Anecdotal Evidence In Supernatural Experiences

So in a recent discussion on the Religious Discussion community on Google+ I discounted the experience of two believers because the evidence is anecdotal.

+Evan Marshall responded:
I do not accept that experience is simply not evidence, as Andreas suggests. I will, however, accept that experience is anecdotal, and shouldn't be considered if there is empirical evidence available. The lack of empirical evidence does not then mean that no anecdotal evidence is then admissible though.

The problem with the notion that this is merely a 'faith' thing is my experience. I didn't have 'faith' prior my experiences with God, and I continue to follow because he continues to do things I want to be involved in. Is 'faith' just the word others use for them to describe the things you see that they do not? I just think that atheists don't consider experience as admissible evidence. That doesn't mean the experience is automatically fallacious. But that being said, I'm not going to pretend it is on the same level as evidence that is scientific.
+Kathy P

You think I did, but again, you were not there, you are not me, and you did not experience the experience.
And so again, you can draw any conclusion about it you want, but you don't seem to think that your gross lack of information about it (as compared to the amount of information about it I am privy to) bears at all upon your conclusions.
In fact, you appear to believe that your conclusions bear more weight than mine.
Not much I can do about this, except to say you can think what you want. What you think has absolutely no bearing on the matter.

The central question is: why should we dismiss our experiences if we cannot verify them independently? How can I conclude that these experiences are false and not divine given that I have such little information on them?

I cannot actually conclude anything

The truth is that I overstepped there. Logic states that there is only a value of true or false for a proposition such as "is/are there (a) god(s)?". Without being privy to all the information claimed by the folks above I cannot reasonably conclude that what they believe is FALSE. It was a mistake that is subtle, but it is based on probability and belief. Based on my understanding of the the world I concluded that their experiences alone did not validate their belief and is probably still false.

Without knowledge of the logical processes that brought them to that belief there is no good way of evaluating it other than observing that they don't want their beliefs to be evaluated and consider a notion of personal spiritual journeys.

It is not unique for believers to claim to have special knowledge that nobody else knows, and that they have a personal reason for believing something and then refusing to divulge the exact processes that led them to the conclusion. It is quite likely that the processes followed were flawed.

Person2: Oh where? Can I see it?
Person1: Actually it just flew away. it's also a pegasus!
Person2: Why should I believe you?
Person1: Because I personally experienced it.

Kathy goes further and states that she doesn't care what I believe, only what she believes because she experienced it. Without knowing what she experienced and how she came to the conclusion that it was divine there is no logical answer to the question except that it is presumed to be false until proven true.

The fallibility of humans is often underestimated

Evan states:
I the case of experiential evidence (conviction, anecdotes, intuition, etc.) though, in the absence of empirical would be considered in court. It may still be rejected on that evidence's merits or lack of merit, but it wouldn't be flatly rejected in court merely because of it not being empirical in nature. I think that the desire for only empirical evidence and automatic dismissal of anything else is short sighted. There is a great deal of discovery that starts with the anecdotal, though clearly that is problematic when dealing with more than merely that individual. So, for example, I would never advocate social policy based on anecdotal evidence, etc. But in the absence of scientific proof, at least give anecdotal evidence like personal experience a bit of respect. You personally can then return to the agnostic position that outside of something more compelling than the anecdotal that talk of god isn't meaningful.

Witnesses make countless mistakes when remembering crimes. Witness statements are considered in court but they are a poor basis to win a trial. Human beings are fallible. I would go further and say that we are naturally unable to engage in logical thinking and that it requires conscious effort and learning and that at best we have a version of reality. Formal logic is a considerable topic. If it was strictly intuitive we would never have to learn it to become better at making logical deductions.

Some people think that denying anecdotal evidence is to say that the witness is lying. I would argue that most religious experiences are as real as anything could be to the person experiencing them. Lots of folks use the examples of drugs, dreams and psychoses as parallels to religious experiences. Believers are understandably offended by this. Calling someone high or a maniac is clearly offensive.

Our experience of the world is not reality. To suppose that humans experience reality first hand is false. We see an abstraction of reality created by our minds. That abstraction serves no other purpose than to make us live to breeding age and make as many babies as possible before we die. No possible evolutionary path could have led us to see reality exactly as it is. There are countless examples of this, but my favourite is false memories. We can effectively remember things that did not happen. There is a whole series of ways we can remember things inaccurately too:

Given that the human mind has evolved for an environment where these kinds of things did not negatively affect survival, we have to determine more valid methods of attaining the truth than relying on our own experiences. Believing something because you experienced it is reasonable if you had ice cream yesterday because it would have little impact on reality whether you did or did not, but tea time with a deity is a much more serious experiences that will redefine your entire existence. Therefore requires rigorous consideration of alternatives.


The logical path to finding the truth involves laying out various alternatives and considering them seriously. Without any more information the most likely alternative should be the one resting on the least assumptions. Most people engage in this kind of activity, but half heartedly. When emotion is strong in any given experience it tends to suppress honest efforts to find the truth in favour of "it just felt so real I cannot deny it". This is not exceptional behaviour. We all do it! In fact some people have near death experiences, where they are dying and they go for tours of heaven and hell, see all their family members and watch their own bodies from above. Should we consider the most likely explanation that they have left their bodies with an immaterial soul? It is simpler to suppose that their minds generated these experiences, and this is true for every religious experience.

Nobody can logically refute the claim that what they experienced was not just their mind having a hiccup. When they conclude that they saw bigfoot, or that they felt the presence or love of god, or that they were abducted by aliens, we can do no more than inform them of the fallibility of the human mind.

Experience is evidence, but it is weak and subject to being false because we do not possess a perfect view of reality nor can we have a perfect memory of even our own experiences. Memories can even be implanted into people's minds when regression therapists tell people what they remember. People gain this experience that they never had. Trusting our own experience then is not only wrong, but it can mislead us into delusions concocted by our own minds because of malfunction.

If mental problems can cause religiosity[1], why suppose that any religious experience was not just that!


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