Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Home Again

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Religious experience is frequently used as argument in support of the existence of God. Those who claim to have had a religious experience are often thoroughly convinced, to a great extent, of God’s existence. Peter Donovan, in his essay “Can We Know God by Experience”, attempts to show that religious experience alone cannot serve as evidence for God’s existence. According to Donovan, the notion of a religious experience, in and of itself, is simply an inadequate, insufficient attempt to prove a way in wich Goad can be known. This paper will first state the essential parts of Donovan’s argument, followed by an analysis of his position.

To begin, Donovan first identifies and clarifies the claims of the opposing view; namely, the assertion that religious experience is enough evidence to attain knowledge of God. Arguing from a religious experience standpoint is an argument made from intuitive knowledge. Intuitive knowledge is a direct way of knowing, not from reasoning or argument, but from just knowing. An example of intuitive knowledge is given in the text on page 70, “I know you’re the person I spoke to on the bus yesterday”. It often involves a feeling of complete certainty, because the observer has apparently had a direct, absolute experience of something; no further argument is needed for that person

It is by this line of reasoning (intuitive knowledge) where the strategy resides for those who wish to argue knowing God through religious experience is possible. Having an experience of x is sufficient reason for thinking x exists. If one has a religious experience of God (x), and was directly and intuitively aware of God through this experience, then no further argument is really necessary to show (x) exits. Much appeal resides in the idea of knowing God by intuition through a religious experience. It is extremely personal, enables faith, and to the proprietor no more support is needed.

Donovan attacks the notion and points out numerous difficulties and mistakes made by those who claim knowledge of God is possible through religious experience. Having an experience of x is not sufficient evidence for thinking that x exists, with regard to religious experiences and God. In his argument, Donovan draws the distinction between merely feeling certain and actually being right. He proceeds to note three difficulties of the notion that having an experience of x is evidence for thinking x exists. The author, on page 77 states “knowledge through encounter has been subjected to telling criticisms.” He proceeds to discuss the following three difficulties (as mentioned on page 77)

(i) The sense that an encounter is taking place may be mistaken.

(ii) Having ‘experience of’ presupposes having knowledge about

(iii) ‘Experience of’ is not itself knowledge

Next, it will be shown how these three criticisms attack the overall strategy of the argument from experience to the existence of God.

The first difficulty refers to the possibility that the one who experienced the religious event could have been wrong. Consider two people having a close relationship or being in love with each other. They may, with certainty, claim to know each other very well by intuition, and the certainty that follows from intuition. Here, Donovan refers to the views of Bertrand Russell on page 77, “As Bertrand Russell reminded us, our apparent intuitions about other people can be wildly astray.” A reliable context, frame of reference, or vocabulary is not always present to verify the correctness or veridicality of one’s intuitions (or religious experiences for that matter). Having an experience of a flower, then claiming a flower exits, is much more allowable and acceptable through using intuition than the claim of experiencing God through intuition.

“Our knowledge of the working of sense organs, the range of tests and checking procedures which surround the experiences they give us, all contribute to the context in which our intuitive perceptions take place and help us justify them…just because we have some acceptable cases of knowing by intuition (sense perception, other minds, arithmetic) it does not follow that there is an intuitive ‘way of knowing’ in other cases as well.” (75, Donovan)

A reliable, agreeable context and vocabulary does not exist when referring to religious experiences; actually, must dispute exists. Therefore, we should not rely on intuitive religious experience as sufficient evidence pointing towards the existence of God. Another short example given by Donovan is a telephone caller who is certain they are speaking to a person, but then discover they were only speaking with a computer. Yet, the possibility that one may be mistaken may not deter those who claim to have had religious experiences from thinking otherwise.


Donovan then proceeds to the second difficulty, that having ‘an experience of’ presupposes having ‘knowledge about’. The core idea present in this difficulty is that it is meaningless and incoherent to have an experience of something without having at least some knowledge of it. It is often argued that “I-You” relationships, which are direct while subjective, reciprocal and person-to-person are sufficient in regards to a God/person relationship. “I-You” relationships differ from “I-It” relationships, which are objective, contain reasoning, analysis and scientific knowledge. “I-You” relationships are often defined as ones that cannot be put into words; furthermore, it is argued that an “I-You” relationship is the genuine way to know God, as he reveals himself in a personal way. Donovan questions this notion of a reliance on “I-You” relationships to experience God; if one attempts to describe an “I-You” relationship to someone else it immediately becomes no longer intimate and personal; as a result, it now falls under the category of an “I-It” relationship. Donovan requests the reader to not underestimate the significance and need for “I-It” relationships, because “I-You” relationships often depend on “I-It” ones. “I-It” relationships, in the case of people and religious experiences, are necessary according to Donovan�‘knowledge about’ (background knowledge of a conception of God, what most religious experiences consist of, certain attributes of God) is needed to have an “I-You” relationship. It is for these reasons that Donovan states, “Without knowledge about what is being experienced, experience of points no more towards God than towards any other possible person.” (Donovan, 7). He remarks on the theist’s problem; namely, that if one’s relationship with God is an “I-You” relationship, then an escape from description is made. Something that escapes description does not serve as significant evidence for an experience of God.

The third difficulty states that mere ‘experience of’ is not, in and of itself, knowledge. Donovan points out that having an ‘experience of’ is important, but only because it puts one in a position to attain knowledge; but the mere ‘experience of’ is not sufficient claim to knowledge. “To treat experience of something as itself a kind of knowledge is to confuse the means by which we may gain knowledge with the content of the knowledge itself.” (80, Donovan) The author provides an example of a male doctor, who definitely has never had the first hand experience of being pregnant, yet has much knowledge concerning anatomy and could safely deliver a baby. Yet first hand experience alone does not serve as an adequate provider for knowledge. For example, a woman may “first-hand” experience a pregnancy. Yet if she has absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of her anatomy, conception, etc, her first-hand experience will not equal the knowledge attained by a trained doctor. Here, the distinction has been made between “knowledge of” and “knowledge about”.

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