Notes on Ch. 5 of Rowe's Philosophy of Religion: Religious Experience, Part I

Notes on Rowe’s Philosophy of Religion, Chapter 5
0. Introduction
0.1 Indirect knowledge of God: knowledge by inference
0.2 Direct knowledge of God: knowledge by acquaintance
0.3 Religious experience as direct and superior knowledge of God
1. Toward a Definition of Religious Experience
1.1 Dependence, otherness, union
1.1.1 Schleiermacher: Dependence Relative dependence Absolute dependence Religious experience as absolute dependence (“creature- feeling”) First criticism: wrongly defines religious experience in purely subjective terms – not characterized as awareness of another being, but rather one’s self as dependent. Second criticism: makes knowledge of God indirect and inferential: feel dependent, then infer that God must be the being causing my feeling of dependence.
1.1.2 Otto: Otherness
1.1 Immediate, direct awareness of another being – not inferential
1.2 Awareness of the being as holy/divine
1.3 The awareness of its holiness involves a sense of dread, awe, mystery
1.4 Schleiermacher had it backwards: one is directly aware of a holy/divine being, and this in turn causes one’s sense of creature- feeling/absolute dependence
1.5 A criticism: the highest forms of religious experience seem to be an awareness of union with the divine. If so, then the highest forms of religious experience don’t meet Otto’s account – one isn’t aware of a being distinct from and external to oneself.
1.2 Our working definition: religious experience as the immediate presence of the divine
1.2.1 The divine may be experienced as either distinct or not distinct from the self
1.2.2 Merely believing vs. sensing that the divine is present
1.2.3 This definition is narrower and vaguer than the others other pious experiences don’t count as religious experience experiences of God that one doesn’t recognize as being of God don’t count as religious experience here (compare: the “walnut tree/maple tree illustration) experiences need not be of the God of theism – any deity counts we’re not assuming from the beginning that religious experiences are caused by God – allows for both delusory and veridical religious experiences
1.2.4 Religious experience may contain both sensory and non-sensory elements (illustration, p. 74)

2. Religious Experience as a Rational Basis for Theism
2.1 The question before us: does religious experience provide good reason to believe that a god exists?
2.2 Objection: Religious experiences are just feelings (e.g., joy, awe, etc.) that occasionally occur within people who are already theists who are eagerly yearning for and expecting to have them. How can these count as evidence for theism?
2.3 Reply:
2.3.1 Many religious persons report a difference between experiences of such feelings, on the one hand, and experiences that seem to be of the presence of a divine being, on the other
2.3.2 They also know that they can mistake the presence of a divine being for their feelings, or for some other object, especially when they’re anticipating or longing for the presence of the divine
2.3.3 Unless we have good reason not to, we should take such reports as sincere and accurate accounts of their experiences, and that they seem to be of a mind-independent entity – not as just experiences of their feelings
2.4 Still, why should we think that such experiences are really of a mind-independent being, such as a god? After all, there are such things as illusions and hallucinations. Why shouldn’t we think that religious experiences aren’t in one of these categories?
2.5 Answer:
2.5.1 In general, if it seems that an F is present, you’re entitled to think that an F is present unless you have a good reason to think otherwise (Swinburne’s “principle of credulity” – a basic principle of rationality)
2.5.2 Reasons for thinking otherwise: underminers and rebutters An underminer is something that neutralizes your reason to think that a claim is true. (Cf. the “red wall” illustration) A rebutter is a reason to think that a claim is positively false. (Cf. the “LSD in the coffee” illustration)
2.5.3 But if you have no underminer or rebutter for your experience as of an F, then you’re entitled to believe that an F is present.
2.5.4 But many people report experiences where it seems to them that God is present.
2.5.5 Therefore, they’re entitled to think that God is present in such experiences unless they have good reason to think otherwise.
2.6 Notice that the argument allows that religious experience can be rebutted or undermined in principle.
2.7 However, if you grant the principle of credulity, then it seems that it would be arbitrary to deny that it applies to religious experience.
2.8 Thus, it looks as though those who have religious experiences are rational in believing that God exists, unless or until they are undermined or rebutted.
2.9 The argument:

1. If it seems that God is present, then you’re entitled to think that God is present unless you have a good reason to think otherwise.
2. It seems that God is present.
3. Therefore, you’re entitled to think that God is present unless you have a good reason to think otherwise.

2.10 Extending the argument? Testimonial evidence for those who’ve never had a religious experience
2.11 Criticisms of the argument from non-mystical religious experience
2.11.1 Religious experience is not similar enough to ordinary perception to think the principle of credulity applies to it. Granted, there are some things that can serve as underminers and rebutters of religious experience (e.g., if the experience is of a being that tells you to murder all the good people, then that defeats the belief that it came from the god of theism) However, unlike ordinary perception, the object(s) perceived in religious experience are typically private (often only a single person has the experience, and so others can’t be questioned if they had a similar experience at the same time and location). Furthermore, unlike the ordinary physical objects detectable by the five senses, God can choose whether and when human beings can be aware of him – he can’t be “pinned down” to return to, or to have others come “see” him, in the way that physical objects can But if so, then the worry is that there aren’t enough “checks and balances” to religious experience for the principle of credulity to apply to it.
2.11.2 A person’s religious experience can’t function as evidence for those who haven’t had them. People of many religions have religious experiences The central doctrines of each of these various religions are incompatible with those of each of the others Now since the religious experiences within each of these religions has the same basic nature and structure, then if the principle of credulity applies to the religious experiences within one religion, it applies to all But if religious experiences are to indicate the truth of a given religion – or at least the reality of their god as the “true” god –, then since the religions contradict one another, what should a reasonable “outsider” make of these religious experiences? It seems clear that they should all be rejected as unreliable indicators of the truth of a religion or the reality of a god – i.e., the diversity of experiences is a rebutting defeater for the testimony of those with religious experiences.


evangelical said...

First of all, I'd like to say, that though the argument from subjctive experience seems sound to me (or at least more or less good as a probabilistic argument), it also seems not to be as persuasive as the more classical arguments (i.e. cosmological, teleological, and ontological).

The first objection of Rowe's I would like to address is that the principle of credulity can't be applied because religious perception is too different from regular perception, on his view. I think this view is mistaken. It is quite true that when a person says they have seen God, they do not normally mean that they have veiwed him with their eyeballs. So it is a different kind of perception from normal eyesight but so isn't normal hearing (and that is a kind of perception or empirical-knowledge gatherer).

So, here are two counter-examples to show that they are sufficiently similar. In a church service, several different members may claim to have felt the manifest presence of God at the same time. Also, Moses at the burning bush was having a religious experience but if he had had a video camera, he could presumably have video taped it. Now, to be persuaded by these two counter-examples you first have to believe that both have occured which would be begging the question at hand. However, the idea of analogous perception, if you will, is at least possible in principle. Therefore one may not claim with certainty that the two forms of perception (theistic and sensual) are very different in all cases.

The second objection of Rowe's I'd like to address is that different religions-mutually exclusive to one another-report similar perceptions of God. While different religions may report similar experiences it is a non sequitur to leap that all the perceptions are therefore totally wrong. It may be, after all, the case that all of the religions currently in existence are wrong in their theology but that, at the same time, their direct or indirect experience of God is pointing to a real deity. Moreoever, if that deity is infinite as many religions claim, we would perhaps be surprised if people did not misunderstand Him. But to misunderstand Him is to presuppose that He is there to be misunderstood in the first place.

Consider the argument in the following reformulation:
1. Whenever an honest person speaks, they can be trusted.
2. Honest people have said, "I have had an experience of God."
3. Therefore, we can trust such people.

But if that is so, then God must exist for the non-existent cannot be experienced.

Do people intentionally lie? Not if they are honest. Do people sometimes misinterpret experience? They clearly do. But to misinterpret an experience of God presupposes God exists. Now, to be fair, it is possible for a person to misinterpret a psychological experience as an experience with an actually non-existent being. However, I don't think that there has ever been so many different people, often at the same time, over so many centuries who have believed in a kind of entity, apart from a theistic God, without that entity really existing.

Let me say in closing that I don't think this line of argumentation is absolutely certain. At the same time, it does have, in my opinion, some force to it. And Rowe has not diminished that probabilistic force through his chapter five as presented by exapologist.

exapologist said...

Hi Evangelical,

I agree that inclusivism goes at least some way in addressing the problem of religious diversity. In particular, it can provide at least a partial answer to the issues of (i) the apparent unjustness of the fate of the unevangelized, and (ii) the apparent unjustness of the damnation of saints in other religions. However, I'm inclined to agree with Rowe that it doesn't help in addressing the undercutting function that religious diversity plays with respect to the evidence of religious experience and personal transformation. For if all religions generate religious experiences and transformed lives, then such data doesn't tell in favor of one religion over another -- or (perhaps) even in favor of a divine cause at all. 

Now one might, with some plausibility, bring in the experience/interpretation distinction and argue that the members of the different religions are all experiencing a single reality, but that their various religious and cultural frameworks lead them to interpret it in various, incompatible ways. But the worry then is that even if the reply is effective, still such a reply works at the cost of one not knowing which religion is true if any -- perhaps you are among the many who are wrongly interpreting their religious experience and personal transformation in a way that gets it all wrong about God.

You can appeal to historical arguments in favor of Christianity to break the deadlock, but I'm inclined to think the evidence isn't very good here. I hope to get around to discussing that evidence when I'm finished discussing the philosophical arguments, but for now let me just say that I think the dominant research program of middle-of-the-road scholarship on the historical Jesus (e.g., Sanders, Fredriksen, etc.) strongly suggests that he was a failed apocalyptic prophet (you can look at my post that provides an initial sketch of some of that evidence, if you're interested, as well as my other posts on the historical evidence. But as I said, I haven't really devoted many posts to this topic yet. All in good time). So I'm not confident about the prospects of historical evidence breaking the deadlock. 

So it seems to me that Rowe's points have considerable force. If inclusivism, exclusivism, and pluralism can't fully deflect the problems of religious diversity, then the latter are pieces of data that pose a non-trivial problem for orthodox theism.

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