Occam’s Butter Knife: Reflections on My Conversation with Drew Marshall

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I’ve admired Drew Marshall ever since I first learned of him and his crisis of faith in 2010. What he did back then took a lot of courage. After many years of immersion in religion, it’s not easy to discover there’s something seriously wrong with it — the logical contradictions, the hypocrisy, the unanswered prayers, the meaningless human suffering — and be honest about it. How much safer it is to sweep those ugly things under a carpet of denial, theodicy, or mental gymnastics. How comforting to make them disappear in the obfuscating fog of arcane theology and apologetics. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” Yet some people reach a point where the old excuses for God’s silence, negligence, or apparent cruelty no longer suffice, and a desire for truth wins out. Drew joined their ranks in 2010, and I’ve followed his show ever since — not every episode, but enough to appreciate the extraordinary diversity of views he has brought to Christian broadcasting, including occasional chats with atheists like me.

Our conversation last January was only my second audio interview about The Illusion of God’s Presence, and when I listen to it now, I hear my inexperience as an interviewee. I’m delighted with how well the conversation went, and our time was limited, but in hindsight I can think of better answers to two of Drew’s questions. One was near the end, when he asked, “You followed my journey. What do you want me to know?” My answer was something along the lines of the previous paragraph, which was okay, but if I had it to do over again, I would start with a simple two-word answer: “Try science.”

If you really want to know the truth about anything, try science. Science is the only reliable method humans have found for discovering truth about reality. The evidence for this statement is all around us: in modern medicine, the Apollo program, and the device with which you are reading this. As I put it in the preface of my book, “The essence of science is an appeal to empirical evidence from the natural world as our ultimate arbiter in truth-finding, coupled with effortful, skeptical, and reflective reasoning.” More than just a body of knowledge, science is a way of thinking, one that doesn’t come easily or naturally for most people. For some questions, science may not have a clear answer, or any answer, and in those cases “I don’t know” is the most reasonable position to take.

But is that the most reasonable position to take on the question of God’s existence? Is God beyond the reach of science, as many theists — and even some atheists — claim? If we’re talking about a deist god — some vague creative force that set the universe in motion but thereafter had nothing to do with it — then yes, that kind of god is beyond the reach of science, because he, she, or it leaves no measurable traces. But the God that most religious folks believe in — a loving God who knows them personally, who follows the events of their lives, who hears their prayers and works miracles on their behalf — that God must act in the world and therefore is not beyond the reach of science. A world created and governed by such a God would not be awash in meaningless suffering, as ours clearly is, and I suspect it was mainly this kind of disconfirming evidence that pushed Drew into agnosticism.

When he disclosed his crisis of faith, Drew also announced that he would undertake a personal quest for some kind of confirming God experience. He wrote:

I’d like God to reveal himself in such a way that I’m unable to justify or rationalize it away. He knows the best way to do that so I’m not putting any other parameters on it. Someone said to me that I want a “soul tattoo” – a permanent reminder/encounter that God is real. I’m just hoping that I’ll recognize it when it happens. I don’t want to be negotiated into believing because of circumstantial evidence or because I have no better options… Thomas said he wouldn’t believe Jesus had risen from the grave and come back to life (therefore being God) until he could put his finger in the nail hole of his crucified hand. THAT’S WHAT I WANT! Passive Revelation/Rumors Of Glory/Pascal’s Wager/Tribal Conditioning has sustained me for years but today my faith is weak. I’m at the point where my soul is crying out for a “super” natural encounter.

Note his courageous insistence on empirical evidence, coupled with an intense and highly emotional spiritual longing. The whole point of my book is that science has a lot to say about where that spiritual longing comes from. It is a product of evolution, and the unconscious intuitions behind it can easily spawn an illusion of God’s presence that feels like evidence of God’s existence, but is not.

When Drew and I discussed my own experience of a sensed presence, he and his assistant Tim suggested that I may be imposing my scientific preconceptions on what really is a supernatural experience of a divine presence. Was I not making the same mistake I attribute to the religious person who sees the experience through her mystical preconceptions? I admitted that all of us, scientists included, filter our perceptions through our models of reality, but I added that science is different in an important way. I tried to illustrate this with our understanding of lightning as an electrostatic discharge. Strictly speaking, this understanding does not disprove the ancient Norse belief that lighting and thunder come from Thor’s hammer, but isn’t it simpler and more reasonable to discard the magical story in this case? I was invoking Occam’s razor, the convention in science that we should favor the simpler of two hypotheses that fit the evidence equally well.

That was the other answer I would put differently if I had it to do over again, because Occam’s razor does not apply here. The two explanations do not fit the evidence equally well. The myth of Thor is a pseudo-explanation, not a scientific hypothesis, because it is not empirically testable. It explains nothing. If I point out that weather radar and people flying aircraft near and through storm clouds have never detected Thor or his lightning-making tools, the apologist need only say that Thor, like other gods, is invisible and beyond human understanding. By contrast, the hypothesis that lightning is an entirely natural, electrical phenomenon makes testable predictions: there should be large and measurable differences in electrical potential between thunderheads and the ground; lightning strikes should produce electromagnetic pulses detectable by radio receivers; and damage from lightning strikes should be preventable by conductive lightning rods. The scientific hypothesis therefore raises new questions and prompts additional research, whereas belief in Thor leads nowhere.

So it is with the feeling of a sensed presence. The “God did it” interpretation is a magical pseudo-explanation that leads nowhere, but the scientific explanation — that the sensed presence is a completely natural illusion caused by some peculiar aspect of our neural circuitry — raises new questions. Why should we be prone to these feelings? What selective pressures might have shaped human nature in this way during our evolution? What parts of the brain are likely to be involved? To develop specific and coherent answers to these questions is to formulate a testable scientific hypothesis for this kind of religious experience, and that was one of my main goals in writing The Illusion of God’s Presence. We don’t need Occam’s razor to choose between these two approaches, the magical versus the scientific. Occam’s dull butter knife will do just fine.

As with electrostatics and Thor, the scientific interpretation of the sensed presence does not disprove the existence of God. It does, however, mean that the ineffable feeling of God’s presence is not evidence for God’s existence. If Drew Marshall ever senses a loving mystical presence, he should not be satisfied that God has at last given him his “nail-hole” experience. There is a natural explanation for those feelings, and the unanswered prayers, the children dying of cancer, the victims of the Holocaust, and countless other instances of meaningless suffering remain as overwhelming evidence against the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent God. This may be a disturbing, even frightening truth for some people. That’s why truth-seeking takes courage.

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Posted March 10, 2016; Filed under: Ideas Tags: , , , , ,

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