Does Religious Experience Have an Expiration Date?
April 12, 2013 — 20:51

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 6

A fairly common position in philosophy of religion is that religious experience can provide justification for religious belief of a sort that cannot be transmitted by testimony. (We here use the term ‘religious experience’ non-factively; that is, we leave open the possibility that these experiences might provide misleading evidence.) This is not necessarily to deny that testimony of religious experience can provide evidence in favor of religious belief; it is just to say that, no matter how credible the testimony, this won’t provide the same sort of justification as actually having the experience oneself. Often it is thought that at least some mystics gain justification which is not only different in kind than the justification that can be got by testimony, but greater in degree. (I use the term ‘mystic’ to refer to anyone who has religious experience; I take it that this group is far larger than just the famous mystical writers and those directly influenced by them.) On this view, no matter how much testimony of religious experience from sincere, apparently sane, people one collected, this could never add up to as strong a reason for belief as that possessed by (say) Julian of Norwich on account of her experiences.

Why might one think this? Well here’s one reason. Although some things which can be interpreted as religious experience (e.g. having strong emotional responses to sacraments) are easily explainable in terms of fairly ordinary psychological mechanisms (e.g. one’s beliefs about the significance of the sacraments, and one’s emotional investment in those beliefs), there are other sorts of religious experience which must either be explained in terms of a supernatural reality or in terms of massive cognitive malfunction. Here I have in mind experiences such as the compulsion to speak in tongues or engage in ecstatic prophecy, being ‘slain in the Spirit,’ seeing visions, hearing voices, feeling a sudden compulsion to believe or do something which is strongly disfavored by all of one’s known reasons, and so forth. I reiterate here that I am using ‘religious experience’ in a non-factive sense. Also, in saying that, as an alternative to massive cognitive malfunction, we can explain these things in terms of a supernatural reality, I don’t necessarily mean to say that we would have to regard them as miraculous (and I certainly don’t mean to say we would have to regard them as violations of natural law, since I don’t think of miracles as violations); we could instead hold, with Plantinga, that it is part of the proper function of our cognitive faculties that they are responsive to certain supernatural realities. Finally, note that many religious experiences of the first sort might still be thought to involve relatively minor cognitive malfunctions, or even the sort of cognitive imperfections which are so common in human beings that we perhaps ought not to describe them as ‘malfunctions.’ However, if they are unusually pervasive in some individual’s cognitive life, then that could likewise be regarded as a fairly serious cognitive malfunction.
Now here’s an argument for holding that such experiences have a different evidential status when they are experienced by me than they do when I have reliable testimony of someone else’s experience. It is based on Reid’s famous ‘same shop’ argument. Suppose I have an intense religious experience of the second sort. I am trying to use my cognitive faculties to determine whether this was a veridical experience of a supernatural reality, or a cognitive malfunction. But if it was a cognitive malfunction, this casts doubt on the reliability of my cognitive faculties, the very same faculties I am using to conclude that my experience was a cognitive malfunction. The more I attribute to myself such malfunction, the more I undermine the reliability of my faculties, but since these attributions are the result of the exercise of my cognitive faculties, my position here turns out to be self-defeating. For this reason, there is a strong presumption in favor of my own sanity. However, I don’t have similar reasons for presuming any other particular individual to be sane. Something like this is behind Plantinga’s view that the atheist and the Christian can each be justified (subjectively rational) in regarding the other as the victim of a cognitive malfunction, despite having all the same third-personal evidence.
Here’s a thought, though. The reason I need to presume my own past sanity is in order to avoid undermining the present deliverances of my cognitive faculties, the faculties I use to evaluate my sanity. Given the right kind of evidence, one can, of course, rationally believe that one has a severe mental disorder, but in order to do this one needs to regard the disorder as not undermining one’s ability to evaluate the evidence for the disorder. This is how John Nash is portrayed at the end of the film A Beautiful Mind: he knows that he has hallucinations, but believes in the general reliability of his ability to evaluate what he seems to see and hear to determine whether it makes sense. So what’s needed is an explanatory hypothesis which doesn’t impugn one’s current efforts to evaluate the experience in question. The less a malfunction hypothesis casts doubt on one’s present cognitive performance, the less ‘same shop’ considerations give one reason to disfavor it.
A case of this which is much less extreme than Nash’s is the hypothesis that one experienced a cognitive malfunction due to a drug which has now passed out of one’s system. In this case, the previous malfunction has no tendency to undermine the reliability of one’s present deliberation, because one is not presently under the influence of the drug.
Now here’s where the ‘expiration dates’ mentioned in my title come in. We humans tend to change over time, and this includes changes to our cognitive faculties. These changes can involve honing our faculties by education, ceasing to be effected by distorting influences, and so forth. In other words, our cognitive faculties can improve. But the hypothesis that one previously experienced major cognitive malfunction is self-defeating only if one thinks the underlying causes of the malfunction are still around. The longer in the past the putative malfunction occurred, and the more one’s psychology has changed since then, the more intrinsically plausible it will be that the underlying causes are gone. As a result, these ‘same shop’ considerations get less and less force, so that one’s own religious experience in the distant past start looking, epistemologically speaking, a lot like the testimony of others’ religious experiences.
It’s a well-known fact that mystics (both the great mystics and the more ordinary ones) often experience doubts when they go a long time without the kind of religious experience which previously helped to form their faith. I always used to think this was a type of irrationality. (One of those ordinary sorts of irrationality to which humans are prone.) After all, in general if one has seen something one shouldn’t start to doubt its existence just because one saw it a long time ago. But the considerations I’ve presented give some reason to think that these mystics’ doubts are rational after all. The longer one goes without religious experience the weaker the grounds for belief provided by one’s past religious experience become. This is because the epistemic cost of regarding the past experience as resulting from cognitive malfunction decreases the further in the past the experience is.
(cross-posted at

  • Does Religious Experience Have an Expiration Date?

    A fairly common position in philosophy of religion is that religious experience can provide justification for religious belief of a sort that cannot be transmitted by testimony. (We here use the term ‘religious experience’ non-factively; that is, we le…

    April 12, 2013 — 20:54
  • It seems like there’s a more prosaic explanation: even apart from our memories of exotic experiences, we doubt the past, and it has nothing do to with assessments of sanity. When invited to parties I always carry the invitation because I question whether I’d been invited.
    In ordinary circumstances our memories are confirmed. But that typically isn’t so when it comes to memories of religious experiences. So of course we doubt, or at least I, who carry invitations to every party and am chronically skeptical about the past do. But should I?
    Personally I’ve had these slam-bang mystical experiences. And immediately afterwards I’ve told myself, and written to my future self, that this was a slam-bang self-verifying or whatever experience, that I in the future should take it as such and believe. But, of course, my future selves were skeptical.
    But what is the difference really between past mystical experiences and other kinds of past experiences? When it comes to the latter, we have empirical confirmation and, even more importantly, the agreement of others who assume that testimony about the past is generally accurate. When it comes to religious experience we don’t operate within these cultural assumptions–we assume that religious experience is questionable.

    April 15, 2013 — 12:38
  • Kenny Pearce

    Harriet – Thank you for your comment. I agree with everything you say, but I’m not sure that it accounts for all of the data. The tendency to forget or misremember the past is, I take it, one of those ordinary cognitive imperfections far too common in human beings to be rightly called a ‘malfunction.’ As a result of this, it is true that the further into the past something gets to be, the more we rely on independent confirmation of our memory – and rightly so. And as you say it’s hard to do this with memory of religious experience.
    But here’s the thing: if you switch from relying on actual memory to relying on, say, journal entries, then you are essentially relying on testimony from your past self. What I am arguing is that, given enough time and enough psychological change, that testimony can eventually start to look, epistemically speaking, a lot like testimony from someone else. And the same could be true even where you still have a clear memory.
    For me, at least, there seems to be a distinction between coming to doubt the accuracy of my memory and coming to doubt my previous interpretation of the events remembered. When I have doubts about past religious experience, they tend to be more of the latter sort. For instance (without getting into too many personal details), I used to belong to a Christian community of a very different sort from the community I belong to now, and when I did I had the sorts of religious experiences expected by that community. However, I haven’t had experiences of that sort for many years now. I remember the experiences pretty clearly and in a fair amount of detail, and I’m pretty sure that I’m remembering them correctly. The thing I wonder is not whether it really happened that way, whether it really felt like that to me, but rather, whether the experience might have been created by the expectations of the community, that is, whether the real reason I had that experience was because I had been led to expect it (something like Freudian wish-fulfillment or some such).
    Presumably in the invitation case, you just wonder whether you mis-remembered receiving an invitation. But the analogue of my case would be the case in which you are sure you remember your experience correctly, but are wondering if you somehow managed to hallucinate an invitation. These seem different.

    April 15, 2013 — 13:21
  • Aaron

    Kenny, could you clarify what you meant by this sentence? Maybe add some punctuation or break it up into a few shorter statements?
    “But the hypothesis that one previously experienced major cognitive malfunction is self-defeating only if one thinks the underlying causes of the malfunction are still around.”

    April 16, 2013 — 5:36
  • Kenny Pearce

    Aaron – Radical distrust of one’s own faculties (mental abilities) is self-defeating, in the sense that you need to use your faculties to figure out whether your faculties are trustworthy, but if your faculties turn out to be untrustworthy, then the results of your investigation are suspect. Now, typically, the fact that one’s faculties have malfunctioned in the past would be evidence for the untrustworthiness of one’s faculties now, which is what causes the problems. However, if the situation is totally different now than it was at the time of the malfunction, then there will be no reason to expect future malfunctions on the basis of the past malfunction. This is what the drug case is meant to illustrate: if you remember that you hallucinated after taking LSD, that is no reason not to trust what you are seeing now when you haven’t taken any drugs.

    April 16, 2013 — 10:21
  • Ryan Smith

    Our cognitive functions certainly can improve over time. But they can get worse too. In fact, depending on what age group you are in, they are more likely to be getting worse as time goes by than getting better. Age aside, you could also be using a chemical now that you weren’t using before, or you could be under the influence of some sin that’s making you twist your memories of your own past to justify your present behavior, or who knows what. I agree that religious experiences of the past become less and less forceful as evidence, but not because of the ‘same shop’ argument diminishing. It’s just a fact of life that the older our memories are, the less reliable they are- I don’t remember what happened 20 years ago as well as I did 15 years ago.
    But we can’t let that defeat *all* memory! If, 20 years ago I was absolutely certain that 21 years ago my mother was very sick, and yet today the memory is vague and uncertain, I think there’s a sense in which we have to rely on “I was certain at the time, and I’m in no better position to judge now”. Of course, sometimes we WILL be in a better position to judge now- we are more mature, we have more information, we are no longer smoking quite so much dope. But that’s not always going to be the case, so I don’t think there’s a carte blanche reason for religious experiences to lose their viabiity as grounds for belief over time; Though they will absolutely lose their ability to inspire conviction on an emotional level.

    May 17, 2013 — 23:35
  • Leave a Reply to Kenny Pearce Cancel reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *