RE 2a(i) The argument from religious experience for the existence of God

We know that religious experiences happen.  We know that many people have had experiences that we might call religious.  That these experiences happen is not in doubt.  What is open to doubt however is their veracity, that is, are they really, truly religious experiences?  For example, in the case of Saul’s conversion, clearly something happened that led to his conversion, but the key question is ‘Was it really a vision of Jesus?’

The argument from religious experience for the existence of God seeks to address this question.

The argument goes as follows:

P1:   If an entity is experience, then it must exist.

P2:   People have experiences of God.

C:  Therefore, God exists.

Before we look at the argument in depth we need to understand some things about how philosophical arguments work.

Firstly, what is a philosophical argument?

An argument can be defined as ‘a set of statements, in which one statement (the conclusion) is supported or implied by the others (the premises).’

So in the argument we have just seen involves two premises (P1 and P2), that is, two statements that contain claims or pieces of information.  The third statement (C) is reached by considering the premises together to see what they suggest.

The argument above is an example of what is known as an inductive argument.  In an inductive argument, the conclusion is supported by the premises, but it is not necessarily true.

To help explain, consider the following argument:

P1:   All Chinese people eat noodles.

P2:   Jo is Chinese.

C:   Therefore, Jo eats noodles.

This is a deductive argument, opposite to an inductive argument.  In this case, if P1 and P2 are true, then the conclusion (C) must be true – the conclusion necessarily follows on from the premises.

But now consider the following:

P1:   All Chinese people eat noodles.

P2:   Jo eats noodles.

C:   Therefore, Jo is Chinese.

Can you see the difference?  This is an inductive argument.  The conclusion is supported by the premises and it is perfectly possible that Jo eats noodles because she is Chinese.  But notice that his might not be true.  Jo might just like noodles, so eating of noodles might be nothing to do with being Chinese.  As there are, therefore, a variety of possible conclusions, we cannot establish one a right with any certainty, so in inductive argument, we talk about how strong or weak the argument is.  The philosophers job is to work out which conclusion is the strongest.

But let us return to the argument from religious experience for the existence of God and consider how it works and were the debate might focus.  As we have seen, people have experiences of God (P2) and if the things we experience exist (P1), then if I experience God, then this shows us that God exists.

Many people would accept P1 as being true because we don’t experience things that do not exist.  However, P2 is very much open to debate.  Yes, people have these experiences, but the key question is, are they genuine experiences of God?

If we can provide evidence to support the claim that people really do have genuine experiences of God, then this would strengthen the argument.  However, if we can provide evidence that casts doubt on whether these are genuine experiences, then the argument is weakened.

So, the rest of this unit will focus on trying to answer this key question:

Are religious experiences really experiences of God?