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Letters to a Doubting Thomas 2-3: Religious Experience and Interpretation and Is Religious Experience Reliable?


Page 38-

These leaders we cannot write off as weak, silly, and/or superstitious. From a spiritual and moral perspective, they stand head and shoulders over most of the human race.

Does it logically follow that the experiences of ‘moral’ people are more reliable? On top of that, what evidence does the author have that those who do have these religious experiences are as good as they seem? It seems anecdotal. For all we know, there is no significant difference, or they could be worse.

Page 45- It is a double standard to give the benefit of the doubt to sensory experience, but not to other types of experience.

This was the first part that really stumped me. The best answer I can really come up with is our experiences are usually reliable, but there are cases when they are not reliable. The simplest explanation of these divine experiences would be without positing an extra “type” of entity. We can explain that these types of experiences can and do occur while knowing that the cause is natural. My answer is not satisfying to me. I’ll have to think about that one.

Page 50- Thomas lays out all objections, which I believe include mine. I’ll list the good ones that I find valid:

Sense experience can be tested, but religious experience cannot. . . Religious experiences can’t all be reliable

Page 58- Zach replies to the untestability objection:

How can I test the reliability of introspection? Any test is likely to be circular- perhaps I simply “look within” again and find the same feeling. . . I don’t really need independent tests for my introspective experiences. I just apply the Starting Principle (“It is rational to accept what seems to be so unless special reasons apply”)

So is there any good reason to either doubt the Starting Principle, or to doubt the reliability of religious experiences? Does the introspection metaphor break down anywhere? There is something that we don’t demand testability to rely on, therefore religious experiences may not demand testability. Here’s a stab at a reply:

Insofar as our introspective judgments are meaningful, they are predictive of something. If I am to say that I am “happy” and that’s what I find upon introspection, that is a proposition that makes predictions about how I’ll act. I’ll not yell at someone or become quickly irate. I’ll have a lower heart rate, smile more, be resistant to anger. If I feel “happy” and suddenly I’m yelling at someone with a high pulse and a grimace, then I think that would be good reason to doubt that introspective judgment. It is in principle testable, whereas the divine stuff is not. Moreover, one may see that the definition of our basic introspective feelings are by definition true. If one feels happy, and thinks one is happy, maybe that is what happiness is. But maybe not. It’s a start, but I can see there may be objections. This deserves more thought.

Nevertheless, there is a kind of test for Theistic mystical experience. . . if the subject has experienced God’s presence, certain results will follow. These include interior peace, trust in God, patience with trials, sincerity, etc.

Is this a good test? It would seem that belief that one experienced the presence of God is just as good an explanation as the very existence of that God that was experience, with a higher prior plausibility since it only takes into account brain chemistry, which is background information, and it is simpler than the God hypothesis, while at the same time explaining the phenomenon successfully. I could probably think of reasons why these divine experiences are more likely in a naturalistic world if I wanted (too many contradictions and difficulties in trying to say why God would do such things).

Page 77- The testimony of mystics is “significant evidence” for God. People have a sense of a thoroughly good and overwhelmingly powerful being. Does this lead to the theism postulated?

One entity- nope: could be many (Layman says the fewer beings posited, the simpler. I’m refuted)

Perfectly Good- may be mostly good (Layman says that only a good God give us reliable senses. I’m not convinced this makes a good God a better explanation)

Almighty- may be very mighty

Exists of necessity- I see no evidence for that here.

As of the end of Chapter 3, some questions remain for me.

  1. Should I accept the Starting Principle in regards to religious experience?
  2. Is a mostly good/ mostly mighty God as good an explanation for an experience as an almighty/all good God?
  3. Is introspection testable as truth? Is religious experience really testable, and if not, is that okay?

I was not able to accept, just yet, the argument that religious experience should be taken as reliable, so this argument to improve the prior plausibility of God did not succeed. Why do I not accept religious experience?

  1. I am not convinced that it logically leads the theism, given the more plausible and simple naturalistic explanations that exist
  2. I am not convinced of the reliability of religious experience. Introspection and sensory data seem at least in some ways testable.
  3. I do not see evidence that those who go through certain experiences actually act more virtuous.
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