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II. What Can Experience Show?

A second objection is that Christian and theistic belief could never receive warrant from religious experience because religious experience could never indicate or show anything as specific as that there is such a person as God—let alone such beliefs as that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. How could experience of any sort reveal the existence of a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, wholly 332good, and a fitting object of worship? How could it reveal that there is only one being like that? How could experience carry that kind of information? John Mackie is a spokesman for this objection too:

Religious experience is also essentially incapable of supporting any argument for the traditional central doctrines of theism. Nothing in an experience as such could reveal a creator of the world, or omnipotence, or omniscience, or perfect goodness, or eternity, or even that there is just one god. (182)

Now why would Mackie say a thing like that? And what precisely does he mean? For present purposes, suppose we restrict ourselves to the experience involved in the operation of the sensus divinitatis. I think what Mackie means is this: given any course of experience, religious or otherwise—that is, given any course of sensuous imagery, affective experience, and inclinations to believe I might have—that experience could be exactly as it is and there be no omnipotent being, or omniscient being, or perfectly good or eternal being. My experience could be precisely what it is, and there be no such person as God or anyone or anything at all like God. I could feel the very way I do feel, and there be no God.425425   Conceding for purposes of argument that God is not a necessary being. Of course if God is a necessary being, as most of the Christian tradition has thought, then his existence is entailed by the existence of my experience, because entailed by the existence of anything at all.

I think this is what he means; I can’t be sure. That is because it seems of only dubious relevance. Perhaps it is true that my experience could be just as it is and there be no such person as God; perhaps the existence and character of my experience don’t entail the existence of God. What follows? Why should it follow that my experience cannot reveal a creator of the world or an omnipotent or omniscient being? Consider an analogy: in WPF (pp. 50ff.), I noted that we all ordinarily think we have existed for many years (or, in the case of you younger readers, many months). It is logically possible, however, that I should have existed for only a microsecond or two, displaying all the temporally specific properties I do in fact display. Then I wouldn’t have such properties as being more than sixty years old or being responsible for something that happened ten minutes ago, although I would have such properties as thinking that I am more than sixty years old and that I am responsible for something that happened ten minutes ago.

Not only is this logically possible, it is also compatible with the existence and character of all of my present experience. It is not compatible with my beliefs, of course (in that I believe I’ve existed for 333quite a while); still, it is compatible with the existence of those beliefs. It is possible that I should have precisely the beliefs and experiences I now have, despite my having come into existence just a second or less ago. (In fact [see WPF, pp. 50ff.], that is precisely what happens, according to those who think the word ‘I’, as I use it, denotes something like a momentary person stage.) For any course of experience and any set of beliefs I might have at this very moment, it is possible that I have that experience and hold those beliefs but nonetheless have existed for only a second or less.

Does it follow that nothing in my experience can reveal that I have existed for more than the last second or so? Certainly not. To assume that it does follow is to assume something more general and vastly stronger than O’Hear’s (a) (above, p. 328)—which, as we have already seen, is itself too strong to be true. There isn’t the slightest reason to believe that if experience can reveal p, then the existence of that experience (or the proposition that it occurs) must entail the truth of p. There is no reason to think that if experience can reveal a proposition p, then that experience must be such that it (logically) cannot so much as exist if p is false. For consider perception, and consider your experience—the sensuous imagery, the affective experience, the doxastic experience—on an occasion when you see a horse. It is compatible with those experiences that there be no horse there then, that there be no horses at all, that there be no material objects that exist when I am not undergoing those experiences, and, indeed, that there be no material objects at all. Does it follow that perceptual experience doesn’t reveal an external world? Does it follow that I can’t tell from my experience that there is a horse in my backyard? Or that the lilacs are not in bloom? Surely not; that would be a leap of magnificent (if grotesque) proportions.

Well then, how does perceptual experience reveal an external world—a horse, say? When I perceive a horse, I am the subject of experiences of various kinds: sensuous imagery (I am appeared to in a certain complicated and hard-to-describe fashion) and also, ordinarily, affective experience (perhaps I am frightened by the horse, or feel a certain admiration for it, or delight in its speed and strength or whatever). There is also doxastic experience. When I perceive a horse, there is that sensuous and affective experience, but also the feeling, experience, intimation with respect to a certain proposition (that I see a horse) that that proposition is true, right, to be believed, the way things really are. This doxastic experience plays a crucial role in perception. How does perceptual experience teach me that there is a horse in my backyard? By way of this belief’s being occasioned (in part) by the experience, and by way of the belief’s having warrant—being produced by properly functioning cognitive faculties in an appropriate epistemic environment (both mini and maxi), according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth. So can I tell from my experience 334 that there is a horse there? Certainly. Telling such a thing from one’s experience is forming the belief that a horse is there in response to the sensuous and doxastic experience, the belief’s being formed under the conditions that confer warrant. The fact is, this happens all the time.

My point here is not that, in fact, people do tell from their experience such things as that there is a horse in the backyard, but rather that this is possible. More exactly, my point is that your seeing a horse in your backyard (thus determining by experience that there is a horse there) is not precluded by the fact that your experience is logically compatible with there being no horse there (or anywhere else). Your experience is logically compatible with there being no horse there: fair enough; but it simply doesn’t follow that you can’t tell by experience that there is a horse there. (How else would you tell? Deduce it from first principles and self-evident truths?) That’s the way it is with horses; can I also tell from my experience that I have existed for more than a microsecond or so? Certainly. I do this by remembering, for example, that I had breakfast much more than a microsecond ago and that I went to college embarrassingly long ago. True, my experience here (in particular, my doxastic experience) is compatible with its being the case that I have existed for only a microsecond; it simply doesn’t follow that I can’t tell by experience that I have existed for at least a good hour, say. I determine by experience that I have existed for more than a microsecond if the belief that I did something more than a microsecond ago is occasioned by my experience (doxastic and otherwise) and if that belief is formed under conditions that confer warrant upon it. This happens often: so we often tell (by experience) that we have existed for more than a microsecond.

And of course the same goes for religious experience and theistic belief. True: the existence of the experiences that go with the operation of the sensus divinitatis (or IIHS) are compatible with there being no omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good creator of the universe. It doesn’t follow from that, however, that we can’t tell—and tell, broadly speaking, by experience—that there is such a person. For here, as elsewhere, there is doxastic experience: the belief that there is an almighty person to whom I owe allegiance and obedience just seems right, proper, true, the way things are. And one tells by experience that there is such a person if (1) the beliefs in question are formed in response to the experience (doxastic and otherwise) that go with the operation of the sensus divinitatis and (2) those beliefs are formed under the conditions of warrant. That these conditions should be met is, of course, entirely compatible with the fact that the existence of the experience, doxastic and otherwise, accompanying the operation of the sensus divinitatis is compatible with the falsehood of its deliverances. These beliefs can have warrant, and enough warrant 335to constitute knowledge, even if the existence of those experiences is compatible with the denials of those beliefs.426426   I point out that this is so on my account of warrant, but the same goes for the other main accounts. Clearly beliefs produced by IIHS could be coherent with the appropriate body of belief, or formed by a reliable belief-producing mechanism, or justified, even if, as Mackie points out, the existence of the relevant experiences is compatible with the falsehood of the beliefs in question. The same goes for belief in the great things of the gospel: they too can have warrant (and warrant sufficient for knowledge), even if, in fact, the existence of the experiences accompanying the IIHS is compatible with the falsehood of those beliefs.

Could it be that Mackie’s point lies in a different direction? Perhaps he’s thinking like this: an experience could reveal a blue object, all right, but not an omnipotent object. The claim is not that experience can’t reveal any objects at all; the claim is rather that there are some properties such that experience could not reveal that there is an object with those properties. Examples would be such properties as omniscience, omnipotence, being divine, being the son of God, and the like. Here Mackie would presumably be relying on the analogy with sensuous experience: sensuous experience can perhaps reveal the existence of objects with color and shape properties (it can reveal the existence of blue and square objects) but not the existence of objects with properties like omnipotence.

By way of response: this is perhaps true of sensuous experience and of perception. It is not true of experience generally, however; in particular, it isn’t true of doxastic experience. Memory and a priori belief formation involve doxastic experience; and the deliverances of memory and reason are not limited to the existence of things with perceptible properties. The same goes for the sensus divinitatis and the IIHS. Should we therefore conclude that what one learns, if anything, by way of these sources of belief is not really something learned by experience? Perhaps. If we do, however, then the claim that one can’t learn by experience that there is for example an omnipotent being is no longer relevant to the model’s stipulation that one can learn these things by way of the sensus divinitatis or the IIHS. Maybe one can’t learn that sort of thing by experience; it will not follow that one cannot learn that sort of thing by way of the sensus divinitatis and the IIHS.


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