Sunday, September 04, 2016

Proudfoot's Reductionism: Losing the Phenomena of Religious Experience


 photo Proudfoot_zpsufmgdgrq.jpg

Wayne Proudfoot
Columbia University





I recently found a sight an Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, [1] with an article about mystical experience. The article quoted Wayne Proudfoot, a philosopher, as an expert o the subject. I devoted two chapters in my book to debuckimg Proudfoot's doctrinaire denunciation of religious experience. Here is the theory of Proudfoot that the source quotes:


This existence of culturally specific "triggers" for mystical experience coincides with attribution theory. Proudfoot (1985) argues that an apologetic strategy underlies the attempts of many scholars to differentiate religious experience from the normal structures associated with culture and language. He bases his position on the research of Schachter and Singer (1962), who argued that nervous system arousal without apparent reason leads to the attribution of a causal explanation dependent on the environmental factors prevalent at the time. This orientation allows Proudfoot to apply sociological orientations to the understanding of religious perceptions.
What this actually means is he doesn't believe there  are religious experiences, He thinks those who have such experiences are are just convinced that they want them so they mislabel other feelings as religious experience. It is this view that I tear apart over two chapters. The encyclopedia itself lists some criticisms:
Although Proudfoot's work is frequently cited, his formulations have been subject to criticism (Garnard 1992). The basis for many of his arguments, the work of Schachter and Singer (1962), has received only limited support by later researchers. Studies indicate that different physiological sensations are associated with different emotions. Although Proudfoot's orientation does not explain the incidence of some forms of mystical experience (noted by Hay and Morisy 1978, for example), attribution theory continues to provide a valuable means for explaining many of the characteristics of religious experience (Spilka and McIntosh 1995). Environmental and cultural factors shape experiential perception and affect the degree that experiences are interpreted as "religious."
 Here I will focus upon another aspect of Proudfoot's ideological treatment of RE. That is his reductionist. Reductionism is valid scientific methodology but too often it crosses the line into philosophy and even ideology. 

One of the major practitioners is philosopher Wayne Proudfoot, who teaches at Columbia University. Proudfoot’s Religious Experience is practically a blueprint for the use of reductionism as a rhetorical device to blunt the effects of empirical research.[2] The issue comes in where skeptics try to offer counter-causal explanations for conscious experiences. Mainly, the materialist/physicalist tries to explain them in term of brain chemistry, since this is the order of the day: all consciousness must be reduced to brain chemistry. William James, dealt with the same problem over a hundred years ago in The Varieties of Religious Experience (The Gilford Lectures):
Medical materialism seems indeed a good appellation for the too simple-minded system of thought which we are considering. Medical materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate. George Fox's discontent with the shams of his age, and his pining for spiritual veracity, it treats as a symptom of a disordered colon. Carlyle's organ-tones of misery it accounts for by a gastro-duodenal catarrh. All such mental over-tensions, it says, are, when you come to the bottom of the matter, mere affairs of diathesis (auto-intoxications most probably), due to the perverted action of various glands which physiology will yet discover. And medical materialism then thinks that the spiritual authority of all such personages is successfully undermined. [3]

Reducing religious experience

Some of Proudfoot’s critiques of mystical/religious experience are valid, so I won’t go into everything he says. I want to focus on those aspects where he uses re-labeling, re-describing and losing the phenomena. A simple version of this is described above, where some reduce a long list of transformative characteristics to “getting happy.” Proudfoot does a much more complex version of the same thing. He goes beyond methodological reductionism to ideological reductionism. He begins by correcting Schleiermacher’s language regarding religious experience. This is also an example of re-labeling. One of the aspects of mystical experience is that it is said to be beyond word, thought or image. It is said to be a pure moment of experience, precluding any attempt to describe it. Of course, this must be understood in a particular sense and is probably still a misstatement, because to even to say that one has a sense of the numinous or an all-pervasive sense of love, a sense of the divine, etc., one must use words, thoughts and images. Obviously, then, the experience is not so entirely beyond our understanding that we cannot label it in certain ways. But Proudfoot exploits that seeming contradiction, using the inadequacy of the original experiencer’s labels, to pull off a bait and switch. He essentially argues that what we believe about an experience determines the nature of the experience. We can see this in his statement, “The belief that a particular moment of consciousness is immediate and prior to all concepts and beliefs may well be constitutive of the experience..”[4] “Constitutive” would mean that it is made up of more simple concepts that are used to build the construct like an edifice, which then in turn becomes another building block in a more complex edifice. In other words, it’s not just a pure moment of experience, but what is being experienced is actually conditioned upon prior understanding.

There is probably some extent to which this is true, but Proudfoot doesn’t say, “If the moment is immediate”— he says, “If we believe the moment is immediate.” He has changed the actuality of a pure moment that has really been experienced, to an idea about an experience that we might hold. Perhaps we can’t have a pure moment that is not conditioned in some way by our prior understanding, but that doesn’t mean that the experience itself can contain no aspects that are not expected or that in some way exceed understanding. Proudfoot is not concerned with the actual experience, but with losing the phenomena and re-labeling, so that we believe about an experience determines the experience. As I said, this is valid to a point. If we believe going to the dentist is no big deal, we may not amplify the pain in our minds and thus we may find it less painful than if we dread it and worry and anticipate it to be a very painful experience. The problem is that this gives the impression (and excuse) that any time we experience something of the divine, it must come from our expectations. But this ignores experiences when they are new or when they are totally unexpected. It also removes reflection upon the past. If all ideas about experience are read back into the memory, then there is ultimately no memory that is unconditioned by belief.
By Proudfoot’s logic, we have no real experiences. We never did love; we never did enjoy; we don’t really miss our parents: this is all back-reading our expectations into our physiological sensations. The tactic becomes a means of knocking down the experience of being human and replacing it with an ideology about someone else’s ideas of what being human means. Proudfoot uses this bait and switch to wipe out the concept of religious experience completely. In fact, his ideas actually wipe out all experience.
Proudfoot re-labels Schleiermacher’s views on emotions and feelings: instead of an honest appraisal, they are “apologetics.” By re-labeling the appraisal in this way, he moves it out of the category of an empirical approach, to something of which we must be suspicious. He observes that religious experience has come to be associated with a set of experiences that transcend the verbal, according to “some quarters.” He finds that there are two reasons why this is so. One is descriptive, the other apologetic. The descriptive is the need to find commonality among “different experiences we call religious.” The apologetic is the need to distinguish “religious” experience from other kinds of experience. Schleiermacher believed that religion is more deeply entrenched in the lives and communities of people than are doctrines. Feelings are more basic and more entrenched in life than words on paper. This probably seems pretty reasonable to most


people, but to Proudfoot it is an apologetic ploy. In calling one reason “descriptive” and the other “apologetic,” he is trying to cast a pall on the whole process of attempting to make a distinction between religious experiences and other kinds of experiences. This is important for his strategy, because it will enable the switch from religious experience feelings to all feelings.[5] If we can describe commonalities between religious experiences, does that not automatically imply that we can distinguish between religious and non-religious feelings? If not, then how can we find commonalities? If so, then why is this “apologetic”? It seems that both are equally necessary to one another. Of course, even if there is an apologetic going on, that does not mean there are no religious experiences. But describing this differentiation as apologetic is part of Proudfoot’s hermeneutic of suspicion and a way to lose the phenomena. After page 78 he slides into a critique of all feelings in general.
Proudfoot uses the example of Stephen Bradley’s dramatic religious experience found in William James’ Verities of Religious Experience.ii [6]The example as Proudfoot describes it appears to be that of a man (Bradley) who has a heart attack and takes it for a religious conversion experience. He is in fact converted by it. The experience was brought on while at a revival meeting. Proudfoot centers on the physical phenomenon, the man’s heart speeding up very fast and beating like a trip hammer, but says nothing about any other aspects, such as any special feelings or anything that might have put Bradley in a mood to repent. The assessment is entirely in terms of physiological phenomena, which are then analyzed in terms of the recipient labeling them so that he would know what meaning to give them. That is then taken as proof that internal states are nothing more than the labeling of physiological phenomena. But all Proudfoot has done is to mine the data for what he wants. He ignores other aspects that do not support his idea. The subject in question does speak of being filled with “the joy and grace of the Lord.” This aspect of the experience is ignored— Proudfoot doesn’t take it into account at all. To him, it is obviously these physiological sensations which produced in the subject the idea that he was being saved. But in fact, most mystical experiences do not contain such overt physical phenomena. So it’s clear that Proudfoot ignores what does not support his view. He only pays attention to those aspects that confirm his labeling theory.

Proudfoot says of this instance: “Bradley, like so many prospective devotees before and since, could not understand his feelings in naturalistic terms. Religious symbols offered him an explanation that was compatible both with his experience and with his antecedent beliefs.”[7] [6]One problem with this is that Bradley’s antecedent beliefs were not religious. Bradley even says, “Had any person told me prior to this that I could have experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in the manner in which I did, I could not have believed it.”[8] This actually disproves the labeling hypothesis. Moreover, since this was a conversion experience, it is important because it disputes the “placebo” argument. Religious experience is said to be a placebo effect— but placebos require expectations in order to work, and Bradley had none. Many such religious experiences are conversion experiences with no prior expectations.

We see reductionism at work here in a major way. The reductionist reads the situation in terms favorable to his theory, even at the expense of losing sight of the situation itself by ignoring those aspects of it that don’t fit the theory. The classic sense of the phrase “losing the phenomena” means that when the reductive process is finished, the experience has been explained away to the point where what remains cannot adequately describe or account for the total experience. But there is another sense in which a great deal of reductionism is about helping along the process of losing a phenomenon by simply ignoring parts of it.





Sources

[1]William H. Swatos (ed), Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, Hartord CT: Hartford Institute of Religius Research, Hartford Seminary. online resource URL:
[2]Wayne Proudfoot, Religious Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, [need date and page number here]
[3] William James, Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Modern Library, 1994, 16.
[4] Proudfoot , 13.
[5] Ibid 75,76
[6] Proudfoot, Ibid, 103, quoting from William James, the Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, being the Gifford Lectures Delivered at Edinburgh, 1901-1902. New York and Bombay, Longmans Green and Company 1905. 190-193.
[7] Ibid, 104
[8] Ibid

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

You use this re-labelling trick yourself. You have a whole bunch of studies that prove people have certain experiences in common, but only the most tenuous of evidence that God is behind them, and yet here you are labelling them as religious experiences.

Pixie

Joe Hinman said...

, but only the most tenuous of evidence that God is behind them, and yet here you are labelling them as religious experiences.

That is a common misconception started by message board atheists who had no other argument. It is total bull shit, they are explicitly religious almost all who have them say so. If you study the nature of the experience no way it could not be. Anything about the meaning of life and the nature of reality is going to boarder on religious. Moreover, the M scale research shows that atheists relate to the experience the same way religious people do they just use a different terminology.

Jim Bratone said...

Nice post, Joe. I agree that this is part of an agenda to reduce the phenomena to what is amenable to scientific analysis. We see it with consciousness in the work of Dennett and the Churchlands. Although I think that concepts and beliefs play a part in all experiences, this can't account for the unexpected and the novel aspects of experience, and the aspects that can't be described in language but only pointed at.

Joe Hinman said...

thanks Jim. I think your right. We see it all over the place and it's hard to get people to understand it.

Anonymous said...

...Moreover, the M scale research shows that atheists relate to the experience the same way religious people do they just use a different terminology.
Right. So whether it feels religious or not comes down to your personal background.

And not whether it comes from God.

What we have here are a bunch of experience that feel religious to people who already are convinced God exists, but not to people who do not.

Pix

Joe Hinman said...

And not whether it comes from God.

What we have here are a bunch of experience that feel religious to people who already are convinced God exists, but not to people who do not.

the data from m scale and other such studies gives us the basis we need from which wecan logically infer God.Best explaination

Moksha said...

"the data from m scale and other such studies gives us the basis we need from which we can logically infer God.Best explaination."

The M scale provides a cross-cultural framework of comparability for the experiences.
It says nothing about the source of that experience.

Moksha.

Joe Hinman said...

right. I said having the data that we have enables us to inner God from the data, It does it because it tells us what is a real experience what is not, once we know that we can if thye experience transforms our lives or not, so it just subjective. It's reasonable to assume that if ?God is real experiencing him will transform our lives because that's the point orf religion.

Erlend said...

Have you read The Illusion of God by Whatey? He tries to understand religious experiences from an atheistic stance.

Joe Hinman said...

no I have not. does he use those studies? I do include in my book atheists who have statistical experiences

Erlend said...

He has his own theory about what makes religious experiences. He had one but remained an atheist. Essentially it is about taking the infancy expectation of a motherly figure. Look up the book, it tries to advance the argument. That might also, I guess explain why children are more prone to religious-type experience?

I am not skilled in the science or philosophy of the argument, but historically his argument would have a bit of a problem: he believes theism is about a loving, paternal force, but that was only the very late conclusion of Christianity (with antecedents in Jewish thought). It does not mark religious thought of most societies throughout history. Also, he seems to believe religious experience is about feeling love, rather than epithelial opening/peeling back of the material world.

Also have you come across Mike McHague? He is writing on God and experience- about how he was a believer, then atheist, then believer again because of a religious experience.

Erlend said...

I meant to say epiphanial, not epithelial.

Joe Hinman said...

He has his own theory about what makes religious experiences. He had one but remained an atheist. Essentially it is about taking the infancy expectation of a motherly figure. Look up the book, it tries to advance the argument. That might also, I guess explain why children are more prone to religious-type experience?

he doesn't believe in the inner life or in private tates he thinks it's all re labeling of misidentified physiology, But he's very dishonest about data.He mislabels stuff all the time. Since he did not use the M scale we don't know if he had the same experience.

I am not skilled in the science or philosophy of the argument, but historically his argument would have a bit of a problem: he believes theism is about a loving, paternal force, but that was only the very late conclusion of Christianity (with antecedents in Jewish thought). It does not mark religious thought of most societies throughout history. Also, he seems to believe religious experience is about feeling love, rather than epithelial opening/peeling back of the material world.

I read his book but I came away more apt to think he reduces love out existence rather than urging it. The diversity argument (or exclusivity argument you mention) I aim to get around to dealing with that one very soon,maybe next week. there are two major experiences from mystical experience, sense of the pnumenious, (love included) and undifferentiated uity.

Also have you come across Mike McHague? He is writing on God and experience- about how he was a believer, then atheist, then believer again because of a religious experience.


I have not heard of him but sounds interesting

Erlend said...

Thank you for the reply. I just read through the Trace of God and enjoyed it. I believe Whatey's experience was just feeling a presence of love surround him, and that is what he tries to explain using natural means. For undifferentiate unity his theory would struggle. Also, again, for the history of theism he is attacking a very modern idea of God.

Also, I missed out the r in McHargue's name, you can read about him at http://kernelmag.dailydot.com/issue-sections/headline-story/14304/science-mike-mystical-experience-podcast/ Also of interest a recent convert to atheism (she read Krauss et al) from evangelical Christianity was profiled on unbelievable on Premier Christian Radio. Shortly after she came out as a humanist she had a mystical experience, undiffereniated unity, and now is back as a spiritual/light theistic sort of person. Glad that (as I suppose I might interpret it) God can use such events to show his existence to people who just made the move to atheism.

Joe Hinman said...

undifferentiated unity and mystical concept of God is not new but O dpmn't beklieve in subverting Christian doctrine to myistical experioence, There is more to Christianbelief tahnexperioence although it's important,