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The Existence of God 13: The Argument from Religious Experience


Swinburne argues that the experiences of God that exist are strong evidence for God’s existence. He bases this most strongly on the principle of credulity, that we should trust our experiences as true unless special considerations exist.

He gives special considerations, for example, that in the past similar experiences have been unreliable, or that the thing in question is very, very unlikely to exist.

I’m still wondering whether the principle of credulity works or not. It seems plausible. Still, we know that even sensory data and memory are often unreliable, to the extent that eyewitness testimony is not held with the same weight it used to be in court. Memory is more reconstructive than reproductive, which leaves much of it by the wayside when it comes to the principle of credulity.

But are there differences between religious experience and sensory ones that would lead one to apply the principle of credulity to one and not the other? What is special about religious experience?

  1. Rarity
  2. General privacy
  3. Lack of integration with other senses
  4. Lack of testability
Those might be reasons to set them apart, but maybe not. Perhaps there are just special considerations that apply to religious experiences in general, and not normal ones.
Kindle Notes:

generally, contrary to the original philosophical claim, I suggest that it is a principle of rationality that (in the absence of special considerations), if it seems (epistemically) to a subject that x is present (and has some characteristic), then probably x is present (and has that characteristic); what one seems to perceive is probably so (4118).

similarly I suggest that (in the absence of special considerations) apparent memory is to be trusted (4120).

Note: Does recent psychology undo this?

From this it would follow that, in the absence of special considerations, all religious experiences ought to be taken by their subjects as genuine, and hence as substantial grounds for belief in the existence of their apparent object-God, or Mary, or Ultimate Reality, or Poseidon”‘ (4126).

There are basically four kinds of special consideration that defeat perceptual claims. The first two show that the apparent perception was of a kind with others that proved in the past not to be genuine perceptions. First, one may show that the apparent perception was made under conditions or by a subject found in the past to be unreliable (4226).

Secondly, one may show that the perceptual claim was to have perceived an object of a certain kind in circumstances where similar perceptual claims have proved false (4230).

The third consideration then that defeats a claim to have perceived x involves showing that on background evidence it is very very probable that x was not present (4240).

I suggest that in this case it is not enough that the background evidence makes it more probable than not that x was not present. It has to make it very very improbable that x was present if it is to outweigh the force of S’s experience sufficiently for it to remain more probable than not that S was not present (4241).

Note: Doesn’t the unreliability of eyewitness testimony in court show that such a consideration doesn’t quite work? We have evidence as to its unreliability.

Fourthly, S’s claim to have perceived x may be challenged on the grounds that, whether or not x was there, x was probably not a cause of the experience of its seeming to S that x was there. One obvious way in which this can be done (without casting any doubt on other of my perceptual claims) is by showing that (probably) something else caused the experience (4274).

if there is a God, he is omnipresent and all causal processes operate only because he sustains them. Hence any causal processes at all that bring about my experience will have God among their causes; and any experience of him will be of him as present at a place where he is (4357).

Note: More unfalsifiability.

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