Argument from Religious Experience

Richard Swinburne, an English philosopher, provides the following argument for the existence of God from religious experience:

  1. It seems to me that I’m having an experience of God.

  2. There is no good reason to think that either God is non-existent or that the experience itself is false for some other reason (the principle of credulity is true).

  3. The Principle of Testimony is true.

  4. Therefore, God probably exists

The Principle of Credulity

Swinburne supports the argument by appeal to what he calls the “Principle of Credulity”. This common sense principle basically says that we should trust our experiences, unless we have good reason to doubt them. Analogously, if I see snow falling from the sky, I am perfectly justified in believing this claim without further evidence ( merely based on my perceptual experience) unless I have good reason to think that it is false. “The more forceful the experience, the stronger the memory, the more probable it is that what we seem to perceive or remember is true—other things being equal. Memory, of course, is less forceful than present experience, and sometimes so weak as only to make it a bit probable that what we seem to remember is true.”[i] Swinburne limits this principle by saying that the principle of credulity only applies to negative claims if certain conditions have been met. For example, if you say that you see no coffee in the drawer, then we need to suppose, reasonably enough, that you have taken good care to look through the entire drawer and under other items.  In applying this principle to a claim an atheist could make about the existence of God, Swinburne contends the following: “An atheist’s claim to have had an experience of its seeming to him that there is no God could be evidence that there was no God only if similar restrictions were satisfied. But, given that my rejection in Chapter 11 of ‘the argument from hiddenness’ is correct, there are no good grounds for supposing that, if there is a God, necessarily the atheist would have experienced him.”[ii]The principle of credulity would support the veridicality of an experience like that reported in premise 1.

The Principle of Testimony

The Principle of Testimony contends that “other things being equal, we believe that what others tell us that they perceived probably happened.”[iii] This principle is also a common sense principle, because there is a very great deal about the world that we think we know based only on the testimony of others. Everything most of us knows about science, history, geography, business, politics, current affairs and various other things, we trust often without even checking whether the source is reliable. We trust our lives to the testimony of airline workers and government regulators that the airplane we are getting onto is safe and works, and that all the relevant procedures have been rigorously followed for that airplane and for that airplane trip. We trust our lives to the testimony of automobile manufacturers that the wheels or steering or breaks won’t malfunction in the middle of the highway, and cause serious injury or death. Nevertheless, we never go to much lengths to investigate all the relevant parts of our cars, and we don’t insist to airlines that we should be able inspect the aircraft ourselves before getting onto it. In short, the majority of our beliefs about the world is based on testimony. Almost any belief not based on “immediate experience” is based on testimony.[iv] Given how reliable we normally regard testimony, it would be irrational to disregard testimony of religious experiences in the absence of special reasons to doubt them or to doubt that God exists.

What about premise 2? If you think you have good reason to suppose that God does not exist, then you might have a defeater for religious experience. If you think the problem of evil or the problem of divine hiddenness provides an insurmountable objection that reduces the probability of the existence of God to far below 50%, then you would not be justified in thinking that God is present if he seems to you to be present. And you won’t be justified in believing someone you know who claims to have had such an experience. But there are good responses to these arguments, and arguments like them, and so it would seem unreasonable to think that, even if there is something insurmountable in these problems, that they reduce the probability of God’s existence to far below 50%.

Objections

“Experience is evidence for nothing beyond itself”

Some philosophers will respond that the principle of credulity as applied to religious experiences is invalid, because experiences are only evidence for the subjective aspect of it. Swinburne appropriately responds that the principle of credulity is deemed correct in the case of any other type of experience. Why should it not be correct in the case of religious experiences as well? He writes, “Quite obviously, having the experience of it seeming (epistemically) to you that there is a table there (that is, your seeming to see a table) is good evidence for supposing that there is a table there. Having the experience of its seeming (epistemically) to you that I am here giving a lecture (that is, your seeming to hear me give a lecture) is good evidence for supposing that I am here lecturing.”[v] The same is the case for memory. It seems to us that we remember certain things at certain times, and, in the absence of any contradicting evidence, we are perfectly justified in believing it.[vi]

How could it be possible to have an experience of God?

It might be objected that we can’t have an experience of God, because God is immaterial and so we can’t experience an immaterial reality, if we assume that we are fully material. This, however, requires the assumption of materialism regarding the human mind, which is an assumption needing to be justified.  Even if our minds were fully material, it is reasonable to think that, had God existed and wanted to be in relationship with humans, he would have made it possible for us to experience him. This could take the form of a “God spot” in the brain or simply a natural tendency to reason and think in ways that lead us to apprehend God. Also, one might think that it is impossible to experience God because he must be infinitely larger than we are – omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving. How could all those properties be established in a religious experience? Whether God’s attributes could be established in a religious experience depends upon the individual religious experience. For example, people could have (and often do have) overwhelming experiences of love, which they experience as coming from a person. This may not establish that God is all-loving, but it does establish that he is very loving. Why would this being bother to give people such experiences but to communicate with them and show them his love for them? You might respond that it could all be a façade worn for some other purpose. But, by appeal to the principle of credulity again, if a being manifests himself as loving and there is no reason to think that this is false, then we have no reason to doubt that presentation. It may not establish that God is omnipotent, but it would establish that he is very powerful ( given that he can manifest himself to people in this way and probably to many people at one time). This also probably implies a being who is very knowledgeable (although perhaps not omniscient). If we’ve established a being that is very powerful, very loving and very knowledgeable, only an irrational skeptic would say that this doesn’t get us “close enough” to the God of classical theism.  So we can establish some attributes of God based on a very simple and very common religious experience. But there are many other experiences that are less vague and more detailed.

Religious experiences contradict each other

There is a great deal of transcultural agreement about what religious experiences entail and, as Swinburne notes, the fact that people interpret their experiences in terms of their religious tradition does not mean that it is in conflict. “Now of course devotees of different religions describe their religious experiences in the religious vocabulary with which they are familiar. But in itself this does not mean that their different descriptions are in conflict—God may be known under different names to different cultures (as both Old and New Testaments acknowledge—see Exodus 6: 2f. and Acts 17: 23).”[vii]

Swinburne admits that in some cases, admitting to specific religious experiences will commit you to specific religious doctrines that contradict other religions. But, this is only evidence that specific doctrines are false, not whole religions, and certainly not religion in general (“among those grounds may be that others have had conflicting experiences and that their experiences are more numerous and better authenticated”).[viii] In addition, the fact that certain particular claims are contradictory can only be logically seen to undermine the claims involved (that contradict the religious experience). It doesn’t follow that all religious experience are therefore suspect, in the same way that conflicting moral intuitions does not undermine all moral intuitions. Or indeed, nor should the scientific method be undermined because scientists account for observations in contradictory ways.  Eyewitness accounts of the same events not only vary often. They vary every single time. Why then should we suppose that religious experiences should be experientially monolithic? There are objective ways of adjudicating contradictory phenomena here, as there is in religious experiences.

The “theory-ladenness” objection

The theory-ladenness objection says that religious experiences are suspiciously determined by the cultural and religious backdrop of the culture. Kai Man Kwan, a Chinese philosopher from Hong Kong Baptist University, responds to this argument by saying that theory-laddenness is a general problem in epistemology. Ordinary perception is theory-laden.[ix] We have certain assumptions about how the world is and what should happen and we often perceive events in terms of those assumptions, sometimes even misperceiving them, because these assumptions are so strong. There is a good deal of psychological research to support this.[x] But also, it’s clear just from personal experience. When I, for example, look around the room, I will notice several chairs, a couch, a TV and a cupboard. There are also more fundamental assumptions, that physical things exist, that physical things can be constituted to form other things. If I didn’t have these assumptions and concepts ( and many others), none of what I saw would make any sense to me. It would be a meaningless jumble of sense data. We can also use the example here that eyewitnesses have different accounts of the same events, even when these events are relatively simple. The more complex the events, the more the accounts diverge, because different aspects stand out to people who have different “paradigms” and conceptual priorities.  The fact that observation is theory-laden is a very widely recognized feature of it. Virtually every major philosopher of science believes this (Popper, Hanson, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend).[xi]

Religious experience is private

When you see something, you can normally tell someone else, and, when they are brought to that thing, they will see the same thing. But, religious experience is private, in that other people cannot “see” exactly the same thing as the person undergoing the experience. However, as we’ve already pointed out, experiences of the supernatural have great commonalities across cultures. In other words, the mere fact that religious experiences cannot be reproduced on demand does not mean that they are not veridical. If you think that religious commonalities and commonalities in religious experience are not enough, you’ll have trouble retaining morality, because moral intuitions differ across cultures as well, but, like religion, there are also commonalities.

Religious experiences are identifiable in the brain

The idea behind this objection is that if God himself does not cause the religious experience, and if the experience can be reproduced in scientific settings and are identifiable as a brain process, then it can’t be valid. This is a very strange argument. Do people who object in this way really think that because vision or hearing can be accounted for by brain processes and that visual effects or hallucinations of things can be reproduced in a laboratory setting, that therefore we cannot trust that our eyes and ears experience genuine objects in the world? You need to presuppose that religious experiences are just hallucinations for this argument to work. The fact that scientists can stimulate religious experiences in a laboratory setting doesn’t give evidence against religious experience anymore than the stimulation of hallucinations gives evidence against sight. You need to assume that the organ of religious experience is completely nonphysical for this objection to work. But even substance dualists admit that the physical body influences the mind. Swinburne notes, “But a demonstration that God was not responsible for the processes which caused me to have the religious experience can only be attained by demonstrating that there is no God—for if he exists as defined, clearly he is responsible both for the normal operation of natural laws and for any occasional violation.”[xii] It is also important to note here that Christian theology does not depend on the notion that the mind is nonphysical or that the mind is identical with the soul, which is why there are Christian physicalists like William Hasker. The view is known in theology as “Christian mortalism”.

[i] Richard Swinburne,”The Existence of God”, Ch. 13, Oxford Scholarship Online , DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199271672.003.0014, http://www.oxfordscholarship.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199271672.001.0001/acprof-9780199271672-chapter-14

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v]  Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Kai-Man Kwan, “The Argument from Religious Experience, in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, ed. J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) Loc 13415, Kindle Edition

[x] Jim Bogen, “Theory and Observation in Science”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013, accessed January 5, 2017, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/science-theory-observation/#HowObsEviMigTheLad

[xi] Kai-Man Kwan, “The Argument from Religious Experience”, Loc 13415

[xii] Ibid., Loc. 13421