The Subjective Parachute

When Christians and Buddhists dialogue I occasionally see a similar dialogue technique that shuts down their conversation.  This technique — a sort of parachute out of the dialogue — also occurs outside of religions and I’d love to hear secular examples if you think of any.  But for this post I will talk about religious examples of a subjective parachute used to escape impasses in reasoned dialogue.  Tell me is you see the similarities that I see.

When some Christians argue with nonbelievers about Jesus’ resurrection, they may engage for quite a while in rational discourse but at some point of impasse they may pull the ripcord by resorting to something like the following:

“The resurrection has to be personally experienced in your own life to truly understand and know it.”

Likewise, when some Buddhists  debate Sunyata (“Emptiness” —  a central doctrine for Buddhists), they may use analytic and discursive reasons to bring their interlocutor closer to their understanding, but they may eventually freeze the parachute out of the conversation by reminding their dialogue partner that:

“Sunyata is not a belief, it has to be realized (experienced) to truly understand”

Having practiced both of these religious traditions, I understand what they are saying.  And maybe exactly because I have experienced both, I also understand the problem with this sort of answer as a dialogue tool.

William Lane Craig, a famous Christian apologist/philosopher, debates with incredible logical vigor but is infamous for saying, “[The inner witness of the Holy Spirit] trumps all other evidence.”   Thus, only subjective experience of the Holy Spirit serves as one’s unshakable epistemological foundation, according to Craig.

Zen Buddhists who engage non-Buddhists in vigorous logical and rhetorical debates may sometimes stall the dialogue by using the common Zen metaphor of “The Finger Pointing to the Moon”.  In this metaphor, the moon represents  Truth and the finger represents words or language.  The Zen debater may chastise their interlocutor saying, “Don’t mistake the finger for the moon” meaning that only subjective experience of Truth (insight) serves as one’s secure epistemological foundation.  Thye are implying that only by directly knowing the Moon (experiencing truth) can one understand it.

These examples rightly point to limitations in human understanding and to the limitations of language itself but they also illustrate limited dialogue skills, in my opinion.   Since people with widely different beliefs can use this exact same subjective parachute to safely jump out of a conversation, I think we should think carefully about using it glibly in conversation.  It is important to understand what a common technique this is.  It is our attitude toward and ways of using this subjective parachute that concern me.

Questions to readers:

  • So, do you see the similarity that I see?
  • Do you have suggestions on how to work with this issue in dialogue?
  • Do you have examples how this parachute is used in secular conversations?

(PS – Also, may I unabashedly fish for kudos on my PhotoShopped montage?)



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

24 responses to “The Subjective Parachute

  1. (1) Yes. This can be a variant of the ‘Svaha!’ fallacy, actually, although a less subtle one, and not always a fallacy (since it does sometimes reflect a limitation of language and reason—e.g. the concepts you listed cannot be adequately expressed in words; that’s part of their definition.)
    (2) No, since it usually represents a fundamental and unbridgeable difference in epistemological basis; if I get into a situation where I think the other guy is using this as a parachute, or the other guy thinks I’m using this as a parachute, that’s my cue to bow out of the conversation altogether, ‘cuz we’re not speaking the same language.
    (3) Ever watch a political debate e.g. on poverty, racism, and privilege?

  2. Mmmmmmm I like this post.

    A couple of things up front, I’m not sure how Christians use the “You have to feel God/Jesus to know him” with a straight face. That said, I’ll stick with the Zen guy aspect.

    As a Zen guy, if I am in a spirited mood, I usually approach those kinds of ‘debates’ by trying to get the other person to define themselves out of an argument. What I mean by that is eventually most people can’t carry an stance to tighter and tighter definitions without contradictions, paradoxes and willful ignorance. I believe Petteri and I have had a few of these awkward debates before, haven’t we? 🙂

    1) Yes and no. Yes in some people have neither the inclination nor right comprehension to speak about something so ummmm ubiquitous, and give up with “it’s not truth if I tell you.” No as in for Zen, while you can perhaps understand emptiness logically, to know it is something much different.

    2) Yes, keep asking more questions, although that can just frustrates the situation more. Is the point to ‘win’ a debate? Does one side have to say mercy for the discussion to be profitable? Have you ever seen Zen guys argue by just keep asking questions in response to the other’s questions? Its really annoying.

    3) Oh how about atheism? The ‘Prove it’ line or some variation of that is always a good one. That’s what happens when you back an atheist into a corner, which I am quite good at doing, thank you very much. 😛 That can then turn into “lets keep this discussion to the experiential and not the metaphysical.” This happens because they have a fallacy that all phenomena can be comprehended as solid unchanging ‘things.’I have to be honest, I have a weak spot for provoking atheists into debates.

    *crosses fingers*

  3. @Kyle! Let’s have a debate over tea and the internet. I’m not doing anything this weekend.

    @Sabio: The fundamental problem with WLC is the fact that he’s a master rhetorician but his logic/evidence usually comes up empty handed (although he doesn’t make it sound like this at all). I watched him debate a few times this week (via the interwebs). When you boil it down, he basically says “if you don’t agree with me, it’s because you’re living in sin and don’t want to agree with me!”. We could go on and on about WLC. I just made a parody of his moral argument on my blog. I hope Kyle will rain down fiery acorns on it!

    2: What Would Buddha Do? He was very able to tailor his teachings to his audience. I don’t think modern debates accomplish much. It’s too easy to slip out and try to win rather than finding your opponents best criticism and really trying to answer it (case in point, Vic Stenger vs. William Lane Craig, 2:23:00 into the debate WLC avoids Stenger’s most salient point…. and it’s never re-addressed).

    I think the best thing is to try to genuinely understand each other. It should be a dialogue rather than a debate. But when people are strongly attached to views – they will even take simple questions about their views defensively if it seems that the question is unanswerable or challenges their view. It’s become all too taboo in this culture to say “I don’t know.”
    I’m beginning to wonder if most often the appropriate response is simply silence. It’s not fun. It doesn’t fill our ego with the delight of being “right” and someone else being “wrong.” But oftentimes people just end up hurt.

    It’s for that very reason I’m debating taking off the nonstamp collector videos off my blog. Are they funny? Yes. Do they make a salient point? Yes. Could they hurt someone? Maybe….
    Would they accomplish much good in hurting someone? Probably not.

    I don’t know.

    Maybe Kyle’s fiery Zen acorns can knock some sense into me.

  4. Good post.

    1) Yes, it does happen. But it’s hard to mind-read to know for sure if someone is using it as a parachute, or if they have good reasons for saying that it can’t be illuminated further with language. Some things *do* need to be experienced. Take being “in love”, for example. Before you ever fall in love the first time, you can have perfectly fruitful conversations about “being in love”, but there is always a limit. Once you’ve experienced “being in love”, that limit gets pushed out a bit, and you can communicate more meaningfully with others who have.

    2) How I try to deal with it? I am often impressed with the way that professional philosophers deal with these issues. Philosophy has always struggled with these major foundational questions — does rationality even exist, can reality even be accessed propositionally, are our minds complete illusions, is math a fiction, is everything dualistic, etc. Somehow they find a way to communicate with one another. So I think it’s almost always possible. If both parties have experience in reading this sort of work in other fields, it’s usually easier to muddle past the parachutes. Also, I try to keep the conversation focused on the areas where there is common ground. No need to push people into pulling the ripcord if they still feel they have a point to make.

    3) Well, the “parachute” you describe reminds me of “circumstantial ad hominem”, (e.g. “You’re unenlightened, so you wouldn’t understand” (which also circular), or “You haven’t been elected by God, so of course you hate Him”). Circumstantial ad hominem is rampant in secular contexts. “You’re a woman; of course you’d caution against aggressive business tactics” (as if she can’t possibly have well-considered reasons for cautioning against the business tactics).

  5. I usually tell Christians that none of the God arguments, for or against, matter to me, because I don’t experience God. Is this my own subjective parachute? When I make that statement I do not mean that God doesn’t exist, but that nothing I’ve experienced has led me to firmly believe that he does.

  6. 1) Yes, in some sense I see a similarity, but I think the topics are so wildly different (experiencing the presence of a divine savior vs experiencing reality unfettered) that it is hard to draw a comparison. The first example asks us to believe quite a bit more than we might not be able to accept, especially for an atheist. The second example relies less on belief and more on metaphysics.

    2) I don’t know how to work on this in dialogue. Especially since I rarely ever see this come up in dialogue or conversation, and rather see them come up in debate where someone is trying to “prove” something. When it comes to something like Sunyata or advanced stages of the jhanas, it is something that really has to be experienced. It would be like trying to describe jumping out of a plane, moonwalking, or being buried alive. You could describe the hell out of it, but that’s all you’ll ever get. Because when it comes to these things, you aren’t really talking about things, but ways of experiencing reality.

    3) I already covered this one kind of, but I see it when single people try and tell parents how to raise their kids, and a parent asks “do you even have kids? do you know what it is like to have children?”

  7. @ Petteri
    That is one strategy: Walk away.

    @ Kyle
    Glad you liked the post. I agree, tighter and tighter definitions can clarify differences. It is laborious but at times a useful strategy that I enjoy too. Problem is, both parties have to agree to this and realize all the investment they have in particular words and be willing to build common vocabulary instead of fighting over meanings. That is tough.
    I totally agree that winning the debate is a huge contrast to establishing understanding !!
    You challenge to beating Atheists in debate was odd. I imagine you are an atheist and instead you meant anti-buddhist atheists, or something like that, no?

    @ Samuel
    As you see in comment to Kyle, maybe he meant “Atheist” in a qualified manner. Hope you had a good weekend!
    I agree with you totally about Mr. Craig (WLC).
    We all seem to be agreeing that Dialogue is more important than Debate. Hard to keep that focus, isn’t it?

    @ JS Allen
    I agree, “some [many] things *do* need to be experienced”! Just as you illustrate. Thus when we dialogue, we need to mutually understand it. I fight dragons in the woods with my son. I have some friends who don’t have kids and think it is a little bizzare, but ….
    Like you I am impressed that some people are much more skillful at “muddling past” this potential obstacle in dialogue — I learn by watching different worlds peacefully exchange and share.
    I also agree that the “circumstantial ad hominem” is nasty and should be avoided. Thanks.

    @ Mike
    Wow, nicely said !!

    @ Adam

    I think the topics are so wildly different (experiencing the presence of a divine savior vs experiencing reality unfettered)

    I somewhat agree with you. But also a part of me feels that perceptions are incredibly complex and that the flavor of your metaphysical notions color how you “experience reality unfettered” even when it is supposedly unfettered. I get that this is the Buddhist thing, but I am not confident that it is the actual thing of the vast majority of practitioners, but that is another post, no matter how they wish to envision their meditation and their experience. But, oooops, I don’t want to side track this post on that issue — I will try to post on it later.

    I agree with you and Kyle that Understanding is far more valuable than thinking you won a debate. Dialogue is so much more valuable that Debate — the trick is trying to turn a debate into a dialogue.

  8. ” I imagine you are an atheist and instead you meant anti-buddhist atheists, or something like that, no?”

    Agnostic, and yes the anti-Buddhist folks who use the banner atheist to claim that all Buddhists believe in superstitious things. You’d be surprised how many I run into. I should have clarified that. 🙂

  9. @ Kyle
    Great, I get that — I am with you on that. Adjectives can help solve many misunderstandings — especially when used in front of vague or abstract nouns!

    AND I imagine you and Samuel may not have issues in that way. And you comment inspired a post coming up shortly — thanx.

  10. Great post and discussion! The pic is hilarious!!!

    Because I had strong energetic/emotional/spiritual/intuitive experiences of Jesus as a child, I was taught that meant I was a ‘Christian’. I was expected to adopt the entire dogma, culture and religion of mid-west USA, protestant Christianity, and I did that for a while. I was able for a while to fit all of reality into that framework.

    I see now that those early direct experiences of Something beyond myself were real and important, but I took a logical wrong turn when I believed that those experiences were a proof of the whole religion.

    For me, my practice is about inquiring into beliefs I hold. As Byron Katie says, an open mind is an open heart.

    I am interested in what we do, or where we go with our (salvation/satori) experience. How do we generalize based on specific experiences? How has experience been exploited to support belief systems?

  11. Thank you, Aly. You would not believe how much time I put into thinking of an image to match my idea, then surfing for the components, then making manipulating/croping/changing/coloring and stuff before making the collage.

    I agree, an “An open mind is an open heart” – I wish I knew what that meant experientially in a far better way.

    Your last paragraph reminds me of the edited 10 Bull pictures in Zen. Apparently, at one time the series ended with the circle, later, the boy in the market was added as a correction to the idea that enlightenment is an end in itself. That would be a good post. Thank you !

  12. @Sabio – Oh I don’t think Samuel and I will have any problems. 🙂 I love discussions with almost all atheists, hell a lot of Buddhists define themselves as that. If you want a good example of anti-Buddhist atheist who I’ve have a few run in with is this guy.

    You’ll dig the comments.

  13. @ Kyle
    Yeah, defending or attacking “Christianity” or “Buddhism” or any other faith as if it has any stable single view is pretty silly. Much time is wasted there. We need to use specifics. Abstractions are a grand waste of time. I am sure you agree. Glad you have no problems with Samuel — I didn’t realize it was sophomoric banter — something I am very fond of also. 😀

  14. Adam makes the best point here. These are two wildly different topics. One is a fantasy and the other a philosophical point of view. I don’t care how much so-called theology you pour into it, there is no way that you can logically or rationally explain that particular fantasy. On the other hand, you can easily explain emptiness or what an experience of emptiness is like.

  15. @ David
    Thanks for visiting. Let’s see if I can wrestle out loud with a few points:
    (1) I agree that the Christian “experience” of Jesus if fictional. I have posted on that in several places. But I don’t agree that the experience of forgiveness, love, redemption and such that they have using the fictional models is fantasy — that could be very real and life/mind changing.
    (2) I contend that many folks who call themselves Buddhist and load their heads with Buddhist philosophy then sit and have experiences which they may often extend beyond whatever experience they actually have and much like the Christian, and fill and filter their experience with their mind changing expectations. I contend that their experience is real too and may be life changing. But it may not be what their theology is telling them it is.

    As to other levels of emptiness and such, I am not discussing that here. Instead, I am pointing at probable simple common phenomena.

    Actually this conversation is a bit of a tangent. Because my post is actually about using one’s own experience (real, contrived, or mixture of both) to jump out of rational conversation when other techniques to continue a fruitful dialogue when an impasse is reached may be better.

    Hope that made sense. It is late at night. Time to read to the kids. Do stop in again.

  16. @Sabio,

    I can agree that more people talk about the experience of emptiness than have experienced it themselves. And back to the post at hand, I do think some people use that as a cop-out way to end an argument/debate, and I don’t think that it should. As David said, it can be described in detail. I think the problem arises when those descriptions simply don’t do it for an individual, or they have so much skepticism toward the idea that they can’t get past themselves. In those cases, there really is only “well, you’ll have to experience it for yourself to understand”. If they choose not to, so be it. These are largely questions of a metaphysical nature and some people just won’t accept any claims from that realm of thought. On a personal note I could care less what someone else thought of what I believe, with the caveat that they actually knew what it is they were talking about.

    You can explain the hell out of the feeling you might have when you jump out of a plane. I’ve never done it, but I bet I could describe it, and have a good sense of what it might feel like. But that’s all, because the experience of jumping out of a plane isn’t something to understand or “get”, it is only to “be”. Especially since many of the Buddhist concepts that must be experienced are experienced outside of the 5 aggregates, I think that there is a point where dialogue only gets someone so far with some of these things. But certainly it is extremely useful (or else we wouldn’t have all these sutras!)

    Although if someone were to take the “well, until you’ve experienced what I’ve experienced…” position, then that is an emergency parachute on Oceanic 815. I’ve seen plenty of people use that before, and it doesn’t really add anything to a conversation. While it might be true (as in the case of someone being a parent vs someone that isn’t) it doesn’t help the other party see where you’re coming from and only serves to empower whomever invokes that position in an attempt to one-up the other party.

    Personally i have no desire to convince anyone of any experience that I’ve had. I don’t want anyone to share my experience, I’d rather they have their own.

    Hope that was clear, kind of rambled a bit 😉

  17. It may seem like a tangent to you, however, you did ask if anyone saw the similarities that you saw and I think I was basically saying no I don’t. You didn’t mention anything about “forgiveness, love, redemption and such” in your post. You mentioned the resurrection, and from the Buddhist side, sunyata. Apples and oranges to me, so I don’t think it is quite fair to use the same criteria to assess the respective dialogues.

    Sure, as far as human nature goes, some people may fall back on your “subjective parachute” but still, there are so many variables that I think it is difficult to make broad generalizations about it. In addition, I am not so sure that I would go as far to say that using experience is always a case of jumping out of a logical and rational discussion. Knowledge and experience do tend to go hand in hand.

    Lastly, if you are talking about love and forgiveness, yes, Christians may have a real experience of that. However, if you are talking about experiencing the resurrection, there is no way that can be a real experience. Whereas, an experience of sunyata can be. Maybe I am just nitpicking at the examples you used.

  18. @ Adam
    I agree with much of what you wrote. I am saying that since both the Christian and the Buddhist can say “Well, you have to experience it to understand it”, then we should sort of laugh at ourselves when we feel the dialogue taking us that way and admit it to ourselves and our dialogue partner. Maybe admitting the mutual grounding in felt experience can help draw each other back to shared dialogue commonalities. Or sometime admitting the common subjective epistemological foundations, without the caveat “but mine is real and yours is fake” or “yours is delusional”, can help us feel a humble common ground.

    Your paragraph that starts: “You can explain the hell out of …” Could easily be written by a Christian with minor substitutions. That is part of my point.

    Your last two paragraphs are actually agreeing with the tone of my post. Thanks for playing with the ideas with me. That was fun.

    Wait, wow, I just saw your new child on your post — dude, congrats !!

    @ David
    In dialogue sometimes discussing our felt epistemological foundations may be useful — especially when we understand that we all do this. But doing it in a way the claims “only my foundation is real” does little to build and ignores the common shared phenomena of subjectivity. If you are going sky diving, invite your dialogue partner to join you — or join them.

    Concerning the “resurrection”, it all depends on interpretation. It all depends on what the brain/mind does with all the links to that word with both ideas and feelings. We can underestimate the effect of someone’s mistaken notions — be they about miracles or emptiness.

    Thanks for nitpicking, I hope I accepted and used them well. Smile

  19. @Sabio, thank you!

    And yes, I was agreeing with you 🙂

  20. Another way to look at the two examples you gave is that both appeal to a sort of “unknowability” or “transcendence”. I’ve always thought that Luther sounds very similar to Tao Te Ching or the typical concept of Sunyata:

    A) The theology that can be described to the intellect is not the true theology
    B) The tao that can be described is not the true tao, the names that can be named are not the unvarying names
    C) The sunyata that can be described is not sunyata

    Apparently in theology, this is called “apophatic”, meaning “to show no”, or Latin “via negativa”. Anyone familiar with Buddhism would recognize the basic idea. I’m not sharing this to endorse this approach in theology; I have no idea what to think about it yet. I’m just sharing it because I didn’t know about it before, and it seems quite related to the discussion. Here’s a post which attempts to argue that it’s a valid approach in theology, and perhaps indirectly make a distinction between the approach in theology versus Taoism.

  21. @ JS Allen
    I am a big fan of “via negativa”. When leaving Christianity, I almost was pulled back in by the Christian mystics who embraced this method of knowing the divine. But their persistence in hanging onto Bible stories and force-fitting their creeds into their mystic experience was a turn off. So I started exploring the mysticism of those less bound to doctrines.

    My post is simply about subjective experience as a core of epistemology — be that derived via negative approaches or positive. Though the method of questioning behind the question is my favorite.

  22. Aly

    Hi Sabio and others, on the topic of subjective experience, spirituality and whatnot, I thought you might be interested in this post on the blog of a friend of mine.

  23. @ Aly
    Read it. Didn’t feel too substantial and didn’t see how it related to what I wrote. Call me dense.

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