Saturday, December 27, 2008

What's wrong with being delusional?

I was browsing some videos on YouTube when I came across this particular file featuring Richard Dawkins talking about his book The God Delusion. While I suppose that I can see why so many theists get all worked up over this guy, I still think that much of his bad rap is undeserved. I seem to recall that there's a South Park episode that made fun of him where the point essentially was that he acted like a jerk. While I can maybe see that with some outspoken atheists, like Christopher Hitchens, for instance, I think that this guy comes across as very far from being a jerk. At worst, he says what's on his mind, and that's often not what people want to hear. However, his language is never caustic or flippant. It's just direct and honest. Unfortunately, people don't always like honest answers.

Anyway, obviously the title of his book would upset some people. Nobody wants to be told that what they believe is a delusion. After all, the implication is that there's something wrong with you if you have a delusion. And people will insist that they KNOW that they're not delusional.

I always wonder about that. How do you know that you're not delusional? I mean, isn't the definition of a delusion something that isn't real but seems as though it is? I don't know why it's such a bad thing to at least consider that you might be suffering from delusions. I admit that I might be. I mean, I don't think that I am - but how would I know if I was?

So anyway, this fella tries to get Dawkins to respond to what, to him, proves the existence of God. Of course, the guy is talking about Da Jeebus, and not Vishnu, Odin, Zeus, or Huitzilopochtli. He insists that he's "walked with God" and "assures" Dawkins that it's been "no delusion". Here, check it out:

Dawkins gives a pretty good answer, I think. After all, if this is what we're to accept as our standard of proof, then we not only have to believe in every god that has ever existed (except Heimdall - c'mon, screw that guy and his horn) but we have to believe every account of alien abductions, ghost visitations, fairy encounters, etcetera. People talk about these things with the exact same conviction as this guy talks about Jesus. They KNOW that what they experienced was real. There is not a doubt in their mind that they're not hallucinating. (Personally, anybody who never doubts themselves scares me. Since when is absolute certainty a virtue?)

There were a couple of things that I found interesting about this. First of all, the guy said that Dawkins didn't address his point. Dawkins did in fact address it. The problem is, the guy didn't get it. His world view is so small, and he starts with the assumption that he's right. After all, he's not talking about all those fake gods - he's talking about the real one! I'm sure that some people would accuse Dawkins of doing the same thing, but his response is one of logic and reason. He's obviously been asked this question before, and his response is correct. Had the guy been born in another place and another time, he would have the same certainty about a completely different god. However, that's an idea that this guy can't even stop to consider. After all, so much of his world view rests on absolute certainty. To even consider what Dawkins said would potentially pull out the bottom of his house of cards.

The second thing that I found interesting is that if you search for it on YouTube, the person who posted it described the way Dawkins answered the question as being "cruel". Why is he being cruel? What is he supposed to say to the guy? "Oh yes, everybody is hallucinating but you." Of course, nobody wants to be told that they're hallucinating - but what if you ARE hallucinating? Should people not tell you so because it's rude?

Now, I don't think that people should go around on the street, walk up to theists and say, "Hey, you're hallucinating." That would be counter-productive. However, this guy came to a presentation that Dawkins was doing. The topic, no doubt, was known beforehand. The guy asked a question. It's a shame that he probably didn't like the answer, and many Christians watching won't like to watch it either.

That, to me, seems to be the ultimate difference between the theist and atheist. The theist uses personal feelings and experiences to determine reality. The atheist knows that what you feel doesn't matter - at least, it doesn't matter when it comes to determining what reality. As an atheist, I don't even necessarily scoff at the notion of somebody feeling God's presence. Perhaps that makes me a bit of a existentialist (assuming that I understand the concept - which I may very well may not be) but if somebody feels God's presence in their life, then that is a very real and valuable thing. No, it doesn't make God real - but the experience is real. That's why I wouldn't put somebody down for having an experience. It's just when they use that as a reason for me to believe - or as a logical argument as to why anybody should believe.

I suppose that it's hard to have an experience and just leave it at that. Personally, I think that I can do it. As I once wrote before, when I was a little kid in the hospital, my mom told me that Jesus was there for me, looking out over me. I truly felt his presence there with me. Now that I look back at it, I know that there wasn't really any god/spirit/zombie carpenter in there with me. And like Dawkins points out, had I been raised in India, I might have felt that Ganesha was there watching out for me. But it doesn't matter. The experience was real, and it made me feel better. Is that the only sort of a thing that can make one feel better? Of course not.

So, I was delusional - and what's wrong with that?


Matthew said...

Good topic. I really like Dawkins. I do think he's somewhat insulting, but that's just what he does. He's the proverbial dinner guest who actually says that the food stinks.

As for the topic, I agree that there's nothing necessarily wrong with delusions, we all have them to some degree, and if they help or serve as a much needed crutch then so be it. Although, I think that in the grand scheme of things we're all better off with fewer of them.

Despite liking Dawkins, I have to niggle with him from time to time. I won't say that I outright disagree with him, I just don't think he's always completely honest with himself and the audience. I agree with him in this clip. I think anyone who claims to have spoken with a supernatural being is either delusional or a liar. Furthermore, anyone who insists on the existence of supernatural beings is also likely delusional (not that there's anything wrong with delusions). But, I think it's important to point out two things, first, that the converse (invsrse?... not sure) is not necessarily true, that rational thought does not necessarily lead to atheism (although, I would agree that it usually does). That is to say that atheists do not have a lock on reason... they're just typically better at it.

After all, science is based upon experience and dogma too. The difference is that all experience needs to be repeatable in order to become dogma... or at least it should be repeatable. Maybe the religious should learn something here. And, a good scientist (or atheist) would be well served to remember that we are limited by what we can experience, that some things are simply not testable, and that's the reason religious beliefs do not belong in science. It's not that belief in god is delusional by definition or just a silly notion - there are plenty of silly ideas in science. Religious experience is simply not testable and not repeatable. As a consequence, we can reasonably assume that religious dogma is delusion, but it's just a hedged bet, not a proof. I believe this is why Dawkins says, "it is my opinion that you are hallucinating." There is no way to prove that the man suffers from hallucinations, and no way to prove he is delusional. It's just relatively likely that he is.

Secondly, in defense of the religios, I might ask, what is the difference between delusion and hope?

Lance Christian Johnson said...

The difference between delusion and hope? Well, hope isn't necessarily delusional. For instance, I hope that my wife comes back okay from the ski trip that she went on today. That's reasonable. I also hope that the economy will turn around - again, reasonable.

If I hope that one day I'll get bitten by a radioactive spider and gain its powers, well...then I'm getting delusional.

I guess that hope isn't delusion, but there's a line there somewhere. Where is it? I'm not entirely sure.

As for the rest of what you wrote, I'll just leave it at that, because if I'm not mistaken, you're just adding to what I wrote and not necessarily contradicting it. It might not be the way I'd put it, but I can't really find anything in there that I disagree with even though it's not exactly, 100% how I see things.

Matthew said...

That's kind of my point. Someone else has to decide if a person is delusional or just hopeful. To some degree, delusion is a matter of opinion. You and I might agree if a person is delusional, but really the reason Dawkins uses that word is to belittle religious individuals.

I think a more helpful descriptor might be "cognitive dissonance."

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Hmmm...I really just don't see him as "belittling" anybody. A bit harsh, maybe? Oh well, we could get into semantics all day about this, I suppose, but it doesn't seem to matter as we pretty much agree.