1.12 Personal Experience

Back to 1.11 The Idea/Person Separation Principle

1.12.1 Most of what has been discussed about epistemology in this treatise has relied on the idea that the universe operates in ways that are reasonable, objective, and able (at least for the most part) to be understood by our minds. This belief has been justified in common experience and history. However, there are those who make the claim that there are things about this universe and/or "outside" of this universe which cannot be accessed through reason, but only through other methods.

1.12.2 For example, there is a common conception that for the everyday world around us, science serves best in gathering information while, for spiritual matters, faith or revelation is the best source of knowledge. This allows many people to imagine that science and superstition can consistently coexist, enabling them to go to church on Sundays and enjoy all the technologies and other fruits of science the rest of the time. While this approach offers comfort and convenience to otherwise reasonable people unwilling to give up their traditions, many skeptics find this view flawed.

1.12.3 When we think of knowledge, we generally consider it as data of some sort which we have learned or have gained through experience. The fact that we gain knowledge through secular experience is obvious. However, the claim that knowledge can be obtained through supernatural or paranormal means, although a possibility, has yet to be verified in thousands of years of human civilization. Electricity, photons, magnetism, radio waves, ultraviolet rays, other planets, DNA, time dilation, black holes, and all sorts of things which are just as difficult to detect and just as amazing have been discovered, having rarely been guessed at beforehand by popular myth. Meanwhile, supernatural and paranormal phenomena, as common as they are found in folklore, continue to elude detection, making the reality of these claims more and more questionable with each passing year. Not that these things are flatly impossible but, again, there is a difference between possible, and probable.

1.12.4 None of these realizations has given pause to a multitude of "religious experiences" claimed by adherents of all sorts of beliefs across the globe. To be sure, most of these people are describing an actual experience of some sort. What the meaning of these experiences are though, is a matter of interpretation.

1.12.5 To begin with, there are people all over the world who are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, various tribal religions, new agers, etc., many of them reporting visions, communions, near death experiences, projections, waking dreams, voices, and other such occurences. These experiences feel absolutely real to those who have them. Such people tend to report experiences which are consistent with their belief systems, thus seeming to confirm to them that their beliefs are accurate. Nevertheless, many of these beliefs include models of reality, the universe, and our place within it which are contradictory to the views of others who have had religious experiences and see them as equally legitimate. It is necessarily true then that the majority (if not all) of such feelings of legitimacy, derived from these religious experiences, are misleading, at least to some degree. Even if a tiny fraction are real (the most that logically could be), there seems to be no way to determine between the real experiences and the fake ones.

1.12.6 The reason so many people fail to see this point is because, in many cultures, there is usually so much of a majority religion that one hardly ever hears of people of other belief systems having confirming visions or other religious experiences. This leads people to think that such experiences are exclusive to, or at least more prevalent in, their religion.

1.12.7 Furthermore, experiments have shown that most of these feelings and experiences can be replicated artificially by electrically stimulating various areas of the brain. Admittedly, one could also create a delusion of an apple but this doesn’t mean that every time we see apples, that they are delusions. Nevertheless, to say that apples exist is not an extraordinary claim, such as the claim that there are invisible entities or powers of a particular nature, and therefore extraordinary evidence is not required for apples, as it is required for angels and extra-terrestrials.

1.12.8 Taken together, the experiments and the cultural contradictions both suggest, at best, a high degree of subjectivity and unreliability of such experiences in determining truth. At worst, they leave the credibility of religious experiences in serious doubt. It is most likely that these experiences are simply a product of our tricky brain quirks, as interpreted by our cultural beliefs and hopes, and not really related to anything outside of our own skulls, regardless of how "real" the experiences seem (recall 1.6.12).

1.12.9 The final blow to "other ways to knowledge" is, of course, the fact that no one has ever proven that they can or have obtained exclusive knowledge that they only could have received supernaturally or paranormally. This despite what popular television fiction and "pseudo-documentaries" mislead millions of people to believe everyday.

Continue to 1.13 The Scientific Confidence Principle