A Word on Personal Experience

Dear Reader,

I’m not sure who you are, or why you started reading this article, but I’d like to specifically address the religious folks.  Hi, I’m The Spartan Atheist, and I wish to explain to you, in fairly simple and honest terms, why we don’t put any effort in caring about your personal experience.

It’s not that I don’t believe you, by the way.  If you think that I think you’re lying or something, I’ll go ahead and put this right out front.  I am completely convinced that you had some experience.  The difference between my position and yours, however, is what we do with that next.

So, in your head, you probably still remember that moment and how defining it was for you.  You may also be highly convinced that everything you did, saw, heard, and remember about the event to be fairly accurate.  You probably believe your conclusions are quite valid, considering the circumstances.  I don’t.

And again, it’s not that I think you’re a slow individual, or a mentally challenged person.  Quite the opposite, I think you’re most likely a fairly standard human being in terms of your sensory input, cognitive abilities, and memory retention.  And here lies the entire problem.  We human beings like to think we’re pretty good at checking stuff out, but the reality is we actually suck.  If you don’t believe me, please click on the link below.  It’s a focus test on YouTube.  Follow the directions, do NOT scroll down, and NO CHEATING!

Focus test

761cf4ae87e663be6b24a7fcb9780796By now, you may have realized that the test actually has nothing to do with counting basketball passes.  And if you’ve never seen this before, you were probably AGHAST that you missed, you know, the quite large and obvious thing that they didn’t mention.  And here’s the point:  If you watched that video for the first time and missed it, I wouldn’t assume you were lying or not paying attention or physically or mentally disabled.  I would assume that you, like most people on the planet, see what you focus on and miss what you don’t.

Similarly, when you were having your experience, there quite possibly were other things happening that you missed.  And since we never recorded it, we’ll never know.  But I’m sure something else was happening you weren’t aware of.

Let’s talk about your memory of the event for a moment.  Now, once again I’m not saying you’re anything less than a normal person.  But what do we know of memories?  How about another clip.  Again, no cheating!

Memory test

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This one was pretty easy, all things considered.  But let’s remember, those witnesses didn’t know they were about to take part in an experiment.  They weren’t sitting up in their chairs ready to take lots of mental notes.  They didn’t know there was going to be a test.  But let’s make it just a bit worse.  No test here, but you can click this link to see the next video I’ll be talking about.

The difference here is not only are we relying on witnesses, but as the witnesses talked they actually influenced the memory of their fellow classmates.  Through a combination of many factors, the students were quite willing to accept a different description than their own memory just based on the reaction of their peers.  I tried hard to find a video, but many years ago I saw a nearly similar experiment where the teacher said something like “I just remember how tall he was.” before the students were clued in to the experiment.  The perpetrator was actually fairly short, and the teacher’s intentional plant of bad information led the majority of the class to provide a bad report.

Similarly, when you provide me or anyone else your account as you remember it, I’m fully aware that despite you believing every word of your account, it is quite possible that part of your memory was either changed or filled in by another source.  That source could have been your own attempts to conclude what had just happened, or another person, but despite you being a fully competent individual, it is possible your recollection is faulty.

It is possible that the thing that struck you most about your experience is just how REMARKABLE it seemed.  These are the events that are highly unlikely, like praying the day before someone’s cancer went into remission.  Pretty astonishing and convincing, right?  Well, no.  Not at all.  You see, all over this country of ours, in a country of around 69% Christians, there are people praying every day for cancer patients.  Also every day in our country, there are a small amount of people that have cancer that goes into remission.  In even smaller percentages, it does so by itself.  But since nearly 3/4 of all cancer patients have someone praying a Christian prayer over them, the chance that someone prays for them before they go into remission is actually pretty high.

You see, it’s highly unlikely that you will ever win the lottery.  But someone does win the lottery.  People win the lottery all the time, actually.  Just by percentages it’s rare.  It really just depends on how many people you know and how often you watch the news that you will be connected with the experience of someone winning the lottery.  So I don’t discount your particular experience as not being awfully remarkable, but remarkable things actually happen every day.

Similarly, and just to make it more unconvincing, remarkable things happen pretty much as often as we would expect them to happen.  Christian people do not win lotteries or have cancer remissions more or less than Muslim or Jewish or Wiccan people.  Remarkable things happen in New Delhi.  Remarkable things happen to Haitian Voodooists.  I mean, it’s GREAT when awesome remarkable things happen to you personally, but it happens sometimes.  It makes for a great story.  But it doesn’t convince me.

And let’s not forget that when the Haitian Voodooists have something remarkable happen to them, they attribute it to their religious practices.  Since they are predisposed to attribute things to that practice, they assume that the practice CAUSED the event.  It reminds me of the story of the Native American buffalo dance.  You see, the Native American buffalo dance is reported to have never failed.  This may be because once the dance started, they would go on for days or weeks until buffalo appeared.  Sure, this may seem like a total “duh” to us, but this same rationalization happens in church.  Every week and even every day, people pray for all sorts of things.  Sooner or later, something is bound to happen that was prayed for.  But nobody keeps track of the prayers.  So the prayers that “worked” are remembered, while the prayers that failed are forgotten.

Similarly, weird feelings, fires that don’t burn, freak storms, somehow living through impossible circumstances, or your favorite team winning are all things that sometimes happen.  Sometimes they are truly remarkable, other times it’s totally explainable.  But it’s still not something that I’m going to automatically jump on any particular bandwagon to explain.  And until we can figure out what actually caused the event, we don’t get to just make up a cause.

This is particularly noticeable when we know what the cause is.   People get better when they go to a hospital because there is a person there that spent 7 years becoming a doctor to treat them.  If all we needed was prayer to “guide the hands of the surgeon”, then why the hell do they spend so much time training and being educated in how to do surgeries?  The surgery went well because the person digging around in there knows exactly what every goofy looking thing is, what it does, how it reacts, how it affects the other goofy looking things, and has practiced the procedure so many times that it is nearly muscle memory.  You don’t become a great knitter of sweaters by praying.  You do it by practice.

So, dear religious reader, I hope you understand that I don’t discount your experience.  I’m quite sure it was real, vivid, powerful, and convincing to you.  But then again, it happened to you.  So yeah, that makes sense.  But I remain unconvinced.  I know as human beings how bad our perception can be.  I know how poorly our memories can serve us.  I know how we can leap to poor conclusions.  And I know that many seemingly freakish events turn out to have completely normal explanations.

If your god is real, he’s going to have to do better than random chance, highly errant human sensory input, and bad logic to make a case for himself.  And frankly, if your god is real, there should be no doubt.  I shouldn’t have to rely on the fallible memories of other eyewitnesses telling tales of goofy shit happening to determine if he cares.

The Spartan Atheist

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21 thoughts on “A Word on Personal Experience

    1. I didn’t want to take up much space yesterday in hopes some reasonable Christian explanations came forward. Branyan showed up and idiocy took over. I am aware of our inability to see the whole picture, and that’s why it is so important to break away and slow things down. Christianity depends on pace and involvement. They need to keep you engage so you can’t see the chasm between faith and reality. I did not see the monkey in the video. My older daughter (30) did see the monkey and also counted 16 passes. She’s also been an atheist since she was 13. I wonder if there is a correlation. Lol. I stayed in faith till I was 50 when I had a long and unplanned break from the race. Only then, bit by bit it unraveled into more or less a joke. Fortunately She and I are so close now, but my blind faith nearly ruined our relationship with my preaching. We going to be neighbors as soon as the house is done 🙂 Even in slow motion it’s sometimes hard to see the play. But only then can you see it for what it is.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks, and what a good news story. Glad you and your daughter are good.

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  1. “Sooner or later, something is bound to happen that was prayed for.”

    This is what is referred to as “God’s timing.” He was obviously ready to answer those prayers. It was the right time and according to his will. When he doesn’t answer prayers however, it was not the right time. Instead, it was a trial either for our benefit or for his glory…or for some other reason (excuse) It could never be simply a coincidence or happen by random chance. God is either deciding to be merciful or he is teaching us a lesson. It’s interesting how many more lessons we are taught than how many times God is merciful, isn’t it?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Yeah, quite true. If your god answers prayers at about the same frequency as a tennis shoe, he might not be much of a God.

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  2. “If your god is real, he’s going to have to do better than random chance, highly errant human sensory input, and bad logic to make a case for himself.”

    What sort of proof can God offer that doesn’t require personal experience at some point?

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      1. How would you verify evidence without employing experience?

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      2. John, I’m only going to explain this once to you, because you’re a dishonest hypocrite as I’ve experienced many times in these comments.
        Verifying is the process of using other people and other devices to confirm an experience.
        If I think a board is 32 5/8″, I can use a tape measure to check. Even better, have someone else check. That is verification.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Having someone else check would requiring you to trust their personal experience, right?

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      4. John, you are still completely unable to understand evidence despite my breaking it down into very easy chunks.

        And now, despite your inability to understand easy shit, you want to go down the path of what? Solipsism? Theory of the mind? No thank you.

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      5. Yes. I’m very stupid. I’m sorry to have bothered you.

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    1. How would you verify evidence without employing experience?

      There’s a difference between verifiable evidence and an individual’s impressions, even if both of them could be referred to by the word “experience”. If I saw a person levitate into the air, I would assume that either I was hallucinating or it was being faked, because there are no documented cases of people actually levitating, but many documented cases of hallucinations and faked stunts. If a person levitated into the air in a situation where trained scientists and people skilled at detecting stage-magic-type trickery were able to observe closely and check to make sure no fakery was being employed, that would at least be strong evidence that there was a real phenomenon there that needed further study.

      If God actually existed and was as powerful as the Bible said, it would be easy for him to provide evidence that would convince trained observers. Just re-doing the miracles that Jesus is described as performing would do it. Bringing a verifiably dead person back to life, for example, if it were witnessed by several doctors who could confirm what had happened, would be evidence of some power not explainable by current knowledge at least. But ordinary events happening after somebody prays for them, individuals’ profound emotional states, vague patterns on pieces of toast, etc. aren’t evidence. There are too many mundane explanations for them.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I would agree that toast is not compelling evidence. I’d need to see Jesus in a waffle to be absolutely sure.

        You seem to be willing to reject your own personal experience when it contradicts your established beliefs. I appreciate your consistency.

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    2. Having someone else check would requiring you to trust their personal experience, right?

      Don’t get too hung up on the word “experience”. Almost everything we know comes from experience in the sense that it comes via sensory inputs. But there’s a difference between a peer-reviewed paper describing a controlled experiment in enough detail that others can repeat and verify it, or even measuring a board with a tape measure which is known to be accurate, and “this ancient manuscript says that somebody once saw somebody turn water into wine” or “I have a profound feeling that God exists”, or “I saw a light in the sky and I don’t know what it was, therefore aliens” (or angels, depending on the century).

      Eyewitness accounts that can’t be independently verified don’t meet the standard for extraordinary claims. As the post’s examples show, it’s too easy for people to mistake what they are seeing.

      The standard of proof for supernatural claims should be the same as the standard of proof for other claims about the universe. Show evidence for the existence of God comparable to the evidence for the existence of the planet Neptune, and you’ll be getting somewhere.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. What evidence do you have the for the existence of the planet Neptune? You’re taking astronmer’s testimony as reliable or have you personally visited Neptune? If I decide I don’t believe Neptune exists, there’s no verifiable evidence you can offer.

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    3. What evidence do you have the for the existence of the planet Neptune?

      Thousands of astronomers have observed Neptune over a period of decades. Observations of its size, location, appearance, orbital velocity, gravitational effects on other planets, etc. are reasonably consistent regardless of the nationality, religious beliefs, etc. of the observers. There are photographs and other recordings of observations. There has never been a case of anyone pointing a powerful-enough telescope at Neptune’s location and it not being there.

      Again, if God actually existed, it should be easy to provide evidence meeting the same kind of standard.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Spoken like a true believer!

        The personal experience of thousands of astronomers is sufficient evidence for you but I’ve decided Neptune is part of a gigantic conspiracy to funnel money into the space program.

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      2. “If your god is real, he’s going to have to do better than random chance, highly errant human sensory input, and bad logic to make a case for himself.”

        For one, your god could regrow the head of a decapitated human, regrow the limbs of an amputee etc, or something that we know can’t occur naturally

        “The personal experience of thousands of astronomers is sufficient evidence”
        As have been said all our interactions with the world can be termed “experience”

        But in the case of Neptune, this is something that is verifiable and they are evidence for its existence
        Unlike an event that is solely dependent on eye witness account

        Eye witness account isn’t enough evidence

        Now we have seen Dynamo, Criss Angel walk on water, David Blaine resurrecting a fly, levitating. We don’t consider this miracles but we consider similar accounts in the bible.
        Now you may say that how many of this magicians tricks we performed has been exposed. You would be right, but how were this exposed we had the benefit of video footage were we could watch this over and over again, in slow motion to see how the were performed. .But now many of the biblical and religious miracle claims are what written in paper by people who believe in them

        What makes Jesus walking on water different from Dynamo or Criss Angel. We do have eye witnesses for Dynamo and Criss Angel. The difference is quite simple, Dynamo and Criss Angel’s performance is verifiable

        Liked by 1 person

  3. So the prayers that “worked” are remembered, while the prayers that failed are forgotten.

    YUP!

    P.S. Great post! Definitely makes the point that all is not always as it seems.

    Liked by 2 people

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