Atheists raise three objections to the argument from religious experience:
1. The Logical Gap Objection: We have to distinguish the experience and the subjective conviction it produces from the objectivity (or veridicality) of the experience, for example, a very “real” hallucination or dream is a live possibility. The critics, such as Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre,20 admit that religious experiences often produce subjective certitude in the subjects. However, it does not follow that the experience is objectively certain. In other words, there is a logical gap between the psychological data and the ontological claim of the religious experiences. To bridge the gap, we need independent certification of the religious belief. For example, Flew challenges the defenders of religious experiences to answer this basic question: How and when would we be justified in making inferences from the facts of the occurrence of religious experience, considered as a purely psychological phenomenon, to conclusions about the supposed objective religious truths?212. The Theory-Ladenness Objection: The religious experiences are heavily (or even entirely) shaped by the conceptual framework of the experients. Hence they are not useful as evidence for ontological claims.223. The Privacy Objection: According to Rem Edwards, “the foremost accusation leveled at the mystics is that mystical experiences are private, like hallucinations, illusions, and dreams, and that like these ‘nonveridical’ experiences, religious experience is really of no noetic significance at all.”23
Kai-man Kwan “Can Religious Experience Provide Justification for the Belief in God? The Debate in Contemporary Analytic Philosophy,” Philosophy Compass1/6 (2006).
Carl Sagan was famous for his deceptively simple adage that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” However, Sagan was also deeply invested in the quest for E.T.s. One reflection of that quest was his promotion of S.E.T.I.
But he also wrote a novel which was later turned into a movie: Contact. Here’s a summary of the novel’s climactic scene:
The Machine is activated, and the five of them are shot into a wormhole. They are shot in a kind of cosmic mass transit system, viewing all sorts of star systems (one of which is Vega) and end near the center of the galaxy, where a large docking station awaits.The five envoys to the galaxy find themselves on what appears to be an Earth beach. While the others explore, Ellie stays behind on the beach. Waiting for a welcome from the extraterrestrials, she instead receives a welcome from someone in her childhood: her father, Theodore. Only it is not her father, but one of the intelligent beings who is hoping to make Ellie at ease. Ellie asks as many questions of the alien as she can, and discovers that there is a long-lost species who has created the tunnels she and her companions traveled through, as well as the strong possibility of a Creator of the universe. Ellie's father suggests that she look at the number pi for a signature.When the five ambassadors to space return, they are told that they went nowhere and were only out of contact for about twenty seconds. They claim that they have been gone for about eighteen hours, but they have no evidence, as Ellie's camera has recorded only silence. Ellie is accused first of delusions, but later of helping to perpetrate a hoax. She is unable to prove her story, and thus many people are unconvinced. However, there are still many who believe her, including Palmer Joss. There is one bit of evidence to back Eleanor's story up: her camera may have only recorded static, but it recorded eighteen hours of static, not twenty seconds.
What’s striking about this is how Ellie’s first contact parallels the argument from religious experience. It falls prey to the same secular objections.
1. The Logical Gap Objection: We must distinguish the ostensible experience and the subjective conviction it produces from the objectivity (or veridicality) of the experience, for example, a very “real” hallucination or dream is a live possibility. Ellie’s experience produced subjective certitude in the reality of first contact. However, it does not follow that the experience is objectively certain. In other words, there is a logical gap between the psychological data and the ontological claim of first contact. To bridge the gap, we need independent confirmation of the E.T. belief. Unfortunately for her, Ellie’s camera didn’t record the alleged encounter. It only recorded static. Moreover, by objective metrics, she was only incommunicado for 20 seconds–far shorter than the duration of the alleged encounter. How would Ellie be justified in making inferences from the facts of the occurrence of E.T experience, considered as a purely psychological phenomenon, to conclusions about the supposed objective existence of E.T.s? Much less how would second parties be justified in drawing that inference?
2. The Theory-Ladenness Objection: The ostensible first contact experience was entirely shaped by the conceptual framework of the alleged alien: an earthly beach, Ellie’s father. Hence this isn’t useful as evidence for ontological claims about E.T.s.
3. The Privacy Objection: Since Ellie’s camera only recorded static, all we have to go by is her private recollection of the ostensible encounter. But that makes it indistinguishable from other inveridical experiences, like hallucinations, illusions, and dreams. Hence her first contact experience is really of no noetic significance at all.