Friday, October 15, 2010

Disputing the Authority of Religious Experience

At the conclusion of his discussion on mystical experiences in The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James turns to the question of what kind of authority we should attach to these experiences. Of course, to give them authority is to lend credibility or evidentiary value to what they "say," that is, what lessons they appear to teach us. And that raises the question of what mystical experiences actually do say, if anything.

On this matter, James stresses that "the mystical feeling of enlargement, union, and emancipation has no specific intellectual content whatever of its own. It is capable of matrimonial alliances with material furnished by the most diverse philosophies and theologies." Even so, it is clear that James thinks they do say something--just nothing that justifies invoking them "in favor of any special belief." They are "only relatively in favor" of a range of vaguely supernaturalistic and optimistic understandings of reality.

But do they lend any support to the truth of even this very vague message, a message, in effect, that there is more to reality than what we encounter in ordinary experience, and that this something more is a reason for hope or joy?

On this question, James sums up his position in the following way:

1. Mystical states, when well developed, usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come.

2. No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically.

3. The break down the authority of the nonmystical or rationalistic consciousness, based upon the understanding of the senses alone. They show it to be only one kind of consciousness. They open out the possibility of other order of truth, in which, so far as anything in us vitally responds to them, we may freely continue to have faith.
That mystical states are usually authoritative for those who experience them can hardly be challenged. With few exceptions, those who have had these kinds of experiences are transformed by them, both in terms of outlook and behavior. And the basis of that transformation is a sense of having encountered orders of reality that make a difference for how we should live and relate to our world. Mystics see the world in a new light, in terms of a sense of promise that what lies hidden from our ordinary conscious experience infuses all of reality with a value it would not otherwise have, and gives us reason for far more confident joy than the empirical surface of the world can provide.

But while we can all agree that for most mystics, their experiences have this kind of de facto authority, it is arguably more controversial whether they should have it. And it is likewise controversial to insist, as James does, that "the existence of mystical states absolutely overthrows the pretensions of nonmystical states to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe." Here we see the link between James' fascination with mystical experiences and his arguments in his essay, "The Will to Believe," in which he endorses a kind of pragmatic faith, a right of the individual to decide to embrace what goes beyond the ordinary evidence, to pursue practices and make decisions that would make no sense if the material world exhausts what is real, out of the hope of connecting thereby with something of deep value. It is clear that, for James, part of the impetus for favoring such pragmatic faith is that "the pretensions of nonmystical states" have been shattered by the reality of mystical consciousness.

As far as the former issue goes--whether mystics really have a right to believe what their mystical experiences are telling them--James offers a sketch of an argument that has been developed in various ways by other philosophers interested in the epistemology of religious belief (among them William Alston). Here is how I laid out that argument to my philosophy of religion class earlier this week:
1. If a person has an experience (EX) that seems to be an experience of X (some object, event, etc.), then, in the absence of a defeater, it is reasonable to believe PX (the proposition “X exists/ happened/etc.”). (This is one way of formulating what is often called the Principle of Credulity)

2. An experience EX can admit of either of two kinds of defeaters which would block the legitimacy of inferring PX: (i) reason(s) to disbelieve PX more compelling than the reasons, given by EX, for believing PX; (ii) reason(s) for believing that the conditions under which EX occurs render EX a poor indicator of PX’s truth.

3. People have experiences that seem to be of a divine reality, that is, a transcendent and fundamental good (D experiences)

4. Sometimes, the people who have D experiences do not have defeaters of either type (i) or type (ii).

5. At least sometimes, it is reasonable for people who have D experiences to believe that a divine reality exists
Premise 2 may need som clarification. So, imagine I am looking out my window and see, in the courtyard below, what appears to be my wife passionately kissing my least favorite student. This experience would, based on the Principle of Credulity, justify the belief that my wife is kissing my least favorite student in the absence of defeaters. But suppose that my wife happens to be standing next to me in my office at the time of this experience. In that case, I have a defeater of type (i). Or suppose that (against my better judgment) I just ingested a strange mushroom given to me by my least favorite student, that I'm feeling a little funny, and that in addition to seeing my wife in a passionate embrace, I also see in the courtyard Sarah Palin waving at me from astride a huge elephant. In that case, I have a defeater of type (ii).

While some would argue that the problem of evil poses a defeater of type (i) for D experiences, this is hardly an unproblematic claim. The problem of evil clearly is a problem (whether or not it can be overcome) for belief in the "omni-God" who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good. But the belief that flows from a typical D experience is far vaguer than that. At best, the problem of evil might dictate against interpreting the D experience in terms of the existence of a God conceived in this particular way.

In fact, James thinks mystical experiences are generally immune to defeaters of type (i). As he puts it, with respect to the facts given to us in ordinary experience, typical mystical experiences "do not contradict these facts, or deny anything that our senses have immediately seized." Rather, they "merely add a supersensuous meaning to the ordinary outward data of consciousness." And he thinks "there can never be a state of facts to which new meaning may not truthfully be added, provided the mind ascend to a more enveloping point of view."

But even if we accept what James has to say on this point, there is still the question of defeaters of type (ii). Michael Scriven has challenged the authority of religious experience in a manner that might be viewed as positing a defeater for religious experiences of type (ii). Here is a key excerpt from his argument:

It is easy for someone to imagine that he saw something he did not see; it is even easier for him to "sense that some presence is nigh," to use a common description of the religious experience, for the sense that gives him this report is not one with the built-in training of our usual senses and is all the easier for the emotions to use as a projection screen.

That the millions who are brought up in a nervous and stress-provoking world and taught the tradition of religious experience and symbolism should produce thousands who claim to have had religious experiences is not surprising but entirely to be expected.
Since I've been in the habit recently of ending my discussion with a theistic argument and asking what skeptical critics think of it, I will end this post with Scriven's skeptical argument, and ask how those prone to lend some wieght to religious experiences might respond to the idea that the existence of religious experiences has no evidentiary value, since the conditions under which they occur are such that we'd expect them to occur whether or not there is more to reality than meets the empirical eye.


  1. Hi, Eric-

    A very interesting discussion. James was rather slippery on this topic. But one point that is clear is his #2- that the mystical experience provides no authority to those who have not experienced it. This is highly significant, indicating the quality of everything that goes on under the mystical umbrella is personal and idiosyncratic. The experience would be something between the person and their brain, and even if that experience remade them into a new being, it would have no "veridicality" elsewhere.

    As for defeaters of type one, you are right for simple mystical emotions. But what of the Revelation of John? Here mysticism is mingled with hallucination, which finds abundant defeaters of type one, as do much of the rest of scripture generally, if written under mystical influence. One should present the case in all its glory.

    James himself was pretty convinced of the type two defeaters, as you quote above ... The conditions of mystical experience are perilously close to those of insanity. To finish the quote you supply:

    "It is capable of forming matrimonial alliances with material furnished by the most diverse philosophies and theologies, provided only they can find a place in their framework for its peculiar emotional mood."

    Which indicates he thought of mysticism as more emotional than ontological/analytical. ..

    "But more remains to be told, for religious mysticism is only one half of mysticism. The other half has no accumulated traditions except those which the text-books on insanity, supply. ... In delusional insanity, paranoia, as they sometimes call it, we may have a diabolical mysticism, a sort of religious mysticism turned upside down."

    Finally, I would have to differ with James's claim in #3, since if #2 is true, then he has essentially given up the game. If the mystical experience provides a magic portal to some more enveloping level of reality, why does it consistently fail to present any dividends through the gauntlet of experience, as he puts it? I don't mean personal & charismatic qualities, which might be transformed for better or worse, but with forms of experience that supposedly have a great deal to do with the higher levels of reality- science, in short. Never have we learned significant things in this way, which I would call highly suspicious with regard to any kind of "higher reality" claim.

    The impossibility of reason to break into the mystical "more enveloping point of view" is not a matter of the mystic actually knowing anything higher or better, but of the mystic's ability to color anything and everything with their meaningful view. It may be an enviable state, but James is simply pandering to the gallery to say that any old delusion, if not susceptible to logic, is thus a candidate for "higher" logic.

  2. Eric,

    I must admit to being a bit underwhelmed by Scriven's "stinger" at the end, but maybe I'm just missing the context and underpinnings of his argument:

    That the millions who are brought up in a nervous and stress-provoking world and taught the tradition of religious experience and symbolism should produce thousands who claim to have had religious experiences is not surprising but entirely to be expected.

    This strikes me as akin to saying that people in an environment entirely lacking food resources who are taught a tradition that denied their hunger (whence this tradition?) should be expected to host a substantial portion (with religion, it's a majority of humans) who imagine themselves to no longer be hungry. But as I said, perhaps I'm missing his point.

  3. The Scriven argument seems to be less about the experiences, and more about the way we interpret these experiences, and to someone like myself who is sceptical on the matter religious experience, this is the crucial point.

    Most people will at some stage in their life experience some version of heightened awareness. An overwhelming sense of goodness perhaps, or of contentment, peace, mystery, whatever. In the vast majority of these cases we choose to interpret the experience materialistically. We call it schizophrenia, blame the LSD, or sleep deprivation, our bipolar disorder, an excellent piece of poetry, or just the fact that we're in the first giddy drunk throes of love.

    What's more we have a certain amount of information about the physical triggers of these states, through scanning, careful analysis of reportage, the observed effects of hormones, medication and so on.

    The mystical claim is that there exists a certain subset of these experiences that, although physically similar, in fact represents not the idiosyncracies of mental processes, but rather contact with a higher realm. This is an extraordinary claim, and given the rather ordinary alternative explanation (Scriven's cultural interpretation) I at least would need some rather extraordinary evidence to be swayed.

    I'm not sure where this evidence might come from, not the certainty of the experiencer because of the obvious problem of mental illness for example. I think the neuroscience of meditation might turn out to be a field where some fascinating insights are going to be made.


  4. The Principle of Credulity, in itself, does not achieve much. It is entirely dependent on what counts as a defeater and this is where differences will be found.

    I think there was something in the news some time ago about a holy man somewhere in India who, it was alleged, had not eaten anything for many decades. Apparently this had been tested in a laboratory setting. Now, some will say “why not?” and, applying the Principle of Credulity, believe the story. Others will argue that for the story to be true much of what we know of human biology would need to be trashed – reason enough to be extremely skeptical.

    Likewise for the mystical/religious experiences, as Bernard argues above. The claim that these experiences involve a connection to an alternate reality is, on the face of it, quite extraordinary and requires very strong evidence.

    In both cases, invoking the Principle of Credulity is a way to change the focus, from the weakness of the evidence to the emotional strength of the experience itself. Although this no doubt makes it easier to believe I don't think it helps at all when trying to determine the truth of the matter.

  5. A quick comment about James' approach to the veridicality of mystical experience. In "The Will to Believe," James comes down hard against a kind of programmatic skepticism which won't permit belief unless the most exacting requirements have been met. At one point he say (and italicizes it to stress how important this point is to him), "...a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule."

    The question is what this principle implies with respect to a rules for deciding whether to trust unusual experiences that speak to a reality unlike (and "beyond") what we encounter in ordinary empirical experience.

  6. Hi, Eric-

    Your quote seems to beg the question. How do we know that something is "really there"? We know it, if we are decently respectful of human fallibility, by reason and empiricism exercised in our soberest moods. If you were on trial for your life, would you want your fate decided by a seance, or by the local panel of psychics?

    It is the height of hubris to selectively disavow the enormous problems of human psychology- the tendency to self-delusion, the hallucinations, the wishful thinking, the irrational exuberance, and all the rest. It is an absolute minefield for the religious thinker and scientist alike (and the voter, incidentally).

    While I respect William James a lot, he spends a great deal of time arguing both sides of his issues- not a great recipe for authority. And I also think he was pro-religious for personal & practical reasons which weakened his analytical capacities/arguments. Psychology has progressed in the meantime.

    Your larger point is about "certain kinds" of truth is subtly different. Does reason put the ecstatic & mystic "truth" out of bounds unfairly? It didn't use to, since the mystic truths claimed full sovereignty over all knowledge whatsoever. It was only after the rise of science that mystic truths (and their sibling superstition) were progressively boxed off the stage of "reality" to the wings of make-believe.

    Now they are uniformly constructed in such a way as to avoid scientific scrutiny. Otherwise (speaking with the dead, or levitating objects, etc.) they can be analyzed and disposed of forthwith. Does that sound like a worthy source of truth? No, it sounds more like a con game. In James's day, such paranormal and supernatural models were far more "live" than they are today.

    So go ahead and formulate safe regions of non-verifiable "truths" where all things possible, especially the things you most wish for. But don't call it reasonable.

  7. One of Scriven's objections to treating mystical experience as veridical is that the principle of credulity is a legitimate principle to follow only when we have reliable standards for testing experience that can, in principle, expose the experience as delusional when it IS delusional. When the experience could never be exposed as delusional WERE it delusional, we have no right to presumptively trust it in the way that the principle of credulity allows.

    But if James is right that mystical experience has a content that is substantively compatible with anything that ordinary experience delivers up (and if the substance of these experiences is too ineffable to be conceptualized in a manner that could expose logical inconsistency), it seems that mystical experience is not amenable to defeat. Scriven's standard for when it is legitimate to invoke the principle of credulity is therefore not met, and believing in the deliverances of mystical experience is therefore ruled out.

    But here is where James's principle comes into play. If credulity is disallowed in cases of truly unique experiences that seem to be OF something entirely different from what ordinary experience is about, then we have a case of a rule that would forbid trusting any experience of this kind, even if the experience IS veridical. In James' view, the only reason to go with such a rule is that one passion--the fear of being duped--is favored over another--the hope of living in the light of a truth that enriches one's life. And while the fear of being duped and the agnosticism it advocates is procedurally valuable in some areas of life and human inquiry (he argues that it makes eminent sense in scientific inquiry), to suppose that it should prevail in all areas strikes him as unreasonable.

  8. But neither James nor I would be inclined to say that when we trust such an experience, we have a case of KNOWLEDGE. The discussion of what we may legitimately believe, and on what basis, and the discussion of what standards of evidence justify a knowledge claim, are often conflated.

    And no, in a court of law I would not let the fate of the accused rest on the visions of psychics. But there are several things to keep in mind. First, psychic visions are ABOUT the same world that we encounter through our senses. Second, within that domain we have methods of answering questions with a much more substantial track record of generating true beliefs than psychic visions have. Third, the stakes are someone's future freedom, with an operative presumption of innocence. These facts give us ample reason to conclude that this is a context in which "fear of being duped" SHOULD prevail over the hope that the psychics are in some mysterious way seeing a truth we cannot otherwise discern.

    And I believe that there are numerous "religious" contexts in which these conditions prevail as well, such that the appeal to faith and religious experience should be greeted with skepticism. But I don't think all cases should be treated alike. The epistemology I favor is strongly guided by pragmatic concerns (which vary by context) and moral ones (which is something I touch on in my most recent Religion Dispatches article pertaining to what we should believe concerning our gay and lesbian neighbors).

  9. Hi Eric

    The stumbling block for me with this approach is that it seems to embrace a reluctance to explore further. Burk is quite right, we have a reasonable understanding of our psychological frailities, and are aware of the possibility of being duped, as you put it.

    Isn't the most reasonable response then, to be as committed as possible to testing for duping activity? Shouldn't we submit our experiences of otherness, and the claims people make of this, to as rigorous and sceptical scrutiny as possible?

    Most of the mystical claims of the past we now dismiss as mistakes and trickery (mircales, vampires, astrology etc). Rather than assuming in advance that some remaining subset is valid, why not just remain uncommitted until we can dig further?

    If for example, it was shown that the highest religious experiences could be reliably brought on through narcotics or direct brain stimulation, would this affect the way you saw religious experience?

    I think what I resist is this idea that we have to know now. History clearly shows that most people most of the time don't know and are guessing wildly about most things. I think it's fine to construct pragmatic belief systems in the meantime, but sometimes the acknowledgment that we are indeed just inventing them seems to get left out of the equation.


  10. Bernard,

    Two things. First, let's be clear about the scope of the term "mystical experience" as that term has come to be used in philosophy of religion and theology. This designates a class of experiences that differs in kind from encounters with weird beings (vampires, ghosts) and weird events (miraculous violations of physical laws). Both of the latter are experiences that are sensory and conceptual in nature. That is, we can describe how the vampire LOOKED in terms of the same concepts we use to describe how my dog looks (likewise for an event we witnessed that seemed to defy natural laws). In this respect, these kinds of experiences are the same KIND of experience as seeing a giraffe or watching a rock fall to the ground.

    "Mystical experience" designates a mode of experience that is different in kind: it seems to have nothing to do with the senses, but seems to be an encounter with some reality in the way that sense experiences seem to be; and it defies adequate explication in terms of our ordinary concepts, and so cries out for metaphorical, analogical, and poetic characterization.

    As such, vampire encounters are to be classed with ordinary experience (with an unusual object), as opposed to being classed with mystical experience.

    ==> cont.

  11. The second point is this: I think you may be inadvertently presupposing a false dichotomy between skeptical investigation and presumptive credulity.

    Let me explain. Consider some experience that strongly inclines you to believe a proposition P. There are several things one might do in relation to this experience and the proposition it inclines you to believe:

    1. You might withhold belief from P (that is, be agnostic with respect to P) until you have fully investigated both the experience that gave rise to the inclination to believe P and the evidence that might count against P.

    2. You might embrace P and go on with one's life, without making any special effort to investigate the reliability of the experience, etc.

    3. You might embrace P presumptively, but also engage in critical investigation of the conditions that gave rise to belief in P and the possibility of evidence against P.

    4. You might embrace P presumptively, but also be open to evidence or arguments that, if they manifested themselves, would prompt critical investigation into P and the experience that gave rise to it.

    It is important not to forget options 3 and 4, even if they are not always the appropriate options. Which IS appropriate depends a great deal on a range of contextual factors, I think.

  12. Hi-

    I think it would be helpful to add that the acceptability of proposition P hinges strongly on its a priori likelihood, where bizarre, unprecedented, and strong claims require corresponding evidence.

    One might also add that a proposition's likelihood should be further discounted by its attractiveness and by its correspondence with indoctrination, which each are likely to lead us to blind acceptance over critical evaluation.

  13. Eric

    I agree, there are times we can embrace a belief presumptively while continuing to investigate. In fact science works off just that principle. Not everybody is convinced general relativity is the last word on space and time for instance, but we go with it for now while investigating further.

    Mystical experience is not, for me, such a case; simply because there exists such a strong alternative hypothesis, namely that this is a quirk of the way our brain works. I think the effect of narcotics is the strongest piece of evidence in this respect.

    I'd also be very careful about attempting to create a category of mystical belief that is not about the world as we experience it, as nobody seems to claim that these mystical experiences are not going somehow on in the brain. So claims about mystical experience are absolutely claims about the physical world, insomuch as they are at the very least claims about how the corresponding brain activity comes about. In this respect the leap to ghouls et al is not such a big one.


  14. According to all major religions there is a religious/spiritual dimension in reality, indeed that’s reality’s primary dimension. Thus, the religious claim is an intrinsically empirical one and should be dealt with under the same epistemic principles any empirical claim is subject to. Without begging the question of course; so for example expecting the spiritual reality to have the same particular properties that physical reality has is absurd. (For example, it is absurd to expect spiritual reality to be testable by scientific instruments designed to measure physical properties). One epistemic principle that clearly applies though is that if there is a spiritual dimension to reality we should be able to experience it though some kind of sense perception; we should have some power to discern basic truths about it. Further there should be ways to discover more truths about it, as well as for resolving disagreements.

  15. Hi Dianelos

    I agree. There is however a claim that the spiritual interacts with the physical, and there is nothing absurd about suggesting this claim is testable via scientific methods.

    It also appears that the only way of gaining knowledge about the spiritual realm is by making a number of assumptions about that realm in advance, which I find difficult. If I don't begin with the assumption that there is necessarily such a realm, I find I am unable to reason my way towards it. As it appears I am not alone in this difficulty, this appears to pose a problem for your epistemic principle.


  16. With respect to the following: "If I don't begin with the assumption that there is necessarily such a (spiritual) realm, I find I am unable to reason my way towards it."

    Philosophers have confronted the same difficulty with respect to the existence of an external world. Descartes famously tried to prove the existence of an external world without making any assumptions that presuppose its existence. He failed. This problem is what led Hume, the ultimate skeptic, to essentially reject the existence of entities beyond our sense experience (that is, things other than our sense experiences which those experiences are OF). For him, the only existents are bits of sense data, or "impressions", and what he called "ideas"--which are essentially attenuated impressions, differing from impressions only insofar as they have less "force and vivacity." Being unable to prove that there is anything "behind" the impressions (any THINGS that these are impressions of), let alone that there is a self who is having these impressions, he rejected both and affirmed only the existence of the impressions and ideas.

    Of course, it seems evident to us that there is an external world of things, and that our sense experience is an experience OF that world. But this sense is not ITSELF a bit of sense data. And no logical principle requires that such an external world exists. We believe it because of some other feature of our experience beyond sensory experience as such--call it an intuition.

    Why trust this intuition? Although nothing in sense experience rules it out, nothing in sense experience speaks in its favor either. So, if our standard is what sense experience immediately delivers, this intuition makes an assertion that is extraordinary: there exists something beyond the only thing whose existence is immediately given, namely sense impressions (and their attenuated cousins, ideas).

    Of course, what I'm doing here is sketching out an analogy and suggesting that much of the reasoning offered against trusting what mystical experience seems to communicate to the mystic can be offered against trusting what our intuition tells us about the existence of an external world. There are, however, differences between the cases--and hence reasons we might be skeptical of mystical experience which don't require us to be external world skeptics. But I think it's important to be conscious of the parallels here, and to reason about our epistemological responsibilities in light of them.

  17. Eric

    Yes, I agree with this, and it's why, in the end, the pragmatic value of beliefs appeal to me as the ultimate arbiter. So, acting as if the external world exists is tremendously helpful, not just for me, but for everybody, as far as I can tell. Here we have a very strong, and perhaps universal, inbuilt instinct for embracing the world as some real and external existence. I would propose that this is a very good starting point for defining what we mean by a fact, that it is something we can all agree upon and embrace because of its unrivalled pragmatic value.

    The mystical experience under discussion then is a tremendously different beast. Some of us have absolutely no instinct for it, and unlike the external world hypothesis, we have a very powerful alternative hypothesis for mystical experience which offers its own pragmatic rewards.

    Hence, if we choose to believe in the spiritual realm, we are doing so for reasons quite different in their nature than those we use to form our beliefs about the physical world.