“The personal experience of God by any individual is proof enough that ‘He’ exists.” Discuss

This is a student essay from a few years ago on what is really a question about whether religious experiences are self-authenticating. It is very wide-ranging and does throw everything at the question, whereas I would suggest that you narrow down the philosophers you use to be more relevant. However, it is still very useful as a discussion of this question.
The above statement focuses on the notion that it is possible to prove the existence of God through personal religious experience. This raises a number of key philosophical questions that need further investigation if we are to conclude that personal experience by anyone could demonstrate God’s existence: firstly there is the issue of whether the testimony of any individual could count as evidence enough for God’s existence; secondly the issue of the validity of religious experience in general needs to be addressed as simply believing something to be the case does not necessarily ensure its certainty; and finally (although not exhaustively but for reasons of time restraints) the notion of whether perception in general could demonstrate objectively (and potentially conclusively) the existence of a divine being capable of having a personal relationship with ‘His’ creation. We shall begin by addressing the issue of testimony of individuals claiming to have private religious experiences.

Claiming that you ‘know’ God poses serious problems for the issue of testimony. How can we know that an individual has really experienced what they say they have? Both William James (the 20th C. American psychologist) and Richard Swinburne place importance in the notion of testimony as being evidence for private religious experience and by implication the existence of God. James was particularly keen to highlight that we should approach the testimony of individuals claiming to have experienced the divine with an open mind so as not to miss out on a potential truth of the universe. He was a pragmatist in his dealings with religious experience and outlines his methodology clearly, at the beginning of his ‘The varieties of Religious Experience’. This meant that he approached the testimonies that he recorded with an objective and scientific mindset. Moreover for these experiences to be valid for him they need only have real effects for the individual who experienced the event. For example: Imagine a builder who was selfish and frugal having a vision of Jesus. This individual was so moved by the incredible amounts of love and compassion from this experience that they give up their job and move to Africa, volunteering their skills to help build homes, wells and schools in deprived areas. This for James would be evidence enough that the experience was valid. However, even though James stresses the importance of these testimonies it is difficult to see whether what the individual has reported bares any relationship to factual existence of a divine being. This ‘real effect’ as James sees it could have come about without there being any objective experience of God. The subjective nature of personal religious experience leaves us with little concrete evidence that this could be used as evidence for the existence of God. As we shall see later, Freud would argue that these experiences are nothing but illusions manifesting themselves as the neurosis of a faulty mind.

For now though, Richard Swinburne would back up the notion that testimony itself should count as some form of evidence for the existence of God as it is a standard of proof. The belief that: ‘for something to only be considered valid if it can be proven through scientific means’ is flawed according to Swinburne. Swinburne argues through his principle of Testimony that we should consider the reported experiences of others seriously and not simply dismiss these out of hand because they do not conform neatly to the empirical ideals expected for scientific proof. After all if we are to observe the world around us and only claim that those things which can be proven conclusively (or beyond scientific doubt) exist then we could be missing important truths about the world. This belief (which C.S Lewis refers to as ‘Naturalism’) also assumes that the scientific method is the correct one. For Swinburne we should seriously consider the evidence (although not hard scientific data which would be preferable) of testimony seriously.
It seems unlikely that Swinburne, or James for that matter, would suggest that we simply accept the experience of ‘any individual’ as proof enough that God exists, as he is more convinced by the cumulative nature of the experiential argument. Both Swinburne and James see the sheer weight of testimony as important and not, therefore, that we should simply accept that God exists because one individual believes they have experienced this. Yet, as alluded to earlier, Freud would take issue with the notion of this view of the testimony of religious believers as outlined above from Swinburne and James. Freud believed that religion was nothing more than a universal obsessional neurosis that was the product of a faulty mind. This obsession manifests itself in neurosis which was a physical symptom of the sick mind (an example of a neurosis might be returning to the kitchen several times to check that you have turned the gas off on the hob – even though you had done this the first time). The notion of accepting the testimony of the religious believer claiming to have had personal experience of God was, Freud believed, ill advised because these individuals were deluded. Dawkins also agrees with Freud on this point. He suggests that if you had the delusion that you were Napoleon Bonaparte you would be very lonely in this delusion but the fact that as many as one billion (in the Catholics’ case) people share the same beliefs as you would, Dawkins claims, strengthen your resolve that your delusion was correct. The fact remains that in the case of private religious experiences both Freud and Dawkins would claim that the individual is nothing more than deluded. If you knew that an individual were deluded would you accept their opinion on a matter as great as the existence of God? Both Freud and Dawkins would argue ‘No’. If these two thinkers are correct then they certainly would not accept the claim that we should believe that the personal experience of any individual should be proof enough that God exists. However, both Freud and Dawkins have come under criticism for being unduly negative when it comes to their dealings with all things religious. It is hard to see how their heartfelt conviction, (and no doubt subsequent testimony) that the religious believer is mistaken in their deluded belief surrounding their religious experience, is any different from their own in terms of weight of testimony. After all, this assumes that Dawkins and Freud are correct in their assertion that religious believers are deluded. It does not necessarily follow that this is the case. It is here that we arrive at another very important impasse for our debate on the notion of personal experience being evidence for the existence of God, namely: the discussion of how we could ascertain that these experiences were valid.

Freud and Dawkins would have us believe that individuals who claim to have experienced God are deluded. But how could we know if they were or not? The very nature of private experience is just that, that it is private. My knowledge of the world around me is my knowledge. For example: the smell of my Sunday lunch is a subjective experience. You cannot know what it is that I experience. James believed that this was an important quality of mystical experience. He described this as a ‘noetic’ quality. This he believed was common to most mystical experience as many of the people that he interviewed claimed to have gained some deep truth of the universe through their experience that they could not be explained in human language because of the ineffable nature of mystical experiences (another of James’ observations about mystical experience). This ‘revelation’ could not be achieved through either empirical or rational means. James claims that only another individual who has experienced something similar would know what an individual had experienced during their mystical experience. The question must then be asked: how can we be sure that they have experienced this at all. Antony Flew would claim that there is no way of falsifying the believer’s claim to this knowledge and so it must be dismissed as meaningless. In other words there is no way of knowing whether the claimed experience is valid. If we cannot know whether it is valid it would seem a little hasty to claim that it is proof enough that God exists. Consider the following statement: ‘I believe that the golf course will be open next weekend’. Without an accurate weather forecast to back up this claim I may be optimistic in holding this belief (owing to the torrents of rain that have fallen in recent days). This leads us to the conclusion that we must have our own first-hand experience to be really sure that something is the case. Taking another’s experience seems to go against the Socratic notion of never being satisfied with second hand truths. Yet Swinburne would argue that we should accept what people report through his ‘Principle of Credulity’. He believes that people tend not to lie and so should accept what they tell us at face value. There are a number of problems with this view. Both Mackie and Starbuck would question this view on the same point. Starbuck believed that something could be a psychic reality for you but that this belief did not translate into reality. Mackie also claims that people can be mistaken in their beliefs. It seems as though even the most well meaning of religious individuals, excluding those who might (as Hume suggested) purposely miss report their claims out of some misguided notion, reporting their experience and more importantly believing it 100% to be the case could be wrong. We are still left with the serious question as to whether even the individual can ‘know’ that their experience is the case. It is a custom in essays on religious experience to trot out examples of people who have experiences under the influence of drugs and alcohol (which Freud believes adds weight to his faulty mind argument) to attack the very foundations of these experiences, yet these are weak arguments as they do not represent the majority of experiences reported. There is potentially one more final nail in the coffin of the valid religious experience which comes in the guise of the ‘God helmet’. Michael Persinger, a neuro-scientist has devised a helmet that produces a weak magnetic pulse that causes the wearer of said helmet to report feeling the presence of the divine in the room with them while they wear it. In other words the helmet causes the wearer to ‘experience’ God. It would appear that if this is the case the whole notion of the validity of religious experience and the subsequent reporting of this experience to others could be challenged on the basis of it being simply the product of the human brain. This conclusion is perhaps not as sound as initially thought. It assumes that the origins of these ‘experiences’ are found in the mind. Perhaps these induced experiences are no different from other ‘experiences’ that people have reported, the native American Indians have been using hallucinogenic plants to experience mystical experiences for centuries. James dismissed the claim that we should not accept the validity of induced experiences based on the idea that it does not necessarily disprove the validity of such experiences. It is here that we reach our final point – religious experiences will come down to the perception of the individual.

The notion of religious experience being evidence of the existence of God can be explained in two ways. The experience could be subjective but still having ‘real effects’ as James suggests, or it could be an objective experience of the universe around us providing critical insight into the divine being. Critics of the latter, such as Hume, may well argue that the sheer number of different cultures reporting religious experiences would question the validity of this objective experience. Yet this might not be the case if we were to subscribe to a pluralistic understanding of religion: the idea, as put forward by John Hick, that there is only one divine being and that the details of religious faith and practice are nothing more than a cultural expression of this divine being. This view would suggest that seemingly conflicting testimonies of Muslim, Hindu or Christian believers are nothing more than cultural experiences of the same divine being. Thereby giving weight to the notion that we can accept these as valid proofs of the existence of God. A more important issue needs to be raised as an offering for a conclusion to this work. This also comes from the thinking of John Hick. The criticisms raised by the work of neuro-scientists and the ‘God helmet’, as well as drug or alcohol induced experiences, point to an interesting notion that should not be missed. John Hick describes this idea as ‘experiencing as’ which he develops from Wittgenstein’s ‘seeing as’. Hick has suggested that the whole issue of religious experience comes down to perception of the world around us. In some sense Freud and Dawkins will never see religious experiences as valid proof for the existence of God because they are not looking for such answers as their minds are closed off to the whole experience. While others like Otto, James and Swinburne are more likely to experience the world around them in a religious manner because they are open to the possibility of this. People experience the same events in different ways according to Hick – a sunset might be interpreted as a beautiful event with divine significance for one person whilst being the onset of the inconvenience of darkness for another. Ultimately we cannot be sure that the testimony that an individual gives us will be conclusive of the existence of God in any objective way or that these experiences are indeed valid, but what does seem clear is that to dismiss these ideas out of hand would be unwise because we cannot be sure whether we are experiencing the world as it really is.

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