Monday, August 13, 2012

The Argument from Personal Experience

Since the genesis of this blog, I've covered several different arguments for the existence of God. This will be the last in that series, at least until I feel like returning to the topic. As I've said before, these arguments are typically not intended to provide anything like conclusive proof of Christian theism or absolute certainty. Rather, the way I prefer to use them is as part of a cumulative case for the truth of Christianity, which involves everything from purely conceptual arguments to historical arguments to arguments based on personal experience. This post will focus on the latter. When viewed this way, no single argument need carry a great deal of weight, and the conclusion of the overall argument is that on balance, when all of the relevant factors available to us are considered, Christian theism is much more probable than its alternatives. Put another way, it makes much more sense (in an explanatory way) of all the relevant data, including arguments for and against Christianity, and arguments for and against alternative views.

Compared to the arguments previously covered, this one is by far the least rigorous. In fact, I won't even attempt to give it in any strict, logical form, as this sort-of undermines the argument's intuitive plausibility.1 The basic idea that motivates the argument is that nearly everyone who has ever lived has claimed some sort of religious or mystical experience or at least believed in the veracity of such experiences. Of course, this by itself proves nothing. But when considering the most vocal opponent of theism--let's call it Naturalism--this fact becomes more significant. In this sense, then, it is more of an argument against Naturalism than an argument for specifically Christian theism. It won't get us to the divinity of Jesus, but it will definitely get us outside of Naturalism, and from there the options are more limited.

The argument is this: Take any sufficiently large, random sample of people (let's say a roomful). Inevitably, some of those people will claim to have had experiences that are unexplainable if Naturalism is true. Even if we assume that most of them are false or explainable if we had more information, it is unlikely and presumptuous to assume this for all of them. The assumption here is that the collective weight of human opinion ought to shift the burden of proof to those who would deny that opinion. In this case, the Naturalist. This means that the one who denies the existence of anything beyond nature has to argue for that conclusion, and this includes denying the veracity of all of those experiences.

Now clearly this argument could become very intricate very quickly. But all I mean to convey is the idea that most of us have experiences that strongly imply truths beyond blind physical processes, and that we have no good reason to deny all of them.

It should be noted that this is not an argument from one particularly well-evidenced experience alone, but rather from the comprehensive human experience that there is a reality beyond the one of our five senses, and that it is regularly revealed to many, sometimes in very tangible ways.

Examples of the sorts of experience I am talking about are not hard to come by (hence the strength of the argument). Many, myself included, claim to have experienced God's presence. For me, these experiences, though not the norm, have been as plain to me as someone speaking to me normally, though still obviously distinct. I take myself to be a reasonably clear-thinking person, and more skeptical than most, and I still find that it would be epistemically irresponsible for me to deny what I've experienced based on some presupposed metaphysical assumptions. A whole lot of folks find themselves in the same boat. Others have more drastic experiences. I have a few friends who have witnessed seemingly miraculous healings following prayer, some rather drastic. I have more friends who know people with more direct experiences. I know a man who had an incredibly detailed encounter with a demon, and another who was converted as a result of a linguistic miracle.2 I met a former Muslim to whom Jesus had appeared, resulting in her conversion and consequent divorce and permanent separation from her family. She is still a Christian. Apparently that last sort of experience is not all that uncommon. There is also evidence from public miracles (like the Resurrection) and interesting research into near-death experiences.

I could go on, but the point is clear: these sorts of experiences are far too numerous to just ignore, which most Naturalists do. The weight of them leads me to think that being a Naturalist usually requires a desire to be, rather than just a simple willingness to follow the evidence where it leads, as most of them would claim. If that were the case, then given the amount of potential defeaters for Naturalism, I should think the default position would at least be agnosticism.

Again, this sort of argument doesn't get us to Christianity; folks from other faiths experience stuff too. But it does, I think, provide significant reason to doubt that nature is all there is.

This, then, concludes my coverage of arguments for theism. There are more, of course, but I'm ready to move on to other things. Soon I'll begin the next extended series: arguments against Christian theism. I'm not settled yet on which arguments to cover here. There a few givens of course, but if there's one that you'd like to see covered, let me know through the "Contact Me" section of the blog.

1 This is not to say that the argument can't be strictly formulated, or even that it shouldn't be. It's just not my current interest.

2 My fellow Pentecostals should be familiar with this type of experience.


  1. Excellent in content and craft, my friend. :)

  2. The Argument from Personal Experience

    Personal experience is real only to the person. It is not evidence
    to others. Science (especially neuroscience and psychology) has
    studied religious experiences and can explain them through natural

    Austin Cline has looked at this argument and, likewise, has concluded that personal experience cannot support objective truth134.

    John Loftus has addressed subjective religious experiences as

    (from p. 40 of "Making Stuff Up Is Unwise")