For the last installment of my featured author blog series on skilled perception, I'd like to focus on the question of mystical perception. How do religious believers come to perceive religious beings such as God? If such perceptions are the result of skilled perception - as I will argue - what follows for the justification of religious beliefs formed on the basis of religious perception?
Authors like Swinburne and Alston have argued that religious experience provides positive justification for religious belief. Religious experience, so they assume, is analogous to sense perception. Given that sense perception has a strong evidential force, religious experience too has a strong evidential force.For Swinburne (2004) it is rational to adopt what he terms the principle of credulity: if it seems epistemically that x is present, then probably x is present.
In the light of recent psychology of religion, we need to revisit this analogy between religious experience and ordinary perception. Alston, Swinburne and many others rely on William James' highly readable but by now quite dated account of religious experience in his Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Anthropologists, such as Tanya Luhrmann found that religious experience is rarely a spontaneous matter. American evangelicals typically engage in a lot of deliberate practice before they can hear God 'speaking' to them inside their minds:
One of the first things a person must master at a church like the Vineyard is to recognize when God is present and when he responds ... Newcomers soon learn that God is understood to speak to congregants inside their own minds. They learn that someone who worships God at the Vineyard must develop the ability to recognize thoughts in their mind that are in fact not their thoughts, but God’s. They learn that this is a skill they must master (Luhrmann, 2012 When God talks back, 39).
What does this deliberate practice consist of? A variety of things, including pretend play, where one imagines one is having a cup of tea with God, lots of prayer, both in group and alone, praying while focusing on an object, such as a candle, and extensive bible study.
It is the same in other religious traditions: people use techniques such as meditation, ingest mind-altering substances, pray extensively, before they get any sort of religious experience. Take, as another example, Teresa of Avila. This 16th century Catholic nun had very sensuous religious experiences (inspiring the sculpture by Bernini in the picture), and her writings are cited - out of their context - by Alston and colleagues to draw attention to the immediacy of her mystical perception. However, in her works The way of perfection and The interior Castle she places a great emphasis on spiritual practices. Mystical perception would thus be more like art connoisseurship, birding or other such skilled epistemic practices than ordinary perception.
How do we know whether mystical perception tracks truth? A standard way to justify reliance on religious experiences is a Reidian defense, which relies heavily on an analogy with sense perception. If we do not trust our ordinary senses, we end up in a skeptical bog. Since religious experience is like sense perception, we are reasonable to trust its outputs as well. However, if the analogy with ordinary perception breaks down, so does the justification.
I have argued that skilled epistemic practices confer prima facie justification, but not in the same way as ordinary perception. Specifically, I have argued that if you have no higher order evidence about whether the skill is tracking truths, you are justified to place prima facie trust in the practice being a truth-tracking one. For one thing, the skill is socially acquired, but the chance that one's teacher is a fraud is very low (see my previous post for detailed defense of this claim).
However, for mystical perception we do have higher-order evidence, for instance in the reports of people who have the experiences. In this respect, I think mystical perception fares worse than, for instance, scientific perception. Unlike with scientific practices and art connoisseurship, there is little convergence between religious experts from different religious traditions.
Religious skilled epistemic practices from each community give rise to mutually incompatible beliefs. Take, for instance, Shinto priest Yamakage explains how one can acquire a sensitivity to the presence of Kami by preparing a sacred space appropriately, and by training oneself to be aware for signs of their presence, to communicate with them, and to coax them into a shrine. The expert in this field is the kannushi, a man or woman who knows the proper ways to approach Kami and to make them feel welcome. With an expert kannushi leading a Shinto ceremony, one feels “awe-struck in front of the shrine and we feel that Kami is truly present” (Yamakage, 2012 Essence of Shinto, 76). Again, while attending a ceremony presided by a kannushi, a Christian might experience solemnity and awe, but likely she will not feel the presence of Kami.
There are several ways one may account for the disparities in religious experiences. One obvious explanation is that all religious experiences are false, deceptions brought about by normal neurological processes. Another is a full-blown form of religious pluralism, where saints, the Triune God, Kami, witches, are on an ontological par. Or perhaps religious experiences in different cultures may all point to some transcendent reality, and capture something about what that transcendent reality is. On a more exclusivist reading, some interpretations of religious experiences might be mistaken. For instance, when a Shinto priest feels the presence of Kami he might really be feeling the presence of God, but misinterpret his experiences. It might be that only some religious experiences are genuine.
All these interpretations challenge the reasonableness of reliance on mystical perception to make claims about religious entities. Parochially, within traditions, there are religious experts whose mystical experiences are regarded as meaningful. However, analytic philosophers of religion do not engage with this local, parochial level. I would venture that few are radical social constructivists, according to which our perception of reality is radically shaped by cultural practices. For this reason, within analytic philosophy of religion, which aims to make universal claims about religion, invoking mystical perception as a source of justification for religious claims is problematic. [note: I have been thinking a lot about this issue, and here is an earlier version of thoughts about this.]