In the comments section of one of my recent posts on religious epistemology, atheist David Ellis asks:
"Of what does a personal relationship with someone who is invisible, insubstantial, and does not speak back when you speak to him consist? Does a personal relationship with such a God (assuming its real) look one iota different from a personal relationship with an imaginary God who one is firmly convinced is real?"
This is a very good question, even though it was made from a standpoint of manifest ignorance of how personal relationships work, with God or anyone else. From the question I infer that Ellis takes the following facts for granted about any 'real' personal relationship: 1) the other person has to be visible, 2) the other person has to be substantial and 3) the other person has to speak back when you speak to him, where presumably speaking is limited to creating differentials in air pressure that are propagated to the ear, where stimulation of the cochlear nucleus is translated into electrical impulses interpreted in the auditory nuclei.
This is an incredibly simplistic and misleading model of how relationships work. Clearly you can have a relationship with a person you've never seen or heard, if the two of you are pen pals, for example. The requirement that the other person be 'substantial' is too vague to be useful. If by 'substantial' Ellis means 'real' then he is begging the question when applying it to the case of a relationship with God. If by substantial he means 'made of elementary particles arranged in a particular fashion' he is still begging the question by assuming that immaterial agents cannot meaningfully interact with material agents. The flaw with all these requirements is the equation of a particular, limited subset of possible human interactions with the set of all the possible instantiations of a personal relationship. In other words, not all real relationships (i.e. relationships between persons that actually exist) satisfy the above criteria, or even most of them. Consider the relationship between an author and her readers: the author presumably communicates something of herself through her writing (how can she do otherwise, unless the writing is particularly bland, generic and technical?) to the readers. The latter in appreciation may write letters to the writer in response which the author may or may not reply to. Is the relationship between them unreal just because the reader may never get a reply from the author?
More importantly, meaningful communication is not limited to words on a page or sounds in the ear. All kinds of gestures, symbols and artifacts can convey one's intentions. For example, by leaving a trail of rosebuds from the front door to the bedroom, where candles have been lit and soft music is playing, one lover might convey to the other their amorous intentions for the evening. No words have been exchanged; none are needed. For a more morbid example, consider the proverbial serial killer who leaves a distinctive calling card at each crime scene. Even if the detectives cannot decipher its meaning, there is usually no doubt that there is a meaning, and that the crime was not a freak accident but the deliberate work of an intelligent agent. This agent may not even have acted in person. He might have gotten other people or robots in some sci-fi scenarios to do his work for him. But if the intention and planning behind the crime can be traced to a single person, then it is with that person that the detectives are dealing.
The common denominator in all the above cases of personal interaction is the following: agents affect their environment in various ways, leaving behind traces of their activity. Other agents perceive these traces and interpret them as such. It is important to note two things: 1) even when a corporeal human person is standing right in front of us speaking or gesturing, the same process of interpreting traces of an agent's activity is occurring and 2) this interpretation does not usually take the form of an inductive argument; that is, we don't consciously pay attention to a particular arm movement or sound coming from a physical mouth and then slowly come to the conclusion that we are probably dealing with an agent. It happens directly and intuitively. As cognitive scientists have argued, agency detection is a basic cognitive capacity that can't be broken up into discrete components (although it can certainly be impaired by damage to one of the underlying brain regions). If you were to ask me why I think the particular configuration of elementary particles standing in front of me is a person rather than a sophisticated automaton, I couldn't point to a series of separate reasons that are easily quantified, for example the frequency of blinking, the numbers of degrees the head tilts when I speak, etc. and which come together in an inductive argument. I see certain changes in my environment and I intuitively infer the presence of an agent.
What, then, does a personal relationship with an immaterial, transcendent but personal God look like? It has the same basic nature as that of any other personal relationship. John Hick in his classic book Faith and Knowledge gives an elegant description:
"The ordinary believer does not...report an awareness of God as existing in isolation from all other objects of experience. His consciousness of the divine does not involve a cessation of his consciousness of a material and social environment...He claims instead an apprehension of God meeting him in and through his material and social environments. He finds that in his dealings with the world of men and things he is somehow having to do with God, and God with him. The moments of ordinary life possess, or may possess, from in varying degrees a religious significance...The believer meets God not only in moments of worship, but also when through the urgings of conscience he feels the pressure of the divine demand upon his life; when through the gracious actions of his friends he apprehends the divine grace; when through the marvels and beauties of nature he traces the hand of the Creator; and he has increasing knowledge of the divine purpose as he responds to its behests in his own life. In short, it is not apart from the course of mundane life, but in it and through it, that the ordinary religious believer claims to experience, however imperfectly and fragmentarily, the divine presence and activity." (pp.109-110)
So the really interesting, fundamental question concerning Christian religious knowledge is not whether a relationship with God has certain features in analogy to a limited number of other human relationships. If anyone lost their faith because they couldn't actually hear the audible voice of God, that's their fault for having too restricted a view of the possible instantiations of personal relationships. Even though I've never audibly heard the voice of God I still believe because I find other traces of His activity in my life, as Hick suggests above. My relationship with God is no less real because of the lack of auditory feedback. The really interesting question is whether Christians are warranted in interpreting certain sudden changes or recurring patterns in their experience of the world as the activity of a personal God.
And I do not want to suggest that, because the process of agency detection is intuitive and non-inductive, that there can be no rational discussion of claims to agency detection, especially supernatural agency. As cognitive scientists have also demonstrated, human agency detection is prone to false positives in many cases. The leaves rustling in the dark might be someone stepping out behind us, but it also may just be the wind. Serious challenges can be raised against the interpretation of particular aspects of our experience as evidence of divine activity. My concern in this post has simply been to refute the idea that a personal relationship has to have certain specific characteristics in order for it to be 'real'. Is God an imaginary friend? If He is, it's not because we can't see, hear or touch Him. Is there any objective phenomenological difference between a relationship with a real person and an imaginary friend? I doubt there's a universal rule for distinguishing them, simply because, as I've stressed over and over in this post, not every personal relationship has exactly the same characteristics. But David Ellis is welcome to generate a fully detailed scenario of a case in which it is clear someone has an imaginary friend who she is nevertheless fully convinced is real and then we can talk about similarities and dissimilarities.
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In the comments section of one of my recent posts on religious epistemology, atheist David Ellis asks: