A modern philosopher who has become crucial in this discussion is Richard Swinburne.
Key person: Richard Swinburne (1934-)
An eminent Christian Philosopher who discusses many arguments in his book The Existence of God, but his major contribution is developing the arguments from probability and providence. For the religious experience arguments he developed the principles of credulity and testimony.
The principle of credulity
…we ought to believe that things are as they seem to be (in the epistemic sense) unless and until we have evidence that we are mistaken… If it seems to me that I am seeing a table or hearing my friend’s voice, I ought to believe this until evidence appears that I have been deceived. If you say the contrary– never trust appearances until it is proved that they are reliable– you will never have any beliefs at all. For what would show that appearances are reliable, except more appearances? And, if you cannot trust appearances as such, you cannot trust these new ones either. Just as you must trust your ordinary five senses, so it is equally rational to trust your religious sense (Swinburne, 1996: 132).
If I say that I am speaking to Mark on the phone there are a number of things you can do to verify this. You can take the phone off me and speak to him yourself. You can check my phone records. You can try and ring Mark yourself to see if his line is busy. You can employ any number of methods to prove my assertion correct. However, if I say that God has spoken to me, how can this be verified? Perhaps you can speak to God yourself and see if you get the same experience. But what happens if you don’t? Is my experience invalid? Swinburne argues otherwise:
If some people do not have these experiences, that suggests that they are blind to religious realities– just as someone’s inability to see colours does not show that the many of who claim to see them are mistaken, only that he is colour blind (ibid: 133).
This is slightly offensive to those with no religious faith– is Swinburne suggesting people haven’t had these experiences because they are lacking something. A further example could be magic eye experiments– I am unable to see any of them, why? Because I am blind in one eye and 3D doesn’t work for me but I still accept them as valid because of what other people have said. Should therefore irreligiosity be seen as a result of disability? Swinburne continues:
If three witnesses in a law court claim (independently) to have seen the suspect in some street at a certain time, and three witnesses who were in the street at that time claim not to have seen him, then – other things being equal– the court will surely normally take the view that the suspect was there, and that the later three witnesses simply did not notice him. It is basic to human knowledge of the world that we believe things are as they seem to be in the absence of positive evidence to the contrary. Someone who seems to have an experience of God should believe that he does, unless evidence can be produced that he is mistaken (ibid: 133).
It is at this point that we need to refer back to the verification and falsification principles from the chapter on Religious language.
The Principle of Testimony
…those who do not have an experience of a certain type ought to believe any others when they say that they do– again, in the absence of deceit or delusion. If we could not in general trust what other people say about their experiences without checking them out in some way, our knowledge of history or geography or science would be almost non-existent. In virtue of the principle of testimony, there become available to those of us who do not ourselves have religious experiences the reports of others who do, and to which, therefore, we can apply the principle of credulity. In the absence of counter evidence, we ought to believe that things are as they seem to be to other people; and we do, of course, normally so assume. We trust the reports of others on what they see unless we have reason to suppose that they are lying, or deceiving themselves, or simply misobserving. We ought to do the same with their reports of religious experience (ibid: 133-4).
The Noetic Proof
If a person doesn’t accept the principles of credulity and testimony they could always see the response that the experience created. For example if a person claims to have a religious experience but then behaves in an immoral way then it could be suggested the experience either wasn’t real or had no real impact on them. However, using James’ noetic quality as an example a religious experience will leave a person feeling sure in new ways– if a person changes their life and behaviour because of a religious experience then surely some credence should be given to that experience.
Refer back to Martin Luther King’s religious experience. How could this be shown to be noetic and thus prove the validity of the religious experience?
Read the story of Saul/Paul below. What Saul was like before the religious experience? The religious experience. What Saul was like after the religious experience? How does this evidence the noetic proof.
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
ow there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah. (Acts 9: 1-22).