Friday, December 22, 2006

God Delusion #18: All Psychologists Doubt Religious Experience?

[FYI: This is the 18th entry re. my reading of Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion. See posts 1-17 below.]

Dawkins writes (p. 88): "Many people believe in God because they believe they have seen a vision of him... with their own eyes. Or he speaks to them inside their heads. This argument from personal experience is the one that is most convincing to those who claim to have had one. But it is the least convincing to anyone else, and anyone knowledgeable about psychology."

Here's some thoughts.

1) Dawkins is literally wrong when he says the argument from personal experience is not convincing to "anyone knowledgeable about psychology." I have friends who have Ph.Ds in psychology and psychiatry who believe they personally have had God speak to them. And, I have read a number of books written by psychologists and psychiatrists who believe they have heard God speak to them. One of them is Henri Nouwen, who worked at the Menninger Clinic and taught at Yale. Another is Gerald May. May's book Addiction and Grace is excellent. Now I could begin to list personal acquaintances and other psychologists who affirm religious experiences. Thus it is not true when Dawkins uses "anyone." He exaggerates. Why?

2) Personal experience will not be necessarily convincing to "anyone else." But of course it will possibly be convincing to one's own self. Dawkins writes: "You say you have experienced God directly? Well, some people have experienced a pink elephant, but that probably doesn't impress you." Correct. Precisely because one's own personal experiences tend mostly and sometimes only to impress oneself. That's the nature of personal experience. Likewise an atheist who claims to have no experience of God will perhaps themselves be impressed by this. I would not doubt an atheist's lack of experience of anything supernatural. But I would not be personally impressed by this. That is, someone else's experiences may not and I think need not "impress" me such that I would change my personal beliefs on the basis of their experiences or lack thereof.

3. Dawkins writes: "If you've had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don't expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings." I don't expect anyone to "take the word" of someone who has had any experience. It's simply not true and an example of fundamentalist hyperbole to infer that anyone with the "slightest familiarity with the brain" will therefore not affirm the possibility of, e.g., hearing the voice of God. See again May's Addiciton and Grace, and his chapter on the brain and the biology of addiction. Then see his chapter on what he calls the grace of God as he writes of personal clinical cases where persons are freed from addiction.

4. Dawkins gives a few pages to describing what he calls "the formidable power of the brain's simulation software." But a description of what happens in the physical brain when someone claims to have had God speak to them is not logically antithetical to God actually speaking to them. OF COURSE something happens neurophysiologically. Dawkins thinks this somehow shows there is no God. But that's a metaphysical claim, and one cannot - as Hume and Kant showed - derive noumenal reality from the study of phenomenal reality. Minimally, difficult philosophical problems are raised re. phenomenal experience.

Further, if we reduce experiences to neurophysiology, then all experiences can be so reduced. Including those of Dawkins. Dawkins's outrage at religion then gets explained in terms of the odd firings happening in his brain. And one's lack of religious experiencing becomes simply a lack in one's personal simulation software.

5. Finally, for something more substantial on the issue of religious experience, begin with Syracuse University philosophy professor William P. Alston's work on the epistemology of religious experience. Read the work of Alston and then follow the rabbit trail into the real discussion re. the issues surrounding religious experience.