Tom Gilson

Sidestepping a Problem?

David Ellis wrote,

So when one person has a religious experience in which he recalls past lives and another has a religious experience in which he sees a vision of Jesus telling him that he alone is the way to salvation the most reasonable conclusion is that both are in contact with a supernatural realm and not that at least one of them is just imagining things?

All of you keep trying to sidestep just how big a problem this is for your thesis but it won’t go away by ignoring it.

If religious experience were the only guide to truth, then we would have a significant problem of a specific sort, with respect to the truth of religious claims. It is specifically an interpersonal problem. Let us suppose two persons’ experiences lead to contradictory beliefs, as is the case with the example David presented. There are three options. Belief a could be true and Belief b false; or Belief b true and a false, or both might be false.

The fact that Persons A and B have experiences that lead to contradictory beliefs does not prove that either belief a or b is false. It does not even mean that person A or B is unwarranted or unjustified in holding belief A or B; for the warrant could quite reasonably come from the experience itself. (It is unreasonable to insist that God, if he exists, could never impress himself on a person with sufficient knowledge and persuasion to give that person warrant for believing in God.)

Neither A nor B need have any particular reason to conclude, as David suggests, that the most reasonable conclusion is that both are imagining things. Maybe person C thinks she has reason to conclude that, though. Perhaps David sees himself in the position of C, who has had no experience like A’s or B’s, or like any other religious believer’s.

But person C’s experience c needs to be taken into account: that is, that C has had no experience that C would consider to be spiritual. Is c veridical for C? I can’t see why A or B should think it was. But can C claim that her experience c has had nothing to do with her evaluation of a or b; that her experience has had no influence whatever on her own beliefs? That would be naive.

So whatever may be the problem caused by contradictory experience-based beliefs, it is not this: that the beliefs A, B, C, D, E, … may come to are all necessarily false or unwarranted. One of their beliefs may be both true and warranted, in spite of the others having different experiences and beliefs. I hope that’s clear.

I hope it is also clear that we are not only talking about so-called spiritual experiences; the lack of such an experience is also a kind of experience that can certainly influence persons’ beliefs.

But of course there is a problem that is at least in the same neighborhood as the one that David poses. Let us suppose A is fully warranted (justified) in believing a just on the basis of A’s spiritual experience; and let us suppose that a is true. How can A convince B of a? There is no common ground to do so, no basis for discussion. So A may truly know a, and yet be unable to communicate it, much less mount a persuasive case for it.

That is meant when I said that if religious experience were the only guide to truth, the kind of problem that would result would be an interpersonal one. A may have a true and fully justified belief a, but  it is necessarily a private belief. It is certainly private as far as persuasion goes.  It is probably also necessarily private even with respect to the content of the experience and the belief. What can A say about it? Even if there is some other person D who claims to have had an experience like A’s, it’s likely they would have no language with which to discuss it, no way to know if they were talking about the same thing or not.

But the case David has proposed here is purely academic, for there are many other ways to test the truth of religious claims. Every religion makes claims that go beyond interpersonal experience. (If there was one that claimed to contradict that generalization, it would fail; for it would necessarily include the publicly accessible claim that Christianity’s publicly accessible claims are not veridical.) Every religion makes claims regarding externally accessible content that accompanies (or precedes, explains, clarifies) its claimed experiences.

Therefore we have by no means sidestepped what David calls a “big … problem for your thesis.” We are not ignoring it. Every philosophical, historical, or existential argument in favor of Christianity is an argument in favor of the veridicality of Christian experience.

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2 thoughts on “Sidestepping a Problem?

  1. Let us recall my original statement:

    “And does not the utterly inconsistent nature of so many religious experiences (one person seeing a vision of heaven, another remembering his past lives, etc) not weigh rather heavily against the argument for the non-illusory nature of religious experience?”

    I’ve seen nothing in the above post that contradicts that statement.

    Yes, other evidence might be sufficient to think one set of religious experiences were non-illusory while the rest likely ARE illusory. I never claimed otherwise.

    But without rather compelling evidence of that sort would you not agree that there is a serious problem needing to be addressed before one can simply conclude, on the basis of religious experience being widespread, that the supernatural is real (and that was, after all, the original claim)? Apparently you do think so since you just put up a whole post arguing that religious experience isn’t your sole basis for belief in Christianity—and there would be little reason to do so if you didn’t think it a problem that could be successfully addressed by those additional lines of evidence.

    Which, so far as I can tell, means you are in substantial (if not perfect) agreement with my position.

    The place where we seem to actually disagree is regarding whether the additional lines of evidence you have in mind accomplish what you think they do (a broader issue and one we’ve addressed every time we’ve debated a particular argument for Christianity).

  2. David,

    I’ve seen nothing in the above post that contradicts that statement.

    Look again. I didn’t say I was trying to contradict the statement. “Contradict” is a strong word. It applies only to certain forms of logical deductive arguments, and I suppose it could also be used informally when inductive evidences are very strong. I wasn’t trying to prove you completely wrong. I happen to agree that the multiplicity of spiritual experiences does make it more difficult to assess the veridicality of any one of them; or more accurately, that if all we have to go on were experience, then we would have no way to judge which was genuine and which was not.

    So I wasn’t aiming to contradict you in a formal sense. Rather I was saying that your statement was (a) not a disproof of the supernatural source of some religious experiences, and (b) irrelevant in the first place.

    But without rather compelling evidence of that sort would you not agree that there is a serious problem needing to be addressed before one can simply conclude, on the basis of religious experience being widespread, that the supernatural is real (and that was, after all, the original claim)?

    I have pointed out the rather (ahem) interesting way in which you have made it seem that was the original claim.

    If your position is that religious experience is a weak argument (if taken on its own) in favor of the reality of supernatural sources behind that experience, then yes, I am in agreement. But as I said, that’s academic, and it was you, not us, that presented that as somebody’s original claim.

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