So, the GAE has me thinking about a sort of philosophical problem in relation to discernment of reality.
There can be belief systems which involve things which, for practical reasons, cannot find confirmation in evidence. Huxley’s classic remarks about “lunar politics” come to mind:
“If a man asks me what the politics of the inhabitants of the moon are, and I reply that I do not know; that neither I, nor any one else, has any means of knowing; and that, under these circumstances, I decline to trouble myself about the subject at all, I do not think he has any right to call me a sceptic. On the contrary, in replying thus, I conceive that I am simply honest and truthful, and show a proper regard for the economy of time. So Hume’s strong and subtle intellect takes up a great many problems about which we are naturally curious, and shows us that they are essentially questions of lunar politics, in their essence incapable of being answered, and therefore not worth the attention of men who have work to do in the world.”
The politics of the inhabitants of some distant planet are, of course, not unknowable in principle, but they are unknowable in practice. In fact, we now have good reason, which Huxley did not have, to conclude that there are no inhabitants of the moon into whose politics we may inquire; practical obstacles that he faced have now been removed. As to some other distant celestial body, there may be answers, and there may be good ways to find them, but not by any craft we here possess.
But religious thought tends to be characterized by claims which, by their authors, are constructed so as to be unknowable, not only in practice but also in principle. Take, for example, transsubstantiation. By ordinary standards, one should expect that the miraculous transmutation of wafers into meat is just the sort of thing which science could evaluate. But this claim is couched in the terms of Aristotelian essentialism, so that the “accidents” – a slightly odd word for “every last thing we can possibly observe,” but, okay – of the host are all waferish while the unseen, unmeasurable, untestable and unknowable reality of it is all meatish.
I have a brother who is a Mormon, having converted to his wife’s faith; this is a bullet he might have dodged, had he married his previous fiancee, who was Jewish. Joseph Smith, of course, is said to have translated tablets found in a mound in upstate New York, and discovered that these tablets, written in a script never seen elsewhere called “reformed Egyptian,” bore the story of descendants of the Israelites who came to America and who were visited by Jesus at one point. Can we scrutinize the tablets? No; God needed them back, but we do have the testimony of witnesses that the tablets did exist. Is Smith a good translator of ancient documents? No; we have the original and his translation of some actual Egyptian papyri, and with the benefit of the Rosetta Stone we now know his translations to have been wildly inaccurate. But while these circumstances might strongly suggest fraud and incompetence, and while the convenient disappearance of the supposed tablets makes the non-Mormon guffaw, people do believe these things; and it is possible to believe them, if one simply does not give much weight to the contrary evidence. As my wife says of many claims which are not credible, the claims violate no law of physics. They share the same bare philosophical possibility of being true with transsubstantiation, or indeed with most other paranormal claims.
In practical terms, and when we do not come to the matter with strong prejudices, we tend to treat claims which are crafted so as to recede from scrutiny with great caution. When it is pointed out, for example, that Uri Geller DOES get caught cheating sometimes, the ad hoc response is sometimes given that, well, you know, his powers aren’t completely reliable, and so he does sometimes cheat so as not to disappoint those who have come to see the miracle. While that claim may find some traction with the most dogmatic Gellerite, it will make a person of reasonable intelligence roll his eyes. The claim is not merely regarded as empirically unverifiable; it is regarded as obviously false.
Now, the thing is: there is no problem, in terms of pure reason, with transsubstantiation being true or with Geller sometimes being honest. Both of these unverifiable ad hoc excuses are intelligible, and there is no a priori objection that can be offered to them. Things might have a dual nature, with one side being real but undetectable; Geller might indeed cheat, yet have the power to bend spoons with his mind.
But should not the eye-rolling that follows naturally from the Geller case follow just as naturally from the transsubstantiation case? Is there any consideration, outside of politeness, which ought to preclude a person from laughing out loud at the latter?
It seems to me that, at a minimum, the cost of crafting a claim to recede from scrutiny is that one can no longer make any good argument for its truth, because no evidence for its falsity can possibly exist.
Can such claims have a use? I know that the objection which is often raised is that one cannot scientifically test such things as love, and love is important to us. But while one may not be able to slap a truth-telling helmet onto someone’s head and read the love on a meter, the fact is that we judge such things as love by actions and statements; we may not see the thing itself, but we can observe all of its manifestations, and it is from those manifestations that we judge. And it bears mentioning, at this point, that we do this while in possession of excellent reasons to believe that other people exist; it is not the sort of act of speculation which theological propositions inevitably must boil down to.
There are things we cannot directly witness for practical reasons, e.g., the inner emotional reality of other people, but we can form reasonable beliefs about them from the evidence we do have. There are propositions we cannot immediately test, e.g., “there are intelligent beings on other planets,” which are testable in principle but tough to test in practice. These things, it seems to me, do not give us reason for suspicion or amusement. But when the claim is crafted in a way that withdraws it from scrutiny, this gives us very good reasons to suspect that it is ill-founded. When it is crafted in a way that withdraws it from scrutiny while leaving the claimant in a position to make firm statements about it (e.g., the theologian who claims first that God is inscrutable, and second, that God may be scrutinized through scripture), this, it seems to me, rings every alarm bell in the neighborhood.
Is there a reason it should not?