean, if sincere Christianity did not lead to better behavior, then could it really be true? But I don’t know that it was the main factor. I was quite happy with my Christian community in general.
I appreciate your non-foundationalist epistemology. Here’s the talk I gave on epistemology in which I essentially agree with that position but explain how I shifted away from Christianity:
The talk is more about epistemology than it is about Christianity, though I use religion as an example. I’d be interested in your thoughts, as you’ve clearly thought about this a great deal.
Even without a foundationalist epistemology, there must be large support structs in the coherentist model that hold up Christianity for you. For me, I was in a similar position but gradually whittled away individual arguments. My faith remained, but the support for it was reduced. Eventually, when I realized the resurrection was not historically justifiable, my faith fell. But this was just the accumulation of a decade or more of examination, which had slowly removed the other arguments for Christianity until only the resurrection remained.
So, without them being the sine qua non, maybe you can share some of the major reasons for the hope that is within you (to quote Paul on the subject).
The best rationale for “my hope” is that Christian theism seems to be the best explanation for the totality of my life’s experience. I am such a non-foundationalist that looking at individual ideas in isolation from others doesn’t make sense to me. Also, I regard epistemology as connected to ontology, ie, ontology will influence epistemology, so I don’t believe there is one neutral epistemology.
I watched your youtube presentation on epistemology, and I must say, it was impressive indeed. I have never seen a lecture like this anywhere. I only wish more people were interested in why they believe what they do. As one Christian said, “The unexamined faith isn’t worth believing.” I have been greatly influenced by TS Kuhn and WVO Quine.
Now about Peter Boghossian: I share his contempt for academic nonsense, but I do not approve of his deceptive hoax paper project.
I will admit to finding this “totality of life experience” argument frustrating. Let’s call it TLE for short. I find it frustrating because it’s as subjective as it’s possible to get, appears to be impossible to explain, and is utterly unshakeable.
For example, I could say that my TLE leads me to atheism. A muslim could site TLE for their belief. Someone who believed in fairies could cite TLE. Someone using TLE might just as well say, “well, that’s just what I think” and be done with it.
However, you’re clearly an intelligent person (you must be if you liked my talk!), so let me try a slightly different approach (Boghossian’s approach, actually).
Here’s three questions for you, if you are willing:
- Question 1: how certain are you of Christianity from 0 to 100, where 0 means not at all certain and 100 means completely certain?
- Question 2: what could cause you to increase that certainty?
- Question 3: what could cause you to decrease that certainty?
In these questions, you can use any kind of hypothetical you like. It’s primarily a way to examine epistemology.
Obviously, feel free to decline. My motive is that I’m curious to understand TLE more and think this might be a good approach. I’m open to other suggestions. Also, I have a friend who might also be interested in TLE, so would it be okay if I were to include him in future correspondence? [I was thinking of Bill Zuersher here]
Formation of beliefs by TLE seems self-evident to me, but I’m not an expert on this. What else could it be?
I would guess that you already know about Alvin Plantinga and his project on the justification of belief. If not, I think you would find it valuable. See his Wikipedia page to get a quick overview.
I don’t believe there is one neutral epistemology. An atheistic epistemology will “disprove” Christianity and vice versa. Won’t your atheism lead you to nihilism and the will to power?
About your 3 questions:
- Question 1. This is difficult for me. I suppose my certainty is variable–maybe ranging from 51-99%.
- Questions 2 and 3. I’m unable to answer these.
I don’t mind if you share this with a friend, but I don’t have the capacity to engage in a trialog.
Do you approve of Boghossian’s deceptive hoax academic paper project?
“Formation of beliefs by TLE seems self-evident to me.” I don’t understand this, but maybe my bias towards science is shining through here. Quantum mechanics and general relativity are both actively opposed to my TLE, but I accept them both as “true” (in quotes because we can discuss the nature of truth in more detail, but the common sense understanding will probably suffice for now) because of various carefully performed experiments that were done precisely because of predictions made by these theories. I suppose you could say that my TLE includes a basis for trusting science, for understanding how it works, and for reading the justifications of those theories. But it’s all much more specific than my TLE.
Can you give me an example of something else you believe (not God stuff) because of TLE? In other words, something that you hold to be true with high certainty, but that you have no specific evidence for other than to say that it fits generally with your TLE. On a related note, would you say that you are a foundationalist or a coherentist?
I’d rather focus on TLE for now, as these discussions tend to spread out, but I don’t want to be accused of evading questions, so let me answer as best I can the other things you bring up:
- I’m familiar with Plantinga. I don’t find his arguments compelling. It feels circular to me like a predefined position is being justified with fancy words. I’ve had several people try to explain it to me, but it always just seems like sophistry. What am I missing?
- I’m not familiar enough with Boghossian’s hoax paper project to judge. The details would matter. But I think his intent was good (which also matters). Peer-review is able to catch certain things but is vulnerable to others, like fraud. I haven’t published in non-scientific journals though, so I’m not sure what I would expect. But if he attempted to publish papers that should legitimately have been turned down by the peer-review process and thereby demonstrated that the peer-review process is biased, then that is probably, on balance, a good thing. The reveal was planned to be within a year or so (I forget the details), which is a relatively short time in publishing. And, of course, he had all the details ready for the reveal.
On the other hand, I’m a very strong advocate for the complete truth, so I can see how any deception would be compromising, even with good intent. I’m sure they discussed the ethics of it. I could imagine that it is a gray area. Sorry, not to come down one way or the other. It seems you disapprove of it, so maybe you can tell me why.
I need to close out our discussion now. Thanks for your attention to my questions.
</End of email string>!
Was it something I said? It wasn’t quite the end, as John was willing to respond to a couple of quick questions about whether I could share this (he agreed, obviously).
I hesitate to add much commentary, since I’m aware that I have the pen and he doesn’t. But I will send him the link to this and offer him a chance to reply.
But, I’d love to hear your thoughts about whether TLE does it for you? #AITA?