A Question About Religious Experience and Safety Accounts of Knowledge

(Rough draft)

A number of epistemologists (Sosa, Pritchard, Williamson, et al.) have proposed that "safety" is a necessary condition for knowledge. Here's a generic formulation of the condition:

S knows that P only if S could not have easily falsely believed that P.

(where "S could not have easily falsely believed that P" is often cashed out in terms of not falsely believing P in all worlds nearby the world at which S truly believes that P.)

I'm tempted to think that something like safety is a necessary condition for knowledge, but I'm not interested in discussing the matter here. Rather, for present purposes I'm only interested in exploring whether religious experience is threatened as a basic source of warrant for Christian belief if knowledge requires safety.

Here's a first pass at conveying the worry: it's not uncommon for Christians to attribute widespread error in experience-based religious beliefs to those who have religious experiences that conflict with their own.  Here are two common explanations Christian theists offer for the diversity of religious experience:

(i) The religious experiences of those in other religions are caused by the true god, but the interpretive religious framework of those who have them can cause them to easily misconstrue them as experiences of other gods.

(ii) The religious experiences of those in other religions are caused by demons and other spirits, and these are easily mistaken for experiences of the true god (Satan "appearing as an angel of light", and all that).

Now a common criticism of explanations of type (i) is that the same sort of explanation could be applied to Christian belief, in which case such an explanation equally undermines the latter.  But appeal to safety may provide the materials for a helpful reply on behalf of the theist. For they could argue that safety is an externalist epistemic requirement, and so if their version of theism is true, then there are no nearby possible worlds at which the such a theist conflates their religious experiences with those of another god via their religious interpretive framework.[1]

However, things don't look so easy for the theist when it comes to explanations of type (ii). For Christian scripture states that (ii) is a true explanation of many of the religious experiences of even Christian theists. But if so, then it's hard to see how Christian religious experience could be squared with the safety condition. Or so it seems to me. Thoughts?

[1] Of course, such a reply would be insufficient in certain dialectical contexts, such as that of aiming to rationally persuade the antecedently unpersuaded that Christian religious experience is authentic.


Dr. Rizz said...


This is a great topic. By Christian lights, the generic beliefs "God exists" or "Christianity is true" can not experience safety failure since both beliefs are true! Indeed, no true beliefs can experience safety failure, hence it is unclear how to undermine one's belief by appealing to potential safety failure. Also, there is a generality type problem in the area which pertains to identifying the indicator which serves as the basis of one's belief on a particular occasion. Is it the phenomenology which is the basis which can fail to be safe, or is it the entire process? If the former,then Christian beliefs are caused by the same type of process as non-Christian beliefs. If the latter then they are not.

Dr. Rizz said...


I misspoke in the other comment. Of course some true beliefs can fail to be basis relative safe, but not any enduring and general truth. Sosa notes this difficulty in regards to necessary truths. For example, I may see a fake barn in fake barn country and unsafely conclude "that is a barn", but I couldn't unsafely conclude that "barns exist".

exapologist said...

Dr. Rizz,

Great comments as usual. The fake barns case sounds like a false lemma Gettier counterexample that applies to safety accounts. Is that your point? If so (and perhaps this is your point as well), then a similar false-lemma Gettier counterexample applies in my type-(ii) cases: S falsely believes, on the basis of good evidence (an experience from a demon that seems to be of God), that they are experiencing Yahweh. They then form the belief that

1. I am experiencing Yahweh.

They then validly infer

2. Yahweh exists.

Suppose it's true that Yahweh exists. Then

-S believes that (2) is true.
-(2) is true.
-S is justified in believing that (2) is true.
-S's belief that (2) is true is safe.

and yet (since it is a matter of luck that S justifiedly believes that (2) is true) S doesn't know that (2) is true. Or so it seems at first pass?


exapologist said...

Good thoughts. Alston's book is a classic,and I agree that Christians can use criteria to make headway in (non-basic) religious knowledge via such criteria. I wonder, though, if they can go far enough. So, for example, consider the religious experiences of people like Michael Sudduth (a long-time philosopher of religion and devout conservative Christian who turned to an Eastern Religion on the basis of powerful recurring religious experiences of a loving being). The same can be said of very many devout practitioners of other religions, whose experiences and practice have made them virtuous (one of Hick's central points). Perhaps something can be said in reply?


Dr. Rizz said...


Yeah, you can definitely run the argument that way. Yet, is not your target cases in which, ex hypothesi, Yahweh is actually speaking? If demons are afoot perhaps safety failure occurs for "Y is speaking to me" even though it couldn't fail for "Y exists". By undermining the base you can still employ safety to attack the conclusion as an item of knowledge.
You could also use something like this, "If S (or persons in S's community) often use belief forming processes p and q,S cannot distinguish p from q, and q is deceptive, then S's beliefs which are derived from p and q are not to be trusted." I argue this way (forthcoming) against knowledge of more specific beliefs such as "God wants me to do X".

exapologist said...