The Argument of Truth From Personal Experience

Posted by on August 18, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 2 comments



How do we define “truth”? Is something true simply because enough people believe it to be true that it gains popular acceptance, or are there better criteria against which to gauge it? This is a problem that many grapple with, and many have difficulty working around. The way to break down this question comes not from popular acclaim, but from what can be observed repeatedly, what evidence outside the thing being claimed true says, and from our own human history. Our personal experience can not be used as a yardstick for empirical claims of “truth”.

The problem about “truth” is that it’s subjective, not in the traditional sense, but in a cycle of circular reasoning and personal biases. It’s “subjectively subjective”, meaning that “truth” is often described as “true” according to what a person believes to be “true”. Not only are the truth claims themselves subjective, but the very criteria against which the truths are measured are also subjective. And down the rabbit hole we go.

Take for example the phenomenon known as “Marian Apparitions“. There are thousands of individual accounts worldwide throughout history of having experienced or seen The Virgin Mary by individuals and groups, and each of these people attest to the truth of their claims. But this does not mean that the claims are actually true in an empirical sense. What it means is that people believe they saw a vision, and that belief translates as true. In many cases like these, the person experiencing the vision already believes that they will experience the vision before they actually experience it. People expect what they believe to be true to actually be true, so it becomes self-fulfilling.

Those who find images of Jesus in tree-stumps, toast or a freshly cut pumpkin, already believe that such a thing is possible, and are greeted with the spectacle of seeing Jesus’ face in ordinary objects, rather than thinking it looks vaguely like a human face. If you are predisposed to a belief, the likelihood that you see that belief played out in your lifetime is much stronger.

Of course, in the case of Jesus toast, I can see the images they claim to be Jesus, but to me, they look vaguely like a human face, a bearded face. In actuality the faces these people see look nothing like what Jesus would have looked like, since he was a middle-eastern man, and probably looked like a modern day Israeli. (The jury is still out on whether Jesus even existed.) I’m not looking for Jesus, so that’s not what I see. The mind has a way of stitching together small pieces of information and creating an answer from what it can gather. If you’re looking for Jesus when your toast pops up, you will find Jesus in your toast.

Not only is the human brain an excellent pattern seeking device, it is also intuitively looking for answers to the questions it creates. This is one of the bases of human nature, human cognition, human adaptability, and human ingenuity. When used correctly, without the many biases that we all hold in our minds, the brain is an excellent problem-solving machine. Used incorrectly, it is the creator of many an illusion, and the upholder of “personal truths”.

A predisposition to these kinds of religious “truths” are very different from the kinds of truths you see in the wider world. For an individual to claim “truth”, all it takes is for a sufficient amount of belief combined with a “want for it to be true”, and voila, we have a personal “truth”. In the wider world, the one outside of the human brain, we can measure and expect things to occur too, only we can repeat them, create situations where we can measure them, and we can report back on our findings. Gravity, evolution, thermodynamics and chemistry are examples where we can know truths with a degree of certainty not afforded to those truth claims found within mysticism and superstition.

Subjective truths often come from a revelatory or personal experience. People are moved to faith because something inexplicable happens, something “miraculous”, or a coincidence which is often attributed to a higher power. Likewise, people can believe in mystical happenings, like black magic for instance, where a constant focus on a situation or wish appears to yield results. In the eyes of a believer of this kind, the coincidence is a synchronous event, too focused on them and their situation to be mere coincidence.

Personal truths which arise from personal experience are weaker than empirical truths, for no matter how many people claim to have the same personal truths, if it’s not verifiable, it lacks the ability to be tested or repeated. And since the brain interprets all we see, feel and react to, if the brain is thinking in a certain way during an experience, the way we perceive the experience may be altered. However, the happenings which led to the experience remain unaltered. No matter how real an experience might seem to you, if it never happened, it remains never having happened.

Not only do we alter the way we perceive the experiences we encounter by our mental state, we can move into a feedback loop where experiences are always filtered through our reactions to an experience, as we see in people who experience revelation, particularly religious revelation. In a particularly moving personal experience, or one of inexplicable profundity, many see their new experiences in a new light based around the particular revelation they may have encountered. An good example of this would be Saul of Tarsus, who after a time when he was delirious with hunger had what could be described as an epileptic fit, during which he encountered Jesus. His life then changed forever and he became a believer in Jesus Christ’s divinity. (Of course, nobody traveling with him at the time ever recounted the same revelation, so the case remains a personal experience, no more.) These kinds of personal revelations only become truths, in any sense of the word, within the mind of the one experiencing it.

There is a real truth. It inhabits the space outside the brain, and regardless of how we perceive it, it will remain what it is. It is in this sense that personal faith should never have influence over decisions, particularly at governmental levels, because the reliance on faith alone is a weak standpoint from which to make any decisions. Truth is objective, and will always be truth. Personal truth is not a place from which we can derive objectivity.

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  1. These notions of “objective” and “verifiable” depend,  in practice, upon establishing an intersubjective consensus, which ultimately rests, in turn, upon your own subjective experience. Everything you are aware of, everything you have ever added to your stock of “truth” has come through this channel, and there is no proposition less dispensable or more certain than “I am conscious.” And yet you use the term “subjective” pejoratively, even conflating it with the term “personal”.

    Empiricism is clearly the best approach to knowing the
    objective world, but it works equally well for investigating the subjective
    world (a process which is properly called meditation). Despite what you may
    have heard, it requires no belief systems whatever, and never entails the
    acceptance of anything without evidence.
    Just as it takes many years to get a real science
    education, however, it takes even longer to develop an authentic understanding
    of your own nature. In each case, only a small minority can be bothered to do
    the work.

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  2. I’d add that there also exist objective facts about subjective states, like the fact that I prefer listening to Duran Duran to listening to Anthrax. That would count as an objectively verifiable state, where the brainscanning technique which could detect and measure the brainstate be used. It is something that is true to me, and it remains true until I change my mind no matter what anyone else may claim to know about my musical tastes. They may objectively have brainstates relating to and indicating differing tastes in music, independent of anything anyone may otherwise claim to know about that, including me. Good post, Martin.

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