Kai-man Kwan

        Recently the argument from religious experience has been revived by Swinburne, Alston and others.  A common objection to it is that religious experiences can easily be explained naturalistically.  In this paper, I look more carefully into the concept of a naturalistic explanation of religious experience and try to formulate criteria for a successful naturalsitic explanation, i.e. one that actually defeats the force of religious experiences.  I suggest to do so, they have to be both evidence-canceling and true.  I divide naturalistic explanations into four major types and then argue that the general prospects of their success is not great.  I then examine in more details one example of psychological naturalistic explanations, i.e. Freudianism, and Wenegrat's sociobiologicl naturalistic explanations.  I conclude that they fail as well.


The Problem Stated
        Are the beliefs which derive from religious experiences rationally justified?  By a religious experience I mean an experience which the subject takes to be an experience of God or some supernatural being.  (When the object of the religious experience is a personal God, it is called a theistic experience.)  Such an experience is veridical if what the subject took to be the object of his experience actually existed, was present, and caused him to have that experience in an appropriate way.

        Richard Swinburne proposes the Principle of Credulity which says that it is rational to treat our experiences (including religious experience) as innocent until proven guilty.  The idea is that while religious experiences are not infallible, they should be accorded prima facie evidential force (hereafter PFEF), i.e. they are at least some evidence for God (or the relevant supernatural being) unless we have positive reasons to doubt the veridicality of the experiences.  This principle has been the basis for a revived argument from religious experience among contemporary analytic philosophers of religion (Davis; Gutting; Alston; Gellman; Wainwright; Wall; Yandell).

        There is one common objection to the above argument: religious experiences can (easily) be explained naturalistically, without any need for reference to transcendental objects.  Gaskin: "if we do not have other grounds for believing in his existence, then it will remain a more simple and obvious explanation of the selective experience if we take them to be internal, and caused by social and psychological factors" (p.100; my emphasis). 

What is a Naturalistic Explanation?
        Let me first clarify the concept of a non-epistemic explanation of experience:
Suppose a subject S is having an experience E whose intentional object is O, i.e. E seems to be of O.  We provide a non-epistemic explanation of E iff i) we specify a set of conditions C and a mechanism M; ii) C is causally responsible, at least partially, for the occurrence of E via M; iii) O does not feature anywhere in the whole explanation.  This explanation will be symbolised as [C,M].

A naturalistic explanation of religious experience (NE in short) is one kind of non-epistemic explanation of experience.  A Freudian explanation is a well-known example of a NE of a theistic experience.  It can be symbolised as [C,M] where C is S's (unconscious) need for protection against nature, death, etc. and M is the mechanism of projection.  God, the intentional object of theistic experiences does not feature anywhere in this explanation.

Criteria for a Successful Non-Epistemic Explanation
        When I say that a non-epistemic explanation of a  experience E is successful, I mean that it actually succeeds to defeat the PFEF of E.
        When confronted with a non-epistemic explanation [C,M] of S's  experience E, there are two questions we need to ask:
1) If it is true, would the PFEF of E be annulled or defeated?  If the answer is no, we have no need to worry about the veridicality of E.  Only if the answer is yes, we need to ask the second question.
2) Is the explanation true, i.e., does [C,M] actually obtains in S's case?  If C does not actually affect S or M does not actually operate on S to produce E, then even a positive answer to question 1 will not affect the PFEF of S's E.

        I would call a non-epistemic explanation evidence-canceling iff it is such that if it were true of E, E's PFEF would be annulled.  So for a non-epistemic explanation of E to be a successful defeater, it has to be both true and evidence-canceling
        If a non-epistemic explanation just specifies some necessary conditions for E, it is not enough to cancel the PFEF of E.  It may appear that for a non-epistemic explanation to be evidence-canceling, it is enough that it specifies causally sufficient condition for E.  Suppose this is correct.  It is plausible to think that it is in principle possible, for any experience, to specify a set of neurophysiological conditions which is sufficient for its occurrence.  It is also plausible to think that for any experience some such set actually obtains.  So all our experiences have no force.  It is so astounding a conclusion that we have to conclude that the satisfaction of the causal sufficiency condition does not guarantee a non-epistemic explanation to be evidence-canceling.

        Consider the jaundice explanation of a yellow wall experience.  Apart from its specifying causally sufficient conditions, it is evidence-canceling only because we know pretty well that if a causal chain is initiated by jaundice, the yellow wall is not plausibly to be inserted either in the causal chain leading to the jaundice or the causal chain leading from jaundice to the 'yellow wall experience'.  In this case, I would say that the jaundice explanation causally pre-empts the alleged object of perception, the yellow wall.  This would also explain why a neurophysiological explanation of the 'yellow wall experience' may not be evidence-canceling: the set of neurophysiological conditions causally sufficient for the experience does not causally pre-empt the yellow wall.  The yellow wall can comfortably feature in a causal chain leading to that set of neurophysiological conditions.  As a summary, I tentatively propose this analysis:
A non-epistemic explanation of E is evidence-canceling iff i) it specifies causally sufficient conditions for E; ii) the conditions causally pre-empt O, the intentional object of E.

Criterion for Successful Naturalistic Explanation
Suppose a subject S is having a religious experience (theistic experience) whose intentional object is O.  A NE of a religious experience (theistic experience) is a successful  defeater iff i) the NE is evidence-canceling, i.e., it specifies a set of causally sufficient conditions for that religious experience (theistic experience) and that set of conditions causally pre-empts O; ii) the NE is true of S.  A NE is available iff we have reasons to believe both (i) and (ii) above are true.

The Prospect of Naturalistic Explanations of Theistic Experience
        The project of NE, in the case of theistic experiences, is not very promising.  Firstly, it needs to produce successful NEs of all theistic experiences.  If we just keep in mind the abundance and diversity of theistic experiences, it is easy to see that the task is a tall order.  Moreover,  even if the current attempts to provide a naturalistic history or theory of religions were successful, it does not entail the success of the project of NE.  It still has to account for the spontaneous theistic experiences which occur to people who are not yet believers in God.  It also needs to explain how belief in God actually causes theistic experiences: what sort of mechanisms are involved here and what are the reasons to think these mechanisms to be operating on the believers?

        There are four main types of NEs:
1) Neurophysiological NEs explain theistic experiences as results of some neurophysiological states which may be induced by drugs, meditation techniques and so on.
2) Sociological NEs explain theistic experiences as a consequence of social experiences or facts.
3) Sociobiological NEs explain theistic experiences as a product of evolution: occurrence of theistic experiences are caused by genes which are selected by natural selection.
4) Psychological NEs explain theistic experiences as a product of psychological states and mechanisms.

        A non-evidence-canceling NE is not really in competition with a theistic explanation: if it is true, it can be regarded as some enabling natural conditions for theistic experience or seen as part of the causal chain leading from God to the theistic experience.  Suppose one day a completed neurophysiology discovers a certain psychophysical law which states that a theistic experience will occur iff a certain brain state is instantiated in a person.  It would not be evidence-canceling just as psychophysical laws governing sense experiences would not be evidence-canceling: they do not causally pre-empt their respective intentional objects.

        Consider explanations of theistic experiences by drugs or meditation techniques.  Firstly, it has not been shown that drugs, etc. are sufficient to produce religious experiences.  The experimental evidence only suggests that it can raise the likelihood and enhance the intensity of the experiences.  Secondly, suppose it satisfy the causal sufficiency condition, does it pre-empt the action of God?  There is no reason why those brain states cannot be caused by taking drugs, etc.  As long as the whole process is put there in the first place and upheld by God causally, such perception of God should be counted as veridical.

        However, some intuitions would tend to the opposite conclusion.  Jordan claims that since God is sovereign, "there are no causal determinates of the divine will independent of the divine nature... to say that S experienced God is to say that ... God actively manifested himself to S.  So, if we reasonably believed that religious experiences were causally due to a certain psychological state, then we would have a good reason to doubt the evidential value of those experiences" (p.159).  My inclination is to think that it is possible that God intends a simple awareness of Himself to be correlated with certain brain states.  In such a case, it is the divine will which causally determines the supposed correlation.  God has a soveriegn will does not mean that He has to act or reveal Himself always in an ad hoc manner.  However, the objection to alleged drug-induced divine communication would be much more serious.  Speech is too personal and contextual to be reliably produced mechanically.  So drug-induced theistic experiences, especially at more ramified levels of description, may be defeated by NEs.

        However, since the vast majority of theistic experiences are not drug-induced, the above NE, even if successful for a handful of theistic experiences, is not really damaging to theistic experience as a whole.
        Consider the sociobiological and sociological NEs.  Firstly both types usually only aim at explaining the origin and persistence of religious institutions and beliefs rather than religious experiences.  It is not clear how any sociobiological or sociological explanation can give a sufficient condition for any experience.  Secondly, suppose these naturalistic explanations could specify sufficient conditions for belief in God, is it plausible to think that the agency of God is then pre-empted?  No!  If there is a God, it stands to reason that he could make sure that the evolutionary process or the structure of society would favour or even determine belief in God.  In doing so He is only creating a complex but reliable belief-forming mechanism. 

        Let us consider a psychological NE, [C,M].  It is not only the case that we are often not in a position to determine whether C is sufficient, but also that many candidates for C are clearly  not.  For example, the desire to be immortal.  So to have an adequate specification of C which is causally sufficient, C must not obtain in the case of any non-God-experients.  It seems to me the  role of C can hardly be occupied by psychological states which are clearly discernible by sense experience or introspection, e.g. conscious need for comfort, suggestibility, low intelligence.  For all these states can also be ascribed to non-God-experients.  The only candidates for a causally sufficient C which are not obviously false are postulated unconscious psychological states of God-experients, e.g. unconscious need, unresolved unconscious conflicts.  However, this makes the attribution of these states to the God-experients extremely hard to verify.  But suppose a certain [C,M] is causally sufficient for a theistic experience, does it pre-empt God's action?  Again, there is no intrinsic reason why God cannot make use of psychological mechanisms as such to produce an experience of Himself.  We may have reason to think that is the case if the [C,M] also leads directly to insanity or personality disintegration.  But obviously this kind of defeater is only available for a tiny fraction of theistic experiences.

        The general difficulties seem to hold for any conceivable NE because no natural mechanism as such can pre-empt the action of the Creator God [cf. Wainwright (1973)].

        Let us look at the credentials of the Freudian NE as an example.

        Freud thinks that belief in God is "born from man's need to make his helplessness tolerable and built up from the material of memories of the helplessness of his own childhood and the childhood of the human race" (In Heaney, pp.9-10).  Of course, these are true of all people, according to Freud.  So Freud needs to explain why there are both believers and non-believers but he fails to do so.  A contemporary Freudian may say that belief in God is caused by unresolved unconscious conflicts whereas the non-believers have successfully resolved those conflicts and hence removed the need to believe in God. 

        Now the naturalistic critic suggests the following:
1) God-experients all have unresolved unconscious conflicts, perhaps in relation to their attitudes to their fathers.
2) These unresolved conflicts, together with their memories of their childhood and the childhood of human race, cause them to believe in God; the needs, etc. are projected onto external reality.
3) This belief somehow causes them to have the theistic experiences.

        What are the reasons to believe that they are actually true?  They do not seem to be discoverable by either sense experience or introspection.  Can the theory lead to predictions about those people?  For example, Hay argues that Freud's theory should lead us to expect that God-experients should be more neurotic than the others.  But the empirical data he collects seem to contradict that: "AHRC (Alister Hardy Research Centre) research surveys and similar surveys conducted at the National Opinion Research Centre in Chicago show that ... People reporting religious experience are more likely to be in a good state of psychological wellbeing than those who do not report it".

        But uncritical acceptance of Freudian NEs is common.  Perhaps this kind of thinking is lurking behind: "Naturalism is the TRUTH.  So some naturalistic explanations of theistic experience must be correct.  Freudian explanations are by far the most plausible naturalistic explanations available.  So they are probably correct.  So the God-experients must have unresolved unconscious conflicts ..."  This a priori approach to NE is begging the question against the theists from the very beginning.  We should adopt a more open-minded empirical approach to NEs.

        Suppose a NE specifies [C,M] in the context of a background theory T.  We have good reasons to believe that this NE is true of a collection of theistic experiences only if:
1) The truth of any part of the NE is not deduced as a consequence from the alleged truth of naturalism;
2) T is independently well-established;
3) the existence of conditions similar to C and of the mechanisms similar to M have independent support;
4) the claim that [C,M] actually obtains in the case of the relevant God-experients should be empirically grounded:
a) by direct observations or empirical research or
b) via a powerful explanatory theory which
i) adequately explains the various characteristics of the theistic experiences and their subjects and
ii) yields predictions which are borne out.

        In this light, the following claims made by Alston may not be unjustified: "the most prominent theories in the field invoke causal mechanisms that themselves pose thus far insoluble problems of identification and measurement: unconscious psychological processes like repression, identification, regression, and mechanisms of defense; social influences on ideology and attitude formation.  It is not surprising that theories like those of Freud, Marx, and Durkheim rest on a slender thread of evidential support and generalize irresponsibly from such evidence as they can muster.  Nor do the prospects seem rosy for significant improvement" (p.230).

Some Prominent Naturalistic Explanations: A Closer Look
        Freud is the classical proponent of this view.
A) Religion as Illusion
        Freud thinks that man is constantly facing the threats of nature and hence feels helpness.  Just as our infantile feeling of helplessness arouses our need for protection, this feeling of helplessness before nature arouses our need for protection provided by a Heavenly Father.  This need, together with others (desire for justice and theoretical curiosity), explain our belief in God.  Hence religion is an illusion, a belief primarily motivated by wish-fulfilment.

B) Ontogeny of Religion
        Since we all suffer from the Oedipal Complex, we have a complex of repressed feelings towards our fathers.  These feelings may seek expression by being projected onto external agencies.  Hence our belief in a Cosmic Father

C) Phylogeny of Religion
        Freud have speculations about primal murder of the tribal father by his sons and the subsequent return of the deceased father in the form of the totem because of the guilt of the sons.  Similarly Egyptian Moses was murdered by the Israelites but because of this his monotheism was adopted.  These are supposed to be racial parallels to the individual development of the Oedipal Complex.  The repressed memory of this primal murder was inherited by each of us through the ages.  Only such kind of repression can explain the compulsive character of religion.
D) Critical Comments
1) Illusion
        To see the gap between the need and the conscious belief, we need to distinguish several things:
a) need to cope with the threats of nature and civilization
b) wish there to be a Cosmic Father
c) belief that there is a Cosmic Father

        Freud believed that (a), (b) and (c) are true of man (almost) universally and that (a) is the cause/explanation of (b) and (b) that of (c).  However, there is no valid psychological generalization from either (a) to (b) or (b) to (c).   A need may not necessarily generate a corresponding wish.  A wish rarely, statistically speaking, generates a belief. 

        Actually both (a) and (b) are not apparently true of all believers.  So the conditions specified here do not seem to be necessary conditions for belief in God.

        In fact the wishes alone cannot be sufficient conditions either.  Otherwise, why are there are unbelievers in all ages?  I suggest the following criterion for the empirical adequacy of NEs:

Differential Correlation Criterion
Suppose there is a general NE of theistic experience, [C,M].  It is adequate only if the presence of C and operation of M should be correlated with all believers (or God-experients) and them alone.  This NE is available only if we have good empirical reasons to believe such a correlation exists. 

NEs are often thrown around, supported by some special cases and then generalized to all cases, without being aware of obvious violation of the above criterion.  Nielsen's recent paper is a good example of uncritical discussions of NE.  It is amazing that Nielsen's critical acumen, which is abundantly shown by his critique of theism, is not directed to those NEs at all.

        There is another difficulty.  Many religious doctrines are psychologically difficult to accept, e.g. selfless love, sacrifice, strife for perfection, taking up the cross.  This is confirmed by a surpisingly candid confession of an atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel: "I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers....  I hope there is no God!  I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that" (p.130). 

2) Ontogeny
        Freud's depth explanation is only plausible if his psychoanalytic theory is independently well-attested.  This is at best controversial [cf. Banks; Eysenck; Farrell; Grunbaum; Webster].  I have also indicated that empirical research does not bear out the Freudian corollary that believers (God-experients) are more neurotic.  Indeed, "If religion is best understood as a neurosis ... Would one not expect the most serious or intense practitioners of religion to share to the highest degree the fate and exhibit to a marked degree the signs of those who indulge in prolonged fantasy thinking, i.e., not only external disaster but arrest of growth and disintegration of personality?" (Shaw, p.21).  This does not appear to be the case.

3) Projection
        Normally when we say a belief (or experience) is a projection, it means two things:
a) the belief is false or the experience is unveridical.
b) the belief or experience accords with your inner desires; and it is produced entirely by such desires.

        No doubt some experiences are projections.  'Projection' is much more than a word labelling a psychological process: it implies (strongly negative) epistemic evaluation.  So it should only be used when solidly backed up by epistemic considerations.  In ordinary life cases, these considerations are provided by our consensual sense experiences and interpersonal experiences.  We cannot say that belief in or experiences of God are projections unless we can first decide that these are false or unveridical.  Here one may identify a certain type of personality which would be prone to have projections.  If the believers belong to this type, then there is some reason to think their experiences of God are projections.  But what type of persons would be prone to project?  Holloway says, "Projection of any sort seems to point to some level of self-absorption or narcissism in the subject" (p.105).  Many God-experients do not display symptoms of this sort. 

        Moreover, "the religious type at its purest and highest does not seem to have these characteristics.  The saint, the clear spirit, is characterized usually by innocence and purity of heart" (Holloway, pp.105-6).  There are spiritual traditions which "help us in our search for self-understanding by prompting us to make acts of radical self-examination" (p.107).  "The insanity of total surrender to God seems to lead to the highest types of humanity, clear and straight in their own natures, and willing and laughter-filled in their service of others.  The paradox of sanctity is the strongest contradiction of the claim that religion is an unhealthy projection" (p.110).  Many theistic experiences demand a high degree of honesty, integrity and self-denial.  Consider a contemporary example.  Jackie Pullinger is a British woman who came to Hong Kong to serve drug addicts and poor people in the Kowloon Walled City as a result of hearing "God's calling".  Freudians may suggest she was only suffering from an unconscious 'saviour complex'.  When Pullinger experienced further frustrations and rejections, she felt that those people were not worthy of her love and she was tempted to quit.  What kept her there?  It was a further experience of God's love and illumination which revealed and removed her snobbishness, and urged her to learn humble, self-effacing and unconditional love.  It doesn't look as if religious experiences are always products of self-deception.

4) Phylogeny
        As for Freud's speculations about the phylogeny of theism, the difficulties are almost insuperable.  Firstly, it relies on Larmarckism.  Secondly, it lacks anthropological evidence.

        Wenegrat is a proponent of sociobiology.  He argues that the "sociobiologic model predicts that genetic activity will produce perceptual, cognitive, affective, and motoric dispositions that have, as their combined effect, adherence to these strategies.  Cultural innovations, including religious beliefs, are likely to be retained only insofar as they promise to be useful to individuals who are pursuing these strategies" (p.32).  To show that this prediction is correct, Wenegrat tries to argue that religion is useful in many ways.  For example, belief in God reduces fear of death.  Religious beliefs also "ease sexual fears by providing hard and fast- and ostensibly divine- guides to sexual decision making" (p.45).  Religion can promote group affiliations and encourage mildly reciprocal altruism.  All these uses of religion enable it to persist.

        Social analyses are what the mind does best.  "When applied to nonsocial events, the more general social analyses lead to religious beliefs.  In particular, the tendency to surmise actors and intentions from complex events will lead to religious beliefs when the events in question are outside the social realm.  Because such surmises come naturally to humans, an attempt to apprehend the natural world with the human mind will inevitably lead to religious beliefs" (p.82; my emphasis).  Of course Wenegrat is aware of the fact that not all actually believe in God.  He seems to find his way out by arguing that religion is negatively correlated with intelligence.  Though we are all tempted to believe, those who are more enlightened and critical somehow grow out of it.

        Some comments are in order.  Concerning the fear of death, he may be right that intrinsically religious subjects do seem to show less death fear.  But then he argues in this way: "The equanimity with which at least some religious believers contemplate their own death has suggested to many that reducing death anxiety is the prime motive for religious belief" (p.41).  This simply is a non sequitur!  Furthermore, this use is not one that his model predicts.  Fear of death may lead one to be more careful, less reckless, and more willing to have more offsprings to achieve a sort of 'immortality'.  In this way, fear of death is conducive to propagation of genes and religion is doing a disservice by removing this fear! 
        Similar points apply to the claim that religious rules reduce sexual anxiety.  Ironically, he supports this claim in this way: "numerous studies have shown decreased rates of premarital intercourse among religious subjects" (p.46).  Isn't it strange from a sociobiologic viewpoint?  Promiscuity certainly is a good way to propagate one's genes.  To adopt religious belief to restrain one's sexual activity may help one's psychological well-being but it shouldn't be selected.  Furthermore, there are an infinite number of ways to provide rigid rules concerning sexual behaviour.  By way of divine sanction is only a way and it is implausible that humans should adopt such a way just to ease feelings of uncertainties over sexual matters when there are less costly ways, psychologically speaking, to do that.  Finally, Wenegrat honestly admits that "the dual perception of God as reciprocal altruist and universal parent directs beneficient acts beyond the interpersonal limits predicted by the two sociobiologic theories, kin-directed and reciprocal altruism.  This is the moral advance in the monotheistic religions, and it is the only way ... in which religious beliefs produce large-scale deviations from behaviours predicted by sociobiologic models" (pp.71-2).  Wenegrat is referring to the help offered by religious persons to persons totally biologically and socially unrelated.  So perhaps the model is falsified?  Contrarily, Wenegrat does not seem to be a bit worried!  How 'empirical' is his model can be seen from this fact.

        Wenegrat's proffered explanation of the origin of belief in God does not fare better.  Firstly the evolutionary account of our cognitive ability is very speculative, having only flimsy support.  Secondly, this tendency is supposed to be universal but then why some people don't believe?  The explanation that non-believers are generally more intelligent and critical flies in the face of common sense.  Anyway, the cognitive abilities are evolved to interpret social actors which have bodies.  Asocial nature appears to be very different and there is no need to extrapolate here.  Ability to identify the human social actors is all that is relevant for survival in an atheistic world. So in the end Wenegrat has not explained why there is the divine archetype- there is no obvious evolutionary advantage!  The alleged functions of belief in God can be achieved in a plainer way: people can have no 'transcendental temptation' or complexes but still be (mildly) reciprocally altruistic by nature.  The exuberance and extravagance of the human psyche is still not accounted for!  This point should be obvious: many people can survive in a co-operating society without belief in God and have many children- whether they are happy and feel fulfilled  are simply irrelevant.  Why not evolve such people from the very beginning?  [For general criticisms of sociobiology, see Kitcher; Trigg.]

        To discredit theistic experiences, we at least need a NE which is both evidence-canceling and known to be true of most God-experients.  The difficulty is that both conditions are not satisfied at the same time.  Some NEs may well be true of most God-experients but they are not evidence-canceling.  On the other hand, some NEs may be evidence-canceling but they are not known to be true of most God-experients.  Most NEs, as a matter of fact, are neither evidence-canceling nor true of most God-experients.  Pace Gaskin, NEs are neither simple nor obvious.

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