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Such is my current worldview that there is no religious experience or numinous feeling that could justify faith in any god.

This is because, in the wake of a slew of discoveries about the unreliability of the brain (such as its propensity for change blindness, its capacity to confabulate and its bias toward confirmation), delusions must be acknowledged as everyday occurences, and it is reasonable to discount much of what we see, or what we feel we see, as evidence if it is seen without some kind of corroboration.

As a result, in situations analogous to Cohen's 'Cow in the Field' Gettier Problem, wherein a farmer happens upon truth by a trick of the eye, if the truth or falsehood of the resulting belief is important, one who is aware of the prolific nature of delusions is unlikely to accept what may be a trick of the mind as justification for belief.

Is it possible, then, to acknowledge such brain deficits by ruling out certain observations as justifying belief without, as it were, throwing the baby Jesus out with the bathwater? Can one cut the semantics of such 'trick of the eye' Gettier problems so as to say the belief is unjustified, and still grant religious experience a persuasive status?

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    I've attempted to reformulate the question title, hopefully to more clearly reflect the substance of the question (and get it some more attention!); I'm just letting you know so that you can rollback or ideally improve it if you wish. In passing I would also note that the format of your question is a bit alien and this may be contributing to the lack of responses -- I might suggest perhaps removing the section headers, and maybe even focusing this down to three or four paragraphs? – Joseph Weissman Jul 2 '11 at 1:24
  • Thanks for the constructive criticism @Joseph. I cut my teeth on SE websites over at mathoverflow- on MO if your question's less than 500 words (unless it's pretty clever), people assume you're not trying and you get downvoted. I noticed also that @Cody took my actual question out of a blockquote, which is pretty de rigeur over there too. 'When in Rome...', I guess!! I'll have another crack... – Tom Boardman Jul 4 '11 at 16:47
  • @Tom: I took the actual question out of a block quote because it seems like block quotes are best reserved for actual quotations (such as of philosophers or other text) on this site. That's probably a lot more common here than it is on MO, so it makes sense they've developed a system of denoting the question using the markdown for quotes. I don't think that works as well here. (Personally, I see nothing wrong with the length or the section headers. But I'm probably weird, judging by the relative length of my answers...) – Cody Gray Jul 5 '11 at 6:30
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    Right. After a lot of thought, I've focused it right down to the exact question I wanted answered. It's still not worded exactly right, and narrowing the question will prolly mean downvotes aplenty. But downvotes be damned! I'll get the answer I was looking for yet... – Tom Boardman Jul 5 '11 at 12:41
  • @Tom: Is the problem then that it is impossible to distinguish a 'numinous' feeling from a delusion (brought on by some organic failing) from a ... non-failing perception? – Mitch Jul 6 '11 at 20:31
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+50

William Alston is a JTBer who defends religious experience with a parallel to sense perception. In both cases, he ties epistemic justification to the availability of reliable doxastic practices for assessing beliefs: a practice that provides criteria for checking the veridicality of sense perceptions, or a similar practice for checking religious experiences. As long as these reliable practices do not succumb to defeaters (and Alston argues that they don't), then they provide the individual with prima facie justification.

I'm not an epistemologist, so I can't spell out the view in much more detail than that, but it's set out in his book Perceiving God, which has attracted a fair amount of critical discussion.

  • I'm not familiar with Alston--I'll have to look him up. It sounds like he may be building on the work of Alvin Plantinga. Does he make any suggests as to the persuasive power of religious experiences? – Jon Ericson Jul 6 '11 at 17:42
  • This was exactly the sort of answer I was hoping for +1! – Tom Boardman Jul 6 '11 at 17:46
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Of course we learn a huge amount about mentality from situations in which something in the brain has gone wrong. For example, much of what we know about the function of different regions in the brain arises from studies of people with lesions or brain damage to certain areas, coupled with information about how their mentality is affected.

Of course, much of the work is purely scientific, but often it touches upon philosophical questions, and so there is also extensive philosophical work in this area. Indeed, the subject of philosophy of mind is one of the few interdisciplinary areas where philosophical investigation seems likely to be affected directly by and directly to affect scientific advances.

For example, there is a fascinating philosophical and scientific literature on the subject of blindsight, the phenomenon by which a blind person remains able to receive visual information, but apparantly only through unconscious channels in the brain. These are people who are totally blind in the sense that they have no conscious visual awareness, but who are nevertheless able to make uncannily correct guesses about what might be before them.

In another area, more directly connected with religion, Oliver Sacks wrote in his popular works on some case studies involving temporal lobe epilepsy, a condition often leading to an extreme religious life for those with the condition. The neurologist Ramashandran has pointed out that 25% of people with this condition are obsessed with religion.

He thinks that these patients' seizures caused damage to the pathway that connects two areas of the brain: the one that recognizes sensory information and the one that gives such information emotional context. "Everything becomes very significant," he says. "These patients are seeing depth in every little thing."

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    Wow, that's fascinating! I was reading somewhere that there is a part of the brain which if stimulated triggers religious experiences... – Joseph Weissman Jul 4 '11 at 21:54
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    This answer was posted in response to an earlier version of the question. – JDH Jul 5 '11 at 14:02
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    This is good. Tangental to this is the Marsh Chapel Experiment. – boehj Jul 6 '11 at 12:32
  • There's an exceptional sci-fi fiction book written by an author who is fascinated by the concept of blindsight so much, it's the central topic: amazon.com/Blindsight-Peter-Watts-ebook/dp/B003K15EKM/… – T.W.R. Cole Jul 3 '14 at 17:10
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To reformulate the question so that I know for sure1 what you are asking:

"Sometimes religious experiences are a result of delusions, so we can't say that such experiences justify religious belief. Even so, might certain religious beliefs be true?"

Obviously, the answer to that is "yes", since there are many things that are true but which we lack justified, true belief. For instance, someone will win a lottery in the near future despite many people believing they will win and none of them being justified. Further there are people who have convinced themselves that they do have justification because they've developed a system or received the numbers in a dream or whatever. At some point, one of those people might win the lottery and turn out to have true belief justified by whatever evidence they suppose they have.2

But you also ask whether religious knowledge can be persuasive based on religious experiences, which is a separate and trickier question. In the lottery case, few people would accept that some knowledge of future lottery results is justified. Even if someone really was justified in believing they knew future lottery numbers (by bribing the person who picks the numbers to somehow manipulate the results or inventing time travel), consider the difficulty involved in persuading someone else they have such knowledge. Only the most gullible would believe such a claim.3 There are just too many cases where something too good to be true is for most of us to take such extraordinary claims at face value no matter what the evidence.

However, I wonder if your assumption that recent research has shown religious experiences to be unreliable holds. Polling data shows that, at least in the US, equal numbers of people report having "Religious and Mystical Experiences" and not having them. Global polls would likely show that most people have had those sorts of experiences. And history suggests that these sorts of experiences are overwhelmingly normal for humans. Extrapolating a bit, they seem least common among populations that have taken an a priori position against the possibility of such experiences. Confirmation bias would suggest that in those populations, evidence for such experiences is ignored and evidence against is highlighted.

Now it's certainly possible that more enlightened populations are justified in dismissing religious experiences, but starting with the position that they are not reliable evidence would be a form of begging the question.


As a Christian, I'm compelled to point out that Jesus didn't seem particularly concerned about convincing people that his claims were true. In fact, he was purposely vague on some points:

And [Jesus] said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that

“they may indeed see but not perceive,
    and may indeed hear but not understand,
 lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

—Mark 4:11-12 (ESV)

This is a very difficult passage for me, and I'd imagine for many believers. It seems that God gives some people the ability to recognize him and does not give "the secret of the kingdom of God" to others. It seems that God may be hidden in plain sight. Make of that what you will.


Footnotes:

  1. Unintentionally ironic.

  2. This is a restatement of the Gettier problem, if I understand correctly. The main thrust is that a person may have justified, true belief, but not really know something. That does not seem relevant to your question, since you don't actually seem to promote the JTB formula.

  3. I'm reminded of the BBC special in which a woman was convinced that the host (Derren Brown) had a fool-proof system for selecting horses. It turns out the woman was the victim of survivorship bias and that the "System" was a hoax. What strikes me as interesting about the show is that there are people who have the ability to successfully gamble on horse races, but it would be harder to convince skeptics of the ability since it's nowhere near perfect. Rather, the ability has more to do with expert risk management than some mystical ability to know which horses will win.

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