Mystical perception as a learned skill, and implications for religious epistemology
July 29, 2013 — 14:42

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 55

In the epistemology of religion, authors like Swinburne and Alston have argued influentially that mystical experience of God provides prima facie justification for some beliefs we hold about God on the basis of such experiences, e.g., that he loves us, is sovereign etc. Belief in God, so they argue, is analogous to sense perception. If I get a mystical experience that God loves me, prima facie, I am justified in believing that God loves me. 

Alston relies critically on William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). This seminal, but now dated psychological study draws on self-reports by mystics to characterize mystical experience. The mystical experiences James (and others) describe are unexpected, unbidden; they immediately present something (God) to one’s experience, i.e., they provide a direct, unmediated awareness of God. More recent empirical work on the phenomenology of religious experience, such as that conducted by Tanya Luhrmann and other anthropologists, suggests that ordinary sense perception is a poor and misleading analogy for mystical perception. 

Luhrmann did extensive fieldwork with American evangelicals from the Vineyard community. Evangelical Christianity is a very personal, experiential religion, where believers frequently report vivid religious experiences. Luhrmann was interested in finding out how evangelicals come to experience God (this video summarizes many of her results, and her recent book When God talks back provides a thorough report of her research).

What Luhrmann found was that evangelicals engage in cognitive practices: deliberate exercises that seem to facilitate (although they do not guarantee) direct awareness of God.
For instance, chapter 2 of her book starts as follows:  

At the Vineyard [congregation], people speak about recognizing God’s “voice.” They talk about things God has “said” to them about very specific topics — where they should go to school and whether they should volunteer in a day care–and newcomers are often confused by what they mean. Newcomers soon learn that God is understood to speak to congregants inside their own minds. They learn that someone who worships God at the Vineyard must develop the ability to recognize thoughts in their own mind that are not in fact their thoughts, but God’s. They learn that this is a skill they should master. At the beginning, they usually find both the skill and the very idea of the skill perplexing. 

So how do evangelicals develop this skill? How do they come to experience, directly and non-inferentially, what they at first find perplexing? Luhrmann describes several cognitive practices:

  • Many people Luhrmann interviewed seek out a quiet place where they go on regular hours to pray undisturbed, such as a quiet room or sometimes even a closet.  
  • They read Scripture regularly. After some practice in this, passages will sometimes ‘leap out’ at them, being particularly significant in real-world situations (e.g., a particular Psalm verse).  
  • When faced with a difficult decision or problem, people will ask others to pray for them (or more accurately) with them.  
  • While there are no set rules to discern whether the inner voice one hears is really God’s, Luhrmann was able to distill a set of heuristics that people used as guidelines. First, if the thought was the kind of thing you would think or say anyway, it was probably yours, not God’s. By contrast, if it was spontaneous or unexpected, it could be God’s. Second, the thought should be something that God would say or think, and is not in violation with one’s knowledge of Scripture. Third, external confirmation was regarded as strong support, especially if others who had offered similar prayers had received the same response. The final test was a feeling of peace, God’s thoughts are assumed to provide peace and comfort.  
  • Let’s pretend: Evangelicals imagine themselves walking with God, as if he is literally by their side. Pretending he is there, actually talking out loud, or pouring him a cup of coffee can help the believer focus on God. 

Luhrmann found in the community she investigated that some people were recognized experts at prayer. Interestingly, for these people, God’s inner voice still came unbidden, and indeed, often unexpected. Such episodes were brief and often quite startling. In that respect they were similar to Alston’s M-experience. But crucially, people with more experience in prayer, who have engaged more extensively with (some of) the practices I describe above, had more of these startling religious experiences than those who were novices.

In the practices Luhrmann describes, religious experience is not like ordinary perception, which requires no conscious or deliberate training, but more like a skilled perception, such as that of an art connoisseur or a scientist. By acquiring the relevant skills, a scientist or connoisseur can discern things that would escape an ordinary observer. To take an example from Kitcher’s Advancement of Science (1995), take an experienced primatologist who observes a baboon troop. Her field notes are based on her ability to discern complex relationships, such as dominance, submissive behavior, grooming and reconciliation; a neophyte, by contrast, would simply see one baboon plucking another baboon’s fur, with no idea about the power relationships or dynamics between them. While expert sees “male subdominant grooms female subdominant, away from sight of male dominant in order to secure sexual intercourse with her”, the novice observes “a big monkey is sitting next to a smaller monkey”. The expert’s observations are unmediated and spontaneous, but nevertheless the result of skill and practice. A new and inexperienced research scientist will learn these skills from the experienced biologist, and in this way, he will end up with observations that are similarly structured.

Here arises, I believe, a new epistemic difficulty for Reidian arguments that draw analogies between sense perception and mystical experience (note, by the way, that Reid himself did not think mystical experience was analogous to the ordinary modes of sense perception, such as sight, hearing and the like). It is related to the problem of inconsistent revelations, but adds new worries. If religious experience is indeed critically shaped by cultivating the right skills, there is the worry that the experiences elicited in this way aren’t veridical, because the skills aren’t skills at all. Indeed, in the fascinating review paper entitled ‘Anomalous experiences reported by field anthropologists: evaluating theories regarding religion‘, McClennon and Nooney report that anthropologists sometimes have religious experiences of beings and events that are endorsed in the culture they study, but not in their own culture.
Perhaps this is a result of the fact that field anthropologists are required to immerse themselves completely in local practices and belief systems. As part of this, they learn the relevant religious practices and often actively participate in them. Evans-Pritchard, for instance, who was an expert on witchcraft in an African culture (the Zande) recounts how he himself saw witchcraft at work:

I was walking in the garden at the back of my hut… when I noticed a bright light passing at the back of my servant’s hut toward the homestead of a man called Tupoi… I ran quickly through my hut to the other side in order to see where the light was going to, but did not regain sight of it… Shortly afterwards, on the same morning an old relative of Tupoi and an inmate of his homestead died. This event fully explained the light I had seen.

Like the other anthropologists McClennon and Nooney describe, Evans-Pritchard did not believe in witchcraft or any of the other religious belief systems he studied. Yet he saw what a Zande would surely interpret as a convincing case of witchcraft.

Kitcher recognizes that the circular dependency of perception and skill in scientific practice might constitute a problem. How could an accomplished behavioral biologist persuade a beginner that her skills are worth acquiring? Similarly, how can the expert Evangelical person persuade a newcomer that the skills they teach really provide one with an experience of God? Kitcher suggested that scientists can do this by “engaging in displays of discriminatory virtuosity”, for instance, she can successfully predict how a monkey would react to the behavior of another monkey. The beginner, by adopting the practice, can discern meaningful patterns of what used to be a meaningless jumble of monkeys. So for skilled observations, we need more than, as Alston put it, engage in doxastic practices that are “firmly established, psychologically and socially”. We need to have assurances that mystics engage in displays of discriminatory virtuosity, otherwise we do not have any reason for accepting their reports, anymore than we have reason to accept the reports of astrologists or oracle-consulters.

Interestingly, in the field of primate studies, there are culturally distinct observational practices that give rise to different interpretations of similar phenomena. Frans De Waal discusses how Japanese primatologists have a different approach to housing, treating and studying primates compared to their Western colleagues, and this has a significant effect on their interpretation of primate social cognition. Kyoto primates, for instance, are housed in family groups, often composed of mothers with infants, and maintain close proximity with human investigators, whereas Max Planck primates are housed in a zoo context, interact more with individuals of the same age, and have less close relationships with their human experimenters. Japanese primatologists think proximity to primates is the best way to obtain results, whereas western researchers believe this decreases objectivity. One result of these different approaches is that Japanese primatologists come to a more contextualized view of social learning, i.e., chimpanzees learn through a system of observational learning similar to a medieval master and his apprentice. By contrast, western primatologists stress internal cognitive differences between humans and chimpanzees (such as lack of the ability to share attention) as important factors. In spite of these differences, researchers from both traditions accept the empirical findings of each group and debate their interpretation, using a common, shared body of accepted knowledge about primates. There is nothing remotely like that going on in the case of mystical perception.
Indeed, given that the persistent practice within a religious tradition can easily give rise to M-perception in accordance with that tradition, it seems hard to maintain that M-perception could ever give rise to justified religious beliefs, let alone religious knowledge.

  • I’m not sure how this is supposed to be a problem for broadly Reidian positions; such positions are basically modern forms of internal sense theory, and internal sense theorists would absolutely oppose any sharp distinction between “ordinary sense perception” and “skilled perception”: all skilled perception presupposes some original form of perception capable of serving as its foundation, and ordinary sense perception is in fact a mix of this original form with various kinds of skilled perception that have been picked up. (Precisely one of the standard points of internal sense theorists was that our ordinary sense experience in fact involves a complicated cooperation of different senses, internal as well as external; and that the internal senses are genuine senses because they are functionally analogous as original sources of ideas, not because they work the same way.)
    The fundamental problem is that on any genuinely inner-sense approach veridicality is a strictly secondary issue in matters of the senses, whether inner or outer: we simply act on them as a whole and can never eliminate an entire sense as ‘nonveridical’, because the senses are themselves the standards of veridicality. We could discover that their proper objects are not what they were originally thought to be (Reid holds that this is precisely the case with the sense of sublimity), and we could also discover fallibilities in the sense (like optical illusions, or the interference of one sense with another, as when Gerard, I think, notes with the sense of novelty confusing our sense of beauty), but the only way to rule out something as simply nonveridical is to rule it out as a sense first, which requires an account reducing the relevant experiences entirely to other senses. In such a context, discriminatory virtuosity isn’t actually going to tell us anything about the perception itself: if one displays it, it could just as easily be due to rational inference + completely different forms of perception (if a wine connoisseur displays discriminatory virtuosity, it doesn’t mean he has a veridical sense of wine), so it doesn’t actually shore up any particular sense, and it can’t be used as a test at all without already accepting some senses as veridical (displays of virtuosity have to be accurately sensed to be any use at all, and the displayers have to be considered trustworthy, which in internal-sense contexts immediately raises at least the question of veridical moral sense), and therefore is just a really roundabout way of assuming a priori that some purported senses are the standards of veridicality for others. But this is just to reject the sense-status of the latter out of hand.

    July 29, 2013 — 15:37
  • Helen De Cruz

    Hi Brandon,
    Thanks for this thoughtful comment. Broadly speaking, I think there are limits to what extent a Reidian defense can be applied. It’s unproblematic to apply a Reidian defense to faculties and deliverances of our cognitive system broadly shared with other members of our species. Reid himself discusses ordinary sense perception, e.g., sight, hearing, smell.
    Even though we cannot draw a strict distinction between ordinary sense perception and skilled perception, and there are degrees of skill, it is nevertheless meaningful to distinguish between ordinary perceptual faculties that everyone has, and perceptual skills that are only achieved after intensive training. As Ryan Nichols and Callergard write in the paper I linked to “The choice to write a book on the five senses reflects Reid’s interest in delivering answers to epistemic questions through consultation of available empirical evidence drawn from determinable, testable observations made about (and with) universal features of human bodies and brains.”
    While ordinary sense perception is in fact a complicated cooperation of various faculties, as e.g., the neuroscience of vision abundantly indicated, it is broadly shared and therefore does not require justification. I am thus not talking about the intrinsic complexity of the faculty, but its source (ordinary, species-wide perceptual capacities versus trained and honed skills).
    Take the baboon example. There are gradations in skill, to be sure, going from complete neophyte over undergraduate, grad student, and expert. But I think it is far less controversial for me to say “I see one monkey plucking at the fur of another”, since this sort of experience is something that everyone can have. But the expert who makes the complex social inferences has to exhibit some indication that she is indeed competent and not confabulating. Indeed, primatologists often question each other on whether or not they are over-interpreting behavior and hold each other to strict standards on this.
    We similarly require of an art expert a higher burden of proof when she says “The earlobes in this painting clearly indicate that it is an Ingres” than when an ordinary perceiver says “This painting shows a nude woman with a turban”. In other words, it is upon the art connoisseur to show that she is not a fraud, and upon the primate expert that she is competent in observing primate behavior.

    July 29, 2013 — 16:51
  • Hi, Helen,
    I think it at least begs the question to talk about how “It’s unproblematic to apply a Reidian defense to faculties and deliverances of our cognitive system broadly shared with other members of our species. Reid himself discusses ordinary sense perception, e.g., sight, hearing, smell.” For one thing, Reid’s full account also talks about the common sense, the moral sense, the sense of sublimity (which while not a kind of mystical perception is nonetheless very close phenomenologically to what a lot of non-internal-sense-theorists would consider such), the sense of beauty, and the sense of novelty, all as ordinary sense perception. It’s what makes him an internal sense theorist. But I take it you’re not really wanting to argue that there is no mystical sense as opposed to our unproblematically veridical moral sense or sense of beauty. But the whole point of any internal sense theory is that what defends the external senses defends the internal senses; the only way to get around this is to establish in the first place that something is not, in fact, an internal sense at all, by showing that it reduces without remainder to something more basic. Second, no judgment can be made about whether things are “faculties and deliverances of our cognitive system broadly shared with other members of our species” can be made at all except in terms of what our senses or basic perceptions as a whole say about the world. We don’t know what other members of our species have except insofar as it fits our sensory experience, which is constituted by all our sense perceptions together; thus there is no non-circular way to argue what kinds of purported senses are problematic or non-problematic based on what is shared in common. Think just in terms of external senses for a moment. How do we know that these are unproblematic? Not on the basis of what we share with others, since knowing what we share with others in any way, shape, or form depends on already accepting at least some of them as unproblematic.
    The art expert’s judgment that the painting is an Ingres is not a sensory perception; it is merely skillful judgment given sensory perception. If it were a serious candidate for sensory perception, if it were not reducible to sight + inference + experience, it would be absurd to talk about higher burdens of proof. Particular perceptions might labor under a burden of proof, for particular reasons, but this is true of senses in general. Likewise, it might turn out under close investigation that beauty-as-perceived is a more complicated matter than someone might naively assume; but this is also true of senses in general. The way any sort of Reidian position works is by taking our sensory experience as is, and tracing back its components to their originals; the only way to show that something is not a sense or genuine perception of mind is to show that it is reducible without remainder to other things that are, so that in fact it is provably not a basic perception or sense, or anything like, at all. Nothing else will suffice, because when we’re talking about the senses or basic perceptions, we’re talking about those things to which human beings attribute their ability to determine in the first place which premises about the world are true.

    July 29, 2013 — 20:11
  • Helen:
    “given that the persistent practice within a religious tradition can easily give rise to M-perception in accordance with that tradition, it seems hard to maintain that M-perception could ever give rise to justified religious beliefs”
    This judgment is at least affected by how externalist one’s account of justification is. On a sufficiently externalist view, in the true religion, when the perceptual skills are instilled by practices instituted by God in a truth-directed way, there may well be justification.
    We could imagine a planet where there is a small group of scientists, and many different groups of pseudoscientists. In each group, people have skillful perceptual practices. But only the skillful perceptual practices of the scientists are truth-tracking. We could conclude that none of them are justified. But we need not. It seems quite reasonable to say the scientists know, but the pseudoscientists don’t.
    One could say: “Ah, but the practices of the scientists succeed in fitting with some desiderata, like generating predictions that come true, etc., while the practices of the pseudoscientists only apparently fit with these desiderata and/or actually fit with some pseudodesiderata, like generating predictions that make one feel good.” But one may be able to say the same thing about the religious case: The practices of the true religion succeed in fitting with some desiderata, like bringing people closer to God, while the practices of the false religions only apparently fit with these desiderata and/or actually fit with some pseudodesiderata.

    July 29, 2013 — 22:21
  • Helen De Cruz

    Alex: I am intrigued by the example of the planet of scientists, where only a small minority have true beliefs based on good practices, and the vast majority have false beliefs based on what they think are good practices, but in reality are non-truth-tracking practices. Are the scientists justified in believing their results? Do the scientists know their results are correct? I am not sure. Under an externalist account, you could argue that scientists (and not the masses of pseudoscientists) are justified. But then I fear that externalist accounts of justification provide justification rather cheaply (If God instilled etc., then we are justified. That all seems plausible, but it still leaves open to me the question of whether or not God did instill these beliefs. The only result we get, I think, is that our beliefs based on M-experiences could be justified. But that is a very weak result. We would need additional reasons to believe – in your scenario – that the scientists have knowledge, justified beliefs etc, but not the pseudoscientists. There is an interesting passage in Kitcher where he discusses a situation where a skilled practice that provides true beliefs is in the minority, namely Galileo’s telescope and the moons of Jupiter. At first sight, the situation is rather grim for Galileo as he establishes the existence of a contested entity (the moons) based on a novel and not generally accepted practice (the use of a telescope). But Galileo engaged in various practices that enabled him to show to skeptics that the use of the telescope did not generate pseudo-data but real data, such as an understanding of how the telescope works, showing that the telescope could enlarge our view on entities on earth that are known etc. The problem is that there is no analogue for M-perception and its practices. The practitioner of religious practices that generate M-perception cannot demonstrate – as Galileo did with his telescope – that her experiences are veridical because the practice is sound, or show the superiority of her practice over other things, like eastern meditation or the consultation of oracles in western Africa.
    To be clear, even though I think M-perception and its practices do not provide us with justified beliefs about God, I do think that mystical experiences fit some of the desiderata for being an epistemically virtuous practice (as I outline above). Not just anything goes. There are socially shared criteria within communities (such as the Vineyard) on what counts as an experience of God, versus just one’s own thoughts. However, I do not believe that they fit sufficient desiderata for us to be justified in our beliefs about God’s existence based on M-experiences.

    July 30, 2013 — 4:25
  • Helen:
    “We would need additional reasons to believe – in your scenario – that the scientists have knowledge, justified beliefs etc, but not the pseudoscientists.”
    The somewhat externalist story repeats at the meta-level.
    The scientists have reasons to believe that the pseudoscientists don’t have justification or knowledge. For one, they have very good scientific reason to think many central claims of the pseudoscientists are false and that practices like those the pseudoscientists engage in are not the sorts of practices that lead to knowledge. They recognize their own practices and theories as having various merits–generating correct predictions, simplicity, being useful for engineering, etc.–that the theories of the pseudoscientists do not have or have only to a much smaller extent. Moreover, the scientists have justification in thinking they have justification, because they see their theories having the right theoretical merits.
    The scientists’ reasons for thinking these second order claims seem to be exactly of the same sort that scientists have in our world for thinking that many central claims of the pseudoscientists are false and the pseudoscientists’ engagement in their pseudoscientific practices are epistemically unhelpful, with the one exception that while on our planet most of the intellectuals and the general public trust the scientists on many claims (bracketing a rather small number of controversies), on that planet the scientists are all on their own.
    It would be unfortunate if the high epistemic standing of the best-confirmed scientific theories were to require that social respect be conferred on scientists.
    Likewise the members of the true religion whose perceptual practices are in fact the correct ones (and not just correct because the perceptions are in fact caused by God in the right way, but also because the skillful practices are of the right sort, with tests, checks and balances that are in fact the right sort of tests, checks and balances to have) have good reason to think that many of the deliverances of the religious experiences of other religions are false, as well as that their own, rather than others’, skillful perceptual practices are truth-tracking. After all, their own practices have various merits–they lead to morally upright behavior, they deepen communion with God, they cohere with what is in fact divine revelation, etc.–which the practices in the other religions do not have or have only to a smaller extent.

    July 30, 2013 — 8:46
  • Eric Steinhart

    Helen –
    You wrote: “given that the persistent practice within a religious tradition can easily give rise to M-perception in accordance with that tradition, it seems hard to maintain that M-perception could ever give rise to justified religious beliefs, let alone religious knowledge.”. And I agree entirely.
    There is a small literature on the mystical experiences of atheists and religious naturalists, which, obviously enough, don’t involve experience of God. Comte-Sponville describes his own mystical experiences in “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” (pp. 155-9). Ursula Goodenough describes several non-theistic mystical experiences in her “The Sacred Depths of Nature”. And Ian Robinson wrote a nice article (on the web) on “Can an Atheist have a Religious Experience” (answer, yes). In recent PEW surveys, atheists report having regular mystical experiences.
    Speaking for myself, I’ve had several such experiences, some when I was a young Christian, and some after I left Christianity. The qualitative nature of these experiences was the same; however, their intended objects, and my interpretations of those objects, were very different.
    It would be interesting to study such experiences independent of their religious interpretations (or motivations). I suspect there are invariants: they are experiences of the dissolution of the self, of wholeness and unity, or some such. And, of course, some brain science has been applied to such experiences.
    Anyway, nice article.
    – Eric

    July 30, 2013 — 9:23
  • Helen, you say to Alex,
    The practitioner of religious practices that generate M-perception cannot demonstrate – as Galileo did with his telescope – that her experiences are veridical because the practice is sound, or show the superiority of her practice over other things, like eastern meditation or the consultation of oracles in western Africa.
    But surely we can only talk about the superiority of practices in terms of superiority with respect to particular goals. Nobody would worry about whether the chemist’s titration were superior to the astronomer’s telescopy, unless you were somehow trying to do exactly the same thing with them. But surely augurs are not actually trying to do the same thing as yogis? Or if they are, then why would one assume that one can’t argue out on ordinary rational grounds which is at least more likely to fit that goal?
    Also, it seems to me that Galileo is not a particularly good example for this kind of question: Galileo seems to me to have established veridicality primarily by appealing to the already shared and highly developed science of optics and the practices associated with application of optical theory. But not everyone has that advantage even in scientific matters (the early history of chemistry might perhaps be a good example of a case where showing sound practice was difficult because actual practitioners were not always trying to do the same thing, and one could not always rely on shared theory to adjudicate disagreements about results); even in fairly simple scientific matters it may take centuries to reach the point of being able to do the sort of thing Galileo could do with what was already available to everyone.
    (Incidentally, re-reading my previous comments, I think I should say that I don’t myself have any commitment to Reidian analysis in this context; but I think that in moving to discriminatory virtuosity, you are eliminating any chance of a non-question-begging objection to broadly Reidian analysis, in exactly the same way that one could, logically speaking, not have actually refuted anything Reid says about the sense of beauty on the basis of disagreements and the difficulty of proof in taste.)

    July 30, 2013 — 10:41
  • Eric:
    “There is a small literature on the mystical experiences of atheists and religious naturalists, which, obviously enough, don’t involve experience of God”
    Nothing obvious about it. Once when I surveyed my class, I had an atheist student claiming to have had an experience apparently of God.
    Following Richard Gale, I think that if the argument from religious experience works in the first person, it works (maybe with somewhat diminished force) in the third. Since the atheist denies it works in the third person (or at least with much force), there is nothing that surprising about an atheist who also denies it works in the first person.

    July 30, 2013 — 20:10
  • Hi Helen,
    As one who has had religious mystical experiences, I don’t consider people who do exercises in order to replicate them “experts,” so I would not fit into the Vineyard community. Nor would not I fit into the Wicca community, which Tanya Lurhmann refers to. Nor, by the way, would I consider myself to be anything other than an “expert” on my own personal experiences, if I’m that.
    It is humbling to realize that I most likely required these experiences in order to have faith when others come to faith without them. What else would God do with a bonehead like me, but make the whole thing open book, or even just a matter of participation, in the sense that no questions really need to be answered?
    Anyone can have an M-experience. It looks like from the studies that people who are absorbers can create them more at will than others. It becomes like Yoga or Zen, how good are you at meditation? In the greater scheme of things, it does not matter any more than how fast you can run, or how high is your IQ, or even credit score. The question, then, is: When is an M-experience a capital G-experience? We should not be assuming that they are the same thing.
    Those experts in the Vineyard community seem to be practicing how to act as if they were to be having G-experiences. It’s a sort of ultra-preparedness syndrome, and may be a reaction to a world that closes itself down, as if we are all brains in our own personal vat worlds. When more precisely we are bodies in a world, something we can keep extending to say that our world is in a universe, a universe in a cosmos, a cosmos in a who-knows.
    If we flip perspective, it may be quite wrong or maybe so very culture-oriented to think that we each are the sole individuals who have access to our consciousness(es). Our neurons may be the loom through which our patterns and colors are created, but the looms work whether there is consciousness going through them or not. It’s the cotton that’s king, not the mills.
    In this sense, becoming a physicalist atheist is like becoming alone in a crowd. There is a conscious disconnect that needs to take place. Atheism is a decision not to participate in what one is participating in, whether there is a capital G involved or not. There becomes a need to explain away everything that might be an M-experience, including the light that was seen in the village when the elder died. People who aren’t so closed off will not try to explain that away as coincidence.
    We need to flip perspective in another way too. It may be that people who are prone to absorption would become “experts” in many different cult communities they enter, and I don’t use “cult” as being necessarily a bad thing. Lurhmann’s asks the question, “If God is always speaking, why is it that not everybody is able to hear?” The answer is that true G-experiences can be given to anyone, and they are also more integrated into a person’s life than one simple M-experience. The better question is why they should be given to anyone? In the vein I have been considering them, they should be unnecessary, and only to be given to the boneheads.
    I recently did a photo essay of a homeless alcoholic, if you can get onto Facebook to view it. The homeless man, John, is a Catholic. He is nearly dying as I meet him. When receiving help, he responds with, “God bless you.” This phrase ends up getting used by others who are helping the homeless as well. There is a recognition where the rubber hits the road, of this greater power at work. Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, assumes a power greater than ourselves, however the individual conceives of that.
    During the weeks that I was interacting with John, some uncanny situations took place, such as me showing up at just the right time, several times, for instance on the morning he was driven away. I also had to question how much the surroundings were involved or were in cahoots with the greater cause of what can best be described as love in action. This “faith” or acceptance becomes a way of being synchronous with life. The knowledge derives from the synchronicity, not the M-experience.

    July 30, 2013 — 21:14
  • r

    A sufficiently externalist view does look like it can deliver the results you describe; it’s not hard to see how to repeat the object-level story all over again at the meta-level (and, indeed, it looks like this is the most consistently-motivated way to do it). But there are a family of worries about such externalist views (bootstrapping, easy knowledge, etc.) on precisely that score. I myself am more inclined to modus the tollens–I think the religious disagreement case is a good demonstration of the flaws in sufficiently strong externalisms, namely, that they endorse as good practice dialectically impotent just-so stories to any conclusion you happen to have been antecedently committed to.

    July 30, 2013 — 22:11
  • r:
    I don’t know exactly how externalist the view needs to be, in part because I am not clear on what exactly counts as externalism (remember that I am not an epistemologist).
    Take my planet full of pseudoscience case. The difference between the scientists and the pseudoscientists need not be seen as lying in the fact that the the scientists’ methods are in fact reliable. It could, instead, be that the scientists’ intellectual standards (e.g., simplicity as evidence in favor) are in fact the correct intellectual standards, while the pseudoscientists’ intellectual standards (e.g., epicyclicity as evidence in favor) are in fact incorrect intellectual standards. On that picture, the justificational difference depends on external facts, but external normative facts–facts about which standards are the rationally correct ones. Is that externalism? I don’t know, but it’s certainly not reliabilism. This is related to questions such as: Is it externalism to say that whether one is justified in believing a conclusion depends on whether in fact one’s arguments for the conclusion are valid? (A radical internalist might deny such dependence. She might insist that what matters is only whether the arguments seem valid.)
    Now, in addition to normative facts about how one should reason, there might also be (surely are!) normative facts about what the right methods for getting information from each of the senses are, what the right standards for evaluating information from each of the senses are. Objects that look smaller should be taken to be smaller when, and only when, one has corrected for distance, and the like.
    Now back to the religion case. Could it not be that one of the religions in fact has the correct intellectual standards embodied in its skillful practices of religious perception, in the way that science, but not pseudoscience, has correct intellectual standards embodied in its practices of empirical investigation? It doesn’t strike me as particularly strange to think this might be so.
    In fact, it would be strange if none of the major religions had something like the correct intellectual standards. For, plausibly, almost every perceptual or doxastic faculty we have has its proper use. And it would be surprising indeed if we had a perceptual or doxastic faculty that had a proper use but very few of us managed to figure out how to use it.

    July 31, 2013 — 0:25
  • Mark Rogers

    Hey Helen, 
    Wonderful article, thank you for sharing this. I think if your goal is to determine if someone has knowledge of God you are perhaps complicating the matter by studying the various techniques employed by prayer warriors. Would it simplify the quest if you looked at conversion experiences? Here you would be looking at someone having a mystical experience causing that person to go from non believer to believer and hopefully removing some of the variables. I would think that many people with knowledge of God have vivid recollections of when and why they first believed. Thanks again for taking the time to look into this issue.

    July 31, 2013 — 7:52
  • This is a fascinating article. The one thing I can’t ignore is the role context plays in religious experience, and it’s been popping up in the comments as well.
    Eric: “It would be interesting to study such experiences independent of their religious interpretations.”
    This is sounds like a great subject for study, though it might not be as easy as it sounds. Because even atheism is a a kind of religious context. Alex’s question (summarized), ‘are you sure you aren’t just denying that your religious experience involved god?’, is quite valid. Rus’s comments also apply, were the members just over-preparing themselves with their own scripture?
    The religious experiences of the Vineyard community, as explained in this article, appear almost forced through the Evangelical context. Only the ‘spontaneous thoughts’ that coincided with Evangelical thought were given credence. This sounds like human intervention more than divine.
    It appears that regardless of religion, people have religious experiences. Almost always, these experiences tend to reinforce that person’s belief in their present religion, even though all these religions have completely different world views. Why doesn’t the Evangelical think “wow, God is in my head, maybe I am just a part of God, or I am God!” like in Hinduism. Or why doesn’t the Buddhist say “My goodness, there is a voice inside my head, it is not coming from me, but the Almighty!”
    I don’t really have an answer for this. I have not had any religious experiences myself. But it is an interesting quandary. Maybe Rus is right, and a ‘capital G-experience’ is a truly illuminating one. But otherwise, I really don’t have much to go on than, in fact, an externalist interpretation.

    July 31, 2013 — 7:57
  • Helen De Cruz

    Eric: it is interesting that M-experiences are so widespread among atheists. A recent study, conducted by Caldwell-Harris et al, indicates a bit over 70% of atheists in a western sample reported having religious-like experiences. They often provided a scientific explanation for them (in terms of cognitive properties), and such experiences were often elicited by considering natural beauty, human grandeur, science or the arts. A common theme is the sense of being part of something greater than oneself, and emotions of awe and wonder (which are interesting and understudied emotions in any case). I am aware of excellent empirical and theoretical work by Haidt, Shiota and Keltner. There is also neuroimaging work, but I find this work rather problematic because of its focus on meditation.
    It is also interesting, anecdotally, that some people who become atheists no longer have M-experiences once they lose their faith, whereas others continue to have them (but attribute them to cognitive factors, or sometimes make a vague appeal to “the universe” etc). I wonder what is responsible for this difference.

    July 31, 2013 — 8:46
  • Hi Charlie, and Alex too,
    Because we do not have a science of religion, it might be better to look at them as different types of restaurants, versus groups of scientists or pseudo-scientists with knowledge or pseudo-knowledge. What are they cooking up with the spiritual stuff available? Italian food is not necessarily wrong or more right than Chinese food. Although I was reading a few years back that the Chinese government was mixing paper into their porridge for prisoners in order to save money. So religions don’t necessarily serve up spiritual food. And we might take the trope further to say that just as some food is better for us than others, so it is with religions.
    I am waiting to encounter another mystic from a Buddhist or Hindu or other culture, who has had what Christians know as the Saul-to-Paul experience, in order to compare notes. There is a descending of a white light that we can use the term “dove” for, a remarkable description if you can picture the movement with the wings flapping. The light is surging at the heart of everywhere, including the M-experiencer, and it does have a personality that fits with Jesus, as the gospel goes. This experience reinforces aspects of both the resurrection and the baptismal experience. When someone who has that experience in India or wherever else, what do they make of it? Or, is this a case when the Christian religion has more for the mystic to go on. Maybe it brings out the flavor best, or just differently.
    Do I have more or better insight because of where and how I was raised, or just different? Why would the personality aspect of the experience not lead to a belief in a personal God? It could be that what they have been practicing, does not prepare them for this. And what about the synchronicity. Do Buddhists simply frame these situations differently, and not call it a God? Part of the synchronicity in a G-experience is the conversation that is taking place.
    As a side note. It seems to me that even though I am not always “open” to such an M-experience (otherwise wouldn’t Paul have always gone around with the spirit descending?), the spirituality of it is ever-present, such that religious practitioners are simply working with what is present at all times, doing ritualistic or skillful things to tap in. In this sense, a “valid” religion is not scientific, but one that to a useful and palatable degree works with what is available.
    In this sense, we can put the restaurant trope aside and bring in the martial arts. Which is more effect Muay Thai or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or something else? And what makes it better, the fact that one can win more fights, or that the practice may lead a better life, or a sounder body and mind? These arts take a different type of knowledge and come from different skills. Yet they work with the same world, yet different cultural perspectives.

    July 31, 2013 — 8:53
  • r

    You’re right that there’s a big difference between making positive epistemic statuses depend on conforming to contingently reliable indicators and making it depend on conforming to normative facts about good inference. It’s much more plausible (to me, at least), that ‘blind’ conformance of the latter type could generate positive epistemic statuses.
    I disagree with even the latter, more plausible proposal, though–at least when it’s offered in a fairly unrestricted way. Maybe application of some basic logical laws, or of something like Fumerton’s Principle of Inferential Justification, are immediately and always indefeasibly justified just because they are correct. But I very much doubt that something like the full, correct inductive function is like this. In the case of more complicated inferences, not only must our inference actually conform to the object-level evidential relations in order to be good, but we must also have evidence that it does so conform.
    In the case of your scientist example, I think the situation is underdescribed and what I’d say about it depends on how it’s spelled out. I see things going in two different ways.
    On some ways of spelling out the scenario I deny that it’s possible. Often, when these alternate intellectual practices get fully described they wind up looking all-encompassingly and catastrophically irrational. Your example of the practice of always preferring more epicycles strikes me as incoherent and incapable of issuing results, for instance, for the reason that however many epicycles one adds there are always infinitely more waiting in the wings. Something similar can be said for counter-induction, which is sometimes mentioned in this context. But I don’t think it’s actually possible for large stable majorities of people to hold such all-encompassingly and catastrophically irrational views. Following Ralph Wedgwood, I think it’s constitutive of having a mind that one is disposed to rationality. This disposition can be masked and is compatible with some irrationality, but not the sort of complete breakdown that would be involved in an entire community embracing counter-inductivism.
    On the other hand, when these alternate intellectual practices get spelled out in milder terms I accept the implication that their existence is a cause for skepticism. So, if instead of a preference for epicycles, we are instead talking about communities assigning mildly (or even significantly) different weights on simplicity, predictive power, and explanatory force, then I accept that stable communities could come to opposed consensuses–maybe not in the limit as time and reflective opportunities go to infinity, but certainly in the meantime. But I think that the existence of such disagreeing communities is a reason for no one–even the members of the right community–to be very confident that they are correctly weighting the virtues. This situation is not only possible, but as I understand, is actual. And I think I’m delivering the right result here. No one, including practicing scientists, should think they know of the absolutely perfect values to assign to the various theoretical virtues in the course of inductive inference.
    To return directly to religion: I think that it’s implausible that religious belief is generated by inferential methods so basic that they are immediately and indefeasibly justified by their own correctness. I think the criteria for that is probably something like “methods which you need to follow to even count as thinking.” And given that’s so, lack of independent confirmatory procedures (like the discriminatory virtuosity mentioned in the OP) and rife disagreement are going to epistemically undermine any alleged inferential path from e.g. religious experience to theistic worldviews.

    July 31, 2013 — 14:37
  • Mark Rogers

    Hey Helen,
    I am still reading your article. I can think of one clear example of when M-perception could give rise to justified religious belief and religious knowledge. It is through “engaging in displays of discriminatory virtuosity”. The Bible tells us in Jeremiah 28:9 “But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the LORD only if his predictions come true.” Of course in these days it would seem the word of the LORD is rare.

    August 1, 2013 — 8:31
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    “How could an accomplished behavioral biologist persuade a beginner that her skills are worth acquiring? Similarly, how can the expert Evangelical person persuade a newcomer that the skills they teach really provide one with an experience of God? Kitcher suggested that scientists can do this by “engaging in displays of discriminatory virtuosity”, for instance, she can successfully predict how a monkey would react to the behavior of another monkey.”
    I think exactly the same dynamics of persuasion work in the religious context. The religious neophyte observes that those who did undergo the spiritual exercises of the tradition are successful in some way she judges to be valuable. Typically, in that they seem to be happier people or to better withstand adversity, in that they display more moral strength, in that their manner and life as a whole is more beautiful, in that they are more useful and lovable. The biologist is able to predict animal behavior, and the engineer is able to build airplanes, and the religious person is able to build a good life. Religion, one might say, is the science of the human condition. As is psychology, the difference being that religion goes far beyond it.
    If we accept that religion is a successful science of the human condition, then the philosophical question arises about what the metaphysical relevance of that fact is. The religious philosopher will see here a natural and expected implication of her worldview. The non-religious/naturalist philosopher will probably see the same, and speak of religion as a natural phenomenon, argue for the existence of the God-gene, and the like. The interesting question is how the agnostic philosopher will think. To use an analogy, if reality is like a complicated building and one observes a blind person navigate it successfully avoiding obstacles, passing through doors, and finding the rooms where there is air and food; whereas another blind person after much bumping into walls ends up staying in cold and smelly rooms where she starves – then one will reasonably conclude that the first knows something about reality that the second misses, notwithstanding the fact that neither can directly see it. I say nothing succeeds like success – including in epistemology. When existential success becomes consistent or important enough the idea that it’s all based on illusionary beliefs about reality – becomes irrational.
    The case of astrologists and oracle-seekers is different because they do not display such existential success – all other things being equal the average astrologist or oracle-seeker will not have a better but probably a worse life.
    “Indeed, given that the persistent practice within a religious tradition can easily give rise to M-perception in accordance with that tradition, it seems hard to maintain that M-perception could ever give rise to justified religious beliefs, let alone religious knowledge.”
    I don’t see that at all. I happen to lack J-perception in that I don’t see any beauty in jazz music. Suppose that somebody advised me to undergo a specific regimen of “J-perception acquisition” (say to listen to specific pieces of jazz, learn to play jazz music, discuss with jazz lovers, etc) and that if I did I would get J-perception and thus see the beauty there is in jazz. Suppose further she gave me overwhelming evidence that other people who like me lacked J-perception obtained it after undergoing such regimen. Wouldn’t all of that constitute some justification for the belief that there is in fact beauty in jazz?
    I like the jazz analogy because it is a good analogy with religion. The jazz-deaf person misses the meaning and order and beauty that is there in the sounds of jazz. Similarly the religion-blind person misses the meaning and order and beauty that is there in the whole of her experience of life. Both the jazz-deaf and the religion-blind miss a great thing that is there. But both can come to see, with as much certainty and as much clarity as anything can be seen, that valuable reality which is present but not obvious.

    August 1, 2013 — 8:42
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    On theism it is not the case that one has mystical experiences because one is a theist but because one is made in the image of God and God is present. So it’s not at all unexpected that non-theists sometimes have mystical experiences too. Complete lack of such experiences would be more of a worry.
    The fact that religious people tend to have more mystical experiences is also expected. First because people who happen to have mystical experiences tend to become religious, and second because religious people tend to undergo the personal transformations which make such experiences more likely.
    Nor is it any worry that non-theists who have mystical experiences do not realize that they are experiencing God. It’s very common to experience something without realizing what it is. The sun is an ongoing nuclear explosion but people have observed the sun for millennia without realizing what it is they were observing. Most stars are suns, indeed larger suns than ours, and again people have observed the stars for millennia without realizing what it is they were observing. On theistic metaesthetics when one experiences something beautiful then in that beauty one is directly experiencing God, but again it’s not like one must have realized this in order to experience beautiful things.

    August 1, 2013 — 8:56
  • Eric Steinhart

    I see no reason to think that I was secretly having an experience of God during my post-Christian mystical experiences. (I would not say that they were religious experiences.) I suggest reading Comte-Sponville on his own M-experiences. Of course, you can always re-define God case by case so that M-experience is always experience of God. But that’s cheating.
    One of my most intense mystical experiences was of the entire iterative hierarchy of pure sets. One day, I simply saw it. I could go on about this, but there’s no need. Was I experiencing God? Well, I did write a paper based on it in Religious Studies back in 2004. It was essentially a pantheistic experience. But that sure ain’t the Christian or Abrahamic God. No way. And I’d now be inclined to say that I used God-talk because, at that time, it was the only talk available to me. Now I would describe that experience, which is still vivid, in different ways.
    Here it might be noted that plenty of famous Christian mystics (e.g. Meister Eckhart, and the authors of Dark Night of the Soul and The Cloud of Unknowing) look pretty much like atheists.
    The study you mentioned is interesting. You wrote: “A common theme is the sense of being part of something greater than oneself, and emotions of awe and wonder”. Yes, this is exactly the sort of thing Ursula Goodenough and Comte-Sponville write about; I suspect that beauty plays a very important role. I think old stuff on the numinous and the holy (Otto) and the sublime (Kant) is very relevant here.
    Plotinus seems to describe a number of M-experiences in the Enneads, which, obviously enough, he does not interpret in Christian or even theistic terms (the One not being a person, nor a god, nor even existing at all). One powerful example is the “sunrise” of the One over the Divine Mind (Enneads, 5.5.8).
    More study of mystical experience among non-theists would be very interesting indeed.
    – Eric

    August 1, 2013 — 21:36
  • Eric:
    I wasn’t claiming all M-experiences are of God. I was only claiming that some atheists have M-experiences that are of God, and hence there is nothing obvious in the claim that an atheist’s M-experience is not of God.

    August 2, 2013 — 10:02
  • Dan Johnson

    I’m not convinced by the distinction which you are making between “ordinary” perceptual experiences (which, you say, happen “unbidden” and “without conscious effort or deliberate training”) and skill-based perceptual experiences (which you say include most religious experiences). Two problems:
    First, I think you are underestimating how many of our ordinary perceptions are acquired abilities, and can be therefore thought of as skills. Reid, for instance, thought that the only original (as opposed to acquired) perceptions were from our sense of touch, with the exception of one (visual figure) that comes from sight. All other perceptions, he thinks, are acquired. And I think something like this view is very plausible — a huge amount of our ordinary perceptions are products of acquired perceptual capabilities. But that doesn’t undercut our reliance on them. So the mere fact that religious experiences are acquired shouldn’t undercut our confidence in them either. (If we have independent reason to think that way in which they were acquired is unreliable, of course, we have an undercutting defeater, but that is true of all of our perceptual faculties.)
    Second — and perhaps more interestingly — even original perceptions (perceptions that are not “acquired”) have triggering conditions, and those triggering conditions can be actively sought by the perceiver. Original perceptions need not be “unbidden.” For instance, I walk into a room and look around for my keys. I then see my keys. The visual experience of the keys has been actively sought by me, and whether I succeed in triggering the experience may well depend on my skill in looking for keys. (Compare the ability of your average 10-year-old to find something they’ve lost — as they helplessly stand in the middle of the room and say “I can’t find it!!” Or me in front of my refrigerator. :)) The Christian practices of prayer, Bible reading, silence, and solitude (just as the intentional act of looking at mountains or sunsets) may activate the triggering conditions for religious experiences, and those experiences may nevertheless constitute original, not acquired, perceptions.
    Those two points together — the fact that many “ordinary” perceptions are actually acquired perceptions, and the fact that even original perceptions may be triggered intentionally and skillfully — undercut the crucial distinction you make between ordinary sense perception and religious perception.

    August 2, 2013 — 10:22
  • Rus Bowden

    Hi Eric,
    Here in Greater Lowell, making the news this past week is this story: At 9, Chelmsford’s Carissa Yip is the youngest chess expert. Now she’s preparing for the next level — master (VIDEO).
    Carissa plays chess with her back turned. You might say she simply sees the game board. I would not consider that an M-experience.
    Nor would I consider simply seeing “the entire iterative hierarchy of pure sets” a mystical experience. In one sense, everything is an M-experience, and everyone is a mystic at all times. What was it about your experience that made it an M-experience?

    August 2, 2013 — 14:27
  • Helen De Cruz

    Dan: Thanks for your observations.
    1. Let me see if I can refine the distinction between skillful and ordinary perception. I am not denying that there is no skill or practice whatsoever involved in ordinary perception. There are various degrees of skill in any kind of practice, including ordinary perception (there is good neuroscientific evidence that our visual system, for instance, needs to be calibrated by exposure to external stimuli, such as cells in the primary visual cortex that are responsive to horizontal and vertical line contrasts; not having this exposure results in abnormally tuned visual cortex cells). But even though that is the case, it still makes sense to me to make a distinction between the types of perception that most people will have as a result of robust and cross-culturally recurrent stimuli (such as faces or dark/light contrasts), and perception that is only acquired as a result of engaging in specific training by a socially defined community. It’s the difference between a neophyte who sees “small greenish little birds”, and the expert ornithologist who can distinguish between wood warblers and chiff chaffs. What I am thinking about is not so much the fact that M-perception skills are acquired, but that they are specifically acquired through socially embedded and shared set of skills that are only gained after much deliberate practice.
    Given that ordinary perceptual skills do not require on these culture-specific, socially embedded practices, but merely on exposure (they are thus acquired, but not in the same sense), I think the latter (skilled) practices have a higher burden of proof than the former. The former, ordinary perceptions can provide us with Moorean facts (I see a hand, etc), the latter cannot, even if they are reliable (as in connoisseurs or scientists). The mere fact of being acquired socially is by itself not an undercutting defeater – it just presents a burden of proof on the perceiver that her skills are really skills of perception.
    2. Your second point is well taken – we can actively seek triggering conditions for normal forms of perception. But it is not clear to me whether this active seeking makes the ordinary perception unproblematic. You can see your keys under ordinary circumstances as well. But suppose seeing your keys only worked if you followed a highly specified set of heuristics. Or, more precisely, that people could only see keys if they first went through a program of training and practice. While this doesn’t undercut our belief in the existence of keys, I think in that case we should be a bit more cautious about whether or not keys exist, or whether the heuristics one follows in seeking keys are truth-tracking. Indeed, for this reason, there was some initial skepticism about the telescope’s ability to see the moons of Jupiter, even though, as another commenter remarked, the telescope was based on principles of optics that were well established.

    August 2, 2013 — 14:37
  • “people could only see keys if they first went through a program of training and practice”
    People can only see keys as such if they first go through a program of training and practice. Otherwise, they just see shiny jagged things.
    Now, maybe this means that on the basis of experience we should be more confident about the existence of shiny jagged things than about the existence of keys. Fine. But that’s compatible with being very confident about the existence of keys.
    And there is an analogue in the religious experience case. Maybe people only perceive God as such if they first go through a program of training and practice. Otherwise, they just perceive instances of the numinous. So maybe on the basis of experience we should be more confident about the existence of the numinous than about the existence of God. But the existence of the numinous is still a significant conclusion, and if one thinks, as I do, that the best alternative to theism is naturalism, then the existence of the numinous, by ruling out naturalism, gives one reason to accept theism.

    August 3, 2013 — 10:41
  • Eric Steinhart

    You wrote: “on the basis of experience we should be more confident about the existence of the numinous than about the existence of God.” And I agree. You wrote: “But the existence of the numinous is still a significant conclusion”. And I agree again.
    But then you wrote: “and if one thinks, as I do, that the best alternative to theism is naturalism, then the existence of the numinous, by ruling out naturalism, gives one reason to accept theism.” And with that the problems begin. I take it you’ve made this argument:
    (1) Either theism or naturalism.
    (2) If the numinous exists, then naturalism is false.
    (3) Therefore: theism is true.
    As for (1): I suspect that by “theism” you really mean “Christianity”. I doubt your theism would include, say, process theism, Wiccan theism, or other non-Abrahamic theisms. Or would you be inclined to admit those within the scope of the numinous? Wiccans, after all, seek out mystical experience, and have a clear explanation of it (clear, at least, within their own theology).
    But more to the point of the dichotomy: It would seem that, historically, there are many positions that are in-between. One thinks of Stoic theology (which looks more naturalistic than theistic); or Neoplatonic metaphysics; or Spinozism; or Tillich’s theology; or something like Rescher’s or Parfit’s versions of axiarchism. All of these can provide instances of the numinous, and thus contents for mystical experience. (And the Neoplatonists are especially keen on mystical experience.) Perhaps even some forms of Buddhism and Taoism are neither theistic nor naturalistic.
    As for (2): There are plenty of ways to incorporate the numinous into nature. The religious naturalists have written plenty about this. So, for example, has Nietzsche. And I’ll put Nietzsche down, on the basis of plenty of writings, as somebody who’s had many mystical experiences, and who very much believes that nature is numinous without God. And I’m inclined to actually think of Neoplatonism, Spinozism, and axiarchism as really being types of naturalism. Of course, you can always turn “naturalism” into a straw man by defining it in advance to exclude the numinous. But that’s cheating.
    – Eric

    August 3, 2013 — 20:03
  • Eric:
    “Of course, you can always turn ‘naturalism’ into a straw man by defining it in advance to exclude the numinous. But that’s cheating.”
    It doesn’t seem to me to be a straw man at all. A lot of naturalists want to exclude anything “spooky”. And certainly Neoplatonism and axiarchism will count as spooky for them. Naturalism is, basically, atoms and the void (with whatever updates modern science requires.)
    As for Spinozism, it depends on how one reads Spinoza’s pantheism. There are two ways of looking at a pantheism. One can take pantheism to offer an upgrade of one’s view of the world–that it’s not just atoms and the void, but atoms and the void with a deep spiritual significance that goes over and beyond what science tells one about. Such a pantheism is not naturalistic. Or one can take pantheism to offer a reduction of God: God is nothing but the universe of atoms and the void. Such a pantheism is naturalistic.
    Of course, this is largely about words. I take “naturalism” to denote an update of the atoms-and-the-void view of the world. And that really is ruled out by the existence of something numinous. But with this narrower picture of naturalism, my claim that theism and naturalism are the two main contenders becomes more controversial.
    “I suspect that by ‘theism’ you really mean ‘Christianity’.”
    No, that’s not what I mean by it. Christians, Samaritans, Jews, Muslims, some Hindus, some Wiccans I expect, some later Greeks whose conception of Zeus was essentially monotheistic, the Druse, etc. and many people who do not affiliate with any particular religion are all theists. Now, of all these views, I think some are much more plausible than others, but that’s a different question.

    August 3, 2013 — 20:37
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    People often analyze the rationality of theistic belief, but this discussion moves me to ponder the irrationality of not believing in God under certain conditions.
    Suppose one finds oneself perceiving doors and walls, and fruitfully using that perception to navigate a house. Certainly it would be irrational for a person in that condition to disbelieve in the existence of doors and walls. The same I claim is a common epistemic condition of the theist (and indeed of the typical epistemic condition of the warranted theist). It is not only that in God one perceives the underlying order in all of one’s experience of life. Significantly it’s also that one finds one can fruitfully make use of that order to better navigate one’s life. And the more fruitful one finds that order is in one’s life, the deeper and more beautiful theistic order one discovers while navigating one’s life by it, the more irrational it would be to disbelieve in the reality of that order.
    Doubt does tend to disappear. For even though illusions exist, what characterizes illusions is their ultimate existential unfruitfulness. Illusions can be self-confirming or even useful, but only to a certain small degree. After a point one knows that the order one perceives is not illusory.
    And here’s a significant point. Since the fruitfulness of theism is not realized primarily from philosophizing about theism but from living it, it is not the philosopher theist but the faithful theist (the one who trusts and follows Christ) who has the epistemic warrant for her beliefs.

    August 4, 2013 — 4:42
  • Eric Steinhart

    You wrote: “Naturalism is, basically, atoms and the void (with whatever updates modern science requires.)”. Well, that would be lots of updates, such as getting rid of atoms, and getting rid of the void.
    Most naturalists, even the physicalists, understand that nature is already pretty “spooky”. From quantum field theory, to string theories, to cosmologists like Max Tegmark, naturalism has long ago abandoned the Democritean-Newtonian view you present – and that view is a straw man. You’d be hard pressed to find any recent educated naturalists who endorse it.
    Of course, you’re right that this may all be merely verbal. (But then your disjunctive syllogism for theism has very little force anyway.)
    More to the point: many recent writers, who declare themselves to be scientifically well-informed naturalists, also endorse naturalistic accounts of the numinous. You can’t get away by simply ignoring them.
    Here are a few: Ursula Goodenough, Chet Raymo, Don Crosby, Karl Peters, Comte-Sponville. Indeed even both Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins endorse the numinous (Dawkins appears to actually have had mystical experiences). Dan Dennett (at the end of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) describes a numinous vision of the tree of life. Many lesser lights can be listed here as well.
    So yes, the numinous and the natural go very well together. One might even argue that naturalism provides a better foundation for the numinous than theism. But that’s a different story.
    – Eric

    August 4, 2013 — 7:47
  • Mark Rogers

    “What I am thinking about is not so much the fact that M-perception skills are acquired, but that they are specifically acquired through socially embedded and shared set of skills that are only gained after much deliberate practice.”
    A small point perhaps but a generally accepted attribute of God is that God is omnipotent. Which if true means that if God wills that you know something you will know it with absolute certainty. There will be no expiration date on this certainty even though doubt may creep in from time to time. No special training, knowledge, or faculty on your part is necessary. If someone claims to have an acquired ability to discern those things, such as Gods will, which belong to God for themselves or for you, then they should certainly be held to a high burden of proof. Although it would seem to be universally recognized that if you seek something you are more likely to find that thing. Another point is that Christians have never believed that all that is numinous is of Jesus.

    August 4, 2013 — 8:15
  • Dan Johnson

    I don’t see why we should accept your (now more precise) key claim that perceptions acquired or triggered by “culture-specific, socially embedded practices” meet a “higher burden of proof.” That amounts to saying that such perceptions, unlike ordinary perceptions, cannot be properly basic. Why should we think that? I get that you seem to have an intuition to that effect, but none of your examples trigger such an intuition on my part.
    In fact, there seem to be counterexamples to that claim. Consider acquired perceptions involved in a particular sport, say, American football. When I was playing football, I could perceive things that ordinary people can’t without a similar level of experience playing that sport. But the playing of that sport is certainly a socially embedded, culturally specific practice. So on your view, I should have withheld judgment when having the experiences I did until I could meet a higher burden of proof. But surely that’s wrong. I treated those perceptions like all my other perceptions – as generating properly basic beliefs, subject to defeaters. Another example: many of our acquired abilities to perceive the emotional states of others are the result of culturally specific practices (involving specific languages, often), but we don’t meet (and don’t need to meet) any special burden of proof before we trust those perceptions as we do our other perceptions. So the mere fact that a perception is acquired by a culturally specific, socially embedded practice doesn’t seem enough to impose the burden of proof you want.
    Here’s one way that finding out that a perceptual faculty is acquired by a culturally specific practice might undercut your confidence in that faculty: if the fact that it is culturally specific gives you reason to think it isn’t reliable. That amounts to an undercutting defeater, though, and now we’re just talking about the ordinary problem of disagreement, which has been much discussed.
    Finally, suppose that God did give us a faculty capable of perceiving him. Why would we expect this faculty to have triggering conditions that don’t involve active seeking (i.e., the will)? “Seek and ye shall find,” after all – God might have good reason to design the faculty so that it triggers in conditions involving active seeking after God. So we might expect that cultures with a higher incidence of active seeking of God would have a higher incidence of religious experiences – even if those religious experiences are in fact original, innate perceptual capabilities that generate properly basic beliefs.

    August 4, 2013 — 9:20
  • Eric:
    “Most naturalists, even the physicalists, understand that nature is already pretty ‘spooky’. From quantum field theory, to string theories, to cosmologists like Max Tegmark, naturalism has long ago abandoned the Democritean-Newtonian view you present – and that view is a straw man.”
    I don’t see a fundamental difference between atoms and the void and a view on which QFT or string theory is a complete theory of the world. In all of these cases the world is fundamentally built up out of mindless stuff (and whether that’s hard hooked particles or fields or strings is just empirical detail) that has no fundamental normative properties.
    I don’t deny that atheists see the numinous in the world. And rightly so: there is numinousness in the world, since the world is in fact an image of God. The tree of life is numinous. But I deny that this is compatible with naturalism.
    It may be that part of our difference here is that I take a central upshot of Otto’s analysis of the numinous that the numinous is not reducible to the ordinary.

    August 4, 2013 — 9:37
  • Let me add this: A crucial feature of the numinous is that it transcends, goes beyond, etc. But if all reality is a couple of fields, or a bunch of strings, none of that goes beyond fields and strings and the like stuff around us.

    August 4, 2013 — 10:08
  • Rus,
    “And what about the synchronicity. Do Buddhists simply frame these situations differently, and not call it a God?”
    From reports that I read, Buddhist religious experience involves a sense of completer harmoniousness with the universe. It becomes clear to the experiencer that there are no such things as separate entities. As we normally see it, there is us as an individual and then there is the outside world, but a Buddhist religious experience obliterates that concept. They find that there is no proper way to describe the reality of anything, because it’s all one thing. Hindu religious experiences tend to be similar.
    When I read these reports, I get the impression that it’s sort of like the Holy Trinity. But instead of their being three, it’s more like everything in the entire universe.
    Anyway, like I said I’ve never had anything like that, or your experience myself. I can’t comment either way. However, I do like your restaurant analogy, accurate or not it’s a fun way to think about it. Does it mean something that I really enjoy Indian food?
    All jokes aside, the comparison of these religious experiences is fascinating to me. Could it be that there are many different kinds of religious experience and it’s not necessarily related to culture? To bring it back to Helen’s article, perhaps cultivating certain practice guides people towards certain religious experiences.
    This is tough to say though, because it does seem like, in all cultures, religious experience is quite spontaneous.

    August 4, 2013 — 11:13
  • Eric Steinhart

    You wrote that naturalism says ” the world is fundamentally built up out of mindless stuff . . . that has no fundamental normative properties.” Ok, that makes more sense, and probably most (but not all) naturalists would agree with that.
    You wrote: “I take a central upshot of Otto’s analysis of the numinous that the numinous is not reducible to the ordinary.” Interesting point. But what’s ordinary? Tegmark says all physical reality is just part of purely mathematical reality – a vast infinity of structures. Is that ordinary? And “A crucial feature of the numinous is that it transcends, goes beyond, etc.” Surely Tegmark’s pythagoreanism, and some types of multiverse theories, do include infinities, transcendence, etc., all nicely naturalized. And I could be a naturalist in your sense above and affirm a vast hierarchy of universes, each surpassed by endlessly more wonderful universes.
    This is more interesting: “I don’t deny that atheists see the numinous in the world. And rightly so: there is numinousness in the world, since the world is in fact an image of God. The tree of life is numinous. But I deny that this is compatible with naturalism.”
    It’s interesting because you are making a claim that atheists are just self-deceived; when they say that there is numinousity in the world, but they deny God, they have in fact contradicted themselves. That strikes me as an odd sort of criticism. It invites the symmetrical reply: “Of course Christians see numinousity in the world, since the world is in fact an infinitely rich and infinitely beautiful structure. But poor Alex, so lost in the darkness of his Christian superstition, falsely thinks that the numinous comes from his imaginary God.” But neither the original criticism nor the symmetrical reply seem to me to have any value as arguments.
    Simply asserting that “in fact” your view is correct (so that your opponents are self-deluded) hardly qualifies as philosophy.
    – Eric

    August 4, 2013 — 14:20
  • Eric:
    1. Of course, I wasn’t giving an argument when I said that the naturalist’s claim that there are numinous things contradicts naturalism. What I was pointing to was a pretty common phenomenon. For instance, the Platonist will say that the nominalist who thinks there are mathematical truths has a contradictory view. There is no argument here. The argument, if there is one, is elsewhere (e.g., in the Platonist’s critiques of nominalist accounts of mathematics).
    2. I am not sure, however, that the atheist would want to make an exactly symmetrical reply. For if there were a God, he would be a paradigm instance of the numinous, and things related to him in certain ways would be numinous. So even if atheism is true, the views that God is numinous and that things related to him in those ways (and I don’t have an analysis of what the relation is) are not contradictory. Whatever account of the numinous the atheist gives needs to be one on which a being like God would count as numinous.
    3. I wonder if significant weight shouldn’t be put on “this just can’t be that” kinds of intuitions? Consider Plantinga’s intuition that a property just couldn’t be a person. (The arguments for this intuition aren’t very strong–I once ran a contest to canvas such arguments–but the intuition itself is pretty compelling.) Or the common intuition that a smell just can’t be a color (pace synaesthesists). Or the controversial intuition but still compelling to many (not so much to me–I am dualist on other grounds) that a thought just can’t be the sort of thing that is electrically charged. And among these intuitions there is the intuition that if you just arrange matter in various ways, you don’t get the numinous.
    4. “Surely Tegmark’s pythagoreanism, and some types of multiverse theories, do include infinities, transcendence, etc., all nicely naturalized.” I think the sort of infinities here are just “infinitely more of the same” as the ordinary stuff around us. Sure, it may be more complex, but the difference is of the same sort as that between a galaxy and an atom, rather than the kind of fundamental qualitative difference that there would be between a property (if Platonism is true), an obligation and an atom. And I think the numinous marks this kind of fundamental qualitative difference.
    Otto emphasizes the qualitative difference between the numinous and the non-numinous. The mysterium isn’t just very puzzling. The tremendum isn’t just the very impressive or very scary. The fascinans isn’t just the very appealing or very pretty. And adding “infinitely” doesn’t do much.

    August 4, 2013 — 16:29
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Tegmark’s idea is pretty wild, but how does it account for the experience of the numinous? I ask because it seems to me that if Tegmark is right then the experience of the numinous is exceedingly rare.
    But suppose we just happen to live in one of the rare structures where the experience of the numinous obtains. In this case that experience is purely illusory, correct? It’s not like it is the experience of something real, let alone of something significant.

    August 4, 2013 — 18:57
  • Eric Steinhart

    You wrote: “For if there were a God, he would be a paradigm instance of the numinous”. But the atheist reply was already made by Feuerbach. God is indeed just more of the same, where “the same” is just human nature. And, as many of the New Atheists argue, more of the same is just more of human nature at its worst. For analytic theists, God is just another thing among things (think of van Inwagen listing God as just another concrete object along with ships and shoes and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings). Not much there that is either mysterium, or tremendum, or fascinans.
    Here the Neoplatonist has the stronger position: the One is utterly alien, wholly other, beyond all categories, the source of all being beyond being; the One is truly the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. (I think Otto, inspired by German mysticism, was really thinking more about the One than about the Christian God.) No doubt the Christian God is impressive, but hardly numinous in the way that the One would be.
    Sticking with Germans, perhaps the atheist could go Heideggerian: while beings are never numinous, being-itself is numinous. Numinousity is ontological rather than merely ontic. Here one might do a bit of Heideggarian depth-psychology, talking about the uncanny and anxiety. Any philosophically well-informed naturalist can go along with the existentialists this far, tho maybe not much farther. Your own claims about naturalism would not rule it out. I wouldn’t go this route myself; nevertheless, it remains open.
    The naturalist who follows somebody like Tegmark would object to your portrait of nature as just more of the same. The moves from the finite, to the countably infinite, to the uncountably infinite, to further qualitatively higher infinities, are not more of the same at all. On the contrary, they are moves to radically different ways of being.
    I think you’d have to agree at least with this: there is some property P such that, if nature has P, then nature itself is numinous. You’ll say that nature has no such property. But, on your own discussion of numinousity here, let me propose this:

    nature is numinous iff every natural structure is surpassed by some more excellent natural version of itself.

    Use naturalistic accounts of intrinsic value for the analysis of “excellence” and use the techniques of set-theory for the analysis of structural surpassing. Perhaps anybody who says that nature has that property of numinousity can be called a pantheist; however, it would be merely confusing to refer to nature, thus conceived, as God. Once more, any philosophically well-informed naturalist can agree that this definition of the numinous does not contradict naturalism, and that nature might indeed satisfy it.
    You might say that most naturalists would regard all this as too spooky. I’ll grant you that the folks at the Center for Inquiry, or Freethought Blogs, would probably agree with you. But their naturalisms are exactly the kinds of naturalism which are not philosophically well-informed (and they are often not scientifically well-informed either).
    – Eric

    August 5, 2013 — 9:26
  • Hi Charlie,
    Thanks for your response.
    My sense of the Buddhist experience, that “completer harmoniousness with the universe” one, if I can put it that way, is that it is contained within the Christian dove experience. I cross cultures and look at that Buddhist experience as being valid, in the sense that there are two agreeing cultures, in the sense too that the Vineyard practice can be valid. What they are doing and the results they are getting are harmonious with my M-experiences, if I may. That Saul-to-Paul category of M-experiences, though, seems to transcend what comes from both practices. This is why I would want to meet a Buddhist mystic versus a practitioner.
    Something that drove me nuts, for instance, was the perfect love involved within everything, something I could not live up to. Let’s say you were a Buddhist who had the harmoniousness experience in M-fashion. It would come to you as a direct and spiritual communication from the universe that all is harmonious. Following the experience, you then find that you habitually behave counter, indeed you have what seems to be an ingrained penchant for not being harmonious with the universe. You continually disrespect the truth. We all do, and this gets into the Christian original sin stuff, which I will back away from.
    Your comment brings me to the Jamesian idea of breaking down types of M-experiences. An M-experience, as I know them, is there to communicate with the experiencer something about the cosmos. When that cosmos has a personality, or comes to us with a personality, we can call it God.
    One M-experience is the generalized sense. The Buddhist harmony is one of these. Another is one of acceptance, a good one to get after the dove experience when you realize you cannot live up to the harmonious one. From the synchronicity of M-experience after M-experience, comes a personal message. It’s like God talking to the experiencer. But these are also messages for the tribe, that the universe is harmonious and that even you who are not the M-expereincer are part of that. From these messages come single concepts that those who are not having M-experiences can conceive of, and then integrate into their lives as well.
    The dove experience is similar, only there is action to it. It appears as something unfolding. It leads to the idea that the entire cosmos is at all times being created in miraculous fashion, or miraculous-to-us fashion, the evolution of it included. It’s foundational. This can appear miraculous because of the mundanity of our usual experience. The natural world with its natural drift is the tabula rasa upon which supernatural M-experience communication may take place. Otherwise, we would all be in a state of M-experience white noise.
    This may not be exhaustive, because I am categorizing on the fly, but there is a third experience that is like being psychic, except that there is a third party, a God personality involved, either that or at least some guiding force, good, bad, or neutral. This is the synchronicity of events in the world, arranged usually in order to communicate with one person.
    You lower your head in prayer, and say, “God, the dove experience could have been an epileptic episode. The acceptance experience could have been some hyperactivity in hormones, ‘a fragment of underdone potato’ as Scrooge put it. This only means I’m screwed up. It does not mean that you exist. So I guess you will have to open the skies to convince me of your existence, which I know you won’t be doing. Amen.” and upon lifting the head from the separation prayer, a nun appears and asks, “Do you believe in God?” That’s psychic, in that it is a message that is coming from the world or environment. Yet a third party sent that messenger. It has no tribal significance necessarily. It is directed at the individual.
    As an addendum, I listen for psychics who help police find bodies and solved crimes. A psychic as such is something I am not. Just as religious practitioners can practice in such a way that they work with the spiritual world of the cosmos, psychics seem to show that a few of us are able to work with what ties us together in the world, or whatever. There seems to be stuff and machinations that can be tapped into.

    August 5, 2013 — 9:41
  • Eric:
    “For analytic theists, God is just another thing among things”
    Not for us analytic Thomist theists who accept strong theses about analogical predication and being vs. being-by-participation. And there is good reason to think classical theism is committed, implicitly or explicitly, either to something like this Thomistic doctrine or to some version of the via negativa.
    But, yes, there are philosophical pictures of God which are more like polytheism-with-only-one-god than like classical theism. (Process theology sounds very much like that.)
    “nature is numinous iff every natural structure is surpassed by some more excellent natural version of itself.”
    This is either too weak or in danger of incoherence, depending on whether nature as a whole counts as a natural structure. For if nature as a whole counts as a natural structure, what surpasses that? But if only more tightly structured parts of nature (say, the universes in a multiverse) count as natural structures, this is too weak. For imagine a countable multiverse, with universes not standing in any interesting structural relations to each other, where the nth universe contained n worms, and nothing else of interest. There is nothing numinous here, but every natural structure will be contained in exactly one universe, and will be surpassed.

    August 5, 2013 — 11:00
  • Helen De Cruz

    Danielos: I like this idea that the dynamics of persuasion are privileged for religious traditions, but it would still allow for a wider category of practices than (I suppose) you would allow for. It resonates with my belief that religious practices (not just of Christian theism) have skills that are worth acquiring, for instance, because they help us to see the beauty of the world, to cultivate a proper moral attitude of compassion towards others etc. I do not dispute that at all. What I am wondering at is whether M-perception as a practice provides us with knowledge (or justified beliefs) about God. I don’t think that it does, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable.

    August 5, 2013 — 12:40
  • Eric Steinhart

    Alexander –
    I do find some versions of Thomism attractive. But that’s because Thomism is closer to Neoplatonism. The Thomistic conception of God, ok, interesting. The rest just looks to me like an apology for idolatry. I’d rather just go with an updated version of Plotinus or perhaps Proclus.
    Of my axiom for natural numinousity, you said “This is either too weak or in danger of incoherence”. And that from a guy who says nature is atoms in the void, with, you know, a few little tweaks to handle QFT.
    But more precision is easily available: just take natural to mean “in nature”; thus nature is numinous iff every structure in nature is surpassed by some more excellent version of itself in nature. (Really tho, as I said, this needs something like a set-theoretic axiomatization; the slogan itself doesn’t tell you enough about natural structures; but such an axiomatization is easy enough to produce.)
    You gave the example of the series of universes in which U(n) contains just n worms. But that wouldn’t fit the slogan. Each worm is a natural structure, and thus must at least be surpassed by more excellent versions of itself. The later counterparts of earlier worms will cease to be worms, they’ll eventually evolve past any level of excelence you care to define, say, into angels. But of course you’ve got to take the series into the transfinite (the whole series of U(n) is a natural structure, surpassed by many U(aleph-0), eventually U(least inaccessible), etc.)
    None of this is done with much technical precision here. The point is that the slogan (suitably formalized etc.) captures your desiderata about transcendence etc. while remaining naturalistic. Thus, if the slogan holds for nature (and I’ve given no argument for that), then nature is numinous.
    – Eric

    August 6, 2013 — 10:21
  • Eric:
    “thus nature is numinous iff every structure in nature is surpassed by some more excellent version of itself in nature”
    And nature itself isn’t in nature, I take it. I.e., you’re talking of structures that are proper parts of nature, right?
    But then let N’ be everything in the universe minus one unimportant photon. What is N’ surpassed by in nature?
    As for the worms, we can just suppose that the worms in U(n+1) are each slightly more excellent than the worms in U(n), but still very much wormlike. We can also suppose that the worms live forever (ordinary Archimedean time sequence) and slightly improve over time.
    “the whole series of U(n) is a natural structure”
    Not if the natural structures you’re talking about are supposed to be a proper part of nature. The whole series of U(n) in my story is all of nature.

    August 6, 2013 — 11:08
  • Eric Steinhart

    Start with this:
    (0) Natural structures are proper parts of nature.
    (1) The long line of ordinals contains all consistently definable ordinals.
    (2) Excellence is logical depth.
    (3) For the initial ordinal 0, there is a class of N(0) of minimally excellent initial natural structures.
    (4) For every successor ordinal n+1 on the long line, for every natural structure x in N(n), for every way x can be surpassed by some more excellent version of itself, there exists some successor natural structure y in N(n+1) which surpasses x in that way.
    (5) For every limit ordinal L on the long line, for every progression p of increasingly excellent natural structures of length L, for every way p can be surpassed by some more excellent version of itself, there exists some limit natural structure q in N(L) which surpasses p in that way.
    – Eric

    August 6, 2013 — 11:54
  • Eric Steinhart

    Maybe I should add:
    (6) Nature is the union of all N(n) for all n on the long line.

    August 6, 2013 — 11:55
  • That makes sense, but “Excellence is logical depth” just doesn’t seem right at all. In what way is sacrificing one’s life for another logically deeper than a sophisticated selfishness?

    August 6, 2013 — 13:34
  • Eric Steinhart

    Excellence is a naturalized type of intrinsic value. One might use it to work out some natualized accounts of personal or social value; however, that’s not the present issue. (By the way, many writers have argued for something like intrinsic value = complexity = logical depth). Excellence is not offered here as a normative or moral concept. (Nor, with respect to the original issue of naturalized numinousity, does that even seem relevant.) You were earlier saying that one can’t define a naturalized concept of transcendence that would underwrite the numinous. I say it can be done and that if nature satisfies the axioms I gave, then it is numinous. (And, by reflection principles, it contains proper parts which are also numinous.)

    August 6, 2013 — 14:32
  • Mark Rogers

    Hey Helen!
    You ask to Mr. Georgoudis “What I am wondering at is whether M-perception as a practice provides us with knowledge (or justified beliefs) about God.” I thought it might be interesting to compare someone who does not know God exists such as Keith DeRose, and I only use him as an example because his quotes are available, and the Vineyard practitioners of M-perception, perhaps some truth about God will become apparent. 
    Mr. DeRose says “I take myself to have some ideas about kinds of religious experience that would produce knowledge of God’s existence–though I’m sure that God, if God indeed exists, has much better ideas about how such knowledge could be produced. But, for better or worse (though since this is God we’re talking about, I guess it would have to be for better), God, if God exists, doesn’t seem to be in the business of jumping through the hoops needed to make me a knower. Of course, God being God, there would be good reasons for leaving me in the dark here–and I think I have even have some inkling of what some of these reasons might be”. 
    Mr. DeRose does not disclose what he thinks the reasons might be for him not being a knower. However he is quite certain he does not know God exists. Compare him to those practitioners of M-perception. They are certain God exists. It could be God is a God who has mercy on whom he will have mercy and compassion on whom He will have compassion. Or perhaps better said, God chooses who will know Him. Also Mr. DeRose in his essay never mentions that he goes to church or in any way seeks, worships, offers thanksgiving or praises God. I am quite certain the Vineyard people are are seeking, worshipping, offering thanksgiving and praising God. Perhaps that tells us God does not want to ZAP people with knowledge of Himself but prefers a two way relationship.
    Mr. DeRosa says,”Without going into the nature of my experience too much (something I hope to take up at another time), my relevant experience consists of what I take to be small, gentle nudges toward belief that don’t fit into a coherent body of experience to nearly the extent needed for knowledge (even if I were to outright believe in God’s existence on their basis and this belief turned out to be true).”
    Why does Mr. DeRosa seem to discount these ‘small gentle nudges toward belief’? We do not know for sure but this may bring us to a bit of knowledge about God. That is that while God may or may not choose certain people to know him it certainly seems to be the case that God chooses those people to know him who choose him after they are given small gentle nudges toward belief.

    August 6, 2013 — 16:30
  • Helen De Cruz

    Dear Mark:
    I cannot say anything about Professor DeRose’s religious practices – perhaps he will answer you directly about this.
    I am wondering about the alleged certainty of those who are religious practitioners, like the Vineyard community. Some of them may say they are certain God exists. But, as DeRose says in his blogpost, it’s difficult to disentangle several factors here: perhaps people claim to be more certain than they actually are, for instance, for proselytizing purposes. I do not mean to suggest they are disingenuous, for it might also be that they claim to feel more certainty than they actually do because it is de bon ton to do so in evangelical communities. Doubt is not a regular topic for bible study groups and other religious discussion groups. If you read Dennett’s and Descola’s work on atheist pastors, you see there that they often struggled internally for years, while they profiled themselves as regular, confident believers. It’s what Dennett calls “belief in belief”. My suspicion is that this is rampant in a lot of Christian traditions, and that it may explain why so many philosophers of religion claim to have knowledge (e.g., through basic beliefs or sophisticated natural theological arguments) about God.
    However, there are also philosophers who honestly express doubt, like Wolterstorff in Lament for a Son, or Kelly James Clark’s book on doubt (when faith is not enough).
    So I think DeRose is right that many people overstate the confidence they feel about religious beliefs they hold.
    Of course, I cannot look into the hearts of those who claim to be absolutely certain (Cartesian knowledge, i.e., no room for doubt), or those who claim to have knowledge. I am a regular religious practitioner, albeit not in the tradition of the Vineyard. I read scripture regularly and sing in a choir. And I do have religious experiences, occasionally, of the type that Luhrmann describes. Yet they do not provide me with enough confidence to say that I know God exists. Indeed, I think they are perfectly compatible with naturalism. The main reason for this is that the vividness of the experience quickly wears down, and one is left wondering about whether it was really an experience of God. Kenny Pearce has a nice blogpost about it here: One does not have vivid episodic access to the experience unlike with other person-to-person experiences.
    By this, I do not mean to discount the value of religious experience. If God exists, I think the most likely explanation for religious experiences is that God wants to communicate with us, not that he wants to let us know he exists. Of course, this could be a byproduct of the experience (e.g., when I communicate with you here, your primary intention is not to let me know you exist – I hope, but I can reasonably infer you exist). It is not so with God. The reasons for this under theism would lead me into the territory of the hiddenness problem (something I will blog about in the near future, especially how it connects with cognitive science).

    August 7, 2013 — 5:15
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    “It resonates with my belief that religious practices (not just of Christian theism) have skills that are worth acquiring, for instance, because they help us to see the beauty of the world, to cultivate a proper moral attitude of compassion towards others etc.”
    But if the religious person using religious practices grounded on religious beliefs succeeds in building a good life (to see the beauty in creation, to joyfully give to others) then she is in exactly the same epistemic situation of the physical scientist who using practices grounded on scientific beliefs succeeds in building a useful machine (e.g. to see farther or to move faster than before).
    And as it is the case that the more consistently and impressively the physical scientist succeeds in building useful machines the more confident she feels in the scientific beliefs that ground her practice – the same goes for the religious person.
    Actually the religious person has a potential epistemic advantage. The order the physical scientist discovers in the physical phenomena she studies is an abstract one and cannot be directly experienced. So for example it is not possible for the physical scientist to directly experience the electron, the bending of spacetime, or even something as basic as mass. Whereas through M-experiences the religious person has at least the option of directly experiencing the ultimate order she discovers in the whole of her experience of life, namely God (or the Absolute, or Brahman, or whatever).
    “What I am wondering at is whether M-perception as a practice provides us with knowledge (or justified beliefs) about God.”
    Well, don’t you agree that a particular practice can lead people to directly experience and thus have knowledge of the beauty in jazz music? And that those who already have that knowledge are best positioned to design such practices?
    Eric above testifies of having experienced the numinous present in the entire iterative hierarchy of pure sets, and surely quite some practice was required before receiving that knowledge. More prosaically perhaps a lot of practice is required for an English speaker to experience the meaningfulness of spoken Chinese.
    If in so many cases practice is required for experiencing something one did not before, and thus for having knowledge by acquaintance of it, it is not clear to me why you wonder about whether practices that lead to M-perception provide knowledge.

    August 7, 2013 — 8:47
  • Hi Helen,
    The issue of unbelief is addressed in the Biblical saying, “I believe, help my unbelief!” Churches address this issue head on as a matter of us being immersed in the natural world. Biblically, this can be resolved through prayer. I should note that any questioning of surety can be on the side of atheists as well. In Dennett’s heart of hearts, is he really as sure as he lets on that there is no God? I’m not saying he isn’t, but that’s the question we would ask of the local pastor as well, is he really sure that there is a God. We could also ask the question, isn’t everyone agnostic in their heart of hearts. Or rather, is everyone fluctuating in their heart of hearts?
    Kenny Pearce in his blog post ends this way:

    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.

    I will add for counterpoint that there is also a forgetting that takes place. I have heard that mothers have this type of forgetting, that they forget the pain of labor. In doing so, they are more amenable to becoming pregnant again. Spiritually speaking, that forgetting, or fluctuation to a waning of impact of an experience, is important in order to respark the spiritual relationship.
    I have been listening to Jeff Beck and Imelda May do their rendition of “Walking in the Sand” lately. The speaker in that song receives a letter from her lover saying he has found someone new. Her reaction takes her to dismay, “Oh no. Oh no. Oh no no no,” and then into remembering, “Walking in the sand, walking hand in hand.” The experience of walking in the sand has waned for her lover, but not for her.
    What happens to these experiences? Let’s say that as lovers, they witnessed miraculous synchronicity as part of their love. They had deep spiritual experiences that went beyond coincidence. The cosmos even seemed to heal itself in their coming together. These miracles cannot stand and the processes of these miracles cannot stay in the natural order of things, otherwise there would be magic doors everywhere. The atheist’s argument for there being no God, is really an argument for there being no obvious residue from miracles. The response to such an argument is to display the Shroud of Turin, for example, that there just might be past miracles. The name of the song is “Remember (Walking in the Sand).” We are all back in the natural order with everyone else as soon as the miracle is over.

    August 7, 2013 — 8:53
  • Mark Rogers

    Hey Helen,
    What a very kind note thank you for replying. First of all I would like to apologize to Dr. DeRose. I should not have speculated about his private life and for that I am sorry. Just for the record I would like to say that if we are unable to accept any of Mr. Georgoudis’s elegant paths toward the knowledge of God then I stand with you and Dr. DeRose one hundred percent. Most people who claim to have knowledge of God have no knowledge of God. For instance let’s pretend. Say one day right out of the blue you found yourself in front of God. There would be no doubt it was God and this experience and the truth and certainty of it would remain with you for the rest of your life. You have experienced God face to face. Interestingly you would be unable to share the truth of that knowledge with, and here I speculate again, say Dr.DeRosa, not only is God hidden, if God exists, but any knowledge of God, if it exists, is hidden as well. There is no path just you can go down and find any knowledge of God at all. Not one. Zero. And so it would seem to some that there can be nothing known of God at all. But you know all that. So maybe there is a hidden question here “Will I ever have knowledge of God?”.Well, I hope so and soon my new friend Helen, and I am anxiously awaiting your next blog.

    August 7, 2013 — 18:47
  • Jason Shirtz

    I’m hoping not to seem too boorish, by commenting here, I have an engineering degree and, don’t quite have the breadth of command of the specific works of literature, and research, that many of you are talking about here. What I do have to offer, however, is as being a person of faith who had been raised in a religion, and then having left it, and being the sort of person who engaged in the ‘skilled prayer behavior’ is that rather than the effectiveness of such practices being tied to what faith i was in, if any, it seems more about to me the conditions of mind and heart that induce them. Furthermore, my conscious mind, interpreting the same sense of divinity or awe, will redefine the source of my having the feeling by the cultural background I am in, at that moment. I’ve felt it in a christian sense, and yet at often enough i feel it in a zen buddhist sort of way as well. I’ve had a similar effect in amazing library’s as in holy churches, as in marital arts dojo’s. As members of my faith community of origin do practice a form of faith healing and such, and I did as well, In full faith that god was listening, and responding. I also have found myself in the position, where if i wished, outside of any formal faith tradition, being wanting to, and while choosing to hold back from such efforts, thinking i could accomplish similar results, by a combination of goodwill and the placebo effect. (I hold back, as I don’t wish to be that guy on tv who claims divine power and doesn’t, I don’t really think I do, but the temptation is there.) My personal conclusion from my own experiences, is that of the ‘thoughts’ that describe certain emotional sensations, described as spiritual are separable. Please do not interpret my words, as an attack on faith or the overall argument. What I’m trying to add, is an outsider’s opinion into the circle, here, that out experiences of certain events, and our description of them as ‘divine’ or of promoting a certain worldview/belief system, cannot be functionally connected together, at least from the lens of my personal perspective.

    October 31, 2013 — 18:17
  • Mark Rogers

    Yes, you have it Jason. So then in my mind there are then three questions:
    (1.) How can you ‘know’ that you have had an experience of the numinous?
    (2.) Why do most supposed experiences of the numinous seem to lose their epistemic value and convicting power over time?
    (3.) If there are experiences of the numinous, what is the source or what are the different sources of the these experiences?

    November 1, 2013 — 11:00
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