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The Problem of Experience

By Wertbag ~ 

Some religious folks will say their belief is due to them feeling the presence or actions of their particular God in their lives. The immediate problem raised by this claim is that it is universal across competing religions. Christians will say Mormon's are following false teachings, and yet Mormon's have experiences that they attribute to God as well. Muslims, Hindus and Jews all have similar experiences, but each religion believes the others are incorrect. Of course, any such experience is something that only the claimant can experience, and as their experience is not repeatable or testable, it is valueless as evidence for their claim.

It can certainly be a powerful motivator of belief, with many people putting personal experiences as the foremost reason they believe. Many, such as William Lane Craig, will say it is more important than any other evidence, and if the bible was shown to be completely wrong, they would still believe based on the witness of the holy spirit alone. This position is unfalsifiable and very close minded, with more plausible explanations such as hallucinations being dismissed in favour of confirmation bias to the already held beliefs.

Everyone wants to believe they experience the world as it truly is, but hallucinations are common and for those experiencing them they can be impossible to differentiate between them and reality. One schizophrenic interviewed said he managed to have a half hour conversation with a person who wasn't there. It wasn't until he attempted to take their photo that he realised they didn't appear on his screen. He could describe them in detail, their clothing and mannerisms, and could write out the entire dialogue that he'd just had with this non-existent person. Such a person with religious ideas may well have labelled that person as a demon or angel, giving them a supernatural cause in order to avoid admitting they were mistaken.

But it doesn't have to be a severe mental illness like that, we can all have visual or audio hallucinations from fairly simple causes. Dehydration, running a fever, drugs, alcohol, parasites, heat stroke, head trauma etc. Even just looking at a magician doing sleight of hand, or a visual illusion, we can be fooled into believing that what we saw was other than what was real. When we consider the natural possibilities, the limitations of our senses and our easily fooled brains, to jump to the conclusion that any experience we have had is from God skips the simpler answers.

How we experience the world is based on how our brains interpret the information our senses are presenting it. This unfortunately leaves us at the mercy of both our limited senses (compared to other animals we have only average sight, hearing or smell) and our often-faulty minds. There are phycological effects such as our natural pattern seeking minds and pareidolia (our ability to see faces in inanimate objects) which leave our claims doubtful from the start. Pareidolia in particular has a long history of people putting forward silly things as holy items. Seeing the face of God in burnt toast, in an oil stain on a window or in baked goods. We often experience this ourselves when we look at cloud formations, saying that one looks like a bunny or a face, but while such things are usually laughed off as just an amusing random occurrence, when it appears to resemble a preconceived idea of a religious figure the same random occurrence is given significance to the person.

If you have a preexisting idea that Jesus is a bearded man in a long white robe (as per the popular image in classic artwork, although the blue-eyed, blonde-haired version is most definitely wrong) and you see an image that matches that idea, then your mind will link the two. Of course, a person who didn't have that image in mind could well think a bearded man is Mohammad, Santa or the singer from ZZ Top. The significance is subjective and taught in advance.

It is often asked "What would convince you?", with some saying "I don't know, but God would" or others saying "nothing". For those in the nothing camp, this is quite justifiable due to the above limitations. If you admit that the most likely cause of seeing a supernatural being is that your mind is faulty in some way, then you should never get to the conclusion that what you saw was real. The only way to be convinced of an experience would therefore be for it to be shared with a group of people. At least when a dozen people experience the same event, they can compare their experiences and see that it was at least occurring in the real world. Depending on the event, it could still be hard to jump to a conclusion about what it means (is a floating glowing person Jesus, an angel, a demon, an alien or something else?), and even if the event includes something spoken to you, you will still need to confirm what is said is true. A being claiming to be God could be a demon in disguise, so even direct visual and audio confirmation that something is there, is no guarantee that it is what it claims.

Originally posted in the Reasons for Disbelief thread on Ex-Christian.Net