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.
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.
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.
I’ve been reflecting on the concept of “Warrant” a lot as I’m reading through Alvin Plantinga’s trilogy on Warrant (including the books Warrant: The Current Debate, Warrant and Proper Function, and Warranted Christian Belief). Just how is it that we can claim that someone is justified or warranted in believing something? This got me thinking on naturalism. I remember an example someone quoted as being Plantingian in origin (edit: I’ve finally figured out where I originally read it: it’s found in a similar form in Warrant and Proper Function), but I’d like to use my own version of what I remember from his example. I do not believe that, on naturalism in particular, but atheism in general, there can be any grounds for believing that we as humans have the cognitive means by which we can discover truth. Further, on naturalism specifically and atheism in general, there is no reason to suppose that what we regard as “truth” is in fact truth.
I think perhaps the best way to argue this would be by using an example (and it is in this example that I borrow from Plantinga… I think. It has been heavily modified by myself into a form that doesn’t resemble the original form that I remember all that much). Let us consider the case of Tim the Tiger Lover and Suzy the Warrior.
Tim the Tiger Lover has formed false beliefs that a) wild tigers are warm and cuddly and b) the best way to pet them is to sneak away from them silently. Suzy the Warrior has formed the beliefs that a) wild tigers are ferocious critters and b) they must be killed to insure the survival of mankind.
Tim and Suzy are walking through the jungle one day, when they spot in the distance a tiger. Now, Tim immediately begins joyfully sneaking away, believing that he will soon be petting that warm, cuddly tiger. Suzy dashes forward to attempt to strangle the beast with her bare hands. Suzy dies, though it seems clear that her beliefs were at least partially true (wild tigers are indeed ferocious). Tim, however, succeeds in escaping and surviving, despite this not actually being his goal.
Now, on naturalism, it seems quite obvious that Tim has succeeded. He has survived, and will thus pass his genes on to the next generation. Indeed, it seems quite likely he will pass along his false beliefs as well. For let us modify the scenario only slightly and say that it was quite dark. While Suzy was being torn to bits by the tiger, Tim happened upon a tiger cub or some other beast he took to be a tiger cub. He immediately, happily danced with it and cuddled it for a while before sneaking away to go home, having quite happily reinforced his false beliefs. So Tim, with his false beliefs enforced by some data that they are in fact true (after all, he sneaked away quietly from the tiger and managed to pet tigers), also manages to survive, and therefore pass along his genes and his false beliefs.
But this means that, on naturalism, Tim has succeeded! His genes have been passed on, and he has, in a way, won the race for survival by having done so. But if this is the case, then why should we not suppose that there are any number of these cases in fact? For there is no reason to suppose that, granting atheistic naturalism, this case and many hundreds, thousands, millions etc. of others should not be actual. Indeed, there seems to be no non-question-begging way for naturalism to claim that evolution in particular or naturalism in general is truth-oriented or truth-seeking.
Why should we then, on naturalism or atheism, suppose that we even have the cognitive capability to learn truth or discover it? The most common answer that has been given is that it is to our evolutionary advantage to know truth and use it. But this, as seen in the case above, does not seem to be true all the time, and there really is no reason to suppose it must be true any of the time. I’ll grant that we must at least learn some truths if evolution is true in order to survive, but why suppose that our species is necessarily truth-seeking? It seems clear to me that there is no reason to suppose this, and thus there is no reason to think that, granting naturalism and atheism, we should think that we know the truth or indeed can know it! For our evolutionary past could be utterly filled to the brim with Tim the Tiger Seekers! There are any number of beliefs that we hold now, from our evolutionary forefathers, that are in fact utterly false! But we have no reason to know that or even be able to discover that, especially if they are falsely confirmed!
So if naturalism and atheism are indeed true, then there is no reason at all to suppose that anything we know constitutes true knowledge or true beliefs. There is no ground for truth in naturalism, and indeed I believe there is sufficient reason to think that naturalism would likely have us forming all kinds of false beliefs, without ever finding out otherwise. Sure, we may eventually eliminate some of them, but only while we are forming more false beliefs in the meantime!
I can’t help but continue to think about the suffering in the world and how it relates to Christianity. I don’t think people who are not Christian, or indeed not religious at all, don’t wonder about these concepts also. Quite the contrary, suffering so permeates our world that anyone who attempts to downplay it seems obviously wrong. But I continue not to think about the “why” part of the question, but the “how” question. Rather than asking “Why is there suffering?” I ask “Why do people have the concept of suffering?” The former question is answered on the Christian view of the fall into sin (or in various other ways in more depth, see here for a longish response). The latter question I believe Christianity also has an answer for.
I believe that the very question actually presupposes at least the concept of some kind of objective standard of good and evil. Suffering is often defined with such terms as “pain.” The very concept of suffering presupposes that there is some line between what is good and bad, what is pleasure and pain. But these concepts can exist in almost any epistemology. What sets this issue in a new light for me is the very fact that we ask questions about it.
How are we justified in asking questions like “Why is there suffering?”? I don’t see any reason that one can be justified in asking such a question unless they are supposing that there is a very real right and wrong. Someone is suffering. That is wrong. Why must they suffer? But what I must then press is my own question: Why do you think you’re justified in asking that question? It seems to me that a naturalist certainly cannot be justified in asking this question, because on naturalism the concepts of good and evil or right and wrong have evolved into us and are part of nature. They serve evolutionary functions, and no more. So what could justify someone who follows this epistemology to ask a question like “Why is there suffering?”? A possible answer could be that the reason there is suffering is because we have evolved some capacity that understands the world in such terms as right and wrong (similar to Dawkins discussion about the reason we observe that the universe seems remarkable and we seem unlikely within it [my comments here]), but these aren’t objective (we could have evolved a different experience of the world which would perhaps give us entirely different concepts of what suffering is, or a lack of the concept entirely) and therefore can’t serve as an objective answer to a question that seems to demand it. It seems completely unsatisfactory, especially in light of the fact that the question demands an objective answer. Some may be satisfied by it, I’m not arguing against that, what I am arguing is that naturalists haven’t answered the question in an objective sense. They can only pose it as a challenge to competing epistemologies.
So it seems to me that, on a naturalist ontology, we cannot be justified in asking these kinds of “Why” questions. The only answer to be provided is that it is natural. The question demands more. It begs for more. But in order to justify the question, one has to dig deeper than a naturalist ontology (which may be uncomfortable to accept for other reasons) can provide. One has to delve into that realm of theism. It is only when the objective meaning in the universe is personal that such personal, objective questions can be asked. We cannot ask a meaningless, eternal (or circular? self-existant? etc.) universe “Why is there suffering?” when the question itself demands an answer to “How can suffering be allowed?” We cannot ask the universe of deism or naturalism “Why” and claim we are justified in expecting a response other than “Because.”
This answer leaves us wanting. Others may refer to theism as a crutch. They may see a reliance on God as a way to strengthen a weakness in oneself. It’s not. Rather, it’s the answer. God can answer the “Why” questions that are so synonymous with our nature. And a God who suffers provides an even more personal answer. It may not be the answer we’re looking for. It may not be an explanation. Rather, the answer can come as an understanding. God understanding suffering and even suffering Himself.
The book of Job in the Bible examines this question in some detail. Job suffered. He suffered at the permission of God (Job 1:12). But Job’s faith remained strong, despite the verbal throttling he received from those around him. He says “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10). And Job suffered greatly. But why? What answer would God give to Job? God does answer, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!” (Job40:2) and “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you and you shall naswer me. Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (Job 40:7-8). He continues, saying, “Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me.” (41:11)
Job is left without answers to these questions from God. “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know… Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:3, 6). It would seem here that God’s answer to the question “Why is there suffering?” may be a “You don’t understand” or even, “You can’t understand.” Job is content with this, but God isn’t. In the person of Christ, in whom all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form (Colossians 2:9), God suffered Himself. Not only that, but instead of answering “Why,” God delivered the ultimate answer: Jesus. This earth may be a time of suffering, but in the end there is eternal joy.
It is here, however, that the Christian now may be accused of not providing a satisfactory answer to the question. “Forget about all this theological garbage [1 Corinthians 1:18-31] and answer the question!” This is where the Christian can thank God for the gifts of logic and reason, for the answer to the question can be determined from them. I’m not going to rewrite everything, as I’ve already gone through the question here.
It therefore stands, in my mind, that the justification for such “Why” questions can only be had on theism. Naturalism, without objective right and wrong, has no stance from which to ask the question, and no answer that it can give achieves the transcendental meaning it demands.
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.
What does naturalism entail? This is largely a discussion of the ideas contained within the book World Without Design: The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism by Michael C. Rea. An outline of his ideas comes first, followed by a look at a critique of his work.
Michael C. Rea has lofty goals for his book World Without Design: The Ontological Consequences of Naturalism. He lays them out almost immediately: to show that naturalists are 1. committed to rejecting realism about material objects (RMO), 2. are forced to reject materialism, and 3. cannot accept the reality of other minds (ROM) (Rea, 8).
Naturalism, according to Rea, is best understood as a research program. This he defines as: “a set of methodological dispositions” (Rea, 3). He argues that research programs cannot be accepted based on evidence, but can be discarded based on evidence. “[T]here is no method-neutral basis on which to assess the decision to adopt a particular research program” (Rea, 7). He pushes for acceptance of this view of naturalism as opposed to epistemological, metaphysical, etc. naturalism. While I believe that naturalism can certainly be viewed as a research program (using his definition), I think it is unclear from his arguments as to why exactly the other views of naturalism are to be rejected. Interestingly, however, it seems that Rea’s definition of research program manages to include these various types of naturalism.
Whether or not Rea is successful in his arguments to refocus naturalism as a research program, his arguments stand, as they are directed at this kind of “naturalism-at-large.”
It is important to note that a central concept that must be understood in order to discern Rea’s argument is that he is almost certainly attacking what seems to be most naturalists views that naturalism is unapproachable. Rea’s argument for viewing naturalism as a research method becomes stronger when taking this into account–for if naturalism is accepted without justification, it fits his definition of research program. He quotes Quine (who is extremely important in many fields of philosophy [such as logic], not just naturalism): “The proper answer to questions like ‘What justifies me in believing what I learn by way of scientific method?’ is simply ‘Do not ask that question'” (Rea, 44).
I believe that this stance should be, at the very least, uncomfortable for naturalists, or at least naturalists who attack theists for similar responses as to justification for belief in God, but that’s a whole different subject. I believe that, however, both cases need at least some kind of warrant or justification.
But let’s delve into the meat of World Without Design. Rea, as was said before, argues that naturalists are forced to ontologically give up RMO, ROM, and materialism. What grounds does he have for making these claims? I was initially quite skeptical. Obviously, I have every reason to rejoice in any attempts to undermine naturalism, but to claim that naturalism cannot even justify reality about material objects is, as I said, a lofty claim.
Rea cites The Discover Problem as the main reason naturalists are forced to these consequences. The Discovery Problem is “…just the fact that intrinsic modal properties seem to be undiscoverable by the methods of the natural sciences. Modal properties are properties involving necessities or possibilities for the objects that have them” (Rea, 77). It is this Problem that Rea continues to press against naturalists, and after analyzing his exhaustive arguments, I believe he succeeds.
The problem is that science can discover, at most, extrinsic modal properties, but not those that are intrinsic. Rea frames one of the problems that follows from the Discovery Problem as follows (paraphrased): one man owes another a debt. When the one to whom the debt is owed confronts the debtor about it, he argues that he is not the same person he was when the debt was incurred, for, after all, large amounts of the molecules in his body are no longer there, or have rearranged somehow, etc. The one owed the debt promptly punches him on the nose (Rea, 79ff).
But how is it that one can prove he is the same person? What makes it so that the matter can be said to be arranged “human-wise” instead of merely “collection-wise“? The answer is modal properties. The problem, however, is that in order to successfully point to the debtor as being the same person, one must use intrinsic modal properties, which are undetectable via scientific method, and, according to naturalism, must therefore be rejected.
I can’t type out the whole book here for a number of reasons, so I’ll highlight a few arguments:
“[I]t is possible for belief in material objects to be justified only if it is possible to have at least one justified M[odal]P[roperties] belief” (Rea, 83). This is because 1. one must be able to say this is a material object, 2. that belief can only be justified by beliefs in certain properties that are essential to the object (essential in the philosophical sense), and 3. these kinds of beliefs are MP beliefs (Rea, 83-84).
There are a number of ways naturalists have tried to get around this problem, but ultimately they can, at most, only grant extrinsic modal properties. In order to grant intrinsic modal values, on naturalism, “(a) we must observe it, (b) we posit its existence to explain our observations, or (c)we discover that our theorizing is simplified or otherwise significantly pragmatically enhanced by supposing that it exists” (Rea, 104). But modal properties are not observable, so only (b) or (c) are possibilities.
The possible solution (b) generally points to tying modal properties in with Proper Function. Proper Function is, generally, the belief that certain things that occupy a certain region have an objective function that they are supposed to perform. But even granting that empirical techniques can somehow claim this about anything, Proper Function can only grant extrinsic modal properties (such as saying that cat-arranged things have the proper function of “operating” as cats). The problem remains.
Solution (c) presents a pragmatic argument. Now setting aside some of the blatant flaws with pragmatism in general (i.e. the absurdity that, on pragmatism, it follows that if there are no people, there is no truth), this pragmatic consideration within naturalism doesn’t help in discovering intrinsic modal properties as it is completely unclear as to what pragmatic value there is in considering intrinsic modal properties on naturalism. Not only that, but Rea presents another valuable argument: “If, for example, it cannot be a truth that a thing x has a property p unless it is somehow useful or convenient for human beings to believe that x has p, then it is hard to see how x could have p in a world that does not include human beings.” [As I mentioned.] “So pragmatic theories of truth seem to imply (perhaps absurdly) that every property is extrinsic [ed: in that properties are assigned pragmatically]. hence, they also imply that modal and sortal properties are extrinsic. Thus they are incompatible with R[eality about]M[aterial]O[bjects]” (Rea, 146).
The Discovery Problem thus eliminates the possible of RMO, ROM, and materialism from the naturalist ontology. But these are things that naturalists will be extremely reluctant to eliminate. Rea follows with a discussion of intuitionism–which is another way naturalists might salvage RMO from the implications of naturalism, but the problem with intuitionism is that it is a version of idealism which eliminates RMO to begin with. I’m not going to go into the details of Rea’s argument here, as to do so would take quite a bit of extra space and I don’t think it is all that relevant to the current discussion.
I find Rea’s method quite sound, and his reasoning is certainly solid. Whether or not his book is successful (as I think it is), it certainly is thought-provoking. I expect many a naturalist will be forced to reconsider his or her position and attempt many a rejoinder to the arguments contained in World Without Design. One such rejoinder will be discussed next.
A critique of Rea’s work can be found here. The author (Troy Cross) was quite fair in his evaluation of Rea’s work, but I think the conclusions he drew weren’t quite spot on. For example:
“Rea’s ‘charitable’ proposal on naturalism’s behalf [that of it being a research program], by contrast, is to be avoided at all costs… Rea’s argument is not of the form: there are material objects, therefore, naturalism is false.”
But it is in Cross’ accusing Rea of being unnecessarily “charitable” that he seems to ignore one of the central arguments of the first chapters, which is an argument against naturalism as Cross seems to want to take it [though as I discussed above I am not entirely sure of its success]. Not only that, but while he states specifically what Rea’s argument is not (and I agree with him), he seems to ignore that if Rea has succeeded in his actual argument, then while naturalism may not be untrue or false on an epistemological level, naturalists are forced into some uncomfortable positions. In fact, I don’t really think that Rea is anywhere trying to prove naturalism is false, but only that naturalism forces us to give up much on an ontological level and that some of these beliefs seem basic to naturalism itself. It is in this way that many of Cross’s critiques fail. He seems to miss the general point of Rea’s book, which may perhaps be summed up in Rea’s own words:
“I think it is important to acknowledge that the theses I have said naturalists must give up are theses that many philosophers, naturalists in particular, will be very reluctant to give up.”
“We are told that if only we look in the right places we will find everything we want: realism about material objects, realism about other minds, materialism for those who want it, and much more. But when all the shells have been turned over, we find that we have been duped, and nothing is there.” (Rea, 170)
Further, Cross makes a rather bold statement by asserting, “Perception is a science-approved basic source of justification, and on a suitably robust notion, perception delivers real material objects, not merely sense data or mind-dependent objects.” Despite these claims, he offers no evidence to support it. It seems he missed the section on pragmatism, or at least chose to ignore it. In what way does naturalism, with its “science-approved” methodology somehow grant itself the assumption that perception is not mind based? How does his claim rule out idealism? He truly fails in this regard, and he falls victim to his own presuppositions.
Naturalists cannot seem to view their own worldview objectively at all (see Quine’s quote, above). Material objects are simply assumed based on perception and it is similarly assumed that materialism is true. And then it follows from these two assumptions that the mind is at the least supervenient on the physical. But this is nothing other than a circular argument. If any one of these three assumptions fails, then the circle is broken. And I don’t see any reason that all of these assumptions won’t fail. Not only that, but a circular argument is a simple logical fallacy.
What grounds do naturalists have to accept such a statement as Cross makes? The assumption that perception somehow proves material objects flies in the face of competing metaphysical approaches such as idealism and certainly begs the question against them. And because of this, such a statement is, if not false, at least lacking any kind of epistemic value. It’s nothing but an assumption with no grounds (other than perhaps pragmatism) for accepting it. And if one would like to argue for such a view on pragmatic grounds, the arguments presented by Rea against pragmatism apply.
Naturalists seem to make these kinds of statements all the time. Whatever they say they simply grant because of either pragmatic concerns or some kind of circular argument. There is no reason to accept either of these reasons.
So Cross seems to miss the mark in a number of ways. He is attempting to argue against a point Rea didn’t make. When he argues that Rea fails to give epistemic reasons that naturalism is false, he is arguing against a straw man. Rea isn’t trying to do so to begin with. Rather, he is arguing that if naturalism is true, it forces those who want to accept it to give up many of the things that they may wish to take as truths–those things shown above, namely, ROM, RMO, and materialism. Not only that, but Cross fails to make any kind of argument for a naturalism that escapes Rea’s casting of it as a “research program.” Cross instead states “[Rea] succeeds in aiding and motivating the construction of naturalistic theories.” The problem is that the construction of those theories hasn’t happened. The current naturalism is fully subject to the arguments presented in World Without Design, and the consequences of naturalism are hard to swallow.
I should note, in closing, that the arguments I make above against Cross (particularly my statement that he is making assumptions and/or begging the question for naturalism) might be leveled against my own view of theism. It should be noted, however, that Rea himself addresses these issues briefly. But there are other reasons that such accusations don’t have merit, for theism doesn’t presuppose such things as dualism. There is a huge amount of literature dedicated to the mind-body problem that is readily accessible. Further, claims that God is the basis for intrinsic modal properties and/or intrinsic human worth have also been addressed in many formats by theists. Certainly, theists may make claims that grant certain underlying beliefs, but those beliefs themselves are building blocks that theists at least have arguments that at the least warrant, if not justify those beliefs (I can once again refer to dualism as a prime example). Naturalists have no such warrant. It is simply assumed that scientism or empiricism is the correct method (or argued on the basis of pragmatism), and that somehow this serves as a defeater for idealism, various theistic views, or other explanatory positions. But, as can be seen in Rea’s book and our brief discussion, these claims only lead us to a rejection of those things which naturalists hold most dear: material objects and materialism itself.
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 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.
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).”
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
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.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion.
Kwan, Kai-Man. “The Argument from Religious Experience.” The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.
Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief.