Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Trace of God by Joe Hinman

“Are mystical experiences real?” asks Joe Hinman in his new book, The Trace of God: A Rational Warrant for Belief. It should not be too much of a spoiler to reveal that he concludes that they are. Joe has distilled the research on mysticism since William James to determine the commonalities of these experiences and to ask how much they can tell us about aspects of reality not readily accessible to everyday experience.

There are plenty of problems with studying mystical or “peak” experiences. For a start, they are highly subjective and extremely difficult to describe. Francis Spufford gives it a go in his excellent book Unapologetic, but reading about someone else’s experience is always second best. I am a decidedly non-mystical person and so I find the subject alien, if quite fascinating. Joe introduces us to Ralph Hood Jr’s “M scale” which attempts to provide a measure of mystical experience so that they can be compared and validated. In fact, it turns out that there has been a great deal more work in this area than your might imagine. This has revealed uniformities that mean we can certainly group these experiences into a single category.

But are they real? The standard rationalist response is to dismiss mysticism was something that goes on inside our heads, often aided by illicit chemicals. It has no external cause and so it is of interest to neurologists and hippies only. It certainly can’t tell us anything about God. As Joe explains, the problem with this dismissal is that all our experiences are ultimately subjective. We never enjoy unmediated access to reality, but only the most radical solipsist would claim this means that reality doesn’t exist. We know when we are awake and quite often know when we are dreaming. Mysticism isn’t like that – it feels more real than everyday life.

Still, the strength of science, says the rationalist, is that it overcomes subjectivism by insisting on repeatability. Joe marshals Thomas Kuhn and other sociologists of science to argue that scientists are just as prone to herd mentality as the rest of us. I’m not sure this goes far enough to mean a mystical experience can claim parity of subjectivity with a laboratory experiment. But Joe doesn’t want to take things that far. He just argues that the mere fact that mystical life is subjective does not rule it out of court as a valid experience from which we can extrapolate knowledge. His basic argument is that we are justified in accepting religious truths on the ground of our own experiences (what is called the “religious a priori”). Thus, mysticism can provide us for a rational warrant for religious belief.

The bulk of The Trace of God is taken up by detailed rebuttals of sceptical arguments against mysticism: that it is just emotions and feelings, caused by drugs or brain chemistry. Joe blunts these arguments, but he would be the first to admit that he has not proved that mystic experiences are not purely internal. However, by showing that rationalists cannot invalidate mysticism, he leaves the road open to his own argument: these experiences are evidence of God in the way that a footprint is evidence of a wild animal. Mysticism provides a trace that gives us a rational warrant to postulate the existence of the being that gave rise to the spoor. We’re not dealing in proof here. In that respect, Joe’s project is similar to Alvin Plantinga’s work on warrant. But whereas Plantinga floats his justifications on rarefied philosophical air, Joe builds on the solid ground of widely experienced phenomena. No one, as far as I am aware, believes in God because of philosophy. Plenty of people base their religious faith on mystical experience.

This leaves us with two difficult questions: is belief in God warranted by someone else’s mystical experience? And where does religious doctrine fit into experiences that can be wildly inconsistent? Joe doesn’t really deal with the first of these. He concludes that the evidence of mysticism provides him with warrant for knowledge about God that he has anyway. It doesn’t seem to provide much evidence for the non-believer unless that non-believer is willing to invest in a religious interpretation of these experiences. As far as apologetics goes, this is a “come on in, the water’s lovely” argument. 

And what about doctrine? Joe, like me, is an orthodox Christian of liberal persuasion. One senses that, for him, the universal aspects of mysticism are an advantage not a problem. A Christianity that damned the rest of humanity (or worse a Christian sect that damned most Christians into the bargain) is not one that Joe or I would be comfortable with. If mystical experiences provide warrant for believing in God, they also provide evidence of God’s interest in all of humanity. Joe distinguishes between knowing God “face to face” and the knowledge of doctrine. He finds evidence for the distinction in the writings of Paul: the man who had the most famous mystical experience in history. 

Overall, as a first book that breaks new ground in the philosophy of religion, this book represents a considerable achievement. Joe’s publishers, Grand Viaduct, also deserve credit for helping him overcome the disadvantage of dyslexia to communicate his ideas in a format such that they might achieve the recognition they deserve.

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