Examine and Comment on a philosophical analysis of religious experience

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Ophelia Chatterjee

Examine and Comment on a philosophical analysis of religious experience

Religious experience appears to be a unique phenomenon. Despite other reported evidence for the existence of a transcendental reality, without human experience of such a force would such evidence ever have been appealed to? It appears that religious experience can be the basis for faith and a belief in God in a way that other arguments seek merely to validate and support. WILLIAM JAMES certainly thought so, and proposed that these experiences were the catalyst for the development of organised religion. But is such a position valid and compelling? Are religious experiences in themselves an a posteriori proof for the objective reality of the divine and should they be accepted as veridical? Difficulty arises in even defining religious experiences; it seems that there are a huge number of sometimes incompatible accounts. How does one begin to classify or categorise these?

                  RICHARD SWINBURNE considers 5 categories in to which religious experiences fall; two public, and three private. Public experiences are those which are available to all, but on which religious significance can be placed. For example, viewing a beautiful sunset is an experience which all people can enjoy, provided they have full use of their senses and a view of the sky, but the conclusions drawn can be very different. A private experience however is available to one person or a specific group, such as the Virgin Mary’s vision of the Angel Gabriel. The implication with this category is that God has chosen to reveal himself specifically to these persons.

                 Although sorting religious experience into categories is useful, as it can help assess relative strengths of different types of experience (for instance an external experience may have more empirical value than an internal one as they are said to have effect on the world outside the mind and may be more widely witnessed), is this an overly simplistic way of viewing such events? As they are so deeply personal the imposition of external definition, although from an intellectual point of view appears a necessity, may be unrealistic. CAROLINE FRANKS DAVIES’ attempt to define religious experience as “something akin to a sensory experience... an intellectual intuition which is analogous to our intuition of other human persons... a roughly datable mental event which the subject is to some extent aware of  may help illustrate the immense difficulty in providing a definition that does not appear hopelessly vague. The use of such catch-all phrases as “something akin to”, “analogous” and “roughly” may seem inadequate but is perhaps more realistic than attempting to define such ineffable events in concrete terms. This indefinability has led some to assert that religious experience can have no epistemological value. BERTRAND RUSSELL for instance asserted that “from a scientific point of view, we can make no distinction between a man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes. Here, he is making the point, somewhat controversially, that the evidence and value religious experience seeks to provide is logically speaking a sensory justification for a belief in God or the divine, but if we are to use our senses as windows to what is ‘real’ then these experiences must be veridical and effable. This points to a flaw in the argument from religious experience in that it attempts to use empiricist reasoning (sensory experience implies objective reality) whilst not withstanding any of the usual methods for empirical verification.

                      JOHN WISDOM’s parable (which ANTHONY FLEW believed demonstrated the futility of appealing to such experience as a basis for faith) is an illustration of the differing nature of an attempt to prove or disprove God to that of events in the phenomenal world:
"Two people return to their long neglected garden and find, among the weeds, that a few of the old plants are surprisingly vigorous. One says… 'It must be that a gardener has been coming and doing something about these weeds.' The other disagrees…. They …set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. The believer wonders if there is an invisible gardener, so they patrol with bloodhounds but the bloodhounds never give a cry. Yet the believer… insists that the gardener is invisible, has no scent and gives no sound. The sceptic doesn't agree, and asks how a so-called invisible, intangible, elusive gardener differs from an imaginary gardener or even no gardener at all

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In what way can the believer profess to have ‘experienced’ a gardener if such a belief cannot be verified or even falsified? The sceptic’s frustration at the believer’s assertions suggests that as the experience itself does not differ, it is merely personal interpretation and the projection of the desire for a gardener that has created such a being. For a posteriori reasoning to be valid it appears that it must entail the possibility of being analysed effectively and thereby be vulnerable to falsification. However, the fact that religious experience does not fulfil this criterion implies that its value holds only ...

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