Saturday, October 30, 2021

God and Experience

Is it plausible to say that we can know God from our experience of Him? Right off, it seems we would have to know something of God first before we could know what we were experiencing if we were experiencing Him. And if this were the case, then the belief in God would have a multi-faceted basis, experience plus something else. One might have an experience of the transcendent, but what is to say this is God? Perhaps audible voices or other means of communicating ideas or concepts; a voice saying to you “I am God.” Something like Moses and the burning bush. I think in these cases there is more to the story than just the experience.

Further, if we tell another person about our experience, and they have not experienced it, how are we able to communicate our experience to them in a coherent manner? Many interesting questions arise from this line of thinking about God. For example, if I tell someone of my experience, would the other person not be justified in allowing me this, and counting as veridical, but thinking they do not have good reasons of their own to suppose God exists? Should a person believe something based on the experience of someone else? Do we have other cases of this we could appeal to on grounds of consistency? For example, if I am a trustworthy person and tell you about a person I met, that you never met, would you have good reason to doubt the other person (whom you never met) existed? Don’t Christians take a lot of what they claim about Jesus on the same grounds? It appears so. I have never shaken the hand of Jesus or shared a meal with Him, at least in a strictly literal, physical sense. Nonetheless, I believe certain things about Him based on what reliable eyewitnesses reported and passed down. I then conduct myself accordingly. Still, believing an eye-witness account and assenting to its veracity seems different than appealing to a direct experience of the transcendent and divine. Many of these experiences are different, and by most accounts, the testimony of the gospel eyewitnesses is convergent on several key points. 

It seems that we can indeed experience God, but we cannot appeal to our own experience as a demonstration or objective means of conveying truth propositions. If an unbeliever asks for a reason why they should believe God exists, why they should ground moral values and duties in a supreme ontology, and so forth, appealing to a personal experience, however amazing, would not appear to be wholly convincing. The person having the encounter with God may well be justified in their own belief, but can we borrow this same epistemic capital for our own case if we had no such experience? I think this is a tough case to make. What I believe happens in some of these appeals, dare I say ‘arguments’ from experience is something like a reduction to the proper basicality of belief in God. I’m fully granting here it is not the same thing, because the person saying God exists because of their experience is appealing to a reason or cause for their belief. But the similarities are too much to ignore. The properly basicality belief in God is one that is justified in the absence of arguments or evidence as to its foundation. Without a defeater for such a belief, the person is rational in holding it. I think a stipulation made by thinkers like Plantinga is that the person is rational in holding such a belief provided such a belief is (ultimately) true. So, a person who believes in God based on experience is possibly justified in this provided there is no defeater for the belief.  A defeater might be that I was under the influence of psychedelic drugs when I had my experience. Of course, this rationale is predicated on accepting certain epistemological systems which are by no means a given. Still, it seems like advocating the claim for belief in God based on experience is in the same arena as Reformed Epistemology. 

When a person claims to believe in God from experience, I believe it is difficult to maintain such a belief is based on their experience alone. Maybe there is a strongly atheistic person who experiences God and professes such belief immediately after. But prior to this experience, their mind had been prepared for such belief based on things previously claimed about God by theists. The atheist in this case had some background data to draw from and calibrate and reflect upon their experience. Perhaps their experience was the ultimate difference-maker in coming to belief, yet I think it hard to say it was the only factor. Thus, when giving reasons for why they believe in God, the new theist in this instance could not appeal solely to their experience. 

God can indeed reveal Himself to us in many ways. We absolutely can experience Him directly, however that happens for any given person. I would say that any direct experience of God is one means of revelation, and it works in conjunction with other ways of knowing Him. Currently, I do not think arguments, if that is what we call them, from experience are strong from a philosophical or apologetic standpoint. I will dig into this argument more in the coming weeks, and hope to discover some of the nuances of thinkers like Swinburne and Alston on this topic.


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