A new friend and I had an extraordinarily productive and meaningful discussion about religion last night. This is noteworthy because he is a devout Mormon while I am an atheist.
What impressed me most was the fact that everything was handled from the foundation of science and logic (he’s a PhD candidate in Computer Science). The debate was civil and moved briskly in a productive direction.
When asked how he could possibly reconcile the Mormon narrative with a logical review of the evidence he gave me the best answer I’ve ever heard. Here it is.
My belief in God is not based on willful delusion, but on empirical (i.e. experiential) evidence. In fact, my acceptance of the religious principles I adhere to are logically built on this evidence. The issue is what you are willing to accept as valid evidence.
As a trained scientific researcher (in the field of information systems), I have strong respect for the scientific method and consider it to be the best means available have for acquiring knowledge. In using the scientific method, scientists make epistemological decisions to only accept as evidence those predictions of phenomena that are measurable, testable, objective, reproducible, and so on.
However, not all phenomena are measurable, etc. However, the fact that a certain phenomenon cannot be assessed using the scientific method does not mean that it isn’t real. It simply means it is beyond the scope of what science can validate. To claim otherwise would be an obvious fallacy.
Many human experiences fall into this category. Most personal experiences are not objective or testable. In my case, my acceptance of the existence of God is based on several instances in my life in which I have experienced or “felt” a communication from God. None of these experiences are verifiable using the scientific method, yet they were as real as anything else I have experienced in my life.
Simply put, I have made a decision to accept these experiences as evidence of the existence of God. In other words, I have broadened my epistemological criteria to accept as valid these profound and highly individualistic experiences.
The willingness to accept spiritual experiences as evidence is a great divider of theists and atheists. Knowledge gained through spiritual experiences is obviously not scientific, but millions if not billions of people have accepted such knowledge as the basis for their belief. Such acceptance is not unfounded or thoughtless, but rests on experiences that these people consider very real.
So in other words, he agrees, as a scientist, that evidence is the only thing we can trust. All he has done is expand his own personal criteria for evidence to include the spiritual experiences that he has had. This doesn’t solve anything tangible, but at least it advances the debate to the realm of discussing those experiences and whether or not they should be included.
Most importantly, we’re speaking logically — Mormon to atheist — which I think is refreshing.
So how should this debate proceed? What’s the next step? How does one respond to this from either side?