RE2b(ii) Challenges to the argument from religious experience 1 – the problem of verification

Cast your mind back to Swinburne’s ideas on the Principles of Credulity and Testimony.  In this, Swinburne argues that if an account or testimony is credible, then we ought to believe it, unless we have clear, positive reasons for not believing the testimony.

So, for example, if I said that for my 18th birthday I went on holiday with my friends, you would no doubt believe me.  It is a credible tory and you would have no real reason to doubt my recollection.  However, if I said that for my 21st birthday I had a party and the Queen was the DJ for that party, then you may well have doubts.  Why?  You still have no reason to disbelieve me, so the problem must lie with the credibility of the story.  And this leads us to one of the problems with Swinburne’s idea.  While it is entirely possible that the Queen was the DJ at my 21st birthday party, it is a much more outlandish claim; it is much less credible.

The same must also apply to religious experiences.  Religious experiences are different, unusual, perhaps even outlandish and so we are rightly a bit sceptical about them, we find them less credible.

Now regarding the truth of what happened at my 21st birthday party, I might we understand your doubts about my story.  So how could I convince you that it really was true.

I could produce a photo, or some video footage or maybe you could speak to my friends and family who were there.  They would all provide verification of my story, that is, you would be able to check if my story was true by looking for evidence that confirms, that corroborates, that verifies my testimony.

But do you see the problem we have with religious experience?  I may have my doubts about the testimony of Moses or Muhammad or Saul, but where is the photo?  Where is the video footage or the eyewitness accounts?  Even in Saul’s case where there are eyewitnesses, different accounts do not agree on key details.  In there words, we have a problem of verification.

Let’s take the vision of Moses.  We can certainly doubt whether it is credible, but we have no real reason to say it is untrue.  I remain to be convinced, but can I verify the experience?  Even if I could talk to Moses, what evidence could he provide that would verify his experience?  Clearly the answer is none.

As we have seen, religious experience is private and subjective.  And so, verification is not possible.  And if I can’t verify the in-credible claims of religious experience, then I am perfectly within my rights to be unconvinced by them.  Notice, that does not mean I think they are untrue or they are lies, but it does mean I am not convinced that they are true.

So if we look at the argument from religious experience, we again focus on the key question, Do people really have experiences of God?

The problem of verification suggest that we don’t know it these are veridical experiences; they might be, but there is not way of being sure.  And so, the argument is weakened because the claim in P2 is not convincing.