Skip to main content

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

3. Mystical Religious Experience as a Rational Basis for Theism
3.1 Extrovertive mystical experience:
3.1.1 Looks outward at the world experienced through the senses and sees the divine in it
3.1.2 Common features (taken virtually verbatim from p.74) Looks outward through the senses Sees the inner essence of things, an essence that appears to be alive, beautiful, and the same in all things Sense of union of one’s deeper self with this inner essence Feeling that what is experienced is divine Sense of reality, that one sees things as they really are Sense of peace and bliss Timelessness, no sense of the passage of time during the experience
3.2 Introvertive mystical experience:
3.2.1 Looks inward into the self and finds the divine reality there
3.2.2 Common features (taken virtually verbatim from p. 81) A state of consciousness devoid of its ordinary contents: sensations, images, thoughts, desires, etc. An experience of absolute oneness, with no distinctions or divisions Sense of reality, that what one is experiencing is ultimately real Feeling that what one is experiencing is divine Sense of complete peace and bliss Timelessness, no sense of the passage of time during experience
3.3. Our focus: Introvertive mystical experience
3.4 The unanimity thesis: Mystics everywhere have fundamentally the same type of introvertive mystical experience.
3.5 Unanimity as evidence for veridicality
3.5.1 In general, when there is widespread agreement among different people’s experiences, that is good evidence that the thing experienced is real, and accurately represented in those experiences
3.5.2 However, if some don’t experience what others do, this isn’t automatically evidence that the thing experienced isn’t real. In order for their lack of experiencing the thing to count as evidence against veridicality: They must be in the right place to experience it, if that is relevant They must be in the right frame of mind, if that is relevant
3.6 The Basic Argument from introvertive mystical experience:

1. If the unanimity thesis is true, then it’s reasonable to think mystical experiences are veridical, unless we have a good reason to think otherwise.
2. The unanimity thesis is true.
3. Therefore, it’s reasonable to think mystical experiences are veridical, unless we have good reason to think otherwise.

3.7 Objection: Premise (2) is false: mystics have differing experiences
3.7.1 True, they all claim to experience “the divine”
3.7.2 But different mystics report the divine in different ways
3.7.3 Some experience a Christian Trinitarian god; others experience Brahman
3.7.4 Some experience the divine as being impersonal; others as personal, etc.
3.7.5 If so, then isn’t this evidence that they aren’t having the same sorts of experiences?
3.8 Reply: No.
3.8.1 There’s a difference between one’s experience of a thing, on the one hand, and one’s interpretation of it, on the other.
3.8.2 Mystics from different religions come to their experiences of the divine with different interpretive frameworks that they inherit from their differing religious traditions
3.8.3 The differences in the reports are due to their having different interpretations of the same sort of experience
3.9 A caveat: unanimity is not a guarantee of veridicality, but only a fairly reliable indicator of it. (So how can we tell when such experiences are veridical?)
3.9.1 The “santonin” case
3.9.2 The “alcohol” case
3.10 Russell’s objection:
3.9.1 In general, abnormal mental and bodily states cause distorted, unreliable perceptions (the “alcohol” illustration)
3.9.2 But mystics are in abnormal mental and bodily states when they have their mystical experiences
3.9.3 Therefore, it’s probable that mystical experiences are unreliable/delusory
3.11 Broad’s reply:
3.11.1 Russell’s objection assumes that abnormal states that distort one’s experiences of the physical world will also distort one’s experiences of the spiritual world
3.11.2 Russell might be right about this assumption, but so far we have no reason to think he’s right
3.11.3 In fact, there may be good reason to think that such abnormal states may enhance one’s perception of the spiritual
3.11.4 But more importantly, there’s a real difference between the delusory alcoholic and santonin experiences and the mystical experiences. In the former cases, the experiences of the physical world that occur during abnormal states conflict with our experiences of the physical world that occur during abnormal states. By contrast, mystical experiences don’t conflict with our experiences of the physical world that occur during normal states
3.12 Rowe’s assessment of the debate:
3.12.1 There’s a difference between ordinary and mystical experiences, even after we make Broad’s distinction, viz., that in the former cases, we have a good idea of how to resolve disputes, whereas in the latter case we don’t. If so, then it appears that we have a stalemate between theist and non-theist.
3.12.2 Even if mystical experiences are veridical, it’s at least not clear that they get us all the way to theism. For many mystics report that the divine being experienced isn’t personal. But if so, then the experience/interpretation distinction may apply here: it’s plausible to think that mystic reports of the divine being a person may be due to their interpretation of the experience, and not a part of the experience itself. To the extent that this is plausible, the evidence for theism from mystical religious experience is weakened


evangelical said…
If the disputes to be resolved in 3.12.1 are the nature of the deity, or which view of God is correct, then there is a way to resolve disputes. By appeal to special revelation. Not all mystics appeal to the same sacred writings, I agree. Nevertheless, if one allegedly holy book really is the self-revelation of a God, it remains so even though others don't recognise that fact. Indeed, any objective truth is independent of subjective assent by very definition. So if my interpretation of Broad's distinction is correct (and I am not sure that it is) then it does not appear that we have a stalemate after all.

Finally, for the proof for the existence of a God from mystical experience, to do its proper job, it is not necessary that that argument itself also proves the truthfulness of theism. The proof of the truthfulness of theism, if there is such a proof, would be needed for that. Rome wasn't built in a day and theism, likewise, was not fully established in a single argument.

Popular posts from this blog

Epicurean Cosmological Arguments for Matter's Necessity

One can find, through the writings of Lucretius, a powerful yet simple Epicurean argument for matter's (factual or metaphysical) necessity. In simplest terms, the argument is that since matter exists, and since nothing can come from nothing, matter is eternal and uncreated, and is therefore at least a factually necessary being. 
A stronger version of Epicurus' core argument can be developed by adding an appeal to something in the neighborhood of origin essentialism. The basic line of reasoning here is that being uncreated is an essential property of matter, and thus that the matter at the actual world is essentially uncreated.
Yet stronger versions of the argument could go on from there by appealing to the principle of sufficient reason to argue that whatever plays the role of being eternal and essentially uncreated does not vary from world to world, and thus that matter is a metaphysically necessary being.
It seems to me that this broadly Epicurean line of reasoning is a co…

CfP: Inquiry: New Work on the Existence of God

In recent years, methods and concepts in logic, metaphysics and epistemology have become more and more sophisticated. For example, much new, subtle and interesting work has been done on modality, grounding, explanation and infinity, in both logic, metaphysics as well as epistemology. The three classical arguments for the existence of God – ontological arguments, cosmological arguments and fine-tuning arguments – all turn on issues of modality, grounding, explanation and infinity. In light of recent work, these arguments can - and to some extent have - become more sophisticated as well. Inquiry hereby calls for new and original papers in the intersection of recent work in logic, metaphysics and epistemology and the three main types of arguments for the existence of God. 

The deadline is 31 January 2017. Direct queries to einar.d.bohn at

Andrew Moon's New Paper on Recent Work in Reformed Epistemology... the latest issue of Philosophy Compass. Here's the abstract:
Reformed epistemology, roughly, is the thesis that religious belief can be rational without argument. After providing some background, I present Plantinga's defense of reformed epistemology and its influence on religious debunking arguments. I then discuss three objections to Plantinga's arguments that arise from the following topics: skeptical theism, cognitive science of religion, and basicality. I then show how reformed epistemology has recently been undergirded by a number of epistemological theories, including phenomenal conservatism and virtue epistemology. I end by noting that a good objection to reformed epistemology must criticize either a substantive epistemological theory or the application of that theory to religious belief; I also show that the famous Great Pumpkin Objection is an example of the former. And if a copy should make its way to my inbox...

UPDATE: Thanks!