RE2a(iii) Supporting the argument from religious experience – part 2: the common phenomenological core

William James

In William James’ study of religious experience, he argued that in all the instances of religious experience he had studied, there was a common phenomenological core.

Before we seek to understand what he meant by that, let us first consider what he means by these three words.

Phenomenology is the study of phenomena, that is, the study of how things appear to us, the study of our experiences.

Common means having something in common and core means at the centre.

Putting these together, we can see what James meant.  He argued that despite the clear and obvious differences between many religious experiences, there was a common phenomenological core to them.  In other words, despite the variety, there is something similar to all these experiences; they have something in common at their core.

We can illustrate this idea using a red rose.  How do you know you are correct in saying it is red?  Well, if you asked 10 other people what colour the rose was, I am sure they would say that it was red.  That is because there is a common phenomenology to this experience.  You are all seeing the same colour which suggests therefore that it really is red.

So, a common phenomenological core is one way of checking if an experience is veridical or truthful.

Now William James was a psychologist and he wasn’t really interested in whether religious experiences were really from God or not.  In fact, he thought that these experiences were a part of human nature.  But we can use his idea to help support the key claim in the argument from religious experience.

James argued that there were four features to be found in this common phenomenological core:

  1. religious experience is experiential, that is, they are experiences, not thoughts or imaginings
  2. religious experience transcends normal sense experience, so they are not about our physical sense of sight or hearing, they are above that.
  3. the subject feels immediately aware of the God; it is not just hearing God saying something, it is feeling God right here, in my mind
  4. all other awareness is temporarily blocked out, so the subject is unaware of their surroundings; they are overwhelmed by the experience and totally focussed on it.

So how can we use this to support the argument?

Well, first of all let us assume that James is right and there is a common phenomenological core.  (Plenty of people don’t agree, but we will return to that).

As we saw before with the red rose, the more people agree that it is red, the more confident we would become that is really was red.  Let’s take another example.  Imagine one evening you thought you saw a shooting star streak across the sky, but you weren’t sure.  If you subsequently found out that lot of other people also saw the same as you, you would lose your uncertainty and become convinced that there really was a shooting star.

So, if there is a common phenomenological core to religious experience, if lots of people have similar kinds of religious experience, then this would suggest that these were real, truthful experiences.

If we look at the argument again, the key premise was P2: People have experiences of God.

The common phenomenological core supports this claim by arguing that lots of people have religious experiences that are in some way similar,w hiccup suggests that these are not made up experiences, but they really are experiences of God.