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Religious and Mystical Experiences

Updated on February 7, 2015

Religious and Mystical Experiences

The phrase "religious experiences" is vague as such but in conjunction with "mystical experiences" the relevant scope is narrowed to the set of first-person reported experiences that are alleged to involve visions, auditory and tactile impressions related to what is taken to be a divine being; sensations of inexplicable presence of what is taken to be a divine being; and first-person experiences taken to be attesting to divine presence without any sensory content whatsoever.

It can be said that the word "experience" is ambiguous. It can be taken to refer to what the person who had the experience claims; or it can be taken to refer to a causal-explanatory account of the experience regardless of what the experiencing person thinks about it. The type of experience we investigate here, religious mystical experience or RME, is a first-person or private experience in which the subject also makes certain claims both about what happened and about what caused or explains the experience. The question to ponder over is this: What if we discard the explanation given by the experiencing subject? In RME, the claim made by the subject is that the cause is supernatural and specifically divine. Should we evaluate this claim, to begin with, or should we begin with recording the claims made by the subject? A related question is: Are we taking sides by deciding what the proper theoretical definition of RME is? These are difficult questions but an appropriate first step seems to be to accept the account given by the subject - NOT for its truth but as simply the claimed account given by the experiencer. In fact, this seems to be the natural choice. If one evaluates the experience to have not supernatural but natural causes, one is still using the same definition of RME just given above. What one is saying in that case is the "the experience attributed causally by the subject to a divine being is rather to be evaluated as such-and-such" which is the same as "RME is rather to be evaluated as such-and-such." Notice that "RME" fits as replacement in the first of the two quoted sentences. This "RME" definition is the one we gave in this paragraph. So, the definition of RME repeats the claims of the subject without necessarily crediting them.

There is a catch. If the claims made by the subject are logically absurd or imply logical absurdity, then we have a problem with our definition which cannot be obviated because we simply repeat the claims made by the subject. The definition we gave then becomes "RME is a type of experience about which the experiencing subject claims #%@@#^." We can see the problem. This definition does not do what any definition should do - it does not differentiate RME phenomena from other phenomena which are not RME. Why is this? Because this definition fits any nonsensical account given by a subject. Realize that logical nonsense may or may not be detected: someone could be asserting nonsense without realizing it. That the experiencing subject thinks that he or she makes sense of what is said does not mean that we don't have nonsense. Logical nonsense, like bad grammar, is an objective matter: not something like taste. It is not the case that some sentence is nonsensical to me but perhaps not to you. Think of how "want school to go" is incorrect grammar to me too even if I am confused and think that it is fine. Logical nonsense also results from abuse of language (abuse not of the surface grammar but of what we might think of as as the logical grammar of a language.) We have to keep in mind all this but we may proceed because, as we will see, we have a nonsensical definition of RME.

RME stands for "religious-mystical experience." The term "mystical" can be defined as follows: an experience is mystical if and only if it is claimed to involve direct contact with (or apprehension of) entities about which direct contact is initially assumed to be physically or metaphysically impossible. Notice that the impossibility cannot be logical unless the whole subject of mystical experiencing is to be relegated to the category of the nonsensical - which might even be question-begging. Interestingly enough, we can think of the meaning of a statement, denoted by "p", as being impossible in other senses besides the sense of logically impossibility. That "Zeus never dies" expresses a proposition that is physically impossible but not logically impossible insofar as the meanings of the words in the sentence do not make its meaning anlytically true (in one view of logical necessity) and insofar as negation of the meaning of the sentence does not yield a logical truth. The meaning of the sentence "water does not have the composition H2O in an alternate universe" is not logically impossible but it is metaphysically impossible from our vantage point in a universe in which natural kinds like water have certain chemical compositions. Similarly, the initial impossibility of mystical apprehension ought to be weaker than logical impossibility. So defined, the mystical is like the miraculous. Yet, there must be a difference. So, we may wonder what it is we have missed. The mystical must have an epistemic quality - something related to knowledge in a broad sense of "knowledge." Mystics speak of an expanded noetic state, which they characterize by using epistemic terms (although they use affective terms too.) One who believes that he or she has experienced a miracle may be making claims about what this shows but the actual experience of the miracle itself does not have to involve a claim about an alteration of epistemic content - an expansion or illumination or something to that effect. If it does, we should say that the person who claims to have witnessed a miracle also had a mystical experience in the process.

A theory like the one that comprises Plato's ontology and epistemology, for which direct apprehension of transcendental Forms is the ultimate source of any knowledge, poses the possibility of this kind of apprehension internally or intra-theoretically. To be sure, such a theory cannot aspire to scientific credentials but, thought of as a theory, it has an inner license to postulating any thing that is not logically impossible. A theory like contemporary Quantum Physics, at least in some of its interpretations, may even pose intratheoritic assumptions that are logically impossible by the standards of classical logic - which would suggest that an alternate logic is at work within the theory (although this is a hotly contested and controversial matter.)

We will also discuss a view, originated by William Alston, according to which the kind of mystical experience that is characteristic of religious experiences involving claims about divine contact, are perceptual experiences EVEN WHEN the mystical experience is said to have no sensory content whatsoever. Alston essentially rejects - if we are to use the language we used above - that mystical experiences, at least of the religious kind, are metaphysically impossible. If we are to steal another glance in the direction of Plato's theory, mentioned above, we would have to say that Plato too considered the apprehension of the Forms (abstract concepts) to be like a "seeing" - which suggests that he is talking about a perceptual experience which is possible in some sense although not physically possible within the material universe (the Platonic Forms are outside of space and time, they are abstract and not material, they are transcendental, but also real in the sense that they exist indepedently of anyone apprehending them.)

To return to the connection between religious experiences of the type we are talking about and mystical experiences: in both cases there is a claim about first-person experience of direct, unmediated contact with an entity with which interaction is deemed to be problematic (supernatural - impossible naturally or physically). Let us think further about this. What if someone claimed that he saw God but in the same way one sees a tree or a burning bush. If the interpretation given by the experiencing subject is that this is simply a natural phenomenon, then this subject has a different theology - perhaps animistic. This type of experience is not what we are exploring. The theology of Judaic religions is such that the claims about seeing God, even as a burning bush, is inevitably a claim about something supernatural. It is not seeing a burning bush that is claimed but seeing God-as-burning-bush. In religious experiences of this sort, the claim is that contact has been made with a divine being or entity or even a thing - depending on the religion - but this divine being or thing is such that there is something about it that makes contact itself a supernatural matter. We are not talking about something unusual happening. That would not be a religious-mystical experience. If it is extremely rare, for instance, for cloud formations to assume the figure of a crucified body, then the claim that this rare thing has happened is not a claim about RME. Indeed, this explains away a claim about RME - it denies that there is anything supernatural about what happened.

The experiencing subject of RME makes also a certain veridical claim - a claim that someone, a divine being, truly came in contact. This also implies that such a being exists. Notice that by defining RME the way we have defined it, we are not conceding that the divine exists or even that the divine being, as defined, appears (which would imply, of course, that the divine exists.) The definition of RME only gives that the subject who has an RME makes this claim. It is not easy to agree on criteria for checking veridicality (whether the alleged event is indeed as alleged and the adduced entities are in presence). Because such experiences are not collective but private, by definition, the criterion of external or additional witnesses is excluded from the beginning. This is an interesting difference from the case of miracles since miracles are presumably attestable by an actual or potential collectivity. It is not entirely out of the question that others, besides the experiencing agent, may witness alleged effects of the religious experience but the direct impressions that constitute the experience are of the first-person variety. This is a definitional matter: a collective religious experience that involves a collectivity allegedly making contact with a divine or religiously significant entity or object falls rather under the category of a miracle; whereas the religious-mystical experiences we are considering here are private. A collective mystical experience is something like an aggregate of individual mystical experiences. The other known phenomenon, in which the individual may lose himself or herself within a collective experience, is not exactly what we are discussing.

If we emphasize that both miracles and RMEs share some kind of impossibility, then we can see RMEs as being a subset of miracles: every religious-mystical experience is miraculous but collectively experienced miracles are not of the type we define as the religious-mystical variety. We can maintain this typology even if we agree with Alston about the ultimately perceptual character of religious-mystical experiences. Miracles themselves can be claimed to be perceptual but what is missing from miracles is the restriction to private apprehension and the requirement that a noetic enlargement of consciousness has taken place.

William James, in his influential work The Varieties of Religious Experience, gave certain criteria for the classification of a reported experience under the category we have designated as religious-mystical: ineffability, noetic quality, relative transiency, and passivity. James' schema is taxonomical: based on observations of such reported phenomena, and based on the claims made by the experiencing agents themselves, James extracted those criteria. An additional criterion is needed for distinguishing two different types of religious-mystical experience (a sub-division which the experiencing agents in certain religious traditions consider tremendously important.) Take a theology like that of Christianity, which allows that evil forces have the potency to mimic the divine operations. The set of religious-mystical experiences includes a subset of experiences that are induced not by the divine but by its antagonistic evil forces. The criterion that presumably separates the two kinds of religious-mystical experience is moral. The right kind of RME (religious-mystical experience), and only the right kind, has moral effects on the experiening subject, which are of the right kind - with the right kind determined by the moral view of the religion. The moral criterion is not a criterion for determining whether an experience is of the RME variety because, by theological admission, the evil beings can also induce RMEs - in the sense that the person reports the same type of experience. Of course, the experiencing subject may detect that the RME is of the evil kind but this, again, induces a sub-division within the RME set. This subdivision of RME into the "right" and "wrong" kind has had tragic historical consequences. Many religious mystics were judged by inquisitorial bodies to have had the wrong kind of RME and condemned to death - the infamous burning-at-the-stake in the context of the Middle Ages. If we contemplate restricting RME to only the right type - the one in which the contact has been with the divine and not with a powerful evil entity - then we are bringing into our classification matters of assessing the veridicality of claims. But we have insisted that this should not play any role here. The definition of RME has been advanced to catch a certain phenomenon - and this is a privately experienced phenomenon about which certain claims are made consistently by different persons. The alleged fact that the person was wrong about who the other entity is (evil, not divine) does not enter at this point. So, an experience that matches certain criteria is RME regardless of the veridicality of the claims (in other words, veridicality of the claims is not a definitional criterion.) If you recall what was said earlier, defining RME with veridicality in the definition would be like taking "experience" to mean not what is subjectively claimed but what a satisfactory causal account is. We could surely do this but the problem then is that we immediately throw out the phenomenon that is consistently claimed to have been experienced by the subjects: we immediately start with a reductionistic account. This point is easily missed; the tendency rather in debates about this kind of subject is to immediately project one's prior assumptions about the possibility of such events - "possibility" in the physical sense. If one takes the scientific paradigm to be overriding, one would start by rejecting RME, as claimed by the experiencing subjects. Even if the superiority of the scientific account can be defended, the application of a scientific account should be subsequent. As we said earlier, what is being reduced is RME-as-defined - so, it makes sense to start by defining RME in such a way that the claims of the experiencing subject are credited (although the credit given is not veridical, it is not an agreement with the causal account given by the subject.) The experiencing subject has a causal account - one that attributes to the presence of the divine what has happened. Given the theology of the believer, the possibility that the cause is presence of the evil and not of the divine cannot be excluded - even by the experiencing subject himself or herself.

Reductionist accounts of RME are naturalistic. This kind of view traces causal explanations of this type of experience to natural phenomena. One subset of naturalistic explanation we may call natural-stimulus or NS explanation; according to this, the causal trigger of the experience has an external natural explanation but the religious interpretation is superadded by the person who experiences the event. This is not to say that the experiencing agent is aware of the fact that the religious interpretation is a mere addition to what admits of an alternative, and proper, explanation. Another naturalistic account can be called the pathology-trigger or PT: on this account, the experiencing subject has a pathological brain event, to which event a religious interpretation is added. NS and PT are both naturalistic explanations and can be roughly distinguished as external and internal in the sense that the NS has a misinterpreted veridical trigger (an external stimulus that is allegedly misinterpreted) while PT is internal in the sense that the trigger itself is not external but confined entirely to brain chemical operations. PT can have an external trigger too but the experience of the subject is such that this external trigger is altogether missed within the subjective experience. PT is a pathology model not in a normative but in a clinical sense: "pathology" is not to be understood as a term of moral or other valuative disapproval but as indicative of some functioning of brain chemistry that is statistically besides the norm or a malfunction given the standard operations of the brain.

Given the naturalistic accounts, it does not follow that we should return to our classificatory definitions and rearrange the concepts. The definitions and taxonomy given from the beginning refer to the allegations or claims made about first-person experiences by the experiencing person himself or herself. The naturalistic reduction, on the other hand, takes the phenomena already defined and explains them.

A non-reductionist account of RME phenomena is logically possible: non-reductionist accounts do not necessarily lead to logical absurdity, although they might be poor accounts for some reason or other. "Reductionist" should not be taken as a negative, or as a positive, term. Often "reductionist" is used as a derogatory and disapproving term but this is not at issue here. Similarly, non-reductionism is to be regarded clinically, not as a term of approval or disapproval. The extreme on the non-reductionist spectrum must be the veridical account or VA. According to this view, the experiencing subject in RME is perceiving something that exists and is causally related to the experience itself - much like we attribute the experience of seeing a tree to a presently existing tree's impinging on our sensory apparatus. This view is not easy to defend. There are alternative explanations, after all, and there are criteria as to which explanation we should choose as rational thinkers when we face an overdetermined claim.

The fascinating claim raised by William Alston in a series of articles and in at least one book is that what he calls the Perceptual Model, PM, is the one that we should apply in thie case of RME. What makes this especially challenging to defend is the availability of RME without any claimed sensory content whatsoever. This is the limiting case because we need to explore whether this claim leads to logical absurdity. Does it make sense to speak of experiences that have no sensory content but are, nevertheless, more perceptive than they are ratiocinative? If we allow for speaking of abstract obects, without committing ourselves to whether such objects exist or not, can we then speak of perception of non-sensory objects? This reminds us of the Platonic view. Can non-sensory experiences or experiences related to abstract entities of some sort be perceptual? Alston does not bring up abstract objects; he only speaks of non-sensory content, which accords with the claims often made by religious mystics, and lays down the contentious claim that such experiences should be understood on the basis of a Perceptual Model and not as mental operations without a perceived object.

William P. Alston
William P. Alston

Are Religious-Mystical Experiences Perceptual?

William P. Alston suggested that RMEs (Religious-Mystical Experiences), even without sensory content (as claimed by the subjects who have them), may be understood as perceptual. A related claim is this: if there exists a divine being with the attributes assigned to it by the theology of monotheistic religions, then there would be no impediment to such a divine manifesting itself in the ways claimed by RME subjects. Yet a stronger claim is this: if there exists a God with such attributes, then such a God would manifest itself in exactly the ways claimed by RME subjects.

It does not follow from this that RME proves that a divine being, as defined in the theology, exists.

Alston can invoke in his defense that the accounts given by religious mystics leave no doubt that those subjects distinguish sharply between RMEs and such other, non-perceptual, experiences as meditating about God, remembering some experience (including remembering an RME), dreaming (with even vivid dreams lacking the strong noetic conviction of a presence), etc.. So, this suggests that, if we are to follow the claims made by subjects experiencing RMEs, the classification needed makes us actually place RMEs within a perceptual schema.

The key here is what James called the noetic quality of RME. There is a conviction of a presence and of communion. The conviction itself may well be like the conviction about being with someone, which one has in dream. Yet the RME subject is well acquainted with both the dream experience and the RME type and insists that there is a sharp distinction. This distinction is drawn by the subject in such a way that we are pushed toward the perceptual model: unlike the mental certainty of a dream, the mental conviction involved in RME is more like that of being convinced that we see a tree when it turns out that a tree is really there to be perceived. Indeed, a mystical vision is not a dream. To reduce the vision to a dream is to essentially claim that no vision took place - only a dream that was misinterpreted by the subject who claims to have had a vision.

So, if we follow the phenomenological account of RME, we can defend Alston's claim that the right model to apply when discussing RME is the perceptual model. Still, one who makes this claim is not off the hook yet. Let us return to the most challenging, the limit, case of RME, in which the subject claims that no sensory content whatsoever was involved - only the kind of conviction (not just as a matter of vivid intensity but qualitatively), that is associated with a real presence. Does it make sense to still speak of perception when, by the very admission of the subject, no sensory inputs are claimed to have been recorded? Can anything be perceived that does not leave sensory traces? Is saying "x is perceived but not sensory" like claiming "x is a triangle but it does not have three angles"? This is the crucial issue.

What makes "x is a triangle but it does not have three angles" lgi

Alfred J. Ayer
Alfred J. Ayer

Can It Be Shown that Religious-Mystical Experiences Must be Treated as Merely Psychological Events?

We can construct an argument that owes initially to the philosophic school of Logical Positivism. This argument purports to show that all phenomena of the type we have defined as RMEs (religious-mystical experiences) ought to be addressed as merely pshychological - related to feeling and without any meaningful claims being raised even if the mystic wrongly thinks otherwise. What we mean by "psychological" is to be understood strongly: what the mystic talks about when he or she details the experiences is a description of feeling. There is no point in discussing the alleged existential and identification claims made by the mystic: those are the claims about someone being with them and this person being God. The mystic attaches an interpretation to the feelings experienced but this interpretation is meaningless or logically nonsensical. To appreciate what this view is, we need to detour through some basic, but mostly untaught, logic.

A sentence, which we can symbolize by a capital letter from {A, B, ...}, is grammatical entity. If it is a meaningful sentence, then it can be used correctly to make a declaratory assertion. The meaning so expressed we must symbolize by some other type of symbol, let's say by using small letters from the latter part of the alphabet, {p, q, ...}. More than one sentences can express the same proposition. Only meaningful sentences express propositions (the propositions are those meanings that are being expressed or stated or uttered by meaningful sentences.) It is certainly possible that a grammatically correct sentence is meaningless - expresses no proposition and can only incorrectly be put down as if it were asserting something meaningful. The issue is not psychological. A meaningless sentence may, nevertheless, be confusedly taken to be asserting some meaning by a user of a language. Think only of a book like Alice in Wonderland: you detect the nonsensical sentences, sometimes, but what makes them nonsensical is abuse of language and not the "feeling" or "sense" that you get. What if some other deliberately constructed nonsensical - but grammatically correct - sentences have eluded your attention? The criterion by which logical nonsense is determined is not psychological - whether some instinctive or even some immeiate cognitive response is triggered. The criterion is logical - a matter of the logical and not the surface grammar of a language. To relate this to our present subject, the contention that the subjects talking about their experiences may not realize that they speak nonsense is not as surprising as you might think at first. "The square root of four is a homeless vagrant" is nonsensical. Within some special creative context - in poetry, for instance - this might take an interpretation: how it is to be interpreted might not be nonsensical; but, on its face, this sentence is nonsensical because of a mixing of categories. The class of square roots and the class of homeless vagrants, as defined in language, do not intersect! Yet, at the level of psychological conviction, one could actually believe that this is a meaningful sentence as it is. This does not make the sentence meaningful. The expression we hear often, "it must be meaningful to them," is also nonsensical. Meaning, accruing through language, is a public not a private matter. If something is not private, then its criteria cannot be determined by the individual. "It is meaningful to him" is like saying "it cannot be meaningful to anyone but it is meaningful to at least one person - to him." This is absurd. What the idiomatic expression "it is meaningful to him" can be taken to mean, if it is to mean something, is: "he mistakenly takes this sentences to be meaningful." He could not, however, produce a meaning since no such meaning is expressed by the sentence. Also keep in mind that a meaningless sentence cannot be true or false. And any sentence that can be true or false must be a meaningful sentence. The argument we will analyze purports to show that the utterances of the mystic are not meaningful and, hence, cannot be true - and cannot be false, either, although this is no consolation.

Take a sentence like "she cried in pain." It is meaningful and can be true or false. To symbolize its logical form in propositional logic, we must use an atomic or single propositional variable, for instance "p." In predicate logic, if the label by which we track this person is "a" and the logical predicate "x-cried-at-the-specified-time" is "C", then the symbolization is "Ca". We could defend a more elaborate symbolization, if the context indicates emphasis on the past tense and the one-time occurrence of this event: ∑x∑y(Tx & Sx & Py & y=a & Cyx): there is a time unit (Tx) and it is in the past (Sx) and there is a person (Py) and this person's name is "a" and this person cried at the indicated past time. This is still predicate logic, with identity and universal domain. Now, a sentence like "Ouch!" does not express a proposition. This sentence conveys an emotive outburst, something like an ejaculation of feeling. It has no cognitive content and it is, appropriately enough, called non-cognitive. So, there are non-cognitive sentences. Only cognitive sentences express propositions. Not all meaningless sentences are non-cognitive but the non-cognitive sentences are meaningless. A sentence like "I am in pain!" is interesting: we cannot legislate absolutely as a lot depends on context. If the context is such that this sentence is used to convey information about the first-person subject of the sentence, then it is cognitive; but if the use is for conveying outpouring of emotion, it is not cognitive. Logical Postivists argue that the divine entity religious mystics talk about is so characterized that sentences used to talk about it are non-cognitive. Thus, the subject who talks about her religious-mystical experience is really talking about her non-cognitive mental state (feelings and cannot possibly be referring to any cognitive content). She is not lying. She is confused about the interpretation she is attaching to the phenomenon she experienced. Here is why she cannot possibly lie even. A sentence like "God exists" or any other sentence like "God...", for the definition of "God" with which the mystic operates, is non-cognitive for reasons we will discuss. Such sentences, not being meaningful, cannot be true or false. Then, the mystic cannot be lying either. She cannot be telling either the truth or a falsehood: the target claims she makes are meaningless and, as such, neither true nor false. But she is talking about something, of course, and this is her affective state - plus an interpretation she attaches, which, taken as an existential claim, is nonsensical. This view corrects the ordinary impression people have as users of the language. It is not an intuitive reaction to the declamations of mystics that these individuals are uttering meaningless gibberish. Nor is it obvious to the average person that the mystic is only describing what they have felt even though they claim to be able to draw inferences about the existence of God. We may think that their claims are false - or true - but the point made here is that the sentences they use are not the kind of sentence that can be expressing a meaning insfofar as they make existential claims or any claims about predicating attributes of someone named "God"; those are not sentences that can be either true or false. You might object that the practicing user of the language is the ultimate judge - and the standard user of language does not take such sentences as being meaningless. This is one possible objection but, basically, as already indicated, the view we are considering is indeed offered as a correction of linguistic practice. This does not mean that linguistic practice is disregarded or bypassed. Consider, for example, a case in which the average person agreed and asserted as true the sentence "one plus one make three." Yet, the meanings of "one" and "plus" and "equals" and "three" had not changed in the language. Correct assertability is not a cultural phenomenon; even if the average speaker asserted "one plus one make three", yet, if the meanings of the words in the sentence can be shown to have remained the same in linguistic practice, then the utterance is nonsensical and a linguistic majority to the contrary cannot override this. You can see that, in such a case, standard linguistic practice seems inadequate as a defense against the corrective view.

The most eloquent work in defense of the claims about the non-cognitive status of sentences about the deity defined in monotheistic religions is found in Alfred Ayer's 1936 book Language, Truth and Logic. If you are acquainted with textbooks of philosophy, you should be aware that Logical Positivism has been refuted (indeed, embarrassingly, it refutes itself because it cannot defend its main contention by using the criterion it advances which I take to be "verifiability in principle.") The fundamental principle of this school is that any synthetic proposition p is meaningful if and only if it is in principle empirically verifiable. So, truth is defined as verifiability, more broadly. The view is not unreasonable and seems compelling for any one who takes logical matters to be ultimately a matter of brute facts about linguistic practices. This view also has a philosophic affinity with the position of Mathematical Intuitionism which also accepts truth-through-proof to be a constructivist affair - truth not to be accepted as freedom from absurdity but as based on systematic construction of the objects that enter into a mathematical claim.

A synthetic proposition is one that can logically be possibly true or possibly false. Proposiitions that are not synthetic are called analytic. "A triangle has three angles" is analytic, not synthetic. The meanings of the words in this last sentence fix its truth value as true no matter what context of discourse we entertain. We do not look into the empirical environment to determine the truth value of a sentence like this; the use of language suffices. A sentence like "it is raining and it is not raining here and now" is logically necessarily false: it is analytic, not synthetic, because its truth value is fixed (as false) no matter what the truth values of its components are: the meanings of "not" and "and" do this here - make the truth value fixed as false. So, this is an analytic and false sentence (more accurately, the proposition it expresses is analytic false.) The propositions that are synthetic, on the other hand, can be logically possibly true and false (not in the same context, of course.) "It is raining here and now" can be true or false. "It is not raining here and now" can be true or false. The Logical Positivist school argues that the criteria for ascertaining the truth value (true or false) of such propositions are strictly empirical. This view was anticipated by David Hume - who usually writes of associations of ideas (what we called analytic) and matters of fact (the synthetic) and demands strictly empirical criteria for the determination of the truth values of the latter. What needs to be shown now is that a sentence like "God exists" for the definition of "God" given in monotheism is: making a synthetic statement; and is not empirically verifiable. The same for ""Fg" - "God has the F-attribute predicated of him" for any attribute "F" insofar as the sentence is also synthetic.

A sentence like "God is omnipotent" is not synthetic since this is a matter of definition of the word "God." There may still be ways to show that this sentences leads to absurdity but the sentence has to be taken as analytic. "God exists", however, is said to be synthetic. Nothing about the definitions of the words in this sentence can be enough to fix the truth value of this sentence as true or false. The stronger claim, made by Hume, is that any existential claim has to be making a synthetic proposition. There is a famous type of proof in the philosophy of religion, the Ontological Argument type of proof, that yields "God exists" as conclusion of a proof whose premises are analytic! Then, "God exists" for the entity defined here ought to be analytic! An existential claim is presumably shown to be a matter of logic. It is as if someone telling us that "if you understand the meanings of the words "God" and "perfect" and so on, then you cannot possibly think of God, so defined, as not existing. For this definition of "God," "God exists" is of the same propositional type as "a triangle has three angles" or, for that matter, "a triangle's three angles add up to a sum of two right angles." The ontological argument is the target of criticisms and Logical Positivists reject it. So, "God exists" is taken by them to be synthetic. One critique of the Ontological Argument is that something must be wrong with it since it purports to show an existential claim as analytic - which is presumed impossible. If the statement "God exists" is synthetic, then it has to be empirically verifiable if it is to be meaningful at all - and, a fortiori, it has to be empirically verifiable if it is to be possibly true since only meaningful sentences can be true. Interestingly, "God exists" cannot be false either if it is not empirically verifiable or meaningful. Think of how a mathematical conjecture can be argued as neither true (since there is not proof of it) nor false (since there is no proof that it is false either). With existential claims about God, the available path seems to be to take them as meaningless not in the way unprovable mathematical claims are neither true nor false (for the Mathematical Intuitionists) but rather in the way in which emotive outbursts are neither true nor false. This is the track down which non-congitivism seems to lead - and the term for this is Emotivism. The theist can make sense insofar as he is describing emotive states but, insofar as he purports to make existential and other claims about God, he is uttering non-cognitive sentences.

Why can't we say that the mystic actually shows how "God exists" can be empirically verifiable? We need an argument as to why a non-definitional sentence "Fg" (the entity named by "God" has the attribute F) is not empirically verifiable. Recall that, in that case, this is a meaningless sentence. Here is one argument purporting to show this:

If "Fg" were provable, it would have to be the conclusion of either a deductive or an inductive argument. Since "Fg", we assume, is synthetic, then Fg can be a conclusion of a deductive argument only if there is at least one synthetic premise about God in the argument. This takes us to the question if claims about this God are supposed to be empirically verifiable or not. The same question arises if we turn to inductive arguments. So, the ultimate question to consider is: are claims about God, as defined, empirically verifiable? If such claims are not empirically verifiable, then, no matter what the mystic thinks, there is no prospect of verification in the case of religious-mystical experiences either. Claiming otherwise is nonsensical. Since the mystic must be talking about something - this is an account about a private experience - they must be talking about their affective state. This hands RMEs over to psychology - in a deep sense.

The non-verifiability of claims about God can be argued on the basis of how this God is defined and what conditions are admitted by the religious subject for confirming and disconfirming whether it is God who did or did not do something.

For any event x, which the theist might claim to have been caused by God, there are alternative naturalistic explanations for which verification criteria are specified. The claim about God as causal, however, comes without specification of any test that would allow us to check that it is indeed God and not the alternative that is causally responsible.

A claim like "God is the cause of everything" is itself unverifiable because its meaning is essentially non-empirical. It is a theoretical postulate. It does not mean "God is the cause of x" in the sense of "cause" in the sentence "the impact was the cause of the injury". No verification criteria are made available - as they are available in the case of the impact and the injury that is said to have resulted. Moreover, "x is the cause of everything" is itself meaningless, arguably, because it is a claim about something that is not a link in the causal chain but outside of it. When science claims that "the big bang is the cause of everything", the logical grammar of this sentence is not like that of "God is the cause of everything." Notice that in the case of the Big Bang, the event itself is in the causal chain and has the same theoretical rules apply to it. This is not the case with the God defined monotheistically. Science cannot talk about what might have caused the Big Bang itself - this is actually nonsensical to the language of science. The theist, on the other hand, can claim with alacrity that God caused the Big Bang but - here is the tell-tale sign - this God is not in the causal chain but transcends it and is also exempt from causal influences. It is as if a theory - causal theory broadly speaking - is both used and not used at the same time!

Although the monotheistic God is defined as able and willing to intervene within the realm of empirical reality, this connection between God and reality is claimed to be irregular and unpredictable. It cannot be reproduced under specified conditions. It is also non-falsifiable. Event y that follows God's interference once may not be following God's interference at another time - so, it can have other causes. An event that is deemed physically impossible is, by definition, inexplicable. The explanation "God made it happen" does not give us a causal account: the whole point is that no causal account can be given - if it could, it would not be a miracle or a supernatural occurrence. When the theist also goes on to use divine action as an explanation, he is saying something like "even though inexplicable, this event has an explanation." Or, perhaps, the theist is claiming that the explanation is not natural but supernatural. The problem, arguably, is that the supernatural explanation is triggered only when the naturalistic explanation fails. But the failure of naturalistic explanation means - at least to the Empiricist and to the Logical Positivist - failure of any explanation. So, once again, the theist is caught speaking nonsense - saying something to the effect that an explanation is available when what he is talking about is such that no explanation is admitted as available.

To sum up, the Logical Positivist rejects that religious-mystical claims are meaningful. The mystic is talking about his or her affective states - of the past - and the interpretation they promote of what happened is not meaningful and, as such, it cannot be true and it cannot be false.

© 2015 Odysseus Makridis


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