Is warrant for mystical beliefs transmissible by testimony?
June 11, 2004 — 6:44

Author: David Efird  Category: Religious Belief  Comments: 6

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James makes the following claims about mystical experiences:
(1) Mystical states, when developed, usually are and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come.
(2) No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically.
(3) They break down the authority of non-mystical or rationalistic consciousness, based upon the understanding and the senses alone. They show it to be only one kind of consciousness. They open out the possibility of other orders of truth, in which, so far as anything in us vitally responds to them, we may freely continue to have faith. (460-61)
Claim (1) seems to say that mystical experiences give a sort of invulnerable authority, or, one might say, indefeasible warrant, for mystical beliefs (beliefs concerning mystical experiences). Claim (2) might be interepreted, when purged of some unfortunate features, as saying that the warrant spoken of in Claim (1) for mystical beliefs is not transmissible by testimony from the one who experienced the mystical state to one who has not.
Whether or not this is an accurate interpretation of James, I would like to ask: how should we understand James’s use of ‘authority’ in Claim (1) and does this understanding fit with Claim (2)?

Beginning with (my interpretation of) Claim (1), do mystical experiences confer an invulnerable authority on mystical beliefs? To answer this question, we must consider what sort of authority is at issue here. Previously, James spoke of religious experiences in the following way:
‘They are as convincing to those who have them as any direct sensible experiences can be, and they are, as a rule, much more convincing than results established by mere logic ever are. One may indeed be entirely without them; probably more than one of you here present is without them in any marked degree; but if you do have them, and have them at all strongly, the probability is that you cannot help regarding them as genuine perceptions of truth, as revelations of a kind of reality which no adverse argument, however unanswerable by you in words, can expel from your belief’ (72-73).
The comparison to sense experience is an interesting one. In one respect, the comparison is helpful, in another it is not. My sense experience as of a computer in front of me gives me a Moorean belief that there is a computer in front of me, and I am not tempted to withdraw this belief in the presence of a sceptical argument. (Though interestingly in my experience of teaching first year undergraduates they do seem to want to withdraw Moorean beliefs at the slightest hint of a sceptical scenario.) But my belief that there is a computer in front of me is not absolutely invulnerable, or indefeasible. I could be convinced that the sense experience is illusory, given the right sort of evidence. So, on the one hand, the analogy to sense experience seems right — my beliefs about my sense experiences are very secure and not liable to be swayed by argument, but they are not absolutely secure, given that they are not guaranteed to be infallible.
The sort of authority, I think, that James is operating with in Claim (1) is therefore not the sort of authority associated with beliefs about sense experience, but rather the sort of authority associated with Wittgensteinian framework principles. A framework principle is a sort of claim that is foundational for a particular system of belief; it is a grammatical proposition for what makes sense in a certain discourse. For example, the claim that God exists is a framework principle in Christian belief. Framework principles are the sort of principles that are invulerable within the particular belief system or discourse they govern. It is simply not sensible to think that there could be evidence for or against them within the particular system they are foundations for.
My thought is that when a subject has a mystical experience, she gains a new framework principle that then becomes regulatory over her system of belief and her life. Wittgenstein emphasises this regulatory role of framework principles. In his ‘Lectures on Religious Beliefs�, in Cyril Barrett (ed.), Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, Wittgenstein claims:
‘Suppose someone were a believer and said: �I believe in a Last Judgement,� and I said; �Well, I’m not so sure. Possibly�. You would say that there is an enormous gulf between us. If he said �There is a German aeroplane overhead�, and I said �Possibly I’m not so sure� you’d say we were fairly near.
It isn�t a question of my being near him, but on an entirely different plane, which you can express by saying: �You mean something altogether different, Wittgenstein�.
The difference might not show up at all in any explanation of meaning’ (54).
Speaking again about the Last Judgement, Wittgenstein writes:
‘Whenever he [the believer in the Last Judgement] does anything, this is before his mind. In a way, how are we to know whether to say he believes this will happen or not?
Asking him is not enough. He will probably say he has proof. But he has what you might call an unshakeable belief. It will show, not by reasoning or by appeal to ordinary grounds for belief, but rather by regulating for in all his life’ (53-54).
So, I think, we should understand James’s Claim (1) as concerned with the sort of authority associated with framework propositions rather than the sort of authority associated with sense perceptions. This, I think, also explains why authority for mystical beliefs is not transmissible by testimony from the one who experienced the mystical state to one who has not.
Here an analogy from aesthetics will be helpful. It is rather common in aesthetics to maintain that warrant for an aesthetic belief (the Mona Lisa is beautiful) is available only to one who has experienced, or engaged with, or seen, the Mona Lisa. That is, someone who has lived all his life in the Congo and never seen the Mona Lisa, or any representation of it, cannot warrantedly believe that the Mona Lisa is beautiful simply by my telling him that it is: he must experience it himself to have warrant for that belief. I think that view in aesthetics is rather plausible.
And I think something similar maybe true in the epistemology of mystical experience: in order to have warrant for a mystical belief, one must have engaged with the object of that belief. Now that engagement can take many forms — it need not be a sort of Hollywood angels all around experience. It can be a Wesleyan “my heart was strangely warmed” sort of experience. But some sort of engagement is needed.
Now it’s clear what explains the truth of Claim (2), if it’s true at all, of course. It’s that authority only comes from real engagement with the object of the mystical belief, say, God. I want this understanding of (2) to be consistent with the following: if subject 1 has a mystical experience as of God and subject 2 has a distinct mystical experience as of God, warrant is transmissible both ways–that is subject 1 can have warrant for a belief based on subject 2’s experience and vice versa. But one who has had no experience as of God cannot have warranted beliefs based on either subject’s experience.
This requirement then fits in nicely with the sort of authority I thought was operative in Claim (1). For that sort of authority is the sort associated with framework propositions which govern belief systems and forms of life. And what Claim (2) says, perhaps, is that warrant is kept within the form of life — that is, it’s kept in the family (of God).

  • Do undergraduates withdraw their Moorean beliefs, or do they simply say that they’re unsure those beliefs are true? I would have thought the latter. A good many, in my experience, won’t even do that.
    I guess there are some other questions to explore here. One is whether the experience has to be of the same reality or being. If there are multiple divine beings, for instance, they might warrant experiences in different people with the same sort of subjective feel in both cases. Each might think they’re experiencing the same reality. I think you need to say that they can’t share the warrant, but I’m not sure. I suppose this could even come up in traditional monotheistic religions when you consider angels and demons.
    I think even stranger questions arise if you consider proposals like Hick’s, that ultimate reality can be reflected fully and correctly in different systems that contradict each other in most of their points. The way you’re talking about Wittgensteinian frameworks opens up the door that a radical Islamic terrorist’s experience as of God might be warranted even while the Buddhist or Jew might also be. Would they then be able to share their warrant, or would it have to be within the system?

    June 11, 2004 — 7:39
  • Ted Poston

    Interesting question! James� Varieties is one of my favorite books. I don�t think we should interpret James as holding that mystical experiences give a person a new framework belief. As you note a Wittgensteinian framework belief is one which (among other things) evidential considerations are inappropriate. But with the case of mystical beliefs that are based on mystical experience, it�s the quality of evidence that rationalizes the belief. In his chapter on mysticism James writes that mystical experiences have a noetic quality that conveys significant information to the subject. James also says that �mystical experiences are as direct perceptions of fact for those who have them as any sensations ever were for us.� The puzzle is to fit this together with his second claim. The way I read it is to stress James� talk of having a duty or obligation to believe the mystical claims even apart from thorough investigation (he says �uncritically�). Note the last thing James says about his second claim: �I repeat that non-mystics are under no obligation to acknowledge in mystical states a superior authority conferred on them by their intrinsic nature.� I think James is puzzled by the diversity of religious experiences and troubled also by the seemingly insufficient results of natural theology. Thus, (I think) James feels that one does not have an intellectual duty to believe these claims apart from careful inquiry and even after careful inquiry persons who lack the requisite experiences may still lack a duty to believe the mystical claims. But this is not to admit that mystical experiences lack an evidential quality. It�s just that on balance the person who has not had the requisite experience has other defeaters for the mystical claims. The person who has had the mystical experience usually experiences some sort of self-certification that defeats those other defeaters. Because testimony is at best second hand knowledge it cannot convey that self-certifying quality of the religious experience.

    June 11, 2004 — 10:36
  • Henry Verheggen

    I have a layman’s question, somewhat off topic. It seems to me that mystical experience is the only way that I could come to a belief in the existence of God. I have found all other approaches to belief in God to be unconvincing. Are any of you aware of a contemporary philosopher who came to a belief in God through intellectual or philosophical considerations, and who has given an account of his conversion?

    June 14, 2004 — 18:09
  • David Efird

    He’s not a philosopher, but CS Lewis says that he was converted to Christianity by intellectual (rather than mystical) means. He records his conversion in his book, Surprised by Joy.

    June 15, 2004 — 10:50
  • Peter van Inwagen didn’t find himself convinced by arguments, but he also doesn’t appeal to mystical experience. He simply found himself believing after having been non-religious all his life. He thinks he has good reasons for believing, but he doesn’t think they’re communicable reasons (i.e. he can’t explain to you what they are or why he thinks they’re good reasons).

    June 15, 2004 — 11:11
  • Interesting that Peter van Inwagen was to some extent influenced by Lewis�s writings. You can find his story and that of other philosophers in Thomas Morris�s “God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason“. You can find van Inwagen�s “Quam Dilecta” online in two parts here and here.

    June 15, 2004 — 15:02