Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 6

Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 6 April 2, 2015

I will now try to wrap up this series of posts on Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience (AFR).   I don’t have any big bold conclusion that I’m driving toward, just a few observations, clarifications, and an objection or two.

One thing I have done is to make use of the concepts of dependence and independence, which are basic concepts in probability.  I have explored the question of whether and to what extent the veridicality of one generic theistic religious experience (TRE) is dependent upon the veridicality of other generic TREs.  Also, I have taken a closer look at the key concept of a “veridical experience”, and more specifically,  the concept of “a veridical generic  theistic religious experience”.

I toyed with the idea that the veridicality of one generic TRE is independent of the veridicality of other generic TREs.  Note that Swinburne does not hold this view.  One problem with this view is that it makes it virtually certain that God exists, given the assumption that each clean generic TRE is probably veridical (“clean” meaning that there is no particular reason to doubt the veridicality of that TRE).  In fact, if there is just a small probability (e.g. one chance in a hundred) of each clean generic TRE being veridical, it would still be nearly certain that God exists, because there are probably thousands or hundreds of thousands of such TREs.   Double-sixes may be rare in rolling a pair of dice, but if you keep on rolling a pair of dice, it is almost certain that you will eventually roll two sixes.

The idea that AFR makes the existence of God virtually certain is not only contrary to my skeptical intuitions, but also contrary to Swinburne’s intuitions, since he only thinks that AFR bumps up the probability of God’s existence from about .4 or .5 to about .6.  So, the idea of the veridicality of generic TREs being independent doesn’t fit with our shared intuitions about the force of AFR.  At best, AFR can increase the probability of the existence of God from .2 to .6, in Swinburne’s view, and I agree that it would be unreasonable to expect more out of this argument.

There is also a simple and decisive reason to reject the independence of the veridicality of one generic TRE from the veridicality of other generic TREs:  if just one generic TRE is veridical, then God exists, and if God exists then clearly that would significantly increase the probability that other generic TREs are also veridical.

I compared the idea of a veridical generic TRE to the idea of an actual or valid miracle.  One actual miracle is all it takes to show that God exists, and once it has been shown that God exists and that God has intervened in human affairs by violating a law of nature for some good prupose, then this knowledge or information would significantly increase the probability that other alleged miracles were actual miracles.  Clearly, the veridicality of just one generic TRE would have an impact on the probability of the veridicality of other alleged experiences of the presence of God.   Therefore, it is clearly NOT the case that the veridicality of one generic TRE is independent from the veridicality of other generic TREs.

Swinburne takes the extreme view that if God exists, then ALL generic TREs must be veridical.  He apparently failed to notice that this strong claim has a strong skeptical implication, namely that if just one generic TRE was non-veridical,  then God does NOT exist!  Swinburne was arguing for his strong claim in an attempt to set aside a whole category of potential objections to generic TREs.  If Swinburne’s strong claim is true, then if just one generic TRE is determined to be veridical, then not only does God exist, but it would follow that ALL generic TREs were veridical.

I pointed out a problem in Swinburne’s reasoning supporting his strong claim.  From a claim of this form:

(A) God was involved in causing an experience in which it seemed to P that God was present with P.

Swinburne infers a claim of this form:

(B) God’s presence was the cause of an experience in which it seemed to P that God was present with P.

But clearly (B) does NOT logically follow from (A), because there are various ways that God could be involved in causing an experience, and merely being present is only one of many different ways that God might cause an experience to occur. Thus, Swinburne’s argument fails to establish his strong claim, and Swinburne fails to eliminate a whole category of potential objections to generic TREs (i.e. objections to the effect that God was not the cause of the experience, that there are natural explanations of TREs).

I also took a closer look at Swinburne’s analysis of the concept of a “veridical TRE”, specifically of a “veridical generic TRE”  Swinburne’s analysis has three parts that parallel the traditional JTB analysis of the concept of knowledge:

 An experience E of a person P is a veridical generic theistic religious experience
IF AND ONLY IF:
(a) E is an experience in which it seems (epistemically) to person P that God is present with P,
AND
(b) God was in fact present with P (at the time when experience E occurred),
AND
(c) God’s presence with P (at the time when experience E occurred) was the cause of experience E.

This is not a bad start for an analysis of “a veridical generic theistic religious experience”, but I do see a problem here.

First of all, God’s presence does not, by itself, cause the experience of God’s presence, because if it did, and if God existed, then everyone would experience God’s presence all the time, because God would be present everywhere and at all times. People who are devout religious believers do not constantly have a generic theistic religious experience.  So, presumably something else is required besides the presence of God to initiate a generic TRE.

Second, if God exists, then what presumably kicks off a generic TRE is that God wills or chooses for a particular person to have a generic TRE at a particular time.   But if it is God’s will or choice that determines if and when someone will have a generic TRE, then this seems analogous to the scenario where a hypnotist causes me to have a NON-veridical experience of a cat sitting on a couch across the room from me.  Even if there is a cat sitting on a couch across the room from me, and even if it is the presence of the cat that infuenced the hypnotist to suggest that I “see” a cat sitting on the couch, the experience would be NON-veridical because the WAY in which that cat’s presence caused my experience would be unusual and unreliable.

The choices and whims of the hypnotist are involved in the causal chain of events leading to my NON-veridical experience of the cat (while in a hypnotic trance).  But if a generic TRE happens only because God wills it to happen, then the choices and whims of God are involved in the causal chain that leads to the generic TRE, and this, it seems to me, makes the causal chain unusual and/or unreliable.  Furthermore, God’s willing this experience to happen seems sufficient by itself to cause the generic TRE, so it is not clear what causal role God’s presence has in the production of the generic TRE.

If I am correct that condition (c) is insufficient, and that something more is required in order for an experience to be veridical, such as the reliability of the causal mechanism that produces the experience, then Swinburne’s analysis of ‘veridical generic theistic religious experience’ is mistaken, and furthermore, it is unclear whether a veridical generic TRE is even possible; it is unclear whether this concept is coherent because it is hard to see what could be meant by a normal and reliable causal mechanism in which the presence of God is the cause of a generic TRE as well as a choice by God to make a specific person have a generic TRE at a specific time.

If my objection to Swinburne’s analysis of “a veridical generic theistic religious experience” is correct, then there may be further difficulties for Swinburne to confront.  It is not clear to me that one can spell out a coherent meaning for the claim that “God caused experience E in a way that is normal and reliable.”  But something like that would need to be clarified and shown to be coherent to make his AFR workable.

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