Home > Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion > From the Outside Looking In(wards): Reconciling Claims of Intrapersonal Religious Experiences with Cross-Checking Procedures

From the Outside Looking In(wards): Reconciling Claims of Intrapersonal Religious Experiences with Cross-Checking Procedures

February 28, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments
A modified and slightly expanded version of this post can be found here at the UNFSPB.
 I shall argue here that there is indeed a possible reconciliation between transcendent religious experiences and philosophical skepticism. What I propose is that any attempt to utilize intrapersonal religious experiences in order to justify or prove a specific religious position interpersonally must necessarily fail by virtue of a fundamental disconnect. What’s more, the poverty of cross-checking when applied to transcendent religious experiences is not surprising given the very content of such experiences. By attempting to use the personal to prove the general, the intrapersonal to prove the interpersonal, the profundity of the religious experience is lost and becomes fodder for philosophical skeptics. First I shall begin by discussing the type of transcendent religious experience to which I am referring and by citing specific examples. After that I shall introduce the current discussion surrounding the veracity of religious experiences that has carried on between authors such as Alston and Fales, paying specific attention to the concept of cross-checking. From there I shall argue how, based on the intrapersonal nature of these transcendent religious experiences, cross-checking must be re-evaluated as a verification tool.

 ‘Oceanic’ Transcendent Experiences

            Sigmund Freud famously begins Civilization and Its Discontents by sharing a sentiment sent to him by his close friend Romain Rolland concerning religious experience. Rolland claims the source of all religious energy in society is “a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded – as it were, ‘oceanic’. This feeling, he adds, is a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith; it brings with it no assurance of personal immortality.”[1] Such an oceanic feeling is not in reference to something or some divine but rather it is centered in the individual, an experience, a seeing, an understanding. No outside object is perceived; rather an internal and subjective truth is grasped.

             Speaking to this point, Vedanta Hindu mystic David Carse says: “But still it seems more natural to describe the Understanding as an essential intuitive seeing and inward knowing. It is understanding, to be sure, but one which has little to do with comprehending anything.”[2] These intrapersonal religious experiences do not show the relationship between God and man, but the fundamental unity of the Divine and the personal identity. Freud, struggling to understand this oceanic feeling that he himself does not feel, states: “If I have understood my friend rightly…it is a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole.”[3] Yet this bond, this connection, does not seem to be a proper description when discussing unity. This is especially the case when the descriptions of such intrapersonal religious experiences are distinction-erasing, self-effacing, and commonly result in a feeling of annihilation.

            Meister Eckhart, a 13th century Medieval Christian mystic, describes such a surrendering of self in his sermon Distinctions are Lost in God, saying:

Our Lord says “No man heareth my word or teaching until he hath forsaken selfhood.” The hearing of God’s Word requires complete self-surrender. He who hears and that which is heard are identical constituents of the eternal Word. What the eternal Father teaches is his own Being, Nature, and Godhead…He teaches that we are to be identical with him.[4]

While it may seem as though in a way Eckhart references an outside object, viz. God, he does so in a way that erases the distinction between worshipper and the worshipped. God seeks for us not to exemplify his being, but rather to become Him. Similarly, in the short work by Michel De Certeau White Ecstasy, he describes a boundless and self-destroying mystical experience:

[It is] an absorption of objects and subject in the act of seeing. No violence, only the unfolding of presence. Neither fold nor hole. Nothing hidden and thus nothing visible. A light without limits, without difference; neither, in a sense, and continues…the ecstasy that kills consciousness and extinguishes all spectacles, an illuminated death – a “fortunate shipwreck” as the Ancients said. [5]

Though speaking of the destruction of the self and of annihilation, Certeau seems almost to welcome it. Such sight is the end of seeing, the end of subject and object and the loss of the old form of thought. Finally, a similar dance toward death can be seen in the writings of the Sufi mystic Rumi. Discussing the intoxicating experience that accompanies the proverbial whirling of the Dervishes, Rumi writes: “The heart-forlorn[6] becomes companion to the moth, / he circles about the tip of the candle, / The mystic’s soul circles about annihilation, / even as iron about a magnet / Because annihilation is true existence in his sight.”[7] The mystic is drawn to annihilation because in it he sees true reality. The seeing, the understanding, is not of another, but is rather the intuitive knowledge that there is no other.

            I have endeavored here to briefly outline the type of religious or mystical experiences to which I refer to as “intrapersonal religious experiences.” These experiences do not occur within the paradigm of a subject-object relationship, as beautifully advanced by Martin Buber in I and Thou. Rather they occur within the individual, and what’s more they erase the subject-object relationship altogether. This, as shown, often is reflected with imagery of destruction, death, and annihilation though in rapturous rather than bleak tones. Having defined and discussed intrapersonal religious experiences, I shall now outline the contemporary conversation regarding the need for the cross-checking of religious experiences.

Cross-Checking: Contemporary Discussion

            William Alston and Evan Fales occupy opposite ends of the spectrum with regards to their position on the ability of religious experience to justify religious belief or the existence of God. On the one end, Alston argues that religious experiences must be given an initial credibility and be treated just like sense perceptions. To that end there must be checks to verify both sense experiences and religious experiences, and Alston argues that there are. Contrary to this, Fales believes that no sufficient system of cross-checking exists for religious experiences in order to verify them the way we can sense-perceptions and so they fail in any attempt to justify religious belief or the existence of God.

            For Alston the religious perception that God has revealed himself to me to be Pure Love must be given the same initial credibility of the sense perception that the wind is blowing quite strongly today. This is due to the Principle of Credulity, which presumes each experience to be rationally acceptable until proven otherwise. [8] However, there arise difficulties in both instances when it comes to verifying these experiences. As Alston says, “With both sense perception and mystical perception contradictions between reports prevent us from taking all of them to be veridical.”[9] These contradictions are quite easy to see, and usually to resolve, in the case of sense perceptions. If I experience the wind blowing rather strongly today and it is plainly seen by any observer to make trees sway, screen doors slam, etc. then there is no conflict. But if I have this perception and no one else does, and further more if no scientific instrument registers the slightest gust, then my experience was more than likely faulty.

            With regard to religious experiences, Alston believes they are more difficult to cross-check but it is possible nevertheless. Responding to the claim that religious experiences cannot be publicly checked for accuracy, Alston says:

It is not infrequently claimed by philosophers that the impossibility of effective public (inter-subjective) tests of the accuracy of beliefs about God formed on the basis of mystical experience prevents that experience from being an awareness of any objective reality…The first thing to be said in reply is that there are tests for the accuracy of particular reports of mystical perception. Contemplative religious communities that, so to say, specialize in the perception of God have compiled systematic manuals of such tests.[10]

And so according to Alston, different religious communities establish criterion for evaluating religious experiences for accuracy and this is a valid measurement of mystical experience. Stepping in, Fales calls a foul on this argument as a legitimate justification for mystical experience. Fales cites the purpose of cross-checking procedures as “narrowing down the candidate causes of an experience so that – ideally – just one cause, situated in the right way, can explain our data.”[11] And so allowing the mystical practice to dictate the standard for cross-checking criteria should, if it is effective cross-checking, narrow down the possible causes of such an experience. However, Fales argues that this is rarely the case. Citing the example of Teresa of Avila’s criteria for veridical versus false mystical experiences, Fales shows that of the four criteria (the fruits that follow the experience, the vividness of the memory of the experience, how well it conforms to scripture, and verification by a confessor) none of them provide any epistemic force that narrow down possible causes. Even assessing how well it conforms to scripture relies upon the revelations contained in the scripture itself.[12]

Intrapersonal Religious Experiences and Cross-Checking

            C.B. Martin falls in the same camp as Fales, arguing that there must be a set of cross-checking criteria for religious experiences if that experience is purported to have been a veridical “apprehension of some independently existing object.”[13] Here an insidious pattern begins to emerge in the contemporary conversation regarding cross-checking and validation of religious experiences. What Alston, Fales, Martin, and other authors have overlooked or ignored is the subject-object relationship they are assuming such religious experiences contain. Citing examples of a mystical experiences, Alston uses the experience of someone who communes with God, one who communes with nature, and someone who communes with the “Outer Presence.”[14] Fales assumes that the religious experience is attempting to prove that an external object caused the experience, such as God, Shiva, etc.[15] and as just shown above so too does Martin. Similarly, Peter Antes only examines religious experiences wherein the experiencer perceives a deity figure, and he does not even mention religious experiences of a non-personal nature.[16] Conspicuously absent from all of these authors’ analyses is the inclusion of any intrapersonal religious experience as outlined earlier. Every example of a religious experience is one that centers around a subject-object relationship. And yet as I have shown in the first section there is a robust history of such experiences that spans multiple religious traditions.

            This exclusion is a damaging oversight, especially due to the fact that I do not believe these intrapersonal religious experiences can be cross-checked at all due to their content. Alston admits that introspective feelings cannot effectively be cross-checked: “Consider introspection. If I report feeling excited, there are no conditions under which my report is correct if and only if someone who satisfies those conditions also feels excited. Introspective reports can be publicly checked to a certain extent, but not in that way.”[17] Because the given experience concerns an introspective, intrapersonal sensation or experience, they cannot be interpersonally corroborated even under similar circumstances, or even exact circumstances. Moreover, since an intrapersonal religious experience lacks an object that is claimed to cause the experience, the very basis of the cross-checking process begins to crumble. If the experience itself is not based on the claim of an outside object, or if the experience claims there are no outside objects, how can it be cross-checked? There is seemingly no way for another observer to independently verify this even by the paltry means that Alston offers since there is no object to confirm and since an outside observer cannot independently verify an introspective experience.

            For example, the contemporary argument for cross-checking would give an account similar to the following: if Jones has a feeling of ecstasy that he claims was caused by viewing a Georgia O’Keefe painting and claims that this is a good reason to believe that a Georgia O’Keefe painting exists, it is very easy for an independent observer to look and corroborate this. However, if Jones has an experience of ecstasy that he claims was caused by seeing Jesus, what must be shown according to Fales and his party is that Jesus was one of the only, if not the only, possible causes for Jones’ feeling of ecstasy. And as discussed above, the difficulty comes when attempting to independently verify that Jesus was indeed the cause of this feeling. To that end, any cross-checking that goes on must serve to limit the number of possible causes for Jones’ ecstasy.

            However, both of these iterations are testing the existence of the object that is claimed to have caused the feeling of ecstasy. But what if no object is claimed to have caused the feeling of ecstasy? What if Jones claims to have experienced a feeling of ecstasy accompanied by an experience of non-duality and self-erasure? This is not to say that the experience was acausal, only that the content of the experience itself denies the subject-object relationship that cross-checking, as presented, necessitates. Given that cross-checking is the dominant view as the proper testing of veridical religious experiences, this poses a significant problem. These intrapersonal religious experiences appear to be prima facie just as valid as the religious experiences treated by Alston and Fales. And yet by virtue of their content they cannot be cross-checked and have not been included in the contemporary dialogue thus far.

Concluding Remarks

             I do not expect that Fales would find any need to attempt to reconcile this issue, as he does not believe religious experiences can be adequately cross-checked[18]. However, what Fales, Alston, Martin, and Antes must all reconcile is that such intrapersonal religious experiences appear on the face to be just as valid of a perceptual practice as non-intrapersonal religious experiences. And yet, the mode of verification does not fit them, not for lack of evidence but due to its very structure. What is required is a reworking of the cross-checking procedure that negates the need for a subject-object relationship. This would successfully include intrapersonal religious experiences in the current discussion and would maintain the need for mystical experiences to be held accountable to cross-checking. However, I believe this would be a substantial overhaul and the two might ultimately be irreconcilable.


[1] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1961), 11.

[2] David Carse, Perfect Brilliant Stillness (Shelburne: Paragate Publishing, 2007), 48. 

[3] Freud, 11-12.

[4] Meister Eckhart, “Distinctions are Lost in God,” in Meister Eckhart, comp. and trans. Raymond B. Blakney (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1941), 203.

[5] Michel De Certeau, “White Ecstasy,” in The Postmodern God, ed. Graham Ward (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing 1977), 157-158.

[6] Read here as mystic. For a more detailed analysis of Rumi’s concept of The Beloved and of its significant to whirling and turning, see Harmless, 174-178.

[7] As quoted in William Harmless, Mystics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 178.

[8] William P. Alston, “Religious Experience Justifies Religious Belief” in Readings in Philosophy of Religion: East Meets West (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 185.

[9] Alston, 184.

[10] Alston, 188-189.

[11] Evan Fales, “Do Mystics See God?” in Readings in Philosophy of Religion: East Meets West (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 194.

[12] Fales, 198.

[13] As quoted in: David A. Conway, “Mavrodes, Martin, and the Verification of Religious Experience,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 2, no. 3 (Fall 1971): 156.

[14] Alston, 184.

[15] Fales, 194.

[16] Peter Antes, “What Do We Experience If We Have Religious Experience?” Numen 49, no. 3 (2002)

[17] Alston, 190.

[18] Fales, 199: “Like any perceptual practice, CMP requires an elaborate system of cross-checks and cross-checking procedures. But, because of its theoretical poverty with respect to the causes of mystical experiences, no such system has been, or is likely to be, forthcoming.”

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