Saturday, March 18, 2006

From Experience to God

Despite gaining some small notoriety as a student for my treatment of Anselm's ontological argument, I've never had much use for philosophic "proofs" of the existence of God. In general I find them neither philosophically interesting nor religiously helpful. I've always felt that the arguments for and against the existence of God are essentially a wash. There are some good points made on both sides, but by and large the arguments are full of holes, leaps, and unsupported assumptions.

As such people believe or disbelieve in a God of some description for their own reasons, which while occasionally couched in the language of reason are mostly non-rational. The grounds on which we hold that one can obtain knowledge are generally axiomatic - that is, they precede argumentation. They are, at their best, internally consistent but externally unsupported. This is because, in order to make any affirmative claim about anything, we have to start with at least a few givens.

Are there external reasons to trust our sensory perceptions to communicate more or less true information about the world around us? While some will no doubt argue that there are, it seems more or less obvious that that claim comes down to trust. Perhaps not a blind trust, since we often have reason to doubt our own perceptions. But that doubt of our own perception comes in only when our perception is called into question by the perceptions of others. So the relative reliability of perception itself is not doubted, but rather the particular reliability of this perception in light of the counter-claim made by that perception.

While participating in a discussion at Debunking Christianity I was asked why I believe in God. What reasons do I have? This is an excellent question, and a very different one than the question of whether or not I think that it is evident that God exists, or whether or not I think that the existence of God can be demonstrated by some combination of physical data and human reasoning. It is a personal question rather than a universal question, and speaks to the heart of my faith.

As such, it was a question which I can actually answer. Were I asked whether or not there was a God, rather than about my own faith in God, then I would have been unable to answer, as I hold that the nature of God is beyond human knowledge. But as I was asked about my own faith, I offered up my best answer. I said that I believe in God on the basis of personal experience.

Through my religious life I experience the daily presence of God. Of course this does not demonstrate that God exists - merely that I experience God. And if I were alone in that experience, then it would be most reasonable to assume that there was something peculiar about me, some kind of psychosis which produced an abnormal experience. But I am not alone in that experience. I am part of one of many religious traditions throughout human history in which people have had and continue to have some kind of series of encounters with the sacred. So what are we to make of such encounters?

Those of you who have been checking in here since I encountered the good folks at Debunking Christianity have seen that a discussion on that subject has spilled over from their blog to this one. My purpose in writing this is to bring everyone who has not been to their blog - and so who only have bits and pieces of a much longer discussion - into this discussion.

There have been many attempts to prove the existence of some sort of a God, and some of those attempts have used the common phenomena of religious experience to do so. One of the best of such attempts is in an essay by Jerome I. Gellman of Ben-Gurion University, Israel, titled From Experience to God. In this essay Gellman appeals to two creatively titled principles:

1. Best Explanation of Experience (BEE) - which can be rendered roughly thus (the following italicized sections are paraphrases of Gellman's arguments, borrowed and adapted from comments by David Shatz of Yeshiva University, editor of the text Philosophy and Faith: A Philosophy of Religion Reader):

If a person, S, has experience, E, which seems to be of a particular object, O, then, everything else being equal, the best explanation of S's having E is that S has experience O, rather than something else or nothing at all.

He then applies that to claims of experiencing God, which may rest on a weak analogy (when people claim to experience God are they having a claim which can be reasonably compared to experiencing, say, a tree, or some other empirically observable object?).

2. Strength in Numbers Greatness (STING) - which can be rendered roughly thus:

The presumption created by BEE that a seeming experience of a particular object, O, is, in fact, an experience of O is strengthened by the more "sightings" of O and the more variable the circumstances under which O has been sighted.

He applies this to experiences of God by arguing roughly thus:

There have been many accounts of people who claim to have experienced God, occurring under highly variable circumstances, which strengthens the claim that they have actually experienced God.

The argument is a bit more subtle than that, but that was the gist of it.

The immediate problem with the argument can be phrased in the form of 2 questions:

1. Is God sufficiently like an object - particularly an empirically observable object?

2. Is an experience of God sufficiently like an experience of an empirically observable object?

In other words, do the rules which apply to ordinary experience also apply to a kind of divine or sacred encounter?

Henry Samuel Levinston of UNC Greensboro and Jonathan W. Malino of Guilford College collaborated on a wonderful rebuttal to Gellman's essay, Who's Afraid of a BEE STING?: A Rely to Gellman. In it they attack Gellman by arguing that if there are no intersubjective tests for the veridicality of an experience, or if such tests would probably not produce a positive result, then we have good reason to doubt the account of the experience.

They argue similarly to my own arguments that we have, per Gellman's BEE STING, reason to believe a person has actually experienced, say, a tree; and reason to doubt that a person has experienced, say, a flying saucer.

But the commonality of religious experiences, and the persistence of a belief in God in most people, does speak very powerfully, even if it does not definitively prove that God exists. One way to get around this powerful commonality is to deny that it exists.

Of course, people who do this do not deny that a great many people have had some sort of a religious experience. They rather deny that such claims have enough in common to be grouped together. And there is some truth to that. After all, while most people believe in some sort of a God - or gods - they do not all believe the same things about that God.

Given the diversity of beliefs about God both within and across religious traditions, can we really say that all or even most people who claim to have had a religious experience have had the same sort of religious experience? Or, to put it another way, can we really assume that Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians, indigenous peoples, etc. have all had the same sort of experience?

This is an important question, particularly if you take Gellman's theory seriously. After all, his STING depends on the variability of circumstances. In it is implied the idea that if religious traditions are varied but experience remains the same, that speaks very powerfully in favor of the experience.

There are two obvious - and obviously flawed - ways to approach this issue:

1. We could say that all (or at least most) religious traditions are really saying essentially the same thing.

This is a claim popular especially among liberals, and among people who don't really take religion seriously. They have a notion that all religious traditions are to be respected, and that respect comes from glossing over differences so that we can avoid arguments. But this claim denies the uniqueness of each religious tradition, and as such is quite insulting to most religious people.

After all, even religious traditions which have a great deal in common, such as the great Western monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, disagree with each other on a number of important points. If you were to say to a serious Jew, for instance, that their religion is essentially saying the same thing as Christianity (which is responsible for anti-Semitism, with the claim that the Jews killed Jesus, and as such killed God) or Islam (at a time when many Muslims are now more anti-Semitic than Christians historically have been); even if you are making the "liberal" claim that there is no justification for such hatred and intolerance, they would have good reason to question whether you have ever studied history or religion.

And most religious traditions do not have nearly as much in common as those three related faiths. Looking across cultural boundaries we see that religious do not even, by and large, agree on how many gods there are, much less on the details of the character of the divine. As such, there is no reasonable way to argue that all religions essentially are saying the same thing.

2. We could say that because there is such diversity of belief and approach both within and across religious traditions, the nature of religious experiences (rather than just the conclusions drawn from such experiences) is different for everyone.

That is, we could say that because there is so much variation in belief and practice both within and across religious traditions, and because the foundation of most such beliefs and practices is religious experience; that it necessarily or even probably follows that when I have a religious experience and when you have a religious experience, we are essentially experiencing different things.

When you are dealing with a phenomenon like religious experience you are dealing with something which most people find indescribable. It slips past language. When people put their experience into words they are often careful to point out how the words fail to accurately describe the experience. This is why, when religious traditions speak of revelation they often stipulate that while many beliefs come via revelation, the nature of revelation is personal rather than propositional.

That is, while many traditions see revelation as a kind of self-disclosure oft he divine, that self-disclosure is not a list of statements about the divine which are either true or false, but rather a sense of the very presence of the divine.

In the Hebrew scriptures, for instance, when Moses (a mythological figure) encounters God and asks for the divine name (a way of pinning down God's nature?) God answers Moses (in most English translations) "I AM WHO I AM," or simply "I AM." The English here is static, but the Hebrew is fluid. For this reason Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos, Dora Pierce Professor of Bible and Professor of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, translates it "I will be what I will be" or "I will be where I will be." She sees this (and I agree with her) not as a description of the nature of God, but rather as a promise of the presence of God.

Given this personal nature of revelation, and by extension religious experience; and given the indescribable quality of the divine and encounters with the divine; it is then no wonder that we have such a variety of descriptions of the divine based purely on religious experience. Religious experience, while possibly entering one into the presence of the sacred, does not provide one with a vocabulary for describing either that experience or the indescribable nature of the sacred.

Another question which has come out of my discussions on religious experience with the good folks at Debunking Christianity has been phrased well by a recent visitor to this blog, exbeliever, who wonders what those of us who take religious experiences seriously make of the fact that they are describable in physiological terms as the product of brain activities. In the interests of time and space, rather than having a discussion of that here, I refer anyone interested in that topic to the comments section of my most recent post.

There is much more to discuss on this topic, and I was planning to write more about my own approach to religion. However, I've been picking at this post for parts of two days now, and it is getting quite long. So, incomplete as this is, I'm posting it now, trusting that the other points which I was going to make (particularly concerning the nature of the religious life, and the "reasons" one should have for choosing a religion) will come out in discussion if they are sufficiently interesting.

So please forgive this incomplete mess. And, if you're interested in this topic, comment soon. I do not find it particularly interesting, since for me God is a given. I prefer to write on how one should live in relation to God, rather than on the reasons I believe in God. God is for me axiomatic, the underlying, unargued for assumption which orders my approach to life. This must seem silly to our friends at Debunking Christianity, who would employ Occam's Razor on my assumption, saying that if the universe is explainable without some sort of God, then there is no reason to add God to that explanation.

But they should bear in mind that even that good and useful Razor is a matter of faith, an axiomatic assumption. There are no external reasons for holding that it must be true. The proof of its validity as a tool is found once you accept it, and test it as though it were worthwhile. Granting the assumptions behind it, it can be most helpful. But nothing outside it compels one to accept it as true.

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