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The Miracle of Minimal Foundationalism: Religious Experience and Justified Belief

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2008

Matthew C. Bagger
Department of Religion, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027


Once we accept anyone's postulates he becomes our professor and our god: for his foundations he will grab territory so ample and so easy that, if he so wishes, he will drag us up to the clouds. Montaigne

During the last fifteen years, the community of philosophers interested in religion has evinced a waxing concern with the justificatory value of religious experiences for theism. Two parallel but largely discrete debates have appeared in the literature.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1993

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1 Swinburne, Richard, The Existence of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979)Google Scholar, Ch. 13 (‘The Argument from Religious Experience’).

2 Davis, Caroline Franks, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).Google Scholar

3 See Plantinga, Alvin, ‘Reason and Belief in God’, Faith and Rationality, ed. Plantinga, A. & Wolterstorff, N. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), p. 80.Google Scholar

4 Alston, William, ‘Religious Experience and Religious Belief’, Nous, 16 (1982), pp. 312CrossRefGoogle Scholar; ‘Christian Experience and Christian Belief’, Faith and Rationality, pp. 103–34; ‘Perceiving God’, Journal of Philosophy, 83 (1986), pp. 655–65Google Scholar; ‘Religious Diversity and Perceptual Knowledge of God’, Faith and Philosophy, 5 (1988), pp. 433–48Google Scholar; Perceiving God (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).Google Scholar

5 Swinburne champions the rationality of religious beliefs in The Coherence of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987)Google Scholar, the companion book to The Existence of God. He intended the latter effort to argue positively for the truth of theistic claims, a tactic which the Reformed Epistemologists perceive as epistemologically anachronistic and which they believe unnecessarily commits theism to a defensive posture.

6 Alston generally refers to epistemic ‘practices’, while Swinburne and Franks Davis consider epistemic ‘principles’. This difference presents no objection to my claim about the practical indistinguishability of their respective epistemologies because Alston allows for the interchangeability of the terms. He believes that epistemic principles lie embedded but generally unformulated within epistemic practices (1982, p. 3n). Furthermore, in Perceiving God he directly addresses the relation of his practices to Swinburne's principle and contends that the active, socially established character of practices bestows additional confirming support to what he correctly interprets as a construal of our epistemological foundations that he largely shares with Swinburne (1991, p. 195).

7 I mean to use this term in a manner analogous to the specific sense outlined in Wayne Proudfoot's Religious Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)Google Scholar. In that work, he describes those who reject the explanatory reduction of religion as attempting ‘to preclude critical inquiry from outside the religious life’ (p. xvi).

8 Stout, Jeffrey, The Flight From Authority (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), p. 36.Google Scholar

9 In Perceiving God Alston changes his preferred term from ‘religious experience’ to ‘mystical perception’. His fundamental view remains unaltered despite the lexical shift. The ambiguities in ‘religious experience’ motivate the change. Aware of similar difficulties with ‘mystical’, Alston limits ‘mystical’ to (especially non-sensory) experiences with God perceptibly present as the object of consciousness.

10 Swinburne invokes Chisholm's distinction between the epistemic and comparative use of words such as ‘seems’. The epistemic use describes ‘what the subject is inclined to believe on the basis of his present sensory experience’. The comparative use notes a similarity in ‘the way an object looks with the way other objects normally look’ (p. 246). Although I will not draw further attention to it, the tremendous debt owed to Chisholm by Swinburne and Alston should become apparent throughout the course of this exposition.

11 Malcolm, Norman, ‘The Groundlessness of Belief’, in Brown, S., ed., Reason and Religion (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977).Google Scholar

12 Phillips, D. Z., Faith and Philosophical Inquiry (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970)Google Scholar, Ch. 5.

13 Gutting, Gary, Religious Belief and Religious Scepticism (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 77Google Scholar. Proudfoot and Frankenberry, Nancy (Religion and Radical Empiricism (Albany: SUNY Press, 1987))Google Scholar both condemn the alternate language-games approach for its excessively conservative stance.

15 Steven Katz, in a talk delivered at Columbia University 7 April 1991. Ironically, Alston finds an unrelated use for the phrase, same, ‘mediated immediacy’. George Mavrodes includes in Belief in God (New York: Random House, 1981, p. 65)Google Scholar a clear discussion of the issues of phenomenological immediacy. Wilfred Sellars commences ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’ (Science, Perception and Reality, New York: Humanities Press, 1963, pp. 129–96)Google Scholar by drawing this distinction between phenomenological and epistemological immediacy.

16 Rorty, Richard, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 182–3.Google Scholar

17 Philosophers often characterize coherence theories of justification as granting prima facie justification to the beliefs we already hold. Without taking the space to contest this portrayal, I will simply make two assertions. Firstly, I see no necessary reason to describe coherence theories this way. Secondly, even if we allow this picture, I fail to see how this admission would strengthen the religious perceiver's position with regard to the non-theist.

18 Sellars, Wilfred, ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’, Science, Perception and Reality (New York: Humanities Press, 1963), p. 162.Google Scholar

19 Gutting joins them in both this assessment and the use of putative religious perception as a justification for theism.

20 O'Hear, Anthony, Experience, Explanation and Faith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984).Google Scholar

21 I find O'Hear's criteria for evaluating explanations far too scientistic and prefer a more pragmatic outlook such as van Fraassen's account based on why-questions (The Scientific Image, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980Google Scholar, Ch. 5).

22 Clark, Ralph, ‘The Evidential Value of Religious Experiences’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 16 (1984), pp. 189202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

23 I have profited immensely from conversations with Matthew Kapstein and Wayne Proudfoot.

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