What Is It Like to Have an Experience That Grounds a Properly Basic Belief in God?
February 18, 2010 — 11:49

Author: Robert Gressis  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism Existence of God Religious Belief  Comments: 36

[Note: An incomplete version of this post published earlier. Sorry about that!]

Recently, California State University, Sacramento philosopher Matt McCormick recorded an interview with Luke Muehlhauser in which he discussed atheism. A lively debate broke out in the comments section, and there Matt challenged defenders of reformed epistemology (RE) as follows:
“Maybe you all can just help me understand what this immediate, direct, non-inferential, basic apprehension of God is, exactly. I’m not really interested in theoretical interpretations or descriptions that are couched in abstract theological babble. I just want to hear some descriptions of the actual phenomenology of these moments, experiences, or apprehensions. Describe the sorts of feelings, sights, smells, or apprehensions that are occurring when one is having this direct hookup with God. For analogies, we have the Jodie Foster contacts aliens example and a guy who knows he didn’t commit a crime because he recalls being at home watching TV on Saturday night and not robbing a liquor store, or whatever. But obviously, one’s encounters with the almighty creator of the universe and master of all reality aren’t really going to be like either of these in any shape, manner, or form. So what exactly are they like? And what is it about them that engenders such profound confidence and such strong ontological conclusions?”
I decided to respond to the challenge.
You can find what I wrote, as well as Matt McCormick’s response, at Matt’s blog, but in case you don’t want to read my rambling comment, I’ll summarize the relevant portion:


By and large, immediate, direct, non-inferential, basic apprehension of God works like this–at least, it works like this for me:
(1) I have some experience E.
(2) It occurs to me that a powerful, benevolent being (“God”) is responsible for E.
(3) The thought that God is responsible for E just make sense.
In my response to McCormick, I addressed (3) first, by drawing an analogy to experiences of sense-making I’ve had in my academic life. I took the example of trying to make sense of Kant’s various positions on the nature of freedom. I couldn’t figure out how to make them all cohere until I came upon a description of how Berkeley understood freedom in Wayne Waxman’s Kant and the Empiricists. Once I came upon that description, Kant’s various writings on the subject seemed to be unified by a single principle that allowed me to see them all in a new light: I now saw them as different ways of articulating that main principle, or as different ways of exploring the consequences of accepting that principle. In other words, upon thinking of them all in a different way, I could see how they related together–they all became pieces of a single puzzle, pieces that fit together and completed the puzzle. And now they all made sense; this was evidence for the rectitude of that interpretation.
As for (1), I gave an example from my own life–an example that has to be treated somewhat apprehensively, because I can’t be sure that I remember its components correctly. One day I was sitting in church and I thought that my fellow parishioners didn’t take Christianity seriously. I became angry at God for making this kind of person attracted to Christianity instead of more admirable people. Getting angry at God made me feel liberated–I felt like getting angry was not only permissible, but what I should be doing, and therefore a feeling that was okay to have, even in church (hence the feeling of liberation–I felt like there was something I could do that I earlier didn’t think I was allowed). The feeling of liberty in expressing my displeasure at God also gave me a sense of authenticity–I felt like I was being true to my deepest beliefs and desires. But there followed upon this sense of authenticity a feeling of thankfulness to God. I was thankful because of (a) God’s allowing even anger at him to be a kind of following of him; it opened up new vistas for ways I could be myself in relation to God; and (b) God’s creating a world wherein this kind of thing was possible.
I also added that this set of feelings–or any religious experience, in fact–could have a neurobiological origin, and that I would expect just such an origin if God designed us to come to know him.
In response to my presentation of (1)-(3), as well as my explication of (1)-(3), Matt responded with the following objections:
(I) RE is supposed to work like this: you have an immediate, direct, non-inferential, basic apprehension of God. This apprehension is so strong and clear that it is supposed to make one’s theism extremely resistant to objections. My apprehension of God, such as it is, isn’t anything like this.
(II) The analogy between making sense of an academic work and making sense of one’s experiences is inapt. Part of what one is supposed to conclude from one’s experience of God is that God is real, whereas one’s conclusion, upon accepting an one interpretation of an academic work, has nothing to do with positing the existence of a certain kind of entity. Sense-making, though, might be useful as a reason to believe in the real existence of unobservable particles, such as the Higgs-Boson.
(III) I posit the existence of God in an emotional state, to make sense of certain things that occur during that emotional state. But there are lots of things that explain my emotions better than what I posited, and moreover, emotions aren’t guides to what really exists; indeed, emotions often make us misunderstand data and jump to false conclusions about things.
(IV) Even if God’s existing makes sense of my feelings, it makes lots of other things a lot harder to understand–for instance, other people’s non-theistic religious experiences, the problem of divine hiddenness, the problem of evil, etc. In other words, the explanatory gain one gets for making sense of one’s religious experiences is off-set by the increase in ad hocness that results in order to respond to those other problems.
(V) McCormick also takes issue with my claim that if God exists, he would hard-wire us to believe in him. McCormick thinks that this is a problematic response for a variety of reasons, but here’s just one: there are much more reliable ways God could have come up with for us to believe in him.
I shall respond to (I)-(V) in the comments section below, but I’d be interested in hearing what everyone else thinks.

Comments:
  • anon

    The quote from McCormick makes it sound like he is attributing the following claims to reformed epistemologists (REers):
    All Christians have some weird mystical experience. When they have that weird mystical experience they form a basic belief in God. That belief counts as knowledge. Without that weird mystical experience, that belief wouldn’t count as knowledge.
    That seems like a misunderstanding of the REers position. It makes it sound like REers think that some specific phenomenology is associated with every properly formed belief in God.
    I didn’t think that, according to REers, there had to be one phenomenology that corresponded to every instance of the formation of a belief that counts as knowledge. Your belief just has to be formed by properly functioning cognitive faculties or reliable processes and it has to be true.
    Consider skepticism. Suppose I see an antiskeptical argument. Suppose I find it convincing. Suppose I am right and it is convincing. My antiskeptical belief was formed by reflection on an argument.
    Suppose I don’t have an antiskeptical argument. Suppose that I just consider the hypothesis that I am a brain in a vat and the hypothesis that I am an embodied brain. Suppose this is because my brain is hooked up to the external world in a way that causes me to have true beliefs about it.
    The phenomenology is very different. But in both cases my belief counts as knowledge.
    Now back to God. Suppose I have some weird mystical experience. That would be an OK way to form belief in God.
    Suppose instead that I just consider the hypothesis that God exists and it seems true to me. I have no weird mystical experience. I have no argument. It just seems true to me in the same way that the hypothesis that I am not a brain in a vat seems true to me. Suppose that God just created me in such a way that I tend to form true beliefs about whether or not he exists, whether or not He is loving, etc. Then my belief is formed by properly functioning cognitive faculty. The phenomenology doesn’t matter. What matters is how the belief is formed. Whether it is formed in the relevant, appropriate way need not be, according to proponents of RE, phenomenologically accessible.

    February 18, 2010 — 13:57
  • lukeprog

    Robert,
    Did your post get cut off in mid sentence? “One day I was sitting in church”…

    February 18, 2010 — 15:32
  • John

    On (1), I have had several experiences which have either served to bring me into the faith or to strengthen it then.
    On the dramatic end, I once was praying when my vision started blur out; I closed my eyes and experienced strong hallucinations of different aspects of the natural world, i.e. oceans, forests, etc. These were followed by visions of saints praying, and a strong sense that I was praying with them before God. The vision ended afterward.
    Another dramatic event was when I was in the midst of deep suffering: I went through a break-up of a long relationship and lost numerous friends, some of whom threatened my life. I told God that no matter what he put me through, I would not break like Job. In that moment, it was like my senses stopped operating, or they were at such a distance that my attention couldn’t focus on them; I felt a sense of union with God.
    In terms of getting me into the faith, I started reflecting on what it would mean if there were no God. I had a strong sense of loss and sorrow. After that, I began having two feelings: one, a sense of being called, spoken to; second, a quasi-bodily feeling of God’s presence, as if He were touching me. I began to experience a shift in the way I perceived the world: I began to see and think of it as a medium of communication between God and man. I suspect these sorts of experiences are more prevalent than the robust hallucinatory ones I mentioned.
    I would not be surprised to find that many Catholics might have religious experiences connected with the Sacraments (or Protestants, with communion or baptism). Another common experience might be a sense that a certain fortunate occurrence is a prayer being answered.
    But in many ways, I think the demand for a phenomenology might be misplaced. In some cases, phenomenology arises; in others, faith might simply come as a strong conviction. Couldn’t this latter case of faith be just as warranted in a basic way?

    February 18, 2010 — 15:42
  • Russ Dumke

    Robert, the difficulty I have with your example is that your experience was insufficient. You needed to move from the experience to the the inference (the thought) that God was responsible for E. I may be wrong, but I thought the experiences RE requires are self explanatory (if not somehow self justifying). They are somehow self-sufficient. I think this is essentially one of the objections Matt has.

    February 18, 2010 — 15:44
  • Robert Gressis

    Regarding (I), McCormick writes that with RE experiences, “the resulting conviction that God is real is strong enough that long and careful deliberation on the part of the Christian who reflects on Marx, Freud, and others with objections to theism will still leave them reasonably convinced that God is real.”
    I don’t want to say that I came to believe in God on the basis of the experience I had above. Rather, I came to believe in God because I was raised to believe in God, because a world without God seemed to me to be like a bad world, because of various natural theological arguments for the existence of God, AND because of experiences like the ones I had. I don’t think the reformed epistemologist is committed to the view that religious experiences of God have to play a foundational role unsupported by any other kinds of evidence. I think most of our very strongly held, perhaps basically held, beliefs, aren’t like this. We know that others’ testimony is fallible, but we tend to believe their testimony if it aligns with the set of our experiences; however, part of our set of experiences with which testimony must align includes other testimonies that form part of our experience base. I think this is the case with much of what we believe about the natural world, as well as what we believe about historical events and morality.
    As for Freud and Marx, I’m certainly open to the possibility that my religious experiences of God are somehow fraudulent–that I’m wishfully thinking, and that I want to think these things because of my fear of death, or because of the power structure–but a lot of what I believe about morality can be similarly explained away. Yet the phenomenology of both moral and religious experiences lends itself to being taken realistically, so I take it that way unless I have good reason not to, and while the atheistic explanations of religious experiences are coherent, and fit in well with an atheistic worldview, they don’t fit as well for me as my theistic interpretations of those experiences.

    February 18, 2010 — 19:32
  • Robert Gressis

    In support of (II), McCormick writes, “The analogy is out of whack. Waxman’s reading of Kant is just an academic interpretation of a work of philosophy. Reading it and understanding it doesn’t entail accepting any claims about real objects existing. And it certainly doesn’t entail accepting the existence of a vast, all powerful, all knowing supernatural creator of the universe. That is, the stakes are vastly higher and more metaphysically significant in the God case than they are in the Waxman/Kant case.”
    The analogy was meant just an example of an experience of sense-making, and how we’re led to conclude certain things on the basis of such experiences. I think in the case of interpretations of academic texts, I really get the sense, when one interpretation pulls together lots of disparate threads, that I’ve found the right interpretation. That is, the interpretation is right because either that’s what Kant was really thinking, or that’s what Kant was trying to say. So I think there is a fact of the matter in interpreting texts, and that it’s much like a realistic interpretation of the Higgs Boson.
    As for the significance of the stakes, I’m not sure what to make of that point. I think the idea is supposed to be that you shouldn’t do anything rash, like devote your life to God, on the basis of your sense that God makes sense of your experiences. But part of the reason I can have these sense-making experiences is that I think of the world in a certain way already, such that I’ve already done lots of stuff to act in the way that results in my having the religious experience I had. I was in church when this happened, after all.

    February 18, 2010 — 19:39
  • Robert Gressis

    Finally, in support of (III), McCormick writes, “The sorts of dissonances that you’re talking about are feelings—anger, frustration at first, and then liberation, thankfulness, comfort with the acceptance of God. And none of these would be adequate to indicate the existence of something big and important. The study I cited above is just the start of the empirical evidence that shows how unreliable our cognitive faculties are, especially when we are angry, frustrated, overjoyed, enthusiastic, bitter, ingratiated, and so on. … I can’t think of any instances where the presence of all of these emotions wouldn’t make us more suspicious of the conclusions that the cognitive agent comes to. At the very least, the feelings should be treated as something tangential to the actual evidence that is relevant to figure out what’s real, not as the evidence itself.”
    Here I think the comparison to the phenomenology of moral experiences is apt. We react to certain kinds of actions with disgust, indignation, pride, etc. And we often take action on the basis of such feelings. Moreover, we often think it’s right for us to have the feelings we have. Disgust is the right reaction to a disgusting thing, indignation is the right reaction to a violation of one’s dignity, etc. Sometimes, you have to have the emotion to figure out most properly what to do (your horror at the mistreatment of someone can perhaps be taken as part of the “evidence” for why you ought to help her). I fear I missed your point, however.
    I think responding to (IV) and (V) would take us too far afield, so my last remark is that I don’t want to think of religious experiences in anything like an “X-Files” kind of way. I don’t think a religious experience requires a person to levitate, or being appeared to by some kind of vaguely visible apparition, etc. I think that some very intense religious experiences can be ones similar to those that the great mystics had, but I’ve never had anything like that, and I only know one person who has. I think religious experiences can be things like a feeling of being “called” to a certain vocation, or a feeling of awe at the prospect that the universe is infinite, or of what God must be like (I used to wonder what it would have been like to one day ‘wake up’ and find yourself to be God, and find the prospect dizzying). I think, in other words, that religious experiences are reactions to certain kinds of publicly visible phenomena, reactions that point to the existence of certain things, or at least point you to believing in the existence of certain things, and that can provide part of the justification you have for believing that kind of thing. I’m not sure that religious experiences of the sort I’m talking about can ever give you justification for some specific doctrines of a particular Christian denomination–e.g., infant baptism–but I do think they play a role in everyone’s life, and what we take them to indicate is a function of our own experiences, predispositions, and working metaphysics.

    February 18, 2010 — 19:49
  • (IV) Even if God’s existing makes sense of my feelings, it makes lots of other things a lot harder to understand–for instance, other people’s non-theistic religious experiences, the problem of divine hiddenness, the problem of evil, etc. In other words, the explanatory gain one gets for making sense of one’s religious experiences is off-set by the increase in ad hocness that results in order to respond to those other problems.
    Short answer – no.
    Explanation of “no”: Usually the “that’s just ad hoc” reaction to an answer to questions of the sort listed is due to some particular idea of God that the objector has. (Though I don’t see why non-theistic religious experiences should be more difficult to explain if God exists than if He doesn’t. Am I being dense?)

    February 20, 2010 — 5:56
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    “By and large, immediate, direct, non-inferential, basic apprehension of God works like this–at least, it works like this for me:
    (1) I have some experience E.
    (2) It occurs to me that a powerful, benevolent being (“God”) is responsible for E.
    (3) The thought that God is responsible for E just make sense.”
    Here’s what strikes me as odd about this view. It seems that what you’d need a justification for is (2). Whatever justification you get from it, it seems not to derive from the content of E or the introspective awareness that you are undergoing E. So, it looks like non-immediate, indirect, and inferential knowledge if you know that God exists and it looks like such knowledge, if you can have it, will depend upon the epistemic standing of (2). This looks a lot like inference to best explanation whereas I thought that the idea was that God would be presented as part of the object of experience in E if E is a religious experience of the right sort. That seems like a more plausible model (in my opinion) and it seems to potentially do away with needing (3) and needing a justification for (2) to have a justification for believing God exists (or propositions that entail that God exists in an obvious way (e.g., that God is speaking to me)).

    February 21, 2010 — 12:48
  • McCormick wants to better understand the phenomenology of religious experience. In my view, the religious experiences that provide justification will always involve a seeming with religious content. For example, a relevant seeming might include the propositional content that God loves one or that God disapproves of something. Sometimes there is some other sort of phenomenology involved (maybe an appreciation of a beautiful sunset, or anger at the moral character of church folk). But the experience that does the justificatory work is always the seeming (not, e.g., the appreciation of or anger at something).
    Consider memory. Sometimes we have a memorial seeming that we had cereal for breakfast. Sometimes such seemings are accompanied by some additional fragmentary imagery, such as a foggy image of my spoon in the cereal bowl. But I don’t think that memorial seemings are always accompanied by such additional phenomenology. Religious seemings are, in this respect, like memorial seemings: sometimes religious seemings are accompanied by some rich phenomenology, but certainly not always. Sometimes religious experiences are just the bare seeming, as it were.
    What is the phenomenal character of a seeming that God loves one? Well, it is the same sort of phenomenology (but perhaps of a different strength) that is involved in other seemings, such as its seeming that 2+2=4, its seeming that one is having a headache, etc. The crucial phenomenology in religious experiences, then, is not mysterious at all. We have experiences with essentially the same phenomenal character every day. The key difference is that these “everyday seemings” have non-religious contents.

    February 21, 2010 — 12:54
  • Thanks all for commenting on my challenge. Some very interesting responses here. A few comments: 1) several of these responses amount to “I’m not really advocating the RE position, but here’s my feelings of God story. . . .” Thanks for those. To some extent, the same questions about the epistemic inculpability of believing on the basis of those will apply from my questions about RE. 2) many people seem to be denying that there is a distinct sort of feeling associated with these experiences, or at least one that can be described phenomenologically. I don’t know what to make of these. If you are experiencing God and on the basis of these experiences, as the RE advocates argue, you are believing that God exists, then there had damn well be some sort of distinct markers that let you know that this is God and not a bad burrito or something else. I’m not finding the answer “I don’t know, I can just feel or tell that it’s God,” to be satisfying at all.
    On the question of satisfaction: I take it that if someone adopts the belief that God exists in an RE fashion, by means of their sensus divinitatus, as Plantinga describes, then there really is no question about those experiences serving as justification for someone else to believe. That is, your special God moments do not comprise strong evidence, or they are at least highly indirect, for me to believe. Put another way, it’s hard to imagine arguing that I would be epistemically culpable for continuing to not believe in God, even if I knew a lot about your RE experiences. The only real question of challenge, as I see it, is whether or not having these sorts of experiences constitute epistemically inculpable grounds for you, the experiencer, to believe in God. Many of you are not really presenting the experiences that way, but it does appear that you have arrived at the conclusion that God is real on the basis of them. So, is it reasonable for you to believe on the basis of them? I don’t think it is by a long shot. For one thing, for some means of acquiring knowledge about the world to provide justification for a belief, there’s got to be some aggressive, careful, and thorough error checking methodology in place. We all make mistakes. And when we are having powerful emotional moments and existential crises we make big mistakes. And the stakes are high. So it seems to me that the RE advocate, if she is going to accept this stuff for herself, has got to have a way to distinguish reliable or authentic feelings from bogus ones. Of course, Plantinga addresses this at great length on the objective side concerning reliability. But what I mean is that no one should just be satisfied with the first impulse with regard to such extraordinary feelings. If they are going to accept them, they need to figure out how to separate, from the inside, the ones that are authentic from the ones that are misguided. There are folks all of the world having similarly intense feelings about their favorite band, a piece of bad poetry in a Hallmark card, their creator god Paluga, Gefjun the Norwegian goddess of agriculture, and so on. If you figure that yours are of the One True God, then all of theirs must be false. How do you make that discrimination in a judicious, and reasonable fashion? I do it by concluding that there’s something natural afoot in all of them, and none of them are actually moments of contact with a magical being from another dimension.
    Matt McCormick

    February 21, 2010 — 20:15
  • Dustin Crummett

    Matt, do you really think “a magical being from another dimension” is a fair and accurate description of the God philosophically sophisticated theists believe in?

    February 21, 2010 — 22:18
  • Pretty much.
    MM

    February 21, 2010 — 22:49
  • Thanks Chris Tucker. But I’m not any clearer on what God seemings are than I was before. What’s it like to have God seemings exactly? Additionally, you cite a bunch of seemings where we know the proposition like 2 + 2 =4. There are also a lot of seemings that are mistaken during the course of a day: it seems like I put my car keys down on the table when I walked in (but didn’t), it seems like there is water on the road up ahead when it’s really just heat, it seems like I know person walking in front of me when I don’t. So how do you separate the faulty God seemings from the authentic ones? Without that, I don’t know why you’d think you can just trust any old seeming.
    MM

    February 21, 2010 — 22:56
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Matt,
    There’s lots here that I think is a tad more complicated than I think you think it is. You wrote:
    “I take it that if someone adopts the belief that God exists in an RE fashion, by means of their sensus divinitatus, as Plantinga describes, then there really is no question about those experiences serving as justification for someone else to believe.”
    Why can’t someone with the right experience transmit their justification via testimony? You can say that there are defeaters, but that’s perfectly consistent with the idea that the experiences could/do provide pro tanto justification, perhaps even justification strong enough that it would justify believing in the absence of defeaters.
    Consider two principles:
    (RE) It’s possible for S to come to know non-inferentially that God is speaking to S on the basis of an appropriate religious experience.
    (TT) It’s possible for S to transmit via testimony the knowledge S has non-inferentially on the basis of religious experience provided that the audience believes on S’s say so and lacks defeaters.
    I cannot think of any good reason to think that they are false if we grant that it’s possible (not actual) that there’s a God. Now, it’s a commonly held view in epistemology that if S knows p or is the same on the inside as someone who knows p, S has adequate justification for believing p in the absence of defeaters. So, I take it, someone could ask us to imagine that there was a God and ask whether God’s appearing to someone could provide non-inferential knowledge of God’s presence. I have to admit, I cannot think of any real reason to think this isn’t possible. But if the experience, E1, that could have been the basis for this knowledge in some non-actual world is actually had, someone could in principle come to have a justified belief in God’s existence on the basis of E1 (again, assuming no defeaters). And, I think we can formulate our principles of testimonial transmission in such a way that we can say that justification can be transmitted by a speaker even if that speaker lacks knowledge.
    As for the challenge you issue at the end of your remark about discrimination, this is where things get tricky. It’s not obvious to me how well the subject must be able to discriminate genuine or veridical experiences from non-veridical ones to have knowledge. If you’re a kind of fallibilist about justification and knowledge, it cannot be the mere possibility of error doing the work. I don’t think it can be the fact that there are others who err on the basis of experiences you know about. It’s just not obvious to me that you can show that these experiences cannot generate knowledge without showing that the object of this experience doesn’t exist. It’s not obvious to me that you can show that the experiences do not provide justification to those who don’t have the defeaters you take yourself to have.

    February 21, 2010 — 23:24
  • jordan.nwc

    “There are folks all of the world having similarly intense feelings about their favorite band, a piece of bad poetry in a Hallmark card, their creator god Paluga, Gefjun the Norwegian goddess of agriculture, and so on. If you figure that yours are of the One True God, then all of theirs must be false. How do you make that discrimination in a judicious, and reasonable fashion? I do it by concluding that there’s something natural afoot in all of them, and none of them are actually moments of contact with a magical being from another dimension.”
    Is this in reference to just RE folks, or to believers in general? If the latter, that seems blatantly false. If the former, there seems to be a distinction between experiences of something from a Hallmark card, and “moments when time stands still, when we look on the world from a point at its edge, when we experience our dependence and contingency, and when we are apt to be filled with an entirely reasonable awe” (Scruton).
    I’m not in the RE camp.

    February 21, 2010 — 23:42
  • Our phenomenological vocabulary tends to be derivative. For instance, we have no way of describing the experience of seeing a circle other than by saying that it’s a seeing of a circle, and maybe tossing out some salient adjectives like: roundness, smoothness, uniformity. Thus, apart from one’s saying that it’s a “seeing”, the description of the experiencing is derivative from the description of the content of the experience–circles are round, smooth, uniform. One might talk, of course, of features of the experience lik ehow long it took, how intense it was, etc., but those seem accidental.
    Thus, by parallel, we should not expect the person who has a religious experience to do more than to say that it was “religious” (this is parallel to saying that an experience was a “seeing”) and then describing the object of the experience.

    February 22, 2010 — 0:09
  • Hey Matt,
    You said: “If you are experiencing God and on the basis of these experiences, as the RE advocates argue, you are believing that God exists, then there had damn well be some sort of distinct markers that let you know that this is God and not a bad burrito or something else.” You want some phenomenal guarantee that the cause of your experience is really God and not a bad burrito. You seem to assume that, if your experience doesn’t come with a phenomenal guarantee, then it can’t produce justification. I think these demands are excessive and lead to rampant skepticism. Consider perceptual experience. Presumably, my perceptual experiences really are caused by the physical objects I think they are caused by, even though a demon victim could have had phenomenally identical experiences and still be radically deluded. So your demands, when applied to perception, lead to perceptual skepticism.
    You said: “So how do you separate the faulty God seemings from the authentic ones? Without that, I don’t know why you’d think you can just trust any old seeming.” I’m not sure what you are looking for here, but I worry that here again you are making an excessive demand. Yes, the justificatory power of some seemings can be defeated by other evidence (including evidence in the form of further seemings). But why should I think my seemings are defeated just because there is someone else (or many people) who has (have) a contrary seeming? Alternatively: why should I think disagreement necessarily defeats the justificatory power of my religious seemings? I’m guessing that you have some moral or philosophical seeming that you trust, despite the fact that other people have contrary seemings. So, I’m guessing, you believe things in the face of disagreement and are rational in doing so. Why think that, in the case of religous beliefs, it should be any different? Unless you have a good answer to this question, I worry that your demand will have the skeptical consequence that: when one recognizes that others disagree with one regarding P, then whether one regards them as epistemic peers or not, one has a defeater for her belief in P.
    PS- I second a lot of stuff that Clayton said.

    February 22, 2010 — 7:46
  • There is a lot of empirical research about how the brain produces many God-ish experiences. Here’s a recent paper: http://www.rifters.com/real/articles/Urgesi_et_al_Neuron-SelectiveCorticalLesionsModulateHumanSelf-Transcendence.pdf

    February 22, 2010 — 22:46
  • My earlier response didn’t seem to show up. I’ll keep it short. I’m not advocating some sort of global or radical skepticism in order to critique this position. I’m just bringing up the ordinary sort of skepticism that anyone should have, I think, when they have what might be a direct experience of the supernatural creator of the universe. Your reaction seems to be to just take those feelings at face value–although I can’t seem to get any explanation of that what is–and assume that they are veridical until proven otherwise. But the simple fact is that no matter how much direct realism spin is put on it, experiences of God are not just “like” as I keep hearing, having experiences of tables or someone’s face or other ordinary objects. This would be direct transcendental contact with a completely different form of being, with infinite power, knowledge, etc. Please tell me that you guys are at least a little skeptical of your own feelings when this occurs to you. You’ve got to acknowledge that all of us make mistakes about the things that seem to be true, and arguably, given how many people have claimed to have them, most of the people who have them are off the mark. That is, if you’re experiencing God, then that means that the similarly described experiences of lots of other people claiming to experience Paluga, Gefjun, Sobek, and so on are mistaken. And you know that we readily induce these feelings artificially in the lab. So my initial response would not be to just take these experiences as veridical and then insist that they need to be proven wrong before I’ll budge off of them. You can’t really think that claims about experiencing God shouldn’t raise an eyebrow. Tell me that you’re at least a little skeptical of it yourself, or I’ll think you’re either too deep in the grips of an ideology or too gullible.
    It’s not that I’m suggesting that any possibility of mistake undermines justification. But I’m not seeing any acknowledge of the possibility of error here or any error correction facility at all. If there’s nothing in principle that can separate the real from the faulty subjective seemings, then that should seriously cast doubt on taking the deliverances without challenge.
    Shouldn’t the individual who has one of the experiences seriously entertain alternative natural hypotheses about their source? And given that a natural account has provided a better explanation in so many purported experiences of the supernatural, shouldn’t we prima facie assume that it isn’t God that is ringing your bell?
    MM

    February 23, 2010 — 0:08
  • Hey Matt,
    1. I know that you were not intending to advocate some sort of radical skepticism, but the worry is that your position commits you to radical skepticism.
    2. You assume that RE has to go some sort of direct realist route. I tentatively reject direct realism about both everyday perception and “perception” of religious truths.
    3. Proponents of RE can say that other sources of information, e.g. science and philosophy, can provide “error correction.”
    4. Also, I’m not sure what thesis you are defending. Is it:
    a. religious experiences don’t provide evidence (or prima facie justification) for their contents; or
    b. if religious experiences do provide evidence (and prima facie J), the evidence is defeated?
    I’m guessing that you mean to defend b. The defeaters that you introduce seem to be (i) religious disagreement, (ii) the causal origins of religious experiences, and (iii) the fact that religious experiences are induced in a lab. I argue in a forthcoming paper that the threat posed by (i) itself can be defeated easily, provided that phenomenal conservatism is true. I do feel a little uncomfortable at this and similar implications of phenomenal conservatism, but so far I think the virtues of the view outweigh my worry that it makes justification too cheap.
    So I admit that (i) worries me a bit, but I’m not sure why (ii) or (iii) should be worrisome. Start with (iii). Epistemologists regularly assume that, in principle, scientists could induce experiences that are phenomenally just like those involved in veridical perception. Despite this, they assume that perceptual experiences still provide J. Why should it be worrisome that scientists *actually* induce experiences that are phenomenally just like religious experiences? In other words, I don’t see how (ii) is supposed to constitute a defeater for religious beliefs that are formed on the basis of experience.
    With regards to (ii), perhaps my ignorance is my bliss. I don’t know much about the science of religious belief formation, but I have read some of that literature. Nothing I’ve read seems to pose a defeater to religious beliefs, and I think Mike Murray among others argue for similar conclusions in print.

    February 23, 2010 — 7:05
  • Mike Almeida

    And you know that we readily induce these feelings artificially in the lab. So my initial response would not be to just take these experiences as veridical and then insist that they need to be proven wrong before I’ll budge off of them.
    How does the argument go? I can produce feeling F (say, the feeling of being loved) artificially in the lab via some form of brain stimulation. If I can artificially induce F via brain stimulation, then the cause of your particular feeling F is likely not to be (or is not presumptively) the result of anyone actually loving you. Or, you should at least hesitate to believe that the source of your feeling loved is the actual fact that someone loves you. Is that the idea? I can’t see how that’s a good argument.

    February 23, 2010 — 9:33
  • Dustin Crummett

    Matt, surely you’re aware that philosophically sophisticated theists do not believe that God is magical or that God lives in another dimension (many–including many who are quite orthodox–would also take issue with describing God as “a being.”) In what sense can that possibly be a fair and accurate description? In what sense can that sort of language possibly be productive? It seems to me about on a par with the fundamentalists who raised me saying (as they often did,) “Evolution says the big bang happened, then somehow magically a bunch of stars and planets formed, then somehow out of gunk a fish formed, and then the fish decided to grow legs and turned into a monkey, and then somehow the monkey magically transformed into a human. Yeah, like I’m going to believe that.”

    February 23, 2010 — 9:43
  • anon 1:57

    “And you know that we readily induce these feelings artificially in the lab.”
    If you put me in a lab and poke my brain in the right way, you can cause me to see things that aren’t there. That does not mean that I should not trust my ability to see things when I am outside of the lab. Similarly, if you put me in a lab and poke my brain in the right way, you can make it seem to me that God exists. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t trust my seeming that God exists outside the lab.
    “Shouldn’t the individual who has one of the experiences seriously entertain alternative natural hypotheses about their source?
    “And given that a natural account has provided a better explanation in so many purported experiences of the supernatural, shouldn’t we prima facie assume that it isn’t God that is ringing your bell?”
    Distinguish between several accounts:
    Account 1: There is no God. Our brains are just hardwired in such a way that tends to produce belief in supernatural stuff.
    Account 2: There is a God. He made us so that our brains are hardwired in such a way that tends to produce belief in supernatural stuff.
    Account 3: There is a God. Our brains aren’t hardwired to produce beliefs in supernatural stuff. But he sometimes intervenes and causes us to believe in supernatural stuff anyway. Any time someone believes in God, its because he supernaturally intervened and caused it.
    Account 2.5: There is a God. Our brains are hardwired to produce belief in supernatural stuff. But sometimes God gives us a weird mystical experience too.
    I agree with you that the experiments reveal that Account 1 is a better explanation than Account 3. But I do not (yet) see how Account 1 is better than Accounts 2 and 2.5.
    “But I’m not seeing any acknowledge of the possibility of error here or any error correction facility at all. If there’s nothing in principle that can separate the real from the faulty subjective seemings, then that should seriously cast doubt on taking the deliverances without challenge.”
    When I am in an ahteist or agnostic mood, it is not because I reflect on my God seemings and think “theres another hypothesis that can explain this, so I have doubts about my God seemings”. For there are other hypotheses that explain my perceptual experiences (i.e. the evil demon scenario or the brain in a vat scenario).
    Rather, when I am in an agnostic mood I worry that there is a defeater for my theistic beliefs. Maybe the presence of evil is such a defeater. Maybe the presence of people who are smarter than me and just as honest as me who don’t believe in God is such a defeater. OK. I get that. Lets assume you are right. Assume that evil disproves God’s existence and disagreement makes belief in God unreasonable.
    What I don’t get (yet) is your claim that the fact that alternative hypothesis not including God can explain our God seemings should cause us to doubt those seemings. I don’t understand how you can embrace that claim without embracing skepticism about the external world and our perceptual faculties.
    But I am open to being convinced.

    February 23, 2010 — 11:24
  • M.

    How does the argument go? I can produce feeling F (say, the feeling of being loved) artificially in the lab via some form of brain stimulation. If I can artificially induce F via brain stimulation, then the cause of your particular feeling F is likely not to be (or is not presumptively) the result of anyone actually loving you. Or, you should at least hesitate to believe that the source of your feeling loved is the actual fact that someone loves you. Is that the idea? I can’t see how that’s a good argument.
    I’m not really sure, but I think the inference would be (a variation on?) this:
    1. I have evidence that naturalistic stimulus S reliably produces religious experiences.
    2. I have no evidence that S did not produce my past religious experiences.
    3. Therefore, I have a defeater for my belief that a supernatural agent produced my religious experiences.
    Maybe one can show that this reasoning entails skepticism. On the other hand, it just seems obvious that it’s got something going for it. For instance, waking up to the sound of deep, ominous grumbling may imbue me with an extremely powerful feeling that there’s a monster under my bed. But if I know there’s a subway running beneath my apartment capable of producing the same kind of sound, I ought to have a defeater for my feeling, right? Even if I don’t know beforehand what times the subway runs. So I wonder how much of the epistemology of this case is preserved in the religious experiences case.

    February 23, 2010 — 12:05
  • Mike Almeida

    For instance, waking up to the sound of deep, ominous grumbling may imbue me with an extremely powerful feeling that there’s a monster under my bed. But if I know there’s a subway running beneath my apartment capable of producing the same kind of sound, I ought to have a defeater for my feeling, right?
    Right, but this is not analogous to the religious experience case. If you have a purported religious experience, and you know that naturalistic stimulus S reliably produces indiscernible experiences, then you do not have a defeater for the claim that you had a religious experience. What you’d need to know is that the stimulus S is as likely to be present as any veridical cause. But of course you don’t know that, unless you know there’s a scientist under your bed who’s disposed to inducing pseudo-religious experiences in you via some natural stimulant, or you’ve imbibed some stimulant of the relevant sort, etc. But these are things you do not know; indeed, things that you know are not true.

    February 23, 2010 — 13:14
  • M.:
    Well, if the evidence is the lab stuff, then the naturalistic stimulus S is something like direct stimulation of the portion of the brain by means of electrodes. But then (2) is false–I have very good reason to think that S didn’t produce any of my religious experiences, because I have very good reason to think nobody had electrodes stuck on my brain when I had the religious experiences. (And if you say: Well, maybe they made you not notice the electrodes, then you’re just pushing a standard sceptical argument.)
    But maybe S is not the stimulation, but the electrical signals that the stimulation produces.
    In any case, (3) simply does not follow from (1) and (2), because (2) says nothing about what causes S.
    Let S be the electrical signals in my optical nerve. Then:
    1′. I have evidence that naturalistic stimulus S reliably produces visual experience.
    2′. I have no evidence that S did not produce my past visual experiences.
    3′. Therefore, I have a defeater for my belief that optical phenomena (light reflecting off, refracting in or being emitted by objects) produced my visual experiences.
    In fact, we can strengthen (2′):
    2”. I have evidence that S did produce my past visual experiences.
    Indeed, my visual experiences were produced by electrical signals in the optic nerve. Even that doesn’t yield (3′). For, surely, the sensible anti-sceptical thing to say is that when I am outside the lab, the electrical signals S are produced by what they seem to be produced by–optical phenomena.
    Similarly, even if it were shown that my religious experiences were produced by electrical signals in the brain, that wouldn’t be any sort of defeater. The sensible anti-sceptical thing to say is that when I am outside the lab, the electrical signals S are produced by what they seem to be produced by–supernatural phenomena.

    February 23, 2010 — 15:12
  • M.

    I agree that an electrode stimulation producing (quasi-)religious experience can’t serve as a defeater for ordinary religious experience and didn’t really mean to imply otherwise. (In fact, I don’t mean to imply that I believe any version of this thinking is successful.) This is because, as was said, we know the electrodes aren’t present outside the lab. But I think the argument here is supposed to involve a bit more than that. The scientific studies in question suggest that (some) religious experience is caused by reduced activity in certain regions of the brain. This is, of course, compatible with there being some intermediate step in the causal chain wherein supernatural agents act. But, provided we don’t believe out-of-body and heautoscopic experiences are veridical, there’s fair reason to believe those experiences are naturalistically caused by reduced activity in the same region of the brain. So this seems like it may serve as evidence that religious experiences produced by such activity are likely to be naturalistic as well. Moreover, since people have out-of-body experiences outside the lab, perhaps this is evidence that this naturalistic causal pathway may itself occur naturally outside the lab as well.
    Just a clumsy stab at a formulation of the argument.

    February 23, 2010 — 19:47
  • Well, let’s say that the religious experiences are naturalistically caused by reduced activity in some region of the brain. But to have a defeater, one might need to offer an argument that this reduced activity isn’t caused by God, or at least isn’t caused by God in the right way. Compare: Visual experiences are caused by electrical activity in the retina. But that fact would only be a defeater for visual claims if it were substantiated that the electical activity in the retina is not caused by optical phenomena.
    So, the move I’m making is simply to push the causal chain further back. Suppose you say (and now this would be going beyond the empirical data): we have some empirical reason to think this reduced activity is caused by some naturalistic factor N1. So now I ask the same question about N1. Maybe it’s caused by N2. And so on. But eventually we get to something that has no naturalistic cause–say, the Big Bang. So, in fact, the ultimate naturalistic cause of religious experience is something (say, the Big Bang) that has no naturalistic cause. 🙂 And the theist says it’s caused by God.
    This doesn’t get the theist off the hook entirely. For there are two ways ways to question the veridicality of an experience. One is to question whether the experience is caused by its intentional object. The other is to bracket that question, but ask whether it is caused by it in the right way. It’s tough to get in-the-right-way conditions for religious experience, but many people have some relevant intuitions, like that those religious experiences that are caused by ingesting hallucinogenic mushrooms are not caused by God in the right way, even if God is the creator of the said mushrooms. I think some of the users of such mushrooms will question this intuition, but the intuition is, nonetheless, plausible. Maybe the in-the-right-way conditions require some appropriate context. But it’s hard to see what that could be, since surely God can speak to a person in any circumstances.

    February 24, 2010 — 8:25
  • Gregory Lewis

    I think the usual concerns would need to be offered to suggest that religious experience isn’t veridicial (that it tends to confirm prior religious beliefs, its seldom inter-subjective, etc.) and I don’t think the psilocybin stuff helps there. But it – or similar “we did something naturalistic to their head, and they got religious experiences” – help make a non-veridical account more plausible. Most people who have had religious experience weren’t on magic mushrooms at the time, but that fairly crude chemical interventions can provoke such experiences give credence to the idea that perhaps more nuanced factors ‘in the world’ could engender religious experiences without God being involved.
    I don’t think walking up the causal chain would help, because ultimate causation by God isn’t enough. Some Schizophrenics believe God has spoken to them. That God is the ultimate author of the causal chain to them having experience God spoke to them doesn’t make that veridicial. But I’m probably misunderstanding.

    February 24, 2010 — 17:23
  • I agree that ultimate causation by God isn’t enough. It has to be causation “in the right way”.
    “Most people who have had religious experience weren’t on magic mushrooms at the time, but that fairly crude chemical interventions can provoke such experiences give credence to the idea that perhaps more nuanced factors ‘in the world’ could engender religious experiences without God being involved.”
    But isn’t this pretty closely paralleled by such sceptical claims as this: “Most people who have had visual experiences weren’t on LSD at the time, but that fairly crude chemical interventions can provoke such experiences give credence to the idea that perhaps more nuanced factors ‘in the world’ could engender visual experiences without optical phenomena being involved.”
    Granted, one can work hard to try to catalogue disanalogies between the sensory and the religious cases. There is a lot of literature on that. E.g., in The Nature and Existence of God, Richard Gale has made a pretty strong case that the analogy is weak. However, the mere fact that crude chemical or electrical interventions can provoke religious experiences does not figure in his case, and rightly so.
    (I would not, by the way, dismiss all schizophrenics’ experiences of God as non-veridical–not that you were doing that, but I still want to emphasize this. After all, why couldn’t God show himself to a schizophrenic, too?)

    February 24, 2010 — 21:14
  • Gregory Lewis

    I’d argue the difference between what I suggested and your parallel to LSD and optical experiences is that we have a robust, agreed-upon account for how visual experiences (or at least their neural correlates) are caused by optical phenomena – modern neuroscience. I don’t think there’s a similar account for religious experience. So this would make the cases disanalogous: a robust account for visual perception supports it strongly against non-veridicial accounts, but this move isn’t open to someone defending religious experience, so non-veridical explanations can’t be ruled out in the same stroke as scepticism in general. Of course, other concerns may support or undermine the claim that religious experience is veridicial.
    If you already think God exists, then these worries seem to fade (but ‘in the right way’ concerns seem a major headache). But given the original context or RE and grounding properly basic belief, appealing to prior confidence in God’s existence isn’t very satisfactory. I agree that psilocybin work isn’t useful in arguing against a veridicial account, but it could head off incredulity that a ‘naturalistic blip’ could ever give rise to something as rich as religious experience.
    (Entirely agree re. the Schizophrenics example – I should have emphasized it myself. But if you are a schizophrenic, and you do believe God spoke to you, I think you’d be reasonable to have the (defeasible) worry that it was an auditory hallucination. If further empirical work fleshes out the ‘pathogenesis’ of religious experience as well as it has the positive symptoms of schizophrenia, then I think these worries apply to everyone.)

    February 25, 2010 — 14:15
  • Well, let’s go back a thousand years. Suppose the folks back then have drugs that induce visual hallucinations. But they don’t have a “a robust, agreed-upon account for how visual experiences (or at least their neural correlates) are caused by optical phenomena”. If not having such an account, but having a naturalistic method of inducing hallucinations, justifies scepticism about the veridicality of the experiences, then we have to say that they would have been reasonable to be sceptics about visual stuff, and we have to say that it was modern neuroscience that made scepticism unreasonable. But that’s weird.

    February 25, 2010 — 14:30
  • Gregory Lewis

    You’re right. People shouldn’t have been sceptical of what they saw because they had hallucinogens but not good neuroscience, so my distinction is bunk.
    So perhaps the account they need to ward off scepticism can be relaxed. I suspect that would consist of the fairly bog-standard criteria religious experience is alleged to lack (consistent across individuals and cultures, can be shared by directing others to direct their perception towards certain objects, etc.) But I gather that (and whether religious experience can ‘cut it’) is the subject of a lot of literature.
    The magic mushroom stuff isn’t here any more, but I think having a naturalistic method of inducing ‘religious hallucinations’ is important for providing a plausible counter-explanation. If there isn’t one, then the best explanation going is God.
    Hmm. Forgive me if I’ve just repeated what you said less clearly.

    February 27, 2010 — 9:45
  • “I just want to hear some descriptions of the actual phenomenology of these moments, experiences, or apprehensions. Describe the sorts of feelings, sights, smells, or apprehensions that are occurring when one is having this direct hookup with God.”
    Ironic that he would ask for what amounts to empirical evidence for what is supposed to be properly basic.

    March 4, 2010 — 22:54
  • Gregory:
    The magic mushroom stuff makes unsound the following sort of argument:
    1. I had a religious-type experience.
    2. Religious-type experiences can only be explained by the activity of God.
    3. Therefore, theism is true.
    However, I don’t know of anybody who has offered this sort of an argument. Moreover, the Christian tradition would be quite suspicious of (2), because of a belief that the devil can produce all sorts of experiences, including ones where he appears as an angel of light. (Here I am assuming “explained by” means an explanation that goes beyond God’s concurrence in creaturely causation. In the end, nothing can be completely explained without mentioning God.)
    Now, maybe one could make some more specific argument like:
    4. I had a religious experience of type A.
    5. Religious experiences of type A can only be explained by the activity of God.
    6. Therefore, theism is true.
    I don’t know how one would fill in A. Probably one would want to restrict the claim to some “high mystical” experiences. Because of worries about the devil, the Christian tradition would still be suspicious of (5).
    I guess if one fills in A with “the beatific vision”, the Catholic tradition would affirm (5). For the beatific vision might be analogized to God taking the place of the sense impression in Descartes’ model of the mind–God is the quale of the experience. So one cannot have an experience with the same quale without its being an experience of God. However, the Catholic tradition would be very suspicious if I claimed (1). Normally the beatific vision only happens to the souls in heaven. There might have been a few exceptions to this rule in the history of humankind (Jesus is certainly one; Paul’s talk of knowing someone [generally presumed to be himself] who was caught up to heaven is often cited as another, but in a sense it’s not an exception because his soul is in heaven then), but the typical Christian does not have the beatific vision until after death.

    March 5, 2010 — 10:30