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Powerful personal experiences vs. skepticism

bigfield

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A skeptical observer cannot accept extraordinary claims based only upon anecdotal evidence. Humans are subject to cognitive bias and are therefore unreliable; the skeptic must weigh the probability of the claim being true vs the probably that the claimant has fallen victim to cognitive bias.

Of course, this doesn't apply to inconsequential claims. If someone tells the skeptic that they went to the movies with a friend, the skeptic need not demand corroborating evidence in order to accept the story as true, because if it turns out to be false then it is entirely unimportant. However, most claims about gods and the supernatural are not inconsequential. Religion is often used as a tool to control people, by prescribing morality and making threats of eternal punishment, and superstition is used as a means to swindle people by exploiting their beliefs to sell fraudulent products and services.

But while it's relatively easy to question the reliability of another person's testimony, it is considerably more difficult to apply the same critical standard to the things that oneself has witnessed. A recurring theme in the stories of people who believe in gods, ghosts, alien visitors etc. is a powerful personal experience of some kind. Their own personal vision on the road to Damascus. Their personal experiences are powerful because it is difficult to write off one's own memories and sensory experiences as cognitive errors.

This is why a person can be simultaneously skeptical of ghosts and alien visitors while simultaneously believing in the existence of Yahweh on the basis of a personal experience. Without that personal experience, they may well be skeptical of Yahweh, too.

The believer may recognise why other people are skeptical of their belief: they may recognise that other people do not have the opportunity to see the evidence for themselves. But this becomes a built-in defence mechanism: the believer's convictions become unassailable because no matter what skeptic says, the believer can always reassure themselves that the skeptics would be believers too if they had the same experiences.

TL;DR: Powerful personal experiences cause people to steadfastly believe extraordinary things while lacking the means to present convincing evidence to a open-minded yet critical audience.
 

Speakpigeon

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Sure, but this already applies to ordinary beliefs, such as that there is a tree whenever I seem to see something that looks exactly like a tree.

When in fact there is of course never a tree.
EB
 

bigfield

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Sure, but this already applies to ordinary beliefs, such as that there is a tree whenever I seem to see something that looks exactly like a tree.

When in fact there is of course never a tree.
EB

Why is there never a tree?
 

ronburgundy

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A few things.

Yes, it takes more vigilant commitment to rational thinking to discount one's own seeming "perceptions" versus those of others.
There is an emotional force that makes them seem "real" and we often have an implicit belief that fake beliefs don't feel "real".
I think the more a person studies and learns about the countless ways that our perceptions can go wrong and how our recall of those perceptions become more and more wrong every time we recall them likely helps the person to maintain skepticism even about their own experiences. It certainly did for me.

That said, I don't think this is the primary reason why people believe in God but not other supernatural woo. They don't start to believe after having such "experiences" of God. They have such "experiences" because they either already believe or want to find an excuse to convince themselves of it. Almost all those with such "experiences" were conditioned to believe it since birth and continue to live in social environments where disbelieving has social costs. Plus, people believe in the version of God they want to exist, so the idea has intrinsic emotional appeal in addition to the extrinsic motivations to believe created by social rewards and punishments. All this creates massive bias at every level of consciousness which shapes what they see or don't see, and what they remember or don't. Then they falsely "recall" that these "experiences" were the catalyst for their theism when they were an effect and not the cause. In sum, almost everyone claiming to be a non-believer that was converted is either a liar or self-deluded about it.

A separate issue is your statement that the need for corroborating evidence is due to whether the claim is "consequential".
That is relevant to why we should be more motivated to be skeptical sometimes. However, even if we are being skeptical in both situations, there is an objective reason why supernatural claims inherently require more corroboration than mundane claims in order to pass the test of skeptical evaluation. Basically, it comes down to the prior probability of a specific claim being true based upon the prior evidence of similar claims being true. There is a mountain evidence showing that beyond any reasonable doubt, that people and movies exist and that the majority of people see movies sometimes. So, the claim that a specific person saw a movie is just one instance of something that we already know happens all the time. While there are many people who claim to see ghosts and gods, we do not have any good evidence that any gods or ghosts exists or even if they do, that they visible to humans. So, ever specific supernatural claim still has the prior probability of the very first such claim, which is virtually zero.

Plus, the probability of alternative explanations for the claim are a factor. Unless their is some known motive for a person to lie about seeing a movie, the alternative explanations for their claim of seeing it have rather low probability. In contrast, we have tons of evidence showing strong motives that most people have to be dishonest (or delusional) about experiencing the supernatural.
 

bigfield

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That said, I don't think this is the primary reason why people believe in God but not other supernatural woo. They don't start to believe after having such "experiences" of God. They have such "experiences" because they either already believe or want to find an excuse to convince themselves of it. Almost all those with such "experiences" were conditioned to believe it since birth and continue to live in social environments where disbelieving has social costs. Plus, people believe in the version of God they want to exist, so the idea has intrinsic emotional appeal in addition to the extrinsic motivations to believe created by social rewards and punishments. All this creates massive bias at every level of consciousness which shapes what they see or don't see, and what they remember or don't. Then they falsely "recall" that these "experiences" were the catalyst for their theism when they were an effect and not the cause. In sum, almost everyone claiming to be a non-believer that was converted is either a liar or self-deluded about it.

The desire to believe certainly makes sense, and while the social aspect is apparent for religion, I don't think that particular incentive exists for other types of belief that are not the norm. Plenty of people believe in ghosts, alien visitors, psychics, and everything else listed on skepdic without the threat of social ostracism.

Some people seem willing to believe everything from acupuncture to Zen, but they are not particularly interesting people unless one is running a stall at the Body Mind and Psychic Festival. The people who interest me are those who generally exercise skepticism except for a belief in a specific supernatural phenomenon. People probably make exceptions to their skepticism out of a strong desire to believe, but besides the social pressure of mainstream religion, the reason for that desire is a mystery to me.

Perhaps the 'road to Damascus moment' is not the primary reason for developing a belief in a supernatural idea, but rather a more gradual emotional engagement with the idea. A belief in psychics, ghosts, visitors etc. may feed some psychological need that culminates in a emotionally powerful moment of revelation (or visitation, abduction etc.)

A separate issue is your statement that the need for corroborating evidence is due to whether the claim is "consequential".
That is relevant to why we should be more motivated to be skeptical sometimes. However, even if we are being skeptical in both situations, there is an objective reason why supernatural claims inherently require more corroboration than mundane claims in order to pass the test of skeptical evaluation. Basically, it comes down to the prior probability of a specific claim being true based upon the prior evidence of similar claims being true. There is a mountain evidence showing that beyond any reasonable doubt, that people and movies exist and that the majority of people see movies sometimes. So, the claim that a specific person saw a movie is just one instance of something that we already know happens all the time. While there are many people who claim to see ghosts and gods, we do not have any good evidence that any gods or ghosts exists or even if they do, that they visible to humans. So, ever specific supernatural claim still has the prior probability of the very first such claim, which is virtually zero.

Plus, the probability of alternative explanations for the claim are a factor. Unless their is some known motive for a person to lie about seeing a movie, the alternative explanations for their claim of seeing it have rather low probability. In contrast, we have tons of evidence showing strong motives that most people have to be dishonest (or delusional) about experiencing the supernatural.

Thanks--that's a better explanation.
 

ronburgundy

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The desire to believe certainly makes sense, and while the social aspect is apparent for religion, I don't think that particular incentive exists for other types of belief that are not the norm. Plenty of people believe in ghosts, alien visitors, psychics, and everything else listed on skepdic without the threat of social ostracism.

Some people seem willing to believe everything from acupuncture to Zen, but they are not particularly interesting people unless one is running a stall at the Body Mind and Psychic Festival. The people who interest me are those who generally exercise skepticism except for a belief in a specific supernatural phenomenon. People probably make exceptions to their skepticism out of a strong desire to believe, but besides the social pressure of mainstream religion, the reason for that desire is a mystery to me.

I think the intrinsic appeal of some form of theism goes beyond mainstream religion. Any notion of a some loving deity being in charge has appeal, as does any form of spiritualism that allows for some form of continued existence after death. Also, there is just the social benefits of being able to claim you are "spiritual". The content of that spirituality doesn't really matter, so long as you can pretend "there's something more".

Perhaps the 'road to Damascus moment' is not the primary reason for developing a belief in a supernatural idea, but rather a more gradual emotional engagement with the idea. A belief in psychics, ghosts, visitors etc. may feed some psychological need that culminates in a emotionally powerful moment of revelation (or visitation, abduction etc.)

I think I see what your saying. What you find curious is why do they believe in some particular woo but not all of it?
One thing to keep in mind, is that each of these woo beliefs loses some of its emotional and social power if one accepts all such beliefs.
In an ironic way, they start to become alternative explanations for each other and the "experiences" one uses to rationalize them. Thus, accepting ESP undermines the ability to rationalize God and vice-versa. Just think of all the ESP or Alien "experiences" that could be interpreted as being spoken to by God or visited by angels, and the same is true of the reverse. So, if you believe in all of it, then its harder to attribute any experience to any one such thing. Also, from a social standpoint, much of new age woo is essentially a rival religion. You'll find many devout Christians who reject ESP and UFO, not because they apply skepticism to these but because they think those ideas go against the bible and God (ESP is a power only God has, and Aliens means that we are not special, and being special is the whole point of monotheism).

I think that answers why people only select some woo to believe in. The remaining question is why do they choose the particular woo they do?
I think theism and religion are the most selected, because they have exceptional intrinsic emotional appeal for most people combined with exceptional social coercion because God so inherently lends itself to authoritarian control.
For people that aren't religious but select parts of the more "new agey" types of woo, that is where I agree that personal experiences may play a larger role. I suspect many reject organized religion because it is too authoritarian and obviously sexist and bigoted, and they they want their "higher purpose" to embody more liberal values. So they search through the various new age notions to find the one's with the most appeal. Being not very self-aware or skeptical people, they interpret that emotional appeal and desire to believe as evidence that it must be true, because emotion is their "soul" or "true self" telling them what is true.

I would agree with you that personal experiences also come into play here. Uncommon coincidences still happen, and the people they happen to will often find them too coincidental to be chance. Depending upon the particularly circumstances around those chance coincidences, they may seem more consistent with one type of new age woo or another.

I once had an experience where I heard a creepy echoy laughter coming from the other room, I went toward the door to go see what it was and the door slammed shut on me. It freaked me out so I turned and tried to run out the other door which then also slammed. Those prone to woo beliefs would have taken this as proof of some ghost or sinister spirit. In the heat of the moment, my brain reacted like there was a threat, but moments later I began to think rationally about it and look for other info. I realized my windows on both ends to the apartment were open and there was a strong breeze coming through. I also recalled that when their was a strong breeze, it often carried the voices of people outside to make them seem almost like they were in the apartment. Applying some common-sense physics, I realized that it made sense the the doors would blow shut sequentially rather than at the same moment, because once the first door blew shut, the wind couldn't blow through and would swirl back in the other direction to blow the other shut.
 

abaddon

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... Their personal experiences are powerful because it is difficult to write off one's own memories and sensory experiences as cognitive errors.
Can a sensory experience be a cognitive error?

Many, possibly all, “religious” experiences aren’t religious at all at just the sensory level. “I feel this, I see that” is the basic experience that then is processed with the story-telling mind. So it’s when there’s interpretation added, shaped by cultural background and whatever the personal need is, is where it gets sketchy. Seeing a glowing shape is just itself. "It was a ghost" or "It was Jesus" is interpretation, the layering on a story that actually isn't there in the experience. Feeling infused with love, feeling a oneness or diffusion of your sense of self, feeling another unseen presence ... those just are what they are. But, get wild with it and it can become "It was Jesus" and "I experienced God, and no one can deny me my experience, so I KNOW God exists!"

This is why a person can be simultaneously skeptical of ghosts and alien visitors while simultaneously believing in the existence of Yahweh on the basis of a personal experience. Without that personal experience, they may well be skeptical of Yahweh, too.
It's possible the basic pre-interpretation experience is much the same in all cases. Three people with one shared experience might come up with three very different interpretations. They're skeptical of ghosts and thought they experienced Yahweh instead because that's the story that's most salient to them.

... the believer's convictions become unassailable because no matter what skeptic says, the believer can always reassure themselves that the skeptics would be believers too if they had the same experiences.
Yeah but the skeptic might walk away from the same experience with a very different story that he's layered onto it. The problem here is caring too much about belief. Believers value the experience more for being the backbone of belief rather than just letting it be itself. Skeptics too can fuck up here, with the same basic mistake. They make it into a matter of belief but are chary of superstitious beliefs so, too often, they bash the experience itself as hallucination or otherwise erroneous. It might actually be a quite valuable experience if only it weren't wrecked with the obsession over collecting true beliefs or facts or theoretical knowledge.

That’s why of all the religions I like Zen best. There are special experiences that go with the practice, but there’s a strong emphasis in this religion to not layer interpretation on them. And in fact Zen extends that to all everyday experiences. The ideal way of being, in Zen, is to just not paint reality ("direct experience") over with stories. “Open mouth, already big mistake” as a Zen saying goes. That’s what all that sitting is about, to observe the mind as it does its 'storying' so you intimately know what that process is and so can eventually allow it to become a background process rather than a foreground one as it is in all systems where Belief is paramount and all experiences are considered to be evidence for Believing.
 

rousseau

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I've been in the shoes of someone with a 'powerful personal experience' and I can tell you that the belief this type of thing forms is clingy.

It's a lot easier to believe in some grand design than meaninglessness, which is evidenced by the existence of religion. And that grand design actually feels very good.
 

Kharakov

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I was recently working for someone, doing foundation work on a remodel. I do a bit of mathematical art, so I showed them the stuff I work on, and they started telling me about going on a trip to Peru, to go to a special ceremony.

Some of you are aware of Ayahuasca ceremonies- DMT combined with an MAOI is injested...

He told me about his experience, and he made sure to tell me that he didn't do drugs, he hadn't done drugs his whole life, that he was raised Muslim, but didn't believe in God.

However, he said the experience was real- that his son said "Dad, you were tripping", but he insisted that it was real. He had experiences of seeing various things from his vision on the trip home (a statue in one village that they stopped through, art at an airport, etc.). Of course there are many possible explanations for his experience, but I said nothing, and listened to him describe the great beauty, and many worlds, creatures made of crystal, etc.

He said that after the experiences, he had told his son and others about 4 things he saw, described them to his son. And then they saw them on the way home (a painting of the one vision, a statue of the other vision, etc.). To him, it meant his vision was real in some other way, that even though it was just in his brain, it was outside of it as well.
 

Speakpigeon

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Sure, but this already applies to ordinary beliefs, such as that there is a tree whenever I seem to see something that looks exactly like a tree.

When in fact there is of course never a tree.
EB

Why is there never a tree?
Oops, sorry, I thought it was common knowledge around here. I didn't want to intrude onto your metaphysical worldview, though.

If you prefer to think of a tree you seem to perceive as really existing in the world out there just as you see it then I guess I have to admit you might be right.

And in any case, there maybe is something, if not an actual tree. Science really implies there's no actual tree, but something that somehow looks like a tree to you. Isn't that good enough?
EB
 

Kharakov

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EB- Could you clarify your position.... I mean, would you clarify your position as if the conditions under which you would clarify your position were meet?

We define what a tree is, and assuming you aren't referring to a hallucinatory tree, rather one that we can perceive as well, when you or I see a tree, it meets the conditions for being a tree.

Ohh, you might be wrong, and what you think is a small tree is actually some form of shrubbery, but in many cases something sufficiently treelike is actually a tree.

A very nice statue of a tree probably wouldn't be considered a tree by anyone but a nitpicky sophist who loves word games, which none of us are.
 

bigfield

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Why is there never a tree?
Oops, sorry, I thought it was common knowledge around here. I didn't want to intrude onto your metaphysical worldview, though.

If you prefer to think of a tree you seem to perceive as really existing in the world out there just as you see it then I guess I have to admit you might be right.

And in any case, there maybe is something, if not an actual tree. Science really implies there's no actual tree, but something that somehow looks like a tree to you. Isn't that good enough?
EB

Solipsism? In that case we probably don't have any common ground on which to base a discussion.

Thanks for the reply, anyway.
 

Speakpigeon

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EB- Could you clarify your position.... I mean, would you clarify your position as if the conditions under which you would clarify your position were meet?

We define what a tree is, and assuming you aren't referring to a hallucinatory tree, rather one that we can perceive as well, when you or I see a tree, it meets the conditions for being a tree.

Ohh, you might be wrong, and what you think is a small tree is actually some form of shrubbery, but in many cases something sufficiently treelike is actually a tree.

A very nice statue of a tree probably wouldn't be considered a tree by anyone but a nitpicky sophist who loves word games, which none of us are.
As far as I know from experience in life, not that many people spend any time on defining what a tree would be before we go on assuming that what we see is a tree. So I'm not sure about any 'conditions for being a tree'. Rather, we see something and we just believe somehow that it's a tree. I don't want to go into why that would be as we probably broadly agree on how that could work. Instead, we can say it's clear that if a big crowd assembled around something somewhere and agreed that the something is a tree it would give us a good reason to think that we are not hallucinating. So we can assume that there is something and that it looks like a tree. Now I don't know about you but what I call a tree is really what I can see. I might also come round to calling something a tree upon touching it. I also guess I usually take it on trust from other people that there are trees even where I can't see them. Even trees I will never see. Even trees nobody ever saw. But none of that is the actual something that looks like a tree or that would be described by many people somehow as a genuine tree. How the something I can see could possibly be the something which would be the actual tree I don't know. Rather, we just take the label to be the thing. And it happens to work well in most circumstances so we don't usually ask searching questions. It's only scientists and before them philosophers who had second thoughts about that. So now educated people may tend to think of trees in a somewhat more sophisticated fashion. The purpose is the same, though. What we seem to need is something definite we can call a tree and all agree together that it's a tree. Then, you have to decide for yourself whether this thing we all agree to call a tree is the one actual thing.
EB
 

WAB

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cant help but think of the sheer number of people who would have no doubt demons or ghosts were involved and no amount of explanation would help.

X: What makes imaginary trees any less absurd than imaginary demons?

Y: Trees really exist.

X: How do you know that?

Y: I don't

X: Then what are we arguing about?

Y: I don't know. You started it!

X: No, YOU started it!

Y: What an asshole!

X: You're an asshole!

Y: Your fucking MOTHER is an asshole!

X: Your mother has an asshole too, Motherfucker!

Y: No, I said IS an asshole, asshole!

X: Stop repeating yourself, and answer the fucking question!

Y: What question?
 
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