[This is a “reprint” of part 3 of a series I posted on my home blog, www.ldsphilosopher.com]
In a previous post, I presented Oakeshott’s view of rationality as the capacity to form interpretations of and responses to experience. In another post, I described ways in which the movie Contact provides an excellent example of this. In this post, I will explore a little deeper how Ellie’s experience in the movie illustrates Oakeshott’s point. I would recommend that those who haven’t read either of these two posts do so here: Rationality Redefined; Jodi Foster’s Empiricism in Contact.
There were several ways to interpret Ellie’s reported experience. The committee chairman interpreted the entire experience as a delusion: Ellie, a young woman starved for contact with her long deceased father, created the experience in her mind to ease her loneliness and sorrow; the entire project was a hoax developed by an eccentric personality who had for a long time been influencing Ellie’s life and research.
Ellie, although she admitted that the chairman’s interpretation seemed more likely than her own, chose to interpret the experience as an interaction with an alien intelligence that wished to learn about the human race. She chose to interpret the experience this way because this interpretation brought hope and meaning to her life. It justified her changed heart and renewed humility.
If Michael Oakeshott’s point of view is correct, it implies that no interpretation is a priori known to be true. How any given experience is to be interpreted is “up for grabs,” so to speak. However, this does not mean that all interpretations are equal; they all have implications and consequences that we should consider. Let’s look at another example that may help illustrate this.
Scrooge and Gravy
Each Christmas time, I try to take the time to reread Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Christmas Carol. One particular passage in the book caught my attention this year. Ebenezer Scrooge is conversing with the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley:
“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.
“I don’t.” said Scrooge.
“What evidence would you have of my reality, beyond that of your senses?”
“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.
“Why do you doubt your senses?”
“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
Indeed, Scrooge is right. Every experience may be interpreted any number of ways. Is it possible that a biochemical reaction in Scrooge’s brain induced him to hallucinate his entire experience? Of course it is possible. Scrooge, however, abandoned that possibility, and was convinced that the ghost did, in reality, exist.
What caused him to believe in the ghost’s existence? He didn’t arrive at the conclusion through logical deduction. Reason, as we have seen, can lead us interpret our experiences in any number of ways. As I discussed in Rationality Redefined, reason is our capacity to make sense of our experience, and there is no single way to do it. Shirley Robin Letwin describes this point of view aptly: “A man may have to deal with physiological processes within his body and physical processes outside it … , but as long as he retains his reason, he chooses how to understand and deal with his experience.”
The Basis of Conviction
At the conclusion of Scrooge’s experience, you would be hardpressed to get him to chalk up the whole experience to an “undigested bit of beef.” Certainly, the possibility still existed. However, Scrooge would never accept that possibility because he was changed, in a penetrating way, because of his experience. There is something about revelatory experiences that invites us to interpret them as such. When we accept that invitation, we abandon alternative interpretations and open ourselves to be changed forever.
For example, when I prayed and asked God if the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were true, I received many revelatory experiences convincing me that I had received an answer from God.
A well-trained psychologist will remind me about confirmation bias, a process where individuals will notice information that confirms their belief (or what they want to believe) and ignore contradictory information.
A well-trained physiologist will remind me that certain hormonal changes at the right times may have led me to believe that I was having a feel-good experience in answer to prayer, when it was really just coincidence.
I confess that each of these alternatives have a certain amount of plausibility, in the sense that each of them are rational interpretations of my experiences. However, there was something about the experiences that invited me to believe that they were communications from God. I accepted that invitation, committed myself to that interpretation, changed as a person because of it, and have never regretted it.
I write this post because I think it’s important that we understand this central fact: there is no logical certainty in our religious beliefs. There isn’t meant to be. Our beliefs are rooted in lived experience, not reason. Also, there is no certain way to interpret those experiences. However, we have committed, through an act of free will and an act of faith (and in response to an invitation that we believe comes from God), to interpret certain lived experiences as revelatory experiences.
In other words, we believe because we choose to believe. Some would say that this is precisely why we should abandon our beliefs in favor of “more likely” interpretations. However, this analysis applies to any and all interpretations, and therefore applies equally to the atheist or the materialist who look for “scientific” interpretations of lived experience. Thus, Oakeshott’s view of rationality “levels the playing field” in an important way. A biological, evolutionary, or reductionist account of religious experience is not better by virtue of the fact that it relies solely on scientific principles, because any commitment to those principles is simply that: a commitment.
The act of choice that leads to our conviction may not necessarily involve pre-deliberation; in fact, it rarely does. The choice resides in the fact that we are constantly and actively interpreting our experiences and responding to invitations from the Spirit. There is nothing wrong with this–it is partly what makes us human. And it is what allows us to commit to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to construe the world through the lens of revealed truth.