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Religious experience - more on the telescope analogy

Following on from the telescope analogy - here's a further couple of points.

1. The "fuzzy image" move

First, some will say (have said, in fact) that the faculty by which we experience the divine is not perfectly transparent, but hazy and misty. That is why there is so much disagreement between believers (be they ancient Norse, or ancient Greeks, or ancient Mayans, or modern day Buddhists, or whatever) about what is experienced.

2. The appeal to "training" and "experts"

Second, just like the use of, say, sonic imaging equipment, or a primitive telescope, such as Galileo's, perceivers need to be trained. Acquiring the ability to discern a baby in the swirling, milky images produced by a scanner requires years of practice. Without this practice, causal observers may "see" all sorts of things that are not there.

Indeed, while we are not justified in trusting the testimony of untrained users of ultra-sound scanners, the testimony of trained, expert users can be relied on.

So why not trained, expert God-sensors?

My response to the "fuzzy image" move

Well, yes, this would explain at least some of the disagreement between observers. But it doesn't make it reasonable to trust in the deliverances of this supposed "faculty" by which God is allegedly perceived.

Note, first of all, that this sort of appeal to the misty, hazy nature of the faculty - it's very much "through a glass darkly" - in order to explain inaccuracy and error is a standard move of psychics and other deluded folk to explain their mistakes. Here's Tony Youens, psychic debunker, on psychics:

An advantage here is that no one expects the reader, whatever the method, to be able to come up with laser-like precision. Communication with the dead is, after all, not like using a telephone. For example, the psychic may fondle your watch (psychometry) and attempt to tune in to its vibrations. It’s not easy, so they begin cautiously, ‘I’m getting something about a man… called Michael…. “Mick”, or is it “Mike”? I feel a kindly presence… very caring… could be difficult at times but generally has his heart in the right place.’

Of course, when they get it wrong, psychics regularly appeal to the hazy nature of the medium with which they are working to explain their error.

When made by psychics, I don't find, even for a minute, these sorts of moves and evasions remotely convincing. Nor do I when they are made by other supernaturalists - i.e. the religious.

Why not? Well, in the case of psychics, we lack any solid, corroborating evidence for what they claim to experience. Plus there's a great deal of evidence that the sincere psychics are at least very often falling victim to classic fallacies, psychological factors, etc. Which immediately puts all their testimony in serious doubt.

I have argued (see earlier posts on "religious experience") exactly the same is true of those who claim to have religious experiences.

In fact, not only do I think it unreasonable for us to believe what psychics tell us (even if they are as impressive as Sally Morgan), I think it's also unreasonable for them to believe what they seem to experience, given the available evidence. Ditto religious believers.

My response to the "training" move

What about "training" and "experts"? Just like ultra-sound scanner operators, can't religious folk be trained to use their God-sensing faculty, so they become much more reliable, trustworthy witnesses?

Here's a problem for the "training" suggestion. In order to acquire a skill, you need to be able to practise, and test yourself against some independent standard of success. To borrow an example from philosopher David Pears (who uses it in a discussion of the private language argument), to become a good marksman, you need to be able to go and check the target to see how well you did. If the target vanishes the minute you pull the trigger, you can't tell how you are doing, and so can never get any better. You'll never acquire any skill.

Those trained to use sonic scanners, etc. can acquire their skills because there is something available against which they can test how they're doing. If they say "It's twins!" and only one baby shows up, then they know they got it wrong.

So now how does the religious person "practise" and acquire the "skill" of using their God-sensing faculty? How do they test how well they are doing? There's nothing independent against which they can check. So they cannot acquire any skill. When it comes to religious experience, the "skill" of the "expert" practitioner is, frankly, a fiction.

To this, you may respond: but the religious can check what they experience against something independent, e.g. the Bible, and the testimony of others.

But now notice:

(i) they are then only justified in trusting their religious experience because it's confirmed "independently", which is what Plantinga, and several contributors to this blog, deny.

(ii) actually, it isn't being independently confirmed, is it? The Bible does not provide independent confirmation of religious experiences (we can argue over this if you like).

(iii) the other so called "experts" are no such thing. Real experts have a demonstrable skill that can be independently checked. When it comes to religious experience, the so-called "expert" witnesses are unable to demonstrate any such skill - not even to themselves. Indeed, for the reasons just discussed, they can't be said to have acquired any skill.

POST SCRIPT 9.52am, 28/3/08

I guess the point I am making here is really a conceptual one. It doesn't make sense to describe someone as "acquiring a skill" if there's no check available to them by which they can measure their progress. The concepts of skill, training, practise and expertise are essentially linked to that of being able to check against something independent.

Interestingly, I think we can make an conceptual distinction here between skills and abilities. An ability you are born with is not a skill, because it is not something you acquire through practise, or can further hone through practise.

I acknowledge the possibility that someone might be born with an ability to perceive God. But that's not a case of acquiring a skill. That person's ability might then improve if they exercise it in a particular way, but, if there's no way for them to tell how well they are doing, depending on how they do it, this wouldn't be "training", nor "an increase in expertise". It would just be luck.

Of course, someone might be under the illusion that they are exercising a skill, practising it, and so on. Wittgenstein somewhere describes someone (perhaps a lunatic) using a pair of compasses very deliberately, and seemingly with great precision. They think they are "measuring", or whatever, and with some skill, but the truth is they are deluded. For there's no standard against which they can be judged to be doing it (whatever "it" is) well or badly.

This does seem to be a correct conceptual point: that, in the absence of such an independent standard, we cannot be described as "practising", "exercising a skill", etc.


Anonymous said…
Stephen -

I agree entirely. One point: what would you say to critics who would accuse you of veering towards positivism / verificationism with all this talk of 'testing against an independent standard'? After all, not all knowledge comes from the scientific method etc...
Stephen Law said…
Hi anonymous. Well, verificationism is a theory of meaning: a statement is meaningful if and only if verifiable. I don't agree with that. Also, I think that the God hypothesis is verifiable - we can verify empirically that it's false.

The point I am making here is really a conceptual one. It doesn't make sense to describe someone as "acquiring a skill" if there's no check available to them by which they can measure their progress.

I acknowledge the possibility that someone might be born with an ability to perceive God. But that's not a case of acquiring a skill. That person's ability might then improve if they exercise it in a particular way, but, if there's no way for them to tell how well they are doing, depending on how they do it, this wouldn't be "training", nor "an increase in expertise". It would just be luck.
Stephen Law said…
I'll add that last comment to the text as it's worth emphasizing.
Anonymous said…
Stephen, ( the other anonymous here)

On the original "telescope analogy" thread, Kyle S suggested that the perception of God was rather a subconscious thing and pointed out "Psychologists have shown that we process a lot of information about a person from their smell that we are not aware of."

In the case of such olfactory input a person will probably not be able to tell how successful the sense is or even be aware of its existence, simply of having some vague feeling about another person.
( The feeling is often rationalized away in any case. )

This analogy seems to have some of the "I don't know how I know but I just know.." quality that some religious experience demands.
Stephen Law said…
In that case, they obviously can't become expert practitioners.

Sounds like chicken sexers. They pick up a chick. They just know if it's male or female. But they don't know how they know. It's a rare ability.

Of course, in this case, the ability could be enhanced - you could practice, and check how well you're doing by then checking the sex of the chicks in some other way. Then they become *expert* and *skilled*. But not otherwise.
Kyle Szklenski said…
My mom (who was a bird raiser person, not sure of the word for it) always said you could tell a bird's gender by turning it over and blowing on it. That always made me laugh, cause it was my MOTHER telling me that.

A little off-topic, but where was verificationism refuted, or what have you? I mean what authors/books specifically. I realized that the razor I posted about in an earlier thread touched on it, but I have only read about it briefly in, I believe, C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, by John Beversluis. (A really good book, and I suggest it for all people who think C.S. Lewis was anything more than a mediocre apologist.)
Anonymous said…
( the other anonymous again)

I presume someone has figured out what it is the chicken sexers have latched onto?

I'm not sure it is always true to say that such abilities can be enhanced through practice in quite this way. The problem being that the sense is not exercised at the conscious level but the feed back is provided at that level. That being said I strongly suspect that administering rewards or punishments would do the trick. (see )
Behavioral psychologists seem inordinately fond of electric shocks for this purpose.

Even if the ability (sensus chikenatus?)
could not be trained or traced to an obvious physical cause it is still verifiable. Since it would appear to carry an evolutionary advantage in agrarian societies I would expect statisticians and geneticists to enter the field in attempt to analyze it further.

I think that the point here is that in the case of either chicken sexing, unseen pheremones or the sensus divinatus the source may be unknown but the effects are upon real people and they are subject to logical and scientific investigation either individually or collectively.
Martin Cooke said…
Hi Stephen (btw, I used to be a Postman too, for a few very boring years), a problem with your analogy is that a profound difference between religious thinkers (if not most religious followers) and naturalistic thinkers goes way back to e.g. the cogito - Amongst the latter, Russell said that "I think" implies only that there is thinking (which might be structurally isomorphic to a mechanism), whilst the former take the Cartesian conclusion to be justified (by the presumably common experiences of our selves that go into the meanings of those of our words). From there on, from such different pov, all epistemically apposite phenomena differ significantly...

Russell thought that since common sense implies physics and (physics implies modern physics, and) the latter contradicts common sense, so much the worse for common sense; whereas the former see there a convenient equivocation on "common sense," being more likely to wonder what precisely the mathematical models of reality being favoured by various scientists are saying (given that the existence of a responsible and rational self is not at all open to question) - less likely to believe in some picture of such models (more likely to believe in some religious picture).

And even if there was a physical-scientific way of investigating religious experiences (even were they at least partially veridical) it would probably be regarded as no better than Nazi science, or the Inquisition! We prefer an analogy with the discipline of History (and of course, if History told a tale of evil, lying scientists with demonic powers, then absolutely no amount of empirical evidence, reliably available to us now, would suffice - cf. Star Psychics).
Anonymous said…
Enigman - You see to be saying that even if scientists discovered how to talk to God they would bury the evidence. I doubt this very much but I also think there is still a vast gap between God and religion as such. Just because somone created you does not mean it is a good idea to worship them!
Stephen, as I understand it the test of a religious experience is the difference that it makes in the life of the believer, in particular, whether the 'fruits of the spirit' (listed in Galatians 5.22) become more manifest or not. Someone may claim to have had a particular event in their life, and claim to have seen wondrous things/ experienced the seventh heaven/ been illumined by God or whatever - all of that is just words until it makes a difference to how they behave.

The corollary of this is that when someone manifests those qualities, then the word spiritual can be correctly used about them (and, note, this use of the word spiritual is entirely lacking in "supernatural" connotations).

This is why St Paul says that we need to test the spirits, and why Jesus emphasises, in various ways, that 'by their fruits you shall know them'.

What's interesting is that it can work in reverse. If you spend time with people who are spiritual in the relevant sense (humble, forgiving, compassionate, self-controlled etc) and consciously seek to acquire those habits, then you become more open to spiritual experiences of this sort. The two go together.
Stephen Law said…
Sam - your "test" of religious experience is not a test of its veracity, but its psychological and behavioural impact, which is something entirely different.

The fact that the experiences of some alien abductees are profoundly life-changing is evidence of their sincerity and the compelling character of their particular experiences, but it's not terribly good evidence of their accuracy, is it?

Ditto religious belief.
You see religious language as analagous to alien-abduction language, whereas I see it as analagous to psychological and behavioural language. So no, I don't see it as "entirely different".

Would you accept that the testing hypothesis would work, on my understanding of religious language? (I agree that testing is essential for the language of expertise to be meaningful.)
Stephen Law said…
If "I experienced God" means, from your lips, "I had a certain sort of psychological experience" - e.g. like "I had a headache" or "I was feeling angry" - then the fact that it impacted in your behaviour would be evidence that you were sincere and even accurate, yes.

But only because there's nothing more to the truth of your claim than that you had the experience. So even atheists can agree with you.

Which is a very odd sort of "belief in God", isn't it?
Anonymous said…
Sam, you say that accounts of revelations are just words until behaviour changes in accord with some list, but that list is just words - is it a useful guide because the guy who wrote it conformed to his own list? Surely something more is needed...
I would want to say that the language 'I experienced God' had more in common with 'I experienced love' or 'I experienced peace' than with 'I experienced a tree' or 'I experienced swimming'. In other words the grammar isn't doing any specifically empirical work (it's not doing anything that can be verified by empirical science).

I think I would want to say that there is something more to it than just psychology though. Along the lines of being in tune with the purpose of the universe, something like that. Then what would happen with the 'testing' is that behaviour which was in tune with that explicit purpose is commended for being so, and that which isn't is described as being deluded or demonic or whatever.
Stephen Law said…
Hi Sam

The issue I have been addressing is: does so-called “religious experience” ever justify the experiencer, or anyone else, in believing in God?

You suggest that whether people are having *genuine* religious experiences is, to some extent, testable.

We can all agree people experience love, peace, etc. But why suppose these are experiences of God? I have such experiences, on occasion. So does Richard Dawkins. Yet we don’t believe in God. Why call them “religious experiences”?

You suggest a genuine religious experience involves a sense of “being in tune with the purpose of the universe”.

Of course, the fact that I have “a feeling of being in tune” with the purpose of the universe doesn’t guarantee that it has a purpose or that I am in tune with it.

What grounds does the experiencer, or anyone else, have for supposing their “Oh wow! I’m really in tune with the cosmos” moment is a genuine experience of such a purpose and/or God?

How does the “testing” of these experiences work? Who’s doing the commending, and why, and on what grounds? This needs some spelling out, please...
Anonymous said…
Actually the skill of mysticism is testable - because the adept who becomes a master is able to guide other people to have the same experiences. Another test is that the virtues that the discipline requires become fully-rooted in the adept.Your argument seems to be - 'the skill of meditation and spiritual perception is not testable in the same way as skill in mathematics or kite-flying - thus it cannot be a skill.' This is not a very good argument. Everyone already knows that spiritual reality is not physically, empirically testable. Duh.

You seek to buy yourself certainty that it's all a bunch of lies through trying to reduce it to categories within your experience -and yet the problem with that is that your categories are clearly apriori stuck in the empirical and physical and so can never admit of anything beyond them. In this way, you are missing the point so vastly that it is hard to think what might help you see your error. The only thing I can think of is ' go to masters of the discipline, train, and you will be shown'.
Anonymous said…
(the other anonymous here)

Anonymous said

"Actually the skill of mysticism is testable ..." then followed up with "Your argument seems to be - 'the skill of meditation and spiritual perception is not testable "

Well which is it to be?

In any case I don't recall Stephen asserting that meditation was untestable. I believe he actually commended it's positive results. As for spiritual perception I think it is the mystics who are reduced to claiming it is not testable. Every time a philosopher or scientist suggests a test!

You then said :
"Everyone already knows that spiritual reality is not physically, empirically testable." which again contradicts your first statement.
Anonymous said…
Yeah, and the explicit purpose of the universe is void, there is none, so there is nothing to test against, on such a view - e.g. the universe expands (is its purpose to become bigger?) and conserves energy (!) as life evolves within it (is its purpose to become more lively?) and sapient beings too (so revelations that increase our knowledge would be genuine (whereas all those prophesies in the Bible were clearly and explicitly akin to the revelations of the Star Psychics (in quality and quantity)))...
Anonymous said…
Yes I have to agree that Stephen's statement is hopelessly crude. There are many things that are clearly skills and disciplines that can have no quantitative, physical, 'scientific' verification. Take skill in public speaking for example. By applying the standard you applied to Mysticism to its logical conclusion, one would be deluded in any case to conclude that Martin Luther King had a 'skill' as an orator, while George W. Bush for example did not. Of course, the verification of King's superiority can only be that of the perceiving subject - but is the conclusion any less true than if we were basing our conclusion on a data-sheet? It is humans who must interpret data-sheets, and we know intuitively by the effect of King's oration that he is a more 'powerful' orator tham old George W. Likewise, your criteria rules out someone being justified in preferring one friend over another in terms of the preferred friends ability ability to extract one from depression, to make on happy. Effectively therefore, your criteria rules out the role of shrinks in peoples loves as 'delusion'. Many would beg to differ. Like the preceding examples, mysticism as a 'skill' is verified by the students practicing it, for whom it quite simply changes their lives for the better, while the master jusges the 'skill' of the adept by keeping track of behavioural changes, changes in character, and the appearance, or lack thereof, of virtue in the students life - and in the case of actual mystical experiences, judging the reported content of it against the masters own experience, which he also reported to his master, and he to his, and so on. The experiences are in conformity to the pattern of the method. The master can also reject the experiences of the beginner based on their content judged against the objective standard of his own criteria, again, inherited from the chain of transmission, through history, master to master.

Through history many people more intelligent than you or me have travelled the path of mysticism in one of the major revealed religions. They were not deluded - but they would say that you most definitely are. Your philosophy is entirely confined to the rational order and even goes so far as to negate what is beyond it. Your philosophy is condemned by its very nature to remain altogether external and far more verbal than real.

Also mysticism is not all about mind-blowing 'experiences' it is a path of a growing knowledge and awareness of the Divine, that is often punctuated by major experiences.

Normal humans in normal civilisations throughout history have accepted this as normative human knowledge - how strange that our distinctly abnormal culture cannot.
Steelman said…
Anonymous said: "It is humans who must interpret data-sheets, and we know intuitively by the effect of King's oration that he is a more 'powerful' orator tham old George W."

I think there are certainly scientifically quantifiable ways of measuring an orator's skill. One can perform a statistical analysis, by having a sample of the crowds at different venues fill out a questionnaire regarding the emotional effect of the speaker's performance in several categories. If the subject of the speech is a call to action, observe what percentage of the people take the prescribed action as a result of being inspired by the speech.

This sort of analysis is frequently done in the movie business, where scenes are added, deleted, or changed according to the reactions of test audiences. I recall a story about how the Marx brothers used to go to screenings of their films, try some different gags in front of the audience after the film, and put the best versions of the ones that got the biggest laughs in their next movie.

Also, I think there's a point you're missing here: the motivational qualities of any given speaker's oration has no bearing on the truthfulness of what's being said in the speech. Therefore, mystics may be having a similar, human experience, with a long and glorious history, but that doesn't mean there's anything divine behind the experience. I think this is especially obvious when Muslim mystics fail to mention the divinity of Jesus Christ, and Christian mystics do not mention that Mohamed is the Seal of the Prophets.
Hi Stephen, sorry for the delay in responding, I've been on holiday.

You ask 'why suppose these are experiences of God?' I'm not sure I am doing any supposing - I'm pointing out the nature of the grammar. In other words, this is what religious communities have understood these experiences to be about, and how they have evaluated them. (Bear in mind that the word 'religious' has mutated in meaning, especially over the last few hundred years).

More broadly, you ask "What grounds does the experiencer, or anyone else, have for supposing their “Oh wow! I’m really in tune with the cosmos” moment is a genuine experience of such a purpose and/or God? How does the “testing” of these experiences work? Who’s doing the commending, and why, and on what grounds? This needs some spelling out, please..."

It would help me to answer this if you could be a bit more explicit about what would qualify as a good answer. That is, are you asking for an independent (objective?!) justification for an entire weltanschaaung? If you are, I'm not sure that either I could give one, or that such a thing exists for any intellectual perspective - but that's why I want to clarify what you're asking for.

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