Sunday, July 25, 2010

Arguments from experience

Like many Christian apologists, William Lane Craig deploys a variety of arguments. These include a priori arguments, as well as arguments from evidence in the public domain.

However, Craig also keeps in his back pocket (as it were) the argument from religious experience. Specifically, his appeal to the witness of the Spirit.

Needless to say, this argument doesn’t originate with Craig. Subject to various refinements, that argument has been around for centuries. Indeed, it’s one type of evidence which Bible writers like St. John and St. Paul invoke.

But Craig’s appeal to religious experience really gets under the skin of some atheists. Loftus is one example. He takes a swipe at that argument in TCD. I responded to his objection in TID. Loftus has since replied to me, and I have offered yet another rejoinder.

However, I’d also like to discuss this at a general level. The appeal to religious experience isn’t an esoteric appeal–like a mystical trance. At the risk of stating the obvious, every experience is essential private. Even a collective experience can only be privately accessed by each individual percipient. We don’t have a group consciousness. While it’s possible for two different individuals to share the same object of experience, your first-person perspective is intransitive.

Indeed, this is traditionally been a seedbed for skepticism. And I don’t think there’s a direct counterargument in the offing.

But here is one of the areas in which transcendental theism is helpful. If God made human beings with the same cognitive apparatus and sensory relays, then my private experience can be analogous to your private experience.

Of course, there’s also a vast philosophical literature endeavoring to distinguish between a veridical experience and a delusive veridical experience. Claiming to have a personal experience, religious or otherwise, isn’t necessarily bed-rock. Some experiential claims are defeasible. But, pace Loftus, we can’t very well dismiss the argument from religious experience as if experiential appeals are simply out of bounds. Loftus would have nothing left to work with if he made that move. Indeed, we generally use experience to correct experience.

(Strictly speaking, every experience is veridical. What is not necessarily veridical is our interpretation of the experience.)

1 comment:

  1. Presuppositional apologetics is in large part veridical. There's the argument that the veracity of the Bible and the truth it contained are the only presuppositions that makes sense, but even that is a bit subjective since one would have to demonstrate that every other presupposition possible is known.

    But to use the Christian veridical argument is effective in evangelism because it resonates in those who have the Holy Spirit and not in those who don't.

    Interestingly, I've used the veridical argument before with interesting results. I got into a discussion with one Muslim street apologist whose Muslim disciple came up and began to berate me in the middle of our discussion (which was one of their techniques). He actually stopped his disciple and told him to be quiet, that I was one who must be respected. And although he continued in unbelief, he finally and solemnly stated that I had some means of insight that he did not have, therefore I must have the Holy Spirit. He said he did not have the Holy Spirit and could only use his own mind.