Rationality Rules Argument Against Personal Experience: Debunked!

arg-from-personal-expStephen Woodford attempts to debunk all arguments from personal experience in his video The Argument from Personal Experience – Debunked (Why Personal Experiences are NOT Proof). While I agree that the personal experiences of others are not proof, disregarding them out of hand is foolish.

For the person who’s had the experience it’s remarkably compelling, but for the majority of everyone else it’s borderline insane.

If someone you trust relates and experience to you and your first reaction is to question their sanity, I question your humanity. You may doubt their interpretation or the accuracy of their memory of the event, but jumping to insanity as the explanation for an odd experience related by someone who in every other respect acts sane and rationally seems idiotic.

Arguments from Personal Experience are never presented in a syllogistic form… they’re always conversational.

The value of an experience is in what happened, not in the interpretation put on the events by the reporter. Syllogism (a reasoned argument) is not important to the experience, only to what is taken from it. If someone tells you “I saw something that looked like a metallic saucer in the sky”, they are reporting their experience. If they then claim “aliens are visiting earth”, they need to make the argument as to why the former implies the latter, but it doesn’t change their experience.

Our holistic, yoga-loving, slightly wacky aunt simply tells us that she knows that reincarnation is real because she has personally experienced visions of her previous life.

What were her experiences? Do you find her report of what she experienced credible? To what do you attribute her experiences if you do?

Our cousin, who last year was on life support, often and loudly tells us that he knows that heaven exists because he personally experienced heaven during his near-death experience.

What were his experiences? Is he credible? For example, Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, seems fairly credible. He gives a detailed description of his near death experience in Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. While you might not agree with his conclusion (that his experience proves the existence of Heaven), to dismiss his experience as mere insanity makes you just as dogmatic as your cousin.

My account of my personal experience is infallible. I have personally experienced visions of reincarnation. Therefore, reincarnation exists. Seems ridiculous right?

In the cases where people I know first hand have made claims of extraordinary personal experiences (one of a UFO, the other of being haunted), neither person claimed that their experience was infallible. In the case of the friend who was haunted, he didn’t claim certainty that ghosts existed, only that the strange terrors that his infant son was experiencing ceased when he reluctantly had his house “exorcised”. This does not seem ridiculous at all.

When we tell our aunt or cousin that we don’t accept their claim they almost always take it as a personal insult. They internally assume that we’re calling them a liar. But of course, this isn’t generally the case; rather, we’re saying that while we accept that they had their experience, we don’t accept that their interpretation of their experience is accurate.

If you imply that they are lying about their experience, you are personally insulting them. If you merely wonder if their experience really meant something other than what they thought, or might have been caused by something other than what they attribute it to, they may take this as an insult, but that is their choice.

If we take our aunt’s reincarnation claim as an example, in order for her interpretation of her personal experience to be an accurate account of reality, all of the facts, laws, theories and evidence found in biology and psychology must be contradicted. So far, all of the evidence indicates that our personality and consciousness is a product of our brain. When certain parts of a person’s brain is damaged, corresponding parts of that person’s personality and conscious are also damaged, and so, when our brain is completely and permanently damaged at death, all we can infer is that our personality and consciousness is also completely and permanently damaged at death.

Your inference is theoretical. I.e. there may be things that we have yet to discover. But the more interesting question is what were her experiences? If, for example, she claims to experience memories of the same random person every time she meditates, how would you explain that? Personally, I find the best evidence against the argument for reincarnation from experience is that so many people claim to be a reincarnation of someone famous, like Joan of Arc. If reincarnation is real, one would expect the vast majority of people would be reincarnations of very average people.

Arguments from Personal Experience … often contradict one-another, meaning that many of them are mutually exclusive. For example, our aunt knows for certain that reincarnation, as described in Buddhist tradition, is a fact, while our cousin knows for certain that heaven, as described by Christian tradition, is a fact. In this case, our aunt and cousin are making specific claims about the nature of death… they can’t both be absolutely correct, and hence, their claims are mutually exclusive.

Wrong. Their claims may not be absolutely correct, but they may both be based on the same actual phenomena. For example, shadow men and old hags are both subjective experiences that have been tied to the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. Does the fact that some people experience one and some the other mean that sleep paralysis doesn’t cause those suffering from it to experience the presence of an evil entity? No.

All Arguments from Personal Experience… not only commit, but essentially are, Anecdotal Fallacies. To state it simply, an Anecdotal Fallacy occurs when a proponent uses a personal experience as evidence instead of reliable, falsifiable data.

Yet this is what all observations are: personal experiences. If they are observations of the objective, they are subject to experimentation. If they are observations of the subjective, for example, in psychology, they are less so. Yet if enough patients report an experience (such recurring elements in dreams regardless of the dreamer’s culture), it isn’t unreasonable to conjecture–as Jung did–the existence of a common cause (the collective unconscious).

All Arguments from Personal Experience commit an Appeal to Emotion Fallacy.

Hardly. As I said earlier, in neither of the two cases I’ve experienced did the reporter claim that what they had experienced proved anything. In both cases, the only thing that one might consider an emotional appeal was their air of sincerity.

Yet another flaw committed by all proponents of an Argument from Personal Experience, is the Argument from Authority Fallacy. In the case of Arguments from Personal Experience, the authoritative figure that is cited is themselves… In a very real sense, they’re saying that their opinion and experience is a more accurate account of reality than are all of the facts, laws, theories and evidence that contradict them.

When Galileo told people that he had seen moons orbiting Jupiter, and that this contradicted the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the universe, was he making an argument from authority, or merely reporting his experience and his interpretation of it? Conflating an appeal to personal experience with an appeal to authority is dumb.

Those who aren’t absolutely certain of their claims very often appeal to ignorance by saying something along the lines of, “my personal experience can’t be explained any other way… how else did I see visions of my previous life? Reincarnation must be the answer!”

Assuming they express their conclusion as a hypothesis, this is reasonable. For example, if I state that for me, the only explanation for my experiences that I find believable is that there is higher power that is fundamentally good, you can argue with my conclusion, and may convince me that it’s incorrect, but merely ignoring it because it contradicts your current understanding of reality makes you as bad as the person who is certain that because he had a near death experience, the Christian worldview is certainly correct.

While those who use Arguments from Personal Experience generally mean well, what they’re essentially asserting is that their interpretation of their personal experience is more reliable than every shred of verifiable, objective, and tested piece of evidence that contradicts them. In a very real sense, they’re saying that they’re infallible… But alas, the fact of the matter remains. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the assertion that someone’s interpretation of their experience can’t be mistaken just doesn’t cut it.

Anyone who thinks that their experience is infallible is a fool. For example, a friend of mine once slammed on the breaks in his car. He had thought a cat crossing the road was a baby. Just because an experience contradicts objective evidence doesn’t mean it isn’t due to a real phenomenon. Unless you come up with a better explanation, you can’t discount a claim just because it’s extraordinary. Proof of an extraordinary claim may require extraordinary evidence, but that doesn’t mean it is not the best theory. For example, the big bang is an absolutely extraordinary claim. While there is a lot of evidence that corroborates it, there is still no direct evidence of the event itself. Does that make it untrue? No.

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is itself a black and white fallacy. The fallacy is that if something isn’t proven, it isn’t true. As I write this, we are seeing the “scientific” assertion that the UFO phenomenon isn’t real being challenged as evidence that the experiences of credible pilots was discounted emerges. Are UFOs evidence that we are being visited by aliens? I wouldn’t say so, though that’s one possible explanation. Is there a real phenomenon that we don’t currently understand? It seems likely, despite the fact that there is no extraordinary evidence for it (yet) .

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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