Thursday, January 31, 2008

"Religious Experience"


Chapter Six of 'Atheism' takes on the problem of religious experience as it relates to the problem of God's existence. This argument, unlike the others, is not syllogistic, i.e. moving from premises to a conclusion. For this reason it is a very difficult argument to either affirm or deny. Since propositions cannot be valid or invalid, the only way to test them is to see whether they are true or false. But how can you prove that someone had or has not had a particular experience? Thus, the stickiness of this problem is apparent. I would like to admit at the outset that I have been dreading this chapter. The reason I had been dreading it is because I thought that I would have been in full agreement with Dr. Martin and, thus, would have had very little to say. Surprisingly, I have come to find out that, while I agree with some major points put forth by Dr. Martin, I actually had a much higher proportion of disagreement. Unfortunately, though, I am now faced with the problem of having very little to agree with, since what I actually learned from him was that I am actually unconvinced as to either position being correct. Thus, I will proceed from here to follow my regular pattern though without holding a position on the outcome.

Summary of Martin's Claims

Dr. Martin begins this chapter by defining religious experience as: "an experience in which one senses the immediate presence of some supernatural entity." He further qualifies his definition by asserting that by 'senses' he is in no way admitting that such an entity as is sensed exists, only that the 'sensor' believes or is inclined to believe that such an entity exists. Thus a religious experience is a subjective experience of something that may or may not exist. After defining what a religious experience is, Martin goes on to give what he believes to be the five types of religious experience: 1) an ordinary object being perceived as a supernatural being; 2) a supernatural entity being perceived as it would appear publically; 3) a supernatural entity being perceived as it would normally appear, yet privately; 4) a non-describable sensation or feeling (mystical experience); and 5) a non-sensory consciousness of the presence of another.

After listing the types of 'religious experiences,' Martin notes how most experts admit that such arguments are not actually arguments but, rather, propositions. After doing so, he points out that, while one cannot make an argument for the experience, one must argue for the justifiability of trusting such experiences. Thus, Martin goes on to formulate what he believes to be an accurate representation of the argument for the justifiability of religious experience in logical form. It can be stated as follows:

P-1: Under certain conditions 'C', religious beliefs of type 'K'-that is, beliefs generated by religious experience- are likely to be true.
P-2: Condition 'C' obtains
P-3: My religious belief that God exists is a type of 'K'
C: Hence, my religious belief that God exists is likely to be true

Based on this formulation, Martin correctly notes that the first premise is the key to the argument. He asks what type of reasons we have for accepting this premise. He is correct in his estimation that most experiences are private, thus compounding the problem. He also points out that there is an alternate (psychological) hypothesis, namely that the mind is the cause of the experience rather than an external object. He cites the effect of drugs as evidence that the mind often causes delusion. Finally, he notes that such experiences tell no uniform or coherent story and claims that there is no plausible theory to account for discrepancies. In light of these problems, he rejects the argument. After this, Martin gives an account of some traditional approaches used to 'judge' the reliability of particular religious experiences. The two he cites are: 1) an experience is not reliable if in conflict with Scripture; and 2) an experience is not reliable if it produces bad effects. He notes that the first attempt begs the question for a particular God and gives us reasons to believe that such agreements with Scripture could be produced by the mind simply in virtue of one being reared in a Christian culture. Regarding the second attempt, he claims that it too has a major assumption—that one could a priori know that an experience with God could only result in morally good responses. He asks why one couldn't denigrate morally because of a particular experience of God, and thus claims to have ruled out these 'tests.'

After ruling out such private experiences, Martin assesses the claim that public experiences could count as evidence for God's existence. He begins by admitting that such a task is possible in principle, but claims that the necessary ingredients needed to prove such a claim are missing. Regarding the first type of religious experience (listed above) He notes that there is no way to discern between the natural object and the spiritual being since all who see the physical reality will agree on it while few will see the spiritual reality. Regarding the second type (above) he claims that there are no uncontroversial cases of such experiences, but admits that if there were, this evidence would be significant. He then, recognizing that many would point to the supposed public appearances of Jesus after the resurrection and gives three criticisms of it: 1) the accounts of Jesus' resurrection contradictory in Gospels; 2) the accounts are not supported by the earlier writings of Paul; and 3) the accounts are not supported by contemporary Jewish and Roman sources. Finally, he points out that even if it did occur, it would not prove the existence of the theistic God since there are many other possible explanations.

Next, Martin turns his attention to mystical experiences. He notes that some say that these experiences when evaluated are much more similar to each other and even all seem to describe some experience of a 'nonsensuous' unity. Martin, however, claims that this argument fails stating that: either the similarity is not really present and the argument fails or the similarity is present and, seeing as the recipients interpret such experiences as exclusive realities (pantheistically vs. theistically), such similarities are better explained as being psychological rather than supernatural. Finally, he makes the keen observation that comparing these experiences is actually useless anyway, for one would have to have a description of the ineffable to do so. And that is a contradiction.

Finally, Martin ends this chapter by evaluating the argument proposed by Richard Swinburne. As has been his mantra, Mantra claims that Swinburne's argument is the most sophisticated and extended defense and, if false, it is likely that any other defenses will have serious problems as well. After this complimentary opening, Dr. Martin lays out Swinburne's case which centers on 'The Principle of Credulity.' This principle can be stated: "If it seems (epistemically) to the subject 'S' that 'x' is present, then probably 'x' is present." He (Swinburne) goes on to note some limitations to such a principle and claims that they do not actually apply to the argument from religious experience. In response to this, Martin proposes many supposed defeaters including: 1) The Negative Credulity Principle (where he asks "Are not experiences of the absence of God good grounds for the non-existence of God?); and 2) a hypothetical situation involving a dead aunt. Finally he ends by stating that Swinburne's hypothesis doesn't account for 'contradictory experiences' nor does it demonstrate that 'lesser beings' could be the cause of such experiences (finite, but very powerful mini gods). In the end, Martin claims that arguments from religious experience are un-definable and accepting them is for the gullible.

Agreements and What I Have Learned

As I noted earlier, this chapter was extremely hard for me to go through. First, I have never had a strong 'mystical experience' as defined. At most, I would claim to have had the fifth type of experience, where there is a non-sensory consciousness of the presence of another. However, such an experience seems to have no objective power for proving the existence of God, and thus on the main argument of Dr. Martin, I have to agree. However, I do think that in principle such experiences can be more than sufficient as evidence for God's existence on a subjective level. But since these experiences are not testable, I don't know if they are even worth talking about on the issue at hand (which is building a rational argument for or against theism; by definition experiences are non-rational—though not necessarily irrational).

I also agree with Martin that Swinburne's system is in disarray as it has been set up. If Swinburne's entire argument relies on the credulity principle as Martin has portrayed it, then I do not think that it is strong enough to convince a reasoned person that God exists. However, I do think that such a principle, given the theistic worldview proved by the cosmological argument, can be useful for some things. Nonetheless, its purpose here seems to have failed.


Finally, we move to the critique. I actually am surprised at some of my own thoughts in critiquing this, mostly regarding the final portion where Martin proposes objections to the Credulity Principle. However, there were a few criticisms that I have from the preceding section. First, when Martin denies the effectiveness of experiential evidence because there is no plausible theory to account for discrepancies, I think he is getting ahead of himself. It is theoretically possible that such a unifying theory could be discovered, and thus the evidential discrepancies could be explained. Now if contradictories were somehow affirmed with perfect accuracy then he could disprove the evidential value. But, seeing as such evidence would be impossible to put forth since one is only working with interpretations of experiences, which could be false, rather than the experiences themselves, such a result is highly unlikely, if not impossible. Second, Martin postulated that it was possible that one could be moved to be immoral if they had an experience of God. However, given the system of Thomas Aquinas, which stands on his yet to be disproved cosmological synthesis, this would be impossible because God is identical to goodness. Thus, one who experienced God could never turn immoral as a result of it. Third, many times throughout the arguments, Martin affirms that making distinctions between the experiences and the interpretations of them could help the problems that arise. However, he never attempts to discredit such arguments that would use this distinction because Swinburne doesn't allow for it. But Swinburne's argument isn't the end all and it would be interesting to see how Martin would react to the position if held.

Finally, my major criticisms have to do with the so-called Negative Principle of Credulity. First, what is an experience of 'something' not there but an experience of 'nothing'? But an experience of 'nothing' cannot prove that 'something' is non-existent. Second, I do not think his chair example works. Our 'non-experience' of the chair is limited to a particular space; thus we cannot say that a chair doesn't exist but that there is no chair 'right there'. Now Martin may respond that since God is omnipresent, such an argument would seem to be valid. However, when one experiences God it is not a spatial relationship that is being conveyed but a spiritual relationship. To illustrate using the chair, even if one wants to see the chair really badly he will not experience it if he is not properly related to the chair, e.g. he has his back to it rather than his face. Likewise, if one is not in a correct spiritual relation with God, it is likely that he will not perceive Him. Thus this portion of Martin's claim is faulted. Third, I think that the 'Dead-Aunt' analogy is faulty. If we do know something of the exploits of the dead, we could judge whether or not the experience is valid. Hence, if Christianity is true and the general resurrection has not occurred and we knew that the aunt was dead, or if there was no religious significance such as a prediction of such a resurrection based in a theistic context, then there would be good reason to doubt the experience based on conditions. Of course this may seem to be begging the question, but I am not trying to make an argument, only give a counterexample to Martin. Thus, this portion of his argument fails as well. Lastly, Christianity has an answer for the fact of discrepancy between different religious experiences which actually invokes Martin's proposal of 'lesser beings.' Christianity claims that there are evil/deceiving spirits. Thus, these can account for misinformation. Again, this is a counterexample, not a proof. All in all, Martin's arguments, while they may be right about the worth of subjective religious experience as it relates to demonstrating God's existence to another, ultimately fail in trying to prove that such experiences are nothing but psychological manifestations. Unfortunately, I don't think anyone could ever make such an argument without begging the question.

One more thing (and this is something I plan to do a blog on later, so I will keep it brief). Martin made some claims about the Resurrection accounts of Jesus in the Bible that I would like to say something about. 1) He asserts that the Gospel accounts are contradictory and never gives an example. This is poisoning the well. If they are, tell us how. If you can't give an example, don't claim it. Because he gives no example, I will have no recourse but to say "Nuh uh!" 2) He claims that the Resurrection experiences cannot be corroborated by Paul, who wrote earlier. But this is just false. 1 Corinthians 15 is as clear as any passage of Paul's that the Resurrection was experienced by many, including a group of 500. What's more is that this account, which takes the form of a creed, can and has actually been dated to within five years of the event itself, and thus is very reliable historically. Finally, 3) Martin claims that the events surrounding the resurrection are not supported by Jewish and Roman sources. Again, this is an unfair criticism. First, it is documented by these sources that the believers held the Resurrection to be true. Of course they may not comply, but if they did then they would be considered Christian sources rather than Jewish and Roman. It is a catch twenty-two! And if one were to say that this wouldn't be the case then fine, the Apostle Paul is my Jewish and Roman source. Thus the criticisms of Martin are unsubstantiated and the public experiences of the supernatural are indeed significant.

No comments:

Post a Comment