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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Frances on Trick Socks and Religious Experience

What are trick socks and what do they have to do with religious experience? Bryan Frances argues that if you see what appears to be blue socks, and you continue to believe that the socks are blue, in spite of being told by reliable witnesses that they are really green, then it is plausible to think that your belief is blameworthy. But then if you "see" what appears to be God but you are told by reliable witnesses that what you "saw" was really something else, then, by analogy, your continued belief that you "saw" God is blameworthy. So, the blue socks case seems to suggest that to have religious beliefs of a certain kind may be epistemically irresponsible.

UPDATE: Bryan Frances has posted another excellent post on trick socks and religious experience over at Knowability, partially in response to Colleen Keating, Trent Dougherty, and other commentators.


CK said...

Isn't the problem with this analogy that the color of the blue or green socks are publicly available to everyone? Experiences of god are rarely "seeing" in that sense, but seem to be internal. Instead, it would be as if I felt pain and reliable "witnesses" told me that I wasn't feeling pain.

That actually happens in medical situations all the time, but in those instances, the subjective awareness of pain isn't in question (people can have pseudo-seizures, become 'paralyzed' etc quite without intending to, and those experiences are real) but the cause.

So in the case of experiencing god, your witnesses may be able to question the cause of your vision, but not its content. The only way to make the cause of such experiences publicly available seems to be through fMRIs or other brain scans--and even those, it could be argued, only show the results of the supernatural. It's quite possible that god uses our brains to speak to us, and that those blood flow patterns would mirror other non-religious states.

CK said...

I just clicked through to the original link and see the twist in Frances' model--the socks are "trick" socks and only scientists can tell you that they are really green.

It seems like the model is closer to the mystical experience I described, then--since I am perceiving blue socks legitimately, but they are "really" green (I guess composed of tiny alternating green discs that spin and make blue? Something like that..)

It does seem like problem is that in the case of the god-experience, there is no way to correct/change the subjective experience. In the case of the socks, no matter how I change my beliefs, I will still perceive blue socks (and for that matter, so will everyone else). But in the god-experience, the cause of that perception isn't publicly available (green spinning discs or scientific tests help in the case of the socks, but not in the case of god).

So if my epistemic apparati are functioning properly, I don't think that "experts" have much to say in the way of dissuading me from my belief. Alternate explanations aren't necessarily compelling--and I don't think that the believer must consider them so (Especially since in the case of god-experience, not everyone has such an experience--everyone sees the socks as blue, on the other hand. I could claim my experience as unique and produced by god!)

So even though I think I misstated the original model, I stand by my conclusion.

Bryan Frances said...


I'm not sure what you're saying. In the socks case, is the person blameworthy? It seems so to me and I haven't been able to think of a good reason to think not. See my reply to Dougherty at the Knowability blog.

I also haven't been able to think of a good reason why the socks person is blameworthy while the amateur mystic isn't. The mystic in question has really had experiences of God, she has encountered the intelligent, plausible alternative (but ultimately false) explanations of her spiritual experiences, and just like the socks person can't do anything to cast doubt on those alternative explanations. I assume that some people with mystical experiences of God CAN cast doubt on those alternative explanations. In fact, they can refute them outright--although the refutation might be something only an experienced mystic can understand. But few of us have such mature spiritual experience.

I don't see how the privacy issue matters here. In addition, there probably is some sort of public checking of spiritual insight. That's why beginners go to the spiritual masters (e.g., mediation masters) to check their insights. What am I missing?

CK said...

My point is that I think there is a high degree of disanalogy in your two illustrations. With the socks case, the person in question is epistemically blameworthy because the "objective" greenness of the socks can be demonstrated by experts (and that demonstration is something they can latch onto).

The reason why the amateur mystic is not blameworthy is that they are essentially making a different claim, which is not open to counter-explanations.

When I say "that sock is blue" I am under normal conditions saying something about its "objective" color. Blue sensations match up with blue in the world given lighting conditions we agree upon as standard. The experts in question here are able to say to the viewer, "No, upon closer examination, your perceptions don't match up with the sock--if you look under a microscope, there are tiny spinning wheels of green. It just looks blue."

When I say "I experienced god" I am also under normal conditions making a claim about reality, but the relation between my perception of god and his existence is not the same as perceiving blue and socks being blue. Maybe in some instances the counter-explanations that experts give (your vision was a hallucination, you were having an epileptic seizure) could be verified through medical testing or the observations of others. However, in mystical experiences which cannot be traced to such aberrant states of mind, the mystic is quite within her rights to say that her perception matches up with reality, because it may come in the form of a testifying voice, a presence which helps them interpret other facts in the world, etc. And that experience is not available to others to test.

It isn't as if someone has a "picture of god" that pops into their head. If they did, that would be a different thing. The perceptual apparatus here functions differently than vision.

So what I'm saying is that to make your picture analogous, you'd have to revise it so that the experts tell the sock-viewer, "No, you are experiencing green and not blue when you look at the sock" rather than correct them about what the sock is made up of.

Does that help explain where I'm going?

Bryan Frances said...

I've posted a response at the Knowability blog.

Wholeflaffer said...

I think the analogy is closer then Ck thinks. Although there is a disanalogy in the, shall we say, mode of perceiving (i.e., sight versus spiritual experience), to say that one is "public" while one is "private" is to make a mistake. Surely all those people crowding into churches are having a public experience! They might not know "exactly" what each of the other person is experiencing, but then again, the same might be said for the blue experience (do I see the same shade of blue as Ck? The same hue as Ck? How could we ever know?).

And Ck seems to miss the important analogy: if the believer in the blue sock still holds the belief after hearing the scientific testimony, the same can be said for the spiritual believer whom, after being shown a defeater of the spiritual experience, still believes that they are somehow connected to god.

What might the defeater be? Well, if one is a materialist about the mental (all mental states are states of the brain), then it seems to follow that spiritual experience is a state of the brain. To pick out spiritual experience qua experience PLUS the connection to god is adding a useless assumption. And, I would suggest, there are many good reasons to assume that spiritual experience is just like any other experience: rooted in states of the brain. See here for more info on this line, though done for a layperson.

CK said...

I'll have to think about Bryan's restatement of his position which he posted at Knowability. I think it does clear things up.

As far as wholeflaffer's response...
1. "Surely all those people crowding into churches are having a public experience!" I don't think that we want to conflate all religious "experiences" together into one type. The sort of thing Frances was describing (I thought) is a unique mystical experience, of the kind Teresa of Avila or St. Paul had. Church experience is not typically understood in that way. But yes, I would say that "private" does describe these mystical experiences, especially since (to take Paul as an example) the mystic can have them surrounded by others who see/hear nothing.

2. My point about the analogy is that the defeater in the socks instance does not work in the same way as the defeater in the mystical experience. I have to look at France's rewording and give more thought to that.

3. Just because you are a materialist about mental states does not make god a useless assumption. The experience of seeing colors is a state of the brain; that doesn't mean that colors are useless assumptions. There are brain states which we can produce with or without the external stimuli (in memories etc). You have to start out being a methodological naturalist and assume that god does not exist; if god exists, it would make sense that s/he would communicate via our biology. (I'm not arguing in point 3 from brain states to god's existence, just pointing out that experience being brain states isn't necessarily a defeater.)