In a recent and very engaging presentation at UNF, Chris Tucker asked for an argument that shows perception is trustworthy that does not already assume that perception is trustworthy, where perception includes vision, hearing, taste, touch, smell, and proprioception. It was intended to be a trick question as any argument for one type of perception will depend on another. For example, when asked how I can trust my hearing – e.g. that who I heard speaking at the lecture was Chris Tucker and not a recording being played in the background- I can respond that I watched him speak with my very own eyes. So it seems that we are left with basic faculties of perception to form rational beliefs that cannot themselves be verified as trustworthy by argument or experience independent of those faculties. If this is so, argued Tucker, then a common argument against the use of religious experiences to make religious beliefs rational employs inconsistent standards – higher standards are set for religious beliefs than perceptual. I would like to look more closely at Tucker’s objection and consider a way of responding by arguing that the standards for religious beliefs are not higher than those of perceptual beliefs and that perceptual experiences are supported for reasons independent of those experiences.
Tucker claims that in addition to standard forms of argument, e.g. deductive arguments employing premises and conclusions, perceptual experiences and religious experiences can also make beliefs rational. Though not made explicit by Tucker, let us grant that a religious experience is no more than an intellectual episode whereby a proposition regarding some religious content comes to mind and about which a positive doxastic attitude is formed. Now, Tucker has us consider the following objection against the rationality of religious beliefs.
‘No Verification!’ Objection (NVO)
NV1. Your religious experiences can make your beliefs rational only if you have an independent verification that religious experiences are trustworthy.
NV2. You don’t have any such independent verification – unless you can give me a good argument that God exists.
NV3. Therefore, your religious experiences can’t make your religious beliefs rational.
Tucker wants to grant NV2 – assume that no knock down argument for the existence of God is available. The problem, then, is with respect to NV1 – the proponent of this argument, claims Tucker, must also conclude the same about perceptual beliefs. Yet, as mentioned above, despite the claim that we have no independent verification that our perceptual experiences are trustworthy, we still grant the rationality of our perceptual beliefs. To not extend this option in the defense of religious beliefs is to unfairly set higher standards for religious beliefs than perceptual beliefs. So on pain of becoming a skeptic, of suspending judgment about all of our perceptual beliefs, we cannot use NVO against religious beliefs.
To reformulate, by accepting NVO one is also forced into skepticism (perhaps only in the weak sense of having to suspend judgment) about perceptual beliefs:
NVO implies Perceptual Skepticism
S1. If, by NVO, religious experiences cannot make religious beliefs rational, then, by the same standards, perceptual experiences cannot make perceptual beliefs rational.
S2. NVO is sound: religious experiences cannot make religious beliefs rational.
S3. Therefore, perceptual experiences cannot make perceptual beliefs rational (skeptical conclusion).
A defender of NVO does not want to reject S2; the problem must be with S1. So, how can we hold NVO but claim that it is not the case that by the same standards perceptual experiences cannot make perceptual beliefs rational? Here is one attempt for consideration. Perceptual experiences do meet the challenge presented above: there is independent reason to hold perceptual experiences trustworthy. That my perceptual experiences make my perceptual beliefs rational entails that those beliefs provide the best explanation available for those experiences. While to claim that there is no independent reason available to hold perceptual experiences trustworthy entails that it is rational to accept any perceptual belief and, thus, explanation of those experiences over any other explanation, which is absurd – the progress of the empirical and deductive sciences and resulting explanations of our experiences provide strong evidence to the contrary. If derived perceptual beliefs provide the best explanation for my perceptual experiences then those experiences, i.e. my collections of evidence, reliably support those beliefs more than they support any other competing beliefs. Furthermore, explanations given by theories, hypotheses, etc. that meet required desiderata are not perceptual but (maybe) abstract in nature. That I have the best explanation available for my experiences is an independent verification that can itself be subjected to logical and conceptual evaluation that could be independent of perceptual experience (this is to assume, with Tucker, a distinction between perceptual and otherwise strictly mental experience). For example, from more of an anti-realist stance, the fact that there is an overwhelming logical consistency in our intellectual constructions of an external world or, from a realist position, the thesis that these constructions are isomorphic to the external world each provide explanations (though perhaps in a mutually exclusive way) about the observed phenomenon that are, for the most part, repeatedly derived and verified independently of particular experiences.
On the other hand, religious beliefs seem not to provide the best explanation for religious experiences. Religious experiences tend to be isolated to individuals and perhaps provide only a solipsistic form of belief that cannot be rationally conveyed from one agent to another unless the beliefs formed from those experiences are molded to an observational language. However, it seems that the veracity of those beliefs will then depend on the veracity of perceptual beliefs and experiences from which observational languages have evolved. I have just argued that those perceptual beliefs (or at least those of science) are rational and our perceptual experiences reliable for independent reasons, and I should add that they are both generally considered to be at odds with religious beliefs. For example, it might be the case that what best explains a religious experience is not the derived religious belief but the description of other intentional states such an emotional response to a particular environment or state of affairs. Perhaps there can be data retrieved by observation that illustrates physical states of the brain that correlate with religious experiences, but this does nothing to support the intended content, e.g. there is a God, of religious beliefs most often expressed.
So the above argument for skepticism about perceptual beliefs entailed by acceptance of NVO fails. Higher standards are not being required for the trustworthiness of religious experiences. Instead, there are simply better explanations for religious experiences than the derivative beliefs. Furthermore, perceptual beliefs derived from perceptual experiences provide the best explanation for perceptual experiences. Hence, perceptual experiences are trustworthy, though certainly not infallible.
Note: I must give credit for some of the ideas presented here to the writings of Richard Feldman and Jonathan Vogel.