Thursday, December 4, 2014

[PHI 3000] The Principle of Credulity and the Schizophrenic Masters

In The Existence of God, Richard Swinburne writes:
if it seems to me that I have a glimpse of Heaven, or a vision of God, that is grounds for me and others to suppose that I do. And, more generally, the occurrence of religious experiences is prima facie reason for all to believe in that of which the reported experience was purportedly an experience (Swinburne 2004, 310).
Swinburne’s argument is a version of an argument for the existence of God known as the argument from religious experience. Swinburne’s version of the argument is based on a principle he calls the Principle of Credulity. According to the Principle of Credulity, "if it seems (epistemically) to S that x is present, that is good reason for S to believe that x is present" (Swinburne 2004, 310). Swinburne says that the Principle of Credulity is "a principle of rationality," that "what one seems to perceive is probably so" (Swinburne 2004, 303).

Using the Principle of Credulity, then, Swinburne argues roughly as follows:
  1. If it seems (epistemically) to me (Swinburne) that God is present, that is good reason for me to believe that God is present.
  2. It seems (epistemically) to me that God is present.
  3. Therefore, I (Swinburne) have good reason to believe that God is present.
Now, in 1907, the German artist, August Natterer, had an experience which he later described as follows:
I saw a white spot in the clouds absolutely close – all the clouds paused – then the white spot departed and stood all the time like a board in the sky. On the same board or the screen or stage now images as quick as a flash followed each other, about 10,000 in half an hour… God himself occurred, the witch, who created the world – in between worldly visions: images of war, continents, memorials, castles, beautiful castles, just the glory of the world – but all of this to see in supernal images. They were at least twenty meters big, clear to observe, almost without color like photographs… The images were epiphanies of the Last Judgment. Christ couldn't fulfill the salvation because he was crucified early... God revealed them to me to accomplish the salvation.
Based on his experience, is it rational for Natterer to conclude that God is present?

Hexenkopf (The Witch's Head), ca. 1915

If Natterer's experience does not give him (and us) a good reason to believe that God is present, does that mean that the Principle of Credulity is false?


  1. August Natterer was a German outsider artist who suffered from delusions and anxiety attacks. Natterer hallucinated the last judgement on April Fools Day in 1907 where he described God being present. Based on the understanding of religious experiences, and on Natterer's background, it is not rational for Natterer to conclude that God is present.
    Through Natterer's hallucination he experienced religious feelings. He felt a feeling of glory, this is just a general feeling and later comes to believe the feeling was caused by the presence of a particular person, that fact does not transform the feeling of glory into a perception of a person. This explains how religious feelings are not the same as religious experiences.
    Although Natterer's experience doesn't conclude that God was present, it does not mean that the Principle of Credulity is false. This is because Natterer was sick and experienced a hallucination. He reported seeing but didn't see with bodily sense organs. Swinburne states that if something appears to be the case then in the absence of contradictory evidence, it should be the case. If God seems to be the cause and the object of a religious experience, then it cannot be proved that God is not behind the experience, it should be accepted the experience is of God. But because Natterer was sick with schizophrenic and has had many cases of delusions and anxiety attacks, this experience came upon because of those things. In the reading it was explained that it is very common for unhappy people to recreate the first months of life and blissful experiences. That is was Natterer experienced. I do believe God is present in many ways and in experiences through out our lives but in this case I do not believe it is rational for Natterer to conclude that god is present.

  2. It is not rational for Natterer to conclude that God is present. In order for him to conclude that God is present he needs to accept the principle of credulity. According to the principle of credulity one is justified in believing that what seems to one to be present actually is present. However, this appears to be circular. The principle of credulity is not true. According to the article “to reject his argument, one would have to show that religious experience is unlike sensory experience in that in the religious case, one or more of the defeaters always obtains. Anyone who accepts the principle has excellent reason to accept the deliverances of religious experience, unless he or she believes that defeaters always, or almost always, obtain. The two most important defeaters on the table for claims of the epistemic authority of religious experience are the fact of religious diversity, and the availability of naturalistic explanations for religious experiences."

  3. Based on his experience, I believe Natter had good reason to believe that God was present. While Natterer was looking into the clouds he seen what he perceived as God. Going off of his prior knowledge, Natterer believed God was showing him the images from the Last Judgement, which he revealed to him to accomplish the salvation. According to the Principle of Credulity, it seemed to Natterer that God was present, which therefore gives him good reason to believe that is so.


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