Why Should We Be Open to New Ways of Knowing? by Danny Nasry

From what I have seen here, there is a prevailing notion about knowledge at the Claremont Colleges that may be pigeon-holing our understanding of our humanity. That notion is this: reality itself, and therefore our knowledge of it, is reducible to the world dealt with by the so-called ‘natural sciences.’[1] Said another way, we see reality as only that which is readily falsifiable, repeatable on command, and equally accessible to every person.[2] To put it simply, we tacitly accept that only that which is physical is knowable. I will be calling this notion ‘dogmatic naturalism’ (DN). Now there are certain questionable areas that this proposition immediately brings to my mind, and possibly yours as well. The power of music to stir us, the enthralling passion of love shared between persons, the beautiful things we see all around us, the breathtakingness of people’s creative abilities, and the phenomena of consciousness and personality are just a few examples. Now, it’s eminently possible that all of these examples are reducible to natural-science explanations.[3] But isn’t it also quite possible that they are not? Isn’t it possible that there is something patently non-physical happening when you fall in love? Or when you hear an overwhelming piece of music? I think it’s important that we bear this possibility in mind as we go about our day to day lives. In what follows, I want to raise a few questions about DN and the ways it may wrongly condemn as impossibilities the live possibilities I’ve just described, without a fair hearing. Relatedly, I want to suggest that being tendentiously dismissive of certain experiences that others have, simply because those experiences involve God/the spiritual (G/S) is epistemically questionable at best, and reckless at worst. I’ll start by giving an example to illustrate that last thought.

What if I told you I was almost sure that G/S exists because of experiences I had had? What if I told you that I was alone in my room last night and had an experience of God that was more real than my experience of typing this sentence on my laptop? That it constituted that sort of existential experience of reality after which you say to yourself “I will never be the same after this”? That it forces me to interpret every other experience, past, present, and future, in light of it? That it happens fairly often, but shakes me to the core of my being every single time? Surely, if you do not know me, you will question my sincerity and my motives—and rightly so. Assume for the sake of argument that I was your twin brother. Would you still condemn me as a lunatic, knowing that I had never told you a lie in my life, and that you (by some twin-ly ability) would be able to tell instantly if this were the first lie I told you? What then?

While the above paragraph seems plausible (up until the twin brother part), it’s not meant to be an argument for the existence of G/S. Rather, it serves to point out that the notion I mentioned above, DN, is indeed a prevailing one at the Claremont Colleges. The discomfort many (or maybe the majority) of us would feel at reading the above passage should not be taken lightly or warmly accepted as part of our rich, Western intellectual tradition. I’m inclined to think that most of us would answer the question at the end of the above paragraph (“What then?”) by saying something like the following: while it might make me think twice, I would certainly decide that my twin brother didn’t really experience God—that he should be seen by a good counselor who can help him stop projecting his needs and fears onto a non-existent, so-called ‘spiritual’ entity.” I believe this belies our claim to be genuinely seeking truth and knowledge at the Claremont Colleges. Let me explain why. If we have determined ahead of time that the spiritual cannot be real or that there is simply no room for God in our worldviews, we are closing ourselves off to certain experiences and refusing to accept a designated subset of data for what it is (or may very well be), even if it’s extraordinarily compelling. For, with this underlying assumption coloring our view of the world, even if we were to have a powerful experience of G/S, we would invariably explain it away (perhaps reinterpreting it as a momentary anomaly in our brain activity[4])

Are we ever in so favorable an epistemic position that we can definitively say that something, other than a clear logical contradiction, cannot be the case? As I will argue below, I don’t think we are, and especially not if we are trying to seek truth wherever it is found, no matter if we like the data and its implications or not. And yet, accepting a definitive exclusion of possibility is just what holding DN requires. Although DN claims science as its foundation, DN is, in its dogmatism, markedly unscientific; for, DN dismisses out of hand any claim concerning the potential reality of G/S. As I will discuss below, in accepting DN as a background assumption, I think we unintentionally embrace an epistemic double-standard, wrongly privileging the knowledge that sense perception gives us above any other experientially acquired knowledge. Crucially, I am writing this article under the assumption that if there were to be another accessible source of knowledge, and/or a spiritual reality which characterized this universe, we ought to be perpetually open to knowing about it if we are truly in the pursuit of truth.

On DN, no such openness is condoned, let alone encouraged. Let’s consider now one manifestation of the partiality against G/S inherent in DN. It seems to me that many of us assume that if G/S is real, it will find us and shake us eventually, no matter what. But I don’t think this is warranted, based on the way we experience much of what is poignant about our humanity. We seek out music that soothes our souls. We seek out people that we can love with all that we are.

Rarely do these things impinge on our existence in a way that we cannot effectively ignore. Indeed, if we have our ears plugged, we will not hear even the most overwhelming of music. If we have our hearts locked away in an impenetrable bunker for safe-keeping, we will not be able to receive or give true love. Why should we assume that if G/S is real, it will thrust itself upon our consciousness, even if we have intentionally closed our minds to any experiences that we cannot readily categorize according to a framework of DN? I don’t think we should.

A further reason for us to be critical of DN and be open to G/S has to do with religious experience, sense-perception, and what William Alston calls ‘epistemic circularity’.[5] According to Richard Swinburne’s research, millions and millions of people claim to have been aware of God once or twice in their lives.[6] According to the person who accepts DN, such purported experiences of God cannot really involve anything non-naturalistic or non-psychological, because G/S simply doesn’t have a place in that worldview. After all, there is no scientific way to show that what is experienced in such cases is—beyond any doubt—of the spiritual variety; there is no way of checking to see what the religious believer is experiencing that doesn’t require either being in the mind of the believer or a part of that believer’s religious community. William Alston points out that the mode of experience that DN venerates, namely sense-perception, is in a similar epistemic boat as what he calls perceptions of God. For, it seems that there is no way of justifying our trust in our sense-perceptions that does not rely on previous sense-perceptions; we have no cognitive access to the outside world that is not mediated through sense-perception. Evidently, then, our justification for trusting our sense-perception is ‘epistemically circular’—and yet this does not cause us to question whether we should trust our senses. And perhaps we shouldn’t—after all, it is the primary way we have for interacting with the physical world. However, relying on sense-perception because we can’t imagine getting on with life without them does not enhance its epistemic plight. While putative perceptions of God fall prey to epistemic circularity in much the same way as sense-perceptions, DN dismisses them out of hand. This seems to me, at least prima facie, simply unfair.

There’s another important reason to think that subjecting putative perceptions of G/S to utterly different epistemic standards than sense-perception is unfair and unwise. Shouldn’t the fact that human beings throughout history, and today, are having to reinterpret everything else in their lives in the light of a putative perception of God give us pause? Shouldn’t we be wary of claiming that the rich traditions associated with Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Christian “mystics” are merely the products of thousands of years of flagrant self-deception—that none of them involves anything metaphysically noteworthy? To borrow terminology from Thomas Nagel’s renowned paper,[7] we cannot have access to “what it’s like” to be having the conscious experience that the mystic has; maybe we should not be so quick to write off their experience. Rather, we should take it most seriously—after all, people devote their lives to this sort of experientially-based pursuit of G/S. Perhaps they’ve encountered something that we have yet to. If this, quite logically, arouses in us an inkling that the pervasiveness of belief in G/S among human beings the world over cries out for a simple, naturalistic explanation, shouldn’t we also consider the possibility that this very pervasiveness suggests there is something so tangibly real in G/S that we are wired to seek it? Furthermore, even if we could give a naturalistic reason for human beings’ pervasive belief in G/S, this would not say anything about whether the G/S was, in fact, real; that would be a typical example of what’s called the genetic fallacy.—i.e., wrongfully assuming that an explanation of the reason/origin of something can speak definitively concerning its truth-value or reliability.

Quoting Nietzsche, Kimerer LaMothe says this in her book entitled Nietzsche’s Dancers:

Socrates peddled “a profound illusion” whose spell extends to the present day: “the unshakable faith that thought, using the thread of causality, can penetrate the deepest abysses of being, and that thought is capable not only of knowing being but even correcting it” (Kritische Studienausgabe99 – Birth of Tragedy, 95).[8]

Perhaps what Nietzsche and I are saying is the following: If we want to be ‘free thinkers,’ we cannot dogmatically adhere to an illusory faith in the ability of causally structured thought to reveal the depths of who we are as human beings; we must abandon DN for the sake of our humanity.


[1] Dallas Willard calls this “the single most destructive idea on the stage of life today.” http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/september/27.45.html?start=2

[2] Though even much of what is considered scientific fact cannot be verified by the layperson, and such facts are still considered authoritative (i.e., most of us don’t have access to the Large Hadron Collider, or the background knowledge needed to run/analyze experiments with it).

[3] I will consider the possibility of music, love, and personhood themselves being inherently spiritual later on in this article.

[4] I don’t know if spiritual experiences correspond with changes in brain activity as verifiable by fMRI—Andrew Newberg’s research suggests that there may be a connection here. However, importantly, no brain scan explains or directs us to the origin of these experiences.

[5] Alston, William P. (1986). Perceiving God. Journal of Philosophy 83 (11): 655-665.

[6] Swinburne, Richard. Is there a God?. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print, pp. 114.

[7] Nagel, Thomas. (1974). What Is It Like to Be a Bat? The Philosophical Review 83 (4): 435-450.

[8] LaMothe, Kimerer L. Nietzsche’s dancers: Isadra Duncan, Martha Graham, and the revaluation of Christian values. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.

Posted on June 8, 2015 .