Argument from personal experience

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The argument from personal experience is an argument for God's existence on the basis of a personal religious experience. This argument is particularly common among certain branches of Christianity where things like possession and levitating have been reported.

An example: "Jesus appeared to me in a vision, thus I know the doctrine of Christianity is true."



Counter-arguments to the argument from personal experience express concerns over the legitimacy of personal experience as evidence, and challenge the standing of its use as evidence a few different ways. Comparing the personal experiences of the one making the argument to the personal experiences of another is a popular move.

Argument from Universality

Personal experiences are used by believers of all religions, as well as believers in other phenomena, like the paranormal, ghosts and UFOs. Personal experience is treated as a very weak form of personal evidence, as so often it tends to produce contradictory conclusions when treated seriously (i.e. Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists all claiming that their religion is true). The fact that members of all religions have experiences which are tailored to legitimizing their own religion gives sufficient reason to be skeptical of the form of the data.

Apologist: I a vision of Jesus, and so I know that the doctrines of protestant Christianity are true and justified.
Counter-Apologist: Well, that guy over there said he had a vision of Krisna, and so knows the doctrines of Swami Prabhupada are true and justified. Why should I prefer your experience to his?

This is usually followed with a deferral to the subjectivity of experience as a form of evidence. As a third party, the evidence that the two apologists (the Christian and the Hare Krisna) present are of equal value, as I do not have privileged access to either experience.

It is also often noted that individuals in a particular society only ever have visions of the deities and prophets associated with the societies that they have been exposed to. A person in sub-Saharan Africa who has never been exposed to Hinduism has not had a vision of Krisna or Vishnu, and a person in Saudi Arabia who has never been exposed to Christianity has never had a vision of Jesus. However, this move towards the evidence is somewhat controversial, as apologists may be liable to assert the possibility of exceptions to this rule. Such exceptions are plausible, in the form of figures resembling, for example, the Virgin Mary, but usually rely on vague descriptions of the religious figure in question.

Argument from Subjectivity

Personal experiences are subjective and, as such, cannot be directly shared, only anecdotally shared. The issue here is that an individual can only offer an account of their vision. The vision itself isn't available to others for reevaluation. All others just have to take that individuals word for what they saw. This can lead to challenges as to the legitimacy of the evidence.

Apologist: I had a vision of Jesus Christ, and he confirmed that my belief in the doctrines of my church was justified and true.
Counter-Apologist: How can I be sure that you actually had this vision? Isn't it in your interest, as an apologist, to tell me this is the case?

Daniel Dennett has argued that one key to the success of arguments from personal experience is that they are personal. One could invent a story and present it as a factual account of their personal experience and one must necessarily point out that the teller of this personal experience is delusional, a liar, or allow the story to stand as evidence. As generally speaking calling somebody a delusional liar is considered bad form, the stories are often accepted as true.

Argument from Epilepsy

Recently, there has been a great deal of work done on the subject of temporal lope epilepsy and its relationship to religious visions. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has written a great deal on the subject, asserting that the cause of many visions that religious leaders have had over the years may have been caused by neurological function. The pervasiveness of simulated religious experiences during temporal lobe seizures offers sufficient reason to be skeptical of the claim that a vision of Jesus might actually be caused by the presence of Jesus, and not by an incidental error in the wiring of the brain.

Apologist: I had an experience of the world such that I knew that there is a God. Everything felt vivid and I understood the Universe, and I knew that God was trying to communicate His love for me.
Counter-Apologist: Perhaps it is the case that there was a seizure in limbic region of brain that caused you to have those feelings, and not some sort of divine providence.

v · d Arguments for the existence of god
Anthropic arguments   Anthropic principle · Natural-law argument
Arguments for belief   Pascal's Wager · Argument from faith · Just hit your knees
Christological arguments   Argument from scriptural miracles · Would someone die for a lie? · Liar, Lunatic or Lord
Cosmological arguments   Argument from aesthetic experience · Argument from contingency · Cosmological argument · Fine-tuning argument · Kalam · Leibniz cosmological argument · Principle of sufficient reason · Unmoved mover · Why is there something rather than nothing?
Majority arguments   Argument from admired religious scientists
Moral arguments   Argument from justice · Divine command theory
Ontological argument   Argument from degree · Argument from desire · Origin of the idea of God
Dogmatic arguments   Argument from divine sense · Argument from uniqueness
Teleological arguments   Argument from design · Banana argument · 747 Junkyard argument · Laminin argument · Argument from natural disasters
Testimonial arguments   Argument from observed miracles · Personal experience · Argument from consciousness · Emotional pleas · Efficacy of prayer
Transcendental arguments   God created numbers · Argument from the meaning of life
Scriptural arguments   Scriptural inerrancy · Scriptural scientific foreknowledge · Scriptural codes
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