Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 5

Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience – Part 5 March 20, 2015

Here is a brief plot summary of the movie Harvey:

Due to his insistence that he has an invisible six-foot rabbit for a best friend, a whimsical middle-aged man is thought by his family to be insane – but he may be wiser than anyone knows.

James Stewart played Elwood P. Dowd, the “whimsical middle-aged man” who could apparently see and converse with Harvey, a six-foot rabbit who was invisible to others.  The obvious conclusion is that Elwood is mentally ill and that his experiences of the six-foot rabbit are hallucinations.  But the movie casts doubt on this obvious conclusion, suggesting that we consider questions like these:

Q1. Does Elwood actually perceive a six-foot tall talking rabbit (a “Pooka” – a mischievous spirit who takes the form of an animal and who can appear selectively to  certain people)?

Q2. Does Elwood have veridical Pooka experiences of the presence of Harvey?

Q3. Does Elwood know that Harvey is present?

These questions have an obvious similarity to the questions that we are thinking about concerning the presence of God, alleged experiences of the presence of God, the veridicality of TREs, and Swinburne’s Argument from Religious Experience (AFR).

Our next order of business is to look more closely at the key term “veridical” , especially in the phrases “veridical theistic religious experience” and “veridical generic theistic religious experience”.   Swinburne argues that there is a very strong relationship between the veridicality of one generic TRE and the veridicality of other generic TREs.  The correctness or incorrectness of his reasoning on this issue depend crucially, it seems to me, on what the term “veridicality” means.

It  stikes me that (Q3) might well shed significant light on (Q2), and also on our question about the meaning of the key term “veridical”. I believe that the concept of veridicality is similar to, and closely related to, the concept of knowledge.

The first thing that occurs to most people is the question of TRUTH.  Is it TRUE that Harvey is present when Elwood is having his Pooka experiences?  Elwood BELIEVES that Harvey is present, but we have doubts about this belief and are inclined to think Elwood is mistaken, and that there is no six-foot tall rabbit in the room, nor that there is a mischievous spirit who is taking the form of a six-foot tall rabbit.

We are strongly inclined to think Elwood’s BELIEF that Harvey is present is a FALSE belief.  Elwood, we might say, does NOT know that Harvey is present because although Elwood BELIEVES that Harvey is present, he is mistaken, and this is a FALSE belief. Not just any belief counts as knowledge; the belief in question must be TRUE to count as knowledge.  Elwood’s belief about Harvey being present is FALSE, so this belief does not count as knowledge.  We might further conclude that Elwood is having non-veridical Pooka experiences, because there is in fact no six-foot tall rabbit and no mischievous spirit present in the room  with Elwood.

Definition 1 of ‘knows that x is present’:

Person P knows that x is present IF AND ONLY IF

(a) P believes x is present,  and

(b) it is true that x is present.

Definition 1 of ‘veridical experience of the presence of x’:

Person P has a veridical experience of the presence of x IF AND ONLY IF

(a) P has an experience of its seeming (epistemically) to P that x is present, and

(b) it is true that x is present.

If you have any background in epistemology or some familiarity with Socrates, you know that the idea that knowledge amounts to “true belief” is an overly simple analysis of the concept of knowledge, and that this analysis is mistaken.  There is at least the need for one more necessary condition: justification.  One can have a true belief by accident or chance or dumb luck.  But if I have a belief that is true by accident or chance or dumb luck, such a belief, though true, does not constitute knowledge.

John says: “I am thinking of a number between one and ten; guess the number.”

I respond: “You are thinking of the number seven.”

John replies: “Yes, that was the number.  Wow, good guess!”

I say: “I knew that you were thinking of the number seven.”

John says, “No you didn’t.  You just made a lucky guess.”

If I continue to claim to have KNOWN the number that John was thinking of, then John will challenge me to explain HOW I could have known the number, and if I claim to be able to read his mind, John will probably demand further proof of this amazing ability, perhaps by thinking of a number between one and a thousand, and seeing if I can still correctly identify that number.  This disagreement about whether I KNOW the numbers that John is thinking about is predicated on the distinction between a “lucky guess” and knowledge.  For a belief to be knowledge it must have something more going for it than simply being true.  Traditionally, going back to Socrates, knowledge was understood to be Justified True Belief, a subset of true beliefs:

Definition 2 of ‘knows that x is present’:

Person P knows that x is present IF AND ONLY IF

(a) P believes x is present,  and

(b) it is true that x is present, and

(c) P’s belief that x is present is rationally justified.

Definition 2 of ‘veridical experience of the presence of x’:

Person P has a veridical experience of the presence of x IF AND ONLY IF

(a) P has an experience of its seeming (epistemically) to P that x is present, and

(b) it is true that x is present, and

(c) P’s experience of its seeming (epistemically) to P that x is present was caused by x’s being present.

Note how this second definition of ‘veridical experience of the presence of x’ is parallel to the second definition of ‘knows that x is present’.

Note also that this analysis of ‘veridical experience of the presence of x’ corresponds to Swinburne’s view of perception:

It seems to me, for reasons that others have given at length, that the causal theory of perception is correct–that S perceives x (believing that he is so doing) if and only if an experience of its seeming (epistemically) to S that x is present is caused by x‘s being present.  So S has an experience of God if and only if its seeming to him that God is present is in fact caused by God being present. (EOG, p.296)

I take it that Swinburne understands the phrase ‘S perceives x’ to be equivalent to the phrase ‘S has a veridical experience of x’ as contrasted with non-veridical experiences such as hallucinations.

If a ‘veridical experience of the presence of x’ has the above three necessary conditions that when combined form a sufficient condition, then one would think that the logic of veridicality would NOT be symetrical with the logic of non-veridicality.  An experience can be veridical only by satisfying all three necessary conditions above.  But an experience could be non-veridical in a variety of ways: by failing to satisfy the conditions (a) and (c), or by failing to satisfy conditions (b) and (c), or by failing to satisfy (c), or by failing to satisfy all three conditions.  There are many different ways for an experience to be non-veridical, but only one way for an experience to be veridical.

In the case of an ordinary physical object, it could be that the object is in fact present, but that the object is NOT the cause of it seeming (epistemically) to the subject that the object is present.  For example, there might in fact be a cat sitting on a couch across the room from me, but my experience of it seeming (epistemically) to me that there is a cat sitting on the couch across the room is CAUSED BY a hypnotist planting a suggestion in my mind about a cat sitting on a couch across the room from me.  The cause of my experience is the hypnotist and the suggestion made by the hypnotist that I “see” a cat sitting on the couch.  The actual presence of the cat on the couch is NOT the cause of it seeming (epistemically) to me that there is a cat on the couch.  In this case, my experience is non-veridical, and yet there really is a cat sitting on the couch across the room from me.  Why couldn’t there be non-veridical generic TREs even if God was actually present in the room with the subject?

According to Swinburne, IF God exists, then ALL generic TREs are veridical:

And so, if there is a God, any experience which seems to be of God [of the presence of God] will be genuine…”                  (EOG, p.320).  

Swinburne apparently did not notice the skeptical implication of this conclusion, namely that IF there is just one non-veridical generic TRE, then God does NOT exist!  This means that an atheist or a skeptic need only show that there is one single instance of a generic TRE that is non-veridical and the existence of God would thus be disproved.  But this seems contrary to common sense.  With ordinary objects there are various different ways that an experience can fail to be veridical, and in some of those ways it can still be the case that the object that seemed (epistemically) to the subject to be present was in fact present, as in the above example of the cat being present in the room but it’s presence NOT being the cause of it seeming (epistemically) to the subject that a cat was present in the room.

God is different than a cat, according to Swinburne, because God, if God exists, is involved in every causal event that occurs in any time and any place (because God, by definition, is omnipotent and omniscient and eternal).  Thus, God is involved in the cause of every experience that ever occurs:

But, if there is a God, he is omnipresent and all causal processes operate only because he sustains them.  Hence any causal processes at all that bring about my experience will have God among their causes… (EOG, p.320)

But Swinburne, it seems to me, has made a hasty conclusion here, which may not hold up under closer examination.   From this premise…

(GAC) God is among the causes that bring about the experience of its seeming (epistemically) to P that God is present.

Swinburne has drawn the following inference, related to one necessary condition of having a veridical experience:

(GPC) God’s being present with P is the cause of its seeming (epistemically) to P that God is present.

There are many different ways in which one person might cause another person to have a particular experience.  Being present in the same place and at the same time with the other person is just ONE of MANY different ways that one person could cause another person to have an experience.  For example, the hypnotist that causes it to seem (epistemically) to me that there is a cat present in the room with me could do this over the phone, and thus not be present with me.  Furthermore, even if the hypnotist were present, it is not the presence of the hypnotist that causes my non-veridical experience of the cat; rather, it is the action of hypnotizing and of saying certain things to me that causes my  non-veridical experience of the cat.

Since there are many different ways that one person can cause another person to have a particular experience, and since being present with the other person is just one such way, it seems to me that we cannot logically infer (GPC) from (GAC).  The claim made in (GAC) is too general and vague to logically imply the more specific claim made by (GPC).

Since God is always present to everyone, if God exists, there must be some additional factor that determines whether a particular person will experience the presence of God at a particular time and a particular place.  If generic TREs are sometimes caused by God, this presumably requires that God choose or will this experience to occur to that particular person at that time and that place.  But if this is so, then it is NOT the case that it is merely God’s presence that caused the generic TRE to occur, anymore than it is the hypnotist’s presence that caused me to have a non-veridical experience of the cat.

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