Experience and Evidence

What is scientific evidence? Can a spiritual experience count as scientific evidence? Most people would say no, but I am not so sure we can say that with absolute certainty.

Christians are often asked by atheists “What is your evidence for God?”, and sometimes the answer given is (as it has been for me) something along the lines of “I had a personal encounter with God”, or “Jesus Christ who convinced me that God is real”. This is usually met by the retort that the questioner was asking about “scientific evidence” not personal subjective narrative. After all, we all know that such experiences could be made up, or could be visions arising from lack of sleep, eating the wrong food or drinking too much of the wrong beverage, etc. And, even if none of these things apply, clearly the human mind is not trustable when it comes to making objective, reproducible, and verifiable observations, which is what the scientific method is based on.

Well, I can’t really argue with any of that. But I can raise some questions, which is my purpose for this post. The argument against deeply felt spiritual experiences as  scientific evidence for anything is strongly ingrained in the thinking of all scientists. Its origin was at the dawn of the scientific age, when objectivity was in short supply, and the rules for examining the truth of any claim became firmly and uncompromisingly established.

But are they right? If someone is not making it up, did not do anything to provoke this kind of experience, and wasn’t even conscious of wanting to deal with any issues about God or religion, does that help? Not really, because we have evidence that the mind cannot always be trusted. People have all kinds of wrong ideas from all kinds of sources, and illusions are more common than reason.

But while that is true, the problem that scientists have been facing for some time is even worse. Not only can we not trust our thoughts, visions and dreams, we can’t even really trust our senses. Physicists have written about how our perceptions of the world are not actually correct. We see what we see not because it’s what is there, but because we are animals who evolved to see solid object that reflect a narrow band of electromagnetic radiation. We hear what we need to and miss a huge amount of vibrational energy around us. We touch things that feel solid but are really made of mostly empty space. We perceive a lit stove or a fireplace as being hot, when in fact, relative to the scale of temperatures in the universe, a wood fire is on the cool side.

So, the problem is not simply that our mental experiences of thoughts and emotions are not reflective of reality, it’s that nothing that we think we know or see of feel is reflective of reality. Does this mean I am a post-modernist, who doesn’t believe anything is real? NO, emphatically not. We have in fact learned how to devise ingenious tools to examine reality. I can look at a film of radioactive spots and see the structure of a gene. Physicists can use amazing instruments to see the behavior of subatomic particles. We have learned to overcome our sensory limitations when it comes to understanding our world through science.

But we haven’t made much progress regarding the most fascinating object in the universe, the human brain. I should rephrase that. We have indeed made a great deal of progress in that area, but we are still at the very beginning. Our methods are crude, and while way ahead of where we were a few decades ago, still cannot tell us much about where the mind comes from. We still don’t come close to understanding consciousness.

So, given what we know, and what we know that we still don’t know, how can we easily dismiss a mental event that has the power to transform a life as “nonscientific” emotional illusion or an artefact of neuronal activity with no basis in actual reality (whatever that means)?

I do not suggest that we automatically take every report of subjective experience seriously. I don’t think the woman I recently met who explained to me that she knew that aliens had taken over her husband’s mind should be taken seriously (well maybe by mental health workers, but not by scientists). But it isn’t easy to distinguish delusional thoughts from valid evidentiary mental activity. Someone who has a dream of an encounter with Christ, and then begins to feel that his life has been touched and changed for the better (and shows no sign of mental illness) might have experienced something as real as the appearance of a boson in a linear accelerator. I am aware that some atheists have recently been claiming that all religious or spiritual experiences are forms of mental illness. But how do they know that? Where is their scientific evidence for that claim?

I am not proposing that personal subjective spiritual experiences are scientific evidence for the existence of God. But they can be something more than silly, meaningless illusions or signs of mental deficiency. I would say they are evidence of something, and that we should not presume that we have the tools to answer where they are coming from and what it is that they are pointing to.

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9 Responses to Experience and Evidence

  1. resonate47 says:

    This ties in to what I’ve been thinking about the past couple of days about the multiple levels of reality. I think we make a grave error when we try to reduce life to any singular approach and stay within that myopic perception. I believe that God created existence with multiple layers, and that it behooves us as a society to explore and research life through these many layers : scientific, artistic, spiritual, philosophical, etc… Seems much richer that way, and closer to truth.

    Also, regarding the reliance on our senses, something that has always stood out to me as a philosophical truth is that reality cannot be “proven”. Any attempt to “prove” something by reliance on experimental observations, the scientific method and so forth, is predicated on the assumption that our sensory experiences are relaying accurate information. How would one prove that they are? Testing the accuracy of sensory faculties can only be observed and contemplated by humans with sensory faculties that could be inherently faulty, so it ends up being this cyclical reasoning process, and what’s to say that anything works like we think it does in nature? Of course, I fully believe in the reliability of our sensory faculties and the reasoning power of our brains because I believe that God endowed us with these abilities and wants us to seek and discover. But I guess my point is that even the nonbeliever would have to take some things on an element of faith, faith that the world is real and that our senses aren’t deceiving us about what we observe in nature.

    All in all, great post. And it reminds me once again that our God has an infinitely vast imagination and creative power. We must be very blessed to be able to explore His creation.

    • You know, when I wrote this post, I was worried that people would not get what I was trying to say, because I wrote it quite quickly, and I didnt think it was very well written. But, you got it totally, and so thanks for making me feel much better about the post, Ethan. In fact, I think your comment expresses more of what I was trying to get at, than I could get down.

      As for your remarks about layers and art, it might be no accident that many of the regulars who frequent and comment here are artistic folks: yourself, and Jon Garvey, and also me at a much lower level, musicians. Sheila Deeth, and accomplished and terrific writer of fiction, David Kent, also a great published writer of science non fiction. There may be more. The point is that what you say is true. We are complex and deep creatures, and clearly we are the children of God.

  2. Jon Garvey says:

    Sy

    You’ve opened several cans of worms here! Great post.

    Your main point, about the ultimate subjectivity of any scientific “experience” being directly equivalent to a religious experience, is quite true – interested people should sound out Arthur Eddington’s “The Nature of the Physical World” on that.

    The skeptic would no doubt reply that science is reproducable by all people at all times, and religion is individual. Yet apart from the eproblem of experimental reproducibility, most scientific work isn’t reproduced – a few specialists are the only people who ever see much of what science discovers personally. The rest of us take their word for it.

    But in point of fact, science tends largely to look at statistical patterns of unique individual events, that apply across a limited range of circumstances. And one could at least treat religious experience as a statistically significant pattern across the human population (cynically, it’s much less rare than many diseases that scientists accept as part of science!).

    Lastly, though, you’ve hit upon the demarcation problem: religious experiences aren’t science simply because scientists have decreed that science must be methodologically naturalistic. So (as Joshua Swamidass might say) there is every reason to exclude religion from science. But the act of doing so is a comment on the profound cultural limitations of science, not on the validity of religious experience. Once one realises that science is a spanner, not a Swiss Army Knife, it’s not really an issue!

    • Thanks, Jon. Your comment about statistical patterns is right on target. We can just as easily (meaning that we cannot) predict the action of single gas molecule, as we can the experiences of an individual human being. And even in the aggregate, our ability to come up with scientific laws describing nature, is really related to the models we choose to reflect natural reality, not the reality itself. I am getting more and more interested in this whole way of thinking (which was also part of the path that made me question my atheistic world view). Oh and for the Americans reading, a spanner is a wrench 🙂

  3. Almost Iowa says:

    Scientist #1: “I am creating an experiment to test the existence of God.”
    Scientist #2: “What inspired you to do that?”
    Scientist #1: “I dunno.”
    Scientist #2: “Ah…..”

  4. Ethan

    I “play” guitar (wont tell you how many years) but started out as a flutist. I am now slowly trying to learn to play the tenor sax, just because I am retired, so why not?

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