April 12, 2013

Does Religious Experience Have an Expiration Date?

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

Why might one think this? Well here's one reason. Although some things which can be interpreted as religious experience (e.g. having strong emotional responses to sacraments) are easily explainable in terms of fairly ordinary psychological mechanisms (e.g. one's beliefs about the significance of the sacraments, and one's emotional investment in those beliefs), there are other sorts of religious experience which must either be explained in terms of a supernatural reality or in terms of massive cognitive malfunction. Here I have in mind experiences such as the compulsion to speak in tongues or engage in ecstatic prophecy, being 'slain in the Spirit,' seeing visions, hearing voices, feeling a sudden compulsion to believe or do something which is strongly disfavored by all of one's known reasons, and so forth. I reiterate here that I am using 'religious experience' in a non-factive sense. Also, in saying that, as an alternative to massive cognitive malfunction, we can explain these things in terms of a supernatural reality, I don't necessarily mean to say that we would have to regard them as miraculous (and I certainly don't mean to say we would have to regard them as violations of natural law, since I don't think of miracles as violations); we could instead hold, with Plantinga, that it is part of the proper function of our cognitive faculties that they are responsive to certain supernatural realities. Finally, note that many religious experiences of the first sort might still be thought to involve relatively minor cognitive malfunctions, or even the sort of cognitive imperfections which are so common in human beings that we perhaps ought not to describe them as 'malfunctions.' However, if they are unusually pervasive in some individual's cognitive life, then that could likewise be regarded as a fairly serious cognitive malfunction.

Now here's an argument for holding that such experiences have a different evidential status when they are experienced by me than they do when I have reliable testimony of someone else's experience. It is based on Reid's famous 'same shop' argument. Suppose I have an intense religious experience of the second sort. I am trying to use my cognitive faculties to determine whether this was a veridical experience of a supernatural reality, or a cognitive malfunction. But if it was a cognitive malfunction, this casts doubt on the reliability of my cognitive faculties, the very same faculties I am using to conclude that my experience was a cognitive malfunction. The more I attribute to myself such malfunction, the more I undermine the reliability of my faculties, but since these attributions are the result of the exercise of my cognitive faculties, my position here turns out to be self-defeating. For this reason, there is a strong presumption in favor of my own sanity. However, I don't have similar reasons for presuming any other particular individual to be sane. Something like this is behind Plantinga's view that the atheist and the Christian can each be justified (subjectively rational) in regarding the other as the victim of a cognitive malfunction, despite having all the same third-personal evidence.

Here's a thought, though. The reason I need to presume my own past sanity is in order to avoid undermining the present deliverances of my cognitive faculties, the faculties I use to evaluate my sanity. Given the right kind of evidence, one can, of course, rationally believe that one has a severe mental disorder, but in order to do this one needs to regard the disorder as not undermining one's ability to evaluate the evidence for the disorder. This is how John Nash is portrayed at the end of the film A Beautiful Mind: he knows that he has hallucinations, but believes in the general reliability of his ability to evaluate what he seems to see and hear to determine whether it makes sense. So what's needed is an explanatory hypothesis which doesn't impugn one's current efforts to evaluate the experience in question. The less a malfunction hypothesis casts doubt on one's present cognitive performance, the less 'same shop' considerations give one reason to disfavor it.

A case of this which is much less extreme than Nash's is the hypothesis that one experienced a cognitive malfunction due to a drug which has now passed out of one's system. In this case, the previous malfunction has no tendency to undermine the reliability of one's present deliberation, because one is not presently under the influence of the drug.

Now here's where the 'expiration dates' mentioned in my title come in. We humans tend to change over time, and this includes changes to our cognitive faculties. These changes can involve honing our faculties by education, ceasing to be effected by distorting influences, and so forth. In other words, our cognitive faculties can improve. But the hypothesis that one previously experienced major cognitive malfunction is self-defeating only if one thinks the underlying causes of the malfunction are still around. The longer in the past the putative malfunction occurred, and the more one's psychology has changed since then, the more intrinsically plausible it will be that the underlying causes are gone. As a result, these 'same shop' considerations get less and less force, so that one's own religious experience in the distant past start looking, epistemologically speaking, a lot like the testimony of others' religious experiences.

It's a well-known fact that mystics (both the great mystics and the more ordinary ones) often experience doubts when they go a long time without the kind of religious experience which previously helped to form their faith. I always used to think this was a type of irrationality. (One of those ordinary sorts of irrationality to which humans are prone.) After all, in general if one has seen something one shouldn't start to doubt its existence just because one saw it a long time ago. But the considerations I've presented give some reason to think that these mystics' doubts are rational after all. The longer one goes without religious experience the weaker the grounds for belief provided by one's past religious experience become. This is because the epistemic cost of regarding the past experience as resulting from cognitive malfunction decreases the further in the past the experience is.

(cross-posted at The Prosblogion)

Posted by Kenny at April 12, 2013 5:51 PM
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Comments

Found this really interesting and have a quick, and incredibly, self serving question. Am writing something on the relationship between testimony and theistic belief at the moment and was wondering when you said that a 'fairly common position in philosophy of religion is that religious experience can provide justification for religious belief of a sort that cannot be transmitted by testimony' whether you would be able to point me to some people who endorse something like this view in print. Extremely grateful if so.

Posted by: Jon Robson at April 20, 2013 3:26 PM

Jon - The key work on the subject is Alston's book Perceiving God. The ideas from Plantinga that I mention in the post are developed in the most detail in Warranted Christian Belief. Plantinga, however, is not exactly concerned with religious experience; on his model, some people just find themselves believing and others don't. But he, like Alston, holds that some people just have the belief and others don't and there's nothing mere testimony can do about the situation. As I said, it's a fairly common position nowadays, but I think these two books are the works that are most responsible for making it common.

Posted by: Kenny at April 20, 2013 3:42 PM

Thanks.

Posted by: Jon Robson at April 21, 2013 11:03 AM

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