“You had to be there.”
We’ve all heard it before.
We’ve all said it, and we all know the feeling. We want so badly to communicate exactly how it felt to experience a particular moment – a funny joke, a transportative live music experience, the electricity of the crowd at the game winning score – yet we can see on our listeners’ faces that our accounts of these stories are falling short. They’re unable to put themselves in our shoes and directly feel the states we’re trying to convey.
So we say, “Well, I guess you just had to be there.” But we’re left with that residual feeling… if only there were some way we could make them feel what we felt at that time, then they’d get it.
The problem is, we can’t do that. Subjective experiences by definition are limited to the subject who experiences them. Each human mind is an island unto itself; we cannot inhabit the minds of others, get into their heads and truly know what it’s like to feel what they feel, experience what they experience, think how they think.
Not that we human beings don’t have an amazing and beautiful capacity to approximate that sensation to what generally strikes us as a convincing degree. A shared concert experience, a shared tragedy, in all sorts of situations our great capacity for empathy enables us to understand that at that particular time, we all went through the same thing, or at least something so very similar that we confidently say, “I know how that feels. I’ve been through that.”
And of course through millennia of human culture and civilization we’ve established wonderfully refined methods to communicate, in both concrete and abstract ways, the richness of human experience. Poetry, music, literature, art, allegory, metaphor, humor, these are among the many devices that allow us to articulate our experiences with such power and beauty that we just know - or at least feel that we know – that we have had a common experience of the same condition.
These empathetic resonances touch our lives every day. And this experience – the experience of feeling that we have shared or at least understood the experiences of others – is real to us. And this makes it all too easy to accept the experiences of others as true. But in fact, it even actually goes beyond that.
It makes it difficult to accept the experiences of others as false.
To question another’s assertion of personal experience as truth is often seen as, at best, insinuating that they may be confused, or perhaps not too bright, but at worst, accusing them of being an outright liar. And so it becomes socially inappropriate to express vocal disbelief in the personal experience claims people make.
But there’s a problem with this. Two problems, actually.
The first is that there isn’t just a single delineating line between believable and unbelievable claims. It’s a many layered threshold; it’s a wide spectrum. It is possible that people could lie when they say, “I’m hungry.” But such a lie would be so rare – not to mention pointless – that we generally would never have reason to doubt that claim. A claim such as, “I see dead people”, on the other hand, appropriately raises the red flag of skepticism. The extraordinary nature of the claim rightfully brings upon itself increased doubt, increased skepticism, and increased disbelief. Hunger is not only a universal experience for us humans, it also has countlessly abundant evident examples in the natural world. The natural world does not, however, provide us with examples of ghosts, and further, only a certain percentage of people claim to have personally experienced them.
Which brings us to the second problem, which is that some things are demonstrably true when scrutinized using logic, reason and the scientific method (inasmuch, that is, that anything can be said to be “true”, which, in science, is never said with 100% certainty). Hunger is not only universal as an experience, it’s universal as a biological reality which can be measured, tested and validated. However, there is no reliable scientific demonstration that ghosts exist at all, let alone that even if they did the type of equipment that “ghost hunter” types use in their pseudoscientific pursuit of spirits would be the right kinds of tools for the job. There simply are no evident, naturalistic signs of the existence of ghosts.
Or gods. And here we get to the point.
“I know God is real because I experience him every day.” “I know Jesus is the Savior because I accepted Him into my heart.” “I know Mohammed is the one true prophet because I feel Allah’s presence at all times.”
We’ve all heard it before.
Chances are, if you’re a believer, you’ve probably said it, too, and may well say it many more times again. It is one of, if not the most common appeal that believers make in efforts to convince others of the truth of their beliefs. And the reason for that, as mentioned above, is that it’s a powerful appeal.
Our sense of empathy is strong, as is our reluctance to question the validity of the personal experience of others. Appealing to this empathy and respect for boundaries not only creates the appearance that “there’s really something to it” when it comes to religious beliefs, it also corners the skeptics into being the bad guys if they dare question the factuality of those assertions.
How dare we disrespect others’ beliefs!
Here’s how: Because they have no place in the discussion of what is actually true. Because the things we can recognize and demonstrate as being true are, by definition, not subjective, but objective and demonstrable under the scrutiny of multiple observers.
Not only that, but there is plenty of evidence that what actually can be demonstrated about personal religious experience claims is that they are, practically without fail, limited to the cultural parameters in which the subject was raised. When a farm boy from Nebraska “sees God”, we can be quite certain that that god will not be a Hindu god such asVishnu or Shiva. The personal experiences of “God”, or “Allah”, or “Vishnu”, or whatever that people have are, almost without fail, confined to the strict limitations of their culturally familiar religions. So objectively speaking, is it more reasonable to assume that most Americans who claim to be experiencing Jesus are actually experiencing Jesus, or that they believe they’re experiencing Jesus because they’ve grown up in a majority Christian nation, raised by Christian families?
Furthermore, if we start from the default position of atheism (as we all are born atheists, and are only taught religion later in life), which personal experience claims are we to believe? People of different religions assert that their own is the only true one. But given that we cannot access any other individual’s personal experiences, how should we determine whether the Christian’s “only true religion” (or for that matter, which of the hundreds of Christian denominations), or the Muslim’s “only true religion”, and so on, is actually the right one? If the argument is limited to the subjective personal experience, then it can never be demonstrated as true to an outside observer.
And so all such religious truth claims, all of which conflict with each other, are equal in the eyes of the neutral observer. And, given that there’s no evidence for their veracity to be found in the natural world, they’re all equally unlikely, equally implausible, equally unbelievable.
And that’s why, when believers ask me (as one did recently) questions like, “Doesn’t personal experience matter? Doesn’t it count for anything?” My answer is:
Not when it comes to demonstrating the truth of your claims. It doesn’t mean a damn thing.