Tough Question...

How I would decide between conflicting revelations (Part One)

[Rought draft, Sept/26/95; updated Dec 14/97]

Recently I received the following question:

Having said all of that, I should like to pose a question to you for which I have never heard a satisfactory answer. I recently asked this question to XXX YYY, an ignorant windbag who has a talk show in Colorado. XXX asked me to send him my "strongest argument against God". I posed the same question that I will pose to you. Mr. XXX informed me that I have never received an answer to this question because most Christians were "intellectually lazy" - and then proceeded to not even attempt an answer himself. If my observations of your approach are correct, I expect a considerably more thoughtful response. Here is the question.

If you believe in the notion of divine revelation, as you clearly do, how do you discern true revelation from false? As an example, take the Old Testament battle between the Israelites and the Moabites. The OT contains the Hebrew account of the battle and claims that Jehovah spoke through Elishah to command the Israelites to attack Moab. The Moabite account of the battle, as seen in the Moabite Stone, claim that their god, Chemosh, spoke to Mesha to command the Moabites to attack Israel. Now, there are three possibilities.

1. Both gods exist and both claims are true. I doubt that you would advance such a position, so we'll leave it alone for now.

[Not to get off the track too soon here, but this case will come back up the discussion of 'rival inteligences' in the Beyond...with competing agendas...there may well be TWO 'revealing sources'--but these souces might not be god(s) at all. This is a more complex issue that we will have to come back to later.]

2. Neither god exists and both claims are false. Again, you will certainly not take this position, though I feel secure in doing so.

3. One of them exists and one of them does not. Here we have the standard Judeo-Christian position.

If you believe #3, I pose this question: what criteria do you use to decide which is legitimate revelation and which is either delusion or lie? On a broader scale, there are literally tens of thousands of claimed revelations from god, from Moses to Mohammed to David Koresh, all of which are mutually exclusive and contradictory. The Judeo-Christian tradition believes one set of revelations to be true and the others false. Indeed, each denomination has its own separate set of revelations, mutually exclusive to those of other denominations, that it considers divine.

Each claim of divine revelation brings with it the same question of legitimacy. Did god really tell Moses to kill all of the Midianites except the virgin females and to divide those among the Hebrew soldiers or was that a ruler using god to justify his barbarism? Did god really tell Oral Roberts that he would kill him if he did not raise $13 million (or whatever the figure was) or is Roberts a con man praying on the stupid? Did god really tell David Koresh that he was the son of god or is this merely an unbalanced man's delusion? Did god really tell the Ayatollah Khomeini to put out a contract on Salman Rushdie or was this the act of a tyrant using god to justify his actions?

I have heard many answers to this question but they are all essentially the same. They all come down to faith. One minister told me that god has given him a "discerning spirit" to tell the difference; another told me that he knows the bible is true because every time he reads it "my heart says amen". This is, I'm sure you know, a circular argument. It presumes that one already has chosen the correct revelation in order to justify one's ability to choose the correct revelation. I expect that you can do better than this.

So here is the challenge, to advance a set of criteria that is 1. not circular, 2. verifiable based on external observation, and 3. proves contradictory claims of revelation to be false base on the same set of criteria. I don't think it can be done, but I'd like to give you the chance to prove me wrong. I look forward to your response.

and a second email 'framed the question' in a clever way (IMO):

Ten people come to my door. Each is carrying a scripture, pamphlets, etc. Each one addresses me thusly: "Sir, I would like to share some good news with you. I have a copy of our scriptures with me that tells the "truth" about God, you, me, life, death, eternity, and everything." They tell me their stories one after another.

Now I have this question: Which one is the truth? After pondering on this question for 24 years, I still do not have the answer.


I ALSO have been 'working on this problem' for 20+ years as well, and I will try to write up a 'snapshot' of my thinking at this point.

First, let me talk about some simplifying assumptions. I KNOW that people approach this question in real life from a MULTITUDE of perspectives, generally depending upon where they are in their thinking, relationships, etc. Some start as skeptics (e.g. C.S.Lewis), some grow up in Christian contexts (e.g. Platinga). People make decisions about this matter for a variety of reasons--intellectual, social, crisis, mystical experiences, etc. (cf. the book "Philosophers Who Believe" for its WIDE variety of 'religious-attraction' stories!). (My 'own' actual story is elsewhere on the ThinkTank, and is NOT the 'method' I am setting forth here--due to differences in the 'initial conditions'.)

The approach I am going to take here is sadly Western, decidedly skeptical (a cordial skepticism, perhaps 'decidedly cautious' would be a better phrase), and probably over-cognitive (at least initially; it MAY grow into something more holistic, but would probably never EXCLUDE the cognitive).

[My intent is to come back around and critique my perspective from the standpoint of the more mystical and monistic perpectives later. I currently am working through Hendrik M. Vroom's "Religions and the Truth: Philosophical Reflections and Perspectives", Eerdmans: 1989, to assist in this process.]

So, I will cast this exploration in a framework similar to that posed by the 2nd email--the 'weirdoes at the door' scenario. But I need to slightly expand the scenario:

I move into a new apartment in a complex, in which each resident posts their basic demographics on some public place. My reads something like: "Glenn Miller, business guy, no political party affiliation, no religious affiliation or commitments". This is posted in a VERY public place for all to see.

On Saturday afternoon, I hear the doorbell ring. I open the door to see ten people (in the general scenario of the email above), carrying literature and looking generally INTENSE. They all blurt out at the same time, but when I force them to take turns 'speaking their peace' what they each say is something like the following.

"I have some information for you that is VERY important. It has been 'revealed from the beyond' to my group (some quickly add "all contributions are tax-deductible") and is TRUTH."

With each of them making the claim, it is POSSIBLE (not having heard their claims at this point) that 'none, one, some, or all' COULD BE CORRECT. But now, I have figure out which (if any).

That's the scenario. One of the more important issues at this point is ME. What do I have to 'bring' to the discussion that is about to begin? There are a couple of things I NEED to have, in order to 'process' these claims. (Remember, at this point I do not know what any of the claims are--with the POSSIBLE exception of a general lack of prohibition to proselytize on Saturday afternoons in apartment complexes!)

FIRST, I need an OPENNESS to 'beyond-ness' (whatever that may end up to mean) and a personal humility about the extent and accuracy of my personal knowledge and experience base. In other words, I have had enough experiences in my life to know SEVERAL arrogance-reducing BASICS:

SECOND, I need enough personal discipline and attention (maybe even enough respect for the humans at the door to hear them out--they obviously feel strongly enough about it to spend a Saturday afternoon doing this 'outreach' stuff) to listen to the claims most of the way through. (Some MIGHT be so 'off' that I can shut them down early, but this is a difficult call--I probably should listen ALL THE WAY through before I 'judge' them.)

THIRD, I need adequate discipline to 'detach' the analytical aspects of claim-validation from my personal 'worries' about how it might affect my personal lifestyle. In other words, I MUST put the issue of 'what is true' BEFORE the issue of 'how do I LIKE this truth'. This is VERY DIFFICULT (as we are all aware), and perhaps impossible; but it is certainly VARIABLE, so I MIGHT BE ABLE to manage it 'down a bit' in order to be more 'detached' than usual.

[An OBVIOUS example comes immediately to my mind, as I watch these people spend a perfectly good Saturday afternoon doing 'religious work'. My 'selfish side' IMMEDIATELY wants to disqualify ALL of the systems represented at the door--with their obvious lack of perspective and imbalanced priorities! But, hopefully, my 'truth-loving side' (or intellectual honesty side, or whatever) will issue a 'SUSPEND JUDGMENT' command to hold that in check. Whether I 'like' or 'dislike' the truth is a separate issue from "IS it truth?".

[TANK-NOTE, Dec97: hmmm...two years later, and I spend every saturday afternoon writing on the Thinktank...hmmmm...not too swift on the uptake, eh? (grin)]

There ARE exceptions to this, in my opinion. A certain system may 'look' flawless from a logical perspective, but its intuitive feel may be so repulsive to the human spirit (at its most altruistic moments) as to be a 'warning sign' that something is missing in our understanding of the system. More on this later, perhaps.

I recently had an extremely honest atheist describe the reasons they abandoned Christianity. Among the intellectual reasons, was this one:

Christianity put too tight a moral rein on my life. I am a naturally selfish and sometimes devious person, and quite frankly I didn't want to be bound by a world-view which insisted that I should be altruistic and honest.

This is the kind of thinking that I CANNOT afford to adopt BEFORE I hear the people at the door. I have to repress this urge to 'bolt and run' AT LEAST UNTIL the claims at the door have been heard and evaluated FOR TRUTH STATUS and PLAUSIBILITY.]

Frankly, I DO expect 'some restrictions' or changes to be required, and this is not necessarily unreasonable. I accept certain 'limitations' on my behavior, freedom, etc. RIGHT NOW, simply to remain an accepted member of our society. I drive on the correct side of the street, I obey the rules, I do not treat authorities with impunity, etc.--all 'restrictions' that allow me certain other 'privileges'. So, I have to accept that, like other trade-off decisions in my life, there may be some in this area.

FINALLY, I have to have the standard linguistic competencies to process 'extension' language. The language we learn as kids is VERY extensible. We learn words in very specific situations and learn how to 'extend' those meanings to cover other situations. The speech pattern "Cat" may have originally meant the Siamese animal Mom called 'Poindexter'--now it means the feline species, plus a whole host of derivative meanings (e.g. "fat cat", "cool cat"). I need to be able to process things like:

The point is that our 'ordinary language' has enough extensibility to 'stretch' within normal experience, and the ability to process these 'extensions' (generally without FULL specificity--such that "Joan is better than John at Math" is CLEAR but doesn't tell us 'how good' Joan REALLY IS).

So this requirement--to be able to process 'stretched' language or extensions--is not unusual or abnormal--it is a basic cultural function included in 'linguistic competence'.

Okay. Enough about me. I have inspected my cognitive, linguistic, and critical apparatus and am ready to aim it at the weirdoes at the door! How would I start?

First, I would ask them to state their position. I would probably lead with three questions:

1. Why should I listen to you/believe you? (in other words, what are you 'offering me'--peace, wealth, health, success, heaven, freedom from torture, satisfaction in believing the truth...)

2. What are your 'demands on me'? (In other words, what must I do, believe, not do, think, speak, not believe...)

[2b. If I have to 'do' anything cognitive (such as believe, think, meditate on,etc.--as opposed to just 'do', such as give money, walk on knees, sacrifice salamanders, bow to the sun, etc.), what is the 'content' of the cognitive component? In other words, what propositional statements [hey, I know that phrase may be a redundancy, but it's STILL clear, no?] are in the 'bundle of required beliefs'?]

3. Why should I believe that you know what you are talking about? (In other words, what grounds your belief, what data do your have, how is your system 'verified'...)

[But notice something here--I have ALREADY imposed an assumption on this process--that it MUST proceed 'cognitively' and discursively. I have made the HUGE assumption that a communication from a god MUST be aimed at the 'whole person' (including my mind)--at least initially--and that this communication/revelation MUST be structured to 'reach me' this way somehow (e.g. using evidences, making enough sense, being semi-reasonable).This, strangely enough, doesn't seem to be restricting--all the people on the door-stop are using cognitive means to reach me.]

Now the first criteria that comes up here for me is comprehensibility. I have got to be able to understand what they are saying--at least enough of it to evaluate their claims. If they are using words SO COMPLETELY DIFFERENTLY than I have ever heard or can 'stretch to' (see above on extensible language), then I cannot pick that one. This is NOT a judgment--I don't 'have anything' to judge. If one of them comes up to me and says something like "We believe that the beyond is a big invisible peacock egg with whiskers, but we also believe that none of the preceding words have any meaning at all" I cannot actually come up with a content to that--it is self-stultifying.

Now, I really need to try hard here before I kiss it good-bye. Unless they are using technical religious terms that they refuse to explain using normal terms plus the methods of extension (above), I SHOULD be able to construct SOME content-notions (however vague) of their terms, if I keep trying. But some systems MIGHT have the belief that words are meaningless (Zen?) or illusionary/misleading (Advaita Vedanta?), so I can sign off of those quickly. [Note: in practice no one will do this. Even Zen teachers and Vedantists use ordinary language to communicate their 'insight' that reality cannot be described by language! These systems are self-stultifying at a higher-order level than just 'contradictions' within a religious system, in my opinion. But more on this later.]

This problem is especially acute with some of the Eastern religions. Consider these statements from a Buddhist visitor (Vajrayana) to the Tank:

"If one spends much time looking into early religions one encounters numerous virgin births, multiplying loaves, walks on water, transformations of water in to wine, healings, etc. [Note: see my Jesus the Copycat] In Buddhism you will find miracles surrounding the historical buddha and is pervious incarnations, also quite frankly rather more interesting attributed to various arhats than are atttributed to Jesus. However, in Buddhism, you will also find statements which deny that miracles are possible. It is not that one can pick and choose what one believes so much as a recognition that the "idea" of a miracle can be useful (it is useful, even needful to establish that Jesus was more than just an ordinary man, hence the miracles.

"Buddhism finds no evidence of such an entity, it finds no evidence of the existence of either good or evil, or of good or bad, and yet it is the most wholely "good" (I use the word in its common sense...technically we find Buddhism 'helpful' or 'beneficial') things I have encountered. [Note: the philosophy student will recognize the problem with this statement--all such teleological words presuppose some 'real' value system already.]

"The idea of truth, even of an absolute truth, exists, certainly. However, an actual truth is not consistent with our experiences.

"The problem as I see it, is that truth as the mind conceives is, is not to be found in reality...not even the super-reality that the deity might be said to represent. However, as long as people fail to perceive the nature of the mind, and the delusions it is subject to, people will continue to seek something that cannot be found.

It is getting more and more difficult for me over the years to be 'patient' with this position, due to the sheer impracticality of communication. W.L. Craig is even 'less patient' than I, as evidenced in this extended quote from Reasonable Faith (p.40ff):

"We should, then, test world views by their logical consistency and by how well they fit the facts known by experience. In our day and age, however, certain people, under the influence of Eastern mysticism or its Western step-child, the New Age Movement, deny that consistency is a test for truth. They affirm that reality is ultimately illogical or that logical contradictions correspond to reality. They assert that in Eastern thought the Absolute or God or the Real transcends the logical categories of human thought. They are apt to interpret the demand for logical consistency as apiece of Western imperialism. Trying to reason with such people can be very frustrating, because they will cheerfully concede that their view is logically incoherent and yet insist that it is true.

"What such people seem to be saying is that the classical law of thought known as the Law of Excluded Middle is not necessarily true; that is to say, they deny that of a proposition and its negation, necessarily, one is true and the other is false. Such a denial could take two different forms. It could be interpreted on the one hand to mean that a proposition and its negation both can be true (or both false). Thus, it is true both that God is lover and, in the same sense, that God is not love. Since both are true, the Law of Contradiction, that a proposition and its negation cannot both be true(or both false) at the same time, is also denied. On the other hand, the original denial could be interpreted to mean that of a proposition and its negation neither may be true (or neither false). Thus, it is not true that God is good and it is not true that God is not good; there is just no truth value at all for such propositions. In this case, it is the classical Principle of Bivalence, that for any proposition, necessarily that proposition is either true or false, that is denied along with the Law of Excluded Middle.

"Now I am inclined to say that such claims are frankly crazy and unintelligible. To say that God is both good and not good in the same sense or that God neither exists nor does not exist is just incomprehensible to me.

"In our politically correct age, there is a tendency to vilify all that is Western and to exalt Eastern modes of thinking as at least equally valid if not superior to Western modes of thought. To assert that Eastern thought is seriously deficient in making such claims is to be a sort of epistemological bigot, blinkered by the constraints of the logic-chopping Western mind. But this attitude is far too simplistic. In the first place, there are thinkers within the tradition of Western thought alone who have held the mystical views under discussion (Plotinus would be a good example), so that there is no need to play off East against West in this mattes Secondly, the extent to which such thinking represents "the Eastern mind" has been greatly exaggerated. In the East the common man--and the philosopher,too--lives by the Laws of Contradiction and Excluded Middle in his everyday life; he affirms them every time he walks through a doorway rather than into the wall. It is only at an extremely theoretical level of philosophical speculation that such laws are denied. And even at that level, the situation is not monochromatic: Confucianism, Hinayana Buddhism, pluralistic Hinduism as exemplified in Sankhya-Yoga, Vaishesika-Nyaya,and Mimasa schools of thought, and even Jainism do not deny the application of the classical laws of thought to ultimate reality. Thus, a critique of Eastern thought from within Eastern thought can be--and has been--made. We in the West should not therefore be embarrassed or apologetic about our heritage; on the contrary, it is one of the glories of ancient Greece that her thinkers came to enunciate clearly the principles of logical reasoning, and the triumph of logical reasoning over competing modes of thought in the West has been one of the West's greatest strengths and proudest achievements.

Winfried Corduan basically agrees with this (a bit more gently!) and actually points out that at least the Buddhist DOES uphold the Law of Contradiction within the appropriate realms (Reasonable Faith, p. 34): "Second, Buddhist logic does not give us license to dispense with the principle of contradiction at will. What it states is that any statement can be seen from two perspectives. There is the everyday life perspective in which a tree is a tree and not a non-tree. Buddhism maintains that ultimate truth is beyond the world that we experience in day-to-day life. From the absolute perspective, everyday reality (maya) is only an illusion that in the final analysis, is pure nothingness (sunyata). Thus the tree is actually a non-tree. Putting the two together, one can say that the tree is both a tree and a non-tree--but only in two different senses.

"It would be true from the maya perspective to say that it is a tree and false that it is not. It would be false from the sunyata perspective to say that it is a tree and true that it is not. In other words, the law of contradiction is not put aside--it is upheld by making sure that it is not violated. It would be contradictory to say that what is true from one perspective is true from another, and so Buddhist logic has us qualify our observations to make sure we do not over step the boundaries of any given perspective--so that we do not contradict ourselves! The law of contradiction reigns unimpeached in each given level. Thus the statement that Buddhist logic does away with the law of contradiction is mistaken. Buddhist logic enhances the law of contradiction.

Now, one of the major problems with this for me is the amount of effort and learning required to make sense of the position. The nuances are incredibily refined and beyond the philosophical ken of most folks. This poses a major problem for my understanding of the system, as well as evaluating the evidence for its support.

So, some may get weeded out by just being radically incomprehensible (e.g. greater than 51%!). [Remember, I should be able to process many, many possible beyond-statements, given the transformational power of our extensible language, so this step probably will leave a high number of 'survivors'.]

Now, the comprehensibility criterion applies first to individual statements, but eventually I will have to collate those statements into some kind of whole or 'system'. I MAY run up against 'contradictions' between otherwise comprehensible statements; "the Ultimate is 'beyond us'" with "the Ultimate is 'in us all'". Here I have to be careful. I expect beyond-type-statements to be a little 'weird' (after all, its the 'beyond'!) so the possibility that 'contradictions' might be resolvable with further information (e.g. "The ultimate is beyond us in the even-numbered seconds of time, and 'in us' in the odd-number seconds") must be allowed to exist.

Here I run into a problem. I need to allow a 'certain number' of contradictions to exist, but I can't let 'too many' exist, and I have to be careful about letting 'central ones' exist.

If ALL/MOST of the statements in a system are individually comprehensible, but they ALL contradict one another [e.g. "god is only the number 1", "god is only the number 2", "god is only the number 3"...], I really can't accept that as having any comprehensible content. I just don't know what to make of it, with the result that I have only 9 people left at the door.

On the other hand, if most of the statements are fine, but there are only a couple of contradictions, but they are ESSENTIAL and CRUCIAL to the system, I have a major issue and decision. If some system claims that the beyond is conscious and unconscious AT THE SAME TIME and IN THE SAME WAY (in the same 'realm' of the beyond), I may not be able to make that into something I can 'intuit enough' to form even a fuzzy notion of. [I, by no means, require a 'precise' notion of the beyond, or of any alleged 'interface' between the beyond and the ordinary, but I need to have SOME notion for my mind/language to intend on/attend to.] Again, we must be careful that we have tried hard, for we have contradictory-looking statements in ordinary language that ARE resolvable (cf. "Marsha is an angry person" and "Marsha is an affectionate person"--both can easily be true.)

If however in the contradiction, one term of it is in the 'beyond realm' (e.g. God controls all events) and one term of it is in the 'hither realm' (e.g. I control my ethical choices), then I might allow the possibility that some aspect of the relationship/interface between the two realms (undisclosed to me so far) MIGHT resolve this. [This is NOT 'faith' per se, but rather the same type of openness that we use in resolving contradictory observations within a scientific theory--we assume and 'stay open to' the discovery of some 'higher law' (undiscovered by us so far) that will cover BOTH observations, such as Einsteinian theories explaining both Newtonian mechanics and the 'contradiction' of the observed constant speed of light.]

And if I have the REALLY DIFFICULT problem of a very stubborn contradiction, I will have to handle it in a special way--it will have to examine the complex of statements AROUND each 'term' of the contradiction. In other words, each 'pole' of the antinomy will from the 'hub' of a web of implicative statements ('God controls all events' implies that the rebellious did not thwart God in an 'ultimate way' --in the same 'realm class' say, while 'I control my ethical choices' might imply that I am responsible for my acts.) In the REALLY DIFFICULT cases, I may have to understand this 'duality' (in the short term) in THE SAME WAY I 'understand' the 'contradictions' at the particle physics level. When light behaves like a field one moment, a particle the next, and a wave the third, I CANNOT synthesize these at all. I am stuck with organizing observations/implications around those three foci statements or poles. It may be, in the case of the sovereignty/responsibility issue (as well as in the conscious/unconscious antinomy above) that I am reduced to organizing data around the two poles, and learning in WHICH CONTEXTS to expect a certain 'pole' to have precedence.

Now, as a practical matter, if I DO BUMP INTO ONE OF THESE solid antinomies, I will tend to 'wait' until I see the support for each of the poles--it maybe that the context of that will provide some clue to the resolution that perhaps the evangelist at the door does not understand.

So, there has to be some level of comprehensibility, realism, coherence within the system--both the cognitives AS WELL AS the 'demands' it makes concerning those cognitives. For example, if the system demands that I believe that I am not real or simply an illusion, I find that self-contradictory (e.g. who then is it that believes that the who doesn't exist?) at a radical level. [I can, on the other hand, say that 'I am not AS REAL AS' something else--the Stratification extension (above), and this is apparently what some of the eastern systems mean by our being only a 'dream of god' or 'illusionary'--it is relative to something else..]

So, where I come out here is simply this: the belief structure needs to be 'basically' comprehensible before I can even get around to evaluating it. It doesn't need to be 'philosophically pure' or 'logically flawless' or even demonstrably coherent in its totality, but there must be something that can be discussed, believed, and be acted up (i.e. beliefs with implications) in the position before we move on.

[Now, I must say at this point that I have very little confidence in philosophical praxis in this endeavor. It was fashionable in recent history to argue that 'god talk' and related language had no demonstrable referent, led to contradictory conclusions (when defined precisely), and therefore would have been excluded ALTOGETHER from my examination! Since I have a rather low view of linguistic precision as it is--both WITHIN our 'realm' and especially 'outside it', and since I consider the 'personal/other minds' realm to be the dominant epistemological paradigm anyway (with its operationally adequate clarity, in spite of its obvious lack of hyper-precision), it should not be surprising to the reader that I don't let this discipline 'pronounce' on the comprehensibility of these systems. I will use the philosophical tools of uncovering assumptions, grounds, backings, warrants, implications etc. to probe these systems, but will not use its OWN ASSUMPTIONS (esp. metaphysically-loaded systems) to 'judge those' systems. I will instead apply the practical methods I use and depend on in my everyday life to arbitrate between competing proposals.]

Okay, we're ready to move on--to the 'source of the revelation'.

At this point, the evangelist has told me what 'the real truth is' (according to him/her). The question for them now is 'who/what' is the source of this information. And here we have to get back to the 'original source'. If the person says "the source of this information is the holy book", then we simply push the question back to "so who put the wisdom/truth/insight INTO THE BOOK?". Hopefully, they will be able to answer this with some relatively-detailed data (e.g. Tibetan monks, inspired prophets, God incarnate, enlightened individuals), so we can get to the REAL question--"How did THESE people get the truth/wisdom/insight?". NOW we get to the meat (maybe), and there are several possible cases:

Now, when I look at the list, it become obvious to me that some of these look more 'beyond-ish' than the others. God dictating the 10 commandments to Moses looks MORE 'beyond-ish' than does the OT author of the book of Proverbs, who looks at life and makes 'wise' observations. To be quite frank, I will tend to trust the former (if I can verify it) more/earlier than the later (even I have made wise observations--without them being either 'from beyond' or being correct!). Unless I have a good reason to believe that some individual is 'tapped into' the beyond, his or her observations will be on a relative par with mine--that is, of NO REVELATORY SIGNIFICANCE WHATSOEVER, and of NOT PARTICULARLY VALID CLAIMS TO RELIABILITY RELATIVE TO THE BEYOND!

I have a similar problem with those in which the event/experience is from the beyond, but it is left up to the human to interpret it into 'revelation'. Not only do we have the problem of what 'produced' the dream/vision/feeling (e.g. God, the anchovies on the pizza, or the unresolved conflicts of the past few months), but we also have the problem of correlating a structured linguistic expression with the higher level ambiguity inherent in pre-linguistic or sub-linguistic experience. For example, the feeling of awe I get in gothic chapels--should it produce the linguistic form "God lives in gothic chapels" or "God wants me to live in this chapel" or "Heaven is a big gothic chapel" or what? How would one disambiguate the feeling?

So, if the various claims of authority by one of these door-people does NOT ground itself on some 'ab-normal' experiences tightly-coupled with a linguistic product, it has NO particular strength at all to me. Humans are humans--be they many or few--and 'pooling of ignorance and speculation' does NOT satisfy my skeptical nature (relative to the beyond, gods, ultimates, absolutes, ethics, etc.).

This 2nd criteria--that of being based on abnormal 'revelation' experiences, that can be correlated closely with a linguistic product, eliminates most philosophical systems, most 'feeling based' theologies (the ambiguity factor is just too high for me--IF we will have a big enough ambiguity problem in a 'revealed' linguistic product, THEN how much more we will have it in a non-linguistic product!), most pooled-theologies and speculative systems.

[Remember, it the system is not expressed linguistically, it cannot be comprehensible, and therefore is eliminated at the first criterion.]

Now, there WILL BE some systems that will try to avoid my conscious processing, and use images and koans and parables to try to 'slip in under the linguistic radar'--to try to move my subconscious around enough for me to 'see the truth' of their position. But what this amounts to is the same 'proof by introspection/inspection' we talked about earlier. If I detect that they are playing games mentally with me, I am not sure that I might not just 'quit the game, and take my baseball home'. [We will also have to come back to this scenario later.]

A third criterion emerges at the point I am about ready to probe and evaluate. This criterion is that the belief system under question must NOT obviate the 'folk justification' methods I normally use to determine plausibility of a system. Not only must it be 'evaluate-able', but there must be ordinary means and methods to DO the evaluation. In other words, if the system contains a belief that " the grounds of our belief are immune from all criticism--and therefore to be taken on faith alone--they are not falsifiable", with the implication that I CANNOT evaluate it, then by definition--I cannot evaluate it, and it gets thrown out.

Many systems believe that their truth is 'self-attesting'. For many of them, this means 'upprovable' and/or 'insupportable' by grounds. But 'self-attesting' is simply another version of 'look in your heart--you KNOW its true.' And so the criterion REMAINS 'introspection' for these. The epistemic vividness of this MAY be powerful, but what am I to do if I have TWO such vivid experiences?! I again make a HUGE assumption throughout this venture--that the revealer/god is just as interested in me validating his 'overtures to me' as I am interested in knowing the truth.

Now, practically speaking, the protagonist here will probably simply shift the grounds to something else. For example, an appeal to "search your heart--you KNOW I am right" might follow immediately after the statement "our system has no proof--it must be taken on faith"--converting the groundless into a grounded (i.e. appeal to introspection). BUT IF, the person really does maintain that it CANNOT BE EVALUATED--by any means (e.g. introspection, appeal to numbers, appeal to testimony, etc)--then I DON'T EVALUATE IT and it gets discarded.

Now, there is special case to be looked at briefly. This is where the source of revelation AND the grounds of belief are the same--introspection. What this would look like is:

Ev: 	X is true. 
Me: How did you learn X?
Ev: My heart told me.
Me: Why should I believe your heart?
Ev: Because your heart tells you the same thing--just listen to it.

The reason this is a special case is that IF I do the introspection thing and my heart doesn't tell me X, then the evaluation cycle is over for this system. That is, if the ultimate grounds were to be 'seen' by inspection, and my personal experience of inspection did NOT yield X, then there is NO recourse for the X-believers with me. There are no more appeals, arguments, etc. (with the possible exception that I 'saw it' but am denying it for ethical suppression reasons or that I am too stupid to 'understand it' etc.). This basically applies to ALL 'self-attesting' truth-systems, including the "Paleo-Hindu" and some Christian Reformed groups.

On the other hand, if I look in and see X, I may be impressed but my job is not over. EVEN if X contains the 'belief' that ALL OTHER SYSTEMS ARE WRONG (explicitly or implicitly), I cannot stop my evaluation of the other systems, because they may ALSO GENERATE introspective 'successes' and create just another theatre of conflict (i.e. my internal 'senses' or intuitions.)--the "which one FEELS more correct" problem.

So, what we have so far are comprehensible systems, based on revelation occurring in abnormal events, generating highly correlated linguistic products, that are open to 'folk methods' of evidence appraisal.

At this point a special problem comes up, especially in the area of 'folk appraisal'. Several systems of religious thought argue that I cannot know the truth until I have 'practiced' their religion for some time, or have 'purified myself so that I may see' or have denied myself LONG ENOUGH to be 'impartial' and 'unbiased' about their truth. [The astute reader will recognize that there IS an element of truth to this. I would expect a religion to be like ANY body of truth, with its 'first principles' that can be seen from the 'outside', its 'elementary truths' that NEW students get, and the 'advanced' knowledge that only practitioners learn. But this possibility of growth in knowledge is NOT a refusal to offer evidence to those considering the system.] Although it CAN be argued that ten years of mediation in a monastery IS a 'folk method' of appraisal, I am forced to 'push back' here somewhat. I am going to HAVE TO ASK the evangelist 'How can I be SURE I will reach the truth this way, especially considering the SUBSTANTIAL investment required?!' (Close on the heels of this, will be the question that my canine business management side poses--"how many people have DONE the 10 year gig WITHOUT reaching the TRUTH?"-the assessment of probability and risk.)

To this question (the first one, that is--I already KNOW that the second one is not 100%!), I will probably get an answer CLOSER to the kinds of 'evidences' I am looking for. And REGARDLESS of what they say, I am then going to raise the 'comparative apologetic' question--"Why should I believe YOUR system INSTEAD of hers'?".

Hopefully, if I have set this up right, I will get the various 'evangelists' discussing AMONG THEMSELVES the relative 'superiority' of their individual claims. In this way, MORE of the kinds of data I am looking for SHOULD surface (assuming they don't just mutually annihilate themselves in some group jihad-crusade, right there on my balcony!).

I may need ("probably" is a better word) to be a 'linguistic umpire' in some cases, to try to make sure they use terms as similarly as possible. For example, when an Advaita Vendantist says 'from The Absolute's standpoint, the world doesn't exist at all, you materialist Christian-types'', and the Christian retorts 'Wrong, Bozo, the world is very, very real', I may need to point out that the Christian perspective of creation as a 'derivative' reality is probably what the Vedantist is saying. [But this of course, presupposes I know too much already. However, I can always force them to define their terms to each others satisfaction, to ensure that the arguments are REAL. And remember, if they won't DO that--if all they will do is throw parables or images of geese at me, without 'paraphrasing it' for my too-astringent Western mind, then they didn't make it past Criterion One.]

The kinds of things I will look for in their discussion will be things related to testable evidences, accusations of fideism (non-appeal to facts/reason/etc, i.e. 'you have to take it on FAITH'), defenses of their holy writings, ethical aberrations in the leadership, etc.

Hopefully, I can weed out the testable ones from the un-testable ones here. For practicality, I will limit my evaluation at this point to the easily testable ones. [Remember, the un-testable ones all CLAIM to be testable, but only AFTER you have embraced it for 10 years, walked on your knees to Vegas, paid tons of money to the hierarchy, and the like.]

So, now I focus on the testable ones. These systems have all provided 'evidences' and/or 'grounds' for accepting their faith.

Before I get to their ground, however, I have a couple of my own 'questions' I need answered (or at least, explained away as being irrelevant).

First, I have this vague notion that IF THERE IS A GOD and IF he/she/it/they created the human race, then I would expect the revealed religion to be sorta 'universal'--a fuzzy notion, to be sure, but the intent is obvious. If he/she/it/they 'cared' enough to get some message across, then I would expect it not to be hidden away in some corner of history/geography. Now, I am not opposed to this god revealing his message in history to an individual (e.g. Mohammed) or group (e.g. Israel), but if it STAYED there forever I would be suspicious that it might be some parochial, nationalistic culture-cult or something. The way I would test this would be to see if each of the religions could show me 'believers' from most cultures, most nations, most backgrounds. [Most of the Majors can--some of the sects and cults might disappear from consideration here].

Similarly, if the religion had some sense of urgency/universal importance about it, I would expect the revelation from this god to have occurred early in history, rather than just recently. If the 'founder' of a religion could not show SOME kind of continuity back to earliest records, I would be suspicious. This would weed out the more 'recent' religions, sects, cults; and probably only leave us with some of the majors (although I would have to look closely at their continuity claims: the Vedics would probably make it, Judeo-Christianity probably, Buddism probably not, Islam not sure.). I would also have to consider the historical developments within the system. If a religions started out monotheistic, but turned polytheistic over time, I am not sure I would consider this continuity. I would require a closer look.

[Note that the opposite is also true. The fact that the worship of Chemosh is not currently represented at my door, due to the fact that this religion 'passed away' in history, indicates to me that it is not a 'universal' religion. This is assuming, of course, that Chemosh was NOT the real god and that he 'gave up on us' for reasons of his own. This eliminates MOST of the dead religions--although some have elements that have been incorporated in newer ones.]

Now, strictly speaking, I have to be cautious here, because I have made a HUGE assumption in my 'requirement' that a religion be 'quasi-universal'. Some smaller groups will hit me with "you are simply not one of the Elect" or with "God's reasons for only saving Gypsies is BEYOND HUMAN REASON" or the such. I DO have to be careful here, so I don't make this a Show-Stopper, but it DOES make the solidity of their evidences more important to me. In other words, if they say God did NOT intend to at least OFFER a relationship with himself to all nations, then their evidence for His revealed message had better be REALLY strong.

Closely related to this is the idea that the religion must be common-based. In other words, it cannot be so esoteric and require so much training that the vast majority of the people are excluded by this factor alone. Some systems of thought have vocabulary so far removed from real life uses of the same words, that it is difficult to see why a Revealor would speak in such confusing terms. I think here of the Buddhist quote above, about good and evil not existing. It is beyond my ability to consistently look at cases of child abuse and battered women and believe that evil is simply not real. Although they are using 'real' in a different sense (I suppose), this is a linguistic stretch that seems too esoteric. (I find it much easier to deal with a system that says evil is real, and has to deal with WHY it is real--that makes much more 'folk sense' to me.) Likewise, a Christian Science evangelist that tries to convince me from his literature that 'death is a mistake (illusion) of the mortal mind' uses 'death' in a sense so far removed from common use as to render it meaningless. (Not to mention the self-stultification in the use of 'mortal' in that statement!)

This general matrix of universality, longevity, reach, etc. is the main reason I will reject 'spot' revelations. If someone at the door, says 'hey, my religion just started last Saturday. Bud and I had a vision in apartment 10D. God appeared to us and told us to spread the word that anybody who doesn't eat at least 4 oz. of sushi each week, will be punished after death with eternal indigestion', they had better have some REALLY, REALLY strong and vivid evidence of God--footage would not be enough; I think I would need a blood sample too ;>).

This obviously applies to the Koreshes and Jim Jones of the world (completely apart from their ethics involved--that will be a later criteria). Spot revelations count SO MUCH LESS THAN a pattern of revelations. For example, if the sushi-loving deity of Bud & his pal, had appeared in early Mesopotamia (as recorded on the famous "Seafood Special" stella, and then again was referred to by Josephus in passing, and maybe then we found a shroud with 'eat more sushi' burned into it mysteriously, then I would take their claims more seriously.

Well, we finally come to the final round of contestants. These are religions that claim that a conscious god spoke into history somehow, this revelation was recorded linguistically, the god provides some type of 'marks' that the revelation was from god, the system derivable from this revelation (plus oral traditions if necessary) is generally comprehensible, and that there are reasons why a sane, honest, open-minded person would believe that their god spoke to them.

Now, the types of evidences that might be advanced, as proof that 'god spoke through person X, through liver Y, through patterns of bones Q, etc' fall into several categories:

1. it changed X's life, therefore was a revelation
2. the message through X was something X COULD NOT HAVE KNOWN, and it was true
3. the message through X has been accepted by vast multitudes of all walks of life
4. the message through X has been accepted by the elite ('the wise')
5. the events surrounding the disclosure to X were highly abnormal (e.g. signs of possession, glowing face, in a new language)
6. X said so, and X was otherwise totally credible
7. X said so, and Y said the same thing--in different settings, times, etc.--without collusion
8. A personal-type message came through impersonal means--beyond expectations (e.g. Ouija board, throwing bones, entrails-examination)--and the message 1) fulfilled some of the other criteria or 2) made enough sense in context to be related to the deity-in-question.
9. the message (from whatever means) has shown characteristics indicative of a divine source (e.g. ethical loftiness?, non-eradicatibility in history, inscrutability?, applicability to all cultures)
10. the message has been responsible for vast amounts of human good over the ages (e.g. social concerns, liberation from fear)

Now, I would not necessarily expect each of the religions to use ALL of these approaches, but EACH of these have their strengths and weaknesses. I need to briefly talk about these.

Number One: "It changed X's life, therefore it was a revelation". This has the strength that it MIGHT indicate something 'weird', but without more data about the content, it will be too ambiguous. For example, consider Rabbi Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road. He allegedly has a vision of Jesus Christ. He immediately changes his life from persecuting Christians to helping 'make' more OF them. This is a radical change to be sure. Does that support his claims that Jesus spoke to him? Probably so...he ended up dying for that vision.

But where is the ambiguity in this? Had Paul's change, for example, NOT been correlated with the alleged content of the revelation, his story of Jesus' words might be suspect. If, to play out this example, Paul reported that Jesus told him to go to the gentiles, and the only systematic change in Paul's life was that he starting eating 4 oz. of sushi weekly, we would wonder about his story. For our general sense is that a revelation from a god would likely IMPRESS US DEEPLY--and in the direction of the content of that revelation.

This type of ambiguity is a HUGE problem (imo) in the interpretation of religious experience. If I eat a bad 'mix' of food one night, and have a lucid dream about God and sushi that night, and then when I wake up and announce to the world that god spoke to me in a dream, I am guilty of over-precision of the highest order! The dream could have had too many sources (e.g. anchovy and Twinkie mixed, repressed fears from childhood, god) to be rendered in such an UN-ambiguous way. [If on the other hand, I have the same dream every Monday night for 7 years, regardless of diet and regardless of considerable therapy, then my claim should be taken more seriously.]

This general interpretive problem with religious experience is endemic to the individual religious experiences. However, the ambiguity can be reduced considerably over time, through pattern identification, assumption questioning, and interpretive context 'testing'--standard literary/hermeneutical techniques. (Notice that THESE techniques are not for ASSESSING the claims of revelation, but only for DETERMINING the cognitive content of those alleged revelations.)

[To digress in this direction for a moment...Pattern identification is where a series of alleged 'revelations' describe a pattern, much like the Connect-the-Dots puzzles we did as kids. No single DOT carries the content--it is only the perception of the entire pattern that reveals the shape of Godzilla. Likewise, in the revelation scene, it may be the pattern of revelation-events that communicate the message (e.g. the matrices of messianic prophecies in the OT). And it goes without saying, that the bigger the pattern of 'alleged revelation events' the clearer the message. (Cf. the patterns of 'forgetting God/God forgetting Israel' in Judges)... [I have a more detailed discussion of patterns and their importance in this enterprise in Against the Linguistic Wall...Assumption questioning is simply the procedure of asking the question 'what am I reading INTO this event?'. Or "what assumptions have I made in my word choices about this experience?". The goal of this is to detect early what ambiguous elements in the raw experience we disambiguated on the basis of our assumptions!...and interpretive context 'testing' is the hermeneutical counterpart to paradigm-switching in science. When our data points in a scientific arena don't 'click together' in ONE scientific paradigm (e.g. wave theories of light), then we try 'looking at the data' THROUGH the lens of a DIFFERENT paradigm (e.g. particle theory of light). In the same way, we look at 'revelatory' experiences through multiple grids (i.e. interpretive context--most religions can be seen fundamentally as interpretive contexts of life), to see which lens makes the data 'click together best'. Take for example the empty tomb issue in Christianity. We have a whole host of data points: details in scripture, lives of the disciples, early Christian habits, early Christian rituals, Rabbinic data, known psychological realities, etc. To evaluate any THEORY of how these data interrelate, one has to adopt a theory (e.g. swoon, theft, resurrection) and then 'SEE' each piece of detail through that grid. Then you pick up the next 'grid' and repeat the process. But in EVERY test, you still have to question the assumption--what assumptions did I bring with me, that might influence the 'click-audibility' in this test. (This is a major bone of contention of theists toward non-theists here; we are always concerned that non-theist ASSUMPTIONS stop the non-theist from looking at all the data and really listening for the click.)]

[Go to Part two.]
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