A mystical experience argument
February 26, 2008 — 14:17

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Existence of God  Comments: 20

The following argument is valid:

  1. Every phenomenal species of experiences has a veridical member. (Premise)
  2. Mystical experiences are a phenomenal species of experiences. (Premise)
  3. A mystical experience is veridical only if something is numinous. (Premise)
  4. Therefore, something is numinous. (By 1-3)

If we like, we might add:

  1. If naturalism holds, nothing is numinous. (Premise)
  2. Therefore, naturalism is false. (By 4 and 5)

There are two versions of this argument. On one version, “mystical experience”
is left undefined, and then (3) is substantive. On the other version, a
mystical experience is defined as an experience that is in part about
something being numinous, in which case (3) is trivial.

The phrase “phenomenal species of experiences” needs explanation.
Paradigmatic phenomenal species of experiences are things like visual experiences,
experiences of change, olfactory experiences, etc. (Note
that phenomenal species can overlap: something can be simultaneously a visual
experience and an experience of change.) Different phenomenal species of
experiences feel differently–their qualia are different
in kind. I don’t know whether I want to fully stand by the following
characterization, but it is plausible:
A set S of possible experiences constitutes a phenomenal species of
experiences provided it is not possible to know what it is like to have
an experience from S without either having had some experience from S
or having an apparent memory of an experience from S.
you can’t
know what it is like to smell something without having smelled something
or at least having an implanted apparent memory of smelling something.
On the other hand,
visual experiences of pink elephants are not a phenomenal species of
experiences, because it is possible to know what it is like to have a
visual experience of a pink elephant by having visual experiences of a
pink teddy bear and a gray elephant. Likewise, if Hume’s missing shade of
blue argument holds, then visual experiences of a precise shade of blue
are not a phenomenal species of experiences, though visual experiences
of blue things are.

If you think that there are non-intentional experiences (maybe you think boredoms, itches and pains are like that–I don’t), I will clarify that “experience” here is “intentional experience”.

The most controversial premise is (1). The idea here is that it would be odd indeed for us to have an experiential mechanism that was never veridical. There are several considerations here. First, once we admit that a whole phenomenal species of experiences could be non-veridical, we open ourselves up to a lot of scepticism. Second, one might wonder about the concept of such intentional experiences. For instance, one might think, e.g., with Sellars, that we gain the concept of an experience as of an F through first having experiences that are actually, veridically of Fs. Third, “nature does nothing in vain”: (1) is at least presumptively true in any particular case (in which case the argument yields the presumption that there is something numinous).

What is the numinous? Well, it is something to which it is appropriate to react with mystification, awe and fascinated attraction.

  • Clayton Littlejohn

    I don’t see why naturalists cannot believe in the numinous. The natural world and its various features (vast reaches of space, consciousness, and normativity, for example) seems to be the sort of thing that would be appropriately mystified by, awed by, and fascinated with.
    Anyway, there seems to be a decent case against (1). First, an error theorist about sensible qualities will say (1) is false. I’m not an error theorist myself, but I don’t think (1) gives us good grounds for rejecting the theory. Second, can’t there be illusory experiences that could not be verified by the world? You might say that what matters is that for any perceptual mechanism it should be possible it produces veridical states, but we get the problem with error theory again _and_ we have to ask why we should assume that there is a mechanism that produces mystical experiences. That does not follow from the claim that those experiences have a distinctive phenomenology so far as I can tell.

    February 26, 2008 — 22:55
  • Clayton:
    I am not sure awe is appropriate if in fact what we have is just the product of natural forces. Being mystified isn’t the same as puzzlement, either–it may be that only puzzlement is appropriate.
    Yes, error theorists about sensible qualities will say (1) is false. But such error theories are false, and the fact that they contradict (1) seems to me to be very good reason to doubt them, just as it seems to be a very good reason to doubt Zeno’s theory that there is no motion to note that the theory contradicts (1) (assuming experiences of motion are a phenomenal species).
    Moreover, I suspect that any good reason we might have to doubt the actual existence of sensible qualities would also be a reason to doubt the possible existence of sensible qualities. Our error theorist, thus, has to say that we have a phenomenal species of intentional experiences which not only are non-veridical, but which cannot be veridical. That strikes me as implausible.

    February 26, 2008 — 23:56
  • Drapetomanic

    Hi, Alexander Pruss. I have been reading this blog, and your comments, for a few months now, and I have appreciated your reasoned and intellectual approach to religion.
    You often write expressions of personal preference toward the end of your conclusions. Here you wrote “That strikes me as implausible”. It sounds as if you find your preference rational and probably reflective of a non-subjective, universal truth; it seems that you want to come across as having humility in the matter. But, if you are trying to express a “belief that” in relation to a universal truth, shouldn’t you be writing it as an expression of fact? I suppose that your last sentence could be rewritten “That is implausible.”
    Any thoughts on the matter would be appreciated.

    February 27, 2008 — 10:29
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    I am not sure awe is appropriate if in fact what we have is just the product of natural forces.
    I don’t know. When I imagine a world I’ve stipulated as a purely natural world that fits the natural profile of this world and imagine myself into it, awe seems appropriate. It’s not puzzlement. There’s nothing like confusion or ignorance here. Anyway, since I don’t know how to win a fight about the propriety of such a feeling, I’ll simply report that I’m not the only atheist in the world struck with a sense of awe when I think about the vast universe.
    Sure, error theories are false. (At least, that’s what I think.) That’s not the issue. The issue is whether (1) gives us reason to reject error theories. I’d think not. But even if you think so, there’s the further question as to whether there can be _any_ experiences that cannot be veridical. I thought that Susan Siegel makes a decent case that there are such experiences, but I’d have to check the reference.

    February 27, 2008 — 10:57
  • Alexander Pruss

    Here we have a clash of emotions. First of all, size strikes me as just a purely relative matter. So, now, imagine something that is isomorphic with the vast natural world, but contained in a small vat. There is a lot of intricate detail there. But is awe appropriate? The only thing I imagine in the vat that is awe inspiring is that the vat has produced intelligent life. But I am not in awe of my own intelligent life, though I am puzzled by it. Am I in awe that there are six billion other intelligent beings? That seems merely a quantitative difference. OK, maybe there are trillions of super-smart aliens in other galaxies, and awe is appropriate. Yes, but that isn’t going to be relevant to the argument, since nobody has had veridical mystical experiences of them, I take it. (If I’m wrong about that, then maybe the argument is unsound.)
    Now if I put myself in the picture, and imagine the difference in scale between myself and the universe, then I guess I get feelings of awe–feelings of being in the presence of something much, much bigger than I. But on reflection, I see these feelings as mistaken. Now my seeing these feelings as mistaken may well be biased–it may be biased by the fact that I see the significance of size only in terms of its being a faint reflection of God’s power. But still, it seems fairly easy to dismiss much of the feeling of awe just by saying: “All that is just material stuff, no different in kind from sand, plus vacuum, which is nothing at all.” But a veridical perception shouldn’t fade just in virtue of reflecting on a true proposition. The part that doesn’t fade quite so much for me is that awe at empty space. But there is no such thing as empty space (or maybe there is some vacuum state–but that does not seem to be something full of awe), and I don’t think the awe here stands up very well to criticism.
    Maybe we need to distinguish between absolute awe and relational awe. I have absolute awe at God. I have relational awe at a towering sports player much bigger and stronger than myself. Absolute awe at the universe is inappropriate as my thought experiment of the universe in a vat suggests; relational awe might be appropriate. (Though I am not sure even of that.)
    So now the question is whether relational awe and absolute awe are members of the same phenomenal species. Could one know what it is like to have absolute awe while only having had relational awe? I think what pushes me towards an affirmative answer is that in practice, there is always mixed in some absolute awe with any instance of relational awe, even though the absolute awe may be inappropriate. But if I had pure relational awe–would that tell me what absolute awe is like? Relational awe makes essential reference to one’s own smallness–it is comparative in nature. Does it feel different, though? I don’t know.
    This is all very interesting to me.
    The mystery component is also relevant. The universe is very puzzling. But I think one could imagine knowing all the facts about the universe–one could imagine what that would be like, knowing the true laws of physics, and having one’s memories filled with lots of particular facts. True mystery isn’t like that.

    February 27, 2008 — 13:08
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    If I were a tiny resident of vatland, I’d be in awe of vatland. Fwiw.
    When someone says that awe is fitting only if there’s a supernatural cause of the universe, I sort of feel bad for them. It’s like when people say that if all there was was unguided evolution, children wouldn’t be valuable. I feel sorry for them that they think something like an exceptionally long causal chain has to be added to a child to make it special. (I love all people, swamp-people included.)
    To be perfectly honest, I’d only be in awe of a god (if there was one and I met it) because that being could create something as awe-inspiring as the universe. I’ve never understood looking at things from the other way around.

    February 27, 2008 — 14:19
  • There is a difference between seeing something as a work of art and seeing it as something random. Take the Mona Lisa. Something looking just like it could have arisen through naturalistic processes. But then it wouldn’t be a work of art. It would still be beautiful, but the ambiguous meaning in the smile would be illusory. Something would be missing.
    I think the universe is awe-inspiring. But this awe points beyond the universe, and when we do not pay attention to this pointing-beyond (and we might be paying attention to the pointing-beyond unconsciously), the awe is apt to evaporate, just as we will no longer be impressed by a text of Hamlet when we stop paying attention to what the words mean, and start focusing at the shapes of ink on the page. The inscription is wondrous–but only because of the meaning and poetic sound that it points to.
    By the way, absolute awe shouldn’t be affected by whether one is a tiny resident of vatland or not.

    February 27, 2008 — 14:35
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Something looking just like it could have arisen through naturalistic processes.
    Could because did, I’d say.
    But then it wouldn’t be a work of art. It would still be beautiful, but the ambiguous meaning in the smile would be illusory. Something would be missing.
    I guess we disagree about works of art because I thought artists created them and artists are are perfectly natural creatures.
    I think the universe is awe-inspiring. But this awe points beyond the universe, and when we do not pay attention to this pointing-beyond (and we might be paying attention to the pointing-beyond unconsciously), the awe is apt to evaporate.
    If ‘this awe’ means A.R.’s awe, I’m not one to disagree with you. However, if ‘this awe’ is mine, I must disagree with you. My awe points to nothing beyond the universe and isn’t apt to evaporate. (Although I suppose it might if I saw the gods churning out billions of cheap copies.)

    February 27, 2008 — 17:39
  • I don’t think questions about what a given feeling indicates are entirely settled by introspection. Let’s say it’s the first time I feel hungry. What I am feeling is a lack of nutrition. But no amount of introspection can tell me that. Likewise, it may be that the awe-inspiring aspect of the universe is its participation in God (which is not something extrinsic: on the right kind of theism, all of the positive qualities of the universe subsist by virtue of constant participation in God).
    In the case of the Mona Lisa, the point I was trying to make was simply that if the Mona Lisa were the product of non-agentive natural processes, many of the aesthetic qualities wouldn’t be there. The analogy is imperfect, because the Mona Lisa has many valuable qualities independent of a connection with the designer, while the universe, on the theistic hypothesis, is not just designed, but participates in God.
    Let me ask you this: Which natural features of the universe do you think are such as to make an appropriate object of awe, mystery and fascination? Size? (Absolute or relative?) Emptiness? The arrangement of the stuff in it?

    February 28, 2008 — 9:04
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    You wrote:
    I don’t think questions about what a given feeling indicates are entirely settled by introspection. Let’s say it’s the first time I feel hungry. What I am feeling is a lack of nutrition. But no amount of introspection can tell me that. Likewise, it may be that the awe-inspiring aspect of the universe is its participation in God (which is not something extrinsic: on the right kind of theism, all of the positive qualities of the universe subsist by virtue of constant participation in God).
    I guess I don’t find the first part very plausible unless I’m just completely misreading you. The sensations I introspect that I’d identify with feelings of hunger are sensations I could have regardless of whether I lack nutrition. Maybe you think “real” hunger is something beyond that, but then I wouldn’t have thought “real hunger” is _just_ a feeling.
    You asked which natural features of the universe make it an appropriate object of awe. I’d guess my list is similar to yours, but I have a hard time deciding what goes on it. I have a hard time for the very same reason I have a hard time coming up with my list of features that make the Mona Lisa beautiful, or my friend Lissa beautiful, or, well, you get the idea. I know beauty and awe-inspiring when I see it.
    Let me ask you a slightly different question. Not everything that is the distal result of divine creation is awe-inspiring. Some of it is, well, merde. Merde, for example. Take the qualities that distinguish that which is awe-inspiring and the result of a divine creative act from those that are the results of divine creative acts and not awe-inspiring. I imagine my list of natural features that double as (or serve as the ground of) awe-inspiring features/makers looks like that.

    February 29, 2008 — 14:36
  • Robert Newsom

    I guess than when I read Alex’s post, I had in envisioned something rather like the sort of experience Bertie Russell had in mind when he said that he could imagine experiences which, were he to have them, would make a theist out of him. I don’t recall his exact description (it has been a LONG time since I read Russell, and will be about the same length of time before I read him again), but I think he had a sort of “Road to Tarsus” thing in mind.
    So, I was considering the question in terms of whether there could be a plausable, “naturalist,” account of how there could be a capacity for such experiences if they were ALWAYS non-veridical.
    I, too, would like to take error theory off the table. But what about some sort of adaptationist “just so” story? Could Dan Dennett, for example, coble one together? Or, alternatively, could a thorough going naturalist have some story to tell about how such a “capacity” was just a “side effect” of some cognitive/emotional capacity that was adaptive?
    The argument would have to be that, although such experiences might be illusory, they are nevertheless “beneficial,” and perhaps point to research in, for example, nursing and the health sciences, that seems to establish the “value” of positive illusions.
    I suppose an ontological naturalist would think that this would pull the teeth out of premise 1.

    February 29, 2008 — 15:29
  • Kris Rhodes

    Isn’t there a difference between being veridical and having a veridical member? Doesn’t (3) need to say that a mystical experience only _has a veridical member_ if something is numinous (in order for the argument to be valid)? And wouldn’t this edited version of (3) be implausible?
    Or have I misunderstood what “having a veridical member” means? From (1) I gather it means something like “has a constituent which is veridical (even if it itself–the experience–is not veridical).

    March 2, 2008 — 4:20
  • Kris Rhodes

    Please disregard my previous comment. I failed to read the part of the blog post “after the fold,” and so did indeed misunderstand (1).

    March 2, 2008 — 4:24
  • John Alexander

    I am trying to determine if your argument is also sound. What part of the mystical experience is veridical and/or numinous? What is the difference between a mystical experience and a hallucination? How would someone who is having what they think is a mystical experience be able to determine the truth and accuaracy of the experience when some who have had hallucinations have thought they were having an experince of something real (they were having a real experience)?

    March 2, 2008 — 13:41
  • Clayton:
    I think hunger can be veridical (when one is in need of nutrition and the hunger is connected in the right way to that) and non-veridical (when it arises out of some disorder instead).
    Your final suggestion is helpful. But what if I say that what is the ground of the relevant kind of awe in the case of the universe is “beyond-pointing”–a feature that the universe has in virtue of pointing towards something beyond mere particles and their arrangement?
    Mr. Newsom:
    I would wonder about the source of intentionality in the faculty. The best naturalistic stories about intentionality are causal in nature. On these theories mental states of a given kind can only be about Fs only if some mental state of the kind are caused by Fs, or by something out of which Fs can be constructed. These causal stories make it difficult to have a kind of experience that is (a) intentional, (b) radically different in kind from other experiences, and (c) no member of which is caused by anything having the perceived property, because nothing in fact has the perceived property.
    I want to sidestep questions of how one tells that one’s experience is veridical. Let me grant for the sake of the argument that one can’t. Still, if (1)-(3) hold, then someone has had a veridical mystical experience. (Of course, as far as the argument goes it may not be anybody I know or even know of.) Whether this person could tell that she had a veridical mystical experience or not is beside the point. That she had one entails that something is numinous.
    I only need a very weak notion of veridicality to make my argument go. Say that an experience of something having some property P is weakly veridical provided that indeed that something has that property. (This is weak because normally veridicality requires a “right way” causal condition.)

    March 2, 2008 — 23:37
  • John Alexander

    If I understand you correctly then this argument is as equally valid as yours:
    · Every phenomenal species of experiences has a veridical member. (Premise)
    · Mystical experiences do not have a veridical member. (Premise)
    · Therefore, mystical experiences are not a phenomenal species. (Premise)
    If this argument is valid then your conclusion that something is numinous does not follow from it and we are left with the idea that there is nothing that is numinous (as long as only mystical (religious) experiences can numinous), therefore naturalism is true.

    March 3, 2008 — 8:28
  • Alexander Pruss

    Yes, that argument is equally valid. The question, then, is whether your second premise is more plausible than my second premise. I think it is less plausible.

    March 3, 2008 — 10:35
  • John Alexander

    I would have been surprised had you thought my second premise was more plausible then yours. But is that not the problem. Plausibility rests on one’s epistemic framework and ours differ on important issues so it appears that at some point in the argument, if we want to move away from questions of validity to soundness, that we need to address the epistemic status of mystical experiences re their veridical status. I realize that this is beyond the intent of your post. I just wanted to see where we stood.

    March 3, 2008 — 13:21
  • Robert Newsom

    Thanks for your thoughtful response to my comment/question. I am sometimes a bit hesitant to comment, since I only returned to philosophy a few years ago after a 25 year absence, and it is a LOT of work to get “caught up.”
    I think your answer is probably the best one available, but I am not sure that it would carry the day with, say, Dan Dennett. I say Dan, as opposed to someone like Dawkins, because while Dan pretty clearly thinks religious people are a little crazy, he also clearly thinks SOME religious people are “nice” crazy, whereas I can’t convince myself that Dawkins feels the same way.
    In any event, I think most naturalist accounts would agree with your characterization that “mental states of a given kind can be about Fs only if some mental states of the kind are caused by Fs, or by something out of which Fs can be constructed.” I believe Ruth Millikan, for example, would subscribe to that thesis, and her naturalist credentials are in pretty good order.
    As regards mental states which accompany mystical experiences (or constitute them, whichever the case may be) wouldn’t the logical move for the naturalist be to attempt to seek refuge in the “can be constructed” proviso? Of course, the plausibility of any such account is going to vary with just how radically different mystical experience is from other, more mundane, experiences, and I am not sure how to even begin to assess that. I am one of those people who, as Keith DeRose puts it, “God has chosen to leave in
    the eperiential twilight.”

    March 4, 2008 — 12:40
  • Robert Newsom

    OOPS! That should be “experiential twilight.”

    March 5, 2008 — 14:09