7. The Experiential Argument
The Experiential Argument is an argument of confirmation – it argues that a Theist is right in believing in God based only upon their experience of him. There is a theory called Foundationalism which says that beliefs are justified using other beliefs and those beliefs are justified with still other beliefs and so on. But at some point, in the process of justifying ever more basic beliefs, you must eventually arrive at certain beliefs that are intuitively known, and cannot be further justified. These are called properly basic beliefs. We believe them because although we can’t justify them with evidence, we form them in the context of the experience of everyday life. An example of a properly basic belief is the belief that the physical world around us is real and it is not just our brains being manipulated to think the world exists. We can’t prove this but given our ongoing experience of the world, we believe it.
The philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, claims that a belief in God should be considered a properly basic belief like this. Plantinga believes that humans have an innate, natural capacity to apprehend God’s existence just like we have a natural capacity to see. When you see a tree, he says, you do not infer it from your experience of seeing it. You just see it. Similarly, when we experience God, we do not infer His existence, we experience his existence such as when we feel compelled morally, or experience guilt, or gratitude, or when we recognize God’s handiwork in nature. It is during these times that we naturally apprehend God’s existence and this is a legitimate belief.
The reason that some do not share in this experience is because, according to Plantinga, our fall into sin has had “disastrous cognitive and affective consequences.” Plantinga claims God has so constituted us that we naturally form this belief under certain circumstances but this sense has been damaged and deformed and our affections have been skewed so that we are self-centered rather than God-centered.
According to Plantinga, this belief that God exists is defeasible, and so in encountering argument against it, we must be able to answer that objection or give up the belief. But, he says it is also possible that in some cases, the original belief itself may so exceed its alleged defeater that it becomes an intrinsic defeater of its ostensible defeater.
Since nobody can ever truly know what you experience, this experiential argument for God is a strong reason for ourselves to believe, even if it cannot be fully shared with a nonbeliever. In fact, Plantinga argues that for some, it is the most convincing evidence of all that God exists because a rational belief based on evidence can be wrong, but something that you know cannot be wrong.
In his book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Plantinga makes the following analogy: imagine you’ve been accused of a crime. There is strong evidence showing you are guilty, but you know you did not commit the crime. In the face of overwhelming and convincing evidence that you are guilty, you are not rationally obliged to abandon your belief in your own innocence and accept instead that you are guilty. You can know you are innocent and this is stronger than any evidence (even if you cannot communicate this internal knowledge to others).
And so there are certain truths that we experience rather than deduct based on evidence and these are valid. For a Christian, this experience itself is reason enough to believe in God even without argument or debate, just like the other beliefs you rationally accept without argument or debate.