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Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology 9: The Argument from Religious Experience


Kwan is making a basic argument that the same reasons we have to consider our sensory data reliable also apply to religious experiences. There’s a heavy weighting of the burden of proof on those who would deny the veridicality of religious experience. Kwan defends the trusting of these experiences as true unless we have positive reasons to deny their being veridical.

So how do we think about this? If religious experiences are not veridical, do we challenge the principle of credulity, or do we say that there are in fact reasons to deny their truth?

I think Kwan makes some valuable comments when he responds to some common objections. First is the gap problem, which states that there is the possibility of hallucinations and such. Next is the theory-ladenness objection, which states that religious experiences are informed by the religious milieu in which they are experienced. Lastly is the privacy objection, which states that these religious experiences are not shared by others.

Kwan challenges these by pointing to ways that our use of sensory data could be objected to the same way. He also challenges the claim that the religious experiences are private.

I’m inclined to think that if we think drug induced states are not veridical, we have similar reasons to deny those of religious experiences, although I can’t state all the criteria for trusting something. I also don’t think that sensory data is a susceptible to perceptual theories. When the religious milieu totally determines the religious experience, that seems suspicious. Religions vary greatly from culture to culture, but there is just one science. Still thinking about the last one.

I’ve been working through a line of reasoning in my mind that I’m not sure Kwan really addresses as well as might be necessary. Sensory data is very intracoherent. My sight of an apple coheres with my sense of space, my sense of touch in picking it up, and my sense of taste in eating it. Moreover, my sense cohere with the worlds that other people live in. They can pick up the apple. They can taste it. I can watch this happen and predict outcomes based on this data.

Hallucinations seem to lack this sort of coherence. They can’t be shared and interacted with in the same way. Even when there is some shared experience, it is just a wisp. Salvia divinorum, for example, commonly leads to sensations of a goddess present. These interactions aren’t really shared though. Each one is independent. It’s not like I can affect the goddess in my drug use, and then the other person can see this effect in theirs.

The same goes for religious experiences. They would be much more plausible, and reach a much higher standard if there was this sort of independent verification.

Even if there was just one person in the world that could see, he could still show that his sight worked by performing actions that cohere with other senses. He could tell people where apples were, or predict how long a walk up a hill would take. These things could be verified by other people’s experiences independently, without them experiencing sight directly. This is lacking in TE. If though, there was no way to verify the sight at all, then I think there would be no good reason to trust it being veridical.

Kindle Notes:

The argument from religious experience (ARE) contends that given the appropriate premises, we can derive from the religious experiences (REs) of humankind a significant degree of epistemic justification for the existence of God (13258).

C. D. Broad anticipated the contemporary ARE: The practical postulate which we go upon everywhere else is to treat cognitive claims as veridical unless there be some positive reason to think them delusive. This, after all, is our only guarantee for believing that ordinary sense-perception is veridical. We cannot prove that what people agree in perceiving really exists independently of them; but we do always assume that ordinary waking sense-perception is veridical unless we can produce some positive ground for thinking that it is delusive in any given case. I think it would be inconsistent to treat the experiences of religious mystics on different principles. So far as they agree they should be provisionally accepted as veridical unless there be some positive ground for thinking that they are not. (Broad 1953, p. 197) (13342).

1. The logical gap objection: We have to distinguish the experience and the subjective conviction it produces from the objectivity (or veridicality) of the experience, for example, a very “real” hallucination or dream is a live possibility (13392).

2. The theory-ladenness objection: The REs are heavily (or even entirely) shaped by the conceptual framework of the experients (13400).

3. The privacy objection: According to Rem Edwards, “the foremost accusation leveled at the mystics is that mystical experiences are private, like hallucinations, illusions, and dreams, and that like these ‘nonveridical’ experiences, religious experience is really of no noetic significance at all” (1972, p. 318) (13406).

the experience of the Holy seems to be very much unlike dreams and hallucinations. Extremely large numbers of people from extremely diverse cultural backgrounds claim to experience the Holy One, and there is a significant amount of transcultural agreement about what the experienced object is like (13481).

Note: Common experience of female with salvia?

Criteria of Intracoherence The degree of intracoherence of a type of experience E would increase with the following factors, ceteris paribus: a. the number of people sharing E, b. the frequency of occurrence of E to an individual, c. the variability of the situations in which E occurs, d. the explanatory coherence between the tokens of E, and e. the conceptual coherence of E’s ontological framework (13605).

We can now formulate the following argument for TE: a. Type PCT is correct. b. TE is a well-established type of experience. c. It seems (epistemically) to S that God exists on the basis of a TE, E. d. The TE, E, is not defeated. Therefore, e. S is justified to believe that God exists (13611).

The real proportion may be higher because of the taboo factor I have mentioned. The said results were obtained with the more impersonal method of a poll. Hay and Morisy find out that when they interview people and try to build up mutual trust and let them take time to recall, the positive response rate rises dramatically to 62-67 percent (Hay 1994, p. 11) (13687).

Note: Or data fishing.

We need to judge whether TEs deserve PFJ by the criteria of intracoherence formulated earlier. As for clauses (a), (b), and (c) in that criteria, we have noted that many people in almost every age, culture, and in many religions seem to have at least some plainer TE such as the sense of presence of God (13878).

Note: Isn’t what counts as a TE a bit broad? Also, if we say that TEs occur in each “culture” that is a pretty low threshold for counting them as universal. It would only take a few people in a few places spread across humanity, and then it would count. We can at least say that sensory data is universal in a much more significant sense. It’s not like some people in each culture experience it. Instead, the vast majority of every culture ever has had intracoherent sensory data. This is something that is lacking in TEs.

The critics may argue that our criterion of intracoherence of a type of experience has too low a requirement. For example, TEs still fall short of being universal and are much less frequent to many people than other established types of experience such as SE or memory (13887).

Note: He foresaw my objection!

Is it reasonable to believe that all “God-experients” are either deceiving themselves or others? Gutting, for one, does not think so: religion, throughout human history, has been an integral part of human life, attracting at all times the enthusiastic adherence of large numbers of good and intelligent people. To say that something that has such deep roots and that has been sustained for so long in such diverse contexts is nothing but credulity and hypocrisy is . . . extraordinary. (Gutting 1982, pp. 2-3) (13917).

Note: Really? Ad populi?

For example, our experiences may tell us that drunk people are prone to have hallucinations. So we can form this second-order critical principle: “Bizarre perceptual claims of drunk people are not to be trusted” (13970).

Note: How can we rule out their veridicality?

Principle of Consensus When an epistemic seeming is consensually corroborated, it is justified to a much higher degree (13976).

Some critics argue that the serious disanalogy of RE or TE with SE undermines its veridicality. The logic is like this: (A1) A kind of experience is cognitive only if it is analogous with SE, especially in the aspect of (e.g. having analogous tests). (A2) RE (or TE) is not analogous with SE. (A3) Hence, RE (or TE) is not cognitive (14165).

Note: Disanalogy objection to ARE. Kwan challenges A1

A theist does not need to choose between blanket rejection or blanket acceptance. He can adopt a more nuanced, case-by-case approach toward these experiences of minor deities. • For those minor deities who are not really experienced by a sizable number of people across eras and cultures, the related experiences can be treated as anomalous data- either rejected or shelved. • There is no need to reduce all those REs to sheer self-deception or hallucination. For those minor deities who have a more substantial experiential basis, the related experiences can be explained as the work of spiritual beings, or treated as genuine phenomena in the spiritual world, of which we do not yet have a full understanding. In cases like an experience of Virgin Mary, it may readily be interpreted as a veridical vision that does not commit us to her literal existence in the manifested form (14353).

Note: I think RE itself is an anomalous experience. Should it be shelved?

I assume that the theistic worldview has substantial explanatory power (see other chapters in this book). If there is not a comparable rational case for monism, then TE will have an advantage over ME (14451).

The prior question that needs to be settled is when would a naturalistic explanation of TE really constitute a defeater. I think it needs to fulfill several conditions: a. It can specify a set of causally sufficient conditions for TE. b. We have reasons to believe that that set of conditions will render the veridicality of the TE unlikely. c. We have reasons to believe that set of conditions really obtain in the majority of cases of TE (14514).

Note: Naturalism is a much simpler ontology. It would be unjust to expect it to explain each individual case, but if there is a pattern of growing naturalistic explanations, this counts against ARE.

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