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The Rationality of Theism 9: The Evidential Value of Religious Experience


The basic argument uses the principle of credulity to claim that religious experiences are veridical. This is usually combined with arguments to show that there is a similarity between sense experiences and religious ones that make them both worth applying the principle of credulity to.

It is a principle of rationality that (in the absence of special considerations), if it seems (epistemically) to a subject that x is present, then probably x is present (181).

So the challenges are either to the principle of credulity, or they take the shape of pointing out special considerations.

One special consideration is the inability to rigorously test or check with others the existence of x. With sensory data, we have huge amounts of intersubjective data to compare things with. We can take photos, show it to others, predict other experiences with it, etc. With religious experience, there is a lack of “rigor and reliability we are accustomed to when it comes to sense experience (186).

Another is that sense perception is unavoidable, and much more clear and common than religious experience. Luckily, Alston makes the case for me.

Sense perception is insistently and unavoidably present in all our waking hours, and the experiential awareness of God is a rare phenomenon except for a few sould. Sense perception, especially vision, is vivid and richly detailed, bursting with information, whereas experience of God is dim, meager, and obscure. Sense perception is shared by all human beings, whereas the experience of God. . . is still by no means universal (187).

There is the objection from religious plurality. Multiple traditions have religious experiences that contradict each other. Geivett’s response is that (my summary):

  1. Different background beliefs may account for the different interpretations. The kernel is still there though.
  2. Because of this background evidence, there may be an over interpretation, or misunderstanding of the experience itself.
  3. Naturalists have different experiences than others, so they suffer from the accusation of plurality too.

The first two responses seem ad hoc. How do we know there is a kernel beforehand without assuming it? Isn’t this the very question we’re trying to answer? The third response doesn’t work, since naturalists, for the most part, posit the things that are agreed on (physical reality), and avoid positing the things that end up in contradiction (religious reality). In addition, their interpretation of reality is based on both shared and accepted reality, combined with certain rational guidelines. It doesn’t seem to be a problem if people have a plurality of experience, since naturalists aren’t relying on them.

Another objection is that we can explain religious experiences within naturalism. Geivett’s response is that we could use our naturalistic explanations to explain away many experiences, but there would always be more that are left unexplained. He says that naturalists must simply assert that the remaining cases fall within the same “pathology” (no naturalists think it’s really a pathology do they?).

But using background evidence, isn’t it more likely that there is a natural cause than a supernatural one? If we have established that natural causes exist, then it is more parsimonious to say that the other causes are likely natural. There is a higher prior probability of natural causes, even if unexplained cases exist.

Well that mostly summarizes Geivett’s give and take. I think Martin’s use of drug induced experience example still works best to undermine a lot of this argument. If religious experiences are veridical, then drug induced experiences can be justified as veridical under the same criteria.

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