Transcript: Podcast 9- Personal Experiences

31 August 2007

For this episode we are going to take a look at personal experiences and warrant for the main feature. I am going to argue that a personal experience of God is a legitimate way for the person who has the experience to have a justified belief in God. For the book reviews we are going to look at N.T. Wright’s book Simply Christian. I also want to review God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, which is a popular atheist book that is causing quite a stir these days. Finally, for the audience question I’m going to address the digits of pi and see if that constitutes an example of an actual infinite in the real world. But first, let’s take a quick look at the news.

News

Lee Strobel has just released a new book titled The Case for the Real Jesus. Strobel is a popular Christian author who has written a whole series of ‘case for’ books, including The Case for Christ, The Case for Faith, and The Case for a Creator. This new book addresses six common claims made by opponents of Orthodox Christianity,

1.Certain ancient documents describe a different, yet equally credible, Jesus.
2.The Church altered the original Biblical text.
3.Jesus’ resurrection has now been explained away.
4.Jesus has been copied from earlier pagan religions.
5.Jesus did not fulfill the Jewish (Old Testament) messianic prophecies.
6.It’s a free country so believe whatever you want.

I haven’t had a chance to pick up a copy yet, but I will be sure to give it a read soon. Strobel’s books are always good material, and so you may want to think about getting a copy yourself.

Main Feature: Personal Experience and Warrant

In this podcast I attempt to demonstrate that belief in God and Christianity is rational, and, in fact, that the evidence shows that one should rationally believe that Christianity is true. Yet, the vast majority of Christians have little or no familiarity with the sorts of arguments and evidences that I have considered in past episodes. For example, many people; both historically and currently, are not aware of the fact that the universe requires fine-tuned parameters which cry out for an intelligent designer and creator of the universe. Similarly, very few people are really aware of the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Should we conclude that such people have no justification for their belief, or that they are irrational for believing Christianity?

Thankfully, I don’t think we need to make this claim. Empirical evidence is just one way that we obtain justified knowledge, but it is not the only way. At least one other important source of knowledge can be found in personal experience; and, upon reflection, I think we will find that we actually give greater weight to personal experience in many occasions than we do to empirical evidence. Whether or not such is the case, I think that we all recognize that personal experience is a valid way for us to obtain justified knowledge.

To take a simple example, many of my listeners have probably never met President George W. Bush. Despite this lack of personal knowledge, most listeners would also probably grant that he really exists. Based on empirical knowledge, it is quite obvious that Bush exists; in fact, we would be justified in believing that Bush exists even if we never saw or heard him on radio or television, on the basis of the testimony of others and other facts.

However, some people actually know George W. Bush because they have met him. Surely, this personal experience is strong evidence in favor of the existence of George W. Bush. It is quite clear that personal experience is at least one way to obtain justified beliefs.

Indeed, according to Christianity, the reason we know that Christianity is true is because of the witness of the Holy Spirit. John 14:26 says,

“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

Therefore, believers know that Christianity is true, not because there is excellent evidence for the truth of Christianity, but rather because of the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. And this is a form of belief based on personal experience.

Now, I will not get into the details of exactly what this witness of the Holy Spirit is like, primarily because it probably differs from person to person but also because it may take on different forms. It may be a non-reducible conviction that one has, or it may be based on the events of one’s life, so that someone knows that God exists because of things that have happened in his or her life. The basic point of it is that Christians can know that Christianity is true on the basis of personal experience.

Now to be clear, I do not wish to claim that such personal experiences can justify to the nonbeliever the truth of Christianity. By their very nature, personal experiences cannot really provide evidence to anybody else but the person that has them. This important point will help to diffuse several common objections to the argument from personal experience. Now I would like to consider several of these objections.

1. Personal Experiences are emotional experiences, not logical ones.

When a believer references her personal experience of God as a justification for her belief, nonbelievers may retort that such experiences are merely emotional and do not carry any logical force. But we’ve already seen, at least in cases of personal experiences with other human beings, that it is entirely rational to believe that the other person exists on the basis of the experience alone. While there might admittedly be some differences between a personal experience of God and a personal experience of George W. Bush, they are at least theoretically in the same category, so we need some sort of justification for the assertion that personal experiences of God are purely emotional.

Usually, this is based on the idea of wish fulfillment. According to the nonbeliever, the believer with a personal experience merely wants God to exist, and so she tricks herself into thinking that God is really there. However, there are several problems with this argument. First of all, it is by no means a precondition of experiencing God’s presence that one wants to experience that presence or even wants to believe that God exists. Many people report feeling convicted of God’s presence when they don’t want it at all, such as after they have committed a terrible sin. Furthermore, wanting to experience God’s presence doesn’t entail having it. Second of all, the same could be said of someone who has a personal experience of another person whom they ‘want’ to exist. Would we discount the personal experience of the die-hard republican who desperately wants George W. Bush to exist?

Note once again that I am only defending personal experiences as a justified way of obtaining knowledge for the person that has the experience. Perhaps the nonbeliever who wishes to discount the testimony of a believer can rationally think that the believer has simply deluded herself. But the believer is still justified in her personal belief, as long as she thinks that the personal experience is good enough evidence.

2. Personal Experiences are the result of ‘memes’, etc.

A second objection to personal experiences is that they can be reduced to evolutionary memes in action or brain-induced phenomena. After all, the brain frequently plays tricks on us. Some individuals are prone to hallucinations, delusions, etc. Why shouldn’t we simply suppose that all personal experiences of God are mere brain delusions?

The first thing to note is that this argument proves too much. We would be reduced to an unlivable skepticism if we follow these lines of reasoning, which can be applied to any area of personal experience. Sure, it is possible that the personal experience is revealing something real, but how can we be sure that it is not simply an illusion or a hallucination of some sort? Even checking the experience against empirical facts would be little help, since our experience of such empirical facts could likewise be a hallucination. Contrary to this extreme skepticism, almost all people have a strong tendency to accept their mental experiences at face value. Unless there is a very good reason for regarding a particular experience as delusional, we rightly assume that the experience is likely to reveal something true about reality.

It is certainly possible for nonbelievers to believe and claim that the large numbers of religious people who claim to have a personal experience of God are delusional, but individual believers are under no obligation to assume that their own experiences are a fiction. The individual experiencer must judge the merits of his experience for himself. If the individual is truly reflective and recognizes a strong possibility that they are hallucinating or mistaken in any way, then they may discount their experience. Lacking such a recognition, it is eminently reasonable for believers to take their own experience at face value.

Moreover, I think it is important to note that it is not merely the delusional or the psychotic who claim to have experiences of God. Rather, millions of well-adjusted, sane individuals claim to have such experiences. So, at the very least, we have no prima facie reason to assume that such experiences are mere delusions.

3. Followers of different religions claim to have contradictory experiences.

Probably the most common objection to personal experiences as a way of knowing that God exists is that many followers of other religions claim to have experiences of their own. Since these experiences are often incompatible with Christian beliefs, this goes to show that personal experiences are untrustworthy and thus are not a good source of knowledge.

In response to this problem, I must emphasize once again that I am only considering personal experiences as evidence for the person who has the experience. The fact that others report contradictory experiences may well be reason for the atheist to be skeptical of such claims in general, but they still don’t undermine the rationality of the believer who takes his experience seriously. Indeed, we cannot possibly know the state of mind of the person who claims a contradictory experience.

In the book Does God Exist: The Craig/Flew Debate 1, atheist philosopher Paul Draper responds to William Lane Craig’s argument that a Christian can know on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit that Christianity is true. He begins his critique by discussing the so-called ‘dreaded dendrological disorder.’ This disease causes its victims to see trees when none are there. Draper reasonably supposes that, if we know that we are infected with dendrological disorder, then we should not assume that a tree is actually there just because we see a tree. Moreover, if we have good reason to think that we are infected, we should likewise be cautious to assume that trees we see are real, even though they certainly might be.

Draper then compares dendrological disorder with a condition known as ‘senseless divinititus’, which makes its victims seem to experience revelatory acts of God even when they are illusory. Draper says that the exclusivist Christian must admit that many people suffer from this condition, since many people report religious experiences which are, according to the Christian worldview, false.

Draper says that, since we know that millions of other people are infected with senseless divinititus, we should therefore realize that it is very possible that we are also infected. This would mean that we should be skeptical of assuming that our experiences of God are actual rather than illusory.

Craig counters that this only provides evidence that others have the condition, but it provides no evidence for the individual experiencer. What we need is some sort of evidence that an individual person actually has the condition. This evidence could potentially be provided, if, say, the atheist were able to give good arguments against the truth of Christian theism. But, in the absence of such evidence, there really is no reason for the Christian to assume that she has senseless divinititus.

Craig points out further that the simple fact that another individual claims to have a contradictory experience is no reason to regard one’s own experiences as flawed.

“Consider, by analogy, beliefs formed on the ground of moral experience. Should I regard as unwarranted my belief that anti-Semitism is immoral just because Nazis regarded it as moral? Certainly not; their warped perceptions should not lead me to think that my perceptions are warped, even though there is no court of appeal beyond moral experience itself.” [181]

It seems to me, therefore, that Christians who believe in the truth of Christianity on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit are rationally justified in their belief. The majority of Christians believe in God because of personal experiences. These individuals are not necessarily irrational, because personal experiences are a valid and conclusive way for a person to know God. That does not mean, however, that Christians should expect others to believe that their personal experiences are genuine evidence for the existence of God. Furthermore, they should be prepared to give evidence for God that transcends their own experiences. The evidence for Christianity serves to further supplement belief and refute the claim that the experiences are illusory.

Book Reviews

Simply Christian

The first book I’m going to review is Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense by N.T. Wright. Wright is a brilliant and prolific New Testament scholar, but in this book he writes for a general audience. Wright doesn’t offer very much in the form of airtight arguments. Nevertheless, his book offers a great presentation of the basic Christian message, and, moreover, what it means to live a Christian life.

A major theme of the book is the four ‘signposts’ that point us to something deeper than the merely physical universe; these signposts are our desire for justice, our quest for spirituality, our need of relationships, and our apprehension of beauty. Though he admits that these hints do not point us directly to the Christian God, Wright contends that they compel us to look beyond the purely physical universe.

He then proceeds to go through the basic Christian story, from the beginning of the Old Testament to the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He goes on to discuss the practical implication of this story for our lives, including an explanation of the relevance and importance of Christian disciplines such as worship, prayer, and Biblical reading.

One of Wright’s main themes is to explain that, according to the Christian worldview, heaven and earth interlock. This is opposed to pantheism, where God and the universe are one, and Deism, where God is separated from, or at least not much interested in, the world. Wright points out that the beauty of living the Christian life is the ability to live where heaven and earth collide. Christians are not merely those who believe an abstract set of theological truths, they are people who are striving, individually and collectively, to live as a part of God’s new creation. As he states on page 237, near the end of the book,

“We are called to be part of God’s new creation, called to be agents of that new creation here and now. We are called to model and display that new creation in symphonies and family life, in restorative justice and poetry, in holiness and service to the poor, in politics and painting.”

Simply Christian may not have a great deal of apologetic value, but it was still a refreshing and encouraging read, as well as a good exposition of what Christians really believe. In a world that is always constructing caricatures of Christian belief, this book comes as a welcome relief. My rating is 4 stars out of 5.

God is Not Great

The next book I want to look at is the recent bestseller God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, written by Christopher Hitchens and published earlier this year in May. The subtitle of the book gives a good idea of the book’s contents. Hitchens tries to demonstrate that religion is a malignant force, both in the lives of individual persons and in society at large.

This is a common complaint, and one which I have argued has little or nothing to do with the truth of Christianity. Christianity depends upon the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is no surprise to the Christian that people, including professing Christians, commit horrendous acts. In fact, such findings are entirely consistent with the Christian worldview. This is why the types of arguments offered by Hitchens are so irrelevant. Even if he was right about all that he says, which is a highly unlikely proposition, it would have little or no bearing on the truth of Christianity. In those few areas where he actually addresses the evidence for God’s existence, his effort is sophomoric at best. The book contains a brief discussion of the Design Argument, where he objects to the inference of a designer because of the vastness of the universe, as if this is supposed to be evidence of bad design. When Hitchens addresses the Old and New Testaments, he shows little knowledge of or respect for scholarship. He claims that the Gospels cannot agree on anything of importance, even though all the Gospels share a great deal of important commonalities, such as the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. He gives equal historical credence to non-canonical Gospels which scholars know to be much later and much more dubious than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and he even seems to entertain the absurd historical idea that Jesus never existed.

Even more dubious is Hitchen’s attempt to blame religion for evil done by those who aren’t religious in non-religious societies. He claims that totalitarian governments are ‘essentially religious’ and therefore, apparently, religion is also to blame for the misdeeds of Hitler and Stalin. This may be a convenient hypothesis for Hitchens, but those who are not already convinced that religion ‘poisons everything’ are unlikely to be convinced.

Hitchens is widely renowned for his rhetorical skills, but such skills do not produce good arguments. God is not Great fails miserably on this front. While it may provide comfort to the non-religious who are seeking a pep talk, and it may shake the faith of unreflective believers, Hitchens’ effort completely fails to produce a convincing case for… anything. If God is not great, Hitchens is barely tolerable.

My rating for this book: 1 star out of 5.

Audience Question

For the audience question this episode I would like to address Parvinder’s question, “Do the digits of pi prove that an actual infinite is possible.”

For those that are unfamiliar with the context, this may seem to be a strange question. However, this is actually related to the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which I defended in the second episode of this podcast. This argument seeks to show that the universe had a beginning and therefore requires a cause. One of the ways to demonstrate that the universe had a beginning is to show that an actual infinite cannot exist in the world. If this is true, then the universe must have had a beginning, otherwise it would have existed for an infinite number of time intervals and an infinite number of events would have taken place. 2

I do not think that the digits of pi constitute an example of an actual infinite in the world. First, note that there is no place in the universe where all the digits are written down, there is no computer in the world that has calculated all the digits of pi either. If there were, then we would have a genuine example of an infinite on our hands.

Now, we can calculate the digits of pi continuously, but we will never arrive at a point where we are suddenly finished. This is why the digits of pi could be referred to as a potential infinite. A potential infinite is a collection which is, at any time, finite but which, over time, increases toward infinity as a limit.

The only reason to take the potentially infinite digits of pi as an example of an actual infinite would be if we were to accept Platonism, according to which abstract objects actually exist. However, Platonism is a very controversial position, and in fact I offered a brief critique of this view in episode 2 of this podcast.

Now, the biggest question actually arises when we ask about God’s knowledge of pi. Would not his omniscience entail that he knows all the infinite digits of pi? This is a complicated question, and I will not be able to provide a detailed answer here. However, I will just say that Christian tradition has held that God’s knowledge is non-propositional in nature. Only because we are finite minds do we perceive knowledge in a propositional way.

NOTES:

1. Craig, W., & Flew, A. (2003). Does God Exist: The Craig-Flew Debate. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.

2. See Craig, W. (1991). The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe. Truth: A Journal of Modern Thought, 3, 85-96. Retrieved August 31, 2007, from http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5174



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