Here Donovan is assuming that there is a kind of knowledge called ‘intuition’ which is both a direct and wholly convincing kind which leaves the individual with ‘no doubts at all’ that they are right. Indeed he goes on that this is ‘perfectly ordinary.’ However he then asks whether this can also be applicable to religious matters. Is there a variety of intuitive knowledge which can give rise to the conviction that individuals just ‘know’ that God exists?
So what does Donovan mean by intuition? HP Owen described it as a religious interpretation of events. A sense (not bodily) which helps make sense of and links disparate experiences. Only by this sense can God reveal himself. It involves a leap of as he later says ‘faith;’ for example, see a sunset and be aware of God behind the event.
Donovan describes ‘just knowing’, but this is a concept which is certain to cause controversy. Anybody who says they just ‘know’ cannot seriously expect people to take without challenge. Religious believers are just some of those who should rightly be expected to justify their claim to this particular brand of knowledge. Believers need to be able to offer ‘additional arguments,’ if they wish to be taken seriously. ‘just knowing’ can lead to all sorts of fanaticism and extremism like the Branch Davidians and the Waco siege which ended in tragic loss of life because they refused to have their beliefs challenged. It also leads to fundamentalism which is currently causing problems in the teaching of science in the school curriculum in America despite the Dover School judgment.
Donovan does not dispute that there are however experiences which induce certain feelings as Otto said of the ‘wholly other‘ or the numinous, or even as Tillich called it a feeling of ‘ultimate concern’ but which lead the experient to the conclusion that God exists. Carl Jung said of it: ‘Religious experience is absolute…it cannot be disputed. Those who have had it possess a great treasure, a source of life, meaning and beauty which gives splendour to the world.’ And surely this is the important bit! It is the effect on someone’s life of that experience which should allow it to be counted as ‘just knowing.’ If they have gone out and crashed planes into the World Trade Centre or bombed the London underground, in other words where innocent people have been affected detrimentally, perhaps that kind of ‘just knowing’ should be called into question. St Teresa of Avila described her experience as ‘wholly impossible for me to doubt that I have been in God and God in me‘ and her experience transformed her life. But by their very nature these experiences are beyond empirical explanation. Yet there are aspects which can at least be quantified. They all seem to produce particular feelings of peace, spirituality, loss of self……. They often occur in similar circumstances, usually solitary, though not always as with the Toronto Blessing. Strangely these experiences do not always affect just religious believers, indeed, CS Lewis may have been one of the least willing converts to Christianity (well other than Saul later St Paul!) and they are of course not limited to just one religion which is one reason why David Hume considered the claims of religious experience illegitimate! Thus Mohammad was convinced that God had sent his Angel to him to inspire him to write the Qur’an and the experience totally changed his life. And later in this article Donovan goes on to draw the distinction between ‘being certain and ‘being right.’
As Bertrand Russell observed intuition is not a reliable sense. Many claim to know how their partner feels about them and yet ‘deception is constantly practised with success.’ And how many people are conned out of their money and other things every day despite being ‘certain’ that the con artist is trustworthy.’ We hate to be wrong about these things yet we often are.
Donovan’s examples of intuition give rise to debate for these are not I believe of a similar order. The first is about memory and surely synthetically verifiable; the second is empirically verifiable too; the third is a moral or cultural ideology and a consequence of the dominant ideological standpoint of the society one is born into and the fourth is mathematical and analytically true, i.e. true by definition. All these mean is that each of these certainties do not need proving each and every time to be taken on trust, some things we just have to accept and move on. They need no further argument because they have already been tested and proven.
Religious knowledge however, is different. It is important that we question religious ‘intuition’ and don’t’ allow ‘brute facts’ to go unquestioned and unchallenged for ‘that way madness lies’ according to Shakespeare’s King Lear.
So Donovan’s question has to have the answer ‘No’. There may well be intuitions which impart religious knowledge but they do need further evidence and ‘additional arguments.’ For despite Swinburne‘s principles of credulity and testimony, in which he argues that we should believe what people tell us for they usually tell the truth unless we have good reason to doubt them, the effect of ordinary stories on our lives is minimal but the effect of a religious story can be huge. The knowledge gained from ‘intuitive experiences’ must, by the very nature of its potential effect on human experience, be open to question.
b) Do you agree? Justify…
I would not go as far as Ayer who regarded only cognitive claims as valid and meaningful; only assertions which can be empirically verified and only experiences which come through the five senses of our bodies in the realm of the phenomenon, and who denied the existence of the realm of the numenon. He believed that ‘God is the object of a purely mystical intuition and can not therefore be defined in terms which are intelligible to the reason‘ and ‘the fact that people have religious experiences is interesting from the psychological point of view but it does not in any way imply that there is such a thing as religious knowledge‘ [and] ‘no act of intuition can be said to reveal a truth about any matter of fact unless it issues in verifiable propositions.’ Donovan’s article expresses a belief that there is indeed such a thing and that though it may not be empirically verifiable it does have meaning in particular to the believer.
Even Dawkins would probably be forced to agree that religious assertions do have meaning; he may not like the meaning and may argue that basically it is all a matter of misinterpretation, but it cannot be denied that much of the art, music, literature both prose and poetry, grand architecture and even the laws of many countries are grounded in these ‘intuitions’ of Donovan’s.
A religious believer would certainly agree that just as we humans ‘reveal [our] nature through [our] acts, so God reveals himself in the created order.‘ To simply believe only in the cognitive realm seems to be denying the evidence somewhat. It seems to me that you can deny the interpretation but not the actuality. Although Dawkins would disagree because he regards these experiences as ‘most convincing to those who claim to have had one, but [as an argument] it is the least convincing to anyone else.’
But it is here in the matter of interpretation that my interest lies. Francis Collins the head of the Human Genome Project who became a believer in 1978 but who certainly doesn’t accept that religion and science cannot co-exist was interviewed by John Horgan for National Geographic in 2006. Asked what he thought about the field of neurotheology which attempts to find the neural basis of religious experiences, he responded: ‘It wouldn’t trouble me – if I were to have some mystical experience myself- to discover that my temporal lobe was lit up. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have some genuine spiritual significance.’
In my opinion religious experience should be allowed to ‘tip the balance’ in favour of the probability of God existing. And this kind of religious knowledge should be granted credibility.
I do not agree that it needs no further argument but that these experiences should be regarded as at least as valid as cognitive knowledge. Yes there is a danger in taking these claims on purely face value but if after serious questioning what remains is the individual’s faith and belief that they have had one of these ‘intuitions’ then provided that their lives have been changed and for the better it seems rational to believe them.