Donovan paragraphs 55,61 and 66-67

(iii) ‘Experience of’ is not in itself knowledge
Suppose it were indisputable that God is genuinely experienced in some form of first-hand awareness. It does not follow that such first-hand experience or encounter, on its own, would count as knowledge at all. The point can be put this way. We generally think that someone who has experienced something for themselves is in a better position to know the truth about it than someone who has not. Yet why should that be so? What does first-hand experience add, that all available second-hand knowledge cannot supply?

 

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.

 

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 or interpretation in the passage. [30]

 

This is almost the end of Donovan’s exploration of the value of religious experience. This is his overall argument: that an experience taken by an experient to be proof of the existence of God may indeed be ‘indisputable‘ to the believer but cannot in Donovan’s view be taken ‘on its own’ merit. He argues that the problem with believers is that they tend to think the experience is sufficient and others should accept their word when they say what they have learned from it, what he calls ‘self-certifying knowledge.’ Although he doesn’t say it here he has already said that accepting and acting on such claims to ‘just know’ has led to many ‘misguided‘ actions by ‘tyrants and dictators.’ The problem for him lies with the argument from religious experience. While this is generally taken to be the argument ‘from experiences of God to the existence of God’ he does not think it is so simple and certainly not indisputable. Indeed he alludes to the possibility that the ‘sense of encounter may be mistaken’ and therefore that the interpretation of an experience religiously can be erroneous. [1,4,5]

{Here you could spend some time recounting and explaining some of the religious experiences which may have alternative explanations and say why accepting them at face value, is
dangerous}

 

Even though William James defines the major common features of religious experience as ‘noetic, transient, ineffable and passive’ and as such we should accept the reality of these experiences as experiences of God, Donovan cites Bertrand Russell’s idea that ‘deception is constantly practiced with success’ as support for the idea that no matter how convinced we may be that we are right ‘feeling certain and being right’ are not the same thing nor always connected. In fact he would probably agree with Ayer that we humans are quite good at self-deception! [1,2,3,4,5,6]

{Here give examples of deception, self-deception and feeling certain and being right not being the same!}

He has just completed his exploration of the difference between ‘knowledge about and experience of‘ in which he cited Martin Buber’s ‘I-It and I-Thou’ binary theory on knowledge and relationships. While Buber was keen to point out the superiority of ‘experience of’ over ‘knowledge about’ on the basis that e.g. in today’s on-line society getting to know someone in a chat room is most definitely not as illuminating as meeting them personally, similarly knowing everything there is to know about life at the South Pole is clearly an order of magnitude different from actually going there and experiencing it for oneself.

Knowledge about’ is objective, factual, verifiable but ‘second-hand’, ‘experience-of’ is subjective, experiential and subject to personal interpretation i.e. ‘first-hand’, thus they are quite different kinds of knowledge, in fact the latter is commonly regarded as ‘intuitive‘ and while Donovan is not dismissing this as a valid kind or source of knowledge he is keen to highlight its limitations and that caution should be exercised when claiming any knowledge gained in this way because it is not necessarily correct. [2,3,5]

{Here more examples of’ knowledge about and experience of’, could go into detail on the doctor and the pregnancy analogy of Donovan’s… and when knowledge or conclusions drawn from experience-of has gone wrong or proved to be false.}

Donovan ends with the question, is this kind of experience and knowledge ‘of no further interest’ and simply ‘a great illusion?’ Which he answers in the next paragraph by saying ‘nothing that has been said here can lead to that conclusion.’ So his own answer to his overall question ‘Can we know God by experience’ is ‘yes…BUT!’ And this is a huge qualified BUT!

 

b) Do you agree? Justify your point of view and explain the implications for understanding religion and human experience.[20]

 

Unless you have a fundamentalist view or a literal view of religion and holy writings it is likely that your view is similar to Donovan’s. Of course Richard Dawkins, who actually feels that this is the most convincing of all of the arguments for the existence of God, would dismiss the validity of conclusions about the existence of God drawn from these rather dodgy experiences If you’ve had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don’t expect the rest of us to take your word for it’
but few are quite as dogmatic as he is even today. Although a recent atheist myself, I cannot deny that to some people [including my own father] these experiences are utterly convincing. I personally believe that they are being misinterpreted and find it difficult to agree with Swinburne that ‘a loving creator would surely seek to interact with his creation’ on the basis that if there is a God he doesn’t seem to be really loving!

However I cannot deny that something seems to have happened in these people’s lives to show up in some quite extreme acts: of self-denial [Mother Theresa], self-sacrifice [ St Paul], outright heroism [Gladys Aylward], fanatical patience [Nelson Mandela], or creativity [Van Gogh’s Last Supper, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel… to name but a few.]

And I agree that Donovan is right that we need to treat the claims of these people with caution and interrogate them as far as possible with rationality, for alternative explanations, misinterpretations or downright wrongness.

It is also quite difficult even for sociologists and psychologists to convincingly explain away the phenomenon and global appeal and spread of religion although Voltaire would have had us believe that if there wasn’t a God we would have to invent him. However it could be argued that an alien doing a comparison of the number of people who attend church on a Sunday morning and the number who attend football games on the same day might come to the conclusion that football was a religion! Is religion merely something which enables society to survive and through it the majority of us as Durkheim would argue? Or does religion merely satisfy psychological needs and a desire to return to the safety of the womb recreating the ‘oceanic feeling’ via the collective feeling experienced during worship as Freud would suggest?

Many humans would like to think there is some other realm than that of the phenomenon, to quote Otto, and that there are mysteries yet to be discovered but the possibility that religious experiences do in fact suggest the existence of God is potentially ‘wish-fulfilment’ as Feuerbach called it or ‘sorceries of the imagination that satisfy the heart.’

On the other hand as John Hick put it ‘absence of knowledge is not that same as knowledge of absence’ so I would be among the first to admit that we don’t yet know.

However the most important part of what Donovan is saying is that we shouldn’t take claims like this at face value. His early assertion that tyrannical things have been said and done in the name of ‘I just
know’ is valid. Human history is littered with examples of wars and battles to assert supremacy of: a religion: the Crusades; an ideology: Hitler’s purge of the Jews and others; an unpalatable scientific truth: Galileo’s proof that the earth was not at the centre of the universe and his imprisonment by the church for 20 years; the persecution of so-called witches in medieval Europe; even The Yorkshire Ripper’s claim that God told him to kill prostitutes…
all of these atrocities were committed in the firm belief that the perpetrator and the justifications were ‘right.’

Here I am firmly on Dawkins’ and even Marx’s side in that I feel that religion has too long been used to justify terrible acts and also the perpetuation of the status quo. Religion holds human development back and claims to ‘just know’ should be subject to the fullest scrutiny.

RE Foundations exam papers Questions 2009-2014

Specimen paper June 2009

EITHER

1 (a) (i) What are the main ideas of the design and cosmological arguments for the existence of God? (21)

(ii) Choose one of these arguments and comment on its weaknesses.(9)


OR

(b) (i) Examine the main strengths and weaknesses of the design argument for the existence of God.(21)

(ii) Consider the view that the weaknesses are more convincing than the strengths. (9)


EITHER

2 (a) (i) In what ways may suffering create philosophical problems for religious believers? Outline two solutions to these problems.(21)

(ii) To what extent are these solutions successful?(9)


OR

(b) (i) Examine one philosopher’s understanding of the term ‘miracle’. Examine the arguments used to discredit miracles.(21)

(ii) To what extent are these arguments successful?(9)


Exam paper Foundations June 2009

EITHER

1 (a) (i) Examine the key ideas and strengths of the design argument for the existence of God. (21)

(ii) Comment on the view that the strengths and weaknesses are equally balanced. (9)

(Total for Question 1(a) = 30 marks)


OR

(b) (i) What are the distinctive ideas of the cosmological argument for the existence of God? (21)

(ii) To what extent is this a strong argument for the existence of God? (9)

(Total for Question 1(b) = 30 marks)


EITHER

2 (a) (i) What are the key features of the problem of suffering? Examine the essential ideas of two solutions. (21)

(ii) ‘The problem of suffering is a mystery and cannot be solved.’ Comment on this claim. (9)

(Total for Question 2(a) = 30 marks)


OR

(b) (i) Outline the key concepts of miracles and examine the main reasons to believe in miracles.     (21)

(ii) Comment on the philosophical problems associated with miracles with reference to Hume. (9)


Jan 2010

EITHER

1(a) (i) Examine the strengths and weaknesses of the design argument for the existence of God.     (21)

(ii) Comment on the view that this argument is inconclusive as a proof of the existence of God. (9)


OR

(b) (i) Give an account of the key features of the cosmological argument for the existence of God. (21)

(ii) To what extent is this a weak argument? (9)


EITHER

2(a) (i) What may the problem of suffering signify to a religious believer. Examine one solution to this problem. (21)

(ii) Comment on the view that an alternative a solution to that examined in part (i) offers a better response. (9)


OR

(b) (i) Examine key concepts of miracles and philosophical reasons to believe in them.     (21)

(ii) To what extent do criticisms undermine belief in miracles? (9)


June 2010

EITHER

1(a) (i) Give an account of the fundamental ideas of the design argument for the existence of God. (21)

(ii) Comment on the view that the strengths of these ideas make this a convincing argument.     (9)


OR

(b) (i) What are the significant features of the cosmological argument for the existence of God?     (21)

(ii) How far if at all do the strengths outweigh the weaknesses?    (9)


EITHER

2(a) (i) Identify key ideas associated with the problem of suffering. Examine two solutions to the problem.     (21)

(ii) Comment on the view that these are only partially successful solutions. (9)


OR

(b) (i) Outline two definitions of the term miracle. Examine key reasons for believing in miracles. (21)

(ii) Comment on the view that these reasons for believing are more persuasive than potential criticisms. (9)

 

Jan 2011

EITHER

1(a) (i) Examine the weaknesses of the design argument.    [21]

(ii) Why do some philosophers persist in believing in the strengths of the design argument? [9]


OR

(b) (i) Examine three of the following in relation to the cosmological argument for the existence of God.    [21]

  • Unmoved mover
  • Uncaused cause
  • Necessary being
  • Kalaam argument

     

(ii) Comment on the view that the cosmological argument is open to debate and there are no firm conclusions about its success or failure .[9]


EITHER

2 (a) (i) ‘Either God cannot abolish evil, or he will not; if he cannot then he is not all powerful; if he will not then he is not all good.’

Examine this claim. Give an account of one solution to the problem of evil. [21]

(ii) Comment on the strengths and weaknesses of a different solution to that presented in part (i). [9]


OR

(b) (i) Examine the key concepts of miracles and reasons to believe in miracles. [21]

(ii) Comment on the view that, because of weaknesses associated with miracles, there is no justification for believing in them. [9]

May 2011

EITHER

1(a) (i) Examine the ways in which the design argument provides evidence for the existence of God. [21]

(ii) Comment on the view that the weaknesses of the design argument show that the universe can be explained without reference to God. [9]


OR

(b) (i) Examine the view that the cosmological argument provides an explanation for the world and is a trustworthy basis for the belief in the existence of God. [21]

(ii) Comment on the view that the cosmological argument fails as a proof for the existence of God. [9]


EITHER

2 (a) (i) Examine and show the strengths of two solutions to the problem of suffering. [21]

(ii) Comment on the view that these proposed solutions are failures. [9]


OR

(b) (i) Examine the main features of definitions of miracles and two philosophical reasons for believing in miracles. [21]

(ii) Comment on problems raised by these definitions of miracles that may lead to a rejection of belief in miracles. [9]

 

January 17th 2012

Either

1    a)i)    Examine three of the following in relation to the design argument for the existence of God:

  • Analogy
  • Anthropic principle
  • Design qua purpose
  • Empirical evidence
  • Regularities of succession    [21]

    ii)    Comment on the view that the design argument leads to a valid conclusion. [9]


Or

b)i)    ‘Nothing takes place without sufficient reason.’

    Examine this claim with reference to the cosmological argument. [21]

ii)    Comment on the view that the weaknesses of the cosmological argument imply that it fails as a proof for the existence of God. [9]



Either

2 (a)i)    Examine the view that it is contradictory to claim that there is a God and that there is suffering. What are the strengths of one solution to the problem of suffering? [21]

(ii)    Consider the weaknesses of this solution and comment on the view that there is a better solution. [9]



Or

(b)i)    Examine the strengths and weaknesses of belief in miracles. [21]

ii)    Comment on the view that these strengths and weaknesses depend on which definition of miracles one is using. [9]

May 16th 2012

Either

1 a)i) ‘The design argument explains the purpose found in the natural world.’

Examine this description of the design argument. [21]

ii)    Comment on the view that this argument is successful as a proof of the existence of God. [9]


Or

b)i)    Examine the evidence used to support the cosmological argument.    [21]

ii)    ‘Challenges to this argument show that it is a failure’ Comment on this claim.    [9]


Either

2 (a)i)    In what ways may suffering be seen as a problem for religious believers? Give an account of TWO solutions to this problem. [21]

(ii)    To what extent is one of these solutions more convincing than the others. [9]



b)i)    Examine the key problems of believing in miracles. [21]

ii)    Comment on the claim that it is justifiable to believe in miracles. [9]

May 13th 2013

Either

1a)i)    Examine the key strengths of the design argument for the existence of God. [21]

ii)    Comment on the claim that this argument totally fails to prove the existence of God. [9]



Or

b)i)    Examine the fundamental concepts of the cosmological argument for the existence of God. [21]

ii)    Comment on the view that this is a compelling argument for the existence of God. [9]



Either

2a)i)    Examine the problem of suffering and the key characteristics of one or more solutions.    [21]

ii)    Comment on the claim that there is a successful solution to the problem of suffering. [9]



Or

b)i)    Examine the strengths and weaknesses of belief in miracles. [21]

ii)    Comment on the view that it is probably a mistake to believe in miracles. [9]



May 13th 2014

Either

1a)i)    Examine three key ideas of the design argument for the exis of God. [21]

ii)    Comment on the claim that these three ideas are all equally weak. [9]



Or

b)i)    Examine both views that:

  • The existence of the world needs an explanation and
  • This explanation may be called ‘God’.    [21]

ii)    Comment on the challenges raised by these views. [9]

 

Either

2a)i)    ‘Suffering exists and this counts as evidence against God.’

    Examine this point of view and one solution to the problem of suffering. [21]

ii)    Comment on another solution to the problem of suffering in which suffering may not be seen as evidence against God. [9]


Or

b)i)    Examine the key concepts of miracles.     [21]

ii)    Comment on the view that a miracle does not violate the laws of nature. [9]