Donovan paragraphs 55, 60 and 61

The objection is a sound one. If there are encounters between God and people they may be chiefly for those non-intellectual interpersonal reasons, and not for the sake of acquiring knowledge. It is only if a claim to know is based on experiences taken as encounters with God, and on them alone, that the philosophical difficulties considered above apply. And the fact is that believers often do try to argue that they have knowledge of God purely on the strength of such experiences. The effect of the philosophical criticisms has been simply to show how inadequate that kind of argument is.

The chief point of the philosophical criticisms of ‘knowing God by experience’ amounts to this. Where popular religious reasoning falls down is not in taking the sense of God too seriously, but in trying to treat it as a form of knowledge, of a self-certifying kind, immediately available to those who have it. Knowledge, the philosophers point out, is just not like that—whether it is knowledge of God or of anything else. The sense of knowing is never on its own a sufficient sign of knowledge. (That distinction is a key to many of the philosophical difficulties in claims to know God by experience.)

But if the sense of God fails, in the end, to count as knowledge of God, what is to be said about it? Is it of no further philosophical interest and to be discarded, like a pricked balloon, as being simply a great illusion?

a) Examine the argument and/ or interpretation in the passage – 30 marks

This is the end of Donovan’s argument and he is summing up the ideas he has put forward in the rest of his article. He has been concerned with expressing his doubts and philosophical difficulties with accepting the kind of knowledge, the intuitive ‘sense of God,’ gained through religious experience on its own merits. He does not doubt that the knowledge is both beneficial and genuine knowledge but his worry throughout has been that if it is only of the ‘self-certifying kind‘ then unless it can be argued for on rational grounds too, it is of dubious value to anyone other than the original experient. Here Donovan differs from Ayer
who categorically denied the possibility of any knowledge gained from any other source than empirically verifiable and only acknowledged the validity of knowledge gained by the 5 senses. Any other kind of supposed knowledge gained by ‘mystical intuition‘ is ‘nonsense.

He takes issue with HP Owen’s claim that intuitive knowledge gained through religious experience is as genuine as any other sort of knowledge and that it ‘requires no further argument or support.‘ He worries about those believers in anything who say ‘I just know‘ on the grounds that this kind of claim has led to all sorts of abuses in the past: from George W Bush’s claim that God told him to go to war on Iraq to Peter Sutcliffe’s claim that God told him to murder prostitutes and including Hitler’s belief in the inferiority of the Jewish race or even in more modern times the Muslim fundamentalists who felt they had to bomb the World Trade Centres to make their point. Unfortunately intuitive ‘I just know’ knowledge does not hold up in a court of law and if we are going to justify our actions we have to be sure that the ‘knowledge’ those actions are based on is rational. As he says there is a difference between ‘feeling certain and being right.

Earlier Donovan has quoted Bertrand Russell’s point that ‘deception is constantly practiced with success‘ and using the prosaic example of love showed that human beings are indeed frequently deluded about the strength or validity of another’s feelings for us. He points out that ‘The sense of knowing is never on its own a sufficient sign of knowledge.

However although he ends his article with the question about what use this kind of knowledge really is he has already answered it in his discussion about the qualitative difference between ‘knowledge about‘ and ‘knowledge of.’ He borrows Martin Buber’s
I-It and I-Thou description of the difference between knowing theoretically about something e.g. earthquakes and having experience of being in one, which is quite a different thing. There is a modern expression which says ‘on the internet no-one knows you’re a dog,’ which encapsulates this idea of the difference between knowing about someone, i.e. what they tell you about themselves and actually really knowing them from experience and seeing them in action. The Old Testament figures who claimed to have had experiences of God had learned about the God of their people and had an I-It kind of knowledge but until He made himself known to them and upgraded their relationship to an I-Thou kind, it was a kind of knowledge which didn’t affect their lives. As soon as God made his demand upon Moses to go to free his people in Egypt Moses knew it was going to affect his life and not in a good way. Jonah too, told by God to go and tell the people of Nineveh to mend their ways, immediately took passage on a ship to get out of reach of God. Needless to say he ended up doing what God wanted him to anyway! With a little help from a whale!

While St Teresa of Avila stated unequivocally ‘it is wholly impossible for me to doubt that I have been in God and God in me,’ nevertheless Russell‘s cautionary message still stands and we are now more aware than ever that there are alternative explanations for these experiences which are called ‘religious’ but which may have neurological explanations or be nothing more than delusory, or may be brought on by other factors within or outside of the experient’s control like fever, illness, drugs, fasting or even alcohol induced. Again Russell
asked the question ‘what is the difference between a man who drinks too much and sees snakes and one who eats too little and sees God?‘ It’s a good question and shows how cautiously we should treat the so-called intuitive knowledge gained from these so-called religious experiences.

It is clear from the Biblical examples that these experiences were genuine for these people and the kind of knowledge they gained as a result of them has had a far reaching impact even up to today. And perhaps to answer Donovan’s question for him the way we can rationally accept the claims by these people to ‘just know’ is by looking at the effect on their individual lives and then on the lives of others. If that effect is good maybe that is the rational criterion by which we should be judging them and they are not ‘simply a great illusion.’

Philosophers Bad examples Good examples Concepts
Buber George Bush Moses I-It / I-thou
Russell Peter Sutcliffe Jonah Intuition
Ayer 9/11 St Teresa of Avila Religious experiences – alternative explanations
H P Owen Kind of knowledge
Self-certifying versus empirical, verifiable


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