Friday, October 02, 2009

Argument from Religious Experience

This continues the series of weekly posts dealing with some basic theistic arguments. The purpose here is to introduce the reader to the idea behind each argument. Strengths and weaknesses will be presented after each summary. These are only summaries and springboards for further study in the theistic arguments. See Reason for the Hope Within for more.

An Argument from Religious Experience


A great many people both throughout history and throughout the world have had religious experiences. These have typically included not only an awareness of a divine presence but also a qualitative change in the behavior of the one having the experience. The existence of God explains this data much more easily than conjectures about psychological disorders, mass deceptions, or fraudulent reporting.

Greatest Strength: The pervasiveness of religious experience is well documented and accompanied by credible reports of lives being changed for the better.

Greatest Weakness: Although religious experience in general is widespread, specific experiences vary considerably.1

1 William C. Davis, Reason for the Hope Within (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman's Publishing Co., 1999), p. 38.

18 comments :

Jonathan West said...

The fact that an experience is common is not evidence that it is from God. The fact that lives are changed as a result is evidence of the persuasiveness of an experience, not of its origin.

The mere fact that an experience is classified as religious and is interpreted as having come from God is not of itself evidence that it actually has come from God, and is therefore not a valid argument for God's existence.

To make it a valid argument it would be necessary to demonstrate that the interpretation is correct. More than mere assertion is needed to achieve that.

I've described this in more detail in my article Personal Experiences of God.

Eric said...

Jonathan, when you speak about 'evidence' and 'persuasiveness,' do you mean counts as evidence for and is or is not persuasive to the person having the experience, or others who have not had it? It seems to me that this is an important distinction, since while it's clear that my experiences need not count as evidence of X to you, it's not at all clear that I'm not justified in counting them as evidence for X for me. So, two questions: who is the evidence for, and do you acknowledge the epistemic assymetry here?

Jonathan West said...

By persuasiveness I meant the effect on the person holding it. I'm perfectly well aware that some such experiences can be life-changing.

So the evidence of the effect of such experiences can be quite clear and obvious and even remarkable, but that doesn't of itself offer any evidence as the the origin of the experience.

I've explained this in more detail in the article I referenced.

Eric said...

Jonathan, I don't think we're talking about the same thing here, so let me provide an example to clarify what I'm saying.

Suppose an executive in a large corporation tells me about some illegal activity his company engaged in earlier in the day. Further suppose that after he tells me, he regrets it, and decides to deny having told me. Also, suppose the company, fearing I will talk, not only covers up the illegal act perfectly (whether a company could in fact cover up an illegal act perfectly is irrelevant for the purposes of this thought experiment), but goes so far as to create phony news stories and photographs of the executive in a different country on the day we spoke.

Now, if I go public with the information, I would find myself in a situation in which (1) there is no independently verifiable evidence whatsoever that the executive said such and such to me, and (2) there is plenty of publicly verifiable evidence that the executive couldn't have spoken with me where and when I claim the conversation took place (the phony news stories, the phony photographs, etc.).

Now, if we assume that my cognitive faculties are functioning normally, should I (1) trust my unverifiable experience or (2) go with the publicly available evidence?

It seems to me that I'm perfectly within my rational rights in going with my unverifiable experience, despite the publicly available evidence. But it's also clear that an independent third party should go with the publicly available evidence.

So, with this thought experiment we see (1) that it can indeed be perfectly rational for a person to go with his experience even if the evidence contradicts it, and (2) in cases where it's perfectly rational to go with your experience, it can be positively irrational for others to accept your experience as dispositive evidence, and perfectly rational for them to reach a conclusion that contradicts yours.

Jonathan West said...

The analogy you offer is not appropriate. I'm not attempting to deny the religious experience. I'm perfectly content to accept that if you say you had a religious experience, to accept that and to treat your description of the experience as truthful.

But what you do not provide from a mere description of the experience is any evidence of its divine origin. You might say for instance that you feel as if you are in the presence of God, but does an "as if" feeling really qualify as evidence that God was really there or even that God exists at all? In other words, we have to make a distinction between description and interpretation. Your feeling that you are in a transcendent presence is description. Claiming the actual existence of this transcendent presence is interpretation.

There are many varieties of illusion whose existence we already know about. We know many ways in which our senses are fooled into perceiving something that isn't there. We also know of many cognitive illusions where our minds are fooled into misinterpreting data we are provided with.

The classic example of that is our tendency to over-interpret and believe that there is order in patterns when in fact there is only randomness. A large number of psychological experiments have been done which demonstrate this effect in a great many different ways and contexts.

So, when looking for an interpretation of a religious experience, you essentially have two choices.

One is that you really were in the presence of some divine will who happens to be taking a personal interest in you, despite remarkable extent to which he remains hidden at other times.

The other is that your mind has been playing tricks on you.

The second explanation is of course far less heroic and far more mundane, and so it is quite understandable if a lot of people shun it. But if you are a genuine seeker after the truth - no matter where it might be - then an unbiased approach has to acknowledge that the second explanation is a far better fit with the other available evidence.

Eric said...

Jonathan, there are a number of problems with your last post.

First, every description requires some interpretation. This is the old philosophic distinction between seeing and seeing-as. Descriptions fall under seeing-as, and seeing-as involves interpretation. For example, can you describe the sound a cat makes? Is it 'meow' as we say in the states, or 'niago' as they say in Japan? They're both descriptions, but they both involve some interpretation. So, firstly, your distinction is not fine enough.

Second, if every description requires an interpretation, and if your objection is that we must logically go from an interpretation of some experience E to a description of what E is in fact an experience of, then it follows that, since the new description will itself involve a new interpretation, we must now move from the new interpretation to yet some deeper description (and so on). In other words, if we take your requirement and follow it to its logical conclusion, we either find ourselves (1) in an infinite regress, or (2) with a description that contains no interpretation; and neither (1) nor (2) are tenable.

Third, it simply isn't the case that most experiences are such that we could ever move from (1) the experience to (2) the object of our experience. This is the old Kantian problem of how we come to know 'things-in-themselves,' and you seem to be requiring that theists solve it. Have you solved it for everyday objects, such as trees or computers?

But fourth (a point which is related to my third point, but not identical with it), even if we ignore what I said above, and if we assume we could make some sense of your distinction, then it seems to me as if universal skepticism follows. For, how can I ever move logically from an interpretation of an experience to the knowledge that my experience was veridical? I can't do it by relying on the confirmation of others, since (1) I only know of them and their confirmations through the interpretive experiences you're claiming I can't trust, and (2) they're relying on the same untrustworthy experience of the world I am.

Jonathan West said...

I would dispute your first point. Saying "The carpet is blue" is a description, but it requires no interpretation. We know what carpets are, we have a common understanding of the colour blue. Within the limits of the brief description, you know exactly what I'm taking about.

You can also be a bit more poetic about your description, and say "The carpet pile was so deep it felt as if I was walking in long grass". It requires the reader to make more of a comparison with a non-carpet thing i.e. long grass. But it still doesn't require you to believe that the carpet actually was made out of long grass.

But the point is that the description is meaningful to anybody who has some experience (a) of carpets and (b) of long grass. Which is why such description-by-comparison works - we are describing things in terms familiar to our readers.

Now, religious experiences tend to get described in this second way, description by comparison. That is inevitable because of the normal characteristics of religious experiences. But what actually is being described here? Generally it is a sense of presence, or a sense of wonder, or some new way of thinking about things.

The interpretation part comes when you move beyond a description of what you did see or otherwise perceive through your senses, to a deduction or inference concerning the underlying causes of the event. In many cases we can do that, since we know quite a lot about how things work.

But I would suggest that you claim that religious experiences come from God is to go beyond what the available evidence supports, and you only do that because you have been told from a young age that such experiences do come from God.

If for instance you were to wake up from dream that prominently featured Gandalf, even if the dream was an extremely vivid one and the insights you drew from it were life-transforming, you would not as a result conclude that The Lord of the Rings is an historical document and that somebody one say will stumble across the ruins of Minas Tirith or work out which specific volcano is Mount Doom. You only grant an exception to God in such cases because you have been taught that these things come from God.

Eric said...

Jonathan, do you really identify your direct perception of a blue carpet (your experience) with the description, "The carpet is blue"? For, if you want to claim that your description involves no interpretation, you must be making this identification. I think you need to consider that again. I for one don't directly experience 'blue carpets,' but a variety of shapes, colors, textures, etc. that, in certain contexts, I integrate into the conceptually informed description, "The carpet is blue." That my description is conceptually informed -- as all descriptions by definition are -- is crucial. Now, can you make sense of concepts without interpretation? Can you formulate concepts without interpretation? Can you comminicate concepts without interpretation?

However, even if we suppose your distinction stands, I don't think you can do, in everyday contexts, what you're asking of the theist with respect to religious experiences. (This was one of the points of my thought experiment in my second post.)

Take your experience of, and description of, a blue carpet. You can explain what you experience to me (i.e. describe it), and I can experience the carpet with you so we can compare our descriptions, but how can you demonstrate that your experience is 'coming from' (as you put it) a blue carpet? After all, this is the same challenge you're presenting to the theist, is it not? ("The mere fact that an experience is classified as religious and is interpreted as having *come from* God is not of itself evidence that it actually has come from God, and is therefore not a valid argument for God's existence. To make it a valid argument it would be necessary to demonstrate that the interpretation is correct." That is, you're saying that the theist would have to demonstrate that his experience came from god.)


Now, you can't appeal to the experience of others, for (1) you only know of them and of their descriptions of their experiences by way of your experiences, and (2) even if you could get around that first problem, they face the same problem you do. As I said in an earlier post, your problem isn't merely a problem for theists, but for everyone, given your premises.

"The interpretation part comes when you move beyond a description of what you did see or otherwise perceive through your senses, to a deduction or inference concerning the *underlying causes* of the event."

This strikes me as confused (in terms of the account your giving of interpretation and description, but as I said, I don't accept the distinction as you've formulated it), but, if we suppose it's accurate, it actually supports my point above. Your description either posits a cause of your experience, e.g. an actual blue carpet, or it doesn't. If it does, then you face, as I said above, the same problem with blue carpets that you claim theists face with religious experiences, viz. the problem of moving from your experience of an object to the existence of the object. If it doesn't, then we're only talking about experience, and your initial challenge is meaningless. Hence, your own premises either leave you with the same problem for every experience that you claim theists face with respect to religious experience, or with a meaningless challenge.

If you want to respond by claiming that there's a difference between experiencing a blue carpet and experiencing god, since with the former we're experiencing the object as it is, while with the latter we're having a vague experience we interpret as the experience of god, then -- again, given the consistent application of your premises -- you're simply begging the question. Given your premises, you must -- forgive me if I use your words -- "demonstrate that [your] interpretation is correct." As you say, "more than mere assertion is needed to achieve that."

Jonathan West said...

With the blue carpet, I can demonstrate my interpretation is correct. I can show you the blue carpet and you can check the interpretation for yourself.

Show me God and I'll accept an equivalence in the two concepts.

And if you claim that a religious experience of God is evidence for his existence, then a vivid dream in which Gandalf tells me a new course to follow in my life is evidence for Middle Earth. And for that matter, similar religious experiences by Hindus are evidence for the existence of the Hindu gods. But I don't think you would accept either of those latter cases.

Ranger said...

Jonathan,
I'm interested in how someone could "show" you God. Would you mind telling us how you foresee this happening? Can you give an example of what it might look like?

No matter what was shown, someone could simply conclude that there would be an eventual natural explanation.

For instance, let's say you have a personal revelation that seems completely real. If you are true to your skepticism and naturalism, then this should simply be written off as a hallucination/vision, whatever. After all, many people of many religions have these types of experiences and revelations, so you could just write it off, right?

Let's say you and a group of 500 others have this same hallucination. Would that be enough? Of course, it's more plausible now, but shouldn't you still conclude that it's just a natural experience awaiting a natural explanation? That's what most naturalists say about the resurrection appearances, or the visions of Mary that have appeared to groups of people. You could simply say that if you had been prepared, you could have scientifically tested the experience and found a natural cause.

No matter how real the experience seems, it will still be subjectively experienced and open to various interpretations. I'm sure that the explanations from your friends would not be identical to your explanation, and you would spend hours trying to figure out what caused it...had you all been to a website that discussed a religious topic and then all eaten a certain type of spicy curry?

A true naturalist would always search for the natural answer, right? If not, then what evidence would it take for someone to take up your task to "Show me God?"

Jonathan West said...

I'm interested in how someone could "show" you God. Would you mind telling us how you foresee this happening? Can you give an example of what it might look like?

You're the one making the claim that he exists. Tell me what you think he looks like, and then show me that. In other words, you do for God what I said I can do for a blue carpet.

No matter what was shown, someone could simply conclude that there would be an eventual natural explanation.

It depends on what you call a natural explanation. If on the basis of evidence we were to conclude that God created the universe but that he is a natural part of some meta-universe, then the kind of naturalism you describe is consistent with the existence of God.

For instance, let's say you have a personal revelation that seems completely real. If you are true to your skepticism and naturalism, then this should simply be written off as a hallucination/vision, whatever. After all, many people of many religions have these types of experiences and revelations, so you could just write it off, right?

I would want to compare it with and set it in the context of the other evidence available to me. if having done that I conclude that the experience is evidence of God, then that is what the conclusion would be. But we are speaking in hypothetical terms. None of the religious experiences described to me come anywhere near offering a justification for such a conclusion

Let's say you and a group of 500 others have this same hallucination. Would that be enough?

You're still talking hypothetically. Describe a specific instance where this has happened and I will offer my response to it.

Paul said...

The problem with the epistemology of religious experiences is that they are fundamentally and necessarily private, not public.

Consider a box in which there is something inside. Normally, if a person opens the box and says there's an apple in the box, we can verify this by looking in the box ourselves.

But religious experience is like having the box sealed for everyone else, forever. One person has looked in the box and reported what they've seen ("God exists"), but there is inherently no way for anyone else to verify that.

When 500 people have the same hallucination, it is like 500 people with their own sealed box - not the same box, but 500 different boxes - and they all say they saw the same thing.

Jonathan West said...

The problem with the epistemology of religious experiences is that they are fundamentally and necessarily private, not public.

No. Jesus supposedly did lots of public miracles. What tou mean is that it is the private experiences which are about all you have left to hold on to because all the public stuff has been discredited.

When 500 people have the same hallucination, it is like 500 people with their own sealed box - not the same box, but 500 different boxes - and they all say they saw the same thing.

Only if they all say the same thing without having communicated with each other in between having seen the box and said what they saw. Te power of sauggestion is very, very strong, and if a few people confidently say they saw a miracle, and others are predisposed to believe in miracles (e.g. are visiting a shrine in the hope of one) then many others will edit their memories, without any conscious intent to do so, and interpret their memories to say they saw the miracle as well - for who wants to say that they missed out on such a momentous event?

Paul said...

Jonathan, the OP defined religious experience this way:

". . . not only an awareness of a divine presence but also a qualitative change in the behavior of the one having the experience. "

Witnessing a miracle is not part of that definition, and that's what I was referring to, and only that.

By the way, I think you think that I am defending the validity of the religious experience. I'm not.

Jonathan West said...

Jonathan, the OP defined religious experience this way:

". . . not only an awareness of a divine presence but also a qualitative change in the behavior of the one having the experience. "


The fact that the person's behaviour changes as a result of the experience is evidence of the strength of its effect, and not evidence of its origin. I have no difficulty accepting that experiences of this kind can be life-changing.

The problem lies in claiming "awareness of a divine presence" unless (as with my example of the blue carpet) this divine presence is available for independent scrutiny. But it isn't.

So whatever is being experienced, in the absence of a commonly available reference, it is being interpreted as a divine presence, and it is being so interpreted because Christians have been taught from a young age to make that interpretation.

Paul said...

Just for the record, I was really addressing the first part of the defintion ("awareness of a divine prescence").

I was trying to simplify an epistemological argument between Jonathan and Eric and Ranger that was getting pretty convoluted.

Jonathan West said...

I realise that, but my point remains. unless this "divine presence" is available for scrutiny separately from the context of the religious experience, then the attribution involved in the use of "divine" is an interpretation, and moreover is an assertion on the basis of no evidence. It is asserted instead on the basis if authority - that you have been told that is what it is.

Paul said...

Jonathan, I agree.

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