The Epistemological Argument (IV)

I thought I had written everything that I wanted to write about the epistemological argument with my last post. Then a friend of mine asked me a question about it, revealing an objection to the argument which I had neglected to answer. So I now want to address it briefly.

The “Ness”temological Argument?

With my epistemological argument, I reason that a person is justified in believing that God exists on the basis of experiences of God that they have had, or that they have heard about from others. My friend asked me (paraphrasing): “Doesn’t that mean we should also believe in the Loch Ness monster on the basis of reported sightings of it?” And we could extend that question to similar things – UFOs come to mind, for example.

The answer is: it depends on the facts of the experiences in question, the same as it does for religious experiences. My argument wasn’t that any and every religious experience automatically justifies belief in God. Instead, we have to evaluate whether the experience is of a well-established type and whether there are defeaters sufficient to override belief in the experience.

Hypothetically, if there were a Loch Ness monster and someone did have a genuine experience of it, then of course their experience of it would be a valid reason for believing that it existed – especially if they experienced it up close, clearly seeing it and hearing it for long enough to properly recognize what they were seeing. At the very least, such an experience would be a solid reason for believing that they had seen something very Nessie-like. Questions about exactly what that thing was could follow afterwards.

So yes, you should be able to use the epistemological argument to justify belief in all kinds of things – if the relevant experiences are sufficiently well established and if there are no sufficiently strong defeaters for that belief. But to me that does not seem like a weakness in the argument; that just comports with common sense.

So are Nessie sightings a well-established type of experience?

They do occur to many different people, but by way of comparison, they are much less common than theistic experiences. Obviously part of that is due to the Loch Ness being a specific location, but I do wonder whether the ratio of Nessie sightings to the population of people who spend time on or around the Loch is in any way comparable to the fraction of the people who have had experiences of God.

They perhaps could be said to have some degree of coherence with each other and with other experiences. Descriptions of Nessie vary, but the same goes for experiences of God, so I cannot fault them for that. Though, unlike God, Nessie is the kind of thing that we should be able to see and describe in visible terms. The fact that there is no clearly established fact about what Nessie looks like suggests something may be up, more strongly, I think, than it does in the case of God.

But unlike the case of theistic experiences, I would say that the content of Nessie sightings do not fit well into a worldview that best explains all of reality. This aspect of worldview coherence is an important part of being a well-established type of experience, though I glossed over it in my discussion of experiences of God. (I intend to let the rest of the arguments for God’s existence, along with some posts about theology that I will write in the future, establish the coherence of the theistic worldview.)

But the Loch Ness monster is an anomaly that does not fit will with what else we know about the world. For example, the Loch’s ecosystem cannot support a population of large plesiosaur-like creatures: it is too cold and too small. There are problems with how such creatures could have come to inhabit the Loch in the first place. And most of all (and again, unlike God), the Loch Ness monster is a physical thing: you should be able to see Nessie with cameras or sonar, or at least you should be able to find some physical evidence of its presence. But searches have revealed no such thing.

Overall, while experiences of Nessie (and, similarly, other paranormal experiences) are established to at least some degree, they are not well-established to the same degree as theistic experiences.

Are there overriding reasons to disbelieve Nessie sightings?

I said earlier that if someone had a clear, close-up sighting of a Nessie-like creature, that would be good justification for believing in it. But it does not seem like anyone has had such an experience. Practically all Nessie sightings are either very brief, or distant, or in conditions with poor visibility. In such conditions, the chance of misidentification of what you are seeing is very high. Similar things can be said about UFO sightings and other paranormal experiences.

By contrast, at least some experiences of God are vivid and clear, and are not obviously explained by natural causes. (See for example the writings of Christian mystics throughout history, such as Julian of Norwich, Therese of Lisieux, Thomas a Kempis, Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross – to list just a few.) So I don’t believe there are sufficiently powerful reasons to disbelieve them.

So that is why I think we can be justified in believing in God on the basis of religious experiences, without being rationally compelled to accept the existence of the Loch Ness monster on the same basis. There are differences between the two, and the differences are relevant.

The Epistemological Argument (III)

My last two posts have been about what I call the epistemological argument for belief in God, also known as the argument from religious experience. So far, I have defended the claims that:

  1. The principle of critical trust is valid and applies to religious experiences,
  2. religious experiences occur, and
  3. a certain type of religious experience, theistic experience, is well-established.

Now if:

  1. overriding reasons to doubt theistic experiences are not present,

it will follow that:

  1. we are justified in believing in God on the basis of theistic experiences.

This is just because of what the principle of critical trust says: if a type of experience is well established and an experience of that type is not defeated by other reasons, it is rational to believe it. I have also argued that testimony is a valid source of justification for beliefs, so if these premises are true, we are also justified in believing in God on the basis of the theistic experiences of others.

Defeaters of Theistic Experiences are Not Successful

The final premise that I have to defend is that, in many cases of theistic experiences, there are no overriding reasons to disbelieve them, so that their inherent justification (which is sufficient to accept them as true, since they are a well-justified type) is not defeated.

Note that it doesn’t need to be the case that every theistic experience remains undefeated in order for such experiences to provide evidence for the existence of God. If some experiences are invalidated, that does not necessarily transfer to the rest – just like a few instances of hallucinations do not invalidate all of our physical perceptions. Given that our senses and cognitive faculties are fallible, it would be surprising if there weren’t a few theistic experiences that should be disbelieved. But that doesn’t mean that we should disbelieve all of them.

Naturalistic Explanations

There are, I think, two potential reasons that we should disbelieve experiences of God. The first is if theistic experiences can be given naturalistic explanations – that is, explanations entirely in terms of the natural world, without invoking any kind of transcendent reality. If that were the case, it could undermine the justification they provide for belief in God.

For naturalistic explanations to be successful in defeating theistic experiences, they need to specify a set of natural causes sufficient to produce the experience, and we have to have reasons to believe that those causes render the experience false, or at least show that it lacks justification. Furthermore, we have to have reasons to believe that such sufficient causes are actually present in the majority of cases in order to write off all theistic experiences.

Are these conditions actually satisfied? I don’t think they are. At the very least, if they are, a whole lot more work needs to be done to show that they are. Those who dismiss experiences of God on the basis of naturalistic explanations have not provided enough justification for their dismissal.

Naturalistic explanations for religious experiences are generally psychological or neurophysiological. On the psychological side, people have often claimed that religious experiences are just the result of unconscious wish-fulfillment, defence mechanisms, or repression – explanations much in the style of Freudian psychoanalysis. But that kind of psychoanalysis is highly questionable. Notable philosophers of science like Karl Popper have placed it alongside astrology as non-falsifiable pseudoscience, resting more on ideology than evidence.

(Or there is the commonly-touted idea that religious belief is just the result of self-perpetuating indoctrination. Here is a blog post that explains the failings of that theory.)

Other psychological explanations include the suggestions that religious beliefs are formed because of a hyperactive agency-detection mechanism in our cognitive faculties, or that religious experiences are just the result of something like a psychosis. Other people have dealt with these kind of claims in more detail, but it seems to me that they don’t really succeed at providing a sufficient explanation for the broad range of theistic experiences – and little to no actual evidence has been put forward supporting them.

On the neurophysiological side, there is some evidence that certain drugs can induce, or at least increase the likelihood and intensity of, certain mystical experiences. It should be noted that, at most, all this really shows that mystical experiences can be faked; it does not demonstrate that non-drug-induced mystical experiences are unveridical. Physical sense perceptions can be faked as well, and this does not damage our justification for believing the majority of what we perceive.

In fact, even if it could be shown that certain brain states were correlated with religious experiences, it does not seem that this would mean that all religious experiences were false. Physical sense perceptions are correlated with certain brain states as well; this does not mean that the objects we perceive through them are illusions.

This counterargument can be taken further. Even if the brain states correlated with religious experiences could be shown to have a sufficient set of physical causes, it still would not conclusively demonstrate that those religious experiences were false, absent a solution to the mind-body problem: the correspondence between the mind and body could be such that certain brain states produce a real experience of transcendent reality by the mind. Since, I believe, a purely physical solution to the mind-body problem is not possible even in principle, the weight of the evidence from neurophysiological explanations is not very strong.

Conflicting Claims

The second possible reason to disbelieve experiences of God is that they present conflicting claims. It is evident that, if taken at face value, religious experiences from different traditions vary widely and present mutually contradictory stories of reality. Critics say this demonstrates that religious experiences cannot be reliable, and so in the end we cannot trust any of the beliefs that are formed through them.

First, note that the fact that there are conflicts between religious experiences does not mean that the principle of critical trust does not apply to them. A group of eyewitness accounts of an event will often contain conflicting claims, especially if the conditions for observing the event were not ideal. (For example, it was dark outside, the event occurred very quickly, etc.) But it would be irrational to reject all those accounts simply because they conflict. Rather, often you would start by finding where all or most of the accounts agree, and then you may try to reconstruct what actually happened by finding the best explanation for all the accounts. Of course, it may turn out that some of the accounts were more accurate than others.

This process of putting initial trust in conflicting accounts, and then subjecting them to critical examination, happens all the time in courts of law and in the study of history, to give two examples. This is just the principle of critical trust in action, and the same general process is applicable to religious experiences as well.

Second, the fact that religious experiences contradict each other does not mean that religious experiences are completely and totally unreliable: at most, it only means they are not as reliable as other types of experience. While there may be conflicts at the most detailed level of description, at a less detailed level there can still be agreement, a common core of claims shared by all or most experiences. The principle of critical trust implies that we preserve as much of the content of our experiences that is not defeated, so the common core is retained.

This is especially true when considering just the theistic experiences, which are a well-established sub-type of religious experience and so can be considered on their own merits. Here there is an even stronger common core, and if it can be shown that there is a plausible way to resolve any conflicts between theistic and non-theistic religious experiences, then we have good reason to trust at least the common core of theistic experiences. This would get us to the belief that God exists, along with a general concept of his being and character.

Third, even when a type of experience is relatively unreliable, some experiences of that type may still be accurate, producing true beliefs. So if a particular experience is coherent with and supported by a comprehensive worldview, one that best explains the majority of the evidence, it is still justifiable to trust that experience even if it is conflicted by others.

This can be illustrated by again considering the example of a conflicting group of eyewitnesses. If you are one of the eyewitnesses, and your experience of the event in question was clear, it seems to me that you would be justified in maintaining trust in your own experience even if other eyewitnesses give accounts that conflict with yours. This is especially true if some of the other accounts supported rather than contradicted yours, and there was a reasonable explanation for the contradictory accounts.

With all that being said, it seems to me the view that most plausibly resolves the conflicts between all the disparate religious experiences of mankind is the view that God exists. If God exists – if the Ultimate Reality is a Someone, perfect in power, wisdom, and holiness, rather than merely a Something – this readily accounts for all forms of theistic experiences, experiences of transcendence, and at least some lesser experiences of immaterial reality. (I am using here the terminology from my classification of religious experiences in the previous post.)

Conflicting claims about the identity of God as revealed in these experiences can be accounted for by recognizing that our experiences are generally fallible, and may be incomplete or misinterpreted. This is especially true if your worldview gives you reason to think that our spiritual senses are not functioning as they should in some respects. Some of the other encounters with immaterial reality do not cohere very well with a theistic worldview – encounters with minor deities such as Apollo, for example – but these are much less well-attested than theistic experiences, and they can be explained as the result of deception, delusion, or misinterpretation.

Nature mysticism is not out of place in a theistic worldview, either, since we are so integrated with our bodies and our bodies are intricately interwoven with the rest of physical reality. Moreover, we are united with the rest of the universe by being radically dependent on God for our existence. Pure consciousness events (if they are coherent) do not contradict theism, simply because they have no intentional content whatsoever. (Though some people believe that pure consciousness events are actually direct experiences of the immaterial self.)

That leaves monistic mystical experiences and experiences of Nirvana as the only kinds of religious experience that actually conflict with the existence of God. If taken at face value, they imply that the ultimate reality is impersonal, rather than personal. Notice however, that if he exists, God could easily manifest himself impersonally: this would just be an incomplete revelation where his personal nature is hidden. But on the other hand, an impersonal reality cannot manifest personally: such an experience could be nothing more than an illusion.

Indeed, in the monistic worldview everything is an illusion, since if the monistic mystical experiences are taken at face value, All is One and all the divisions between the different things we perceive are unreal. Such a worldview demands that we reject the vast majority of our experiences as false: not only theistic experiences, but experiences of the diverse and changing physical world, interpersonal experiences, and moral experiences as well.

The rejection of most of our experiences in order to preserve a minority of them is not recommended by the principle of critical trust. Because of this, I think it is far more reasonable to interpret monistic mysticism and experiences of Nirvana either (i) as experiences of impersonal aspects of God, such as his existence or that the existence of everything else is dependent on him, or (ii) as direct experiences of one’s own soul, or (iii) as misinterpretations of pure consciousness events or nature mysticism; rather than interpreting all theistic experiences to be false in light of these monistic experiences.

Conclusion

In summary, then, neither naturalistic explanations for theistic experiences, nor conflicts in some of their content, are really sufficient to override the inherent justification that we have to believe those experiences. These considerations may give us reason to doubt religious experiences in some cases, and to recognize that they may not be completely reliable. But it would actually be unreasonable to completely reject these experiences of God without further evidence against them – just as it would be unreasonable to completely reject unreliable eyewitness testimonies or conflicting historical accounts, instead of gleaning from them what truth we can.

This concludes my defense of the epistemological argument for belief in God. Experiences of God provide sufficient justification to believe in him. This is especially true for those who have such experiences – but given that they are a fairly widespread phenomenon, and that they cohere with each other on at least a general level, I think they reasonably count as evidence towards God’s existence even for those who do not have them.

In my next post, I will begin looking at cosmological arguments for God’s existence – arguments from the existence and origin of the universe itself.

The Epistemological Argument (II)

In my last post I began writing about the epistemological argument for belief in God, also known as the argument from religious experience. And I argued, from considerations of impartiality, that the principle of critical trust is applicable to religious experiences as it is applicable to any of our experiences, which is the first premise of the argument.

This means the beliefs that people form in the context of religious experiences have some degree of inherent justification – though perhaps not enough to warrant accepting those beliefs without corroboration and further critical examination. That is where the third and fourth premises come in, which are that a certain class of religious experiences are well-corroborated, and that overriding reasons to disbelieve those experiences are not present. Those are the premises I will defend in this post and the next.

Religious Experiences

Before I get into that, it is worth saying something about the second premise. People have religious experiences, experiences that they take to imply some kind of transcendent reality. This statement should be fairly uncontroversial, unless you want to make the rather audacious assertion that everyone who has ever claimed to have a religious experience is lying.

To get a sense of the diversity of human religious experience, here are some of the different kinds of such experiences that many people have reported. (This list is mostly taken from Kai-man Kwan’s article on the argument from religious experience, and some sources can be found there.)

  • Theistic experiences – experiences of God, the personal and perfect creator of the world
    • Numinous experiences – experience of God as a tremendously powerful being, a mysterious and awesome reality who is brimming with life and energy
    • Theistic mysticism – experience of deep unity of oneself with God, where the soul seems to experience God from within God himself
    • Sense of presence of God – awareness of the presence of God, often accompanied by a feeling of calm assurance and peace
    • Divine-human encounters – awareness of God’s ultimate worth as well as one’s own moral obligations to God, experienced along with feelings of personal interaction (warmth and gratitude, sense of being personally addressed)
    • Experiences of grace – feeling of being forgiven of one’s moral transgressions against God and being reconciled to God, feeling of peace and joy, freedom from guilt
    • Conversion and experiences of personal growth – feeling of being transformed by God, accompanied by moral character growth
    • Charismatic experiences – speaking in tongues, prophesy, faith healings, and the like
    • Sensory theistic experiences – visions, dreams, and the like
    • Corporate theistic experiences – experiences of God in corporate worship or prayer, or as an integral part of (religious) community life
    • Mediated theistic experiences – experiences of God mediated by other experiences, for example, in nature, art, conscience, fellowship with others, or moral character of others
    • Interpretive theistic experiences – spontaneous interpretation of an event as being from God, for example, feeling that an event is an answer to prayer or a sign from God
    • Intuitive apprehension of God – intuitive belief that God exists without any other experiential content
  • Experiences of transcendence
    • Experiences of contingency – profound feeling that this world is not ultimate and that it depends on something beyond
    • Experiences of design – profound feeling that the beauty and intricacy of the natural order is ultimately due to a creator
    • Experiences of ecstasy – feeling of ecstasy through encountering some kind of transcendent reality
  • Encounters with immaterial reality
    • Near-death experiences – out-of-body experiences or encounters with a transcendent reality when near death
    • Experiences of minor deities, evil spirits, angels, or departed saints – these differ from theistic experiences in that the being encountered is a finite part of reality, rather than transcending all other reality and sustaining it in being
  • Various mystical experiences
    • Nature mysticism – feeling of being one with the universe
    • Monistic mysticism – feeling that All is One, often with the belief that ultimate reality is impersonal, may include a pure consciousness event as part of the experience
    • Pure consciousness event – a state of pure consciousness with no intentional object or conceptual interpretation whatsoever
    • Experiences of Nirvana – feeling that No-self or Nothingness is the ultimate reality

Obviously, we cannot take all of humanity’s religious experiences at face value – many of them contradict one another, and it is very likely that some of these experiences will be found to be fraudulent or delusory even if God does exist. The same, after all, is true of our physical perceptions. Eyewitness accounts of the same event can contradict each other, and people can lie, hallucinate, or be fooled into thinking they saw something that they didn’t. (Of course, this can be used as an objection against believing religious experiences, and I will talk about that more when I discuss the fourth premise.)

What the principle of critical trust says is not that we take all of these experiences at face value permanently, but rather, that we treat them as “innocent until proven guilty,” as we tend to do for our physical perceptions. When two eyewitnesses describe a car crash and they disagree on some of the details – even major ones – it wouldn’t reasonable to assume that nothing happened at all. When someone tells you that they saw something unusual, it isn’t reasonable to assume right off the bat that they are lying or deluded. The critical trust approach says the same should go for religious experiences.

Many religious experiences are not overwhelmingly powerful, and a non-believer who has one, or something like it, may just brush it off. My own experiences in my relationship with God are generally of this modest variety. But a significant number of people throughout history have had quite powerful and vivid experiences of God, sometimes throughout their lifetime. (Kwan’s article cites some examples.)

For those people who have powerful and compelling experiences of God, is it really reasonable to say that they are not entitled to trust their experiences, at least initially? When they otherwise seem like honest and mentally stable people, is it really reasonable, before even examining the issue, to say that their beliefs based on those powerful experiences are simply the result of gullibility?

So I think that religious experiences should be allowed to count as at least some evidence for the truth of the beliefs that they form. The next two premises are about why, for some experiences, I think that evidence is strong enough to fully justify those beliefs.

Theistic Experiences are Well-Established

I am now going to focus on a subcategory of religious experiences, specifically, theistic experiences. Theistic experiences are those that the subjects take to be of God, that is, the all-powerful personal creator of the universe. The third premise of my epistemological argument is that theistic experiences constitute a well-established type, so that such experiences produce not merely some justification for their associated basic beliefs, but sufficient justification to accept those beliefs.

The criteria for being a well-established type of experience are:

  • experiences of that type occur to many different people and in many different situations,
  • the experiences are coherent with each other and with other types of experience, and
  • the experiences fit well into a worldview that best explains all of reality.

All three of these criteria are fulfilled by theistic experiences.

First, many people throughout the world, across cultures and eras of history, have theistic experiences. The majority of people worldwide are religious. The largest religious traditions, Christianity and Islam, are theistic, and a significant fraction of the adherents to those religions have had experiences of God. Theistic experiences are not limited to the Western world, either. There are theistic traditions within Hinduism, and indications of theistic beliefs in ancient China, for example. Even non-religious people sometimes have religious experiences, many of them theistic or compatible with a theistic worldview. (Some polls cited in Kwan’s article suggest that more than a third of the general population in the Western world have had a religious experience of some kind.)

All in all, it is plausible that hundreds of millions of people alive today have had experiences of God, and many more throughout the five thousand years of recorded human history. These are not a collection of isolated events. Rather, spanning continents and cultures, theistic encounters form part of the normal range of human experience.

Second, theistic experiences are generally coherent with each other. There is a rich diversity of ways in which people claim to experience God, but they are all unified by pointing to God as a personal and spiritual being who is the Ultimate Reality, the foundation of moral values, and the creator of the universe. All of the different modes of theistic experience listed above generally make sense in light of this concept of God. There are differing claims about the identity and nature of the God who is encountered in these experiences, but at least a common core of proposed truths about God can be extracted from these differing claims.

Furthermore, theistic experiences are generally coherent with all of our other types of experience. Most other religious experiences can be fit fairly comfortably in a theistic worldview, with the possible exception of monistic mystical experiences and experiences of Nirvana. (I’ll write a bit more about those when I discuss the next premise.) There is certainly no direct contradiction between the existence of the physical world revealed by our senses, and the existence of a spiritual reality revealed by our experiences of God. And our moral and rational intuitions are at home in a universe where the Ultimate Reality is a personal being.

Third and finally, theistic experiences are coherent with and even suggested by a worldview that (I believe) takes into account all the data and best explains all of reality – namely, a theistic worldview, and the worldview of Christianity in particular. I will let all the other arguments for God’s existence, many of which I will explore in future posts, stand in support of the claim that a theistic worldview is the best explanation of all the data.

(It may be objected that postulating the truth of a specific religious worldview can never be a good explanation for spiritual experiences from outside of that religious tradition. I will address that objection as part of my next post.)

All of this means that theistic experiences are a well-established type of experience: they are coherent and corroborated by other experiences, and so can be taken to provide sufficient justification for accepting the beliefs that we form in that context.

Logical Incoherence Objection

If the concept of God is not coherent, then experiences of God cannot be coherent either, which removes the justification for thinking that they are a well-established type. This is something that I’ll look at in more detail in the future, but suffice to say that I haven’t found any supposed contradictions that aren’t resolved by closer examination.

Even if the concept of God is coherent, the concept of a theistic experience itself might not be coherent: some critics of the epistemological argument contend that God is not a possible object of experience. Reasons for this may be that God’s properties are not the kinds of properties that can be given in our experience, or that it is impossible for our finite minds to experience his infinite attributes.

However, by those criteria, even physical entities are not possible objects of experience. The only things we really experience are mental qualia. But we still say that we can see physical objects, even if some of their properties (like mass and charge) are not directly present in our experience, and even if they are too large to be seen all at once. So there doesn’t seem to be a problem with experiencing God.

It is also worth noting that sensory-like perception is not the only way that we experience the world around us. Emotions and intuitive apprehensions can also convey meaning: these are an important component of our interpersonal experience, for example. Since theism contends that God is personal, this mode of encountering God is expected. So God may also be experienced via non-sensory phenomena, and the principle of critical trust still applies.

Impossibility of Individuation Objection

Another objection to this premise is that we can never prove that different theistic experiences are actually of the same God. But we can also never prove that different sensory experiences of the table in my living room of actually of the same physical object. The table could have been replaced by an indistinguishable one while I was away, for example.

The point is that we routinely use the principle of critical trust, along with inference to the best explanation, to identify and reidentify objects between different experiences. It is no different with experiences of God.

Objection of Non-Universality

As widespread as theistic experiences are, not everyone experiences them. This has been suggested as another reason why we should not take theistic experiences as a well-established type, arguing that well-established experiences should have the same level near-universality as our physical perceptions.

However, it is simply not true that experiences must be universal to be justifiably believed. Our sense experiences enjoy confirmation and corroboration far in excess of what is required to be reasonable, so I will certainly grant that they are better established than theistic experiences. But to require universality of all experiences before believing them is like saying that if a hockey player is not as great as Wayne Gretzky in his prime, he must be therefore be an incompetent hockey player who you would never want on your team.

There are relatively few people who experience perfect pitch (about 1 in 10,000 according to Wikipedia), but those who do are still justified in trusting their recognition of the absolute pitch of a note on the basis of their experience. Similarly, we will often believe something based on the testimony of a number of people considerably smaller than everyone available. If one person told you they had seen an airplane land on the highway, you might doubt it; if ten more people told you the same thing you would most likely believe it. If a hundred more people then told you, you might consider it even more confirmed, but mostly you would be thinking that you knew that already.

So universality is not required for a type of experience to be well-established.

Objection of Vagueness

Similarly, theistic experiences are usually not as vivid or detailed as our physical perceptions. But this is not always true: some people have very detailed visionary experiences of God. And in any case, experiences to not need to have the same level of vividness as our physical perceptions to be believed either. A person whose senses have been dulled by damage or old age is still justified in believing what they can discern from their experiences, even if those experiences are not as vivid as typical physical perceptions.

Other Disanalogy Objections

Critics of the epistemological argument might object to theistic experiences on a number of other ways that they are not analogous to sensory experiences – but unless the difference can be shown to be epistemically relevant, these are not good reasons for rejecting theistic experiences as a well-established type. They simply represent an unjustified preference for sensory experiences.

To press this point, memory is very different from sensory experiences in many ways, yet the justification for much of our knowledge about the physical world rests on memory – and memory cannot be non-circularly justified without the principle of critical trust. And similarly, inductive and abductive reasoning have important differences from deductive reasoning, but they are still rational and crucial in both everyday life and in the practice of science.

That is what I have to say about the third premise of the argument from religious experience. In my next post I will explore the final premise, and conclude my discussion of this argument.

The Epistemological Argument (I)

Why do I believe in God? The first reason is simply that I was raised to believe in God, and I have had experiences of his presence that confirm to me the truth of those beliefs. In other words, I believe in God on the basis of experience and testimony, two sources of properly basic belief. For many believers, these are, in fact, the primary reasons for belief in God – and my contention is that this is completely justified.

I have explored the concepts of experience and testimony as sources of properly basic belief earlier in my blog, so I will simply reiterate briefly:

Properly basic beliefs are beliefs that are justified because they have been formed in an appropriate way, grounded in the context of our experience, rather than being justified by some kind of rational argument from other beliefs.

Some of our beliefs must be properly basic for any of our beliefs to be rationally justified at all. Otherwise, every belief would require a rational argument from other justified beliefs in order to be justified, leading either to circular reasoning or to an impossible infinite regress of beliefs. Our belief system must rest on some kind of foundation.

The fact that a belief is formed in an appropriate, properly basic way does not mean that it is infallible or indefeasible. It merely means that such beliefs possess some inherent justification, providing a good reason to accept that belief, but one that can be overridden by other considerations.

The principle of critical trust essentially says that we should accept properly basic beliefs, because of their inherent justification, and that we should treat them impartially, not arbitrarily favouring some over others because of our preferences, but only assigning priority between them when we have good reasons to do so.

One of the valid reasons for allowing one source of basic beliefs to have priority over another, when those two sources are in direct conflict, is when one of the sources is better established than the other. We consider a particular type of experience to be well-established when it occurs in many different situations and to many different people, when the basic beliefs it produces are coherent with each other and with those from other types of experiences, and when it fits well into a worldview that explains and describes all of reality.

For example, our sense perception of the external physical world is an incredibly well-established type of experience, and is therefore a valid source of properly basic beliefs. The physical intuitions that we develop about the workings of the world around us are also a source of basic beliefs – but they are less direct and less well-established than sense perception. So if we have a basic belief from our physical intuitions that, say, heavier things fall faster than lighter things, that can be overridden by directly perceiving the outcome of an experiment which demonstrates that this intuition is false.

With all the above in mind, the epistemological argument for belief in God is this:

  1. The principle of critical trust is valid, so that if a certain type of experience is well-established, a person who has such an experience is justified in believing it, unless there is an overriding reason to disbelieve it.
  2. People have theistic experiences, that is, events that they take to be experiences of a personal being who is the ultimate source and foundation of reality – God.
  3. Theistic experiences are a well-established type of experience.
  4. Reasons to disbelieve theistic experiences are not successful.
  5. Therefore, we are justified in believing in God on the basis of our own theistic experiences.
  6. Testimony is also a valid source of basic beliefs.
  7. Therefore, we are also justified in believing in God on the basis of the reported theistic experiences of others.

This argument, or something similar to it, has been thoroughly developed by philosophers such as Richard Swinburne, William Alston, and Kai-man Kwan. It is more commonly known as the argument from religious experience. Though the aforementioned philosophers have articulated it far better than I can, I will explore the argument, and explain why I think it is a good one, in the next couple of posts.

The conclusions of the argument (5 and 7) follow logically if the premises (1 to 4, and 6) are true. So I will argue for the truth of the conclusions by defending the premises in turn.

The Principle of Critical Trust Once More

It is powerfully evident to me, after exploring the topic of epistemology, that the principle of critical trust is by far the most rational foundation available for a system of knowledge. Without granting inherent justification to some of our basic beliefs, none of our beliefs could be justified through reason. Furthermore, extending this initial trust to only a subset of our basic beliefs is arbitrary – the most natural approach is to initially trust all basic beliefs, and then critically examine them with all evidence in view.

(Once again for clarity, here by basic beliefs I mean those that are not arrived at via a conscious process of reasoning. Rather, they are naturally formed in the context of experience, or unconsciously formed through intuition, or received through testimony.)

Suppose you want to claim that your belief in the physical world is justified. In order to do this, you need to grant that the basic beliefs formed through your sensory experiences have inherent justification. But even more than that, you need to grant the same to beliefs formed from memory, or your knowledge would be limited to the fleeting present experience. And you need to grant the same to beliefs formed through introspection, or you could not be justified in believing that you were having experiences at all. And you need to grant the same to your rational intuitions, so you can know what you are justified in believing and what you are not, and so you can know how to use different forms of reasoning to support new beliefs.

Sensory experiences of the physical world are not the only experiences we have, either. We have interpersonal experiences, interacting with other people and naturally forming beliefs about their mental states as distinct from ours. We have moral and aesthetic experiences, forming beliefs about values that overlay states of affairs in the world around us. And a significant fraction of the human race has religious experiences, forming beliefs about a reality that transcends and precedes the universe.

All of these experiences are woven together in a seamless web, integrated together and difficult to isolate from each other. Impartiality in our examination of the evidence requires that we apply the principle of critical trust to all of our experiences and intuitions, not just some of them. Intellectual charity and humility require that we extend the same sort of initial trust, with subsequent critical evaluation, to the testimony of others.

So I think we have good reason to believe premises 1 and 6 of the argument. But there are some objections that people might raise against the idea that the principle of critical trust should apply to religious experiences, specifically. Here are some of them.

The Logical Gap Objection

Perhaps we cannot justify beliefs from religious experiences because there is no way to logically infer the existence of some objective reality based on nothing more than the subjective feeling produced by the experience. But we also can’t reason from our subjective sensory experiences to the existence of the physical world – we could just be hallucinating, or experiencing some kind of illusion. So this is as much of a problem for our belief in physical reality as it is for our belief in spiritual reality. To be consistent, we should apply the principle of critical trust to both.

The Privacy Objection

Maybe the problem with religious experiences is that they are private, like hallucinations or dreams. But our experiences of physical reality are also private, essentially occurring in our minds as subjective phenomenon. I can never directly compare my experience to yours; I can never know if my experience of the colour red is the same as yours, for example.

Certainly, verbal reports of sense experiences from different people can be compared, and are public in that sense – but the same is true of religious experiences. It is easier to do this with sense experience, because religious experiences aren’t as common – that’s a different objection, which I’ll address in the next post. But that means that religious experiences are only quantitatively (not qualitatively) different from our experiences of the physical world in terms of their privacy.

The Uncheckability Objection

So maybe the real problem is that there is no criteria by which we can verify whether a religious experience was an encounter with an objective reality, or just a subjective delusion. (This is the uncheckability objection.) Conversely, when we have a dream, we can examine the world around us to determine that the dream was not actually true.

Except that there are ways we can verify religious experiences. We can compare our experience to the experiences of others, and to the teachings of religions – which (most often) represent the distillations of spiritual experiences of whole communities throughout history. More generally, we can see if our experience is coherent with and explained by the worldview that best encompasses all the evidence.

This, of course, requires that we apply the principle of critical trust to religious experiences – but we would be just as unable to verify our experiences of the physical world without applying that principle to our sensory experiences. We can only really check sense experiences through other sense experiences, so it is not any less justifiable to check religious experiences through religious experiences.

The Theory-Ladenness Objection

One more objection to allowing religious experiences to provide justification for religious beliefs is that such experiences are theory-laden. Religious experiences, it is claimed, are so heavily influenced by the prior conceptual frameworks of those having the experiences that they are of no value for discovering objective truth whatsoever.

Of course, even ordinary perception is theory-laden: for example, what we experience visually can be influenced by what we expect to see. This kind of top-down visual processing can be recognized in optical illusions. Memory is also often strongly influenced by one’s conceptual framework. So again, this is only a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one, between religious experiences and forms of experience which we readily accept with critical trust. The question is whether the influence of one’s prior conceptual framework really does mangle religious experiences beyond all use, where it (presumably) does not do this for physical perception.

There are two things to note about this. For one, prior theory does not completely constrain the content of religious experiences. Many religious experiences are highly individualistic, and have content that is not clearly derived from the belief system of the person in question. And for two, interpretation in light of prior theory does not necessarily render an experience untrue. For example, our top-down visual processing often aids in perception rather than hindering it; it is the reason we can use a few punctuation marks like : – ) to rapidly convey meaning. The genuine significance of an experience can be missed through underinterpretation as well as through overinterpretation.

If the theory-ladenness of religious experience is a problem, it is a problem for sense experience as well. You cannot prove that our experiences of the physical world are less encumbered by prior theory than our religious experience are – not without arbitrarily extending initial trust to sense experiences while denying that trust to religious experiences. To avoid devolving into complete skepticism, it seems most reasonable to accept all our experiences, along with their integrated interpretations, as inherently justified, but fallible and subject to critical examination.

Continuing the Argument

So that is what I have to say for the first premise of the epistemological argument (and the sixth – as I have written before, it seems best to me to treat testimony as falling under the principle of critical trust as well). In my next two posts, I will look at the remaining premises, and further objections.