mystical experience argument for god

I’ve just finished reading The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (got to love summer!). There are a number of great points in here, but I liked this one sufficiently to share it. Basically, the author is talking about the argument for god’s existence (the Judeo-Christian-Muslim personal god) based on “mystical experience” or “sensing god’s presence”. The author of the chapter says,

“…whereas there are objective, agreed-upon tests for determining when a person’s sensory faculty is not functioning properly, there are no such tests for determining when a person’s mystical faculty is not functioning properly. Furthermore, there is no mystical analogue to a sensory observer being properly positioned in space, since God does not stand in any spatial relations. That there is no mystical analogue to normality of observer and circumstances results in a pernicious evidential assymetry in that the occurrence of mystical experiences is taken to be confirmatory, but the failure to have them, even when the mystical way of meditating, fasting, and the like is followed, is not taken as disconfirmatory. Thus the mystical agreement test is one that can be passed but not flunked, and thus is no test at all. It is like a “heads I win tails you lose” sort of con game.” (pp. 98-99)

If you’re like me and have to read this a dozen times to make sure you understand it, here’s my simplified version: (1) You can KNOW god exists through sensory experience. (2) You CAN NOT NOT KNOW god exists through sensory experience. (3) Thus, you can only know god exists through sensory experience. (4) If you can only confirm god’s existence and not disconfirm it, then this method is biased and not a particularly useful way of knowing anything.


I'm a college professor and, well, a professional X-Mormon. Thus, ProfXM. I love my Mormon family, but have issues with LDS Inc. And I'm not afraid to tell LDS Inc. what I really think... anonymously, of course!

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12 Responses

  1. I covered much the same ground in a recent post. A test that only ever gives positive results is deeply flawed and patently useless.

  2. Seth R. says:

    Look, if I intuitively like the idea of God, and I intuitively sense that there is one. Then bully for me right? It works for me, it’s compelling for me and I don’t really care if it makes a good science fair project.

    All I can do is invite others to experience the same thing, and if they don’t… well then, we’re all done here right?

    I’m not interested in trying to prove God to people who aren’t making the connection. God is something you personally experience. If you aren’t experiencing it, then I feel no particular urge to try and ram it down your throat.

    I’d just appreciate not being treated like a moron for drawing PERSONAL conclusions from an intuitive experience in an absence of objective external evidence.

    I don’t care if people want to say they have no particular compelling reason to believe in God. Fine.

    But I do mind when they take it to the next level and start ridiculing those who still believe.

  3. dpc says:

    Now that I’m back from exile…

    I think that the argument ignores the question as to what is a “sensory experience”. By which sense do we feel emotions? I think the interplay between the brain, hormones and nervous system create something more than what would appear by looking at brain activity alone.

    Plus the question raises an issue of interpretation. When I see a Nike slash, I interpret it differently than someone who has not seen the Nike symbol. A theist and an atheist can experience the same emotion or experience, but they interpret it differently.

  4. Wayne says:

    Since everything going on in your brain: emotions, sensory experience etc. are basically chemical secretions; it could be argued that people having “mystical” experiences have more of that chemical.

    It also comes down to how emotions are interpreted.

  5. Seth,

    The problem is that historically religion has not been kept personal. If we could all leave well enough alone and keep religion to the personal sphere, then I would be fine to let the issue drop. I’m libertarian like that. 🙂

    Some people tell me that I am damned to eternal flames for turning my back on God. They use many of the same arguments for the existence of their jealous God that you use for your more benign God. I can’t help it if my rebuttals catch you as collateral damage.

    In this case, the argument for God’s existence from mystical experiences is at the core of Mormonism. It suffers from lots of logical holes. If you’ve hitched your wagon to this argument (which I assume is why you’re responding the way you are), then don’t take it personally when I point out those holes.

    And besides, if you can invite me to experience God with you, I can invite you to think critically about the problems with your interpretation of those experiences. It’s a fair trade. 🙂

  6. Matt says:

    Not to mention that a post-modernist interpretation of god is so yesterday. By god, Seth, if you’re going to believe in a god at least believe in one that’s not such a pussy. Honestly, I think I have more respect for the fundamentalist/literalist ’cause at least to such god is as real and likely to kick your ass as gravity.

  7. Seth R. says:

    Agreed Jonathan.

    Matt, I’m not much for postmodernism really. But when trying to get along with others who don’t believe as you do, a certain degree of tolerance and respect is necessary.

  8. profxm says:

    I’m hesitant to say anything else in response to Seth lest he think he is being ganged up on, but I feel compelled to respond to this statement, “All I can do is invite others to experience the same thing, and if they don’t… well then, we’re all done here right?”

    That response indicates to me that you missed the point of the post. The point of the post is that you can only get positives using this method, not negatives. Ergo, the method is flawed. What you said implies that you are okay with that. Maybe you are… But altering the context a little changes things:

    Let’s say I claim there is an invisible pink unicorn, but the only way to know that there is one, is to have a “mystical experience” with this unicorn. I don’t really define “mystical,” but I invite everyone to have this experience. People try and some people have a mystical experience, others don’t. All of the “mystical experiences” people have I interpret as confirmation. Those who don’t have one I blame on their: (1) lack of faith; (2) insincerity; etc. Finally, anyone who claims to get a “disconfirming mystical experience” that indicates to them that there is no invisible pink unicorn I simply dismiss as having been deceived by the purple dragon in my garage.

    If I’m understanding your statement, Seth, you can either: (1) receive a confirmation that the invisible pink unicorn exists or (2) not receive a confirmation but remain undecided. There is no third option, which should be: to receive a disconfirmation. By this logic, you are an agnostic towards the invisible pink unicorn. Why? Because my methodology insists that that is the most negative stance you can take.

    In short, arguments from mystical experiences turn everyone into potential believers in every quasi-religious, pseudo-scientific claim there is. If you want to believe in a deity, go right ahead. Just don’t base your belief on mystical experience if you want to have a compelling, logical reason for believing.

    Oh, and I don’t think you’re a moron for believing. I’m simply saying this is not a compelling, logical reason.

  9. profxm says:

    Jonathan, nice post on your blog, by the way. Your right, you make the same argument.

  10. Seth R. says:

    “Ergo, the method is flawed. What you said implies that you are okay with that. Maybe you are…”

    That’s correct. I don’t expect matters of faith to be logically or scientifically airtight. My only point was to note that personal intuition and experience can be very powerful and valid motivations and quite beneficial to a person.

  11. Thanks, profxm. 🙂

  12. Stephanie says:

    Seth, it’s fine if you choose to believe based on these feelings and let others choose to believe or not. But my question is will you turn around and teach your beliefs to children as if they were fact?

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