Category Archives: Religion

The Argument from Religious Experience: Counters

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3rd and final in a short series on the argument from religious experience.

The points for have been considered; it’s now time for the points against. First of all, there is one very pertinent argument against Swinburne’s principle of credulity, namely the negative principle of credulity. Developed by Michael Martin (please excuse all these names; their important for the IB exams), the negative principle of credulity is essentially the opposite of the principle of credulity – let’s call this the “positive” principle of credulity – stating that if a person who we have no reason to distrust (the defeating conditions again) claims that they have not perceived a particular object, then it is very likely that said object is not present. As many people claim that they have never had an experience of God, it then seems logical to assume that God does not exist. It uses the same rational as the principle of credulity, so if we accept the former we must accept the latter.

Another, fairly substantial argument against the validity of religious experience is the argument from inconsistent revelations (sometimes referred to as the “avoiding the wrong hell problem”). Now, this is a general argument against the existence of God, and a fairly common one at that, but it is particularly relevant to the argument from religious experience as it speaks of what we might call “religious testimonies”. The argument posits that, as there are so many conflicting and at times incompatible views on the divine and people belonging to different faiths have experiences involving different gods, it seems unlikely that there actually is a God. Antony Flew spoke of this issue, taking it further by pointing out the fact that people often have the sort of religious experience that they would expect to have. Buddhist monks don’t generally have visions of Jesus Christ, and devout Muslims rarely find themselves in the presence of Shiva. This seems to suggest that the expectation in the individual of having an experience of God is what causes the experience, rather than an actual God being the source.

These are compelling arguments, but they are not entirely conclusive. The latter can be adressed through an examination of God’s supposed nature, for instance. God, after all, is considered to be very different from normal “objects” – He is enigmatic and we only have a very vague idea of His true nature. It is also quite possible that He has decided that it should be very difficult for people to achieve any direct experience of Him. These points would account for all the differences that exist between the religions and the religious experiences of people belonging to different cultural groups. They may all be variants of one genuine Ultimate Reality, conflicting perhaps because they have been influenced to some extent by external factors and human psychology.

The earlier argument, the negative principle of credulity, might not be quite so sound either. Let’s consider the analogy I made when I first presented the positive principle of credulity: if I see someone pass me on a pink bike decorated with skulls it seems very likely that such a bike does exist. This makes perfect sense; if the premise (I saw a pink bike with skulls on it) is true, then the conclusion (such a bike exists) must also be true. But, surely, if I were to say that I have never seen a pink bicycle with skulls on it and tried to use this fact to say that there are no such bikes in existence, you would be very much justified in calling me an ass. The argument seems to use the same logic as the principle of credulity, but in reality it doesn’t.

So what can one conclude from all of this? Well, it’s certainly true that the argument from religious experience is an important one in the debate regarding God’s existence. Does it have merit? Perhaps so; there are plenty of arguments for it, though there are also many lined up against it. Ultimately, though, the argument is inductive and uses subjective human experiences as its main basis – it will never provide any conclusive proof for God’s existence, only make it more or less likely.

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The Argument from Religious Experience

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2nd in a short series on the argument from religious experience.

The argument from religious experience is fairly simple; the difficult part lies in understanding the experiences themselves (what they are, what they aren’t, etc.), and as that preliminary work has been taken care of, I should be able to keep this relatively short and sweet. The argument is, however, slightly strange. It’s different to most of the other arguments for God in that, rather than offering empirical evidence or universally applicable logic as proof of His existence, it seeks to convince us that we should believe in the words of a few select individuals. In this sense, it is an inductive argument, as it goes from the specific (there are some people who claim to have experienced God or some other form of divinity) to the general (the divine exists). Inductive arguments are notoriously unreliable, but considering the fact that science is inductive I wouldn’t say that this one feature makes the argument void. I’ll focus on supporting arguments in this post, and follow-up with a post containing the various counter arguments and a potential conclusion.

I’ve outlined the gist of the argument already. It goes as follows: “as there are people who have directly experienced divinity in one form or another, it seems likely that there is in fact some God or Ultimate Reality in existence”. You could add an “if-clause” in there, I’d say; “if these people are reliable and we choose to believe that their experiences are genuinely divine in nature”, or something to that effect. This is where the debate lies, after all: in order for the argument to work, we need to establish whether these religious experiences actually do happen. Otherwise, the argument’s main premise has no real basis. This debate has actually become fairly broad over the years, but I intend to narrow it down to a few concise points. As said, I’ll start with those that support the argument.

It is, of course, Swinburne who has provided a few of the main philosophical arguments for religious experience (note: the discussion is now regarding whether religious experiences exists and not whether God exists – this can become confusing). The two primary arguments he has developed are known as the principle of credulity and the principle of testimony. The principle of credulity states that when a person believes that they have been exposed to a particular object, it is very likely that that object exists. For instance, if I see someone pass me on a pink bicycle decorated with skulls, it is very likely that a pink bicycle decorated with skulls exists. I’m sure you can see the weakness of this argument; I might’ve been hallucinating when the bike passed me, or perhaps the skulls were actually butterflies and I just couldn’t see them properly because I didn’t have my glasses on at the time. To tackle this issue, Swinburne has jotted up four defeating conditions (special conditions that would damage the credulity of the experiencer or “witness”). It should be noted that these conditions deal with the credulity of general “eye-witness accounts”, rather than addressing religious ones specifically.

These defeating conditions are, briefly: the witness is or was known to be unreliable (he or she is known to be a liar or an alcoholic, for example); the witness had the experience under conditions that have produced similar experiences (ones with naturalistic explanations) in the past (an example being St Elmo’s fire)*; the witness claims to have seen a particular object when we have been informed by another, perhaps more reliable or substantial source that the object in question couldn’t possibly have been where the witness says it was when the witness says it was there; or that it is probable, based on certain evidence, that the thing the witness claims to have experienced wasn’t really caused by that same thing (the textbook example being that of an actor dressed up as someone else).

The principle of testimony is similar, stating that if we have no reasonable cause to disbelieve a person’s claims (i.e. if there are no “defeating conditions”), than we should accept that they are being truthful when they say that they have had a religious experience. It is worth noting here that the aforementioned “defeating conditions” don’t usually apply to religious experiences. People who have religious experiences are usually the sort of people one would consider to be reliable, after all, and a genuine  experience of God is generally so unique and intense that it is unlikely that it will have been caused by some naturalistic phenomenon that has occurred in the past. Furthermore, as God is often considered to be omnipresent and immaterial, the third point is moot, and considering the fact that God is by definition inimitable, the fourth defeating condition doesn’t seem to apply either. Therefore, one might say that religious experiences have a high level of credulity.

*I’m not actually completely sure of this. I’d say I’m about 99% sure, but I’ve been having trouble with this particular point. Anyway, my explanation of it does seem to make sense.

Religious Experience

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1st in a short series on the argument from religious experience.

The argument from religious experience is one of many philosophical arguments that seek to prove the existence of God. In order for this argument to be contemplated and discussed properly, it’s important to first establish a firm understanding of what, exactly, a “religious experience” is. What I would like to do now is to go over a few of the main defining features of such experiences, as laid out by the various philosophers, psychologists and general busybodies who have commented on the subject in the past. Please keep in mind that I’m learning about this as I go along; any corrections would be much appreciated. I can assure you, however, that there will be no overly egregious errors here. Think of me as you would of Wikipedia (or as most teachers would like you to think of Wikipedia).

So, what in the name of all that’s concrete is a religious experience? I can tell you right off the bat that it is not in any way something concrete. Religious experiences are subjective, broadly defined as any perception that an individual relates to a higher power or reality (such as “heaven” or “nirvana”). In the world of philosophy, however, a few definite criteria have been laid down over the years. The two main figures that people discuss in relation to the topic are Richard Swinburne (a contemporary philosopher who’s still alive and kicking) and William James (a late 19th century philosopher and psychologist). The former has dealt with defining ordinary religious experiences whilst the latter has dealt specifically with mystical religious experiences (more on that in a sec).

I’ll start with Swinburne. Now, the first thing that Swinburne took care of before he  started working on defining religious experiences was to establish the difference between what he called “public” and “private” perceptions. The difference is quite simple, really. Imagine you have a group of people (about a dozen or so), who are all in full possession of their senses and are all completely sober. If the entire group then perceives a car moving down the road towards them, this would count as a public perception. If only one or two members of the group see the car, it is a private perception. Religious experience are, generally, private.

Swinburne then went on to outline the five different forms of religious experience he thought that people were capable of having. He said that one might be exposed to a normal, commonplace object and have an experience of some sort of divinity as a result, or that one might be exposed to a very unusual object with a similar outcome. He also said that one might have an experience that one judges to be religious in nature, but that can be described using ordinary language, or that one might experience something that can’t be described through ordinary language. Finally, he said that one might have an experience which, in a sense, goes beyond the empirical, where a sense of a darkness or a void is interpreted as an experience of God. The primary criticism of these is that, while they do offer descriptions of some religious experiences, there may well be other kinds. In other words, the list might not be exhaustive, though Swinburne seems to treat it as such.

Now, onto mystical religious experiences and William James: a mystical religious experience is a religious experience where the perceiver claims to have achieved a sort of unity with God. Terms such as “Oneness” are often used. A mystic is a person practicing a particular form of spirituality who spends a substantial amount of time trying to induce experiences of this nature. Generally, this is accomplished through attempts at “purifying” the mind and body. This is done through such things as asceticism and celibacy, and often requires a supreme level of discipline in the mystic. Examples of famous mystics would include St Teresa.

How, then, can we establish whether a mystical religious experience truly is what it purports to be? Thanks to James, we have a selection of defining criteria which we can use. These are ineffability, meaning that the experience must be one that can’t be explained with words; transiency, meaning that the experience must be brief and fleeting (note that James does agree that these experiences might occasionally last for a longer time – he is speaking generally here); passivity, meaning that the person having the experience must be in a passive rather than an active state – in other words, that he or she does not control what is happening to them; and that the experience must have a noetic quality, meaning that the experiencer must derive some sort of enlightenment from it.

Neither of these two illustrious men are the ultimate authority on religious experiences (I believe that would be God), and their views have been criticized. One of the big issues with defining religious experiences (besides their subjectivity) is that they are often paradoxical. They may be described as empty and full, painful and pleasurable, fragmented and whole. Naturally, this creates certain issues when one tries to describe them accurately. Nevertheless, James and Swinburne do allow us to have a better understanding of them, and perhaps that is enough for now.

God and Evil

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Does the existence of evil in the world mean that God cannot exist?

“If God is all-powerful, if God is all loving, if God is all-knowing, how does suffering exist?” Epicurus’ inconsistent triad is a fairly strong argument against the validity of God’s existence, for if He is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, why does He allow evil to be present amongst us? One could say that suffering allows us to understand pleasure, that without evil we cannot truly comprehend the concept of good, but that is a somewhat simplistic argument which can easily be countered. If God were truly omnipotent, He could ensure that we could understand good without first experiencing and coming to terms with evil. Saying that suffering is what allows us to understand pleasure is the same as saying that God has given evil a purpose; this argument functions only so long as one is discussing God’s omnipotence, but when one is talking of the inconsistent triad one must consider the other aspects of God’s nature. If God were omnibenevolent, He would not give suffering such a purpose, but rather help us to understand its opposite unaided by unpleasantness. This is also why we cannot say that God is simply ignorant of our individual suffering, as God is also defined as an omniscient being.

David Hume, the eternal cynic, presented an argument against God’s existence which was loosely based on Epicurus’ triad. “Either God is not omnipotent or God is not omnibenevolent or Evil does not exist in the world”, he stated, going on to observe that there is too much concrete evidence supporting the validity of evil’s existence to allow the final supposition to be true, and so he concluded that God must be either impotent or malicious (thus proving that God, as we perceive Him, cannot exist). What he failed to do was explain precisely why the indisputable existence of evil challenges that of God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence, thus making his argument “impotent”. His assertion, though relevant, makes the premature assumption that it is indeed wholly impossible for God to be all-loving and all-powerful while there is evil in the world.

Alvin Plantinga has provided an effective argument to refute this idea of God and evil being incompatible. Plantinga’s “free will defence” presents the notion that if God wished to create a world where free-will could exist, He would have to allow the possibility for evil amongst humans. If He made it impossible for humans to think and act in a manner conducive to suffering, they would not have true free will. The defence goes on to state that God may have desired to create a world were moral-evil was a possibility in order for true moral-goodness to exist (if there were no such thing as moral-evil, moral-goodness as we know it could not come into being as it would be the natural moral state of any person). Some have criticised Plantinga’s argument for being incompatibilist, but compatibilism deals with the compatibility of determinism and free-will, which has little to do with the way in which God directly moderates human liberty. Plantinga was not saying that there are no restrictions on free-will; he was only making the statement that God may not have wanted to add this additional restraint. And of course, the second part of the free-will defence is not addressed at all by this counter, making it rather ineffective. Plantinga’s argument is one which serves to disprove Hume’s statement whilst also addressing Epicurus’ inconsistent triad.

There is another angle one can view this from; perhaps God simply decided that a world where humans lived in constant bliss and never suffered in any way was not the kind of place he wished to create. Perhaps he wanted that state of bliss to come after the physical world. If suffering were removed from our lives, even if God used his omnipotence to make sure that absolutely everything else was precisely the same, it would still be a world lacking that one defining feature. Painters often include imperfections and flaws in their compositions in order to create the painting they wish to create. If Munch had chosen to use a soft, picturesque aesthetic in “The Scream” it might still have been a masterpiece but it would have been essentially different. The same goes for our world. Without evil, a core part of our collective life would be warped beyond recognition. We would not be able to prove ourselves ethically sound in the pursuit of alleviating suffering, for instance (this relates back to Plantinga’s argument). Naturally, our lives would be far easier if we did not feel pain and grief, but the very nature of those lives would then be fundamentally different, and (one might hazard to say) more simplistic.

Though there could very well be other important points of view and other anti-theistic arguments derived from the problem of evil, I regard the aforementioned to be some of the more vital. Considering what has been discussed above, I feel a certain response towards the triad has been brought to light. If God is all powerful, if God is all loving, if God is all knowing, how does suffering exist? Because suffering is what makes this world what it is. Suffering is what makes us what we are. The existence of evil does not imply that God is a fallacy, only that God (if He exists) wanted to create a world more complex than a world of interminable bliss and serenity.

Can God exist in an existential world?

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In an existentialist world, where everything revolves around the individual and essentially “every man is an island” (as opposed to John Donne’s “no man is an island” concept), is there any place for God? The existentialists themselves disagree on this particular point, with theist and atheist philosophers taking up stand points on either side of the argument.

Some have said that this world is too small, too constricted, for there to be two free “realities”. Human freedom cannot coexist with divine freedom, and of course it would be illogical and improbable for there to be no such freedom whatsoever. Some see a thesable tension between divine and human freedom. Sartre stated that humans are indeed free and therefore God cannot exist. Indeed, if we do believe that humans are free the notion of God becomes difficult to support. God is by definition omniscient and omnipotent, and so if we have this liberty then the whole idea of the divine being we refer to as God simply ceases to function properly. However, it is possible that we do not have complete freedom. Determinism states that everything we do is the result of a long chain of events, and so we are in fact no more free than puppets. Incidentally, determinism offers a fairly strong piece of evidence regarding the existence of God, as this chain of events must have originated from something. 

Nevertheless, we are talking about an existentialist world. So the problem remains; freedom vs freedom. If God is omnipotent then we are not free and so our personal existence is detrimentally impacted. If we are free, the whole image of God becomes warped. There is however, in my opinion, a way to manouvre around this.  I presume you have seen or at least heard of the comedy “Bruce Allmighty”, where Jim Carrey (or rather the man portrayed by mr. Carrey) is allowed to take on the role of God. He can do absolutely anything he chooses and has absolute power except over free will. He cannot influence human freedom. In a way, this solves the problem admirably. Consider for a moment that there are some “rules” which even God must adhere to, much like in the previously mentioned movie. Naturally, this would impact his omnipotence, but not if it was God himself who made the rules. You may have heard of this concept before, albeit on a less divine scale. It’s sometimes known as discipline. If God where to make the choice to allow us to have our freedom and restrained himself from influencing it, we could have a certain coexistence between divine and human freedom. You could still say that God’s omnipotence would be reduced in this situation, or even that he would not be completely “free” due to his self-imposed limitations. Nevertheless, they would be self-imposed restrictions. God would have exerted his freedom to put this limit into the place. This solves the problem of divine freedom clashing with human freedom rather admirably in my humble opinion.

Existentialism seems to support the idea of us all being “disconnected”; being complete and utter individuals. Perhaps this is true, perhaps this is why many of us are constantly striving to be accepted by others, in order to experience some kind of connection with other people no matter how fleeting this connection is (this is more probably due to us originally being pack animals before evolution remade us in our current model, but that is a matter to be discussed in a science essay). This would suggest that we are also disconnected from God. However, the idea of God is that he is, to a fashion, apart of us all. That we are all interconnected, even with that divine being. If we are complete individuals, entirely disconnected from everything but ourselves, is God not just some abstract concept floating around aimlessly in space? However, things do not truly need to be connected to be a part of a system. The sun does not need to be “connected” with the chlorophyll in plants in order to power their photosynthesis. 

So, I believe a conclusion has been reached. Though there are certain kinks which could potentially make it impossible for God to exist in a fully existential world, with some compromises it would most certainly be possible. And, of course, it seems unlikely that a world would be fully existential to start with.

Very well, that would be all, thank you my dear readers!