On (a) Religious Experience
October 14, 2011 — 19:31

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 25

I have been making the circuit presenting a paper which in part defends an argument for atheism from “irreligious experience.” It is similar to work done by Draper in 1991 and Gellman in 1992. I’m sure others have versions of the idea.
This past week, I had a religious experience. I’m not sure what to make of it, and I’ll be thinking about it for some time. It was very vivid and strangely specific. In thinking about it this far, I think there may be an interesting research project worth pursuing (it will be a very long time before I can pursue it, so I put it out here in the hopes that someone else will).


In my Intro class in Philosophy of Religion, I present the arguments for and against theism as honestly as I can. Both Naturalism and Theism face some serious philosophical problems. What I always conclude with is that for my own part, I find it easier swallow the theist’s anomalies than the naturalists anomalies. That is, I have a easier time incorporating the evils of the world into the theistic narrative than the goodness of the world into the naturalist’s narrative. (Not I say “goodness/badness of the world” not “good/evil” itself.)
Well, I’ve had irreligious experiences two. I had written and thought as if they just cancel each other out. But what I found in my own case was that the religious experience had to the irreligious experience the same relation as in the anomaly case I described. That is, it seemed somehow to overshadow it or something in a way I can’t quite describe. It had a quality which made it somehow “firmer” or something, more “solid.” (Lewis’s analogy about heavenly being in _The Great Divorce_ comes to mind.)
Somewhere Lewis mentions something about the way he know waking day is real and dreams are not by the way in which one can “include” the other better than the other way around. Then I remembered a paper Sosa gave on the character of dreams. This is quite inchoate and I can’t possibly go back to the Sosa paper now, but it strikes me that it is worth thinking about how different kinds of asymmetries in experiences can be established and whether this can be put to use in thinking about religious experience.

Comments:
  • Aaron

    Trent,
    Re: ‘Both Naturalism and Theism face some serious philosophical problems. What I always conclude with is that for my own part, I find it easier swallow the theist’s anomalies than the naturalists anomalies.’
    A physicalist, or broadly naturalist, framework certainly has its difficulties, but I cannot imagine how one could find them more unpalatable than those that face a theistic framework. E.g., what, exactly, is a non-physical entity such that it could causally interact with physical objects? How can a non-physical entity (a mind, soul, supernatural agency, etc.) interact with a physical entity? How do non-physical (whatever that means) occurrences not violate conservation laws, such as conservation of energy and momentum? For my own part, I find it easier (much easier) to face the difficulties which face a physicalist framework.

    October 16, 2011 — 17:38
  • Aaron, I recommend, for a start, you read Lycan’s “Giving Dualism its Due.” If you google it, you’ll find it.

    October 16, 2011 — 18:13
  • Rob

    It seems like there are plenty of things that we experience and take to be genuine features of the world that do not fit into a physicalist framework. I am thinking of morals specifically.
    I am more certain that some things are right and that some things are wrong than I am of any speculative metaphysical claim that there is a single highest order of being and that it is physical. So if that metaphysical view does not have room for morals, I figure so much the worse for that metaphysical view.
    I have never seen any good argument for why we should discount the reality of things that don’t fit into physicalist theories. It seems we would first need a really good argument for physicalism.

    October 16, 2011 — 21:22
  • Aaron

    Trent,
    I am familiar with Lycan’s work, but for many reasons I remain unconvinced (e.g., he provides no positive description of what a non-physical substance [an almost incoherent term] is and why various non-physical substances should evince certain characteristics, such as consciousness; it’s bare assertions all the way down).
    Furthermore, you must recognize that substance dualism remains an extremely unpopular view amongst philosophers (with the exception, of course, amongst those philosophers who are inclined, for religious reasons, to find substance dualism attractive) and neuroscientists. This is not to say that on this the truth of the matter turns, but it is to say that you are placed in a *very* difficult epistemic situation.
    Rob,
    Personally, I see no good evidence to believe in such things as moral facts, but I see plenty of good evidence to believe that moral sentiments of the kind which ostensibly engender your comment *are* the result of selective pressures in our evolutionary past. However, that aside, unless you wish to argue that laws of logic entail a non-physical logician in the sky, I would say that in the same way that laws of logic do not entail a logician in the sky, neither do moral laws (or facts, whatever) entail a non-physical moral law giver in the sky: One ought to hold consistent beliefs on pain of being false; one ought not to initiate violence against innocents on pain of being wicked.

    October 16, 2011 — 22:42
  • Trent Dougherty

    Aaron, I think Rob will call that a reductio, so I imagine you’ve given him all he wants. And I’m certainly comfortable with the demographic facts. As long as this “physicalism” thingie remains pretty much confined to a bunch of late modern Western academics in a few disciplines, I’ll sleep soundly at night.
    However, I have one question. You used a term in your post that I don’t understand. It’s the word “physical.” Could you bring me up to speed on that one? I’m drawing a blank there.

    October 16, 2011 — 23:11
  • Aaron

    Trent,
    I have given Rob a view to the position that physicalism has no more a problem dealing with moral laws than it does with laws of logic. I can account for the genealogy of moral sentiments in a perfectly acceptable physicalist manner, but it is not at all clear that he can- indeed, it seems to me he cannot- account for the so-called existence of moral facts outside of providing an elaborate argument which amounts to little more than an appeal to some vague notion of an intuition.
    As for defining ‘physical’, as a good naturalist, I must defer to the best scientific definitions of ‘physical’. A good place to start might be with: a physical thing is that which is composed of matter, or that which contains mass and is spatially extended (possesses volume). We could go on and add a further, auxilliary definition: a physical thing is that which is or is comprised of the fundamental particles discoverable by the best of our relevant scientific efforts.
    Now it’s your turn. Help me explain what, exactly, a non-physical substance is, because I am most definitely drawing a blank here.

    October 16, 2011 — 23:56
  • Aaron,
    The existence of the laws of logic pose a problem for strict physicalism, it seems to me. How do you account for these entities, on physicalism? I also don’t see how not having an answer to the question “How can a non-physical entity (a mind, soul, supernatural agency, etc.) interact with a physical entity?” is supposed to undermine the case that non-physical entities exist. This is often raised as an objection to forms of dualism, but not understanding how x does y does not show x doesn’t exist, especially if other reasons can be given in favor of the existence of x.

    October 17, 2011 — 7:52
  • Trent, what is it like to have an “irreligious experience”? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of those before.

    October 17, 2011 — 8:13
  • Mike, I imagine he’ll take a linguistic approach to logic, but you are right to press the argument from ignorance.
    One would also want to press a parity argument: we don’t understand how one *physical* object interacts with another one. Once we follow the path of words we end up in pure contingency, as Chesterton pointed out. The naturalists only route is to appeal to universals, like armstrong does, but even that, I have written, is non-explanatory when it’s just a plenum, and, furthermore, then the naturalist has to explain how we know things about universals since abstract objects bear no natural causal relation to us.

    October 17, 2011 — 9:01
  • “I must defer to the best scientific definitions of ‘physical… a physical thing is that which is or is comprised of the fundamental particles discoverable by the best of our relevant scientific efforts”
    Ah, so the definition of “physical” lies in the future. I’m not going to hold my breath. (You use this other puzzling word “matter”. I don’t know what it means either, but the way modern physicists talk about it, it doesn’t sound very much like what people were talking about from Democritus to Descartes.)
    The interactionist dualist has no need for the notion of a non-physical substance. I doubt the distinction comes to much. All we need is a substance which falsifies physical causal closure. And that’s what we’ve got with persons.

    October 17, 2011 — 9:07
  • I think that perception (of all kinds) involve what my colleague Bob Roberts calls “construals,” they are similar to the phenomenon of “seeing as” which hasn’t received much discussion by epistemologists since the 70s. In essence, in some experience I see an evil *as* unjustified, or, perhaps, more broadly, see the world *as* devoid of purpose or love. Like all kinds of such impressions–both pro-theist and con–there are often available explanations of why we might see things this way even if they are misleading. But that doesn’t make them irrelevant and, as I said, I seemed to perceive an asymmetry in their character. It’s hard to explain.

    October 17, 2011 — 9:11
  • Gordon Knight

    If material things are understood to be what physics say they are, and nothing else, then we find ourselves in the odd situation of material objects being soley understood in terms of relations.. Exactly what the terms of the relations are (the intcerinsic qualities of e.g. electrons) is totally left out.
    I have never understood why mental substance should be any more mysterious than physical substancie, in facit is less so since I am at least acquainted with the operations of my mind. The notion of “substance” is ontologically loaded, but if replace that with “consciousenss” it is the most familiar of things! hardly something incoherent…

    October 17, 2011 — 12:21
  • Monte

    But that doesn’t make them irrelevant and, as I said, I seemed to perceive an asymmetry in their character. It’s hard to explain.
    Maybe part of why you see an asymmetry is that seeing that the universe is devoid of purpose is actually just be not seeing that it has a purpose. It could be that sometimes not seeing that the Universe has a purpose is mistaken for seeing that it has no purpose. If thats right then it’s no surprise that it can be so easily overshadowed.

    October 17, 2011 — 15:18
  • Aaron

    Trent,
    Re: ‘Ah, so the definition of “physical” lies in the future.’
    No, the scientific community has perfectly acceptable definitions of ‘physical’ (and ‘matter’) right now. The auxiliary definition was offered in order to provide latitude for future revisions to our current, best understanding. [E.g., now it is common to differentiate between baryonic and non-baryonic matter, whereas, say, sixty years ago it was not.] Unless you wish to argue that science needs philosophers to assist in offering a proper definition of ‘matter’, ‘physical’, and similar terms, and unless you wish to argue that science is in peril because it cannot define its most fundamental concepts, then I see no profit in trying to make room for your non-physical ‘stuff’ (whatever non-physical ‘stuff’ is) by assailing the cogency of the scientific understandings of ‘matter’, ‘physical’, etc.
    Re: ‘And that’s what we’ve got with persons.’
    No, actually, you have no such thing. In fact, I am not entirely sure I know what a ‘person’ is if not a human being who evinces certain cognitive functions within various social contexts.
    Re: ‘[W]e don’t understand how one *physical* object interacts with another one.’
    Of course we do, but we are not going to find the answer in a philosophy department; we will need to go to the physics department for that.
    Mike,
    Re: ‘[B]ut not understanding how x does y does not show x doesn’t exist, especially if other reasons can be given in favor of the existence of x.’
    In a general sense, you are correct. In a narrower sense, you are not. First, I do not even know what a non-physical thing, substance, whatever, is such that it could (or could not) causally interact with physical systems. But more to the point, if we have no reason to believe something, then that is reason not to believe something, and we have no reason to believe that a non-physical thing, substance, whatever, can (1) causally interact with physical systems, (2) causally interact with physical systems in a manner which does not violate conservation laws, and (3) ever be open to empirical investigation of the sort we humans would have to undertake to have any knowledge of its nature.
    P.S. Trent, I still await your definition of ‘non-physical stuff’.

    October 17, 2011 — 16:54
  • Rob

    Aaron,
    I actually was not thinking about moral facts entailing God, but just that moral facts are what Mackie would call “queer” and despite the attempts of the Cornell Realists, they do not fit into a physicalist framework.
    I agree with you that physicalists could come up with an explanation of moral sentiments without accepting the existence of “queer” moral facts. But the reason physicalist would need to make such a move is because either 1) it is already known that there are no moral facts or 2) it is already known that physicalism is true and that moral facts don’t fit in. Why assume there are no moral facts? Just because it doesn’t fit in with physicalism? Moral sentiments might just be good evidence for the existence of moral facts.
    So basically, I am wondering do you have an argument for either 1 or 2? (One that does not begin with begging the question by assuming that there are no moral facts or that physicalism is true)

    October 17, 2011 — 19:03
  • Anonymous

    Aaron says,
    “Furthermore, you must recognize that substance dualism remains an extremely unpopular view amongst philosophers (with the exception, of course, amongst those philosophers who are inclined, for religious reasons, to find substance dualism attractive) ”
    What do you make of philosophers like Peter Unger and Martine Nida-Rumelin, then? They are both non-religious, and yet, both are substance dualists.

    October 17, 2011 — 19:18
  • Coran

    Aaron, you state, “We could go on and add a further, auxilliary definition: a physical thing is that which is or is comprised of the fundamental particles discoverable by the best of our relevant scientific efforts.” You’ve probably heard of Hempel’s dilemma, but I contend it poses problems for your definition and assertion of physicalism.
    Also, I think Trent is right to say, “The interactionist dualist has no need for the notion of a non-physical substance. I doubt the distinction comes to much. All we need is a substance which falsifies physical causal closure. And that’s what we’ve got with persons.”
    Particularly, if you are concerned with philosophy of mind, there are more live options available than Substance Dualism to confront physicalism. In particular, I’m thinking of Dual Attribute Theories. Hasker, among others, argues for emergentism. Now, I know you have concerns with: “How can a non-physical entity (a mind, soul, supernatural agency, etc.) interact with a physical entity? How do non-physical (whatever that means) occurrences not violate conservation laws, such as conservation of energy and momentum?” Also, I know Kim’s issues with overdetermination. However, I don’t think his argument is a knock-down one, and there are certainly responses, already.

    October 17, 2011 — 22:09
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Trent,
    You write: “I have a easier time incorporating the evils of the world into the theistic narrative than the goodness of the world into the naturalist’s narrative.”
    I have the impression that what describes many a person’s commitment to theism is close to what you express here, namely their realization that there is so much goodness that there must be a ground of it which transcends the mechanical order of nature. I’d like to suggest though that there is a triple asymmetry here. It’s not only the case that it is more natural to incorporate the badness of the world into a theistic worldview than the goodness of the world into a naturalistic one, but further, that the goodness is in some important sense greater than the badness, and finally, that the goodness seems to have a personal cause whereas the badness a mechanical one. For all these reasons many a person finds that a worldview in which the ontologically ultimate is a person of great goodness makes more sense than a worldview in which the ontologically ultimate is a purposeless mechanism.
    I am very interested in the human condition, because, after all, it grounds any claim to knowledge we may have. Thus, while trying to understand better the nature of the religious response to our experience of life, I’d like to suggest that beyond what we discuss above, i.e. the pull of the world’s goodness towards theism, there is also a push that comes from the opposite direction. Namely, I find, there is also the realization of the goodness inside of oneself, a goodness which, again, is greater than the badness. That realization moves one to commit to a religious response, i.e. to commit oneself to a way of life as if the world were also fundamentally good (which I take it is basically Schleiermacher’s sense of religion).
    In many a person’s life, besides the natural pull and push grounded on one’s experience of goodness, there is also the effect of a human-made part of our experience of life, namely the experience of the religious community and its scriptures. Here, in a way reminiscent to the physical process of osmosis, it seems one experiences truth seeping into one’s condition, a process which I understand theists call “revelation”.
    Finally, there is I think a fourth effect at play here. All of the above are parts of the creation we partake, but there is also the effect of the continuous work of the creator Him/Herself, namely the religious experiences up to and including full-blown mystical experiences of, and interaction with, the Absolute. On Christianity the linchpin of that process was the incarnation of the second hypostasis of God in Jesus of Nazareth – an event where God actually suffered the world and interacted with us as a human being. Such then are the ways how, in the great drama of creation, God plays a continuous personal role.

    October 18, 2011 — 0:22
  • Trent,
    I’ve never tried to create a formal argument around this, but what do you think of a roughly sketched response like this:
    The cases against naturalism and theism seem to have similar force when considered as individual cases. However, when compared to a broader context, naturalism seems to be in a better position. I’ll try to explain by analogy. Let’s say you have a computer that consistently solves algebra problems. One day, perhaps on the millionth trial, it makes a mistake and solves a problem incorrectly. Do we then assume that there is some fundamental flaw with how algebra is supposed to work or do we instead assume there was some external error (programming, short, etc.)? Then compare that to some other computer using some new XYZ math that very sporadically is able to solve problems correctly. In the case of the sporadic computer, we might wonder about the validity of the XYZ math given its lack of consistent success.
    I feel like that describes the driving intuition behind naturalism. There is a sort of building support for naturalism as it keeps explaining things, especially things formerly explained by supernatural things. If that is correct that there is building support, then it seems like problems of roughly the same weight put to naturalism and theism ought to be more of a problem for theism. It would be sort of an issue of conditional probability.
    What do you think? My concern is that this might require me to beg the question, but I’m not sure.

    October 18, 2011 — 9:46
  • Say that an experience is religion-relevant iff it is religious or irreligious.
    Three asymmetries in the vicinity:
    1. P(R is reliable | R is religion-relevant and theism is true) > P(R is reliable | R is religion-relevant and theism is not true).
    2. P(people have religion-relevant experiences | theism) > P(people have religion-relevant experiences | theism is false)
    3. P(R is knowledge-conferring | R is religion-relevant and theism is true) > P(R is knowledge-conferring | R is religion-relevant and theism is false)

    October 18, 2011 — 15:25
  • Mike:
    1. I don’t think one can infer from constant adding of new explanations by itself that the theory can explain everything. Consider that biology keeps on adding new explanations, but nobody thinks it can explain everything: it’s useless with regard to stellar evolution. 🙂
    2. I think it’s a mistake to say that the growing body of scientific explanations is a case of naturalism explaining things. The scientific explanations can, of course, be put in a naturalistic framework on which the laws of nature invoked in the explanations are brute facts. But they can at least as well, and I think better, be put in a theistic framework on which the laws of nature invoked in the explanations are themselves explained.
    3. Moreover, the basis of the successes of scientific explanation is something that has no naturalistic explanation but does have a theistic explanation: namely, the elegant simplicity of the laws, which the theist can explain in terms of the value of such laws.

    October 18, 2011 — 20:42
  • Alex,
    Yes, I think it would require me to say that the successful explanations specifically were better described as naturalistic ones over supernaturalistic ones (or some similar term). That’s why I was worried it might beg the question since they could be incorporated into a theistic worldview, as well.
    My first thought about why we might give preference to one description over the other is some appeal to the probability of fewer vs. more entities. That never seems satisfactory, though, unless the situation really is a case where all else is equal.
    Regarding 3, I’m not sure what you mean by the elegant simplicity of laws. Could there be a law that was not simple, however it cam to be? I feel like any attempt to come up with a complex law might be subject to reduction. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but simplicity doesn’t seem to favor any one law-providing system over another.

    October 19, 2011 — 9:24
  • Aaron:
    No, the physics department people (qua physics department people) will not help me understand the tough questions about how a physical object interacts with another. They’ll give me a lot of detail about the interaction of various kinds of physical, but once we get past the detail to the fundamental interactions, all they can say qua physicists is that certain correlations obtain by law or that certain states cause other states. But the real question is what it is for correlations to obtain by law or what it is for a state to cause another state. And that is just as mysterious when both relata are physical as when only one is.

    October 19, 2011 — 16:02
  • Trent — This sounds interesting. I’m curious about the details of your argument. What is your definition of “irreligious experience”? And what is your argument in its logical form?

    October 19, 2011 — 16:38
  • John Jones

    There is something lazy about a claim that one experience is more real than another. Should we suppose that real is not an experience? I’m not saying there’s no answer, but maybe “real” applied to irrelgious experience is not the same “real” as applied to mystical experience. I would not know what is meant.

    October 21, 2011 — 12:15