This is part of a series of posts in response to "Letters to a Doubting Thomas" C. Stephen Layman.
I was highly surprised by the next chapters. Layman focuses in on religious experiences (like, people feeling like they've heard/seen/sensed the divine) in order to offer this (spoiler alert) conclusion at the end of chapter three:
I suggest that the testimony of the Theistic mystics makes up for at least one of the ways in which Theism is more complex than Naturalism. If the testimony of the mystics doesn't count for at least this much, it seems to me that we've relegated it to insignificance. And I think that would be a mistake. Indeed, I'm inclined to think that the testimony of the mystics largely makes up for Theism's greater complexity in regard to both of the first two facets of simplicity. (p. 36)
In chapter four, Layman will offer the cosmological argument, and the thinks that these together (religious expeirence and the cosmological argument) make up for theism's initial disadvantage:
A consideration of religious experience and the Cosmological Argument leave Theism and Naturalism on a par. (p. 248)
So, this sets up Layman's task. He provides twelve descriptions of religious experiences, taken primarily from William James' book, Varieties of Religious Experience. There's one each from Beardsworth's A Sense of Presence and Weil's Waiting for God. After presenting the twelve quotes, Zach summarizes them like so:
What we have here, it seems to me, is not a mere outpouring of emotion, but fairly clear descriptions of a direct awareness of a divine presence. Let's call this sort of experience Theistic mystical experience, to distinguish it from other kinds of religious experience, such as a feeling of oneness with the universe or an intense reeling of peace and joy or a religious vision that involves sensory imagery (e.g., a deity sitting on a throne). (p. 42)
The two next go back and forth concerning what we can and cannot accept as valid evidence concerning experience and testimony. Zach proposes the principle of credulity, which essentially suggests that "it is rational to accept what experience indicates unless special reasons apply." From here, the two debate whether this principle should be applied to both sense experience as well as religious experience. Zach makes the case that sense experience is, at its core, unprovable. We all trust that what we think is real really is. The only verification we have is to rely on other senses (which are also possessed by us), or to ask for verification from others, which assumes that, in Zach's example of seeing a tree, "a) that you exist, (b) whether you state (or otherwise indicate) that you see a tree, and (c) whether you are sincere" (p. 44). Thus, since Zach argues that we can't prove sense experience, there's no reason to apply the principle of credulity to the senses while not accepting it with respect to religious experience:
To return to my main point: Yes, I think the Principle of Credulity should be applied to religious experience. If we refuse to apply it and demand some sort of proof for the reliability of religious experience, then I think we are arbitrarily demanding that religious experience should meet a standard that even sense experience cannot meet. (p. 46)
Here is where Zach/Layman and I diverge. I've long pondered this sort of argument and got into a massively lengthy debate with a blogger once about whether "the experience of the Holy Spirit" should be considered "properly basic," according to Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology or Foundationalism. The issue I have is that while Layman might be correct that to justify sense experience only brings in other assumptions (the existence of others, their reliability and trustworthiness), at the end of the day, we do have more of a "coherentist" picture with sense experience that we just plain don't with religious experience. To deny that seems ludicrous.
In other words, even if we take to complicating hypotheses and risking circularity with attempted verification and do so with both sense and religious experience, one emerges the clear winner. Let's grant Layman's assertion that sense validation gives rise to many more assumptions and circularity. This doesn't change anything about how the world works. If I'm wrong and no one else really exists and the entire 6.99 billion of earth's inhabitants are involved in a massive conspiracy to falsely verify my experience... so what? There will be no predictive difference between that world and one in which my senses really are functioning. Since no new data is accounted for by the highly conspiratory and mind-in-a-vat world, we should prefer the simpler explanation that things are as they seem. Thus, the experience that I see a tree, can verify it by touching it, interact with it (say, bash my head against it and hurt myself), take a sample and test it, and have others verify that they see it, etc. is pretty darn reliable.
What about for religious experience? On Christian theism, there is a being whose primary aim is to get everyone to heaven with him. This entire world exists for the sole purpose of forming enough virtue and holiness in humans such that they can pass the test and enter the pearly gates. Presumably, this is why god grants profound experiences to humans -- it inspires them, encourages them, strengthens their religious beliefs, etc. But if we're trying to suggest that religious and sense experiences are on par... why can't one validate religious experiences via others? While sense experience might open the door to circularity, religious experience can't even risk that much because most people don't have such profound experiences, and those who do will attribute the experience to their specific, pre-believed in deity. If one god rules them all, so to speak, why do those who have experiences of god have experiences of the god they already believed in? Statistically, most religions are false. We should see religious experiences bringing about a convergence of belief. Muslims should sense Jesus or the Saints and convert; or Christians should experience Allah and convert. Instead, Christians sense the presence of the Christian god and so goes it with other religions.
To be fair, I think there's some priming that can take place with sense experience. If I tell you shots really, really hurt and you've never had one, your first injection might be more painful than had I told you it was nothing to worry about. On the other hand, I've had people rave about movies and then I didn't particularly like it when I saw it. I had a prior belief/expectation and was converted by my actual experience.
Layman points out that the pure experience itself doesn't say anything about the interpreted significance. In other words, the points above are primarily about how humans interpret their experiences and don't imply that the experiences weren't valid. If we ignore interpretation, it's still not clear to my why a god wouldn't want everyone to directly experience him/her/it if the experience is so beneficial, inspiring, etc. In previous debates, this has been typically met with, "You will have such an experience if you're really open, and god's time isn't our time." You an imagine how comforting that is to hear.
But what of interpretation? How far up the chain do we stop and assume we have the base experience? If we're to assume the principle of credulity for religious experiences, they why does attributing the experience to a specific divine being cause the warning flag to wave? What good reason does one have to doubt this? Or if Layman wants specific religious being attribution to not count, why does attributing the experience to a "divine presence" meet his criteria? Why not stop at, "I felt a really, really good and exhilarating feeling the other day. Pure joy. I was just really happy about my life"?
Zach moves on to address some of Thomas' objections. To the point that not many people have religious experiences, Zach points out that a rare experience does not mean it's not real. He brings up a superb tracker who can see things others cannot, or a musician who can hear subtle harmonies others miss. He ends with a catchall quote from the Beatitudes, "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God," and asks how many have that kind of preparation? These fall short with me. The first two are examples of natural skills or genetic giftings. Experience of god isn't dependent on your physical abilities or training. The last is just silly. Most people, plain and simple, don't make the cut for sainthood. Yet many people have these experiences. Are we to conclude that they alone are the spiritually prepared among us? Does Tim Tebow make the cut?
The next objection is that we can test sense experience but not religious experience (as I alluded to above). Zach brings up a good point that because sense experience allows for valuable predictions doesn't mean that all experiences need to meet such a criteria. He uses a great example of introspection -- can I verify that I feel sad? I'd agree with him on this one, though often our introspection still matches up with something that is verifiable. I feel sad because so-and-so said X to me. Or if I feel nebulously said and can't trace it to anything even after thinking about it for a while, my personal conclusion is to try to just shake it. It's a false signal that doesn't provide any benefit. Zach does bring out his criteria for theistic mystical experience at this point, which is helpful:
Nevertheless, there is a kind of test for Theistic mystical experience. In fact, mystical writers and spiritual directors have shown a lot of interest in distinguishing genuine experiences of God from illusory ones. The basic idea is that if the subject has experienced God's presence, certain results will follow. These include interior peace, trust in God, patience with trials, sincerity, self-forgetful charity, and not being concerned with useless matters. Criteria for identifying false or illusory religious experiences include anxiety, presumption or despair, impatience with trials, duplicity, and being concerned with useless matters. (p. 58)
One of the absolutely coolest aspects of deconverting is the fact that the same types of "Huh?!?" moments I had as a believer still happen now. Crazy coincidences, experiences of feeling very small/in awe, reinvigorating thoughts and ponderings, etc. When I first started questioning, I had a "spiritual experience" while sitting on the crapper reading Dawkins' God Delusion. It was my first time reading about how very, very small we are. I had a profound sense of smallness, imagining myself, on the crapper, whirling around in this massively empty black space that is 100 billion galaxies with 100 billion stars each. Nuts. I've also been thinking about getting together with another deconvert and had him contact me that day. Spoooooky! Or experiences of a sort of self-revelation about my shortcomings, which bring about things Layman suggests above: peace, increased patience, charity, etc. It still happens to me, despite not believing.
This concludes my thoughts on chapters two and three. I don't exactly know what to make of religious experience. I think the chapters would have been fairer had they included some testimonies of non-believers who have also had powerful experiences that produced the same kind of "fruit" that Layman presented as his criteria for "valid" theistic experiences. In the sense that he wants theistic experience to be predictive or explanatory, such benefits shouldn't be had by those who don't experience theistic experiences. If they do, I see the thought that these examples increase the prior probability that a being is causing them to occur as being reduced. At the very least, for the reasons I gave above, I really do see these in a different class than sense experience. It comes down to predictive power and replicability to me. These are the cornerstones of the scientific method. The predictive aspects Layman brings into play are actually retrospective: if the experiences produce good fruit, they were real. If people don't have them, perhaps it's because they aren't perfected in Beatitude. But there's no expectation provided that will allow us to predict who will and who won't have or how to replicate the experience by setting up controlled conditions (X years of living with Y types of virtue).
In all honestly, I think Layman is tipping the scales in his favor. He's allowing generic experience to count while omitting the fact that religious persons interpret them as validating their religion. He only wants the experience to count and not the fact that believers are primed to thinking it's their personal conception of god who did it. Given that theism is the belief that a personal god intervenes in human affairs, a god who reveals himself but won't show his face (as in, identify himself) isn't a god to care much about. After all, with that kind of god, you can't find out about his/her wants, desires, properties, and allowed sexual practices.
While it doesn't come up in the book, perhaps Layman would advocate for being a theist first and then studying the material of revelation in order to determine which theistic formulation is correct. If revelation supports a particular god, though, it should allow us to feed this belief back into the system and look at religious experiences. Thus, if Layman thinks one religion is true, he's omitting such a belief selectively to get these chapters to fly. The more intellectually honest approach would be to state it straight up right now. I'm wondering if he doesn't because the fact that he advocates for Christianity as true brings about the puzzling fact that the Christian god is bolstering the beliefs of Muslims, Hindus, Scientologists, and Mormons alike. Which again gets us back to the problem of predictive power -- if the existence of a god doesn't bring about a change in expectation with respect to a particular group's holiness, experiences, answered prayers, etc... then the belief isn't paying rent.