Reasoning and Experience

Robert Hutchinson on proofs for the existence of God:

If I were to debate myself, I would never use mystical experience as an argument for God’s existence because it is non-falsifiable, it is an unfair trump card that avoids logical reasoning. But just as my love for my wife is not the result of a logical demonstration, so, too, my faith in God is not the result of a chain of deduction. Reason can perhaps confirm what we know already by faith, but faith is rarely the result of reason. What’s more, I have this sense that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not the Prime Mover of Aristotelian logic… and that to argue for his existence, using the paltry weapons of the human mind, seems almost presumptuous.

The opposition he is drawing here is not between reasoning about God and experiencing him, but between reason as such and experience, where “experience” means immediate knowledge. Briefly, the whole force of this argument comes not from the difference between mediate knowledge of God (theistic proof) and experience of God (mystical or religious experience), but is a general feature of the way in which immediate knowledge is always preferable to mediate knowledge, whether in theology, physics, history, biology, whatever.

It’s very often the case that the things we reason to are more worth knowing than the things we know immediately, but immediate knowledge is a better way of knowing. Ceteris paribus, if  we had a choice between a direct knowledge of some reality by an immediate manifestation and a mediate, indirect awareness of it, we’d all choose the first. It would be better, for example, if we could just see some historical event happen rather than have to argue about it through monument inscriptions, testimonies, and probability arguments; it would be better if we could just look up in the sky and see black holes as opposed to inferring them from microwave readings, etc. We only reason because a.) we can’t know something any other way or b.) we can’t unify the things we know any other way c.) we can’t communicate some things we know any other way.

Reasoning is always a substitute for experience, or something that we have to settle for given the impossibility of an immediate knowledge. Since reasoning by definition has no direct access to what it seeks to know and finds itself in a situation where the reality does not manifest itself, reasoning presupposes world that substitutes for the manifestation itself in which it can reason (cf. Chapters 1 and 2 of Sophistical Refutations). This is the world of signs i.e. things which being themselves immediately known make other things known. Instrumental signs thus both manifest something and are a veil in front of it, or perhaps a response to the veil that is, for us, over reality. It is the world of signs, considered as substitutes for things that do not manifest themselves,  which opens the possibility of deception, sophistry, lying, and that nagging sense we all have that there is something unreal and even inhuman about reasoning. Just as the continual repetition of a word makes it lose all of its sense in become an irrational clanging sound, so too arguments which go on too long for someone tend to sound unreal to him. Who hasn’t heard someone call an argument “mere wordplay” or a bunch of “empty logic”?

Though the opposition between “logic” and “mystical/religious experience” is a feature of the general opposition between mediate and immediate knowledge, the personhood of God makes this opposition more acute, painful, and troubling. Personal relations give an added force to the desire for immediacy. One could never exchange letters with a friend without wanting him to be present, but we might do history for quite some time without ever wishing to just see the things we study.


  1. ombhurbhuva said,

    August 23, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    Thanks for that very clear exposition. One would imagine that philosophers more than most people would be swayed by rational arguments in the progress from atheism to theism but my slight survey of those that have done that leads me to believe that mystical experience played a large part in the conversion of a good number of them. You yourself probably know of others.

    • August 23, 2012 at 5:40 pm

      Conversion is not really the right category for determining how rational arguments work in swaying people; conversion is not mere persuasion by argument, and very few cases of being genuinely swayed by arguments are reasonably regarded as conversion.

      • ombhurbhuva said,

        August 23, 2012 at 6:43 pm

        What I wrote was that some philosophers were swayed by rational arguments in their acceptance of theism but as you say yourself ” very few cases of being genuinely swayed by arguments are reasonably regarded as conversion.” In some other cases then this swaying is perhaps followed by a mysterious process that moves them towards a full conversion. Does that make sense to you?

      • August 23, 2012 at 7:13 pm

        It depends on what you mean. We had this problem before — I wrote a post arguing, in part, that not all persuasion is conversion and that there are several different kinds of thing called conversion, and then you asked about people converted by arguments, and I could never figure which of the different senses you meant.

        I’m not sure what’s ‘mysterious’ about conversion as a process; for just about any sense of the word ‘conversion’, most people who have undergone it seem to me to be pretty clear about what the process itself involved in their own case, and if they weren’t we’d have to be quite agnostic about what was going on, because it would just be a mystery what had happened. But perhaps you mean that some kinds of conversion require causes different from, or in addition to, rational arguments, so that describing what led them to convert in that sense can’t be reduced to enumerating specific arguments that converted them? If so, I think you are right, and that most things that would reasonably count as conversion are of that sort. To put in Newman-style terms: discursive rational arguments, considered solely on their own, can usually at best give Notional Assent; but genuine conversion at least requires Real Assent. Being persuaded by an argument that there’s more to theism than you had thought, and therefore probably something to it, is very different from coming actually to believe that God exists. Likewise, conversion in the sense of coming to believe that God exists because nothing else can explain some very definite phenomenon is quite different, even if the belief is actually quite firm (even if the reasoning is clearly demonstrative), from, say, conversion in the sense of coming to have Christian faith in God, even if they happen at the same time. But in precisely that way, ‘conversion’ is not the right category for determining whether people are actually swayed by the relevant arguments.

        If, on the other hand, you only mean conversion like conversion to Christian faith in God, then Catholic doctrine is that nobody is ever converted in that sense by any arguments whatsoever, even if there are arguments involved and they have an effect; it requires that God infuse the theological virtue of faith. But in this sense we wouldn’t actually be talking about anything to which arguments could be any more than broadly preparatory, anyway, just as working out the theoretical possibility of something could never get you closer to the actual experience of it than prepare you for it.

  2. Agoro Sheriff Olatunji said,

    December 2, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    My question is that which of the two types of knowledge is the most high?

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