This question is able to be stated fairly succinctly, and assumes that answerers will have a sufficient degree of familiarity with pragmatism and the notion of religious experience. My motivation in asking this is the validity of arguing that the personal value of religious experience is not diminished by the assumption that they are entirely reducible to physiological states, from a pragmatic perspective. From the outset it's important to distinguish the practical consequences of their occurrence from the decision to conceptualise such experiences in a particular way and try to convince others of their veracity. I realise this overlaps with personal value, however the latter is not what this question is aimed at.

Of course there are a number of different formulations of pragmatism, and it is knowledge of these that I am looking for in an answer. My initial thoughts are that the personally oriented pragmatism of James would lead to asserting that it does not diminish its value, whereas the scientifically oriented conception of Pierce may not agree, however I am less familiar with the latter, and would appreciate the thoughts of anyone with knowledge of this perspective.

A clear way of stating the question is:

1) I have a religious experience

2) I subsequently realise it is exclusively a function of events in my brain

Does this realisation necessarily diminish its value from a pragmatic perspective?

2 Answers 2


If religious experiences are reducible to neurological events, can a pragmatist argue against their value?

Answer: No.

William James defends a right to let your “passional nature” decide between belief and unbelief in cases where the evidence is inconclusive. Certain beliefs meet your deepest-felt needs supplies the justification we need to adopt a believing stance in the absence of conclusive evidence. James is only interested in the practical question of what conceptions of God it would be good for us to adopt, while the question of truth is left over to philosophical investigation. To James, pragmatism can be compared to a corridor in a hotel: in one room, there may be an author writing a religious or theological treatise, while in another one somebody else is putting forward an atheistic argument. In a third room someone is working on a scientific problem, and so forth. James wanted to defend “experience”, prayer, guidance, and all that sort of thing immediately and privately felt, against ‘'philosophy” as being the real backbone of the world's religious life. James considered the question of whether a believer’s religious experience could give a good reason for his own religious beliefs, even though this reason is not interpersonally persuasive. The believer may think that these experiences enable him to cope better with the problems of life, and perhaps become a better person.

Rorty’s version of pragmatism proposal is to treat religion as a private affair disconnected from public use of reason and give up normative criteria for adequately evaluating religious discourse. Rorty suggests that religious faith can be seen as resembling romantic projects linked to our “passional nature”. Although we sometimes question, for example, someone’s choice of spouse, we do not normally think that people are under some general obligation to justify such choices, we simply appeal to their passional nature to explain. Something similar is true of religious believers. It is only in public, cooperative projects such as science and politics that we should give and require reasons. Pragmatic reflection on religion's function, what it is good for, is often analyzed in individual terms.

Pragmatism is not simply a philosophy of “usefulness” within our society. The pragmatic philosophy of religion accommodate the value of “useless” activities such as prayer. Engaging in such activities may for a religious person be crucial in satisfactoriness of life. We can say that pragmatists want to know what religion is good for. If we try to define truth in terms usefulness or justification within our society then the fact that it will nevertheless make perfect sense to describe a statement as true but useless, or true but not justified within our society, will immediately show that the definition of truth as usefulness within our society has failed. Any attempt to base norms on facts is a fallacy. Deriving epistemological norms from the facts of human knowledge acquisition would seem to commit some version of fallacy.

The really important question from a pragmatic perspective is whether a religious believer is committed to the type of open critical dialogue that has been central to the pragmatic tradition. Pragmatists need not succumb to the normative self-understanding of religious authorities and institutions which claim that external values are completely irrelevant for genuinely religious believers. As a formal doctrine, fallibilism is most strongly associated with pragmatists. The mentality of pragmatic fallibilism oppose mentality of absoluteness, of rigid dichotomies, of moral certainty based on a religious authority and institutions. Pragmatists are revisionists rather than committed to describing religion from the perspective of believers.

Philosophically may well be that the religious beliefs are part of the cause of the religious experience rather than the other way round. Religious experience does of course often take specific forms depending on particular religions or cultural circumstances. Catholic may report an encounter with the Virgin Mary, whereas Muslims, Jews or Buddhists would hardly do so. The principle of theoretical economy favors the skeptic’s explanation that religious experience provides no objective warrant for religious belief unless the possibility of a naturalistic explanation of the experience can be ruled out as implausible. Well established scientific knowledge is not so easily abandoned.

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    @DrSister Serious work and credibility in an answer is a result of hard work and credibility in a question. Jul 21, 2013 at 16:11

The diminishing comes far earlier--once you accept a physical account of mind. This is what raises the question: why bother with religion when even our minds are just non-supernatural processes?

However, if you decide that physical implementation is a cool thing for your deity or other extraordinary power to do, then of course religious experience is going to be physically implemented. Noticing that in fact it is doesn't really change anything.

The next diminution of value doesn't come until you can show that the religious experience is caused by sequences of ordinary physical interactions with ordinary statistical properties, at which point you can pretty much rule out any sort of injection scheme where enlightenment is smuggled in where normally you'd only have randomness. We haven't demonstrated this directly--it's fantastically difficult--but there is no reason to suspect anything out of the ordinary.

And even then it's still not logically inconsistent (even if it's not terribly parsimonious) to believe that all of the causal chains and random sampling was cleverly set up by a (near-)omniscient being for all time, and the physical implementation is just the mechanism by which said being chose to play out the entire scenario (to the degree of specificity desired).

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    Interesting, but I was aiming more at 'bracketing' the question of the experience's veracity in relation to the deity, and judging its merit in itself, in relation to the person who has it, from a pragmatic perspective .. the logical rigour is therefore gauged by reference to the consequences for the individual, and not its consistency with reasons justifying a purely physical account of the mind .. i do however agree this is an important dimension of the presuppositions which the question takes for granted, and further thoughts are always appreciated :)
    – Dr Sister
    Jul 21, 2013 at 11:04

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