This post is a reponse to a very nice blog post by a friend. You can find it here.
When one speaks of “spiritual experiences” or “religious experiences” what comes to mind? Often we discount religious experience as nothing more that excessive emotional rambling, mysticism, ritualism, or blatant lies that reinforce a false hope. I don’t particularly buy these claims, but they do act as the standard dismissal for most atheists or a-theologians.
In the aforementioned blog article, the author discusses these claims generally by pointing out several issues that he has with religious experience, and its seemingly non-justified position among the dictums of proof.
His points are as follows:
Religious experiences tend to be culturally specific and socially influenced. Most people’s religious experiences tend to lead them to believe in either the religion they were raised in, or the religion of their friends. Our feelings in general tend to be strongly influenced by our peers, and religious feelings seem to be the same.
This is reasonable and acceptable. I think there is little debate to be had about the claim that human interaction and belief structures are strongly influenced by association, but how does this not provide evidence for the existence of God? Is it possible that the only way to come to a personal knowledge of God’s existence may be via some type of person-specific reality? I mean, given that God may exist outside of our observable universe or (as I hold) that we are likely to exist in some type of Turing-type world that is largely digital, personal experience may be the only way to adequately transcend the bounds of the observable world or create a nexus amid our reality and that of God’s. Additionally, you can really never know if the experience a person is having is not some type of Gettier-like situation that just happens to be correct -which, while by accident, the person does have of evidence.
I would also call upon the works of Joseph Campbell and his comparative mythologies. He was able to demonstrate that mythologies and religion do map to common elements: things like eternal life, Deity, and other supernatural conditions . So, if all religious experence are rooted in a set of basic common elements, is it not possible that maybe those things are similar to any other type of basic truth or trivial piece of scientific evidence? Arguably, it would seem as such.
Religious experiences often contradict each other. If you think one religion is right, you have to admit that most people’s religious experiences lead them to the wrong conclusion. Even people who have been exposed to the “right” religion have experiences that lead them to other religions.
They may contradict each other in their particulars, but not necessarily in their basic components (as I pointed out in the previous response). However, can science and the observations of well trained men not do the same? Having spent time working as a researcher, I can say with certainty that scientific experience -and any experience, in general- is subject to the same criticism that is being leveled here. Indeed, many mathematical theories have generated fierce debate and dogmatic followings, scientific systems have also claimed to be the only and most explanatory system of a subset or part of some observable phenomena while all the others are not. This criticism is a problem for mankind -a fallible creature who fancies his observations and feelings to be tantamount to the truth and beauty found in a mathematical proof.
Memories change over time. Powerful religious experiences are often not recorded clearly and specifically until long after they’ve occurred. Especially when a story is retold several times, its main points tend to be increasingly emphasized and then exaggerated over time. The memory itself will change accordingly
So what? I mean, I don’t think this objection differs from the last one. It still relies on fragility, which runs the gamut in science and any system that requires some type of consistent dogma or testability (the sad thing is that in science and other “testable” studies, they just falsify data or twist it to where it does not need to change as per it is always a lie). Again fallibility does not mean that the experience that was actualized in the first instance was not an actual representation of some proof or personally-derived evidence for God.
Confirmation Bias causes us to remember the experiences that confirm our beliefs. We tend to forget all the times we prayed or “had impressions” and nothing remarkable happened. We also go through so many experiences, that what seem like amazing coincidences are actually very likely to occur occasionally. If those seemingly amazing coincidences confirm our beliefs in some way, you can bet that story will be remembered and shared.
Psychologists have long proven that the tenants of confirmation bias extend into virtually every facet of human thought. Scientists, and the layman, are both subject to this vexing characteristic of the human mind. Professors defend, until their last breath, outmoded philosophical systems, archaic scientific theories, or even things that are contradicted. This is not a problem that would remove any evidence derived from experiences that we might have. This is especially true given that since all religious experience is a particular type of empirical observation, the truth value of those observations is not directly knowable to those who could not have participated in the experience. Thus, it follows, that levying any criticism against an experience by labeling it as confirmation bias may just as well apply to the critic as well as the criticized, and the result is an unwarranted and unfruitful deduction that leads to a dead-end.
Even very spiritual people are often wrong. Even blessings from Apostles sometimes do not come to pass.
Its not about being right as it is about proof. People can be wrong in instances, and that does not mean that the general conclusion that is their faith, is equally wrong. If that were true, then I don’t know how we could read any book on physics and remain confident that basic theories like gravitational forces exist. This is irrelevant from the point of the article.
All of this is to say that spiritual experiences are not surprising. In order for evidence to provide strong confirmation of a theory, the evidence must be different than what we would otherwise expect. Given what we know about human psychology, most spiritual experiences do not meet this standard, and hence do not provide strong confirmation of either the Gospel of the existence of God. I conclude that religious experiences, although powerful, are not reliable guides to truth. I am all for seeking after and having spiritual experiences in our lives, and I try to nurture myself spiritually (meaning mentally and emotionally) as well. But when determining the nature of physical reality, I think that reliable, repeatable, and verifiable evidence should definitely have precedence.
The second sentence of this conclusion is false. Why would a theory have to be subject to alternate expectations in order to be confirmable? That is not a necessary condition for confirmability in any regard. We can have expectations that some outcome X possess properties Y; we could even test X to get Y, and this would not effect confirmability. Actually, a theory has to have the following conditions to warrant it as true (and confirmable): A theory must exhibit consistency (it cannot cause contradictions in other theories upon which it relies), theories must be testable either empirically or rationally, and a theory must be logically possible. Spiritual experiences may not in their particular accounts meet any rigorous definition of theory, but their general implication may. That is not to say that particular instances of experiential claims are not important, it just means that they may be outside testability or may be subject to human fragilities and, thus, are unable to meet certain standard due to explanatory barriers. However, that does not defraud or remove them from being types of evidence -even if the degree is low.
The declaration at the end, “But when determining the nature of physical reality, I think that reliable, repeatable, and verifiable evidence should definitely have precedence” makes a nice point. Indeed, I think that no theist would debate this, for I am confident that a theist would argue that the physical reality with which this author is dealing is limited to the observable universe only. He would have to agree that his perceptions cause that reliability holds only the the limits of what it is that he senses, wants, and can physically test; he would have to assent to the claim that the Problem of Induction renders repetition in testing nothing more than a game of Russian Roulette with respect to verifiability and truth generation. Not to mention the large amount of faith that one must have in the physical extensions of mankind.
We know that the observable universe is not all there is. We know by way of basic mathematics that dimensions exist, in vast complexity, outside of our ability to directly experience them. The same system of mathematics which has proved this and provided the language scientists use on a daily basis has also proven logically that there must be a world among all possible dimensions in which a being that possesses all potentials exists. Moreover, by probability theory the chances that all things that we witness and perceive of were the act of pure random outcomes is so small that, when speaking of rationality, I have better odds of believing that a unicorn will bring me a leprechaun who will grant me three wishes while I feast in Valhalla with Odin on a six-sided square table.
 Written between 1962 and 1968, Campbell’s four-volume work The Masks of God covers mythology from around the world, from ancient to modern. Where The Hero with a Thousand Faces focused on the commonality of mythology (the “elementary ideas”), the Masks of God books focus upon historical and cultural variations the monomyth takes on (the “folk ideas”). In other words, where The Hero with a Thousand Faces draws perhaps more from psychology, the Masks of God books draw more from anthropology and history. Campbell also expounds on common elements of symbolism and belief structures present in virtually every culture and religious system dating back to the ancient world.