I was lying in bed last night when I heard a strange hissing and growling outside my bedroom door. I got to imagining that maybe I was about to be attacked by a monster (it turned out to be the fridge), which resulted in the following train of thought: hallucinations –> delusions –> psychotherapy –> the Brent Norton character in Stephen King’s novella “The Mist” –> a justification for religious belief that’s sort of a combination of Pascal’s Wager and the argument from religious experience. It goes like this:
You’ve been experiencing what you take to be hallucinations. You’re being followed around by a monster with big teeth. You’ve seen a psychiatrist who tells you that you’re suffering from a mental illness. You believe her. You know that monsters with big teeth don’t exist in the real world (notwithstanding crocodiles). You’re a logical sort of person. If you weren’t too classy, you’d even consider becoming a New Atheist. But the experiences remain absolutely real to you. They have a veridical quality.
You carry on with your life on the (rationally justified) assumption that these experiences are not real. You pretty much just ignore the monster – think John Forbes Nash after he realises he’s hallucinating – but then things start to change. The monster becomes more aggressive. It pinches the remote control when you’re trying to watch 90210, that kind of thing.
By this point you’re getting a little more worried: okay, it’s a hallucination, but what happens if you’re attacked by it? You know it’s not real, but … just suppose for a minute it is real? There are no monsters, obviously, but they’re not ruled out as a matter of logic, are they now?
And then it happens. It’s late at night. You’re alone in your bathroom, and the monster comes crashing in through the window – at least this is what you experience – and it’s on you. It doesn’t attack, but it’s right in your face, and you can smell rotting flesh on its breath. You close your eyes hoping it’ll just disappear, but you can hear its breathing, sense its malevolence, and in your head there’s this insistent thought:
What if it’s real?
At this point, given how high the stakes are, isn’t it reasonable to believe that the monster is real? Imagine yourself in that situation. What would you say to somebody who told you it was unreasonable or irrational to take evasive action? You wouldn’t be impressed, I suspect. Moreover, it’s not simply that you wouldn’t be impressed at the time – which is not particularly interesting, since you’re in a freaked out state – you wouldn’t be impressed afterwards either, you wouldn’t be impressed on calm reflection (with the claim that you were unreasonable to believe then).
Clearly belief in the monster isn’t epistemically warranted: the perilousness of a situation is not part of that story (though this is not to accept that the belief is entirely without epistemic warrant – the fact that the experience has a verdical quality surely counts for something). But the belief is warranted in a certain kind of rationally defensible way. You’re not making a cognitive mistake if you believe: given how high the stakes are, given the fact that the experience seems to have a veridical quality, it’s reasonable for you to believe it.
I’m aware that there are objections here, of course: for example, that belief wouldn’t be reasonable, but behaving as though one believes would be (that objection is not going to work, by the way), but I don’t think they’re decisive. So the question is what’s this got to do with religious belief?
Well, it is, in a way, analogous. Religious believers (some of them) claim both: (a) that their experience of the divine seems to be veridical; and (b) that belief in the truth of the experience can be a matter of life or death importance – the stakes can be incredibly high. This second point bears further elucidation: it is not simply the Pascal Wager thing that one has to fear for one’s immortal soul (if that’s what Pascal was on about – I haven’t troubled myself to read him). It’s that right now, in the present, belief in the truth of the experience can be a matter of life or death importance. So think here, for example, about the mother who has lost a child, and yearns to be reunited with her in the afterlife. Or the soldier in the First World War struggling against the temptation to desert in the knowledge that he has to go over the trenches in the morning. Or simply the sceptical believer who in experiencing what seems to be the divine is profoundly unnerved by the idea that if the experience is true then it’s possible he’ll lose everything if he does not accept its truth.
So the argument is that if an experience seems to have a veridical quality, and if belief in its truth is a matter of pressing and utmost personal significance, then it is reasonable to believe in its truth. If this is right, it follows that religious belief is at least sometimes perfectly reasonable.
A few things to note here:
1. Just to avoid the obvious – but incorrect – objection: I am talking about experiences that genuinely seem veridical. I’m not going to be impressed if you tell me that you’ve experienced fairies, and that the truth of the experience of fairies is of the utmost importance in your life, and therefore it’s reasonable for you to believe in fairies – because you haven’t experienced fairies.
2. If your objection is that religious people don’t actually experiences what they take to be the divine in a way that seems to be veridical, then obviously, if that’s true, the argument doesn’t work. But I see no reason to assume it is true.
3. I’m aware that one should always be sceptical about accepting the truth of personal experience: that’s why I wove scepticism into the monster story.
4. I’m partly just messing around with an argument here – because it’s fun. But if you think this is easy to dismiss, then I think you’re wrong. Or at least, I think you’re wrong if you think that it isn’t possible to rescue a version of this that will give me most of what I want from it. Of course, it’s most likely that it’ll just be ignored completely! 🙂