RE2a(iv) Supporting the argument from religious experience – part 3: the Principles of Credulity and Testimony

So far we have presented two pieces of evidence that seek to strengthen this inductive argument from religious experience for the existence of God; change in the life of the subject and the idea of a common phenomenological core.  Both of these seek to provide additional evidence in support of the claim that religious experience really are experiences of God.

In this post, we will study Richard Swinburne’s Principle of Credulity and Principle of Testimony.  Rather than give us additional evidence to support the claim that these experiences are true, these principles seek to give us a reason why we should believe such accounts of religious experience.

Principle of Credulity

Credulity means ‘willing to believe’ and is linked to the word credible, meaning ‘believable’.  In normal experience, we tend to trust our sense unless we have good reason to believe we are being misled, that is, if I see a bumble bee on a flower, I usually take that to mean there really is a bumble bee on the flower.  Not only is this usual procedure, it is also a rational thing to believe.  It would be irrational and unhelpful to doubt the existence of every object I saw.

So Swinburne argues that:

‘How things seem to be is good grounds for a belief about how things are.’

Put another way, what something looks like is a good way of knowing what it is like.  We might say that seeing a bumble bee is a credible experience; it is believable and one we are willing to believe.

From this, Swinburne formulates his Principle of Credulity, which claims:

‘apparent perceptions ought to be taken at their face value in the absence of positive reason for the challenge.’

In other words, unless there are positive reasons to not believe, it is rational to believe that when we experience an external object, be it a bumble bee on a flower or a religious vision, that experience is veridical, that the object really is there.

So what might these ‘positive reasons’ for not believing be?  Swinburne says there are two.  Firstly, if you know that it is impossible for that object to be really there.  Secondly if you know of another cause of such an experience.

If we consider St. Bernadette’s visions of the Virgin Mary, then Swinburne argues, based on the Principle of Credulity, we should believe that she really did experience the Virgin Mary, because there are not positive reasons to not believe.  Is it impossible that she saw the Virgin Mary?  Since we have no way of showing  that this experience is impossible, then we have to say no.

Was there an alternative cause of these experiences?  Maybe, but what evidence do we have?  If we had evidence of her taking hallucinogenic drugs or of her being a known liar or of her having psychological problems, then maybe we would have positive reasons to not believe her.  But we don’t have this evidence, so we should conclude that hers is a credible experience, a believable experience.

Principle of Testimony

The Principle of Testimony is closely related to the idea of Credulity.  A testimony is simply an account of what someone experienced.  Swinburne argues that in the absence of any good reasons, it is reasonable to believe that the experiences of others are probably as they report them.  In other words, we should believe them unless we have good reason not to.

Notice a couple of things here.   Swinburne says it is reasonable to believe, which is very different to saying that these experiences are veridical.  Secondly, of course it is possible that people are lying or are mistaken or there is some other explanation, but the significance of Swinburne’s idea is that the onus of proof lies with the sceptic, the doubter.

It is not up to the subject of the experience to convince us the experience was true, it is up to the sceptic to convince us that it is not true.

Our key question concerns whether religious experiences really are of God.  Swinburne argues that having a religious experience is credible or believable.  It is credible to believe that God is there if we have experienced God.

Secondly, unless we have good reasons not to believe in someone’s testimony, then we should believe them.

Put together , these two principles support the claim that religious experiences are veridical experiences and therefore support the claim that God exists.