Tuesday 28 April 2015

The Epistemology of Religious Testimony

Boudewijn de Bruin
My name is Boudewijn de Bruin and I am Professor of Financial Ethics in the faculties of Economics and Business, and Philosophy, at the University of Groningen. 

In this post I will summarize a paper I wrote for a symposium organized at the occasion of the publication of Herman Philipse’s book God in the Age of Science in which he takes issue with Richard Swinburne’s attempts to provide evidence showing that the existence of God is highly probable.

Most evidence Swinburne marshals is publicly available. But some is only private: evidence gained through religious experience. Ideally Swinburne would not need private evidence, but, as he admits, all publicly available evidence is not by itself sufficiently strong for the unbeliever to be moved to adopt the belief that God exists.

The unbeliever needs religious experience, then, but it cannot be his or her own lest Swinburne only persuades those that have had an experience of God themselves. Swinburne therefore resorts to invoking testimonial evidence of ‘of-God experiences’, as he calls them.

Two things have to be shown then. The unbeliever has to have compelling evidence that, first of all, if someone has had of-God experiences, then they have had veridical experiences of God (Principle of Credulity); and secondly, that when someone reports having had of-God experiences, these reports are true (Principle of Testimony). Philipse attacks the Principle of Credulity. I argue that this attack may not be entirely convincing. Therefore I attack the Principle of Testimony.

God is an entity that is normally invisible and who can decide at will to give someone an of-God experience. Or so Swinburne holds. If this is the causal mechanism explaining the privacy of religious experience, the Principle of Testimony loses its appeal. Take bird-watching as an example. Suppose we both see a bird at the bottom of the garden and you rightly identify it as a bittern. This gives me some evidence about your bird-watching capacities, and therefore some reason confidently to apply the Principle of Testimony to your reports of of-bird experiences.

I can only be in the position to evaluate the applicability of the Principle of Testimony to a person S reporting of-O experiences if S and I have had joint experiences of O, though. And this is by definition impossible in the case of of-God experiences. God might give us both an of-God experience simultaneously, of course, but he would on Swinburne’s account be causing two separate religious experiences. Knowing that, S’s reporting an of-God experience coinciding with an of-God experience of mine would not give me any proof of S’s trustworthiness here. (And anyway, in such a case I would have my own private evidence and likely not feel the need to resort to S’s.)

One might object that if I dropped the implicit reductionist Humean view of testimony in favour of a Reidian view – Jonathan Adler’s Default Conception of Testimony, for instance – Swinburne’s argument might survive. It is widely accepted that a key challenge to Reidian approaches is to show that they do not make people too vulnerable to the whims of witnesses. Adler does indeed offer a number of clever solutions here. Yet while they may work for everyday testimonials, they do not work for reports of of-God experiences. 

These solutions require the opportunity to ascertain the trustworthiness of a potential source of information in the relevant domain. There is no such opportunity, however, as long as we do not have joint religious experiences. For the same reasons, the Humean and the Reidian unbeliever remain vulnerable, and should therefore suspend belief. Justified beliefs in God cannot come from others.

1 comment:

  1. Wouldn't this argument also show that justified beliefs in God cannot come from one's own experience, since there is no way for one to tell that one's own capacities for God-recognition are reliable? (A version of Wittgenstein's private language argument.)


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