Religious Experience

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Move Over, Kalam, Here is the best argument for theism

100_2744Yeah, I said it. The Kalam Cosmological Argument is in vogue, and for good reason. It’s an extremely powerful argument for the existence of God, the first Cause. Nothing I say here should be taken as a condemnation of the Kalam. However, I don’t think it is the most powerful argument for theism. In fact, I don’t think it’s even close. The Argument from Religious Experience wins that prize, and it is a landslide.

Is it so powerful?

The obvious question is this: what makes the Argument from Religious Experience (hereafter ARE) so powerful? Here are just a few reasons:

1. The ARE is malleable and may be used as an argument for a) merely the existence of the transcendent–anything beyond the physical world; b) theism specifically c) Christianity specifically.
2. The ARE does not rely upon anything more than things we already do in everyday life, such as trusting that people are reporting the truth.
3. The ARE has evidence backed from millions of persons across the world and time.
4. It is possible, though not at all certain, to have personal confirmation of the ARE.

Why Not ARE?

Okay, well if it’s so strong, why don’t more apologists use the argument? There are a number of reasons, and some are basic: they haven’t read about the argument in much popular apologetic literature and so are unfamiliar with the argument, they know of it but are unsure of how to formulate it in a helpful way, or they simply haven’t thought about how powerful the argument is. Another reason may be (as I suggested elsewhere) that apologists prefer arguments that are useful in debate formats.

To be honest, though, I think the primary reason is because the ARE has almost an inherent strangeness to it. There is a kind of spiritualism about the argument itself which might turn off apologists who would prefer a purely deductive argument. If one wants to talk about a religious “experience,” there is a kind of feeling to that phrase which an argument like the Kalam does not share. Just admitting that there is a category of religious experience itself admits to a kind of transcendence, and I think that apologists–I include myself in this category–are overly cautious about spirituality. So let’s get over it and start using this powerful argument, okay?

What is the ARE?

As I noted in point 1 in favor of the ARE’s strength above, the argument itself is malleable and may be formulated in different ways (for some examples, see my post on the usefulness of the argument). Here’s a way to formulate it to merely defend a transcendent reality:

1. Generally, when someone has an experience of something, they are within their rational limits to believe the experience is genuine.
2. Across all socio-historical contexts, people have had experiences they purport to be of a transcendent realm.*
3. Therefore, it is rational to believe there is a transcendent realm.

Just consider this for a second. The argument leaves a few spaces to fill in for the sake of making it deductively valid, but we’ll just look at how it stands now. Suppose that 2 is true. In that case, one who wants to deny the ARE’s strength would have to say that all of the experiences of these people have been in error. Frankly, when it comes down to it, that’s a pretty big claim, because reports of religious experience really do come from all times and places.

The argument, though, can be narrowed to defend theism specifically or even Christianity. For more on this, see my post talking about its strength as it narrows.

Now point 2 above suggested the ARE doesn’t rely on anything more than what we do in everyday life. I am speaking, of course, of the principle of credulity: the notion that when x appears to someone in way s, it is rational [barring some epistemic  defeater]** to believe that x is s (or some other formulation). Moreover, we also trust the principle of testimony: when person x tells us that y occurred, it is prima facie rational to believe y. When you read a news story and someone says they saw a woman running from the scene of a crime, it is rational to believe them. Similarly, when millions say they have experienced a transcendent realm, prima facie it is rational to believe them.

religious-symbolsThe Knock Down Objection?

The most common objection is the objection from competing religions. That is, if person x has an experience that purports to prove Christianity, and person y has an experience of the truth of Buddhism, what then? Often it is suggested that x and y’s testimony would just cancel each other out. But of course that’s not the case in any other area of experience. If I am a witness in court testifying about a murder, and I say I saw a tall dark male commit the crime, while another witness says they saw a short pale male, does each testimony cancel the other? Well, suppose the criminal was of average male height and fairly tan. To me, a short very pale man, he would appear tall and dark. To someone who is taller than I and of darker skin, the person would appear short and pale.

The point is that even with religious experience, different facets may be recognized even were the experience the same. Now much more nuance needs to go into this argument, but I think cogent answers have been provided in the relevant literature. The point is that even the most common and strongest objection to the ARE really isn’t that powerful in the end, particularly when weighed against the cumulative force of religious experience.

Conclusion

I readily admit this post has only very briefly touched on issues which could each take entire volumes to discuss. There is so much more to consider, and so many avenues to explore, but I think my overall point stands: The ARE is the strongest argument for theism. Fellow apologists, I suggest you research the argument (see the suggested reading list at the end of this post and also check out my other posts below) and use it! Let’s integrate it into our defense of the faith. Let me know your own thoughts below.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

The Argument from Religious Experience: Some thoughts on method and usefulness- a post which puts forward an easy-to-use version of the ARE and discusses its importance in apologetic endeavors.

The Argument from Religious Experience: A look at its strength- I evaluate the different ways the ARE may be presented and discuss how strong the argument may be considered across different formulations.

The image above to the left was a photo taken by me and I claim all rights noted below. The image to the right is from Wiki Commons.

*[thanks to a commentator for correcting this error- see comments]
**In the interest of shortening this post, I glossed over tightening of the principle of credulity and have added this clause to make it more clear.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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The Argument from Religious Experience: A look at its strength

I have written previously about the argument from religious experience. I provided a brief outline of the argument and commented on its usefulness. Now, I turn to the question of the strength of the argument from religious experience.

[Note: Through this post, when I say "religious experience" I am referring to experience generally--that is, numinous, sensory, and the like. I will distinguish when I mean otherwise.]

The Sheer Numbers

Religious Experience is pervasive throughout human history. You can find accounts of it in the Upanishads, the Vedas, the Qur’an, the Torah, the Gospels, and more. Not only that, but recent, systematized studies have found that religious experience continues to be a part of people’s realm of experience.

Consider David Hay’s study, Religious Experience Today. The book is based upon a number of national and community surveys in the UK. For example, one Gallup poll in Britain in 1987 yielded a response rate of 48% of people saying they had had a religious experience as described by the poll. In 2000, another poll in the UK yielded a 36% positive response. Granted that some of this may be due to false positives, one must also realize that there is a kind of repression of expressing religious experience due to embarrassment and/or personal bias, so these numbers may also lean towards the lower end (Hay, 57ff).

One could also look at the sheer number of luminaries throughout all time who have claimed religious experience. Throughout the literature, such experiences are far too numerous to be restricted to a descriptor like “many.”

One can’t help but agree with Richard Swinburne, who wrote, “[T]he overwhelming testimony of so many millions of people to occasional experience of God must… be taken as tipping the balance of evidence decisively in favour of the existence of God” (Is There a God?, 120).

The Balance of the Scales

“The argument from religious experience” (hereafter ARE) is itself somewhat of a misnomer–there are many forms of arguments from religious experience, so it is helpful to clarify when one is in dialog which version one is using. I have noted elsewhere that the ARE comes in two varieties: one which argues for public belief and one which argues for personal justified belief.  There are two more variants to introduce here: the broad version and the narrow version.

1. The Broad Version of the ARE presents religious experience as a general proof for either:

A) the existence of some transcendent realm–this being a transcendent aphysical realm. This is the broadest version of the argument.

B) the existence of God. This is a broader version of the argument, but isn’t as generalized as A).

2. The Narrow Version of the ARE argues for the truth of a particular religion based upon religious experience. Note that this is narrow in that many religions could affirm a “transcendent realm” or the existence of God[s], but if the argument is construed in this fashion, only the religion which is claimed to have superior evidence from religious experience is [fully] true. [Other religions could have many truths which could be affirmed through RE, but only one would have the "full" or "realized" truth.]

The argument from religious experience is much easier to defend if it is presented broadly. As one narrows the argument, one is forced to deal with potential defeaters from religious experiences which do not accord with the argument being made. For example, if one argues that God exists based upon religious experience, one would have to somehow contend with the great amount of evidence for monistic or Nirvanic religious experience.

Think of the argument like as a bridge with a counterbalance or a scale with a counterbalance. The more weight one places on the argument [i.e. saying that it can justify the existence of God] (scale/bridge), the more one must deal with that weight on the other end (counterbalance).

If the argument is presented as a way to prove general transcendence of experience, it is extremely strong and very easy to defend. When one instead uses the argument to try to justify the truth claims of a specific religion, one then must come up with a mechanism for determining how to evaluate competing religious experiences. For example, if I argue that religious experiences prove Christianity to be true because so many people have experienced in sensory ways Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, then it is my task to also show that the experiences of, say, Shiva as god are unwarranted. Thus, the philosopher’s task increases in difficulty the more narrowly he presents the arguments conclusion.

Consider the following two conclusions from arguments (granting me authorial privilege to assume that readers can plug in the premises): 1) Therefore, religious experience justifies the belief that there is a realm apart from our mere physical existence; 2) Therefore, religious experience serves as powerful evidence for the truth of Christianity. The fact that 2) is much more narrow means that one must do much more to show that the conclusion is justified.

Does this mean that the argument is useless when arguing for a particular religion? Certainly not. There are many who have used the ARE for a defense of Christianity specifically (cf. William Alston Perceiving God and Nelson Pike Mystic Union). What is important to note is that when one uses the argument in dialog they must be very aware of how they formulate the argument. As a “Broad/public” version, it can serve as powerful evidence in part of a cumulative case for Christianity; as a “narrow/private” version, it can be strong confirmation of the justification of one’s faith. These variants can be used together or separately.

The Strength of the Argument

So how strong is the ARE? I hope I don’t disappoint readers when I respond by saying: that depends! As far as my opinion is concerned, it seems to me that the “broad/public” and “broad/private” version of the argument are nearly irrefutable. I think it is an invaluable tool for apologists and philosophers of religion. The “narrow/private” or “narrow/public” versions of the argument are not as strong by necessity: they must contend with more objections as they narrow. However, as part of one’s own faith life, I think the “narrow/private” and “narrow/public” versions can give great comfort and solace.

[Author's note: The next post on the argument from religious experience will defend the principle of credulity.]

Further Reading

See my “The Argument from Religious Experience: Some thoughts on method and usefulness“- a post which puts forward an easy-to-use version of the ARE and discusses its importance in apologetic endeavors.

The following books are all ones I have read on the topic but do not present a comprehensive look at literature on the subject.

Caroline Franks Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience (New York, NY: Oxford, 1989). One of the best books on the topic, Franks Davis provides what I would see as a nearly comprehensive look at the epistemic defeaters to consider with the argument from RE.

Jerome Gellman, Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1997). Gellman provides a robust defense of the principle of credulity.

Paul Moser, The Evidence for God (New York: NY, Cambridge, 2010). This work is not so much about the argument from RE as it is an argument showing that any evidence for God is going to be necessarily relational. I highly recommend it.

Richard Swinburne, Is There a God?(New York, NY: Oxford, 2010). This is an introductory work to Swinburne’s theistic arguments. It has a chapter on the argument from RE that provides an excellent, easy-to-read look at the issues surrounding the argument. I reviewed this book here.

There are a number of other fantastic books on the topic as well. Swinburne’s The Existence of God has a chapter that remains a classic for the defense of the argument from RE.

William Alston’s Perceiving God is perhaps one of the best examples of a robust epistemology built up around RE and realism.

Keith Yandell’s The Epistemology of Religious Experience is a extremely technical look at many of the issues, and I found it particularly useful regarding the notion of “ineffability” in RE.

Kai-man Kwan’s Rainbow of Experiences, Critical Trust, and God is a very recent look at the argument which again features a large amount of epistemological development.

Nelson Pike provides a unique look at the phenomenology of RE and a synthesis of theistic and monistic experiences in his work Mystic Union.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The Argument from Religious Experience: Some thoughts on method and usefulness

The argument from religious experience (hereafter referred to as “argument from RE”) has seen a resurgence in scholarly work. Keith Yandell, Richard Swinburne, Jerome Gellman, Kai-man Kwan, Caroline Franks-Davis, Paul Moser, and others have contributed to the current discussion about the topic.

One thing which has disappointed me on more than one occasion is the dismissive attitude that some Christian apologists show towards the argument from religious experience.

What reasons are there for apologists to adopt such a stance? Well it seems possible that some of them simply haven’t studied the argument enough to consider its plausibility. I admit that before interacting with the argument, I was skeptical of the possibility for its having any value. But I want to suggest another possibility: apologists tend to favor arguments which can be presented and defended in a debate format or which are useful in short conversations with others. I’m not suggesting this as an attack on my fellow Christians, merely as an observation. And this is not a bad thing; it is indeed greatly useful to have arguments which can be presented quickly and defended easily when one is trying to present a case for Christianity to others.

The problem is the argument from RE requires a great deal of epistemological background in order to get to the meat of it. The authors listed above each develop a robust epistemology to go with their argument. This seems to put a limit on the usefulness of the argument; if it must be conjoined with a broad discussion of epistemology, then how can one present it in such a way that those who aren’t professional philosophers (or at least interested in the topic) can understand? It is to this question I hope to present an answer.

Background Information

Formulations of the Argument

There are two primary ways the argument from RE can be formulated (Caroline Franks Davis suggests a number of ways the argument can presented in The Evidential Force of Religious Experience, 67-92). The first is the personal argument; the second is the public argument. Now I have seen very few versions of the former in the literature. The personal argument is essentially an argument from RE which centers not on trying to demonstrate the existence of God to others, but rather upon justifying one’s own belief that such an experience is genuine. In other words, the personal argument from RE focuses upon defending one’s own conviction that a religious experience is veridical.

Paul Moser, in his work The Evidence for God, suggests one possible way to formulate this argument [he does not refer to it in the same terminology as I use here]:

1. Necessarily, if a human person is offered and receives the transformative gift, then this is the result of the authoritative power of… God

2. I have been offered, and have willingly received, the transformative gift.

3. Therefore, God exists (200, cited below).

This argument is one example of what I would call the personal argument from RE. It focuses on one’s own experience and uses that to justify one’s belief in God. [It seems Moser could be arguing for this as a public argument as well, but a discussion of this would take us too far afield.]

A public argument from RE is generally formulated to establish the belief in God (or at least a transcendent reality), just as other theistic arguments are intended. It will best function as part of a “cumulative case” for the existence of God. One example of an argument of this sort can be found in Jerome Gellman, Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief:

If a person, S, has an experience, E, in which it seems (phenomenally) to be of a particular object, O… then everything else being equal, the best explanation of S’s having E is that S has experienced O… rather than something else or nothing at all (46, cited below).

Readers familiar with the literature on RE will note the similarities between this and Richard Swinburne’s principle of credulity. The basic  idea is that if someone has an experience, then they are justified in believing they had that experience, provided they have no (epistemic) defeaters for that experience.

Brief Epistemological Inquiry

I’ve already noted the intricate ties the argument from RE has with epistemology, and a quick introduction to the argument would be remiss without at least noting this in more explicit detail. The core of establishing the argument from RE is to undermine methodological/metaphysical naturalism. Thus, a robust defense of the argument from RE will feature building up a case for an epistemological stance in which theistic explanations are not ruled out a priori.

A second step in this epistemological background is to establish a set of criteria with which one can judge and evaluate individual religious experiences. Caroline Franks Davis’ study (cited below) is a particularly amazing look into this tactic; she explores a number of possible defeaters and criteria for investigating REs. These range any where from hallucinogenic drugs to the multiplicity of religious experience.

The Force of the Evidence

One concern I had when I was exploring the argument from RE is that it would not have very much force. Upon investigating the topic, however, I can’t help but think the force of the argument is quite strong. Swinburne seems correct when he writes, “[T]he overwhelming testimony of so many millions of people to occasional experience of God must… be taken as tipping the balance of evidence decisively in favour of the existence of God” (Swinburne, Is There a God?, 120, cited below). The important thing to remember is that an overwhelming number of people from all stations of life and cultures have had experiences that they deem to be “spiritual” or hinting at “transcendence.” Denying universally all of these experiences as genuine would seem to require an enormous amount of counter-evidence.

A Suggested Version for Quick Discussion

So what to do with this background knowledge? It seems to me it is possible to at least sketch out a version of the argument from RE for a brief discussion, with a defense. Further reading is provided below.

The Argument Stated

1. Generally, when someone has an experience of something, they are within their rational limits to believe the experience is genuine.

2. Across all socio-historical contexts, people have had experiences of a transcendent realm.

3. Therefore, it is rational to believe there is a transcendent realm.

The argument made more explicit

The reason I suggest this as the way to use the argument from RE in a brief discussion is because it can more easily form part of a cumulative case and requires less epistemological work to justify it. The first premise is, in general, a principle of rationality. While there are many who have attacked Swinburne’s principle of credulity, it does seem that we generally affirm it. If I experience x, then, provided I have no reasons to think otherwise, I should believe that x exists/was real/etc.

The second premise is the result of numerous studies, some of which are cited in the works cited below. To deny this nearly universal experience is simply to deny empirical evidence. People like William James have observed this transcultural experience of the transcendent for hundreds of years.

Thus, it seems that we are justified in being open to the existence of things beyond the mundane, everyday objects we observe in the physical reality. If people from all times and places have had experiences of things beyond this everyday existence, then it does not seem irrational to remain at least open to the possibility of such things existing.

The conclusion may come as something of a letdown for some theists. But I would like to reiterate that this is a version of the argument intended for use in a brief conversation. There are versions of the argument in the cited literature below which defend theism specifically and engage in synthesis of these experiences into the theistic fold. What I’m trying to do here is make the argument part of the apologist’s arsenal. If we can use the argument merely to open one up to the reality of the transcendent, then perhaps they will be more open other theistic arguments. As part of a cumulative case, one can’t help but shudder under the overwhelming weight of millions of experiences.

Conclusion

The argument from religious experience has enjoyed a resurgence in scholarly popularity. A number of books from publishers like Oxford University Press, Cornell, and Continuum have reopened the argument to the scholarly world. It is high time that Christian apologists put in the work needed to utilize these arguments in everyday, accessible apologetics. The argument formulated above is just one way to do this, and Christians would do well to explore the argument further. The experience of God is something not to be taken lightly; Christians throughout our history have had such experiences and been moved into intimate relationships with God. We should celebrate these experiences, while also realizing their evidential value.

Further Reading and Works Cited

The following books are all ones I have read on the topic but do not present a comprehensive look at literature on the subject.

Caroline Franks Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience (New York, NY: Oxford, 1989). One of the best books on the topic, Franks Davis provides what I would see as a nearly comprehensive look at the epistemic defeaters to consider with the argument from RE.

Jerome Gellman, Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1997). Gellman provides a robust defense of the principle of credulity.

Paul Moser, The Evidence for God (New York: NY, Cambridge, 2010). This work is not so much about the argument from RE as it is an argument showing that any evidence for God is going to be necessarily relational. I highly recommend it.

Richard Swinburne, Is There a God?(New York, NY: Oxford, 2010). This is an introductory work to Swinburne’s theistic arguments. It has a chapter on the argument from RE that provides an excellent, easy-to-read look at the issues surrounding the argument. I reviewed this book here.

There are a number of other fantastic books on the topic as well. Swinburne’s The Existence of God has a chapter that remains a classic for the defense of the argument from RE.

William Alston’s Perceiving God is perhaps one of the best examples of a robust epistemology built up around RE and realism.

Keith Yandell’s The Epistemology of Religious Experience is a extremely technical look at many of the issues, and I found it particularly useful regarding the notion of “ineffability” in RE.

Kai-man Kwan’s Rainbow of Experiences, Critical Trust, and God is a very recent look at the argument which again features a large amount of epistemological development.

Nelson Pike provides a unique look at the phenomenology of RE and a synthesis of theistic and monistic experiences in his work Mystic Union.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

God’s “Purposively Available Evidence”

If God exists, then what kind of evidence should we expect about his existence? How exactly would God operate in allowing for evidence or inquiries into his existence? These are some questions I have been pondering a great deal recently.

Paul K. Moser places questions like this in his book The Elusive God which I recently reviewed. Moser argues therein that questions like “Do we humans know God exists?” must be rephrased because if that (perfectly loving, etc.) God exists, then we should consider how God would interact with humans (4). Thus, argues Moser, such questions should be rephrased as “Are we humans known by God in virtue of (among other things) our freely and agreeably being willing (i) to be known by God and thereby (ii) to be transformed toward God’s moral character of perfect love as we are willingly lead by God in volitional fellowship with God, thereby obediently yielding our wills to God’s authoritative will?” (4, Moser’s emphasis). But even this question must be seen in light of a third rendering of the question “Do we humans know God Exists?” which is “Are we humans known by God in virtue of… our freely being willing to receive an authoritative call to… fellowship with God…?” (4).

I think that Moser raises some very valid points here. If God does in fact exist, then the question “Does God exist?” takes, of necessity, a different tone. Rather than expecting some kind of sterile evidence that makes no demands of us, this evidence may indeed be seen as some kind of authoritative call. Moser’s argument, I believe, is unfortunately not well developed, despite the 280 pages he dedicates to this very issue. My purpose here is not to try to expand on his argument, but to bring it into a context that reflects more what I believe and would therefore use instead.

I believe Moser is on the right track when he argues that God’s purposes in revealing Himself are very important when discussing His existence. Thus, God would not coerce us into belief. Moser argues in “God is Great, God is Good” (cited below) that God, assuming He exists, could seek “to offer a profound existential, motivational challenge to wayward humans” (53). On the other hand, and here is a point Moser seems to make but never develop, the “authoritative call” aspect of God’s existence is something that I believe is of vital importance to an understanding of God’s existence and reality.

He does argue that we need to let God be God (which I read as an assertion of sovereignty) even in the areas of inquiry into His existence. Thus, we cannot make demands of a sovereign God, which would be counter-intuitive. Rather, God can make demands of us.

So how do we answer the question of God’s existence? Moser makes an argument for the existence of God that is essentially an argument from religious experience (see my own posts advancing this argument here and here). His argument is outlined in The Elusive God:

“The transformative gift [is defined as] via conscience, a person’s (a) being authoritatively convicted and forgiven by X of all that person’s wrongdoing and (b) thereby being authoritatively called and led by X both into noncoerced volitional fellowship with X in perfect love and into rightful worship toward X as wrothy of worship and, on that basis, transformed by X from (i) that person’s previous tendencies to selfishness and despair to (ii) a new volitional center with a default position of unselfish love and forgiveness toward all people and of hope in the ultimate triumph of good over evil by X” (134-135) Which leads to:

“1. Necessarily, if a human person is offered, and unselfishly receives, the transformative gift, then this is the result of the authoritative leading and sustaining power of a divine X of thoroughgoing forgiveness, fellowship in perfect love, worthiness of worship, and triumphant hope (namely, God).

“2. I have been offered, and have willingly unselfishly received, the transformative gift.

“3. Therefore, God exists” (135).

I’m still pondering this argument and trying to decide how weighty it is. The more I’ve looked it over and thought about it, the more interesting it seems to me. For now, I’ll advance my own argument, based on Moser’s writings and my own input:

1) The question “Does God exist?” must be asked in such a way that we humans acknowledge that if God does in fact exist, the question of His existence involves, necessarily, a life-changing, “creating anew” (2 Corinthians 5:17) that is the work of the Holy Spirit, which is a gift of God, not by our works (Ephesians 2:8-9). This is because i) if God exists, then, necessarily, His existence would apply to every aspect of all things (specifically, our lives).

2) Evidence of God’s existence thus entails an entirely life-changing event that is the work of God and not of ourselves (e.g. baptism). It can thus be seen (Moser’s words) as “purposively available evidence”–evidence with the purpose of justification/creating a new [see 1) above].

3) God allows people to reject such life-changing evidence

4) We humans are often in rebellion against God and refuse to acknowledge 1), 2), and 3)

5) If we are in rebellion against God, then we reject the life-changing gift as seen in 2)- faith worked by the Spirit

6) Therefore, God’s existence may indeed be justifiably inaccessible to humans who are in rebellion against God, for the most powerful evidence of God’s existence can be found in 2)–the life-changing gift of the work of the Holy Spirit, and humans who are in rebellion against God reject such evidence, despite its being (purposively) available

I believe that this argument avoids some of my theological objections to Moser’s brand of (some kind of) universalism while still advancing an answer to “Why doesn’t God make his existence blatantly obvious?” I agree wholeheartedly with Moser that God could certainly have reasons for keeping his existence hidden. These reasons could be innumerable, but for now I’m content to settle with the argument that God’s purposes are to use evidence for His existence such as to be life changing through the means of grace (eg. baptism, communion, other religious experience).

My argument is obviously not so much an argument for the existence of God as it is an argument about how exactly we should go about trying to discover the answer to the question “Does God exist?”. I am not here begging the question of the existence of God. Instead, this argument is pointing to the means by which one might go about further inquiring into the question of God’s existence. If Christianity is true, then this argument is (I believe) completely sound.

Now it is appropriate to return to Meister’s argument for the existence of God and similarly modify it.

1)If the God of classical theism exists, He is sovereign

2) If the God of classical theism God exists and is (therefore) sovereign, then His existence would likely be purposively available (see argument above)

3) If there is purposively available evidence that is available and life-changing (read: applicable to every aspect of everything, specifically our lives), then God exists

4) I have perceived such purposively available evidence of God’s existence (as a gift of the Holy Spirit through baptism, communion, and religious experience).

5) Therefore, God exists.

Clearly this doesn’t solve any issue of religious pluralism, which is something  beyond the range of this post. What it does say, however, is that someone may be justified in holding the belief that God exists based on religious experience of purposively available evidence. Thus, such belief is not irrational or unjustified.

These reflections were based on information found in the following sources: Paul K. Moser, The Elusive God. I’ve also read his discussions in two other places: the book “God is Great, God is Good” (edited by William Lane Craig and Chad Meister) and the publication “Philosophia Christi” (Volume 11, Number 2, 2009) which is published by the Evangelical Philosophical Society (a society that I am a student member of!).

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

Religious Experience: Evidence for Beliefs About God

I think that perhaps one of the most often dismissed evidences for the existence of God is Religious Experience–that is, an experience that someone takes to be an experience of God of the supernatural. I have experienced more than one such experience, and this claim is of course met with ridicule or at least massive skepticism by non-theists, and surprisingly enough even by many Christians. Why is this? I personally think that it is due to 1) on the side of the Christian or theist who doubts it, the granting of a kind of empirical belief that such things should be viewed quite skeptically and only believed in light of massive evidence and 2) on the side of the non-theist, an obvious presupposition that such things are obviously false and explainable naturalistically.

So, is there really a case for believing that Religious Experience can give any grounds for belief in (here I’ll more be arguing for beliefs about) God at all? I believe there is a rather strong case. I’ve argued elsewhere that such an experience can grant at least some amount of warrant for belief in God. But I believe that there is more to be said.

First we must discuss sense perception. What does it mean when someone senses something (here “sense” meaning using one of the five senses to ascertain knowledge of something)? There are a number of explanations, but I believe the most obvious one is simply that (in the case of sight) someone (x) sees something (y). Thus, I believe there is a kind of immediacy to sense perception. (Just a side note–this doesn’t go against my beliefs in a kind of Theistic Idealism, as my form of idealism involves a “real world” in the sense of Husserl’s “empty x” that we can perceive.) Now of course sense perception can be wrong, but the main idea is that when x sees y, it is just the case that x sees y, not the case that, say, x believes that x sees y or something even more drawn out.

But then what exactly is our justification for believing that sense perception has warrant? There really is no non-circular way to justify a belief based on a sense perception. Yet we continually believe that we are reliable when we form beliefs based on perceptions. The most common argument for the validation of sense perception in epistemic warrant is to say that our beliefs are justified because sense perception continues to feed us valid data (i.e. we are justified for believing that we are being appeared to “redly” because it is most often the case that when we believe we are being appeared to “redly” we are, in fact, being appeared to “redly”). But of course such a kind of justification is quite circular. It basically boils down to saying that our beliefs formed because of sense perception are valid because sense perception confirms such beliefs. So why do we trust our sense perceptions? It seems as though we have a few alternatives here (not trying to be comprehensive, merely illustrative): 1) we can simply not trust our sense perceptions, or 2) we can agree that it is possible for some system of epistemic justification to validate itself through repeated confirmation (as in the case of being appeared to “redly”). But if 2) is the case, as it almost certainly is, then we must be consistent with ourselves on this regard (this argument is based off Alston’s, cited below).

So then let us return to religious experience. Beliefs from religious experiences are, it seems, justified epistemically in the same way. The subject forms a belief based on the confirmation of that belief within the system. Let us say that some subject has a religious experience in which they believe that God is presenting himself as good. The subject then justifies this belief on the basis that they believe they are being appeared to “goodly” by God and that this is backed up by other experience (perhaps the belief that God continually sustains all things). While this may be circular in nature, one cannot object to the circularity unless they wish to subject sense perception to the same objection. Either both must be rejected, or neither. And if neither is rejected, then it is possible to have justification for a belief about God based on a religious experience.

There is more to say, of course. I mentioned above that I believe it is the case that when x sees y, x simply sees y. That can be applied to religious experience, especially those varieties of religious experience in which the subject claims to have a kind of sense perception of God (like “I saw a great light…” or something of the sort). Thus, when it is the case that the subject, x, experiences in a religious experience some sensation, y, it is simply the case that x experiences y, without any intermediaries.

Here now I’ll turn to a very commonly raised objection to religious experience. It may be claimed that when one experiences such a perception, they are subjected to a kind of euphoric state, either by drugs, by their own control over their brains (they want so badly to experience the religious that they cause it, unknowingly, to happen), or some other factor. These experiences can then be boiled down to a kind of reduction to brain waves, chemicals in the brain, etc. And because these experiences can be explained naturalistically, they are invalid for epistemic justification.

I believe this claim is utterly false. Again we can point to sense perception as being subjected to the same kind of reduction. If religious experience is merely the matter of neurons firing in the brain (among other things), then so is sense perception and indeed all knowledge in itself. But then we must reject everything that we perceive by our senses! For if we are to be consistent in our claim that if something can be reduced to natural causes, it has no epistemic warrant, then yes, religious experience could possibly be reduced to simply brain activity, but so could the existence of things outside of our heads, for we could observe brain activity happening when we observe things and form beliefs about them. Thus, for the sake of consistency, we would need to reject the reality of objects outside of our heads! This is of course not something that someone who raises such an objection is willing to do, but if they want to raise such an objection, their own beliefs are subject to the exact same scrutiny, and it will turn out to be the case that there is no such thing as a belief at all, if indeed all things are just brain activity (a hypothesis I utterly disagree with).

So it seems to me that it is indeed the case that people can form beliefs based on religious experience. I will write more in the future about whether these experiences can have any kind of warrant for those who did not experience the same thing, the problem of religious diversity in regards to claims of religious experience, and more on the concept of warrant with religious experience. For now, however, I’ll leave this as it stands. People can indeed be justified in believing something based on religious experience, if one wants to object in any of the ways outlined above, they simply must be consistent and reject sense perception, material objects, and the like.

Sources:

Alston, William P. Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience. Cornell University Press, 1991.

Kwan, Kai-Man. “The Argument from Religious Experience.” The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. Blackwell, 2009.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

Religious Experiences: Providing Warrant for Belief in God

Religious experience is something that has been shared by a significant minority (although it is perhaps a majority) of the population of the world. Surveys indicate that in 2000 about 36% of the population of Britain reported some kind of spiritual experience (Kwan, 515). 36% is a significant minority, but the fact is that it is possible that this number is too low. In fact, when people were allowed to develop a relationship and then conduct an interview (rather than simply have an impersonal poll), the percent of positive responses when asked about a religious experience increases to 62-67% (Kwan, 515).

The numbers are significant. Many people have what they perceive of as spiritual or religious experiences. The number is literally millions, if not billions. But what does this really mean? Does it reveal anything about the universe? Is there any way to argue for truth from such a subjective judgment?

Richard Dawkins certainly does not think so. In The God Delusion, he discusses the “Argument from Personal ‘Experience’” (note his use of scare quotes). Dawkins uses an illustration in which a man he knew thought he had heard the voice of the devil while camping, and when he shared this with some zoologists, they laughed at him… for the noise was simply the noise a local bird makes (Dawkins, 112).

I believe Dawkins almost manages to make a good point here. We should be skeptical of religious or spiritual experiences, if we ever experience them (1 John 4:1- Test the spirits…).  But does this mean that every religious experience has a naturalistic explanation? Or indeed, does a naturalistic explanation somehow take precedence over a spiritual one?

Dawkins some convoluted argument against religious experience based mostly on the computational theory of mind (see here for a critique of CTM). I don’t think he is successful, but one can judge for themselves whether the CTM has any kind of explanatory power, or if it serves as a defeater for the spiritual (I again think it doesn’t in either case).

I would like to address the assumptions implicit in Dawkins’ story about religious experience in greater depth. If Dawkins doesn’t make this argument, it is certainly an argument I’ve heard many times before:

Conclusion: For any Religious Experience, there is a naturalistic explanation.

In the case of Dawkins’ story of the bird, there was indeed a naturalistic explanation. But there are two counters I would use against Dawkins and others who would argue against Religious Experience:

Counter 1: The claim that every religious experience has a naturalistic explanation begs the question.

Counter 2: A naturalistic explanation does not exclude other explanations.

First, let’s address Counter 1. I argue that the claim that every religious experience has a naturalistic explanation begs the question. What do I mean? Well, the claim that every religious experience has a naturalistic explanation assumes that for every experience, E, there is a naturalistic explanation. It does not allow for any explanation outside of naturalism to account for any E. To see this, let’s look at what Conclusion, above, analytically:

Conclusion: For any Religious Experience, there is a naturalistic explanation.

Thus: Religious Experiences, do, in fact, exist. (This follows from the first part of the conclusion, which assumes that there is such a thing as a religious experience).

Now, the fact remains that those who experience Religious Experiences (REs) certainly believe there is a non-naturalistic explanation. Hence the reason they are called REs to begin with.

It therefore follows that: A person S, who has an RE, believes that the RE has a non-naturalistic explanation.

But then the Conclusion listed above is really:

Conclusion*: Person S believes their RE is non-naturalistic, when in fact, there is naturalistic explanation.

Conclusion* begs the question, as does Conclusion. They both assume the conclusion “there is a naturalistic explanation” without any grounds to do so. In fact, they assume that the category RE is mistaken to begin with, and it is in fact simply a Naturalistic Experience, not an RE.

The burden of proof is on those who wish to claim that every RE has a naturalistic explanation to actually show that every RE has a naturalistic explanation, especially in light of the argument from theistic experience below. Any simple assumption that every RE has a naturalistic explanation simply begs the question against the Argument from Theistic Experience.

Now, Counter 2 must also be examined. “Counter 2: A naturalistic explanation does not exclude other explanations.”

Let us take Dawkins bird example. Let us change the RE in the example from an example of an evil force to that of a good one. So rather than a demonic sound, the man perhaps thinks he hears angels singing, or some such experience of God or His power. Now we know that the sound is actually just some kind of bird, the “Angel Voice” bird, common to the region. But what if the friend never found out that the noises had this naturalistic explanation? I believe anyone would agree he would happily go on assuming that the experience was an RE.

But what is it about a naturalistic explanation that is supposed to serve as a defeater of RE? I think it is generally assumed that the knowledge of a naturalistic explanation for an RE is supposed to defeat the RE. In other words, if the Angel-hearer found out that the angels were in fact just the “Angel Voice” bird, he would have to give up the experience as an RE and assume it is rather a naturalistic experience.

But why?

I don’t think that even the friend’s knowledge of a naturalistic explanation would necessarily serve as a defeater of the RE, for a few reasons:

1. At the time the friend experienced the event, he believed it was an RE. With an RE comes many emotions and other experiences. These emotions and experiences aren’t somehow invalidated by the idea that there is a naturalistic explanation to the RE. For example, think of someone, (A) who has been in love with someone else (B) for many years, believing there was a mutual love. But suddenly, B explains to A that B has never loved A. Does this somehow serve to invalidate A’s love for those years? Further, would A be required to  give up love for B immediately, or at all? I don’t believe so. In the same way, person A could believe that B is an RE, and despite finding out that B was in fact a natural event, could go on believing that B is an RE… leading into:

2. Religious Experiences are compatible with natural explanations. It is said throughout the Bible that nature speaks of the glories of God (Psalm 19:1 “The heavens declare the Glory of God…” Psalm 69, Psalm 93, etc.). God is seen within a Christian ontology as one who works in and through nature to sustain the universe. Thus to claim that nature is somehow a defeater of something God is thought to bring about (an RE) not only begs the question, but also misunderstands the Christian view of nature.

3. There are plenty of things that have known naturalistic explanations that are still seen as God’s work by Christians and people of other faiths worldwide. Some examples are the beauty of a waterfall, the stars, various plants and animals, places like the Grand Canyon, etc. People know why these things occur naturally, and yet freely attribute such things to God. They aren’t multiplying entities unnecessarily (don’t begin sharpening Occam’s Razor yet), because they are simply saying that there is a certain order and beauty in all of these things that points to teleology. Further, even if one does want to use Occam’s Razor here, the first and second points still stand.

I’d also like to point out that if God does, in fact, exist, it would be wholly within His power to order things in such a way that REs would have naturalistic explanations that the people who experience them never find out about (and then continue in their belief of the RE). While I am not comfortable with claiming this is how God works (I don’t believe God works through what could be seen as trickery or deception, but does actually work in and through the world He set up, that being nature), I’m merely stating that it is possible.

I believe that the Argument from Theistic Experience actually helps grant warrant to belief in God.

First, a definition:

PCT: Principle of Causal Trust – “If it seems (epistematically) to me that x is present on the basis of experience, then probably x is present unless there are special considerations to the contrary (Kwan, 508).”

The argument:

1. Type PCT is correct

2. Theistic Experience (TE) is a well-established type of experience

3. It seems (epistematically) to S that God exists on the basis of a TE.

4. The TE is not defeated

5. Therefore, S is justified to believe that God exists

(Kwan, 512)

Now note that I’m not  claiming that God does exist based on this argument, only that S is justified to believe that God does exist. I am thus confronting the de jure challenges to theistic belief–claims that such belief is unjustified or irrational (Plantinga, 167). These kind of challenges to theistic belief are exactly the kind that Dawkins seems to be referencing in The God Delusion, in fact, the book’s title points to the general accusation that anti-theists have brought against theism in general, but particularly against Christianity. The charge is that it is delusional to believe such things.

And indeed, such charges have (and likely will continue to be) been brought against Christianity despite, and perhaps even because of such arguments as the argument from TE. But I think that the PTC is indeed valid, and warrant is granted to those who have had TEs to take that on principal as a justification for belief.

There is of course further application involving a cumulative case argument in which TE can be weighed against simple spiritual experience or experiences of other faiths (such as a connection to the ONE or a feeling of emptiness). I don’t wish to explore that yet, but it is worth noting that there has been, of late, a somewhat significant increase in writings on these subjects.

I do believe that the argument from TE carries some weight, but it is mostly weight for those who have had TEs to counter charges that such ideas are delusional or unjustified, rather than being an argument for the existance of God. I think arguments of this type are fruitful, and I’m looking forward to reading more on them.

Sources:

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion.

Kwan, Kai-Man. “The Argument from Religious Experience.” The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.

Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief.

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

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