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.

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