Transformative Experience and Skepticism

I previously posted about this discussion between Sean Carroll and LA Paul. It’s very fascinating, and is basically about the difficulty of making choices when the choice that is made can fundamentally change who we are. In other words, there are scenarios where it’s not just uncertain payoffs that make the decision hard, but the fact that the decision will change what payoffs we care about.

At the end of the previous post, I mentioned that later in the discussion they talked about the implications for the theism / atheism debate, but I didn’t go into that at all.

The point being made by Paul is that a theist might say that there are certain practices that can be done — perhaps prayer or meditation — that make new evidence available to a person. It awakens their sensus divinitatis, the theist will claim. If that is the case, then a theist might say that a skeptic or nonbeliever who has a commitment to considering all of the evidence should do these practices so that they can consider the additional evidence before deciding whether they believe in God.

What does this choice look like to the skeptic? It might look a lot like the scenarios discussed earlier in the conversation — and in my previous post — such as deciding to become a vampire, or to have kids. It could be completely transformative, changing who you are and what you value. And what’s right for the person after the transformation might not be what was right for the person before the transformation. Maybe the skeptic doesn’t want to open themself to that experiential evidence and potential transformation.

Paul and Carroll have some discussion of whether there is a symmetry here, with a theist being similarly unwilling to put themselves into a skeptical mindset. I think that is definitely true in practice: many religious people are not as skeptical as they could be. Maybe all of us (including theists and atheists) have a built-in resistance to evidence that could contradict what we want to believe. But in theory, if we have a committment to all of the available evidence, shouldn’t we do those practices that could bring about additional evidence? Or should we a priori discount that potential evidence because of the manner in which it comes about (e.g. through some experience rather than some rational process)?

Apparently Paul is writing about this in her new book, so I very much look forward to that.

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