Thursday, June 16, 2011

A World Full of Gods: Chapter Six

Having laid out the basic frame of his main argument in Chapter Five (that "evidence from religious experience supports a belief in many gods more firmly than a belief in only one" (p. 81)), Greer fills it in somewhat in Chapter Six. It's important to remember what, precisely is being argued. The term 'religious experience' has a restricted meaning in this argument, namely, "apparent encounters between one or more people and a god, spirit, or sacred presence, which either does not have a material body or which appears to transcend the limits of its material embodiment in ways not readily explained by a purely materialist analysis" (p. 67). And the key point about these experiences on which it builds is their sheer diversity.

But so far the book has really done little more than argue "that polytheism is a reasonable interpretation of human religious experience" (p. 81) and that polytheism might have some advantages over monotheistic and atheistic alternatives. In particular, Greer's argument in Chapter Five does little more than indicate that polytheism has a prima facie viability as an interpretation of the diversity of religious experiences; this is a very weak conclusion. In Chapter Six he attempts to strengthen this conclusion by a comparison between the polytheistic interpretation of diverse religious experience and its major monotheistic and atheistic rivals.

He does this by way of a somewhat heavy-handed (he himself recognizes it as such) analogy. Suppose you have a little village of five houses and you are a folklore researcher, studying beliefs the villages have developed through their experiences of what they call Cat. We can summarize the five houses in the following way:

(1) House One is certain that Cat exists; it is a tabby with blue eyes. Why do they think Cat exists as a tabby with blue eyes? They were told so by their parents, and it is confirmed by their experience: every morning they leave out kibble, and every evening it is gone. What is more, once Cat was actually seen when the kibble was put out. Because of this House One is sure that whenever the other houses in the village claim that there are different Cats that they are obviously wrong; their kibble is probably eaten by wandering vagabonds.

(2) House Two is also certain that Cat exists; it is a black shorthair with green eyes. Like House One, House Two puts out food -- milk, in this case. And once, they, stumbling home drunk one night, came across Cat, which let out a terrifying screech and glared at them. As to the beliefs of other villagers about Cat, House Two is certain that they are actually feeding rats, not Cats; some of them may be doing it sincerely, but House Two is sure that some do it knowingly.

(3) House Three is also certain that Cat exists; it is a big marmalade tom with orange eyes. Unlike House One and House Two, House Three suspects that the other villagers who have seen Cat probably really did see him, just not under optimal conditions. They think that Cat likes best the food they put out (canned food), but wouldn't be at all surprised if he also eats the food at the neighbors' houses; they've seen him on top of the fences between yards, so know that he can go to any house he pleases.

(4) House Four is certain that there is no Cat at all, and pities his neighbors for believing such ridiculous nonsense. They've never seen Cat; they've never heard Cat; all his neighbors' claimed experiences with Cat can be explained by hallucination, bad lighting, wishful thinking, and the like. An obvious confirmation of this is the fact that none of them agree about what Cat looks like. Who knows exactly what happens to the food, but it's probably eaten by wandering vagabonds.

(5) House Five insists that there are at least three Cats in the village: a tabby, a black shorthair, and a marmalade tom. And more. They can understand why someone might think there's only one -- each Cat has its own preferred territory, and different preferences in food, although none of them is so thoroughly picky as to stick only to one territory and eat only one kind of food. They all come around at least occasionally, so House Five keeps a selection of kibble, milk, and canned food just in case.

So now that we have the set-up, let's do some correlating. Houses One, Two, and Three are Cat equivalents of monotheism; they deriving according to their assessment of the other views about Cat. One and Two are exclusive. One thinks that the others are simply wrong (One's explanation for all other Cats but his own is the same as the explanation given by Four). Two thinks that there probably is something there, but something more malignant than Cat; this correlates to monotheistic views in which all others are worshipping demons, or something like them. Three is more inclusive, like those who think that everyone worships the one God, but some better than others. Four, of course, correlates to the atheist, and Five to the polytheist.

Houses One, Two, Three, and Five all have experiences that are crucial to their beliefs; Four lacks any such experience, or else simply discounts it as inadequate, but in a sense is drawing on an overall experience of life in the village. All Five have an error theory that explains why the others go wrong. So we are considering positions that have (1) a experiential component; and (2) an interpretive component. What Greer wants to argue is that in the cases of One, Two, Three, and Four, the interpretive component has some element of special pleading: none of the four have an error theory that rules out the possibility that they, too, might be committing that sort of error. One's kibble could be eaten by vagabonds, Two's milk could be drunk by rats, Three could be the one who only saw Cat under bad conditions, and Four could be subject to wishful thinking and the like. Only if we already knew that their position was true House Five, however, is using one standard for everybody, and the error that is attributed to others is simply having too narrow a view of things; and House Five could even admit this is true of them without giving up the House Five interpretation.

So let's call this the Special Pleading Problem. Greer's basic case for polytheism is that polytheism is, almost by its very nature, immune to the Special Pleading Problem. A polytheist could, of course, be exclusivism (only the gods of Olympus exist, etc.), but there's nothing about polytheism itself that requires this -- it would have to be for additional reasons, which would have to be examined on their own. And in general polytheists are not exclusive in this way.

The Special Pleading Problem occurs at the interpretive end of things; it can be combined with the problem noted in Chapter Five and developed a bit more fully in Chapter Six, which we can call the Natural Explanation Argument: the most natural explanation of diverse religious experiences is diverse objects of experience. From this Greer concludes that monotheism and atheism have a burden of proof that polytheism does not have; and that, therefore, "polytheism should be the starting point for any reasonable discussion of human religious experience, barring the presentation of good evidence or sound arguments that such an interpretation is not correct" (p. 88). As he says later, it's the default option. Greer, of course, recognizes that monotheists think they have such evidence; but he goes on to argue that it is in general inadequate. Suppose the monotheist points to miracles, and even suppose that the monotheist makes an excellent argument that the God the monotheist worships gives miracles while the polytheist's gods don't. What does that actually establish? At most that the monotheist is worshipping a god who is freer with miracles than other gods. In order to do better than this, the monotheist has to argue that there is a real difference in kind between the experiences of the monotheist and the experiences of the polytheist -- that the monotheist's experiences don't just show his God, but show that his God is exclusively God.

It's pretty much here that makes me wish that Greer had taken his subject more seriously in Chapters Three and Four, rather than treating them as a detour. The argument that Greer develops through Chapters Five and Six depends crucially on the assumption that the only thing to go on is experience, and the most natural interpretation of the experiences in question. But this can only really be the case if monotheists are wrong that that there are more abstract arguments for the existence of God that at least suggest that there is only one God and if atheists are wrong that there are more abstract arguments suggesting that there is nothing divine at all. Strict demonstration wouldn't be required. If, for instance, the monotheist has a cosmological argument for God's existence, and a corollary of this particular argument is that it is a little bit more likely than not that there is only one God, then the level playing field Greer assumes (we all just have experiences to go on and have to interpret them as best we can) is suddenly no longer level: the argument, if it stands, introduces a preference for One, Two, and Three over Four and Five. Even if it's only a tiny bit, this changes the nature of both the Special Pleading Problem and the Natural Explanation Argument. The argument of Chapter Six, so strongly polytheism-favorable, can only be so if (1) the only thing to be explained is religious experience; and (2) the only criterion of what counts as a good interpretation is best fit to religious experiences without special pleading. (2) depends crucially on the monotheists and atheists not having special arguments that go beyond religious experience as used in this argument and that add new criteria for what counts as a good interpretation of the experiences. The argument in Chapters Five and Six, which in its own way is quite brilliant if the assumptions are granted, is making assumptions that are both controversial and only weakly supported by the prior argument of the book.

Nonetheless, while Greer does go for the strong conclusions in these chapters, it's important to keep in mind that the point of the book as a whole is not to establish that polytheism is true but to establish that polytheism is worth taking seriously, and Greer's argument puts him on strong ground with respect to this conclusion. The rest of the book builds on the argument given in Chapters Five and Six in order to discuss what a polytheist can claim to know about the gods, and what life in a polytheistic world is like. There's a lot of fairly diverse material in the upcoming chapters, but much that is interesting as well. We'll discuss them in future posts.

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