The Epistemic Status Of Religious Experience

Attention to spiritual experience's epistemic status has taken two forms. Some have attempted to explain the mechanism of spiritual perception, i.e., to show how it works, its place in the human psyche. Others have offered reasons for believing that these perceptions are (or are not) veridical.

The most interesting examples of the first approach are Rudolf Otto's

Philosophy of Religion and The Idea of the Holy, and discussions among Roman Catholic theologians and philosophers in the first half of the century.

Following the neo-Kantianism of J.F.Fries, Otto argued that we possess an immediate knowledge of Reality (the noumenal world) which expresses itself in 'feelings of truth'. These intuitions are brought to consciousness as Ideas.

When the categories of theoretical reason (cause, substance, relation, etc.) are 'schematized' by space and time, they apply to appearances. But when they are schematized by 'the principle of completeness' (which expresses reason's 'perception and knowledge' that real existence is necessary, one, and complete), they apply to Reality. A category which has been schematized by this principle is an Idea of theoretical reason. These Ideas are essentially negative. Reality is thought by negating the limitations imposed by space and time. Practical reason also has its 'feeling of truth'. Although it cannot be completely conceptualized, it is the source of the Idea of Reality as a 'reign of purpose'.

Kant thought that the Ideas of reason were empty because no concrete intuition corresponds to them. Fries and Otto disagree, arguing that the Real is directly given in feelings or concrete intuitions (Ahnung). These feelings are aesthetic judgements in Kant's sense. They can be communicated and are inter-subjectively valid since they are expressions of reason's essential structure. Although they cannot be 'expressed in terms of a concept' and hence are not knowledge in the strict (i.e., conceptual) sense, they are genuine cognitions or 'perceptions' (Otto 1931:93) Examples are feelings of beauty and of the sublime in which the Transcendent is obscurely grasped, and religious intimations and intuitions such as our dissatisfaction with the temporal or sense of absolute dependence. In The Idea of the Holy, feelings of the beautiful and sublime are more sharply distinguished from religious intuitions (they are mere analogies of the latter), and religious intuitions are identified with numinous feelings.

Three positions emerged in debates between Roman Catholic philosophers and theologians in the first half of the century. According to the first, God's presence is merely inferred from effects he creates in the soul. According to the second, the mystic immediately perceives God but does so through these effects. According to the third, God is perceived directly; there is no intervening medium.

While the best-known exponent of the first position is R.M.Garrigou— Lagrange, it was most carefully developed by Henry Browne and August Saudreau. Faith believes something because God has said it. It thus typically has two objects—God and the proposition he proposes for belief. Browne thought that mystical 'vision' is a form of faith in which the soul is directed only towards faith's primary object (God). Saudreau, however, believed that the objects of the mystic's intellect are 'the truths known by faith: the greatness, perfections, amiability, incomprehensibility of God' (Saudreau 1924:57).

There is no direct perception of God. Mystics misleadingly speak of immediate perception because God's presence is spontaneously inferred from the effects he produces in their souls ('feelings of love', 'progress in virtue', 'sweetness', and so on), and because they sometimes enjoy an infused and irresistible conviction (not perception) that God is present. (There is an interesting similarity to sceptics like James Leuba and Wayne Proudfoot who also think that mystical 'perception' is an inference from interior feelings, unusual physiological states, and so on, to a supernatural cause but believe that the inference is fallacious.)

This theory was widely rejected because (as Albert Farges said) it did not adequately account for the fact that the mystic's knowledge is ' "experimental"...concrete, intuitive, and without reasoning, analogous to that of the senses' (Farges 1926:612). Why then did Saudreau and others adopt it? In part because they wanted their theory to account for mystical states like aridity in which God is felt to be absent as well as states in which he is experienced as present and, in part, because they tended to focus on the 'prayer of simple regard' or 'loving attention'. In this prayer, the mind is empty except for a 'naked [and loving] intent stretching unto God, not clothed in any special thought of God' (McCann 1964:105). But God is not immediately experienced.

The most fully developed defences of the second position are Jacques Maritain's and Albert Farges's. An objectum quo is a 'mental object' such as a concept or image or sense impression that provides the 'means by which we know'. The objectum quod is 'the object which is known' (Maritain 1959:1201). Objectum quos are not objects of knowledge from which we infer the existence or presence of their non-mental counterparts; they are mediums through which the object of knowledge is immediately grasped 'in the sense that no quod mediates it' (ibid.: 394). Contemplation includes a knowledge of God 'as present, in which the soul undergoes an action exercised upon it by that object and perceives in virtue of this very passion' (ibid.: 263). Maritain (but not Farges) thinks that the consciously experienced effects of infused charity are the medium (objectum quo) through which God's essence (the objectum quod) is experimentally (although obscurely) grasped.

Why must mystical perception be indirect? First, it is only in the beatific vision that 'the Divine Selfhood will be grasped just as it is', 'without the mediation of any creature or concept' (Maritain 1959:249). Second, Farges (but not Maritain) points out that mystical knowledge is obscure. Contemplatives more often speak of touching or tasting God than of seeing him. In the third place, human (as distinguished from angelic) intellects can only grasp things through concepts, impressions, and other media. Indeed, the soul can only grasp itself through its operations. Fourth, Maritain and Farges both think that 'A (experimentally) perceives X' entails 'A is aware of X's presence through effects which X produces in (the soul of) A'.

But why should the medium of spiritual perception be identified with the experienced effects of infused charity? For two closely related reasons. First, mystical knowledge is (as John of the Cross says) a 'light which is the union of love', a 'wisdom of love', a 'loving awareness of God' (Maritain 1959:33843). Union is attained through love and is a form of love. Second, the mind has emptied itself of everything but its loving awareness of God. If mystical awareness has a medium, it must therefore be love, for love is the only thing other than this awareness which has not been 'buried beneath the cloud of forgetting'.

It seems reasonable to identify the experienced effects of infused charity with mystical knowledge's objectum quo if mystical perception involves a medium. But the arguments for the latter are inconclusive. First, some orthodox divines have believed that the beatific vision can be (briefly) enjoyed in this life. Augustine and Aquinas thought that Moses and Paul had done so. In any case, that the mystic cannot directly apprehend God's essence does not entail that he or she cannot directly apprehend God's being, or presence, or attributes. (Unless God is simple. If he is, apprehending God's being or attributes involves apprehending his essence although one need not recognize that one is doing so.) Second, touching and tasting are as direct as sight. Furthermore, direct experiences can be obscure. Our experience of some of our inner states or moods is an example. Obscurity is often a function of inadequate conceptual resources and not of indirect perception. In the third place, some mystical experience appears to be direct and unmediated. (Monistic experiences and Pike's 'union without distinction' are examples.) To assume that they cannot be so because all human experience is mediated begs the question. Fourth, there are forms of 'experimental perception' in which the subject is not aware of the perceived object through effects that the object produces in him or her. Our awareness of sense data and our own mental states are examples.

Maritain's and Farges's arguments are therefore inconclusive. Nor is it clear that their theory best fits the mystical texts. The fact that authors of very different theories (such as Saudreau) appeal to the same passages suggests that they are at best ambiguous.

If theories like Saudreau's fail to respect mysticism's experimental character, and if views like Maritain's are inadequately supported, one should seriously entertain the third possibility—that in some mystical states, God's substance, or presence, or attributes are perceived directly. Although not as frequently espoused, this position was sometimes held. For example, Ambrose Gardeil thought that the mystic's awareness of God, like the soul's experience of itself, is direct and not dependent on such things as 'sense impressions, phantasmata, intelligible species, concepts', and so on (Butler 1966:1).

The question of mystical perception's mechanism and the question of its validity are related but distinct. The authors we have discussed assume that spiritual cognition is in order and ask how it is possible. Just as Kant's first two critiques showed how scientific and moral knowledge are possible, Otto's neo-Kantian theory shows how knowledge of the Real is possible. Saudreau's and Maritain's theories show how experimental knowledge of God can occur in a theistic universe. These theories implicitly refute the charge that mystical knowledge cannot be veridical because spiritual cognition is not possible.

But even if spiritual perceptions are possible, they might not occur; apparent perceptions can be delusive. Other authors have addressed this issue directly.

Walter Stace offers three arguments for mysticism's epistemic reliability. First, the experience is not subjective. Objective experiences (e.g., my visual experience of the pen I am using) exhibit 'internal' and 'external' order. The object of experience conforms to empirical law. Subjective experiences are disorderly. If I dream that the water in a kettle freezes when heated, my experience exhibits internal disorder since what I experience conflicts with empirical laws. The experience of a mirage exhibits internal order but 'a breach of natural law occurs' in the object's 'external relations...with the other areas of experience which immediately surround it.' (Stace 1960:142). (For example, no water is perceived when we arrive at the place where we thought we saw it.) Mystical experiences have no object and hence cannot be orderly or disorderly. They cannot, then, be objective. But neither can they be subjective. Second, the mystic is convinced that his or her experience is not 'shut up entirely inside his [or her] own consciousness' for he or she experiences himself or herself as 'becoming one with or becoming dissolved in an infinite and universal self (ibid.: 145, 147). This conviction can be supported by argument. Stace identifies selves with streams of consciousness and argues that they are distinguished from each other by differences in their empirical content. The pure self which the mystic experiences is devoid of content. Since the One is an undifferentiated unity, it too is devoid of content. So nothing distinguishes (pure) selves from each other or the One. They are therefore identical. In experiencing his or her (pure) self the mystic consequently experiences all other (pure) selves and the One. His or her experience is thus 'transpersonal'. In the third place, weight should also be given to the mystic's sense of objectivity or reality. 'The self-transcendence of the experience is itself experienced, not thought' (ibid.: 153).

Stace's defence of mysticism's epistemic reliability is open to criticism. First, his first two arguments assume that all (pure) mystical experience is monistic and therefore devoid of content. We have seen that this is doubtful. Second, the first argument only shows that mystical experience is not subjective in Stace's sense. It does not show that it is not subjective in other senses. Stace's conclusion is compatible with the possibility that mystical experience is more like pain or depression (which also lack objects) then sense perception, memory, rational intuition, and other paradigmatic cognitive experiences. It is also compatible with the possibility that the experiences are delusive in the sense that they systematically mislead us. Finally, selves and the One are identical if they are not distinguished by differences in their properties. That there are no differences in empirical content does not entail that there are no differences in properties. And, on the face of it, (pure) selves have different attributes. For example, self A has the essential property of being identical with A, self B has the essential property of being identical with B, and so on. Selves (streams of consciousness) are also contingently connected with different bodies, and occupy different segments of the space-time continuum.

Stace's arguments are therefore inconclusive. Furthermore, according to his view, the ontological status of the One is paradoxical. Mystics describe it as full and empty, with and without qualities, active and inactive, existent and non-existent. Stace assumes that the contradictions are genuine. If they are, and logic is applicable, the One is logically impossible and therefore unreal. Stace concludes that logic does not apply. Logic is a tool for handling 'a multiplicity of separate items' and is therefore 'applicable to all those experiences, realms, or worlds where there is a plurality of existences. But [it is] not applicable to the undifferentiated unity of the mystic' (Stace 1960:270-1).

Yet even if we were to grant that logic only holds in possible worlds with two or more members, it would not follow that it does not apply to the One or to experiences of undifferentiated unity. For the mystic does not inhabit a world with one member; he or she experiences the underlying reality in a possible world (namely our own) which contains a multiplicity of separate items. Stace believes that monism (which holds that nothing is real but the undifferentiated One) is false. Hence logic should apply to the experience and its object.

Stace recognizes that some mystical paradoxes seem to be about a 'plurality of existences'. Examples are 'The world is both identical with God [the One] and distinct from him', and 'The many—"blades of grass, wood, and stone"— are one.' Stace responds to these counterexamples by arguing that the difficulty they create and its solution have meaning only from the standpoint of logic and multiplicity. Fully enlightened mystics see no distinction between the One and the many, the realm of logic and the realm of non-logic. They do not inhabit the realm of everyday experience and so the problem does not arise for them. But this is a non sequitur. The problem may not arise for the mystic but it does arise for us. That the mystic does not see a problem does not imply that there is not one or that it is not serious.

Richard Swinburne argues that the 'principle of credulity' ('if it seems [epistemically] to a subject that X is present, then probably X is present') is a basic principle of rationality (Swinburne 1979:254). Without it, we would not be able to justify our reliance on memory, sense perception, and rational intuition. If the principle is sound, the presumption is initially in favour of how things seem to us although the presumption can be overridden. If one can show that the subject was not in a position to perceive X if X were present, or that X was not present, or was present but was not a cause of the subject's apparent perception of X, then the claim to have perceived X should be withdrawn.

Since the principle of credulity applies to all experiences, it applies to religious experiences. Hence, if it appears to someone that God is present, probably God is present. Can the presumption created by apparent perceptions of God be overridden? Swinburne thinks not. 'Most religious experiences are had by men who normally make reliable perceptual claims' (Swinburne 1979:265), and are not had in circumstances which are known to be correlated with unreliable perceptual claims. Again, if God exists, he is present everywhere and is a cause of everything. Hence, barring a disproof of God, there is no reason to think that God is not present and causing the experience. The presumption therefore stands.

Swinburne's position appears to imply that all apparent perceptions of God which normal people have are probably veridical. Thus if Smith is normal and it seems to Smith that God is commanding him to destroy the godless, then probably God is. For God is present everywhere and therefore to Smith, and God is a cause of everything including Smith's apparent perception. Swinburne must therefore show that Smith is deranged or otherwise not in a position veridically to perceive God. It is doubtful whether this can be done in most cases of this kind. What is needed, rather, is a way of showing that God is not causing Smith's experience in the right way. For it is not enough that X causally contributes to the experience of X; it must causally contribute to it in the way objects contribute to veridical experiences of those objects. (The presence of a table might cause a researcher to stimulate the brain of a blindfolded subject so that he has an apparent perception of the table. The apparent perception is not veridical even though the presence of the table causally contributes to it.) How is the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate causal chains to be drawn? Swinburne does not discuss the issue but the problem seems analogous to that of distinguishing between special acts of God and his general providential activity.

Swinburne focuses on perceptual experiences. William Alston focuses on perceptual practices. A doxastic (belief-forming) practice is basic if it provides our primary access to its subject matter. For example, memory is basic because it provides our primary access to the past. Sense perception is basic because it provides our primary access to physical objects. The reliability of basic practices cannot be established without circularity. Sense-perceptual practices, for instance, cannot be justified by appealing to scientific theories since these theories are acceptable only if the observational data on which they are based are correct. Nor can we appeal to the fact that perception enables us successfully to find our way about in our environment because our belief that it does so is based on perception.

But if a basic doxastic practice like sense perception or memory cannot be justified without circularity, why should we trust it? First, the practice is internally consistent. (Its outputs are, on the whole, mutually compatible.) Second, its outputs are also consistent with the outputs of other wellestablished doxastic practices. Third, the practice is socially established. Finally, it is self-supporting in the sense that its outputs support its claim to reliability. Sense perceptual practice, for example, displays the features it would have if it were reliable. Our senses seem to put us in contact with a public world of spatio-temporal objects that interact in law-like ways. Suppose that perceptual experience was reliable and therefore was effectively controlled by objects of this sort. We could use these experiences to make accurate predictions about the course of future experience. (The behaviour of the objects is law-like.) Perceptual claims would be inter subjectively testable. (The objects are public and their behaviour is regular.) And people would conceptualize their experience in roughly the same way. (For their experiences are controlled by the same sorts of objects.)

The practice of forming beliefs about God on the basis of a sense of empowerment, guidance, or forgiveness, classical mystical experiences, and other apparent perceptions of God ('Christian mystical practice') displays these features. First, as a basic practice it provides our primary access to its subject matter (God). As such, its reliability cannot be established without circularity. Attempts to do so will appeal to beliefs about God which ultimately rest on the practice itself. Second, Christian mystical practice is internally consistent and, in the third place, consistent with the outputs of other wellestablished practices. (Philosophical and scientific objections to Christian beliefs can be met.) In the fourth place, the practice is socially established. Finally, it displays the features it would have if it were reliable. If the practice was reliable, it would provide access to a God who is good but 'too "wholly other" for us to be able to grasp any regularities in His behavior', or to be able adequately to grasp what he is like (Alston 1983:129). We would therefore expect to find that we could not predict God's behaviour with much accuracy. Nor would the practice's outputs be intersubjectively testable in the way that ordinary perceptual claims are. (Intersubjective testability depends on publicity and regularity.) Because our grasp of God is partial and inadequate, people would also conceptualize him differently. Furthermore, if the practice were to promise certain ethical and spiritual fruits to those who engage in it, they would experience them.

Christian mystical practice, therefore, is epistemically on a par with sense-perceptual practice. It is thus arbitrary to countenance one while rejecting the other. If it is reasonable to engage in a socially established doxastic practice in the absence of good reasons for thinking it unreliable, it is also reasonable to engage in Christian mystical practice.

The most serious objections to Swinburne and Alston are that the relevant experiences are produced by causal mechanisms (e.g., psychosis or wish— fulfilment) that are known to be unreliable, and that religious experiences are used to justify inconsistent claims.

For the first line of attack to be effective, the critic must not only show that the unreliable mechanism is capable of producing the experiences and beliefs in question, he must also show that it actually does so. This has not been successfully done.

The second objection is more formidable. Swinburne admits that (e.g.) Buddhists and Christians back apparently inconsistent claims by appealing to religious experience but suggests that Buddhists could describe their experiences in 'less committed ways' (e.g., as an experience of the divine). 'Religious experiences in non-Christian traditions are experiences apparently of beings' similar to God, or of states of affairs which are compatible with his existence (Swinburne 1979:267). There is therefore no real conflict. Whether this response respects the integrity of (e.g.) Buddhist beliefs and experiences, however, is doubtful. Alston concedes that Christian and (e.g.) Buddhist mystical practices may conflict, and that a genuine inconsistency should diminish the Christian's confidence in his practice's reliability. But he argues that it is nonetheless rational for the Christian to continue to form beliefs about God in the way he does because his practice is socially established, self-supporting, and has not been shown to be unreliable. One may agree that it is pragmatically rational for the Christian to continue to do so. Whether it is epistemically rational may depend on the existence of independent (of religious experience) metaphysical and empirical evidence for Christian theism. Swinburne's and Alston's arguments are most persuasive when regarded as part of a cumulative-case argument for the Christian world-view.

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