Wednesday, June 11, 2008

But I Got PERSONAL Experience

Nine times out of ten -- after all their arguments are laid bear, torn apart, and scattered on the ground, soaking in the tears of the theist who produced them -- a believer will resort to one of two (or perhaps both) arguments left to defend his beliefs: "I just have faith!" which we've covered here before; or "I have personal experience".

Very Superstitious
The uselessness of that argument should be clear to see because anyone can say anything about anything. We can't just take someone for their word. And calm down; I'm NOT saying you're lying. I think you really believe what you're saying. The issue is that people can be fooled.

It's no surprise that a lot of magicians are atheists. Guys like Penn and Teller or Jamie Ian Swiss or Steve Shaw understand how easy it is to fool our senses; to make people think that experienced something that can't happen. Magicians have intimate knowledge about the tricks and nuances of human perception, and the better ones know how exactly to work them.

So why is it that whenever you see a magic trick and you exclaim " did you do that?", you are never satisfied with the answer "It's magic"? Don't won't you accept that as an answer? Probably because you know that magic isn't understand that there must be some explanation for it. Saying "it's just magic" is equivalent to saying "invisible card-changing pixies did it", or "supernatural forces altered your perception of reality", or "God did it".

It's Always Personal If You're A Person
Not only can you not always trust your senses -- especially if your brain is experiencing some kind of trauma -- but other people can't always trust your judgment either. Again, it's not always that you're actively lying. Maybe you saw/heard/felt something you didn't. Maybe your mind was/is in a state that interpreted the actual event unfaithfully. Or maybe you really experienced something.

There's no doubt that experiences can have profound effects on a person's life. Many people have religious experience, and it changes their life. But this doesn't have to mean that the experience was real. Read that sentence again.

It is very possible to have experiences that are not real. Think about this scenario: Sally Sue spends the night in a house that she's told is haunted by evil spirits. She believes in ghosts, but she doesn't know exactly what they are or how they got there, etc. Her personality drives her to seek out strange things like haunted houses, but she's never actually seen a ghost before. She hopes she will tonight. As Sally is creeping around the dark upstairs hallways with her partner (come on, no one in their right mind would stay alone in an old abandoned house!) they exchange stories of the murders, suicides, and tortures that went on in this old house, all the while "building the suspense".

Ever been in a situation like that before? Where you psyche yourself up? Ever notice how fragile and easy-to-spook a mind can get when its in that hairpin-trigger state? Anyway, back to the scenario...

Sally Sue's mind is busy conjuring up images and sounds of these horrible stories, when a sudden "pop" breaks the darkness. Sally and her ghost-hunting partner freeze and look each other in the eyes. Suddenly, Sally feels something brush her arm, and she screams and starts to run. Another loud popping, cracking sound rings out, but Sally is running full-tilt toward the stairs. Other sounds echo from seemingly all around her as she turns back just in time to see her friend disappear through the floor. An instant before she rounds the corner, she swears she sees a face or a figure in the dust through her tears.

Years later, Sally still remembers the night her friend died. They said the rotten floorboard gave way and she fell through, embedding herself on a large piece of wood. Perhaps she could have survived if someone had been there to help her. Sally's life was changed.

Ya Know, I've Learn Something Today...
Look, I don't want to make this some kind of moral lesson, but I do want to convey the way in which our perceptions alter reality FOR US. Let's take an honest look at the story.

Here we have a girl who's hoping to see ghosts. She believes they're real, and wants to have an encounter. So, her emotionally-charged is fueled by ghost-stories (anyone ever had this experience as a kid around a campfire?) and by her friend. We scare easily, but even more-so when we're with someone. We scare each other in a back-and-forth, domino-effect kind of way. When they heard something, they looked at each other -- something common to all humans and a lot of animals. It's how we gauge what's going on when we're clueless about something. We watch each other for signs of how we should act. Should we run? Do you know what it was? Are you afraid? Should I be?

By this time, Sally's nerves are bristling. One touch -- could be an insect, a spider's web, or even just the air moving mites around on her skin -- was enough to start a chain reaction of scare-me-scare-you. Her brain was telling her what she wanted it to; what she had conditioned it to. But what about that face in the dust? Was it the figure of an evil ghost killing her friend? Or was it the way the light played off the dusty hallways and refracted against her tears? Or is it something her mind filled in later, after the fact?

I hope none of you are actually thinking to yourself, "maybe it was a don't know". I do know. I made it up. If you're really trying to reason it out to be an actual "ghost attack" you might be too far gone in the realm of fantasy to ever hope to understand the lesson here. That lesson is this: Sally's life was changed. Her experience actually had a real, life-altering effect on her. But her experience wasn't real (not just because the story is fake). She lost a friend and suffered serious emotional trama.

So the next time you claim "You can't say God isn't real because I've had an experience that changed my life!" or something along those lines, think about Sally and think about how I can't take your word about experiences I didn't have. You try telling Sally it wasn't a ghost!


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