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Elisa Freschi

Thank you, Helen, this last post makes all the previous ones even more interesting. By the way, the Sanskrit texts about expert perception we discussed in connection with those posts also end up discussing intellectual intuition of religious truths. For instance, the Buddhists may argue that like a trained jeweler sees more than a normal person in a gem, so a practitioner will be able to directly perceive the Four Noble Truths. The Mīmāṃsakas answer with some variations of "no matter how long you practice, you will never be able to jump until the moon, nor to enlarge the precinct of application of the sense-faculties beyond what is sense-perceivable". To which the Buddhists react that the moon example is not suitable, since in the case of the moon one does not accummulate progress (at each jump, one starts again from the ground), which is not the case with Buddhist practice (see Sarah McClintock's Omniscience and the Rhetoric of Reason).

Coming back to your initial query, a possible charitative answer (which you probably also hint at) is that the content of the religious experience is right (e.g., "experience of something other than myself who gets in touch with me"), but that the intellectual interpretation of it as "The Virgin Mary appeared to me" is wrong and is a conceptual overimposition in which one fails to distinguish between perceptual (the experience of otherness) and remembered (the image of the Virgin Mary with a blue mantle one has so often seen).

TM Luhrmann

So cool that you are tackling this issue. I would make two comments. First, while the training is important, the more dramatic experiences are spontaneous--even though training makes them more likely. Second, the more dramatic experiences are, in fact, similar. I think one can still make an ontological defense the way William James did. To do so you do need to jettison what he called "over beliefs"--that it is, in fact, the Virgin Mary. You can avoid the jettison if you add an argument for why some forms of belief are more likely to be true than others. Scholars like Justin Barrett of course use CSR to make the claim that monotheisms, big gods or even just Christianity are better matches for the way the mind has evolved.

Interesting post.

Helen De Cruz

Thanks for your responses!

Elisa, I would think that the charitable answer you provide (and I hint at) might be the best response for the person who wants to defend some epistemic value of religious experiences - it would be compatible with the human shortcomings we have, and the continued emphasis of mystics on being careful about interpretation (Teresa of Avila worries a lot about this). Still, it would mean that we need to rethink classic Alstonian or Swinburne-type defenses, since according to these epistemologists we can know a great deal based on religious experience, whereas this would caution us in our interpretations

Helen De Cruz

[In response to TM Luhrmann's comment] Thank you for responding - I have been thinking about the spontaneity of the religious experiences, and it seems that they are perfectly compatible with training. Just like training tends help make other spontaneous experiences happen, so does religious experience. But while the phenomenology of what I call skilled perception and ordinary perception is quite similar, the developmental pathway of how you get there are quite distinct in a way that I think matters for the justification of these beliefs. Take the difference between an ordinary perceiver, who sees a bird in the sky, and a skilled perceiver (birder), who sees a buzzard in the sky. I agree that there is a basic phenomenological component, and a more interpretive component (i.e., there is a buzzard, because of the shape of the wings, the environment; similarly, the sweet voice I am hearing is Mary, because I asked her previously for help, it seems to accord with my ideas about Mary, etc).

I am intrigued (but remain unconvinced) by Justin Barrett's claim that we are disposed to monotheisms, or even to Christianity. In the absence of a good argument for why one's interpretation of the religious experience is valid, it seems to me that the incompatibility of religious experiences across different traditions poses a problem for justifying religious beliefs on the basis of such experiences.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Helen: super-interesting post! I was thinking that one thing you might want to investigate (if you haven't already) is whether skilled religious perception has any relation to skilled perception of other not-straightforwardly-religious things--for instance, skilled perception of kindness, humility, love, empathy, etc. My feeling is that there may be some really interesting connections here.


There's no part of infinity that's finite. so if you're 'hearing voices', it's not that of the eternal infinite.
i can't tell you the truth-but i can lie to you.
logic and reason cannot show us the truth but they can show us what is not true and thereby process of elimination reveal what must be true.
the mystic is the one who makes no distinction between human history and natural history.

Helen De Cruz

Marcus: I know that ancient philosophers drew a close connection between skill and virtues (Aristotle, for instance), but I would be very interested in hearing more about this - both by contemporary and non-contemporary philosophers. If you have any reading suggestions that would be helpful (I'm thinking of looking at how the approach outlined in this series of posts can be developed into virtue-epistemological terms).


I'm teaching James and then a chapter of this book this week in my philosophy of religion class (together with a short piece on skill in perception). One disanalogy I'm noticing is that much of the literature on skill in perception seems to involve recognitional abilities, whereas the experiences in prayer described in the book are not straightforwardly recognitional. Rather, the skill and practices goes towards simply having new experiences rather than being better able to classify experiences.

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