The argument goes like this: “it’s obvious that there is a god [or insert some other supernatural claim]. If you look around you [or inside of you, or whatever], you know that this is true because it’s self-evident. In fact, you already know deep down that it’s true, you just don’t want to admit it!”
As hard as it may be to believe, that’s really the nuts and bolts of this argument – though calling it an “argument” is clearly something of a stretch. It’s really more of a tactic, one script among many that believers fall back upon when they are attempting to argue in public – in situations where they must appeal to reason and evidence – and realize that they have no rational justification for what they believe.
Those who don’t regularly engage believers in arguments might think that no believer in his or her right mind would ever appeal to “it’s obvious!” as a serious argument, but such appeals come up with shocking frequency.
Read on for examples and analysis of this script at work.
An atheist television show that is somewhat well-known online is The Atheist Experience, a public access program, filmed in Austin, Texas, that is streamed over the internet and has acquired a following around the world, thanks largely to the hysterical snippets that get posted on Youtube. As a call-in show, the program encourages believers of all kinds to call in and argue their case for the existence of…whatever it is that they happen to believe in. The results are, as you might guess, usually highly amusing.
The “argument from self-evidence” comes up in several calls, and it is sometimes cutely referred to by hosts and fans of the show as the “Argument from trees,” since one of its many forms is, “Look at the birds! Look at the trees! Of course there’s a god!” In this form, of course, it is a clumsy attempt to utilize an argument from design (which I will cover in another post to come): “Look at how amazing and intricate nature is!” the argument runs. “It couldn’t have created itself, so God is obvious!” (astute readers will have already spotted an argument from ignorance in this argument – more to come on this in future posts as well).
One amusing clip from The Atheist Experience (which you can watch here if you want a good laugh) features a caller who claims to have “proof” of creationism. His “proof” begins with his definitive statement that “Creation is pretty obvious.”
After some back-and-forth – and after it becomes clear that the caller has no “evidence” aside from attempts to cast doubt on evolution based on a poor understanding of science – Matt Dillahunty (host of The Atheist Experience and president of the group that sponsors the show) offers a useful rebuttal: “Obviously it’s not obvious, or we wouldn’t be having this discuss.”
This believer tactic is an attempt to dismiss valid criticism of a supernatural belief by treating the belief as something that all people should know and that should be obvious and self-evident to any investigator – even when this is clearly not the case.
When this tactic becomes combined with the disingenuous New Age delusion that a factual claim about the world can be true “to me” and not to everyone else, it provides idealistic idiots the perfect escape mechanism to justify the most ridiculous beliefs.
An example of this tactic recently appeared on Lashtal.com, where another poster got into an argument with me about the existence of reincarnation.
[Incidentally, this other poster has consistently demonstrated himself to be an absolute idiot who always manages to miss the point, misinterpret what is said to him, and write intolerably long posts that veer far, far off course, all in the name of what he considers “fun.” This is the same guy who – presumably as part of a Masters program in religious studies – has apparently written a “ten-page paper on the HGA.” That’s likely to be a hoot, eh?]
This religious believer begins by trying to shut down the conversation by employing the tactic I’ve been explaining in this post:
And the reincarnation bit... whatever. Some things are simply self evident.
Notice how this statement indicates a desire to stop conversing on this subject and stop subjecting the belief to rational scrutiny.
Upon being prodded by me, he expands on this a little bit:
Self-evident... it is clear and beyond all doubt to me that I have had experiences of past lives.
My response to him then takes the conversation in a direction that he does not want to go: analyzing these experiences:
It’s clear you’ve had an experience of some kind, yes. Once you desire to figure out what that experience (or experiences) actually was, it becomes necessary to analyze it through reason, which is the only tool available for coming to conclusions about factual claims about the world.
For the purposes of comparison – and this was the point of invoking the “It’s self-evident that there’s a God” business [to which I had compared his claim earlier] – it’s equally clear to Hindus that they’ve had experiences of Shiva; to Christians that they’ve had experiences of Jesus; to Scientologists that they’ve had experiences of the ghosts of aliens or whatever weirdo thing they believe in.
It’s equally clear to some people that they had a near death experience where they went to the Christian heaven or hell or where they went to the Happy Hunting Grounds or whatever. It’s clear to you that you’ve had the experience of a “past life.”
How do you propose that we distinguish between these claims to determine what the actual truth of the matter is? Obviously, all of these claims involve conflicting metaphysical systems and they cannot all simultaneously be true. Just as obviously, we can’t use the self-evidentiary nature of these experiences to determine which of them is correct because they’re all equally “self-evident” to the people experiencing them.
So how then, do you propose determining which of these experiences is correctly labeled? To put it another way, how do you propose determining that you’re not just fooling yourself and labeling as “past life memory” an experience that could probably be better classed as “hallucination” or “vivid daydream” or – most likely – “an overactive imagination”?
It’s not an academic question: if you don’t have a good answer to it – or worse, if you give one of those dumb cop-outs, like “Well, gee, maybe everything’s an illusion, so nothing’s true…” – you’re basically admitting that you don’t care whether you’re fooling yourself or not, which pretty much makes this whole spirituality thing an exercise in futility, doesn’t it?
The other poster’s response, predictably, reveals what I suspected all along – that he isn’t interested in truth at all and that claiming his belief is “self-evident” is nothing more than a device to prevent him from investigating what he believes.
I really don't care whether it's a proven fact or not. It is self-evident to me. It is something that I have always known, and will possibly always know in future lives.
It is subjectively true to me that reincarnation exists.
And there we have it. Once a person has convinced himself that his stupid beliefs are “self-evident,” he has no need for truth, and “truth” becomes entirely a matter of subjectively “experiencing” things, despite the fact that different people report contradictory beliefs equally “supported” by subjective experience.
On another thread, this guy continues on the same theme, digging himself deeper into a hole of stupid:
I accept that reincarnation happens. I also accept that it doesn't happen.
Now, clearly – we might even say, ahem, self-evidently – a proposition cannot be simultaneously true and false. Either reincarnation happens or it doesn’t. It might be, of course, that this poster is clumsily trying to say that he thinks reincarnation happens to some people and not to others. If this is the case, then he is indeed arguing that reincarnation happens, even though he might be claiming it only happens to a certain subset of the population.
This is a factual claim about the world, just as much so as the factual claim that people can “raise energy to levitate objects” (as this same wackaloo claims he and his weirdo friends once did as kids), just as much so as the claim that a god created the universe, and just as much so as the claim that Mohammed is the final prophet of God.
Like all factual claims, it is subject to the demands of rational inquiry and skepticism, which requires us to gather evidence in favor of it before accepting it.
One cannot simply declare a factual claim to be self-evident and stop looking for evidence. This is a tactic not merely used by the believer to try to shut down conversation with others, but a tactic the believer uses to stop himself from investigating his beliefs any further.
I’ll tell you a story: once upon a time, when I was a teenager (and this was over a decade ago now, so I guess I shouldn’t feel too embarrassed), I got it into my head that reincarnation was true. My rationale was similar to the argument that it’s “obvious”: I said to myself, “Well, nature recycles everything. Everything moves in circles, like the seasons, the return of flowers, the re-use of atoms. It seems obvious that nature would recycle consciousness as well.”
Looking back at it, I’m fairly confident that I knew at the time I was bullshitting myself and that I knew, even at that time, that that “argument” wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. But I didn’t scrutinize it because I liked the idea of reincarnation. Telling myself that it was “obvious” in some way was a tactic that my mind used to shut down further rational inquiry into the subject so that my mind could go on believing in something that is unjustified, simply because it preferred to think of things that way.
In point of fact, the idea that nature “recycles” things is an overwhelmingly simplistic view of the universe. It might be true that there are discernable cyclical patterns in nature, but these patterns in no way suggest a desire to “recycle” or preserve anything – nature is exceedingly wasteful, extravagant, and cruel, as even the most cursory study of evolutionary biology should reveal. And further, even if we could somehow establish that nature “recycles” certain parts of it, this would in no way imply that it also recycles other things, like “souls,” in the manner claimed by adherents of reincarnation. All of this is, of course, completely beside the fact that there is no good reason to suppose that consciousness can actually exist separately from the body and quite a lot of evidence to suggest that consciousness is entirely rooted in physicality.
[Incidentally, there is a certain kind of stupid believer who will read the above three paragraphs and say, “Oh, so that explains why he’s so passionate about this reincarnation stuff! He disbelieves in it because of an emotional reaction to his past! Ha ha, silly atheist. Now I can dismiss his arguments and go about being a smug amateur psychologist….” This kind of reaction is the same kind of idiocy as the notion that “Atheists are just atheists because they want to rebel” or “because they are reacting against a religious upbringing.” The foolishness of this particular believer script will be examined in another post, but it should suffice to say that these kinds of objections are simply another way of dismissing and shutting down rationally inquiry]
Once again: telling yourself that a claim is “obvious” or “self-evident” is a tactic that attempts to stall the critical parts of the mind from subjecting the claim to the same kind of rational analysis that you would subject any other claim to.
My response to this poster in the thread is instructive:
Here’s a hint for you: when something strikes you as “self-evident,” that’s your mind telling you what it thinks is true – and, when it’s not doing so based on any actual evidence, it’s overwhelmingly likely that it’s based on what your mind already wants to be true.
In other words, a person should be even more critical and skeptical of ideas that strike his mind as “self-evident,” as these will be places where his mind is guarding its beliefs against rational inquiry.
Before closing, I’d like to briefly touch on some of the comments Aleister Crowley made about reincarnation. It seems that many Thelemites believe that reincarnation occurs. In fact, the “theology” page of the OTO website – now that’s a revealing word, isn’t it? – is explicit that it teaches that
Parallel to Buddhist doctrine, the Body of Light is considered to be subject to metempsychosis, or reincarnation, after the death of the body. The Body of Light is generally considered to evolve in wisdom, consciousness and spiritual power through cycles of metempsychosis for those individuals who dedicate their lives to spiritual advancement; to the point that its fate after death may ultimately be determined by the Will of the individual.
And hey, after all, Crowley did claim to be the reincarnation of Edward Kelly and Eliphaz Lévi, among dozens of other remembered incarnations, so he must have believed in reincarnation and so there must be something to it, right?
In the first place, even if Crowley did really believe in reincarnation – something I’m about to cast doubt upon – that tells us precisely nothing about whether or not the claims of reincarnation are true. These claims stand and fall on evidence alone (and, as explained elsewhere, such as this blog post, such claims cannot be verified merely by subjective experience to demonstrate that they are true “to you”).
But in the second place, much of Crowley’s writings indicate that he can’t really be called a believer in the supernatural in general and reincarnation in particular. Take, for example, this passage from Magick in Theory and Practice:
Far be it from any apologist for Magick to insist upon the objective validity of these concatenations [i.e. his discussion of remembering past lives]! It would be childish to cling to the belief that Marius de Aquila [one of Crowley’s remembered past lives] actually existed; it matters no more that it matters to the mathematician whether the use of the symbol X to the 22 power involves the "reality" of 22 dimension of space. The Master Therion does not care a scrap of yesterday's newspaper whether he was Marius de Aquila, or whether there ever was such a person, or whether the Universe itself is anything more than a nightmare created by his own imprudence in the matter of rum and water. His memory of Marius de Aquila, of the adventures of that person in Rome and the Black Forest, matters nothing, either to him or to anybody else. What matters is this: True or false, he has found a symbolic form which has enabled him to govern himself to the best advantage. "Quantum nobis prodest hec fabula Christi!" The "falsity" of Aesop's Fables does not diminish their value to mankind.
In other words, Crowley is saying that it’s the experience of having the memory he’s interested in, not the truth of the theory of reincarnation that underlies it. Even though it may be false, there may be value in it like other false things (like Aesop’s Fables).
That doesn’t exactly sound like he believes in reincarnation, at least not in the sense of “belief” that means “accepting a claim as true,” which is how pretty much everybody who speaks English uses the word.
Then we have Magick Without Tears, Letter XLI, where Crowley notes that in many cases reincarnation is nothing more than a “device for flattering yourself.”
He writes in Letter XXXVII,
What do I mean when I say that I think I was Eliphaz Lévi? No more than that I possess some of his most essential characteristics, and that some of the incidents in his life are remembered by me as my own. There doesn’t seem any impossibility about these bundles of Sankhara being shared by two or more persons. We certainly do not know enough of what actually takes place to speak positively on any such point. Don’t lose any sleep over it.
He ends letter XLVII (about “Reincarnation”) with the following comment:
Now, dear sister, I don’t like this letter at all, and I am sorry that I had to write it. For most of these statements are insusceptible of proof.And yet I feel their truth much more strongly than I have ventured to express. How many times have I warned you against ‘feelings?’
In other words, Crowley is saying – surprise, surprise – essentially what I’ve been saying in this post: the more strongly one “feels” something to be true (or, to put it another way, the more “self-evident” a proposition seems to one), the more carefully and skeptically one should regard the proposition.
The fact of the matter is that studying a subject like Thelema should challenge your convictions and assumptions. If all you’re doing is reinforcing what you already think is true – or what you want to believe is true – you’re not actually “attaining” anything at all, except for inflating the contents of your imagination and causing your mental image of the world to diverge more and more from reality.