Knock Shrine, Ireland
On the 21st of August 1879, in a small rural village called Knock in Ireland, an unusual event took place. At the gable end of the local church, the Virgin Mary, along with St Joseph and St John the Evangelist is alleged to have appeared to a group of villagers. According to their reports, she wore a large crown with a single golden rose, and her eyes and hands were raised toward heaven in prayer. The villagers watched her and the two other saints for nearly two hours. They could not touch her but they could see her clearly. They were convinced that she was real.
Reports of religious experiences of this sort are not uncommon. They occur throughout history and across virtually all religions and cultures. Some of these experiences are like the one had by the villagers in Knock: people report actually seeing and perhaps even touching supernatural beings as if they were ordinary human beings. Others are more mystical or ineffable: people report a strong sense of a divine presence in their lives.
What I want to consider in this article is whether experiences of this sort can form the basis of a strong argument in favour of the existence of divine beings. In other words, suppose you have had such a religious experience. Are you then warranted in believing in the existence of a God or gods? Should someone else believe on the basis of your reports of this experience?
This is something that religious believers have written about and debated for centuries. Two of the most prominent defenders of the view that religious experiences can justify religious belief are Richard Swinburne and William Alston. Both write from a Christian philosophical perspective. In what follows, I will be evaluating their arguments in some detail. Overall, my evaluation will be a negative one. It seems to me highly implausible that religious experiences can justify belief in God. But my goal is not simply to defend that conclusion. It is, rather, to explain how these arguments work and what their weaknesses might be.
1. Understanding the Argument from Religious Experience
It’s worth beginning with a general characterisation of how the argument from religious experience works. It starts, obviously enough, with the experience itself: a person or group of persons has some experience that they interpret as having religious significance. It is important to realise that there are two elements to this experience: (i) the raw phenomenological data of the experience (what it looks like, feels like etc) and (ii) the interpretation or explanation of that experience that is adopted by the person who has it.
Consider, once more, the villagers in Knock. The raw phenomenological data of their experience was simply that they saw three human-like beings at the end of the local church. They explained this data by supposing that they were seeing the Virgin Mary, St Joseph and St John. But this explanation wasn’t part of the phenomenology itself. It was an explanation of that phenomenology (albeit a very natural or obvious explanation to those villagers given their cultural background).
In other words, the experience itself is not an argument. To go from the experience to the conclusion that the experience provides evidence in favour of some religious view, you need to appeal to some principle that warrants the belief that the perceptual experience is, to use the common jargon, veridical. This means that the experience is linked to some underlying reality and that you are justified in accepting it as, prima facie, evidence for that underlying reality. Furthermore, given the nature of most religious experiences, you need to show that the best explanation of the experience is some particular religious view of what that underlying reality is.
In the case of the villagers in Knock, they believed that their phenomenological experience was best explained by the fact that there are supernatural beings linked with the Christian tradition and that these beings made an appearance to them. No doubt they believed this, in part, because they were already religious. They operated from a cultural and personal worldview that made the religious explanation of their experiences plausible. It’s unlikely that they became believers as a result of the experience (though the experience could certainly have firmed up their faith).
In the case of someone with no prior religious belief, making this leap from the experience to the religious explanation of the experience might require more work. They might need to be convinced that no alternative explanation — a non-veridcal hallucination; local teenagers playing a sophisticated prank — is fully satisfying. Ideally, of course, this is what all rational people should do: they should carefully scrutinise the evidence for and against certain explanations of their experiences. But most people take shortcuts and we often think it is acceptable to do this: life is too short to spend all our time assessing the evidence. Whether taking such shortcuts is permissible in the case of religious experiences, given their potential importance, is another matter. Religious beliefs are high stakes beliefs. There is a lot resting on them from a personal and social point of view. They may, consequently, warrant higher scrutiny. This, however, is something that arguments from religious experience often try to deny, as we shall see below.
All of this is to focus on religious experiences from the ‘insider’s view’, i.e. from the perspective of the person who had the experience. As we have now seen, there are a couple of epistemic bridges that need to be crossed from the insider’s perspective before the experience can justify a religious belief: is the experience veridical? What is the best explanation of that experience? From the outsider’s perspective — i.e. from the perspective of someone hearing about a religious experience from someone else that has had one — an additional epistemic bridge needs to be crossed. They need to be sure that the person’s testimony regarding the experience, and their explanation of the experience, are veridical. It’s hard to imagine that this bridge can be crossed in practice, though it is not impossible. David Hume’s famous argument about miracles, which is really an argument about whether we should believe in testimony regarding miracles, remains the focal point for discussions of the outsider’s perspective, though it limits its focus to miracles in particular and not religious experiences more generally. I have covered that argument in detail in previous articles. I won’t repeat myself here. The important point is that, for the remainder of this discussion, the insider’s view will be assumed.
So the question before us is this: if someone has what they take to be a religious experience, are they warranted in believing it provides good evidence of some underlying religious reality (typically that God exists)? Can you defend the argument from (personal) religious experience?
2. Swinburne’s Version of the Argument
One of the chief defenders of the argument from religious experience is Richard Swinburne. As with most of his work, Swinburne’s defence of the argument is technical and sophisticated. Swinburne knows how to dance the analytical philosophy dance.
Swinburne starts his version of the argument by using something called the principle of credulity:
Principle of Credulity (PC): If I have perceived X to be the case, then I am warranted in believing that X is the case.
The PC is a philosopher’s way of codifying common sense. To put it in layman’s terms, it says that if you have an experience of something you are, usually, warranted in believing that this something exists. As I look at the desk in front of me, I can see a half-empty coffee cup. Consequently, applying the PC, I am warranted in believing that there is, in fact, a half empty coffee cup on the table.
The PC is exactly what we need to show that our experiences are, in the usual course of events, veridical. It is easy to slot it into an argument from religious experience:
- (1) I have had an experience of God’s existence.
- (2) If have perceived X to be the case, then I am warranted in believing that X is the case.
- (3) Therefore, I am warranted in believing in God’s existence.
What can be said in favour of this argument? In relation to premise (1), Swinburne distinguishes between five different types of experiences of God that religious believers can have. They span quite a range and each has been reported by one or more religious believers over the years:
TYPE 1 - Sensing a divine or supernatural being in an ordinary perceptual object - e.g God in a waterfall.
TYPE 2 - Sensing a supernatural being that is a public object and using ordinary perceptual language to refer to it. E.g. the Knock Villagers’ vision of Mary, Joseph and John.
TYPE 3 - Same as type 2 but it is a wholly private experience. No one else can perceive it.
TYPE 4 - A private sensation of a supernatural being that involves a sixth sense and so is not describable using ordinary perceptual language.
TYPE 5 - A private experience of a supernatural being that does not seem to involve any senses at all, e.g. Teresa of Avila’s consciousness of Christ at her side.
The claim is that the PC can be applied to each of these five types of religious experience. Whether that is really the case is something we shall return to later on when we consider criticisms of Swinburne’s argument.
In relation to premise (2), Swinburne accepts that there are some defeaters to the PC, i.e. scenarios in which it cannot be relied upon, but he argues that these defeaters ordinarily do not apply to religious experiences. He mentions four defeaters in particular. Let’s quickly run through them.
The first defeater claims that an experience is non-veridical if you can show that the subject of the experience is generally unreliable or that the experience occurred under conditions that have been shown, in the past, to be unreliable, e.g. under the influence of drugs. Swinburne claims this defeater doesn’t apply to most religious experiences since most religious believers appear to be otherwise reliable (we’re not including Joseph Smith here!) and ordinarily do not experience God while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs or other distorting conditions. We won’t get into this in too much detail but it is worth noting that this latter point discounts the long tradition of religious drug-taking (particularly common in non-Christian religions) and the potential impact of extreme religious practices (fasting, meditation) on the reliability of our experiential faculties.
The second defeater claims that an experience is non-veridical if it concerns something or occurs in a circumstance in which similar perceptual claims have been shown, in the past, to be false. Examples of this might include perceptual experiences that involve widespread disagreement or perceptual experiences of things that are beyond our usual ken. It seems like this defeater would apply to experiences of God, but Swinburne claims it does not because we can have some confidence in our ability to perceive a person of great power and capacity. He also suggests that religious diversity is not that great and there is reason to think that all cultures are experiencing essentially the same thing (I’ll return to the problem of diversity at a couple of points later on in this article).
The third defeater claims that an experience is non-veridical when there is already strong evidence to think that the alleged perceptual object does not exist. This is, in a sense, Hume’s famous point about the credibility of miracle testimony: it’s very unlikely that they would occur and so testimony of them is not veridical. But according to Swinburne this doesn’t work to undermine direct experiences of God because the evidence would have to be very very strong to work against general theism — i.e. the belief in a personal being underlying all of reality. As I interpret it, the idea here is that when it comes to grand metaphysical theses — such as whether theism or naturalism is the foundation of reality — there is little reason to think that theism is significantly less probable than naturalism and so there is no strong, a priori reason to think that God does not exist. I have some sympathy for this view since I think it is quite difficult to apply probability estimates to such grand metaphysical claims, but I also think that philosophers such as Paul Draper and Jeffrey Jay Lowder have provided some decent arguments for thinking that naturalism is a simpler hypothesis than theism and hence likely to be more probable irrespective of the evidence. That said, even if they are right, this may not render theism sufficiently improbable to think that an argument from religious experience wouldn’t work in the way that Swinburne wants it to. You would have to get into assessing other forms of evidence for that purpose (e.g. evidence of evil or suffering) and it’s impossible to provide a complete assessment of that evidence in an article of this sort. Suffice to say, I think that other evidence suggests that God, as traditionally conceived, is unlikely to exist, but Swinburne sees it differently.
Finally, the fourth defeater claims that the experience is non-veridical if there is an alternative, sufficiently credible, explanation for the experience. This is probably the defeater I would be most inclined to fall back on, but Swinburne argues that this does not apply to theistic experiences because if God exists then he plays some role in all potential explanations of our experiences - i.e. there is no independent natural explanation that undermines our confidence in the experience. That’s a slippery bit of reasoning. It could be taken to suggest that no evidence could ever undermine the existence of God. It seems tantamount to claiming that if God exists, then everything that happens must be explained by him in some way. Therefore, if God exists, there can be no alternative, non-theistic, explanations of events. But this reasoning leaves the crucial question unanswered: does God exist?
Now that we have reviewed the key elements of the argument, we can turn to its critical assessment. Is it any good?
3. Problems with Swinburne’s Argument
Swinburne’s argument has a number of flaws. Many writers have pointed these out over the years and often repeat the same criticisms. Here, I will use some of the claims made by Herman Philipse in his book-length analysis of Swinburne’s arguments, occasionally supplementing his comments with observations from others. Nothing I am about to say is particularly original, though I do hope the presentation is more user-friendly than Philipse’s discussion.
The first problem with Swinburne’s argument is that even if the PC did apply to perceptions of God it is not clear that it would provide good evidence for his existence. The PC is something we rely upon when it comes to ordinary sense perceptions but even in those cases it provides, at best, defeasible support for the existence of those sensory objects. Consider, once more, the example of the half-empty coffee cup on my desk. I see it therefore I believe it exists. But sometimes my sensory perceptions lead me astray. Maybe the light is reflecting oddly off the shiny desk surface, tricking me into seeing the cup as half empty when it is, in fact, full. Maybe I’m really tired and having a mild hallucination. Maybe I’m only seeing it out of the corner of my eye and mistaking what appears to be a cup for what is, in fact, a caddy for holding pens. And so on. The reality is that sense perceptions are often misleading, particularly on a first pass. For ordinary sensory objects we have ways of verifying and reinforcing our initial perceptions. We can get up and look at the object from different angles. We can reach out, touch it, and manipulate it with our hands. We can ask another person to take a look and confirm what we are seeing. Though there are some reported religious experiences that allow for some of this additional sensory confirmation (I’m thinking, in particular, of the story of doubting Thomas) many don’t. They are fleeting glimpses or feelings of the presence of God in another object or some profound emotional experience. They are often not public (as Swinburne points out) and so cannot be confirmed by others. All of these factors make the PC of limited utility to religious experiences.
The second problem with Swinburne’s argument is that it is not clear that the PC should apply to most perceptions of God. Look once more to Swinburne’s five types of religious experience. Several of them involve indirect or non-traditional forms of sensory perception and even, in one case, no sensory perception at all. For example, he claims that you can perceive God in another object or using a sixth sense (whatever that might be) or through some consciousness of his presence. The PC applies to ordinary sense perception and not to these more fanciful or unusual forms of perception. It’s not clear that we are warranted in believing in the objects of our perception in these cases. As Philipse points out, there is something of a tension here. On the one hand, it makes sense to assume that God would not be at all like an ordinary sensory object. He is, after all, supposed to be a bodiless, transcendent and all-powerful being. But these differences undermine the application of the PC to his perception. We shouldn’t expect the PC to apply to a being like God.
Philipse’s point here can be linked to an unusual argument made by Nicholas Everitt in his book The Non-Existence of God. For the most part, Everitt presents standard critiques of Swinburne’s argument, but he does add a unique one of his own. He claims that God could not control all the conditions of his perception in the way that Swinburne supposes he could (i.e. appear to some people as a direct sensory object; to others as present in physical objects; and to others through a sixth sense). Everitt’s point is a logical/metaphysical one. He claims that any mind-independent entity — i.e. anything that is not simply a product of our minds — must obey some consistent causal laws. This applies even to God, as a matter of metaphysical necessity. But if this is true, then God cannot change the causal laws to which he is subject in order to be perceived in radically different ways by different people at different times. At least, he cannot do this and remain the same object or being over time. I’ll quote from Everitt in full on this point (full disclosure: I’m changing the sequence and tense of some aspects of this quoted passage to make it fit better with this discussion):
[The] Swinburnean concept [of God]…envisages a being who can control not just this or that of its perceivable properties, but every property by which it could be detected in any way at all. The sceptic might well try to argue that it is not logically possible for there to be any such objects… The very being of an object [is] partially constituted by the causal powers and limitations that it [has]. It could not lose all its existing causal powers and limitations in favour of another set, and yet still remain the same object; and it could not lose all its causal powers and limitations and remain an object.
I’m not sure I can fully wrap my head around this point, and Everitt himself admits that it is controversial, but it could at least undermine Swinburne’s claim that it is possible for there to be a being that could be perceived in such radically different ways. The problem with this, however, is that a religious believer could easily adapt their view in response to Everitt’s argument by accepting that there are some limitations on how God can be perceived and hence only some forms of religious experience that are veridical.
The third problem with Swinburne’s argument is that if the PC did apply to perceptions of God (or any other religious experiences) it could have perverse consequences for the believer. Two perverse consequences are of particular importance. The first is that if the PC applies to perceptions of God then a negative version of the PC should apply to the absence of such perceptions. In other words, if a non-believer fails to perceive the presence of God (in any form) then they too should be warranted in believing that God does not exist. This is because a negative principe of credulity seems to be as good as a positive principle:
Negative Principle of Credulity (NPC): If it seems to a subject S that X is absent, then X is probably absent.
Swinburne rejects the NPC. He claims that experiencing the absence of X is not the same thing (not self-verifying) in the same way that experiencing the presence of X is, at least when it comes to God. In making this claim he deploys an asymmetry argument. He claims that not seeing a chair in front of you is good reason to think the chair is not there because you know what to expect if the chair is there. But because God is so different from other perceptual objects we do not know what to expect if he is absent. So just because we fail to perceive his existence it does not follow that he does not exist.
But as Michael Martin points out in his classic book Atheism: a Philosophical Justification this leads to all sorts of problems for Swinburne’s defence of the argument from religious experience. The ability to inductively infer the existence of an object from an experience of that object is crucially dependent on the capacity to know that a failure to experience that object under the right conditions would imply the non-presence of that object. This is true in the case of our perception of ordinary objects like tables and chairs. It is only because we know that they are unlikely to exist if they are not perceived under certain perceptual conditions that we can infer they are likely to exist when they are experienced under the same conditions. If the PC is to apply to perceptions of God, then the same logic should hold. Swinburne cannot engage in special pleading regarding God’s unusual nature to get around this. If he wants to do that, then he needs to drop the application of the PC to perceptions of God. Furthermore, as Martin points out, background knowledge seems to play a key role in determining whether positive or negative perceptual claims should be taken seriously. To use his example: 50 people claiming to have seen dodos in Antarctica is not necessarily good evidence for the presence of Dodos on that continent. Contrariwise, 50 people failing to see Dodos on the island of Mauritius, despite looking repeatedly for them, sounds like good evidence for their absence. This is, in large part, because we know where to expect to see Dodos. When we don’t know what to expect, then it is hard to grant perceptual evidence any real credence.
The other perverse consequence of applying the PC to perceptions of God is that it seems to force the religious believer to deal with the diversity of religious experiences. If a Muslim perceives the presence of Mohammed in a waterfall, does this provide justification for his religious worldview? What about the Hindu who believes he has perceived Vishnu? There are two options open to the religious believer in these cases:
Universalism: They accept that all of these experiences are veridical and provide support for some particular religious beliefs (or that they all point to the existence of the same underlying religious reality). The problem with the universalist response is that it often explains away (or simply ignores) the differences in content across these difference religious experiences.
Exceptionalism: They argue that their religious experiences (linked to their religious tradition) are veridical but those from rival religions are not. The problem with this is that it often seems like special pleading and tends to rely on some prior commitment to a particular religious tradition. In other words, the experiences themselves are not self-justifying. It is a background commitment to a particular faith that justifies treating experiences linked to that faith as veridical.
The fourth and final problem with Swinburne’s argument is that, contrary to what he claims, there are sometimes (perhaps even often) alternative naturalistic explanations of religious experiences that undermine their credibility (hallucinations; visual illusions; tricks of the light; suggestibility; emotional trauma; over-interpretation of a mundane experience etc). If a religious believer accepts that some experiences are non-veridical, such as those from a rival tradition, and that there are alternative explanations available in those cases, then they at least have some prima facie reason to be sceptical of their own. That said, there are ways for committed believers to avoid the allure of alternative explanations. They can highlight disanalogies between their experiences and those of other people. And since no naturalistic explanation is likely to adequately explain every religious experience this can end up like a game of explanatory whack-a-mole: you “might be able to explain those experiences but you cannot explain mine!” Similarly the believer can take Swinburne’s line and just argue that God must feature in the explanation of everything since he is the foundation of all that exists. The problems with this strategy have already been noted.
In sum, there are several problems with Swinburne’s argument. Taken collectively, these problems suggest that, at a minimum, a religious experience by itself cannot be strong support for the existence of God. That experience must pass other epistemic tests and a believer would more than likely require additional argumentation to support the inference from the experience to the existence of God.
4. Alston’s Argument from Mystical Practice
Another famous defender of the argument from experience is William Alston. In his book, Perceiving God, Alston defends a variation on the argument that focuses on the dependability of different epistemic practices (i.e. practices for generating knowledge). In brief, his claim that mystical practice is its own, self-supporting, epistemic practice and, in the absence of good reasons for thinking that this practice is unreliable, a person is entitled to infer that their religious experiences are veridical.
Alston’s book is a sophisticated bit of epistemology, cut from a similar cloth to that of Alvin Plantinga’s defence of reformed epistemology. I won’t be able to do justice to all its intricacies here, but there are some good critiques of it in the literature, such as those from Nicholas Everitt, JL Schellenberg and Keith Augustine (the latter is a particularly useful explanation and critique of Alston’s work).
Alston’s argument is both similar to and different from Swinburne’s. Both start from the claim that ordinary sensory perception is justified. Indeed, it is self-justifying. When I see the half-empty coffee cup before me, nothing further is required to justified my belief in its presence. The sensory perception itself is enough. Alston adds to this the claim that any attempt to find a justification for the sensory perception will be circular: you’ll end up claiming that your sensory perception is justified because of some other, direct or indirect, sensory perception (e.g. perceiving the object from a different angle; asking someone else what they perceived). But where Swinburne sees religious experiences as particular forms of sensory perception (with the exception of Type 5 perceptions), and hence justifiable as forms of sensory perception, Alston sees religious experiences as distinct things. He views perceptions of the presence of God as a distinct source of knowledge about His existence that are not the same as ordinary sensory perceptions. They are mystical perceptions.
What justifies the belief in the veridicality of mystical experiences? Well, according to Alston there is no non-circular epistemic justification. We are in the same predicament as we are when it comes to sensory perception. Instead, we have to focus on the general reliability of the mystical practice of which those experiences are part and assess how that practice fares relative to other belief-forming practices such as sensory practice. Alston claims that mystical practice involves more than just perceptions of God. It also involves reflections on the meaning and reliability of those perceptions. Furthermore, within particular religious traditions, sages and mystics have developed criteria for establishing which perceptions are generally reliable indicators of the presence of God and so participants within mystical practices should apply those criteria to their own perceptions of God. When they do this, they can generate reliable beliefs from religious experiences.
In sum, Alston argues that mystical practice, like sensory practice, is its own thing: its own set of belief-forming and reliability-checking rules. Anyone who has a mystical experience and abides by the norms of their mystical tradition (and, to be clear, Alston is primarily concerned with Christian mystical traditions) can be justified in believing in the veridicality of their experiences. Or, perhaps more accurately, their justification of their religious perceptions is no worse than the way in which most people justify their ordinary sensory perceptions.
Also accepts that there are limits to this commitment to a particular mystical traditional. It could be that the believer has some reason to think that the entire mystical tradition is erroneous or an exercise in psychopathology or something of that sort. But, at least in the case of Christian mystical practice, Alston argues that there is no reason to accept this. Contributors to that tradition appear to be honest, mentally normal (or no less abnormal) truth-seekers and there are some reasons to think it is a reliable practice. Hence, it is possible to defend an argument from religious experience from within that tradition.
5. Problems with Alston’s Argument
Alston’s argument is ingenious in some ways. It sidesteps many of the issues with Swinburne’s argument, in large part because it accepts that there are many philosophical problems with our ordinary sensory belief-forming practices. But this means that its conclusion is more modest than Swinburne’s. Where Swinburne is claiming that we have good reason to think that religious perceptions are veridical, Alston is, at best, saying that mystical experience is not epistemically worse than ordinary sensory perception. But if ordinary sensory perception is in bad shape, then it’s not clear that this says all that much. We could take Alston’s argument to warrant a more general form of philosophical scepticism about sensory perception.
Very few people want to embrace a more general form of scepticism so, if we are not inclined to doubt all the evidence of our senses, is there anything else to be said about Alston’s argument? Indeed there is. It’s not clear that it meets even its own modest aims. There are at least four reasons to think that mystical practice is in worse shape than ordinary sensory practice and that it is not a particularly reliable belief-forming practice.
The first reason for this is that it is not clear that mystical practice really is a distinct belief-forming practice. Think back to Swinburne’s list of different types of religious experience. With the exception of Type 4 and 5, most of them just seem like different sub-types of sensory perception. Consider once more the experience of the villagers in Knock: they allegedly saw three supernatural beings. Why would we not assess the reliability of those experiences against the standards we usually apply to sensory experiences? What makes those experiences a distinct belief-forming practice? If it’s nothing, then these experiences are subject to the same criticisms given above of Swinburne’s argument.
The second reason is that mystical traditions seems to generate contradictory and inconsistent experiences and beliefs, even when viewed from an internal perspective. Keith Augustine makes a lot out of this point in his discussion of Alston’s argument, highlighting contradictions in Christian mystical practices: different forms of perception of God; different meanings/interpretations of those perceptions. Alston is aware of this problem and responds by highlighting that other belief-forming practices generate inconsistencies too (e.g. different witnesses see different things; different scientists develop different theories to explain the same data). But even Alston accepts that mystical traditions seem to generate more inconsistencies than other practices and so may warrant less credence as a result.
The third reason is that Alston’s argument seems to generate a powerful version of the problem of religious diversity: there are many different religious mystical traditions and participants within those traditions have distinct and incompatible religious experiences. They can’t all be right, can they? If a person has a religious experience, and then encounters another person with an incompatible religious experience, and if there are no reasons to think that their mystical tradition is more or less reliable than yours, then you don’t have any good reason to accept the veridicality of your experiences. This is, admittedly, something that religious believers sometimes deny, but JL Schellenberg makes what I think is a simple but persuasive argument on this point. Imagine three witnesses to a car accident, each of whom perceives the car to be a different colour. Suppose you are one of those witnesses. If you have no reason to think the other witnesses’ sensory perceptions are defective or misleading, then the mere fact that you each have incompatible experiences gives you reason to doubt the veridicality of your own. The same logic should apply to believers coming from different religious traditions.
Of course, it is possible to avoid this extreme form of relativism. But this brings us to the fourth reason to discount Alston’s argument. In order to avoid relativism between different belief-forming practices, you have to appeal to some practice-independent criteria for establishing the reliability of such practices. This is, in fact, a key feature of Alston’s argument: we don’t assess particular experiences, per se, but rather the belief-forming practices of which they are a part. But if we appeal to practice-independent criteria for reliability, two distinct problems arise:
(a) The kinds of criteria to which Alston appeals to distinguish true religious experiences from false ones are a bit odd. For example, he claims that if the religious experience is concerned with something useful and generates internal peace, trust in God, patience, sincerity and charity, then it is more likely to veridical. Conversely, if it is concerned with useless affairs and generates perturbation, despair, impatience, duplicity and pharisaical zeal, then it is more likely to be non-veridical (Alston 1991, 203). But why on earth should we suppose that those factors are associated with the veridicality of experience? And how do we account for the fact that non-believers can display most of the positive traits (patience, charity etc) without experiencing God? Does this imply that their failure to experience God is also veridical? If so, this gives rise to a new version of the problem from the negative principle of credulity.
(b) There are tensions between the beliefs generated by different practices. Famously, for example, there are some tensions between traditional Christian beliefs and the beliefs generated by science and history (e.g. biblical historical studies). It’s not possible to do a full accounting of those practices and their reliability here, but there are good reasons to think that these other practices are generally reliable, possibly more reliable than Christian mystical practice. But if that is true then the believer needs to do further work to resolve the tensions between these practices. Again, the religious experiences themselves cannot be self-justifying and do all the work.
In short, for all its ingenuity, Alston’s argument doesn’t seem to fare much better than Swinburne’s. In reaching this assessment, I have focused on particular features of Alston’s argument. It is worth adding that many of the other criticisms of arguments from experience mentioned previously — that there are alternative naturalistic explanations or that God cannot be an object of perception in the supposed way — could also apply to this argument.
In this article, I have considered the argument from religious experience, focusing on versions developed by two of its proponents: Richard Swinburne and William Alston. Both of the arguments raise a number of fascinating philosophical questions, particularly questions concerning the relationship between perceptual experiences and the veridicality (or non-veridicality) of such experiences. That said, for all their technical sophistication and analytical rigour, I don’t find either of the arguments persuasive.