Author Topic: Religious Experiences  (Read 358 times)

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Offline EV

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Religious Experiences
« on: February 07, 2013, 07:42:05 PM »
Hey all,

I'd like to share a recent little ditty I wrote on Religious Experiences, as I've noticed there has been a lot of debate regarding miracles recently, particularly since this site is fixated with the immortal question: "WHY WON'T GOD HEAL AMPUTEES?"

This essay focuses on the philsophical arguments of David Hume (Atheist, Scot, Fat and usually Angry) and Richard Swinburne (Christian, Professor at Oxford, looks like Prince Charles)

If this gets a good response, and you are interested, I'll post these essays more often. They're fairly light reading, and should contain a lot of background information so those new to idealised philosophical argument and reasoning shouldn't have any trouble. It's good to get feedback anyway for my course, as I'm studying A-Levels at the moment... Thanks.  :)

A discussion on the claim that Arguments for the existence of God from Religious Experience are Invalid.

In this essay, I aim to show that the claims that God exists derived from a posteriori experience are invalid and therefore unfounded. I shall discuss the philosophy of Swinburne and Hume on religious experience, and critically analyse the resulting arguments.

A religious experience is an event where the proponent of the claim asserts that he or she has experienced an aspect of God in the external world (that is to say, through the senses), or a miraculous event ascribed to the deity in question. These experiences range in type from personal experiences, such as visions, to mass experiences- such as the event in South America where a crowd of 30,000 witnessed the sun fall out of the sky[1]. The argument that follows from these regarding God’s existence is namely based on the claim that if one has experienced God in the world, he must exist (providing our senses are not deceiving us- viz. Descartes Meditations). I will now present arguments that are more specific and discuss them critically.

The claim from Personal Religious Experience (so that is to say experienced solely by one person) can immediately be reduced to a simple question- can we trust the witness’ testimony? Richard Swinburne tells us that if they are not mentally deluded or lying, then we should have no reason not to believe them. Markedly, many people who have claimed to have experience of God have been persecuted and killed for spreading their views. There is no incentive for them to lie, the argument says, so they must be mad or telling the truth. This principle, if there are reasonable grounds to believe the witness then we should, has become known as the Principle of Credulity/Testimony.

The main critical objection to this principle is to do with our senses being trusted. Descartes argued 400 years ago that we could not trust our senses fully, citing the cases of optical illusions, dreaming and hallucinations. Nowadays, we can show psychologically, if someone wants to see God and works him or herself into a trance-like state, their brain can generate what they want to see, and they accept it as truth.

There are two different types of religious experience- direct and indirect. A direct experience involves the sensory apparatus where the indirect usually involves the emotions. Examples of the two would include a vision of Mary being a direct experience, and a sudden feeling of bliss being an indirect experience. The indirect experiences are very easy to write off using psychological explanations- for instance sitting in a Church and ‘suddenly feeling the presence of God’ is due mostly to the fact that the witness is sitting in Church expecting to feel the presence of God. A good illustration would be if someone is walking through an alley on a dark night, then they are hyper-alert and worried that they are going to be mugged. As a result, the brain registers any movement as a person, and can see faces in the shadows that are actually not there (also known as PareidoliaWiki). This is a similar principle to the scenario of the Church. Hume argued that it is always more probable that the testimony is false than that the miracle has occurred, which is essentially an applied version of Occam’s Razor. The most simple explanation is the best one, and involving supernatural deities is considerably less simple than attributing it to nature.

A physical explanation would be possible as well. For instance in Ancient Greece, the Oracle at Delphi was famed for her visions of future events, and was consulted regularly on matters of state. At face value, her record of accomplishment showing half her predictions to be correct seem relatively feasible. However, if we look at the story more deeply, we find that she used to inhale vapours from cracks in the floor, then have visions from the Gods. Scientists recently finished excavating a site in Delphi, which they found to be the temple where the Oracle was based, and discovered the fissures in the floor. On analysis, they found large traces of ethylene gas, which is a powerful hallucinogen.[2]

In both of these cases, there is sufficient cause to believe a witness, but there is actually an underlying reason besides their mental capability and truthful testimony to believe that there is a true supernatural experience occurring.

In evaluation of this argument and criticisms, the objections regarding other explanations are naturalistic objections. We can look at what we experience in the world, and create inductive arguments about what will usually happen next. When an event breaks this mould, then we try to rationalise it. The Philosopher David Hume objected to Swinburne’s Principle of Credulity. He states quite boldly that there is no miracle attested to by large enough number of people of ‘good sense, education, integrity and reputation’ so as to be believable. Despite being a blatant ad hominem attack on the religious, this argument does still hold some sense, owing to the fact that human nature seems ‘preset’ to enjoy surprise and wonder; we are inclined to believe unusual things without any evidence, and thus unjustifiably. Because of this, we can safely say that personal religious experience is not a particularly strong argument.

The arguments are harder to justify when it comes to mass experiences. For instance, the event referred to in my introduction, where 10,000-30,000 people witnessed an extraordinary solar event. We can allude this to mass hallucination, mass psychology or even hysterical adaptation (where someone claims to have experienced an event to ‘fit in with the crowd’), but it does not harm the point that a vast amount of people claimed to have seen something outside the laws of nature- the sun falling out the sky after a religious prediction by three children.

No matter how many people witness a religious experience, we can attest the outcomes to any God we like and it could still be a religious experience. Therefore to claim any one God caused a particular miracle is known as ‘special pleading’. Hume argued this case as an objection, saying that since different religions claim miracles as proof of their veracity over other religions, the truth claims of these different religions therefore cancel each other out. We can easily attribute a vision of the Virgin Mary as a vision caused by Odin to test the faith of Humanity. We can attribute the Sun falling out the Sky just as reasonably to Jesus as to Zeus. There is no way of knowing how verifiable these supernatural events are in terms of our limited human existence, and so they must only be relevant if there is one God with multiple cultural perceptions of Him (in which case all organized religion is wrong anyway), or it can be a naturalistic explanation which is far more likely.

The idea of a Transcendent God outside the universe interfering inside our universe is also illogical, due to the fact that a being outside time cannot interfere within time, as it is simply logically impossible. This is in the same way that Descartes once attested that the incorporeal Mind interacted with the physical Body in the Pineal gland of the brain in support of his theory of Substance Dualism, completely forgetting that something that has no form cannot really interact with matter!

In conclusion, the arguments for the existence of God from religious Experience are not valid because the experiences themselves can be questioned and dismissed too easily. No miracle so far has been indubitable enough to warrant it being caused by a perfect God, and so we cannot use the case of religious experience to argue for the existence of a Deity.

"Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative."
- Philosopher John Stuart Mill, from a Parliamentary debate (May 31, 1866);

Offline kcrady

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Re: Religious Experiences
« Reply #1 on: February 08, 2013, 07:27:13 AM »
One criticism of Hume's argument that I've read (in a book by John Michael Greer, I just don't recall which one offhand) is that it presupposes a complete inventory of Nature's operating principles.  In other words, a person or group of people might well experience some astounding and unexplainable event, but apart from a complete knowledge of Nature's workings, we would not have any way to know if it was a "miracle" ("Nature being diverted from her course"), or a natural event operating according to principles we had not yet discovered.  So, we would not know if we could invoke Hume's argument and raise a bulwark of unlimited skepticism against it, to disbelieve in the event no matter how many people reported experiencing it.

This raises another issue.  Let's say that Yahweh did "cause the Sun" to (apparently) move from the point of view of that crowd.  To say "Yahweh did X" is to say that Yahweh's nature is such that accomplishing X is within his capacity.  The only other possibility is to say that the Divine nature is incapable of X, but he did it anyway, because he's God.  This is a logical contradiction.  I do not know of any theist (much less any notable theist like a member of clergy or a credentialed theologian) who asserts that Yahweh's "omnipotence" means that he can accomplish a logical contradiction, like drawing a square triangle.  So, let's say that Yawheh "caused the Sun to move"--and then...we figured out how he did it.  Perhaps we discover that he's made of what we currently call "dark matter," and that he's able to shift and concentrate his mass (due to the interaction properties of the various types of "dark matter"--or "spirit," or whatever label one would like to use--particles) in a way to locally alter atmospheric density, so as to cause a refraction of light that makes the Sun appear to move from the point of view of the crowd.  Is this still "supernatural?"  Is it still a "miracle?"  I think it would be very hard to argue for the affirmative.  Once you know how the trick is done, it isn't "magic" anymore.

It turns out that words like "supernatural" and "miracle" don't really tell us anything about the entities or events we might want to apply them to, beyond that we don't yet know how they work.  It doesn't even matter if we can't ever know how it works, i.e. if the actual workings and equations and whatnot are simply too stupendous for our tiny little brains to comprehend.  Either there is a "way-it-works," or there isn't.  Since the latter is a logical contradiction ("Everything inherent in the nature of all the relevant entities involved in this miracle makes the miracle impossible, but it happened anyway"), we're left with principles that we'd just call "natural" if we understood them.  That we don't understand them (or can't understand them) says nothing about the entities or principles themselves, only about a state of human ignorance.  Termites can't understand the purpose and workings of the Large Hadron Collider.  That doesn't make it a "termite-supernatural/miracle" object.

Notice that "supernatural" and "miraculous" aren't just harmless synonyms for "unknown."  Instead, they smear on a thick layer of extra-special sparklies onto whatever they're applied.  Instead of providing information or adding clarity, they do the opposite.  Once something is labeled "supernatural" or a "miracle," we're supposed to cease all inquiry and examination and just be dazzled by the halo and rainbows.  In other words, the words "supernatural" and "miracle" are tools of emotional manipulation designed to trick us to worshiping our own ignorance.  Which is a rather ridiculous behavior, when you think about it.

Ironically, if Jesus ever did return, the Messiah or the Imam Madhi or next incarnation of the Buddha appear, the flying saucer land on the White House lawn, etc., he/she/it would immediately become a part of the "merely real," and the rainbow-sparkly appeal would disappear.  Jesus might turn out to actually be the pacifist he's portrayed as, and Take Our Guns Away.  The aliens, no matter how fascinating, would probably possess attributes and traits that were unappealing to somebody.  Once the Messiah seats his throne in Jerusalem and actually starts implementing policy, there'd be people who disagreed.   And so on.

Nutshell: Learn to take joy in the merely real.  Because if your god, or aliens, or paranormal powers or whatnot ever actually showed up and did anything, that's exactly what they'd be: merely real.  Incredibly fascinating, perhaps--just like quasars and gamma ray bursters and just about all the plants and critters you can learn about from David Attenborough.
"The question of whether atheists are, you know, right, typically gets sidestepped in favor of what is apparently the much more compelling question of whether atheists are jerks."

--Greta Christina