Personal experience

We all experience the movement of the Earth in a way that makes the sun look mobile.

We all experience the movement of the Earth in a way that makes the sun look mobile.

One of the most often utilised, and possibly most effective arguments for the existence of God is personal testimony. I gave something of my own testimony in a previous post, simply to illustrate that I’m empathetic towards those who’ve had this “personal relationship” with God.

These testimonies normally involve an emotional recounting of ones experience while undergoing conversion. They often involve strong emotions, a feeling of union (or relationship) with something, and some major life changes. It sounds compelling, until you’re aware that all religions report experiences, not just Evangelical Christianity who uses them so effectively as a marketing tool, thus making it susceptible to an outsider test, which I will get to later.

My first issue with this argument is the huge emotional appeal. There’s nothing wrong with emotion, but it isn’t always a good thing to make life choices on. I’m not sure it’s ever a good thing to make judgments on how reality works. Emotions are influenced by psychological factors and factors in the real world, and can often be misinterpreted.

As an example. When I was studying, a lecturer asked if any of us had ever mistaken sex for love. More than 90% of the sexually active people in the room said yes, they had. The emotions generated during and post sex, seem to be akin to what we see as love.

Likewise, people are expected, by some churches, to go to counseling prior to marriage, partly in order for their pastor to ascertain that they understand the gravity of the situation, and to ensure that they are doing this for the right reasons, not in a blind act of emotion. In general, people are discouraged from just leaping into marriage because of emotion.

We seem to recognise that this kind of life choice shouldn’t be made based entirely on emotion. This should apply to choices regarding ones “eternal fate” too, but that’s just my opinion. Of course, this doesn’t mean that, given good rational reasons to believe in a god, emotion can’t play a part. So I’d say accepting this hinges firmly on the more academic arguments for the existence of whatever God you believe in.

Life changes seem to be evidence, a cannibalistic society stops eating people, or a drug dealing gangster cleans up and becomes a school teacher. This looks, to many, like evidence, I can’t accept this though. It’s very simple, people do shocking things in the names of their gods, and this speaks to all religions, which is never seen as evidence against their god. If people being good is evidence for the existence of deity, and it’s moral character, then people doing evil is evidence either that the deity doesn’t exist, it can’t really make changes in people, or it speaks to it’s moral character. Since most people don’t believe in an evil deity, the last option would mean their god doesn’t exist.

One could say maybe they are insincere, but we can’t really make that judgment, now can we? If you’re a Christian you’re specifically told not to judge others. The measure for their sincerity would also simply be your own belief, which is what I’m questioning, so it isn’t a useful gauge when gauging whether your opinion is true.

Experience in general is unreliable, I focused on emotional experience earlier, now I’ll get a bit broader. While science is largely based on experience, there are checks and balances to try to eliminate preconceived ideas and other personal bias. The other thing is, science generally uses experience to attempt to falsify theories and will only accept them such rigorous attempts at falsification fail. So the experience of someone who believes God touched their lives is scientifically unreliable, it has no possible checks.

As people, we experience the world as flat, you can circumnavigate the globe, and it would still seem flat, it’s no surprise this was what people once believed. Everybody experiences a flat earth and the sun moving in relation to the earth, rather than the other way around. We know better, but we experience it as flat, and if not for scientific inquiry, we’d not know better, and insist that it was flat, which is pretty much what happened before scientific inquiry.

Less than everybody seems to share a religious experience, and if the gods wanted to be worshiped, you’d think everybody would. While everybody could quite easily say they experience a flat Earth, therefore it is so, and they pretty much all once did, they’d be wrong, they’d have misinterpreted the experience. So while I don’t discount the experience, which I have had, I do think that it’s fair to say interpretation could be an issue.

This also seems to be a bit like a god of the gaps argument. We don’t fully understand how emotion works, and what stimulates emotional responses when good speakers, or crowds are involved. There are experiences that may not involve either, but again, we don’t really know what is happening, there’s no way of testing it at this stage. Given that, people seem happy to fill the gap in knowledge with something supernatural.

The outsider test would dictate that either you accept that all religious experiences are evidence of all religions being true, or, you reject the argument as a good one. There are some loopholes, “the devil did it.” Yup, everyone else’s claims that contradict yours are actually evidence of your position. Problem is, the rest can make the same claim, and you wouldn’t accept it, so why should anyone listen to you using arguments you recognise to be poor.

One could take the ecumenical stance, they’re all experiences of god, and all religions offer an insight to god. This disproves most religions, since most claim to be the only way. The next thing is, how does one decide which are true interpretations of people’s experience with God, and which aren’t? Normally if they agree with your position they are correct, if not, then not. Since it is the position you’re stating that is in question, it’s hardly a good measure to go by.

By taking the ecumenical position, many people then make an appeal to popular opinion, by stating how common the deity interpretation of the experience is, kind of like the earth being flat in the distant past.

In conclusion, there are some good reasons not to simply accept experience as proof of your beliefs. Emotions aren’t a good thing to make life choices on. Experiences, particularly emotional ones, are easy to misinterpret, and even the obvious (like a flat earth) are often not what they seem. People do bad stuff in the name of their gods at least as much as they do good stuff, so that isn’t evidence. It seems to be filling a gap in understanding emotion with something we don’t have any real evidence for. The outsider test sinks it, unless one takes an ecumenical position, in which case one will likely end up using the “weight of evidence” which is simply an appeal to popular opinion. All this said, this argument might have some use, if, and only if, there is actually a rational reason to believe that supernatural stuff exists, so we need to examine other arguments for the existence of people’s deities.


4 thoughts on “Personal experience”

  1. Popular opinion is a pretty crappy way to determine what to believe.To me it seems the rational thing to do is doubt your own conclusions some, but not the experience, and to attempt to construct ones belief on the matter of God based on trying to note what precisely caused the experience and being open to having experiences from all sources. If a belief appears to contradict something science (or logic) says is true then choose the other knowledge first and reconsider the belief.

    As for the devil, I think the first thing to do is consider the results of a particular belief. Someone may, I guess, have a religious experience over the idea that unbaptized babies burn in hell, or everyone not of belief X is damned for no fault of their own, or God hates Gays, or blacks carry the curse of Ham/Cain/whoever. But looking at the people that actually believe that and how they act on their belief should provide evidence that it probably isn’t the best thing to believe in that. This of course assumes that everyone is able to judge morality at least somewhat accurately, which seems like a fairly safe assumption for the most part. Placing this in a Christian context would be “by their fruits ye shall know them” and focusing on the fruits of the spirit per Paul.

    Getting into the average statistic of the actions of those that claim to believe a certain way as a measure of truth is very interesting. That is probably a more reliable result than personal experience alone, as in one can claim to have a personal experience and believe a certain way and to the outside it is impossible to tell if they are deceived or lying, likewise with positive changes in their life to them that is actually decent evidence to the outside though it is hard to actually tell and we can expect that changing beliefs will in some cases produce apparently good results regardless of the actual effectiveness of the belief generally. The statistical average though is something that can’t be faked if a belief says it makes you better but the statistics suggest that the suicide rate is high, drug use is high, depression is high, divorce is low, and life expectancy a wash than one that has a lower suicide rate, lower drug use rate, lower depression, and a higher life expectancy has more evidence for it. That doesn’t speak to truth, mostly just utility but science also speaks primarily to utility and not truth (as in all theories are wrong, some are useful).

    1. I was planning to chew you out for that, but the last sentence is a beaut. You are correct, you’re looking at a utilitarian way of judging how “good” the belief is, but that doesn’t speak to how true it is, really.

      The outsider test still messes here. While you can say, through prayer, the Bible, and the Book of Mormon, this is what God has revealed to you. While someone from Westborough Baptist Church, God has revealed that being sympathetic to gay rights is wrong. Why should we accept your interpretation over theirs. I would prefer one that isn’t bigoted, but that wouldn’t make it true.

      1. Unless it does.

        I already pointed out how it can be argued from within the New Testament that something that seems morally correct is likely to be actually correct (for some degree of correctness), I should add (again) Romans 2 to that. The same thing holds true for the Old Testament, Moses in Deuteronomy saying that we don’t need someone from Heaven to tell us, the way of life and the way of death are constantly before us and God(s) saying that we are become as them, knowing good from evil. Of course, for something that is desirable and good to actually be true requires either trusting that our moral sense is basically correct or accepting pretty much anyone’s scripture (and any of many philosophies) as having some degree of truth in it (which leads to the exact same point as assuming our moral sense is basically correct).

    2. See my comment in the Outsider Test thread about the space of possibilities. The fact that you say “on the matter of God,” and not, “on the matter of Slender Man, or the Cosmos, or the memory of the experience itself described as neutrally as possible,” will already bias your answer.

      If you want to abandon the claim that Gods exist and argue for the utility of saying that They do, please make that clear so we can have a real discussion. Parseltongue – excuse me, Powertalk – doesn’t work as well in this context. I don’t even know who you are.

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