Personal Experience

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In this article, I simply want to define the phrase.

“Personal Experience” is often used as one of the lines of evidence presented by theists in support of the claim that a God exists. Now regardless of whether this line of evidence is legitimate or not, at this time I simply want to explain exactly what theists mean when they use that phrase. I will start by first explaining what we DON’T mean simply because it is in one of these senses that atheists most often interpret the phrase.

1) The first thing we DON’T mean by Personal Experience is Pentecostal/ Charismatic experiences like speaking in tongues or entering into some kind of “holy trance.” There ARE Christians that engage in these practices and that use the phrase “personal experience” in reference to these practices, but that is not the common use of the phrase and it is not the sense in which I will ever use it.

2) The second sense in which this phrase is not used is the sort of transcendent experience one might feel while admiring a great work of art or a scene of rare natural beauty. A theist might claim that he felt God’s presence drawing near while looking upon some beautiful imagery. But that is NOT what we are talking about here.

3) Another type of experience we are NOT referring to here is the type of emotional HIGH someone might experience when attending a Christian rock concert or listening to an emotionally charged sermon. There are ways to manipulate human emotion so as to almost give the impression of divine presence; but it is not the experience we are referring to.

4) And lastly, we are not referring to highly vivid dreams or visions of angels, miracles, crying statues of Mary etc.

The phrase “Personal Experience” refers to a person’s LIFE-LONG experience with God. This can be generally broken down into two parts: the Initial experience with God and the subsequent providential experiences over the course of the person’s life thereafter.

The initial experience generally happens when a person is dealing with some type of major life problem, they exhaust their own resources trying to resolve the problem without success, they as a last resort appeal to God for help with this problem and, God apparently comes through for them and resolves the situation.

The subsequent experiences are simply similar situations, generally of a lesser magnitude, scattered throughout the person’s life thereafter where God appears to help or guide in a providential way.

None of these experiences would, in and of themselves, be sufficient to definitively convince someone that a higher power is at work. But, over the course of the life, it simply becomes a question of whether a rational, unbiased person should be able to distinguish between repeated, intentional, providential acts of God and random coincidences.

Now if you are an atheist reading this, chances are that you already have a list of reasons why this line of evidence should simply be ignored in the overall debate. And, while I know what those reasons would be and have plenty to say about them, at this time I simply want to clarify my use of this phrase since otherwise it would very likely be understood differently than how I intend.

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Comments

  1. jonP  February 1, 2014

    “But, over the course of the life, it simply becomes a question of whether a rational, unbiased person should be able to distinguish between repeated, intentional, providential acts of God and random coincidences.”

    You are a very intellectually honest Christian. The problem is that coincidence is not distinguishable from providence. Here the concept of confirmation bias is useful. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias

    Where I see serendipity, my religious friends see the Hand of God. The problem is that unlucky coincidences happen just as frequently. All of existence is sort of a string of good, bad and neutral coincidences. God gets credit for the good ones, but usually not the bad ones. If he does get credit for bad circumstances, it’s explained away as a test of Faith, or something. Either way we have the same experiences but are led to different conclusions based on our prior beliefs.

    Other people from other cultures would interpret the exact same phenomena as evidence for their god and their beliefs. We can not determine who is correct based only on personal experiences.

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    • Unapologetics  February 2, 2014

      This was actually supposed to be a 3 part article but I am not sure when I will get around to the rest. In this article I just wanted to clarify that when I say Personal Experience I am not referring to speaking in tongues or other things atheists generally assume that term means.

      I am familiar with Confirmation Bias but I still disagree with you here. I think the average person can handle about 3 coincidences in close succession before they start assuming foul play. So if you are walking down the street and you trip over a stick that wasn’t there a second ago, and then you get to your lab and place something on the shelf but as soon as you turn around it falls on your head and, a little later, something else unusual happens, you start to wonder if someone isn’t messing with you. This is one of the ways we determine agency.

      I don’t want to go much further into this until I have time to sit down and write everything I meant to write on the subject (could be another year the way things are moving) but feel free to leave other comments if you like.

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  2. jonP  February 6, 2014

    “Personal Experience” is often used as one of the lines of evidence presented by theists in support of the claim that a God exists.

    From the opening of the post, I assume what you are trying to lead up to is 1. reasons why personal experiences, how you define it, are legitimate evidence for god; and, 2. examples of legitimate personal experiences that provide evidence that god exists. Please tell me if I misinterpret. If those are the planned topics for your future posts, then please allow me to preempt what you may say.

    Personal experiences do provide legitimate evidence for the existence of things. It’s how we know anything. Experiences are especially powerful if multiple people can independently report an experience that confirms those experiences. I don’t mean a story about a crowd of people all witnessing the Jesus miracles.

    The concept of an observer becomes useful here. I know that I am an observer because I can observe things. In my opinion, this is a good assumption for an epistemology based on personal experience. I know that there is a reality that exists because I can repeatedly observe the same things. There is continuity to experiences. This is especially obvious in contrast to dreams. In the real reality I have always woken up in the same place that I fell asleep. If I wake up in a different place, the best explanation is that I was moved during an unconscious state. If I ever wake up in a completely different world with different rules, then my continuity of experience would be broken, and I would not know what to do.

    We know that we are both observers, because we can both report experiences to independently confirm. We know the bible exists, because I can read it, and you can read it. We can get together and confirm that we read the same book. If we both believe that the bible exists when it doesn’t, then our reports to confirm would not be the same. Since we have reasonable a priori reason to believe that our reports will always confirm each other, then we have extremely strong evidence to reject the null hypothesis (no bible), and accept that it really exists.

    This is just my inner scientist speaking; it’s obviously not necessary to do this formally for everything that we experience. But even informally and without us necessarily knowing, this is still how knowledge is created from personal experience (in my opinion).

    I am now interested in the personal experiences that provide evidence to confirm the existence of god.

    The initial experience generally happens when a person is dealing with some type of major life problem, they exhaust their own resources trying to resolve the problem without success, they as a last resort appeal to God for help with this problem and, God apparently comes through for them and resolves the situation.

    You started to address this in your post The Generic God. This is the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. This is also a type of god of the gaps. If I lack a naturalistic explanation for an observation, then I resort to my default cultural beliefs. For some it is Allah, for some God, or various saints, or minor gods. Others attribute the unexplained coincidences as random chance, luck, fate, serendipity.

    There is no reason to expect that Christian God Revealed in the Bible is the best explanation. We have no way to know if it is just coincidence or divine intervention. In your example, there is no way to know if God’s intervention resolved the situation, or something else resolved it. We have no way to differentiate between any possiI think the average person can handle about 3 coincidences in close succession before they start assuming foul play.

    Thereble cause without any evidence. We would only be guessing. Assuming a generic god (or any particular god) actually reduces our prior probability for any possible explanation, because it adds in an untestable assumption (actually many, like that god is an observer, and interacts with the universe, etc).

    I believe that some combination of confirmation bias, illusory correlation, just-world-hypothesis, and agent detection explains why people think that unexplained coincidences confirm their beliefs. And, I think these things are a possible explanation for your belief that:

    I am familiar with Confirmation Bias but I still disagree with you here. I think the average person can handle about 3 coincidences in close succession before they start assuming foul play.

    I therefore disagree with your disagreement.

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  3. jonP  February 6, 2014

    Copy-paste fail.

    We have no way to differentiate between any possiI think the average person can handle about 3 coincidences in close succession before they start assuming foul play….

    Thereble cause without any evidence.

    This should read:
    We have no way to differentiate between any possible cause without any evidence.

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  4. Unapologetics  February 6, 2014

    Hey Jon,

    If you don’t mind, I’m going to wait to read this until I have a chance to finish what I wanted to say on the subject.

    I did notice however you mentioned that personal experience can be caused by any god not just the christian god.

    So I wanted to ask you what you think of the following:

    Say we’re at a point in a discussion where I need to present one evidence for god and, though I probably wouldn’t do this, let’s say my evidence was ‘personal experience.’

    Would it be a fair question to ask first what exactly this evidence was intended to prove? Or, to say it differently, what specific question it was attempting to answer?

    So in other words, I am not introducing this line of evidence as evidence that the God of the bible exists or that Jesus is god or that some particular denomination is the correct one.

    I am just addressing the question of whether, given a 50/50 probability that our universe was created, what reason do I have to tip the balances on the creator side?

    (If the initial probability is not 50/50, or 1/3 with 3 equally probable options, then this subject is premature anyway)

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    • jonP  February 6, 2014

      I am just addressing the question of whether, given a 50/50 probability that our universe was created, what reason do I have to tip the balances on the creator side?

      That is an interesting question. This is what you would need to answer if you wanted a logical reason based on evidence to believe in a god . I don’t want to color the debate with my opinion, but this is why I am an atheist. I wouldn’t ask you even to personally produce the evidence, you would only need to know what the evidence would be, and how it could be produced.

      It is one thing to argue that a god exists. It is another thing to argue that this god is the creator. Personally, I don’t believe there is any way to know, which is the entire problem with any theology. For just a moment, let’s assume that there is a god, and that he is the creator. How could this god have created everything? Do we even have one plausible guess? How would we know? Where did it get all the stuff from? Does god interact with the universe? Did god create the laws of physics as rules to govern the universe, or was he limited by those laws? How would we find the answers to these questions (or confirm an answer we found in a book)?

      The god concept does not seem to make any testable predictions, at least without dying. The concept of god is not useful to me for scientific reasons, for the same reason that the concept of free will is not useful.

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      • Unapologetics  February 6, 2014

        Ok, but my question for you was whether it is fair to introduce lines of evidence that are only meant to address specific points and not the entire claim.

        Another way to say it is, if my overall claim is that the Christian god exists, can I first ask a question about maybe whether science has produced any evidence that makes gods existence unlikely, and then respond to that.

        Then, if science has not, ask if there is a reason to believe in ANY god, and offer my evidence for that.

        And then if there is a reason to believe in any god, ask the question if there is a good reason to believe this god is the Christian god.

        So basically, I’m just asking if you feel it is fair or unfair to prove an overall claim by proving a series of lesser claims one at a time until the overall claim is addressed?

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      • jonP  February 9, 2014

        I’ve been trying to figure out how to respond.

        Ok, but my question for you was whether it is fair to introduce lines of evidence that are only meant to address specific points and not the entire claim.

        I would say yes.

        Another way to say it is, if my overall claim is that the Christian god exists, can I first ask a question about maybe whether science has produced any evidence that makes gods existence unlikely, and then respond to that.

        Again, I think the answer is yes. If you want to make a claim about god, then this claim will either be able to be proved or not. However, the moment the claim has been proven wrong, then it either needs to be dropped or modified. The evidence itself is not debatable (unless maybe there are questions concerning how valid and reliable the evidence is).

        So basically, I’m just asking if you feel it is fair or unfair to prove an overall claim by proving a series of lesser claims one at a time until the overall claim is addressed?

        This sounds fair.

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