A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

Challenging experience

Whenever a discussion comes up about God, ghosts, UFO’s or any other strange or supernatural beliefs, how often have you heard someone say “I’ll believe it when I see it” or “seeing is believing”? They say it like it’s obvious. “Why should I believe in God/ghosts/aliens based on your experience?”, they say, defiantly, “I base my beliefs on my experience, nobody else’s, thank you very much!”. And that’s just common sense, isn’t it?

Or is it?

We are all rationalists to some degree. As powerful as wishful thinking is, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to just will yourself to believe something just because you’d like it to be true. As strong as a person’s faith may be, they will still always seek, or at the very least be receptive to, evidence that seems to support their beliefs. To the people who don’t hold these beliefs and demand evidence without the guidance of critical thinking, “experience” is normally the form that is required. You’ve experienced God, I’ll believe in him when I experience him.

This is where the difference between objective and subjective evidence has to be stressed.

As a thought experiment, let’s say that we work in an office together where the air conditioning is broken, and we’re disagreeing about how warm it is today, compared to yesterday. “It’s much warmer than it was yesterday”, I say. “You’re kidding!” you retort, “it’s colder than yesterday, or at least no more than the same as yesterday”. We could go on like that all day and not get anywhere. This is simply because we are arguing “subjectively”. My “warm” might be different from your “warm”, and one of us may have had clothing on yesterday that made us feel colder or warmer than the other. There is no way for us to reconcile the possible differences in our understanding of the necessary terms, and the uncontrolled environment which we are discussing.

Now imagine that we had a thermometer, permanently situated in the office. Suppose that we took readings from it at fixed times in the day, and then took readings at the same times the following day. Now there can be no dispute. The thermometer means exactly the same to both of us. If it was 14 degrees centigrade yesterday, and 16 degrees centigrade today, then it is warmer today than yesterday. It’s a fact, there is no argument to be had. This is because we are now looking at the situation “objectively”. There is no confusion over semantics or any other philosophical quibbles, the temperature of the room is independent from our interpretation, and we can reach agreement.

If I see a ghost tonight, no matter how clearly, vividly or graphically, I will not believe in ghosts based on that experience. To some people, this may seem arrogant or closed-minded, but I don’t think it is. I will not dismiss the experience completely, I will regard it as a piece of evidence to be considered along with the rest of the evidence, when deliberating over the existence of ghosts. I will, however, recognise and acknowledge that it is subjective, testimonial evidence and not objective, to me, nor anyone else. Testimonial evidence is weak at best, and in most cases can’t be considered credible evidence at all. Therefore, my experience would carry little weight against the void which could, and if ghosts were real should, be occupied by empirical, objective evidence.

People all over the world claim to experience all kinds of things. We couldn’t possibly believe all of them, so flagrant is the contradiction between some of these beliefs. A good example of this is Christians’ experiences of God versus Muslims’ experiences of Allah. For every Christian who has felt the touch of Yahweh, there is a Muslim who has felt the touch of Allah. Both hold their experiences as deep and profound events in their lives, and are left certain of the existence of their deity as a result. First, let’s just be clear that Yahweh and Allah are not the same God. Both the Bible and the Quran are very clear on this. So which of them, if either, has had a genuine experience? It can’t be both of them, but it can be neither! This is why most of us reject other peoples’ experiences as evidence, at least until something more concrete is offered. To a lot of people, that concrete evidence they decide to wait for is an experience of their own. But here’s the crux: it’s easy to question and reject someone else’s experience, but it takes tremendous intellectual courage and honesty to question, criticise and maybe even reject your own experiences. As sceptics we are often accused of being closed minded, but truly open is the mind that questions its very own interpretation of the world. Human experience is a wonderful thing which we should cherish, and it is our recognition of this that makes us different from all other living things we know. However, to give ourselves the best chance of knowing the truth about extraordinary claims, we should be brave enough to regard our own experience as testimonial evidence, with the same scepticism that we would regard it as testimonial evidence from someone else, and demand objective evidence either to support it or preferably to replace it.

Testimonial evidence, on close examination, is poor by any rational standard. Whatever the facts are about the events in question, they are maimed and mutilated as they are filtered through a number of distorting processes. First, our senses our not perfect. In fact, when we are in situations where we are suggestible, they can be very unreliable. We see and hear things that aren’t there, and miss things that are. Secondly, our memories are not just imperfect, they are downright awful. Try and remember everything that happened to you yesterday. Every last thing, from the moment you woke up to the moment you went to bed, every step, every word of every conversation, every mouthful of every meal. Close your eyes, and try to walk yourself through it, in real time. You will be amazed at how little you can remember. With something as significant as, say, seeing a ghost, your memory will change what happened, cut things out, add bits, change others. Our memories of events cannot be seriously relied upon. Finally, we don’t tell stories perfectly. The children’s game “Chinese Whispers” illustrates this beautifully. When we tell stories, whether it is wilfully or subconsciously, we edit and embellish, exaggerate and elaborate. We make it funnier or scarier. It is not so much dishonesty as it is artistic licence. So by the time an event has been imperfectly sensed, imperfectly remembered and then imperfectly told (however many times by however many people), it can’t be considered real evidence of anything at all.

A common objection to this critique of testimonial evidence, is that of its place in the judicial system. “Well then, let’s just unlock all the prisons and have done with it”, I sometimes hear, “if it’s so weak, then why is it allowed in court?”. In actual fact, testimonial evidence is well recognised in court for its inadequacy. Witness testimony is usually used to support much stronger forms of evidence, such as forensics, and is rarely sufficient to enforce a conviction or secure a reprieve, on its own.

True rationalism, is recognising the flaws of testimonial evidence even in our own experience, and seeking sound objective evidence for any extraordinary claims we examine. If objective evidence is not available, it is far wiser to reserve judgement than to accept subjective evidence as a substitute. This is why critical thinking is so important to our society. The people I mentioned at the beginning who want to “see” so that they may “believe”, may one day, in a state of suggestibility, misinterpret an experience, think they’ve seen something they haven’t and end up believing something that isn’t true. This is why the best intentions of rationalism have to be backed up to the hilt with astute critical thinking skills and a basic understanding of scientific method. The necessary work is a small price to pay for the protection from delusion.

I am not suggesting that human experiences should be dismissed out of hand. On the contrary, I feel we would do our wondrous minds a disservice not to treasure them, reflect upon them and proudly embrace the emotional responses they may provoke. Using them though, to form conclusions about the external universe, is a step too far.

7 Responses to “Challenging experience”

  1. “As powerful as wishful thinking is, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to just will yourself to believe something just because you’d like it to be true. As strong as a person’s faith may be, they will still always seek, or at the very least be receptive to, evidence that seems to support their beliefs.”

    There’s one very important factor you’re omitting. Most religious people were indoctrinated into their religion at a very early age — before critical thinking and the ability to distinguish between fact and fantasy are developed. (it’s the same tactic used by television ads targeting children under 10) When beliefs are inserted this deep into a child’s development, they don’t have to will themselves to believe it. Instead, their belief becomes the default position. They believe that proof is required to *disprove* their beliefs, not the other way around.

    To that end, it’s less a matter of reading things as evidence, but more a matter of completely fabricating evidence. How many theists have you talked to that said they believe God exists “because they feel it”? (or replace ‘it’ with ‘his love’ or ‘his presence’ etc.) That’s been the most common response I’ve heard.

    The mis-read evidence, like reading random chance as being an answered prayer, or seeing “signs” that indicate what choices they should make in life, is largely secondary (in my experience). The God-Feeling, on the other hand, can be triggered by will-power alone, and is in essence *created* by the belief.

  2. David W,

    Thanks for your feedback. I agree with you 100%. I really had paranormal believers and less committed religious moderates more in mind when writing this, but I did overlook the points you make and I thank you for pointing it out.

    Even the most rigid, fundamentalist faith, indoctrinated from birth and never questioned, can be overcome. My Jehova’s Witness turned atheist friend I refer to in my deconversion story overcame a life time of faith at the age of 23, and we know it can happen much later than that. I think the issues you raise underline the urgency to teach, and make people aware of critical thinking skills as widely and quickly as possible, preferably through the education system. It may be too later for some people, but within a generation or two we may be able to start countering religious indoctrination in the home. I can’t think of a better way to do it.

  3. Perhaps the only thing (that is related to the topic of this post, that is) that should be taught to children is critical thinking – after all, it is the only teaching that encourages children to question what they learn, even critical thinking. This legitimizes “indoctrination” of critical thinking: it’s the only kind of indoctrination that leads to doubt about the indoctrination.

  4. Simen,

    I think you’re conclusion, that critical thinking should be taught in schools, is right, but not your reasoning. You’re on slightly shaky ground here. What you’re essentially describing is dire scepticism. If you become sceptical about scepticism, you end up on a loop and the whole thing collapses.

    The way out, is realising that scepticism doesn’t need to be questioned because it is not a belief system, it is an attitude. A sceptic questions everything, looks critically at all claims and always demands the highest standards of evidence. These are not ‘beliefs’.

    In a sense, scepticism is self-supporting, because we can see from a long track-record of successes that it is more likely to lead to the facts than non-rational thought processes. However, I think that teaching children to question the lesson teaching them “that they should always question” might just cause confusion.

    I certainly wouldn’t call critical thinking “indoctrination”. I recognise the point you’re making, and sort of agree, but I don’t think the term is appropriate in this context. Anything that teaches doubt and questioning, can’t really be indoctrination, in my book.

  5. Being skeptical of skepticism can only be healthy, because any skeptical investigation of skepticism will discover that it is indeed the best attitude to take. To look critically at all claims entails that you look critically at the claim that one should look critically at all claims. Once you do, no other conclusion other than that critical thinking is indeed valid can be found. I tend to think that temporally questioning all your assumptions, including the assumption that you should question your assumptions, is a good way to appreciate the reasons you make the assumptions you do. For this reason, I think questioning skepticism should be encouraged; once they do, they’ll both appreciate the reasons we assume as we do, and they will appreciate the fact that the only assumption that will allow you to question your assumptions is an assumption of skepticism.

    Perhaps I was a bit sloppy with my terminology in the previous comment. The point is that the only kind of attitude I can see as justified in being taught to young children is the critical attitude, because it’s the only one that encourages you to question your attitudes (including, as I said, the critical attitude; a critical look at critical thinking can only result in the conclusion that it’s valuable). Therefore I can’t see it as justified to teach children their parents’ religion before they learn and become mature enough to question it themselves and decide for themselves if they would like to believe in it, and not merely have their belief handed to them.

  6. Simen,

    I’m still not sure it’s completely logically sound, but in practical terms I agree with everything you say, especially the last sentence.

  7. I have to give the other side, you know me by now:

    You have heard of Julius Caesar and I am sure you believe that he existed right? Well there were 10 manuscripts of antiquity that explained who he was as we know him today. 10 that is it, in one language, everything we know today about him came from just those 10 manuscripts. Do you know how many manuscripts of antiquity about Jesus? Any guess?

    The New Testament we have either in fragments or partials within 25 years, 40 years of events we have 5,400 partials or complete manuscripts in Greek (the original language) and 19,000 other languages. You want a reliable book and you believe Julius Caesar existed? You can believe that Jesus existed and he did exactly what it says in the Bible because you have eye witness accounts that were willing to die for it.

    For Him,

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