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.