Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Hearing voices

Some people claim that God has spoken to them in an audible voice. But how can you know that's the voice of God–or can you? 

For the record, I've never had this experience, so I'm not discussing this to defend an experience I had. 

Obviously, that's an issue which divides cessationists from continuationists. However, even if you're a cessationist, it's still a theologically or philosophically significant question inasmuch as many people in the Bible claim that God spoke to them. How could they tell? There are different ways we see and hear things in our mind's eye (or ear):  

1. In dreaming, that's involuntary, the product of our subconscious imagination. (Except for lucid dreams.) 

2. In silent reading, that's involuntary, but there's an external stimulus. Still, we know the "voice" is subjective.

3. I can consciously imagine a voice if I want to. For instance, I'm familiar with some opera singers, and I can imagine the sound of their voice. In that case it's voluntary, but still subjective. Based on my memory of what they sound like. 

I know it comes from me in part because I must put my mind to it to imagine something audible or visual. The moment I cease that mental effort, the effect ceases. 

4. But suppose, when I'm awake, I hear an audible voice where there's no external stimulus (pace [ii]) and which I didn't consciously, voluntarily summon (pace [iii)? Unless I'm psychotic, that must come from a supernatural agent. Same thing with visions. 

(1)-(4) are all psychological phenomena, but (4) requires a source external to myself.

5. Another question is how much authority we should ascribe to an audible voice. What's a person's responsibility to act on his experience? That poses a potential dilemma:

i) A divine revelation enjoys divine authority, especially insofar as it has directive force. Divine authority is the highest authority. The ultimate authority. To defy divine authority is superlatively culpable.

ii) But by the same token, to attribute divine authority to something without sufficient warrant is reckless or dangerous. To treat something as having divine authority, and act accordingly, as if it's divine revelation, if in fact that's not the case, is uniquely egregious precisely because you're ascribing supreme authority to something that doesn't merit that authority. Indeed, that usurps divine authority.

6. It also depends on what the putative revelation requires of us. If it's something that would normally be immoral or foolhardy, then I'd discount it. How much confidence we put in the divine source of the voice must be balanced by the content. But someone might object, what about the "sacrifice" of Isaac? Actually, I discussed that just recently:

But I'd like to make an additional point: Abraham lived at a much earlier stage of redemptive history, so he didn't have the same expectations or standard of comparison that we have. For instance, the Mosaic law forbids human sacrifice, but Abraham antedates the Mosaic law. Abraham had a heathen background, in which it would not be unusual for the gods to demand human sacrifice. Likewise, we know how the story ends (Gen 22). Abraham's viewpoint was prospective, but ours is retrospective. Therefore, we're entitled to certain reservations that he couldn't entertain. 

7. Someone might ask, aren't there situations where it's better to question your sanity than believe the audible voice? And I indeed grant that there are situations like that. Problem is, if you really are delusional, then you're in a poor condition to assess your soundness of mind! So there's a certain paradox, where you're more likely to question your sanity if you're in your right mind, and less likely if you're not! 

8. An audible voice differs from a revelatory dream. 

i) In general, nonverbal communication isn't true or false. So it can't be fallible or infallible. Propositions can be true or false, but images can't be. 

ii) There's a further distinction between theorematic dreams, where the future is depicted as it will happen, and allegorical dreams, where the future is depicted by an analogical scene. Dreams and visions may require interpretation. More so in the case of allegorical dreams.

iii) In addition, there may be a paradoxical quality to prophetic dreams. In other words, if you have a premonitory dream, it may seem like an ordinary dream at the time. It's only in hindsight, when the dream comes true, that you realize it was premonitory or revelatory. 

Suppose I'm scheduled to travel by plane today. Suppose, in an audible voice, that God, or who I take to be God (who else would it be?), tells me to skip my flight. Suppose I heed the admonition, and the plane I was scheduled to fly on crashes, killing all aboard. We'd only know that a dream "comes true" after the fact based on correspondence between the dream and reality. But that's true (or false) in a more roundabout way than a proposition. 

In the case of a theorematic dream, that would be "true" in the sense of photographical realism. Resemblance. An accurate visual depiction. The future unfolds just like you saw it in the dream. In the case of an allegorical dream, it's one step removed, with dissimilarities as well as similarities. 

9. In principle, even verbal revelation may not be true or false. To recur to my hypothetical, suppose an audible voice, with no visible source, tells me "Don't go"–when I'm about to hitch a taxi to the airport. 

A command or prohibition isn't strictly true or false. It doesn't assert or deny anything to be the case. 

Sign language can be equivalent sentences or propositions, because specific meaning is ascribed to particular gestures. Or, say, road signs. But that's different than the hypothetical case of a premonitory dream. 

10. In his autobiography, opera singer Jerome Hines claims that God sometimes spoke to him. Indeed, that was instrumental to his conversion. He was a scientifically trained atheist. When he first heard the audible voice, he demanded that it prove itself by doing certain things. Hines wanted to rule out hallucination. 

11. From a Christian standpoint, an audible voice needn't be God's. Other candidates include angels, demons, or ghosts. So that's another consideration in assessing the authority of the voice. I don't see how someone has a divinely-imposed responsibility to obey a  dream or audible voice if the divine pedigree of the ostensible revelation is ambiguous. Unless an ostensible revelation is unambiguously from God, it would be impious to give it your unconditional assent. 

1 comment:

  1. Two issues that would seem to be relevant are:

    1. can God sometimes, or would God ever, intentionally audibly speak in such a way that it is ambiguously God Himself who is speaking? Or is that impossible for whatever ontological, epistemological or moral reason? The latter meaning that whenever God speaks audibly the listeners must of necessity know (infallibly?) that it is God speaking. Personally, I think God does sometimes speak ambiguously (for various reasons).

    2. Assuming God can (sometimes or always) speak in such a way that the listener(s) know it is God speaking, how is that possible metaphysically and epistemologically? Is it itself, or does it include, something like the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, but to an intensified degree? How does this relate to the epistemological issues of fallibilism vs. infallibilism, internalism vs. externalism?

    I remember one atheist claiming that the concept of the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit (ITHS), if real, would give the recipient of such testimony—and to one who also believes in the concept of the ITHS—reason to question the truth of the contents of the revelation. Since God (or whatever entity) was employing undue excessive and coercive pressure to lead one to believe the testimony and its contents (think Cartesian Daemon). Of course, that's an external critique of Christianity. It wouldn't apply to an internal critique of Christianity since in Christianity God can only tell the truth when it comes to propositional communication (though, I believe God can *deceive*, which is something different than *lying*).