The Ultimate Bias

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 11, 2009 in General Atheism

The surest sign of a man’s genuine commitment to overcome his own bias is that he applies the same skepticism to his own personal experiences as he does to those of everyone else.

Personal experience is the ultimate bias; the hardest to overcome. If something is real to you, and you feel you’ve experienced it directly, that can be more persuasive than a million replicated, controlled, scientific studies.

Amazingly, we are quite dismissive of personal experience when it happens to someone else. The miracles and visions and religious phenomena experienced by people of other religions or New Age superstitions are not the least bit convincing to most of us. But if it happens to us, well.. that is a different matter.

But it shouldn’t be.

As Richard Dawkins put it, the “argument from personal experience is the one that is most convincing to those who claim to have had one. But it is the least convincing to anyone else, and anyone knowledgeable about psychology.”

The apologist

Recently I had an email conversation with a Christian apologist. He wrote:

Perhaps if you had experienced Jesus in your own life and had a number of prayers answered in truly remarkable ways, you would think of things quite differently.

Of course, I spent 21 years as a Christian, and did experience Jesus and did have prayers answered in remarkable ways. I wrote back:1

Me and my family saw MANY miracles. My godfather had cancer that was worsening – three months later the doctors checked and it had vanished; no traces, no explanation.

My family was praying for a vehicle (we had no money); I got an image in my head of a red minivan driving down the freeway, and said so aloud. Three months later it so happened there was an amazing deal on a red minivan, and we bought it. Several times we need big sums of money to afford a short-term missions trip, and God came through at the very last minute.

I know what it’s like to have God meet a need so precisely – in a way that says, “Luke, I just wanted to show you that I love you” – that all I could do is cry.

I know what it’s like to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. The urge to prostrate myself before the cross at the front of my church. The sudden peace that comes on me when I need it most.

One time my church desperately needed $7,461 to keep going. After an all-night prayer meeting, my dad went to pick up the mail, and in it was a check for exactly $7,461, from someone who didn’t even know the church but had heard one of the pastors speak a few years ago. My dad contacted the giver and she said that after she’d heard the pastor speak, she felt God wanted her to put some cash in an annuity and give it to our church. The process took several years, and just days before she’d decided to close the account and send the accrued money to the church. And it happened to be the exact amount that was needed, right after an all-night prayer meeting.

I know Christians cannot believe it, but Dan Barker and myself and others REALLY experienced THE REAL DEAL just like you have, and yet we still don’t believe. Seriously. We were real Christians, who really believed, and really experienced the presence and miracles of God, and now we just can’t buy it anymore.

Some Christians might read of these “miracles” and say I have “an excessive burden of proof” for God’s existence from the evidence of personal experiences.

No, sir. I just hold my own experiences to the exact same burden of proof to which I hold the experiences of everyone else.

Double standards

See, millions of people from other religions and New Age superstitions have equally amazing stories to tell. They have experienced miraculous healing, answered prayers of incredible specificity, amazing coincidences, powerful visions, unexplainable phenomena, spiritual experiences, and fulfilled prophecies. If I give as much weight to their experiences as the Christian apologist gives to his own, my worldview would be filled to the brim with gods and spirits and magical cosmic forces!

I feel like I should quote Stephen Roberts in response to everything theists ever say: “When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

The thing is, I can’t find a way to accept my own personal experiences as evidence for Yahweh and not accept everyone else’s miraculous experiences as evidence for their gods and spirits. I can’t do it, not without a double standard and special pleading.

Unless someone shows me a legitimate way of preferring one person’s personal experience over another’s,2 then they must all be true (which is impossible, since they are contradictory), or they must all be false. (Or rather, they are veridical as personal experiences, but they do not offer evidence for the person’s metaphysical beliefs.)

The trend of naturalism

The other reason I doubt my own personal spiritual experience is this: the more we learn about our universe, the more we learn that once-magical phenomena are really just produced by physical systems. Thousands of magical explanations – for birth, death, crop failure, disease, personality, lightning, wind, floods, etc. – have been replaced by natural explanations. But so far, the reverse has never happened. That is, a natural explanation has never been replaced by a magical one – at least, not one supported by so much evidence that it is accepted by most people.

Of course, there are many things that still defy a good explanation – natural or magical. The origin of the universe, the origin of life, the nature of consciousness, certain medical phenomena. But because natural explanations have always replaced magical ones, and never the other way around, I’m justified in guessing that any given unexplained phenomena (cancer remission, cosmic origins, spookily accurate checks in the mail) is more likely to have a natural explanation than a magical one.

As Richard Carrier puts it:

A horse that runs a million races and never loses is about to run yet another race with a horse that has lost every single one of the million races it has run. Which horse should we bet on? The answer is obvious.

Are you up to the challenge?

So here’s the question: Are you up to the challenge? Can you overcome your own bias? Can you hold your own personal experiences – no matter how amazing, impacting, or spooky – to the same standard you have for everyone else’s personal stories? Are you able to assess all the evidence available to you, and not give special weight to your own?

Give it a try.

  1. This email excerpt is cut for length. Also, my dad doesn’t remember the exact amount on the check for the church, just that it was in the $7000 dollar range and that it was exact, to the dollar. []
  2. There are, of course, many good ways to judge personal testimony and personal stories. Some people are lying, and sometimes we can tell. Some experiences match with what we know better than others. Etc. But even when we cut out all the dismissible cases, there remain hundreds of epistemically indistinguishable mystical experiences reported from dozens of religions and cults. []

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Crystal D. February 13, 2009 at 1:09 pm

I think the argument from religious experience is one of the toughest to really discuss, because people end up thinking you are personally insulting them if you do not think that what happened to them had a supernatural basis. I had to tip toe around this with someone at work once, and it was quite difficult, basically sounded like “Oh, okay, great, glad that happened to you…”


Justin Martyr September 1, 2009 at 8:47 am

When are you going to let go of your ultimate bias when it comes to ethics? As Justin Martyr once said, ““When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible ethical theories, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
Of course, desire utilitarianism comes purely through reason rather than intuition correct? But then, why did we take such care to define our terms such that we get a system of ethics that fits snugly within the moral intuitions of 21st century atheists? Why not 18th century Yanomamo? Or 7th century Hindu?
Here is what I think. You have a pre-philosophical (but post-Christian)  sense of right and wrong. That sense remains with you today, but you know that it would create an opening a mile wide if you simply admitted the truth: you create moral intuitions first, and then justify them later. So you need another path to “get to” your predetermined outcome. That path is desire utilitarianism. In that sense your project is basically the same as John Rawls took for his theory of justice.


lukeprog September 1, 2009 at 11:08 am


Are you kidding? Desirism is very contrary to my moral intuitions. I certainly have rejected that bias.


Justin Martyr September 1, 2009 at 11:59 am

What post-Christian moral intuitions has desirism countered?


lukeprog September 1, 2009 at 6:19 pm

Justin Martyr: What post-Christian moral intuitions has desirism countered?

Compared with desirism, my post-Christian intuitions about morality:

  • favor anti-realism
  • greatly underestimate the moral value of animal desires
  • favor a monistic value theory rather than an extremely pluralistic one like desirism
  • underestimate the immorality of negligence, include negligence with the truth
  • overestimate the moral value of things that will greatly affect future desires
  • and more


Justin Martyr September 1, 2009 at 7:19 pm

Well done! That was a much better list than I expected.Nevertheless, desirism places you solidly within the moral universe of 21st century atheists, even if you aren’t quite squarely in the center. I submit that is the key constraint on the definition of ‘good’ and how to apply it (e.g. by “dialing up” the number of people with a given desire). You are not as free from your moral intuitions as you think you are.


lukeprog September 2, 2009 at 12:37 am


The diversity of views among moral philosophers today is so great I have no idea what the ‘center’ would be. Especially in meta-ethics.


Justin Martyr September 2, 2009 at 5:23 am

I was speaking of practical ethics – applied moral theory. Consider your post criticizing William Lane Craig for rejoicing in the moral values which propelled Bush to victory when the real moral values are the need for better health care and samesex marriage. When it comes to practical ethics you are pretty solidly within the moral universe of atheism.
For atheists, meta-ethics is really just a way to “get to” practical ethics – like defending samesex marriage. When you say “I disagree with other meta-ethical theories” what you mean is “I think desire utilitarianism provides a more rigorous defense of our pre-philosophical moral intuitions.” Then once you’ve gotten there, you pull up the ladder and pretend that you never had those pre-philosophical moral intuitions to begin with.


lukeprog September 2, 2009 at 7:34 am


Gee, I was hoping you’d say, “Huh, I guessed wrong. Desirism really DOES contradict many of your moral intuitions.” :)

Apparently you want another list of ways in which desirism does not justify my moral intuitions. I will add it to the FAQ.


Justin Martyr September 2, 2009 at 9:27 am

Don’t add it to the FAQ; it isn’t of general use. I was hoping you would say, “Gee, it is curious that atheist philosophers only create theories of justice that keep them in good standing with other atheists.”


lukeprog September 2, 2009 at 3:27 pm


I wrote a post already saying almost EXACTLY that. See here.


Justin Martyr September 4, 2009 at 7:22 am

I think your post makes my point. That post says “all those other ethical theories are utterly wacky, but mine is great.” When you understand why you reject all those others Gods, then you will know why I reject yours.
I categorically disagree with that line of reasoning because each religion has its own characteristics and deserves to be evaluated on its own terms.  The same applies to ethical theories. Desire utilitarianism fails for the same reason that all theories of justice as mutual advantage fail. You’re familiar with Alonzo’s post about Hateful Craig. Well, imagine that Craig was not hateful towards everyone, just black people. And imagine that racists like Craig made up the majority in society. Then desire utilitarianism justifies slavery. What are the black people going to do – use punishment, praise, and condemnation to shape the desires of their oppressors? Not likely. The fact that “turning the desire up in prevalence and intensity” shows that racism is desire-thwarting is irrelevant to our Racist Craigs.


lukeprog September 4, 2009 at 5:37 pm


I do not reject your religion because religions disagree. I reject religions because none of them provide a good case for their own truth. Likewise, I do not reject ethical theories because they disagree. I reject theory of moral realism because they make a poor case for their own truth… except for desirism.

You misunderstand desirism if you think that a society with mostly racist people would justify racism according to desirism.


Justin Martyr September 5, 2009 at 8:22 am

lukeprog: I do not reject your religion because religions disagree. I reject religions because none of them provide a good case for their own truth.

Yes, so the case for each religion must be dealt with individually. But in that case, understanding why someone rejects the ideal observer theory does not do anything to explain why one should also reject desire utilitarianism.

lukeprog: You misunderstand desirism if you think that a society with mostly racist people would justify racism according to desirism.

No I don’t. I agree that the “turn the desires up” technique tells the non-racists that they should use praise, punishment, and condemnation to stop racism (or at least, I do for the sake of argument). But that doesn’t work in a society where racists make up the majority. Who is going to praise and punish their racism away?


lukeprog September 5, 2009 at 8:26 am

Justin Martyr: No I don’t. I agree that the “turn the desires up” technique tells the non-racists that they should use praise, punishment, and condemnation to stop racism (or at least, I do for the sake of argument). But that doesn’t work in a society where racists make up the majority. Who is going to praise and punish their racism away?

In the 1000 Sadists problem, the sadists make up the majority of society, too. The best place to turn the knobs for sadism and racism is down to zero, because then neither the sadist/racist desires nor the desires of their victims are being thwarted.


Justin Martyr September 5, 2009 at 9:00 am

Ok, but the 1000 sadists problem is still rigged because the sadists all have their own children that they wouldn’t want tortured. Thus they have a self-interested reason to want laws against torturing children. That’s not true when evil preferences are confined to a minority group. Oppressors do have rational reasons to kill and plunder victims. Only the disinterested bystander would be able to aply the “turn the desire up” technique and conclude that oppression is bad.


Justin Martyr September 10, 2009 at 6:32 am

Note to anyone who stumbles upon this thread – Luke has promised to update the FAQ to address my criticisms so don’t take his silence as a concession!
Hiya Luke,
I don’t have an email address so I thought I’d ask you this question here. I’m only asking a question not challenging. (I’m very happy with my criticisms of desirism).  Isn’t the appeal of desirism that it is more hard-headed than other theories of ethics? But since “turning the knobs” up is supposed to be normative, why do you prefer desirism to Rawlsian social contract theory? Don’t you find the concept of making decisions from behind a Veil of Ignorance much more beautiful and elegant than “turning the knobs up”?


lukeprog September 10, 2009 at 6:54 am


Whether you’re asking questions or making objections or offering challenges, all are welcome.

I had a few thoughts on why contract theory fails in the FAQ; perhaps I’ll add a section on Rawls specifically at a later time. But a question like this is hard to answer in one shot, because it involves dozens of problems with Rawlsian theory and dozens of successes for desirism. In any case, I am not looking for a beautiful and elegant theory, but a true one. The propositions that make up the central claims of desirism are more probably true than the propositions that make up the central claims of Rawlsian contractariainism.


Justin Martyr September 10, 2009 at 7:10 am

Thanks Luke!
To put that response into my own words for the sake of my own understanding, does that mean that desirism does a better job capturing the everyday usage of the word ‘good’ than the Veil of Ignorance? But doesn’t that also mean that you do in fact rely on moral intuitions? Rawlsian social contract theory says ‘do X’ whereas desirism says ‘do Y’. How do you know that X is better than Y in a non-question begging way? Doesn’t that mean you are appealing to your own moral intuitions?


Justin Martyr September 11, 2009 at 5:47 am

Another question, if the “turn the knobs up” technique is normative – and thus a racist should change his racist beliefs to allow others to fulfill more of theirs – then doesn’t that mean that there are intrinsic values after all? There is something intrinsically good (in the moral sense) about having a desire fulfilled.


lukeprog September 11, 2009 at 6:21 am

There is nothing intrinsically good about desire fulfillment. We are not trying to maximize desire fulfillment. Rather, every desire is a reason for action to fulfill that desire.


Justin Martyr September 11, 2009 at 6:42 am

Hiya Luke,
But on that explanation you would be trapped by my case of the 900 racists. The racists have a reason to act on their racism but not on anything else. You escape this trap by taking the “turn the knobs up” as normative. But that means that either “desires which tend to be desire-fulfilling” are intrinsically good, or the racists are irrational.


Zeb March 15, 2010 at 6:53 am

Luke, if there were a world in which people only claimed mystical and miraculous experience for one form of supernaturalism, would that experience be a good argument for belief? Would you not still say that since naturalism has explained so much else, it is rational to assume naturalism could explain these mystical and miraculous experiences?

On the other hand I don’t see why the diversity of beliefs about the nature of the “supernatural” discounts the strength of the evidence of personal experience for the supernatural. The parable of the three blind men and the elephant in the room is appropriate. If so many people are experiencing something, something is probably there even if they have different ideas about what that something might be.


lukeprog March 15, 2010 at 7:40 am


Entire books could be written in response to your questions, and indeed they have been written. Let me approach just one thread of your post. Let us suppose you’re right that if many people experience something, there must be something there, even if they have different ideas about what something might be like.

Now, consider that a great many people have ‘experienced’ alien abduction, though they give varying accounts. Should we then conclude it’s likely that people are getting abducted by aliens and then brought back to Earth, though of course each individual abductee may not have interpreted his experiences exactly right?


Zeb March 16, 2010 at 5:02 am

Re:aliens I am a doubting agnostic, but not a firm a-alienist. I wouldn’t go so far as to agree that they are getting abducted by aliens for sure. But the testimony is too strong for me to simply dismiss it saying “they’re just seeing things.” Something extraordinary must be going on. In the end maybe they are just seeing things, but even so that level of mass hallucination would in itself be extraordinary. If it mattered much to me I would seek first hand knowledge of whatever it is these alien people are claiming. And if I then did have an experience of abduction that was too authentic for me to honestly deny or dismiss, I would have to believe.

I guess I am having a hard time wrapping my head around the belief you and many atheists seem to hold that the only truth that counts is that which has been established through social discourse. Is that a fair description of your position, and if so why do you hold it?


Crookes July 23, 2010 at 1:16 pm

I’m sorry, but I don’t get how a rational analysis of you guys praying for an exact sum of money and it being provided is rationally not attributed to an answer to prayer?

1. Did the church pray for a specific sum?
2. Did the woman know what that sum was?

If not, its not definitive proof that God exists, but it is a big coincidence. Why should the rational explanation be coincidence over divine act?

Experience surely has some value?


Brian63 August 4, 2010 at 1:57 pm

FYI: There is a typo in the dollar amount you referred to. One of the amounts written is $7,461 and the other is $7,641 (the 4 and 6 are flipped). You mention that it is not the actual amount (which you do not remember), but for storytelling purposes still, that should be corrected.




lukeprog August 4, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Thanks Brian!


Felipe Ramos February 16, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Hey Luke,
You know Paul was convert from Pharisee to the follower of Jesus Christ in the book of Acts. Paul do have the personal experience. So, you do think Paul is the Ultimate Bias, correct ??

Thank you


Luke Muehlhauser February 16, 2011 at 6:58 pm




Tom.R February 17, 2011 at 6:23 pm

I told my christian freind that people from other religions have these experiences as well, he just said it was the work of the devil. I’m considering giving up : (


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