Thursday, February 02, 2017

Religious Experience: William Alston vs. Michael Martin

Bolles Harbor, Monroe

Atheistic philosopher Michael Martin defines “religious experience”: “For my purpose here a religious experience is understood as an experience in which one senses the immediate presence of some supernatural entity.” Martin believes that a claim to having religious experience requires an argument to justify that claim.

Theistic philosopher William Alston claims religious experiences do not require a justifying argument. “Because," he says, "when one senses the presence of God, no inference is involved.” That is, one just has the experience, without formulating an argument (premises and a conclusion) that infers the experience.

For Alston mystical experience “is immediate and noninferential.” One just believes, e.g., that one has heard God speak to them, in the same way that, e.g., I now see the brown table in front of me.
Martin thinks this kind of thinking is wrong. “Religious beliefs based on religious experiences need to be justified by an argument.” Alston thinks Martin is confusing "how a belief is arrived at – that is, the genesis of the belief – [with] how it is justified.” (70)

For example, someone may come to believe that, “I see a brown table,” or “God spoke to me,” noninferentially. (That is, without using arguments.) “But it is not obviously true that this person could justify those beliefs without using inferences or arguments.” (70)

Martin wants something like this.

1. Under certain conditions C, religious beliefs of type K – that is, beliefs generated by religious experience – are likely to be true.

2. Condition C obtains.

3. My religious belief that God exists is of type K.

4. Therefore, my religious belief that God exists is likely to be true.

Martin then critiques the first premise: Under certain conditions, religious beliefs generated by religious experiences are likely to be true. "True" here means, "from God," or from some supernatural cause. Martin thinks there are alternative explanations of religious experience. He considers two possible causes that may explain a religious experience, arguing that one is more plausible than the other, thus providing a better explanation than the other.

Hypothesis (H1): Religious experiences are caused by a reality external to the person having it.

Hypothesis (H2) (the psychological hypothesis): Religious experiences are caused by a reality internal to the person having it.

For Martin, it’s just as likely that religious experiences have a psychological explanation, rather than having an external cause. He writes:

“Religious experiences are like those induced by drugs, alcohol, mental illness, and sleep deprivation: They tell no uniform or coherent story, and there is no plausible theory to account for discrepancies among them.".

It seems that, because of the myriad phenomena that are called religious experiences, the best explanation is offered by (H2). This is because descriptions of religious experience are inconsistent with each other. There are “discrepancies” between the stories of religious experiences.

Martin asks us to imagine a possible world where part of reality can only be known through religious experiences. There religious experiences would tend to tell a coherent story. Not only would the descriptions of each religious experience be coherent, but the descriptions of different people would tend to be consistent with one another.” (71) That is, if religious experiences had a supernatural cause, there would be fewer discrepancies.

But what if someone's religious experiences caused them to improve morally? Martin thinks that personal moral improvement doesn’t prove that a religious experience is genuine. One could have a vision of God and degenerate morally. Or, one could have an illusory religious experience and improve morally.

“The test of conduct," he writes, "proves too much.” (72) Different religions and their religious experiences result in improved conduct. But since these religions are incompatible, “it can hardly be claimed hat all these experiences are trustworthy.”

Furthermore, there is the problem over why God should be postulated and not something else—some other supernatural entity or entities, or even something else that is very different from the God of Judeo-Christian-Islamic theism.

What can Alston say in reply to Martin?

1. It seems that Martin is insisting that the two types of explanation are mutually exclusive. No good reason is offered for why God and a neuropsychological cause cannot both explain one’s experience. That is, H1 and H2 are not mutually exclusive.

2. Martin picks on the cryptic, often odd language of mystics to count against H1. But it doesn’t follow from this that what is experienced is not the same. Maybe persons who undergo such experiences have their perception of the divine colored too much by their own expectations and ways of conceiving of the divine. Moreover, perhaps such experiences are especially vulnerable to such influence in ways that experiences of a “brown table,” for example, are not.

3. Also, the competing explanations under (H1) are less of a problem if we have first concluded that (H1) is an acceptable, and better, explanation. For one can then consider what sort of entity would best explain the nature of one’s experience.

4. Personal moral improvement on the basis of nondiscursive religious experience is not, following James, proof to others that God exists. But it is a sign for many, to include myself, that the experience is veridical.

5. Finally, the thesis Alston defends is: If God exists, then mystical experience is quite properly thought of as mystical perception.” [If God exists, then we should expect mystical experience.] Alston is not here arguing for the existence of God. Alston is showing that it is rational to be a theist. We don’t need to justify taking religious experience at face value.

The theist, such as Alston (and Alvin Plantinga, et. al.) is saying: beliefs base.)d on religious experience are “properly basic.”

(Quotes from Alston, "Religious Experience as Perception of God," and Martin, "Critique of Religious Experience," in Peterson/Hasker/et. al., Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, 5th Edition.)