Friday, June 18, 2010

TGD: Chapter Three - Experience and Knowledge

Last week I talked about the section titled, "The Argument from Personal 'Experience'". In that section Dawkins tries to address people who claim to have personally witnessed something supernatural.

In the chapter Dawkins doesn't just talk about personal experiences. He also talks about large scale miracles with tens of thousands of eye witnesses. It is a stretch to call these events "personal experiences". I spent most of the last post talking about these kinds of miracles, because they provide the best evidence that God exists and because Dawkins did a poor job providing a credible reason why we should ignore these events.

So this week I want to go back and actually talk about personal experiences. I want to talk about events that are only experienced by an individual or a small group of people.

In these situations Dawkins is able to make a much stronger case. The human mind isn't nearly as reliable as we usually assume it is. He makes a good case that humans are able to see and hear things that aren't actually there, or to be severely mistaken about what we are seeing or hearing. From this, Dawkins argues that it is reasonable to ignore people who claim to have experienced a private miracle.

The problem with Dawkins' argument is that he applies it selectively. He says that people who see the Virgin Mary are seeing something that almost certainly isn't there. But if it's possible that we can see people aren't there, then how can we ever be sure that the people we do see actually are there? How can I be sure that my next door neighbor is real and the Virgin Mary isn't?

In order to make that determination we need to know something. We need to know that my next door neighbor is a real, living person, whereas the Virgin Mary is not. But how do we know that?

This raises some serious epistemological problems. If we can't even trust our own personal experiences, we can't really know much of anything.

You might think that we could somehow use science to determine what's real and what isn't, but scientific knowledge is gained primarily by experiment and observation. In order to do this, the scientists have to be able to trust their faculties. While they are observing or performing experiments, they need to be sure that their experiences are valid. Otherwise the observations or experimental results aren't reliable. And if none of the individual experiments or observations are reliable, then the conclusions we make based on those experiments or observations aren't reliable either.

Dawkins doesn't address any of these issues. He makes the claim that any so called religious experience is really just a malfunction of the human brain, but how can we be sure?

Dawkins is relying on his readers to have an intuitive sense that religious experiences are probably false and other kinds of experiences are almost certainly true. He fosters this by constantly mocking religious beliefs, thus reinforcing the idea that religious beliefs are silly (and therefore false) while other kinds of beliefs are normal (and therefore true).

Unless Dawkins is able to provide a good reason why religious experiences should be singled out for unusual skepticism, then he's just making the claim that it is impossible for us to ever have certain knowledge. That's an argument I've heard before.


  1. I wonder if there's a straw man running about trying to undermine the validity of scientific experience. Sure, scientists rely on their faculties, but they also rely on peer-review, reproducibility, and a number of instruments that aren't prone to psychological fancies. This sort of "independent" verification seems to amount to significantly more that the sort of verification offered by individuals or small groups claiming miracles. Perhaps Dawkins fails to really make a good case for scientific knowledge ("experience") being more reliable than other sorts of knowledge, but there is a good argument to be made.

    I suspect that the validity of personal or small group scale miracles is always going to be a tough sell. It lacks the sort of reproducibility and common experience of many other sorts of knowledge. Of course, there are certainly some healing miracles that can be independently verified, and if someone really wanted to undertake the task, I am fairly certain that there are medical records that will back up such claims (at least the results of the claims). I expect if there were someone out there who really wanted to know, you could find enough uninflated, uncompromised examples of healing miracles with medical records to verify the physiological changes to make a pretty convincing case for something unexplainable (in current scientific/medical understanding) being at work. Whether those unexplainable "things" amount to God are another discussion.

  2. Perhaps I was a little overzealous in my arguments, but I stand by my original point. Empirical knowledge is never more certain than firsthand experience. If firsthand experience is fundamentally unsound then it is impossible to know anything empirically.

    You point out that scientists rely on instruments that aren't prone to psychological fancies. This is true, but how do we know that those instruments themselves are real? Peer-review doesn't help me if all of my peers are figments of my imagination.

    I agree that Dawkins could make the case that scientific knowledge is more reliable than private experiences of miracles, but first he has to admit that our firsthand experiences are fundamentally sound. That is, most of the time we can trust what our senses are telling us about the world.

    Then he has to explain why we should be skeptical about religious experiences, given that our firsthand experiences are usually reliable. He could make a good case against small group scale miracles I think, but he'd have an even harder time addressing large scale, documented miracles.