Three essays on the concept of disembodied existence.

These are all A grade essays with the mark out of 35 given at the end.


Essay 1.

The concept of disembodied existence can often be taken by advocates of dualism, the belief that humans consist of a body and soul which are separate and can be separated at death, as a coherent explanation for the question of life after death. For a dualist the soul holds the relevant qualities of personhood so that we can say a ‘person’ ‘survives’ death.

However, this theory would be greatly opposed by those who believe in materialism, or monism, the belief that we as humans exist as a single unit of body and soul (or mind) which cannot be separated. It would therefore not be coherent for a monist to believe in disembodied existence as the soul does not have intrinsic value outside of the body. It is perhaps first necessary to look at the nature of personhood and different beliefs on what constitutes a person.

One of the major problems with life after death theories is the problem of continuity and identity and in what way we are said to ‘exist’ after death. It is necessary to look at different opinions on what constitutes a person. Some believe that the only real continuity is bodily continuity and therefore it is our bodies by which we identify who ‘we’ really are. The concept of disembodied existence would therefore be incoherent as there is no bodily continuity and therefore no real existence of a person. Other philosophers such as John Locke argue that it is the memories of man that make up his identity and therefore if memories remain it is coherent to say that that person ‘exists’ even if they do not have a body. This view however does have many problems. Locke insists that as soon as memory is lost identification and personhood is lost but this has inconsistencies, if 1 person, for example, lost their memory due to amnesia or an accident would we not call them the same person they were before?

So the question remains that in what way would disembodied existence seem a coherent possibility after death? Disembodied existence seems to sit comfortable with the classical views of Platonic dualism. Plato believed that the soul was imprisoned within the body and that the ultimate goal of the soul was to be released (at death) back to the world of the Forms where it could be reunited with the Form of the Good (God). Thus the body which is purely material dies for Plato and the soul returns to the world of the Forms and is immortal. However, the concept of disembodied existence does not seem so cohesive with other dualistic models. Descarte’s dualistic model, as interactionism, maintains that bodily states can causally affect mental states and mental states can causally affect bodily events. Thus although the soul or mind has a higher fundamental value, and the body is still matter capable of decay, they do exist within interaction of one another. Therefore, it would be conceivable to conclude that one could not survive without the other? Either they both perish at death or they both survive death. It could also be questioned whether the dualistic model of epiphenomenalism coincides with the concept of disembodied existence. Since bodily states can causally affect mind states, even though mind states are of a higher reality than bodily ones, how would a mind or soul survive without the body? It seems to have little or no control over the body, so how can we suggest that it has an objective existence of its own after death?

Of course the main opposition to the belief in the concept of disembodied existence after death will come from the view of the materialists or monists who hold that body and soul are one and are inseparable. Gilbert Ryle holds this view and criticised Descarte’s thinking calling it ‘the ghost in the machine’. Ryle held that there was no such thing as body and mind as different entities and that the confusion had come about through a ‘category mistake’. Thus when we refer to our ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ we are referring like a collective noun as the way in which our body acts or behaves. Thus there is no such thing as an immortal soul and so the concept of disembodied existence is incoherent and incomprehensible. Since for monists continuity after death must involve bodily continuity, an alternative theory for monists on existence after death is that of resurrection or reincarnation.

However, there do seem to be fundamental flaws in both of these monists views as well. Resurrection implies bodily continuity or similarity argued for in Hicks ‘replica theory’ however Greach argues that bodily similarity is not enough, it has to be exact continuity and therefore a replica theory is rejected. Penelbaum also rejects this theory on the grounds that it does not maintain mental continuity and it also has implications for the theories of ethics and moral judgements. How could a replica be divinely judged for something they did not do? Reincarnation also fails as a plausible theory on existence after death as the reincarnated being bears no resemblance either physically or mental (memories) of its past lives and therefore in what way can we say that it is the same person who previously existed?

Perhaps a coherent view of resurrection can be seen in the teachings of St Paul regarding Jesus’s resurrection. St Paul maintains that after resurrection we change by a spiritual process but are still the same person. Like a plant comes from a seed but does not bear any physical resemblance to that seed so we are at resurrection. Perhaps another good example is of a caterpillar into a butterfly, physical resemblance is not there but it is still the same being. It must be remembered for Christian believers that after his resurrection Jesus was unrecognisable to his friends but was still the same person.

So, it can be seen that disembodied existence can be taken as coherent or incoherent depending on ones views of personhood and what constitutes a person (whether we are a psycho-physical unit that is indissoluble, as Hick believes, or made up of both a body and soul which can separated as dualists believe). Disembodied existence is coherent with Platonic thought however it raises questions in other dualistic models on the nature of the interaction between body and soul. However, attempts to prove corporeal existence after death have also failed as continuity of the body is questionable after the death and decay of the body. Perhaps disembodied existence is not objective but means that we exist only in the mind of God or in the minds and memories of others. This too has problems however when regarded to whether this actually constitutes immorality or existence, in what way are we existing or participating in the Mind of God? This would also mean that the mind of God was tainted with our sins. Perhaps the only real evidence of disembodied existence can be brought forward through ESP (extra sensory perception) or the existence of telepathy or clairvoyance. However, these all have dubious grounds and cannot be counted on for reliable evidence for the cohesive concept of disembodied existence. Personally I therefore reject the statement that ‘The concept of disembodied existence is coherent’ as the arguments for any form of after life experience fail unless we presuppose an existence of God which requires faith and cannot be empirically verified. (29/35)


Disembodied existence is an incoherent concept. There is a long standing division in the debate of what the human being consists of – whether it be a composite of body and soul or a indistinguishable unity. This impinges on what kind of existence, if there is any, will occur after death. However, evidence on either side is slim – how can we ever know until we die? Which is a notion put forth as an escatalogical verification/falsification of the after life.

However, before we can begin to tackle the question of what kind of existence there is, we must first establish the identity of self and personhood. Flew notes that personal pronouns such as “I”, “you”, “they” and so on apply on to physical entities so if I was to speak of Miriam, I am identifying her as a physical being. I can see, hear and touch her rather that a substance or spiritual self. However, what Flew does not consider is the difference in the application of the word “I”. When one is in use of the personal pronoun, they are not simply talking of physical characteristics, but are referring to something beyond that. For example, I can refer to my self as if my body is separate to me, in phrases such as “my bottom looks big in this dress” or “my body looks fat” so its almost as if your mind can have an objective view of your physical self. On the other hand, your physical characteristics do affect your personality. For example, Mrs Wilson is a short, firey woman with purple hair. If she was tall and blond her personality would be different because her loudness and firey nature are a product of her height – there is a need to compensate in some way to retain control. In the same way, we can see ourselves in this light.

With this in mind, we must run alongside identity with continuity so that we can ask the question, if we do exist after death, how? And how of “me” is there (how am I identified)? In the case of monism, we face many difficulties. In term of subjective immortality, there is , as the traditional Christian church put forth, a resurrection of the dead with Jesus Christ. This would mean that your physical body on earth would die, then your soul would be placed in a new body so you could enter into heaven. However, we have problems with this in relation to our concept of heaven – is that a physical state, requiring physical bodies, and if so why? And to what extend can my new body be me. John Hicks poses that, as we a psycho-physical entities, when our earthly body dies ( as we know occurs because of observation of decay in science), our soul is placed into another body – a replica of what we looked like in our previous life. However, in terms of judgement, how can God condemn or reward our new selves/body on the basis of the behaviour of our previous bodies. This seems unfair. Moreover, a replica is a replica; if I had a replica of the ‘Mona Lisa’ it still would make it the original painting, despite its similarities. Again, to what extent is this truly “me”?

With dualism we do not face so many difficulties in terms I continuity. Firstly, we have disembodied existence. This can however take a number of forms. We, as humans can have a resurrection of the disembodied self. Whereby your substance/soul or form continued to existence after the death of your physical body. In terms of what structure that existence will take, the is a theory that existence could exist objectively, in the awareness of God since God is infinite and immortal, and human being are not. But what kind of existence is this? Surely an omnipotent, benevolent God would be interested in the individuality of His people. After all, it is not our immortality. Furthermore, where sin is concerned – does God then allow sin to enter with Him? We could suggest that He is a compassionate God but then God would be temporal because He would be changed every time somebody else came into His awareness – this is not the simple God of Aquinas.

On the other hand, it is possible that we could exist as a commune of minds, thoughts and dreams. So our after life would consist of all of our ‘paradise-like’ dream and desires. But what happens when the desires of one person conflicts with another? It seems that although disembodied existence does contribute greatly to the discussion of life after death, it appears to be the most incoherent in all of its forms.

Yet, maybe there is a alley that we have forgotten. Reincarnation is a form of life after death that helps to overcome some of the obstacles monists face and that of disembodied existence. Reincarnation bases its belief on the immortality of the soul. The body ceases to exist in the phenomenological world, as Kant put it – whilst the soul transports or is incarnate into another body. However, like all of the theories we have assessed, we are back where we began, with the idea of personhood. Which of the bodies in reincarnation is your ‘self’? – the first, second, third, fourth or fifth? Though some may say that memory of past lives is evidence for the existence of reincarnation – this is not enough. Maybe it is better to take the view of Duns Scotus …… ………; we can never know whether there is an existence of an after life and what form it takes until we die. (30/35)


The argument for the concept of disembodied existence being coherent is largely followed by dualists, who believe the body and mind are two separate entities and the soul can live on eternally. However, the argument against dualism is monism that sees the body and mind as one. Flew in particular argued that it was incoherent according to language to conceive the concept of disembodied existence as he saw it as a contradiction in terms and likened it to the phrase “Dead survivors”. This essay will now examine in more detail the arguments for and against the concept of disembodied existence being coherent.

Disembodied existence can be considered coherent from the argument of dualism. Plato believed the mind was separate from the body and from the world of Forms. The mind, for Plato, was seen as immortal, and was what continued to live on after death, whilst the body ceases to exist. Another argument was added to dualism by Descartes and became known as ‘cartesian dualism’. Descartes famously said ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I am’. For Descartes the mind can continue a disembodied existence. The body and mind interact with each other at all times. There has been evidence to prove that the body produces states on the mind, as well as the mind producing states on the body. But how can something non-spatial effect something spatial? And also if there is so much interaction, would the idea of the mind continuing without the body not be seen as illogical?

Gilbert Ryle saw Descartes model as a ‘ghost in a machine’ with the belief of the mind in the body. The misunderstanding of dualism was seen by Ryle as a category mistake as we are in fact a mind and body unity. To show this he used an example of a foreigner looking at all the colleges and buildings that make up the university and asking where the university was. Ryle swathe university as the mind, and all the colleges and buildings as brain patterns of behaviour. But what about brain states that do not provoke a pattern of behaviour such as lying or pain?

But perhaps disembodied existence is incoherent. Following the beliefs of Richard Dawkins perhaps we are just bytes of digital information and there is in fact no concept of a soul. However, it must be asked then what is our purpose here on earth? The reason put forward by Dawkins that we are here just from successful DNA replication seems to be missing something. Disembodied existence linguistically does seem a contradiction of terms, likened by Flew the same as ‘Dead Survivors’, but the evidence of near death experiences seem to show a pattern in the description of yourself out of your body looking down. Schlick too argues that viewing your own funeral as an after-death experience is imaginable as well as being conceivable.

However, problems with language arise here. Are you really viewing yourself, or just an empty vessel of what is left of your body? Flew believes you cannot even imply the words ‘you’, ‘her’, and ‘I’ to a possible after-life as they are only coherent in this physical world. However, we cannot know for certain that that is the case. A J Ayer believes the words could still be applied to another possible reality. If we are to have disembodied existence, we may still be recognisable. Also, the use of ‘I’ can be seen as distinctly different to other pronouns such as ‘her’ and ‘you’ as it involves a sense of self knowledge, argued also by Badham.
Perhaps what must be argued is if there is continuation after death, what form of life is it? Maybe it is not disembodied existence and we are in fact reincarnated with a new body. In this way the problem disembodied existence is removed, but others still arise. If we are reincarnated how are we continuing as we would be different? The argument against this view is that our soul is still however continuing and able to develop. But one major problem arises if there is to be judgement at the end of time is it morally fair to punish the ‘new’ body because of its soul? So perhaps an after-life consists of another form of existence. We could continue to exist as a product of the mind living from our basic desires, a view held by H Price. But this seems to imply no sense of community, but rather isolation and an after-life created by ourselves could be difficult. People may be driven by selfish desires.

Therefore, the concept that disembodied existence is not coherent (held by monists such as Aristotle and Dawkins) is argued from the view that the mind and body are one, and one cannot continue without the other. But the challenge against this is that there is continuation after death with evidence stemming from the bible. But the term disembodied existence does bring difficulties with language, but just because there is confusion does not mean it could not be conceivable. However, perhaps a solution is brought forward by Hick’s replica theory. Hick saw people as a psyche-physical unity so the mind and body cannot be separated. So maybe an exact replica of ourselves becomes apparent after we die. (29/35)

Consider the view that scripture is divinely inspired (35).

Another good student essay on scriptural revelation.


The notion of scripture being divinely inspired is riddled with philosophical problems. Some of the issues arising from it being divinely inspired are: how the text came to human beings?; Did God give it directly or was it human in origin?; moreover, what can we actually learn about God from this text via its inspiration? In attempting to address this question we shall look at a propositional approach to assess the validity of divinely inspired scripture and then a non-propositional approach.


For scripture to be divinely inspired in the traditional sense, a propositional approach is required. Evangelical fundamentalist believers wish to maintain that the text comes directly from God. That it reveals ‘truths’ or propositions (facts) about the divine. In this sense the ‘words’ are directly from God. Yet this assertion is unclear. We shall work through different understandings and assess whether they can be held philosophically. The most obvious is a literal revelation for example Moses is believed by some to have experienced a theophany (God revealing God’s self to Moses) and literally giving him a physical copy of the five books of the law and the two stone tablets with the ten commandments on. In this sense scripture is divinely inspired as it comes directly from God. It can contain no errors (inerrant). If this view were held then scripture would indeed be divinely inspired. However, the problem of interactionism causes issue here as it is difficult to see how a non-physical being, outside of the spacio-temporal universe, or transcendent in the traditional sense can act within the physical realm. Moreover, how can Moses be expected to maintain any notion of free will? If God reveals Himself then Moses has no choice but to do God’s bidding because of fear of reprisals and sure knowledge of God’s existence. The appearance of choice here is simply ‘Hobson’s Choice’ – no choice at all. Also how do we ‘see’ or ‘hear’ a non-physical being? These problems serve to demonstrate that a view of scripture as being physically ‘given’ by God is too problematic. A believer may suggest that it comes down to faith for them, faith that God can do all these things, which does not seem to solve the issues identified above.


Perhaps then the bible/scripture was dictated by God or the Holy Spirit. One view is that of amanuensis that humans have simply copied the text down through divine dictation. This idea is seen in Jeremiah 20:8 “whenever I speak I cry out” implying that God is speaking through the prophet in front of the king. This would mean that the scripture was inspired as the individual was simply told what to write. Someone like Henry Morris would hold that the Holy Spirit was with the writers (Adam at creation for his argument) to ensure inerrancy. This view holds that God inspired the scriptures. Yet it is difficult to maintain this view for the same reasons outlined above. This issue of interactionism hasn’t been resolved here, God (transcendent) is still interacting in a spacio-temporal way. Also here the writer’s free will is being directly compromised. They have no choice but to write these words, the scribe is simply the body which God takes over to use for his own purposes. William James might suggest that this is an example of mystical experience and hold that the nature of these religious experiences is passivity which has been demonstrated in numerous accounts of these experiences. But an issue with this is that James also states these experiences are ineffable (cannot be put into words). How can the religious experience of amanuensis be ineffable if the aim of it is to write the words of scripture? One way would be to maintain that the person has no knowledge of what they are writing. But we still face the challenge from the violation of free will which questions whether this view can be reasonably held.


Perhaps then the scriptures are divinely inspired because the believer/writer has had an experience of the divine and has been inspired to write because of this. In this view the writer would be like the child who is inspired by an excellent footballer or music artist to follow in their footsteps. God plays a more passive role in the writing of the scriptures in this way and partially overcomes the problems of free will and interactionism in the sense that the individual writes their own interpretation because they are inspired by their experience of God. If this view holds then they are inspired to write freely about God. In order to hold this view we must accept that the individual has had an actual experience of God. Swinburne and James suggest that testimony of individuals should count in some way for evidence of God’s existence in the world (Swinburne’s Principle of Testimony) and that people tend not to lie (Principle of Credulity). Even if we accept this then it can only ever be revelation for the individual as the biblical text will always be second hand truths for others who did not experience and were therefore not inspired by the event. Moreover we still must maintain that God has revealed himself to the believer before the writing of the text. This whole issue of whether religious experience can reasonably held to happen casts a vast shadow over this view of scripture’s nature. This issue is too vast to explore fully here save to say that the notion of the individual’s perception of events and the actual reality of these events do not necessarily tally, for example what is the difference between a dream where I experience the divine and a religious experience in a dream? Can I ever be sure that my experience comes through God rather than a phenomenological or material origin? This view seems to lack coherence for scripture being divinely inspired as the free will, interactionism debate is still unsolved as we need to rely on the philosophical soundness of an individual’s religious experience. Also it opens up new problems. How can we maintain a propositional approach that this scripture reveals ‘facts’ about God if it comes from a human source using human language; a language of past, present and future tenses as Dummett points out, a “tense of timelessness”. This could never be an absolutely literal revelation of God. Not to mention the limitations of a spacio-temporal language describing a timeless and spaceless God.


It appears then, at this point, that no view so far discussed would allow us to maintain that scripture is divinely inspired because of the problems surrounding free will, interactionism, the limits of language and the certainty of what it tells us of the divine. However, perhaps this is the wrong way of looking at the problem, maybe the ‘truth’ of God comes through a non-propositional approach to revelation in the sense that it is action that demonstrates inspiration.


If we accept that God revealing Himself is too problematic for scripture then we are holding that we cannot know whether it is divinely inspired yet the non-propositional approach can avoid the problems discussed above. If propositional revelation is ‘belief that…’ something is the case, ‘God is love’ for instance then non-propositional revelation is ‘belief in…’ scripture. In this view scripture reveals more about ourselves and it is our reaction which ‘reveals’ God. However this view cannot give any ‘knowledge’ about God’s nature directly but is still echoed through Bucky Minster-Fuller’s ideas of God being a verb; that when we are inspired by what we read, regardless of ‘fact’ or propositions our actions in some way echo God’s will. Take the parable of the sheep and the goats’ notion of giving practical help to the needy. If I read this and ‘believe in…’ its message I act in the world. This could be seen as the divine inspiration of the scriptures. However this view cuts both ways. It seems to resolve the problems of interactionism, free will and experience of God but only at the cost of not being able to tell us anything about God as scripture maybe removed from God’s word and left as a purely human document.


In conclusion it seems as though holding a propositional approach is too problematic for us to accept that scripture is divinely inspired in some of the more traditional ways and that the main revelation of God comes through human action and inspiration. But one final point needs addressing. It seems that we cannot accept a non-propositional approach, belief in the truth of the Bible, without holding that the Bible contains some form of propositional truth. Otherwise why would religious believers act on these ideas? Since the Bible is not self-authenticating then we must accept that we have to ‘believe in…’ the words in order for the words to have any meaning. It is here that we reach the impasse, without faith in the scriptures the notion of whether the Bible is divinely inspired becomes irrelevant but it is clear that even with faith the assertion that scripture is divinely inspired in the traditional sense is too philosophically problematic to accept.

“The personal experience of God by any individual is proof enough that ‘He’ exists.” Discuss

This is a student essay from a few years ago on what is really a question about whether religious experiences are self-authenticating. It is very wide-ranging and does throw everything at the question, whereas I would suggest that you narrow down the philosophers you use to be more relevant. However, it is still very useful as a discussion of this question.
The above statement focuses on the notion that it is possible to prove the existence of God through personal religious experience. This raises a number of key philosophical questions that need further investigation if we are to conclude that personal experience by anyone could demonstrate God’s existence: firstly there is the issue of whether the testimony of any individual could count as evidence enough for God’s existence; secondly the issue of the validity of religious experience in general needs to be addressed as simply believing something to be the case does not necessarily ensure its certainty; and finally (although not exhaustively but for reasons of time restraints) the notion of whether perception in general could demonstrate objectively (and potentially conclusively) the existence of a divine being capable of having a personal relationship with ‘His’ creation. We shall begin by addressing the issue of testimony of individuals claiming to have private religious experiences.

Claiming that you ‘know’ God poses serious problems for the issue of testimony. How can we know that an individual has really experienced what they say they have? Both William James (the 20th C. American psychologist) and Richard Swinburne place importance in the notion of testimony as being evidence for private religious experience and by implication the existence of God. James was particularly keen to highlight that we should approach the testimony of individuals claiming to have experienced the divine with an open mind so as not to miss out on a potential truth of the universe. He was a pragmatist in his dealings with religious experience and outlines his methodology clearly, at the beginning of his ‘The varieties of Religious Experience’. This meant that he approached the testimonies that he recorded with an objective and scientific mindset. Moreover for these experiences to be valid for him they need only have real effects for the individual who experienced the event. For example: Imagine a builder who was selfish and frugal having a vision of Jesus. This individual was so moved by the incredible amounts of love and compassion from this experience that they give up their job and move to Africa, volunteering their skills to help build homes, wells and schools in deprived areas. This for James would be evidence enough that the experience was valid. However, even though James stresses the importance of these testimonies it is difficult to see whether what the individual has reported bares any relationship to factual existence of a divine being. This ‘real effect’ as James sees it could have come about without there being any objective experience of God. The subjective nature of personal religious experience leaves us with little concrete evidence that this could be used as evidence for the existence of God. As we shall see later, Freud would argue that these experiences are nothing but illusions manifesting themselves as the neurosis of a faulty mind.

For now though, Richard Swinburne would back up the notion that testimony itself should count as some form of evidence for the existence of God as it is a standard of proof. The belief that: ‘for something to only be considered valid if it can be proven through scientific means’ is flawed according to Swinburne. Swinburne argues through his principle of Testimony that we should consider the reported experiences of others seriously and not simply dismiss these out of hand because they do not conform neatly to the empirical ideals expected for scientific proof. After all if we are to observe the world around us and only claim that those things which can be proven conclusively (or beyond scientific doubt) exist then we could be missing important truths about the world. This belief (which C.S Lewis refers to as ‘Naturalism’) also assumes that the scientific method is the correct one. For Swinburne we should seriously consider the evidence (although not hard scientific data which would be preferable) of testimony seriously.
It seems unlikely that Swinburne, or James for that matter, would suggest that we simply accept the experience of ‘any individual’ as proof enough that God exists, as he is more convinced by the cumulative nature of the experiential argument. Both Swinburne and James see the sheer weight of testimony as important and not, therefore, that we should simply accept that God exists because one individual believes they have experienced this. Yet, as alluded to earlier, Freud would take issue with the notion of this view of the testimony of religious believers as outlined above from Swinburne and James. Freud believed that religion was nothing more than a universal obsessional neurosis that was the product of a faulty mind. This obsession manifests itself in neurosis which was a physical symptom of the sick mind (an example of a neurosis might be returning to the kitchen several times to check that you have turned the gas off on the hob – even though you had done this the first time). The notion of accepting the testimony of the religious believer claiming to have had personal experience of God was, Freud believed, ill advised because these individuals were deluded. Dawkins also agrees with Freud on this point. He suggests that if you had the delusion that you were Napoleon Bonaparte you would be very lonely in this delusion but the fact that as many as one billion (in the Catholics’ case) people share the same beliefs as you would, Dawkins claims, strengthen your resolve that your delusion was correct. The fact remains that in the case of private religious experiences both Freud and Dawkins would claim that the individual is nothing more than deluded. If you knew that an individual were deluded would you accept their opinion on a matter as great as the existence of God? Both Freud and Dawkins would argue ‘No’. If these two thinkers are correct then they certainly would not accept the claim that we should believe that the personal experience of any individual should be proof enough that God exists. However, both Freud and Dawkins have come under criticism for being unduly negative when it comes to their dealings with all things religious. It is hard to see how their heartfelt conviction, (and no doubt subsequent testimony) that the religious believer is mistaken in their deluded belief surrounding their religious experience, is any different from their own in terms of weight of testimony. After all, this assumes that Dawkins and Freud are correct in their assertion that religious believers are deluded. It does not necessarily follow that this is the case. It is here that we arrive at another very important impasse for our debate on the notion of personal experience being evidence for the existence of God, namely: the discussion of how we could ascertain that these experiences were valid.

Freud and Dawkins would have us believe that individuals who claim to have experienced God are deluded. But how could we know if they were or not? The very nature of private experience is just that, that it is private. My knowledge of the world around me is my knowledge. For example: the smell of my Sunday lunch is a subjective experience. You cannot know what it is that I experience. James believed that this was an important quality of mystical experience. He described this as a ‘noetic’ quality. This he believed was common to most mystical experience as many of the people that he interviewed claimed to have gained some deep truth of the universe through their experience that they could not be explained in human language because of the ineffable nature of mystical experiences (another of James’ observations about mystical experience). This ‘revelation’ could not be achieved through either empirical or rational means. James claims that only another individual who has experienced something similar would know what an individual had experienced during their mystical experience. The question must then be asked: how can we be sure that they have experienced this at all. Antony Flew would claim that there is no way of falsifying the believer’s claim to this knowledge and so it must be dismissed as meaningless. In other words there is no way of knowing whether the claimed experience is valid. If we cannot know whether it is valid it would seem a little hasty to claim that it is proof enough that God exists. Consider the following statement: ‘I believe that the golf course will be open next weekend’. Without an accurate weather forecast to back up this claim I may be optimistic in holding this belief (owing to the torrents of rain that have fallen in recent days). This leads us to the conclusion that we must have our own first-hand experience to be really sure that something is the case. Taking another’s experience seems to go against the Socratic notion of never being satisfied with second hand truths. Yet Swinburne would argue that we should accept what people report through his ‘Principle of Credulity’. He believes that people tend not to lie and so should accept what they tell us at face value. There are a number of problems with this view. Both Mackie and Starbuck would question this view on the same point. Starbuck believed that something could be a psychic reality for you but that this belief did not translate into reality. Mackie also claims that people can be mistaken in their beliefs. It seems as though even the most well meaning of religious individuals, excluding those who might (as Hume suggested) purposely miss report their claims out of some misguided notion, reporting their experience and more importantly believing it 100% to be the case could be wrong. We are still left with the serious question as to whether even the individual can ‘know’ that their experience is the case. It is a custom in essays on religious experience to trot out examples of people who have experiences under the influence of drugs and alcohol (which Freud believes adds weight to his faulty mind argument) to attack the very foundations of these experiences, yet these are weak arguments as they do not represent the majority of experiences reported. There is potentially one more final nail in the coffin of the valid religious experience which comes in the guise of the ‘God helmet’. Michael Persinger, a neuro-scientist has devised a helmet that produces a weak magnetic pulse that causes the wearer of said helmet to report feeling the presence of the divine in the room with them while they wear it. In other words the helmet causes the wearer to ‘experience’ God. It would appear that if this is the case the whole notion of the validity of religious experience and the subsequent reporting of this experience to others could be challenged on the basis of it being simply the product of the human brain. This conclusion is perhaps not as sound as initially thought. It assumes that the origins of these ‘experiences’ are found in the mind. Perhaps these induced experiences are no different from other ‘experiences’ that people have reported, the native American Indians have been using hallucinogenic plants to experience mystical experiences for centuries. James dismissed the claim that we should not accept the validity of induced experiences based on the idea that it does not necessarily disprove the validity of such experiences. It is here that we reach our final point – religious experiences will come down to the perception of the individual.

The notion of religious experience being evidence of the existence of God can be explained in two ways. The experience could be subjective but still having ‘real effects’ as James suggests, or it could be an objective experience of the universe around us providing critical insight into the divine being. Critics of the latter, such as Hume, may well argue that the sheer number of different cultures reporting religious experiences would question the validity of this objective experience. Yet this might not be the case if we were to subscribe to a pluralistic understanding of religion: the idea, as put forward by John Hick, that there is only one divine being and that the details of religious faith and practice are nothing more than a cultural expression of this divine being. This view would suggest that seemingly conflicting testimonies of Muslim, Hindu or Christian believers are nothing more than cultural experiences of the same divine being. Thereby giving weight to the notion that we can accept these as valid proofs of the existence of God. A more important issue needs to be raised as an offering for a conclusion to this work. This also comes from the thinking of John Hick. The criticisms raised by the work of neuro-scientists and the ‘God helmet’, as well as drug or alcohol induced experiences, point to an interesting notion that should not be missed. John Hick describes this idea as ‘experiencing as’ which he develops from Wittgenstein’s ‘seeing as’. Hick has suggested that the whole issue of religious experience comes down to perception of the world around us. In some sense Freud and Dawkins will never see religious experiences as valid proof for the existence of God because they are not looking for such answers as their minds are closed off to the whole experience. While others like Otto, James and Swinburne are more likely to experience the world around them in a religious manner because they are open to the possibility of this. People experience the same events in different ways according to Hick – a sunset might be interpreted as a beautiful event with divine significance for one person whilst being the onset of the inconvenience of darkness for another. Ultimately we cannot be sure that the testimony that an individual gives us will be conclusive of the existence of God in any objective way or that these experiences are indeed valid, but what does seem clear is that to dismiss these ideas out of hand would be unwise because we cannot be sure whether we are experiencing the world as it really is.

Student essay: Critically examine A.J.Ayer’s theory of Verification (35)

Here is an A-grade student essay on A J Ayer

OCR Religious Studies A Level

This is another good (A grade) essay by a student, this time on Religious Language and A J Ayer. 

In his most famous work, Language, Truth and Logic, A.J. Ayer presents his theory of verification. Ayer was one of the logical positivists, a Viennese group of philosophers who were inspired by the theories of the early Wittgenstein and sought to answer rather than what makes a statement ‘meaningful’ as opposed to what makes it ‘true’. There have been two main editions to Language, Truth and Logic, both of which will be analysed and explained below.
Ayer begins his thesis by arguing that for a statement to be ‘meaningful’ or ‘factually significant’, it must either be a tautology or provable by sense experience. This approach is inspired by Hume’s fork, who claimed that meaningful language was either a priori analytic or a posteriori synthetic. Ayer’s belief also sides…

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Nature of God concepts sheets

Michael Lacewing who is involved in the AQA Philosophy A-Level (a very different kettle of fish from the OCR Religious Studies ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ exam!) has provided some excellent quality handouts for his course over at this page .

They are of course for the AQA, but a couple of them are very good summaries on the Nature of God – just scroll to the bottom of the page. There is also a good one on how to do philosophy which could be profitably read by OCR students!


Student Essay: Critically assess propositional and non-propositional revelation as divinely inspired experiences of God

In this student essay there is a discussion of the relative merits of propositional and non-propositional revelation. It is an A grade essay.

Critically assess propositional and non-propositional revelation as divinely inspired experiences of God. (35)

Propositional and non-propositional revelations are forms of divine disclosure involving, in the Christian tradition, truths about God being revealed to (or recognised by) people in the natural world. Propositional revelations are truths revealed by God, whereas non-propositional revelations are a believer’s recognition of God acting in human experience. Various accounts of revelatory acts also exist within other religious traditions, such as those recorded in the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam – Mohammed on the mountain, for example. These ‘holy books’ (the Bible and the Qur’an) supposedly posses a special status linked to God, helping followers to learn about God – despite his transcendence – through revelation in the natural world. These revelations can be concerned with nature, people, miracles or visions, for example God appearing to Saul on the road to Damascus, resulting in Saul’s conversion to Christianity. The word ‘Islam’ actually derives from the notion of ‘submission to God’, highlighting the powerful and important role of Allah in the Islamic faith. It is generally accepted that the revelatory accounts in the Bible (containing what is believed to be the Word of God) are propositional in nature, whereas other revelatory experiences, such as religious experiences, are generally non-propositional in nature.

Belief in propositional revelations as divinely inspired experiences of God has both strengths and weaknesses attached to it. From a positive angle, there is no need for reinterpretation with these revelatory experiences because the truths revealed by God are infallible in nature. In this sense, there is arguably less potential for ‘human error’ as there is less of a focus on the individual or people in question. On the other hand, as these revelations are received ‘passively’ and without a human thought process, reason is removed from the equation, and therefore God’s revelations are not ‘provable’ by human standards. However, the existence of God (an argument put forward by Saint Thomas Aquinas) may be demonstrated using arguments for God’s existence, which do evolve from experience of the natural world. In this way, so long as propositional revelations are in accordance with Church teaching, particularly the Magisterium, Aquinas argues that it is sensible to accept them. Aquinas concluded by stating that Faith is more certain than opinion but less certain than scientific evidence, highlighting the importance of Natural Theology (using the natural world as evidence of God’s existence, such as in the forms of the cosmological and teleological arguments). William Paley, the developer of the teleological argument, was entranced by the complexity of the human eye, which lead him to the conclusion that ‘when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover [analogically] in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose…the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker.”

The fact that human beings do not receive information passively but actively and the fact that the human mind is prone to making mistakes when learning new things are primary weaknesses of the notion of propositional revelation. Aquinas argues that ‘absolute proof’ of divine revelation is impossible because of his notion that propositional revelations are not demonstrable using human reason. However, Aquinas’ ‘faith’ argument in support of propositional revelation is weak in the sense that many so-called revelation experiences may merely be a person’s passive acceptance of an unauthentic revelation. This weakness could however be countered by reference to Paul’s conversion experience; it was a truly unique experience which had a definitive outcome. However, on a greater scale, there are faith claims from different religious traditions that conflict and it could be argued thereby count each other out. For example claims that God is triune and became incarnate in Jesus directly contradict Muslim views of God as one and completely transcendent. A final strong weakness in the authority of Bible scripture (wherein accounts of revelatory experiences can be found) is that several passages conflict with accepted modern ethical views, such as those relating to the role of women. In this way, the authority of the Bible as the true ‘Word of God’ is diminished.

The interpretation on the part of the believer when it comes to non-propositional revelation leads to problems with the potential for misunderstanding and resulting at the ‘wrong message’. Furthermore, as non-propositional revelation is dependent on the perspective of the individual, there is no way of verifying whether the beauty of nature is something only God (or a higher being) can fully understand, or whether our environment is the product of a complex and beautiful process of evolution, of which it is possible and foreseeable for all elements to be explained or accounted for in scientific terms. The Bible from a non-propositional viewpoint is a collection of perceptions of religious believers who have witnessed revelatory acts through history. This is, of course, a very subjective and indirect way of viewing the ‘Word of God’. In this way, non-propositional revelation cannot in any way be considered infallible, unlike propositional revelation, which can appeal to ‘facts revealed by God’ as a basis for theological debate. On the other hand, strengths of the non-propositional perspective include the concept of faith as a way of seeing the world, in other words from a Christian or Muslim perspective, for instance. Finally, it appeals to our human nature to adopt a theory which enables us to interact with information, and thereby apply it to our own lives and the lives of those around us, perhaps providing a more useful result of the revelation.

In conclusion, it is exemplified though the world of the character of Sherlock Holmes that the beauty of nature is awe-inspiring; ‘Our highest assurance of the goodness of providence seems to rest in the flowers. All other things…are really necessary’. In contrast to this opinion, evolutionary atheist Richard Dawkins approaches the universe from a different angle in his book ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’; he states: ‘Isn’t it a noble, enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it’. Although it is evidently possible to wonder at the beauty of nature without experiencing non-propositional revelation, and possible to discard arguably ‘delusionary and unverifiable’ cases of direct religious experience or revelation, it is also true that cases of divine inspiration, such as the giving of the Ten Commandments, as recorded in the Bible, have remained important features of our lives and helped tailor our lives towards the greater good for a great length of time, that perhaps being the reason why such accounts have remained pertinent within the scripture of religious believers for so long.

Demonstrating Knowledge and Understanding of Different Definitions of Miracle

It is worth remembering if there is a miracles question, that Hume’s argument has already come up a few years ago. Someone asked me on Twitter why I thought Hume would come up again.

When I thought about my predictions I had in mind the first point on the spec, which asks for knowledge and understanding of different definitions of miracle, including that of Hume.

I am not sure that we have seen a question in recent years on the different definitions of miracle (directly, anyway, as you could argue that Wiles has a lot to say on this), and I am not sure how such a question would be phrased. However, it would be worthwhile being familiar with the five or six different definitions of miracle in this topic.

Here are some philosopher’s definitions:

1. David Hume
2. Thomas Aquinas
3. C. S. Lewis
4. Richard Swinburne
5. Paul Tillich
6. R. F. Holland

1. Hume’s definition: ” a transgression of the law of nature by the particular volition of the deity, or the interposition of an invisible agent.” We have already discussed Hume’s definition in earlier posts. Notice that it assumes the fixed unchanging essence of laws of nature. It also means that anything that could conceivably have happened without breaking a law of nature, but that was still an extraordinary event would not be a miracle. So healing miracles would very rarely count for Hume, as they could conceivably come about without breaking a law of nature.

2. Aquinas says miracles are “those things done by divine power apart from the order ordinarily followed in things”, and divides miracles into three types:
a. Events which nature could not perform
b. Events which nature could perform, but not in that order
c. Events which nature could perform, but God does them
An example of a. could be the Joshua miracle of the sun standing still in the sky. b. could be something like the healing of the man born blind, in which the normal order of events (eg. People who can see may go blind) is reversed. c. the miracle of the water turning into wine – the water in a grape will eventually turn to wine through the process of fermentation- but that would take a lot longer ( and involve other elements!). Aquinas gives a lot more scope for extraordinary events than Hume.

3. C. S. Lewis defines miracles similarly to Aquinas as “an interference with nature by a supernatural power”. Neither Lewis nor Aquinas draw such a sharp distinction between natural and supernatural as does Hume, and their definitions allow more things to count as miracles. Lewis claimed that a miracle, once it enters into the natural course of things, is entirely taken over by the laws of nature, which challenges the ‘violation’ definition. He gives the example of the Incarnation when the God created a miraculous spermatozoon in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The instant it was created, things proceeded as they always do, with gestation and birth.

4. Swinburne says that a miracle is an “event of an extraordinary kind, brought about by a God, and of religious significance”. This is a broad definition which brings out the neglected aspect of miracles as pointing to something. This is important. Swinburne says that God could choose to make a feather fall slightly differently than where it was going to by altering the laws of nature, but that this could hardly be termed miraculous. A miracle like the feeding of the five thousand points to the nature of the Messiah as one who feeds all at a great banquet, with miraculous bread, just like Moses in the desert. Here is a network of significance, outside of which the miracle of the loaves doesn’t make much sense.

5. Paul Tillich also focuses on the significance of miracles as what he calls ‘sign-events’. Tillich wants to emphasise the experiential aspect of miracles as pointing to a greater reality, and their impact on the believer. He does not think they should ‘contradict the rational structure of reality’, as their importance is symbolic and not historical.

6. R. F. Holland takes this view through to its logical conclusion. A miracle can be a coincidence which is viewed as miraculous. The classic example of the child’s trike stuck at the level crossing with the train driver fainting is given by Holland.

Hopefully this short overview will help you get a picture of the range of definitions and see how they can be very narrowly or very broadly defined.

Numinous Experience – Evaluation

Does Rudolf Otto’s idea of the numinous stand up to critical scrutiny? Here are some thoughts:

1. The numinous seems to point to a perhaps near-universal experience – a feeling of awe in the face of realities greater than oneself. But does this common human experience necessarily point to a divine reality?

This feeling is certainly fairly widespread as a reaction to the natural world, a starry sky etc. Even Richard Dawkins talks about a sense of wonder as he contemplates the amazing complexity of the natural world. So there is clearly no need for such a feeling to point in any kind of theistic direction.

A naturalistic theory could entirely account for the feeling of the numinous in terms of human being’s own creativity and desire for self-transcendence.

2. The basis of numinous experience is ‘feeling’. Or at least, if what is experienced in itself is beyond all description, the marks it leaves on the person are certain strong feelings of awe, fear, overpowering ‘otherness’, and so on. If this is the case, then it certainly seems true that numinous experience is non-cognitive in that it is not necessarily capable of being ‘true’ or ‘false’. Feelings in themselves don’t give us knowledge of states of affairs, however they can be good indicators of ‘something’ being experienced. The question is, as it is so often in this topic, whether that has any reality outside of the experiencer.

Take the example of the feeling of movement you get when travelling on a boat. Even when the boat stops and you disembark you can often feel the movement. This shows the problem of trying to decide whether an experience has a ‘real’ cause or not. R W Hepburn uses this example to show the problem with distinguishing between feelings directly caused by an external reality (the current movement of the boat), and feelings which have no direct external cause. How are we meant to judge, on the basis of the feeling itself, whether the experience is veridical?

3. This attempt to make religious feeling self-authenticating has its roots in an earlier theologian called F D E Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Any attempt to explain religious experience after Kant had to take into account the far-reaching changes in epistemology which he brought about. Kant showed that all experience was my experience, and as such, limited by my own perceptual equipment. I cannot step outside of this equipment to see the world ‘as it is in itself’ (the ding an sich for Kant).

Kant therefore divides what we can experience (the phenomenal), from what actually is (the noumenal). We cannot get at the noumenal, because our rational, discursive understanding has to chop up the noumenal in order to grasp it. Schleiermacher said there was a way however, to get at the noumenal, and that is to go back to the experience before it is grasped by the understanding. In this sense, he thinks you can have a pre-rational experience, pure, and unmediated by reason. This, for Schleiermacher, was what mystical experience is.

And this is what Otto is doing with numinous experience. He is claiming that it is pre-rational, more original, purer, a direct experience of the world without the usual filters. As such, it can authenticate itself, and does not need to be judged by reason from outside.

4. There are some problems with this. Otto and Schleiermacher, in attempting to transcend the Kantian epistemological straitjacket, are nonetheless agreeing with the basic structure of his epistemology. But Kant, whilst influential, has been fairly strongly challenged by modern philosophy, especially deconstructionism. Subtler epistemological pictures have come along, which show that we do not just use our reason on packets of sense data – we are not detached observers of the world, but new players being inducted into old games. Just see Heidegger or Wittgenstein for more of this kind of thing.

So Otto may be going down the wrong route entirely. Why does numinous experience have to be an individual, personal feeling? Many philosophers of religion would argue that mystical experience for most of the medieval period was understood by mystics themselves in an entirely different way, as a corporate response to the Eucharist in Mass for instance, or even as the attempt to rise above the feelings and reason into the pure world of intellect, in which one contemplates the divine.

Numinous Experience

Ok, so it’s time to move on to numinous experience, otherwise I won’t cover all the topics I said I would before the exam on Wednesday.

I thought up the question ‘Numinous experience is incapable of supporting belief in God’. Discuss, firstly because I don’t think a question on it has ever come up before, and also because I think there is a strong argument that the concept of numinous experience (as devised by Rudolf Otto and set out in The Idea of the Holy) is not really capable of being an argument for God’s existence. I am fairly sure Otto didn’t intend any explicit ‘argument from religious experience’ anyway, but there is obviously an implicit thread about experience pointing to God in his book which can be picked up and evaluated.


In order to understand the numinous a passage from The Wind in the Willows may by useful:

“’This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. ‘Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’
Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror— indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy— but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend. and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.”

Whilst this is children’s literature and not a ‘real’ experience, it nonetheless conveys powerfully the sense of otherness, awe-inspiring and majestic, which characterises the numinous.

The term numinous is derived from the Latin word numen meaning ‘divine power’. The numinous really refers to the non-rational element of religion, which is properly the object of mysticism. The concepts of religion, the doctrines and moral codes, are the rational element, which according to Otto, derive ultimately from the non-rational numinous element.

The element of absolute otherness associated with the numinous leads to the experience of ‘creature-feeling’ in the worshipper, where the overpowering element of the numinous causes us to experience our own feeling of dependence, that we are mere creatures, “submerged and overwhelmed by our own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures.”

This notion of ‘creature-feeling’ is clearly influenced by Schleiermacher’s (more on him in the next post) ‘feeling of absolute dependence’, but Otto is keen to distinguish the two from each other. Schleiermacher meant by his term the feeling of contingency dependent on being the creation of a creator. Otto argues that the conceptualisation of overpoweringness in terms of a causal relationship between creator and created misses out an important aspect of the numinous experience. He says:

“In one case you have the fact of being created; in the other, the status of the creature…with this latter type of consciousness, we are introduced to a set of ideas quite different to those of creation or preservation. We come upon the ideas, first, of the annihilation of self, and then, as its complement, of the transcendent as the sole and entire reality.”

Essentially Otto believes that the numinous, at its base, goes beyond the feelings of trust and love of Schleiermacher’s analysis into a non-rational sphere that occupies the entire being with a bewildering strength. “If a man does not feel what the numinous is, when he reads the sixth chapter of Isaiah, then no ‘preaching, singing, telling,’ in Luther’s phrase, can avail him” Otto writes.

Therefore the numinous experience is ineffable, and indeed the via negativa of the mystics may be a particularly useful way of trying to grasp what Otto means for the student who has completed the Religious Language topic.

Continued in the next post – evaluation of Otto.