In this paper, I will be surveying the arguments against the “Principle of Credulity” relative to religious experience in order to see which appear to succeed and which fail. Religious experience is not the same as the principle of credulity; however, the principle of credulity is a large piece of evidence in favor of religious experience being taken seriously in the epistemic sense. Furthermore, citing the principle of credulity is not the same as claiming that the principle is the only piece of evidence in favor of taking religious experience seriously in the epistemic sense. Finally, I will be introducing new formulations of the principle of credulity in light of all the objections.
All epistemologists by nature desire to participate in the study of knowledge. Epistemology is indispensable as a major branch of philosophy, and epistemology of religion is a crucial branch of epistemology. Within epistemology of religion, the epistemology of religious experience is perhaps currently the most hotly debated topic. This is plausibly due to the fact that philosophy of religion has had a resurgence in importance and is viewed seriously as a branch or sub-branch of philosophy.
My claim is this: In at least some formulations, including new ones that I will present, the principle of credulity is seemingly more true than false with respect to religious experience. This is partly established by the apparent failures of objections to the principle, but it is mainly established by the fact that the denial of this principle would lead to an untenable form of skepticism. However, the principle has potential problems as evidenced by the objections to the principle with respect to at least some formulations. Because of this, I will attempt to create new formulations of the principle that are more modest. First, I will explain the principle of credulity and why it is plausible. Secondly, I will explain and respond to the objections to the principle of credulity. Finally, I will devise new formulations of the principle of credulity. Doing this requires defining important terms that will be used throughout this paper.
What is a religious experience? In the strict sense, it is an experience of God or gods. In a broad sense, it is an experience of anything transcending physical reality. Religious experience, therefore, can include experiences of the God of generic theism, (a being with the three famous Omni-attributes), the God of classical theism, the Christian God, Allah, Yahweh, angels, demons, out-of-body experiences, and so forth. The term “veridical” is defined as corresponding with reality: if an experience corresponds to the way things actually are, such an experience is veridical. For example, if I see a phone and the phone is really present, then my experience is veridical; if I see pink elephants but the pink elephants do not exist outside of my mind, my experience is not veridical. The definition of “God,” in the strict sense, is a being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. In a broad sense, God is a being who is personal, transcendent, uncaused, powerful, and/or the creator of the universe.
A Brief History
Conversations regarding the epistemic importance of religious experience increased with the emergence of William James’ essay on the “Will to Believe.” Before James, Karl Marx expressed his view of the importance of religion experience. Following Marx and James, Freud is famous for his opinions, in some ways similar to Marx but at the same time original. It should be noted that Freud’s and Marx’s theories have been largely abandoned. Later, after Freud, Marx, and James, C.D. Broad offered additional insight..
The Principle of Credulity
The Principle of Credulity (PC):
- If it seems to S that X is present, then S should conclude that X is present.
- Therefore, it is probable that X is present.
It should be noted that the Principle does not have to include probabilities; it is only concerned with the fact that S can or should conclude X is present based on his or her perception.
The idea is not complicated and can be illustrated by a simple example. Suppose I am in my living room. It seems to me that there is a television present. Given the PC, I should conclude that the television is present. But of course a skeptic can respond, saying, “But it’s possible that there is no television in the room. What makes you so sure that a television is present?”.
However, no one should claim that he or she is absolutely sure that a television is present because there is almost always a slight possibility that one is wrong. However, we are not absolutely certain of many things. If we are going to avoid global skepticism, we must accept some version of the PC. If we are going to acknowledge sense-perceptions as being potentially veridical, we must accept the PC. But, not accepting sense-perceptions as capable of being veridical or justified would be a reductio ad absurdum of such a position in the sense that we would arrive at an untenable form of global skepticism. Therefore, it seems that any sincere seeker of truth should accept a version of the PC.
The above example of the PC can be formulated as a syllogistic argument in the following way:
- If it seems to me that a television is present, I should conclude that a television is in fact present.
- It seems to me that a television is present.
- Therefore, a television is in fact present.
The evidence for premise 1 is the PC. If it seems to me that X is present, I should conclude X is present. The argument above allows us to better see how the PC actually works. But at the same time, it is not as if I am running an argument when I treat my experience of a television as veridical. Premise 1 is an example of applying the PC. Premise 2 is an assumption often hidden in arguments; here it is just more explicit.
The key support for the principle of credulity is that the denial of the principle leads to extreme skepticism. An example is sensory perception as it relates to external objects. The key point that Swinburne makes is that there is no non-circular justification for accepting my senses as reliable relative to the issue of whether my sensory perceptions correspond to the way the external world actually is. Hence, there is no argument to support the notion that my senses are veridical; it is presupposed as a bedrock belief. Giving up the reliability of sensory perceptions is an untenable form of skepticism. We do not live as if our sensory perceptions cannot possibly be veridical or veridical for the most part. (One example of an exception is the effect of drugs on perception).
We recognize the possibility that any given sensory experience can be mistaken, mainly because we have had such experiences. But of course the mere possibility that ALL of our experiences are not veridical is not enough to abandon the notion that we should assume our sensory perceptions to be reliable. Because it is plausible that our sensory perceptions are most often veridical, we accept them as veridical unless or until we encounter a defeater of the sensory experience. Given that possibility, there is a defeasibility clause built into the notion of viewing any given sensory experience as veridical or even justifiable. It is important to note that all Swinburne has said is true, regardless of the issue of whether veridical experience can be considered knowledge.
An important question is whether sensory experiences are analogous to religious experiences, regardless of whether other evidence favors applying the PC to religious experiences. There are key similarities between sensory and religious experiences:
- Both are experiences.
- Both can be epistemically and psychologically forceful.
- Both are shared by the vast majority of people.
- Both are perceptual, grounded in experience.
- Both can, in theory, be public experiences.
- When public experiences, both can, at least sometimes, be checked and tested by other people.
6.1 At least some religious experiences can be cross-checked and tested. If people witness what seems to be a man walking on water, a public event, they can choose to consult with one another about what they are witnessing.
While it is true that there are differences between religious and sensory experiences, the question is whether these differences are relevant and whether differences outweigh similarities.
Objections to Swinburne’s PC
Philosopher of Religion William Rowe says that, in regard to the PC, we know the mechanisms of SE (sense experience) but we do not have access to the mechanisms of religious experiences. But what are the mechanisms of religious experience? Is it not plausible to suggest that knowing the mechanisms of an experience is crucial to the issue of epistemic justification insofar as knowing when the mechanisms are malfunctioning? Rowe asserts that we know what will lead to delusory experiences of SP (sensory perception), e.g., drug usage. But he questions why we should assume that this applies to religious experiences. With sensory experiences we can place people in proximity to the object in the situation and evaluate whether the experience is delusory. But how does this apply to God? God is a free agent, after all, and can choose to reveal himself to some and not to others. In other words, Rowe accepts the PC but doubts if the principle applies to religious experience.
One of Schellenberg’s main objections is his claim that PCs seems too liberal when applied to religious experience, but acceptable when applied generally to sense-perception. Schellenberg takes a very conservative approach when considering doxastic practices. He thinks that religious experience itself is too liberal an approach to our doxastic practices. Schellenberg states that we desire doxastic practices that are universal and unavoidable, including sense- perception. Hence, Schellenberg appears to view sense-perception quite differently than religious experience when examining doxastic practices.
Richard Gale raises the issue of how we are to infer that the object experienced was God. Hence, in regards to religious experience, he sees a problem of inference.
Michael Martin thinks, using the logic of the original PC, that the non-existence of God can be supported with what he terms the negative PC. His idea is that, if it seems to someone that God does not exist, he or she should conclude that God does not exist. For example, Jones is a non-theist who has never believed in God. It seems to Jones that God does not exist. Applying the negative PC, Jones is rationally justified in thinking that God does not exist and his seemings to be veridical. But if the negative PC is not strong, then why would the original PC also not be strong?
Reply to Objections
Rowe’s objection might be the fallacy of “ a distinction without a difference.” Do the mechanisms involved even matter regarding the justification of a belief ? For instance, do we really know the mechanisms that generate veridical sense experiences such that we can distinguish when the mechanisms are not reliable? Could we not just be skeptics about external objects? Do we need to know the mechanisms of why a certain painting seems beautiful or why murder is wrong? Do we know the mechanisms of moral experience? Are we going to be skeptics about moral experience? How moral knowledge comes about is debated and is the issue at hand. One could feel that there are moral truths, whether or not there actually are. Drugs or naturalistic explanations can be defeaters of religious experiences. In other words, we can be justified in experiences for which we do not know the mechanisms that would undercut the experience. (But there are still arguments against the existence of God that, if sound, would require the theist to disregard the religious experience as veridical). If this is so, then Rowe’s criterion is not relevant. Just because we might not know the mechanism does not mean there is not a plausible solution. A 3- or 4-year-old might not know how the mechanisms of the five senses work; nevertheless, the child does know what he or she is experiencing. The conclusion is this: just because we do not know the mechanism does not mean there is not one. Similarly, just because we do not know how God gives us these experiences does not mean he cannot do so.
Rowe says that drugs serve as defeaters to sensory perceptions, but what about with religious experiences? In many cases someone thought he or she was having a religious experience, but the experience was not veridical because it was later determined to be drug-induced. Clearly, drugs can produce religious experiences that are not veridical.
But what about the fact that God is a free agent whereas a tree is not? Well, there are also agents (free?) in the world, humans. Jones might choose to reveal himself to Fred but not to Jessica. Furthermore, let us assume Jones does not have an online presence or a phone. Jessica has to accept Fred’s claim that he had an experience of what seemed to be an agent, Jones.
Should Jessica reject Fred’s supposed experience, considering it unjustified, because the experience of Fred with Jones did not occur in front of Jessica? Obviously, no. Even more importantly, why would Fred choose to reject his experience as being veridical because Jones did not reveal himself to Jessica but instead chose Fred? And yet, Fred also knows that Jones has revealed himself to other humans before. In fact, we can imagine a scenario in which Jones made himself known to Fred and Fred’s friend Alex but not to Jessica. Unlike objects, agents (e.g., God) can have reasons for revealing themselves to others; that is the difference between objects and subjects. Because agents like God have reasons, it is difficult to determine what to do in order to have an experience of God, unlike determining what to do in order to experience a chair. Because of this crucial difference, it is possible for some people to experience God, while others in similar circumstances do not experience God. In speculating on the circumstances in which an individual would experience God, one plausible and necessary condition is that an individual must be seeking God and be non-resistant to God.
Schellenberg gives a reason to doubt the principle; he urges people to be minimalists regarding doxastic practices. However, is it possible to be too minimalist, as are people who accept classical foundationalism? His objection regarding epistemic minimalism might imply that he assumes religious experience is not reliable; hence, he would be begging the question. The underlying minimal principle behind sensory experiences and religious experience is that we should trust what seems to be true to us, which would include sense and religious perceptual seeming. Denying this basic principle itself leads to radical skepticism. If we are too minimalist, we can rule out sense-perceptions as unreliable. If we are too liberal, we could accept things such as random feelings or a magic eight ball as reliable. The question is where we should land on the spectrum, and this is a serious debate in epistemology because the answer to this question is not at all obvious. Asking this question assumes that we should trust our seemings, our perceptual and intuitive seemings. Should we be minimalists regarding moral experience, for example? Of course, in general, religious experiences might be less forceful than sense-perception, but less forceful is not forceless. The whole issue that is up for debate is what doxastic practices are to be permitted. That is, it’s not at all clear or obvious which doxastic practices are acceptable.
My contention could be viewed as the “line-drawing fallacy,” insisting a line needs to be drawn where one is not needed. However, sometimes a line is needed. In this case, we want to know what is included in our pool of options. Obviously, some things such as “tingly feelings” cannot be included. Secondly, I am not contending that we should give up if we cannot draw a line. Perhaps it is not possible to be exact in this case. However, that does not mean we cannot rule certain options out, or that we cannot be reasonably sure about what options to include.
Schellenberg might object to my assumption that religious experience is a realizable doxastic practice, but that affirms my position. Our disagreement surfaces with the question, “What counts as a reliable doxastic practice?” I could point out that Schellenberg and others are assuming that X practice is reliable, hence, our need to debate with reason itself or the doxastic practices to which we can agree. I do not deny that religious experience can be defeated by other tools such as sense-perception or arguments, or that these tools might be more reliable than religious experience.
It is not obvious why religious experience should not be included in our pool of options. Religious experience is not the same thing as, for example, having a random gut feeling. Once again, the principle underlying religious experience, regarding perceptual seemings, serves as evidence in favor of religious experience. There are at least some religious experiences that the subject should treat as veridical, such as an out-of-body or near-death experience, a prophetic dream, or seeing someone rise from the dead.
To state this another way, my assumption is not so much that religious experience is reliable in response to Schellenberg, but rather that I do not see much cause to think that religious experience is not reliable, which is important because he has the burden of proof because he is running the argument. I see religious experience as somewhat analogous to sense-perception, and I also see the potential problem of global skepticism lurking if we do not include religious experience. Both points serve as evidence that we should apply the PC to religious experience; therefore, by accepting the PC, we have reason to treat our religious experiences as veridical and reliable. Ultimately, I can also be a skeptic regarding sense-perception instead of just religious experience. How is it possible to know that sense-perception is really reliable in producing veridical experiences of actual external objects? The assumption is indeed circular, as Swinburne argues. Even if we were to restrict doxastic practices to just sense experience, for example, the floodgates are not necessarily opened.
But what about doxastic practices that are unavoidable, like sense experience? And would not seemings themselves also be unavoidable? People disagree about what is unavoidable. Descartes would disagree with Locke, and both of them would disagree with contemporary versions of modest foundationalism. Experiences themselves are considered legitimate. Religious experience is an experience; therefore, religious experiences are considered legitimate. But it certainly is true that we can look for defeaters of our experiences through arguments; basic laws of logic, such as the principle of non-contradiction; and facts we know are true by reasons or sense experience. Religious experience can be viewed, not as contradicting other important features like reason, but rather as going hand in hand, an issue which will be expanded upon later.
However, and more importantly, unavoidability may not be a criterion that we should use. If it is, we risk leaving out important doxastic practices. It is avoidable to deny the proposition that “One should only accept doxastic practices that are unavoidable.” It is self-defeating or, at the least not self-evidently true. Can unavoidable practices have more epistemic weight than avoidable practices? Certainly. Therefore, some religious experiences can be seen as very forceful and unavoidable, such as witnessing someone rise from the dead or having an out-of-body experience.
Although Schellenberg talks about universality, when thinking about sense-perception, not everyone has sight or can hear. From this fact, we would not conclude that we should remove sight or sound from the picture of being reliable. With religious experience, it is nearly universal. I do not claim that everyone has had a religious experience, just as I do not claim that everyone has the gift of sight or taste. Likewise, for example, I do not conclude that I should not trust my moral intuitions because of the existence of psychopaths or that I should not trust my intuition that child torture is wrong. Moreover, one should not doubt the reliability of reason and argumentation because of the existence of retarded persons.
Some might argue that religious experience is not universal or nearly universal. This is not true, given religious demographics and the claims to religious experiences; religious experiences are widespread. Of course, not everyone has the same experience or the same number of experiences. However, these experiences are common and should not be viewed as outliers.
Some might object by arguing that sense experiences are more widespread than religious experiences, which is true. But why does that matter? The common thread is that both of these experiences are incredibly common, even though one is more common than the other.
Certainly many (most?) religious experiences are not as forceful as our general sense- perceptions. But this should make no difference. I have many less obvious sense- perceptions that I am justified in taking as veridical.
So, the underlying intuitive point is that we should accept a doxastic practice as being reliable as we do with sensory perceptions, unless there are grounds to think the practice is not reliable. Consequently, the burden of proof is very much with the skeptic who claims that the PC does not apply to religious experience or questions whether religious experiences are reliable.
Richard Gale also raises objections, the more relevant ones of which will be considered here. There are de facto defeaters to religious experiences and it seems that Gale agrees. This is a telling admission, because it means that accepting one’s own religious experiences as veridical is not obviously irrational. In addition, we also know that some people’s religious experiences, like sense experience, can be defeated because they used drugs. Are there some sensory experiences that cannot be defeated by other people? It seems that there are, but that does not mean we are going to totally discard sensory experiences. In the same manner, even if some religious experiences cannot be defeated, we would not want to say that we should eliminate thinking religious experiences could be reliable or veridical. Gale also questions Swinburne’s tactic of using the PC to argue for the existence of God based on religious experience or using it in a cumulative case for establishing that God exists, even if the argument from religious experience adds little to the scale in favor of theism.
This might be Swinburne’s goal but it is certainly not my goal to say that the total evidence of theism outweighs non-theism. In fact, I am not even intending the PC to be an argument for relevancy at all. The aim here is not to convince the non-theist to accept theism or give him or her a reason to accept theism. On the contrary, the aim is to point out that the theist can be rational in taking religious experience as internal evidence that God exists.
Additionally, Gale raises another objection when he says:
“This raises the problem of how we can experientially identify God. To know that one is experiencing God, and not just any old very powerful, loving, non-human person, of which there could be several, it is necessary to know that what one is experiencing completely and solely determines every feature of the world. But this requires knowing the negative fact that there does not exist any being other than this who determines any of these features. The same considerations hold for God’s Omni-properties; to know that the apparent object of your experience is omnipotent, you must know the negative fact about it that there is no possible state of affairs that it cannot bring about. Swinburne rightly restricts the PC to positive-seeming experiences: ‘The principle is so phrased that how things seem positively to be is evidence of how they are, but how things seem not to be is not such evidence’ (p. 414; his emphasis). But he fails to see that this restriction to positive-seeming experiences precludes his applying the PC to religious experiences, since they are in part negative.”
I contend that one can conclude through inference or immediate seeming, like that of perceiving a chair, that the chair is big and purple; one is relying on positive seemings without taking into account negative facts, and it is not clear what is wrong with this approach. For example, it seems to me that I am perceiving a chair even if I have not concluded, “It is not a vampire.” In this example, I am concluding that there is a chair, and by concluding that there is a chair, I also believe that the object is not a vampire nor anything else. I am not concluding what the object is not, before concluding what the object is. So, I could be wrong about my seeming being from God, but I could also be right; hence, possibility is not enough. A comforting experience of a God would show that he is good, if not all-good, and an experience of God where someone is convicted of their wrongdoings would show that God is morally good. For God to produce such an experience, it seems that he would have to be very powerful, if not all-powerful. God can be seen to be powerful because of someone’s experience of nature, because if God designed the universe, obviously a great deal of power is required. God can also be seen to be powerful through a prophetic dream, vision, and so forth. In thinking of nature, it seems implausible to suggest that God cannot produce such an experience. After all, it is God using nature. This does not seem to be a problem unless one assumes that God cannot interact with the universe or material reality.
It is not necessary to think of the PC in terms of probabilities, as Gale might seem to think, or at least as he might think in terms of Swinburne’s principle. When I accept my seeming that a couch exists in front of me, I am not running probabilities. To do so would paralyze me regarding sensory perception. For instance, I might be in the grocery store and see what appears to be a bag of grapes, but I am not, nor should I be, running through, a probability calculus. In addition, as noted earlier, some religious experiences, such as public experiences, should be treated by the subject as veridical.
Now it is time to move on to Michael Martin and his negative principle of credulity
Michael Martin’s NPC (negative principle of credulity) is as follows:
1. It seems to me that God does not exist.
- Therefore, I should conclude that God does not exist
The underlying premise of the NPC is that if X seems to me to not exist, I should conclude that X does not exist. For example, if it seems to me from my experiences that unicorns do not exist, then I should conclude that unicorns do not exist. Likewise, if it seems to me that there is no cereal or tuna in my pantry, then I should conclude that there is no cereal or tuna in my pantry. And if it seems to me that there is not a television, couch, or window in my living room, then I should conclude from this negative principle that these objects are not present.
An initial objection might be that Martin’s NPC commits the fallacy of appealing to ignorance: someone does not know whether p (proposition) is true or that X exists; therefore, p is not true or X does not exist. I think this charge of fallacy is plausibly mistaken. The evidence that X does not exist is from one’s experience, and does not claim that others should accept that X exists or that p is true because of another’s experience. Rather, one’s experience of X or ~X provides sufficient evidence for the rational conclusion that X does or does not exist. Clearly, for example, when I look in the oven and do not see a dog, then I should conclude that there is no dog.
Overall, Michael Martin’s NPC is not analogous to the original PC. The grain of truth is that one is allowed to suspend belief of God if there is no experience (or argument) to justify belief in God. For example, Jones was raised in a family where nobody believed that God existed. Furthermore, Jones has not had an experience of God, and he does not find any of the arguments for God particularly compelling or perhaps has not heard any argument. (It might also be the case that he finds arguments against God’s existence somewhat probable).
However, the principle goes wrong because S not experiencing X only justifies S in concluding X does not exist in instances where, if X did exist, then we would expect S to have an experience of X. This is not the same as Swinburne’s formulation, which allows that religious experience can be immediate (or non-inferential/basic, as Alvin Plantinga has argued). Hence, the non-theist cannot infer God’s non-existence from mere experience without examining what he or she would expect if God did exist, which means that they are not finding God’s non-existence from experience. It is exactly these inferences that we are examining: some are good and some are bad. Thus, even if the negative PC is weak, it would not apply to the original PC because the principles are not the same.
To explain further, if I look in the refrigerator and see my cat, that is a good reason to think that there is a cat in the refrigerator. Also, if I open the refrigerator and do not see my cat that is a good reason to suppose that the cat is not in the refrigerator; if the cat was in the refrigerator. In one case, the experience is immediate. In the other case, it relies on the assumption that I should I expect there to be more evidence of a cat , and Martin’s principal relies on such an assumption.
An objection might be raised that an atheist’s experiences of pointless suffering that are unnecessary in order to achieve a greater good provide a pathway to have a negative PC. But once again, does this not rely on the further assumption that if God exists, he would not allow pointless suffering? It seems so, and if that is the case, this assumption needs to be considered before deciding that the atheist concludes from experience that God does not exist.
But even if we grant Martin’s principle, it is uncertain what the significance of the conclusion would be if the principle is sound. (Martin himself seems to be more focused on using the negative PC to undermine the PC by arguing they are analogous which would be a problem, because most theists already think the negative PC is weak). Many theists accept that atheists can be epistemically justified in not believing in God or believing that the proposition, “God does not exist,” is true. If that is the case, what would the problem be if the theist grants that this would also apply to experience where the atheist is justified in concluding God’s non-existence from the lack of an experience of God? The experience of the theist and non-theist lead to contradictory conclusions, but notice the difference between a belief being justified or seeming veridical and a belief being true in reality. Arguments for atheism and arguments for theism can entail contradictory conclusions, but we are not asserting that these arguments do not justify a person’s belief in the conclusion. Are we going to give up reason because sometimes people reach different conclusions? Likewise, regarding experience, we do not necessarily conclude someone is unjustified in his or her experience because of a contradictory experience. In other words, the theist and atheist can both be justified in taking their experience as veridical. An objection might be made that only one person’s experience can in fact be veridical, which I grant; however, that is not identical to someone concluding that the experience is veridical.
So, if one wanted to undermine an argument for God’s existence from religious experience, which is not identical to the PC, there could be a problem. If the negative PC is sound and can be developed into an argument like someone might do with the PC, the arguments would reach contradictory conclusions based on exactly the same reasoning: “God exists” and “God does not exist.” This is a reductio ad absurdum, which means our reasoning took a wrong turn somewhere. However, I am not concerned with using religious experiences as arguments for God’s existence, but I am concerned with epistemic justification of religious experience.
Now that we have analyzed objections to the PC, we will examine new formulations of the Principle of Credulity
A New PC: New More Plausible Formulations of the Original PC
First Formulation: S can be justified taking their religious experience (RE) as veridical, but only on prima facie grounds such that the subject is in fact plausibly obligated to actively search for defeaters.
One strength of such a formulation is that people can take their experience as veridical, but that it also builds in a safeguard so that people can plausibly revise their belief that their experience was veridical by actively searching and investigating. One weakness is that the formulation may place a very high burden on the subject. Is it desirable to say that it is plausible that at least some people have to search for defeaters or to say that most people need to do this? This formulation would say that most people would have to be skeptical and look for defeaters of their experience. This formulation is stronger than similar formulations discussed later. We do (should?) at least say that some sensory perceptions require investigations for defeaters. If so, why not also require this for religious experiences? Some might object and say there is no weakness here because there is not a high burden on the subject. However, I believe that there is a potential weakness.
Some might say that one does not have to search for defeaters in order to take his or her experience as (prima facie) veridical. My point in this formulation is that one should look for defeaters after such an experience. It could be too weak to say that someone could wait until a defeater comes along. This is not the same thing as searching for a defeater but not having found it yet. In the latter case one is practicing an epistemic virtue, but in the former, one is not.
Also it could be said that some people might be obligated to accept their experience, and this is perhaps so. My argument is that there are at least some times when one is not obligated; this seems to be very modest. If I am aware in circumstance C that there is a 50/50 chance of my experience being veridical, I am permitted to accept my experience as veridical but I am not obligated.
Finally, someone could say, “One isn’t necessarily obligated to search for defeaters of their experience because this would lead to the absurd consequence that one has to search for defeaters of their sensory experience.” However, sometimes, we are obligated, if, for example, a sensory experience is out of the ordinary. If the sensory experience is that there is some object O, one is not necessarily obligated to look for a defeater, unless it is out of the ordinary, such as Voldemort or a unicorn. And I am not suggesting, in this formulation, an absurd amount of research or investigation. With God, we know that many people do have non-veridical experiences, as evidenced by people’s testimony and contradictory experiences. An experience of God is not completely normal, like an experience of a chair. But remember, I am only proposing here that it is possible that someone is obligated to look for defeaters. I do not think this should be merely seen as possibility in the sense of “logical” possibility. Rather, it is a live possibility or somewhat probable. This is similar to my second formulation that I will talk about, except that I make the case that one is obligated to search for defeaters. The main difference between the first and second formulations is the fact that the second is more parsimonious; in other words, it does not add more assumptions of criteria.
Second Formulation: Subject S can be justified in taking their religious experience (RE) as veridical, but only on prima facie grounds, such that S is then possibly obligated to look for defeaters that counter taking the experience to be veridical.
One strength of this formulation is that it avoids total subjectivity by looking for defeaters or being skeptical. It is not desirable to say that nobody who has ever undergone a religious experience is obligated to search for defeaters. If we are maintaining the analogy with sense- perception, this mean there are times when some are obligated to look for defeaters or be skeptical of their experience.
Given that some religious experiences are very unreliable, perhaps it is good to think seriously about some experiences such as those that are induced by music. However, if the experience is very forceful, such as a vision or voice of God, it may not be necessary to reflect very much (or at all) on this experience, but it is also not obvious that they should not at least think of potential defeaters (e.g., drugs, mental state, and so forth). But is this different from my first formulation of the PC? Well, yes and no. The only difference is that the formulation says that it is “possible” that someone is obligated to search for a defeater or to “reflect.” It seems like there would be at least some time where someone is obligated to reflect on his or her experience.
But here we are making the modest claim that one isn’t necessarily obligated to accept their experience as veridical. Also it has the advantage of allowing some situations where people are obligated to search for defeaters. In addition, the principle focuses more on epistemic permissibility than epistemic obligation, which seems to be more “bipartisan.”
For instance, let us assume I am alone in a stranger’s house and I hear a noise. I keep hearing the noise and I immediately I think the house is haunted. Moreover, suppose I hear a noise entering my room near me that sounds like a ghost. I then figure out it is coming through the window. Surely I need to think twice in both cases. In the first case, I know that I am alone, that I am prone to anxiety, and I have just watched a horror movie. Given these conditions, surely I am obligated to be skeptical about my experience. In the second scenario, I know that I heard a noise that sounded like a ghost; however, there are also other possibilities that could cause the sound, such as the wind. Surely I should think to myself that the wind is a simpler explanation. And even if I did not have such a ready answer, am I necessarily permitted to conclude that my experience was veridical? Surely not. What I know is that the noise sounded like a ghost, but in reality do I even know what a ghost would sound like if it could make a noise? In such an experience it is probable that I am importing data from elsewhere, perhaps a movie. In others words, what seemed like an innocent experience was just a natural experience with a bit of projection by the subject. This could also occur in religious experiences.
If I hear a voice of God that is a caricature of a voice on a TV show or in a movie, I might laugh or think twice about whether my experience was veridical. Similarly, if I had a supposed veridical experience where I saw a caricatured version of Jesus as a white male, muscular, and without a smile on his face, I should be skeptical. Secondly, think about whether a subject has awareness that the experience might potentially be false, as it might with religious diversity, which can be seen as analogous to people disagreeing regarding sensory perceptions. At some point, the disagreement can become. Is it not reasonable that one might be wrong?
One weakness of this formulation is that it does not account for the fact that there might be some people who are obligated to take their experience as veridical, because perhaps the experience is very forceful, like the sensory experience of touching a window. On the contrary, accepting that some are obligated to accept the veridicality of their experience is not a very strong claim. Are we possibly obligated to reflect on our experience of a chair? What about a dragon? Having an experience of seeing something like a lamp is quite different from seeing an angel or hearing God. Give the extraordinary nature of some of these very religious experiences, would not one at least be curious about whether this experience was veridical?
Given our background knowledge, experiences such as angels are not ordinary. Many times we can easily dismiss an experience of an angel or God on other grounds. It is certainly epistemically possible that sometimes we are not obligated to look for defeaters, but at the same time, it is also epistemically possible that we are. More literature needs to be written about this possibility. If this possibility is actually the case, then it is a very serious matter. Perhaps we are very wrong if we think that we are not sometimes obligated to check for defeaters. And as I have argued, the principle is not totally implausible.
Further Objections: Objections to this particular formulation might be raised by saying that most religious experiences are forceful in the relevant sense, so that the person is permitted to take it as veridical. My claim is not based on an inductive survey on the matter, however. I only claim that there are some, perhaps even many, religious experiences that are not that forceful, either at first glance or at all. Whether this is true of the majority or the vast majority of experiences is irrelevant to what I am proposing with this formulation. Any honest seeker cannot say, “There are not any religious experiences that are epistemically unreliable,” because there clearly are these types of experiences, even if not the majority.
Someone might also object that the principle, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” (and/or “Extraordinary experiences require extraordinary skepticism”) applies to testimony but not to personal experience, that there is a difference between testimony and person experience. Certainly a first-hand experience seems to be different from testimony because someone has direct access. We also seem to think that someone taking an experience as veridical has greater epistemic weight than if they had heard it from some other person.
Nevertheless, it would not follow that the person having a more epistemically justified belief regarding an experience E would never need to be skeptical of what they are experiencing. Let’s look at an example.
Suppose that it seems to me, while walking in the woods, that I come across what seems to be Bigfoot. I am not quite sure at first what I am seeing, so I do not conclude what I am seeing yet, nor should I. But as I get closer it really appears to be Bigfoot. I think to myself, “Wow, this really looks like Bigfoot.” Given what I know, I further note, everything else suggests that Bigfoot does not exist. After all, would there not be more evidence of Bigfoot if he existed? I also wonder to myself if I have been drugged. Certainly there are people who have used drugs and have seen what was an apparent appearance of Bigfoot. I also note that I believe I have seen Bigfoot costumes before, even though I cannot quite remember where. On a movie set? In a retail store? Both? Therefore, it seems more likely that I would see a person in the woods wearing a Bigfoot costume. As it turns out, this is exactly what happened. My brother was playing a prank on me after he secretly brought home a Bigfoot costume. How this applies to religious experiences should be somewhat obvious, given the case of the angel that I previously referred to.
With God, l can have an experience where I swear I heard the voice of God. Was it all in my head? I conclude that I do not know. I know that many people have heard voices in their head that turned out to be non-veridical. It does not seem that I should not be skeptical; I am at least skeptical enough that I am not justified in concluding that I heard the voice of God.
Third Formulation: Subject S is prima facie justified in taking his or her religious experience to be veridical, but then S is possibly obligated to cross-check the experience, if S can cross-check the experience.
A strength of this formulation is that it takes into account that cross-checking is taken seriously with sense experience (but of course, perhaps, we are wrong and we should not take cross-checking too seriously). Cross-checking is a safety measure to avoid total delusion, but of course we can always be skeptical about the existence of external physical objects. The fact is, we need to have a stopping point somewhere down the line in terms of cross-checking our sensory experiences with others. Essentially, we are almost assuming they are capable of having veridical experiences of physical objects, and similarly with religious experiences.
As mentioned earlier, there is also the safety measure of someone having to give up his or her belief when disagreement arises. It seems that there are at least some situations where one needs to be skeptical of the original experience, which can happen when someone starts cross-checking the experience. For example, suppose there are a dozen people in a religious building such as a church. Of the dozen are people of difference religious affiliations: four Christians, two Jews, three Muslims, three non-theists, and two Hindus. They all have different experiences while in the church, and everyone is aware of this fact before they leave. The three non-theists did not have any experience at all, the two Jews had an experience of fear, the three Muslims had an experience of guilt, and only two of the three Christians had an experience. One Christian had an experience of joy and the other Christian had an experience of conviction. Such a scenario suggests that there are some religious experiences, like sensory experiences, where one is possibly or plausibly obligated to cross-check the experience. And further, every person in this group should be somewhat skeptical of his or her experience, unless a person thinks that they themselves cannot possibly be wrong, which is dubious.
A weakness of this formulation is whether religious experience can be cross-checked in a relevant way. If no, would this pose a further problem? Can RE be checked at all? Do people who experience pink elephants cross-check their experience? Multiple people have seen pink elephants before. But a big difference between pink elephants and religious experience is that religious experiences are taking place among individuals in the same location at the same time. Even if I take drugs in an attempt to see pink elephants, there is no guarantee that I will see them, and there is certainly no guarantee that I am going to experience pink elephants at the same time as Jones. Because of this, Jones and I should conclude that pinks elephants are a product of our minds, which is further evidenced by drugs. Given that we know that drugs induce such experiences, it is not at all surprising that I do not think my experience was veridical. Often, perhaps out of habit, we think cross-checking to be almost necessary, but perhaps this is wrong. At the very least, cross-checking seems to be relevantly important.
Further Objections: Someone might object to my example about people in the church, that one having a veridical experience is not undermined by another having a non-veridical experience; this objection is confused. What is true is that I might have thought the experience was veridical, but it turns out not to be. Moreover, many religious experiences are not extremely forceful or obviously veridical; hence, it should not be difficult to overturn that person’s experience, which can include disagreement. The problem becomes serious when the example is changed. Suppose 5,000 people in the church had totally different experiences from your own experience. Would you not conclude that maybe you were plausibly or very possibly wrong about your experience being veridical? Would you not at least be somewhat skeptical?
Someone might also object by saying that cross-checking is not relevant, but avoiding this assumption can solve the problem. The problem is that cross-checking does seem at least somewhat relevant as evidenced by our sensory experience. Nevertheless, I am not intending to persuade people who disagree that cross-checking is irrelevant in this formulation. Rather, it is assumed that the person will take it for granted.
Final General Objections to My Proposal
Someone might object to the creation of new formulations of the PC, arguing that the principle is just being reformulated to avoid objections. Maybe, but I am not convinced this is relevant because we have to deal with the arguments, not the intentions of people. One of the benefits of doing this is that it bypasses discussion on old objections so that new objections that arise can be addressed. Hence, the objector is going to have to do more, i.e., to bring up new objections to different formulations of the PC, so it will not do to simply hand wave. An objection might be, “But you are missing the point, which is that your move is totally ad hoc.” But why is that? I am saying that there are better ways to think of the PC, just like there are better routes to get to London. In addition, I do not actually have to concede that the original PC is not cogent. I could just say, “For the sake of argument, let’s concede it is not cogent, etc.” Even if the original PC is considered good, that does not mean there are not better versions. The original PC might be defective, in a sense, but that would not mean that overall it is not more plausibly sound than its negation. Besides, many theists and non-theists alike think the original PC is sound for various reasons, including those already discussed.
Someone might also object by saying the original PC is fine so, “Don’t fix what isn’t broken.” But in the context of this discussion, this response is begging the question. Even though the original PC might not be bad or totally broken, that does not mean we cannot make it even better. And, I do not view the original PC as being perfect, which means we can improve it. Someone might accuse me of committing the perfectionist fallacy, that is, I would be endorsing that we should not accept the PC unless there are no errors or problems. That is not what I am saying. Rather, what I am saying (and it seems that the objection actually presupposes my claim), is that we can improve on the PC even if it cannot be perfect.
Then, there is the objection that the original PC is simpler. But is it simpler in the relevant sense? In other words, do we need to add more assumptions in such a way that we are not violating the rule of parsimony? I contend that there are other assumptions that we need to take into account that Swinburne’s original PC does not. Now certainly, Swinburne’s original formulation of the PC has fewer words than mine, but why might that matter? He could easily have clarified it by being clearer in his wording of the PC, which could have required more words. In addition, my formulations are not simply lengthier. Also, simplicity is not the only measure we need to use in evaluating which hypothesis is the best; rather, we also take into account such things as background information, degrees of ad hoc explanatory power, explanatory scope, and so forth.
Finally, I want to clarify my aim in making new formulations of the PC. Quite plausibly, some of the formulations can be seen as being mutually incompatible with some of the other formulations. However, my point has been to lay out all these formulations and argue for them. Hence, some people will find a certain formulation to be more plausible than others and have to reject the others that are incompatible with it.
We have seen that various objections to the principle of credulity are not successful; however, there might indeed be future valid objections to the principle of credulity as it relates to religious experience. There has been much discussion on the principle of credulity, but there needs to be more, so that perhaps there will one day be a consensus that the principle of credulity, as applied to religious experience, succeeds or fails. Secondly, new formulations of the principle of credulity have been presented, which reinforce my claim that more work needs to be done on the principle of credulity. One thing is clear: it highly likely that this paper is not the last on this topic.
Even though I have responded to objections regarding the analogy of religious experiences to sensory perceptions, it might be claimed that there could be further objections in the future. As I have said, maybe this is the case (or maybe not).
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Marx, Karl, 1977. Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Joseph O’Malley and Annette Jolin (trans.), New York: Cambridge.
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Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2979), chapter 13.
Plantinga, Alvin, 1981, “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?” Noûs, 15: 41–51
Plantinga, Alvin. 2000, Warranted Christian Belief, New York: Oxford University Press
Rowe, William L.. 1982. “Religious Experience and the Principle of Credulity”. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 13 (2). Springer: 85–92. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40025676.
Webb, Mark, “Religious Experience”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
William James. 1902. Varieties of Religious Experience, London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
Karl Marx. 1977. Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Joseph O’Malley and Annette Jolin (trans.), New York: Cambridge.
Webb, Mark, “Religious Experience”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
 Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2979), chapter 13.
Richard Swinburne. The Existence of God (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2979), chapter 13.
Richard Swinburne. The Existence of God (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2979), chapter 13.
Peter Losin, “Experience of God and the Principle of Credulity: A Reply to Rowe”, Faith and Philosophy 4:1 (January 1987) 59-70.
William L. Rowe. 1982. “Religious Experience and the Principle of Credulity”. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 13 (2). Springer: 85–92.
Schellenberg, J.L. “Chapter 8.” In The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism, 160-89. Cornell University Press, 2007.
 Michael Martin (1986). The Principle of Credulity and Religious Experience. Religious Studies 22 (1):79 – 93.
William Alston makes the point in his work, “Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience,” that the skeptic can be accused of epistemic chauvinism once we get to the doxastic practice of religious experience. That is, they are just dismissing out of hand with no reason, and thus, they are also engaging in special pleading.
Michael Martin (1986). The Principle of Credulity and Religious Experience. Religious Studies 22 (1):79 – 93.
Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2979), chapter 13.
Alvin Plantinga. 2000, Warranted Christian Belief, New York: Oxford University Press
 The term “extraordinary” can be defined by example. If my friend claims that he saw a unicorn, then his claim is extraordinary, not ordinary. His claim here is clearly different from the claim that, “Jones ate cereal this morning.” And this principle does not depend on assessing prior and posterior probabilities, which is contrary to what some Christian apologists seem to mistakenly think the principle is really saying.