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.”
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.
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.
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.
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]