A belief in experience

A recent discussion over on heruraha.net about reincarnation saw Jim Eshelman make the following statement in response to the statement that “There are innumerable arguments against reincarnation”:

Which I’m not going to rehash or enter into. My experience confirms to me, with certainty matching or exceeding that of any other certainty in the whole range of my experience, that reincarnation is a simple fact. Take it or leave it, I’m not going to get dragged into that discussion.

We’ve often, on this blog, discussed the idea that bare experience has no explanatory power, and this comment is a good example of how people can mistake belief for knowledge when they fail to comprehend this.

We can make a statement such as “my experience confirms to me … that the Sun goes around the earth.” In fact, of course, my experience tells me nothing of the sort. All my experience does is provide me with observations of the Sun at different stations of the sky. It is my reason, my rational faculty, that ties those observations together and infers not only a circular path in the sky, but a correspondingly circular path “under” the earth. In this particular case, of course, my own reason tells me that the earth actually goes around the Sun, which nicely demonstrates the fallibility of experience even if it were true that it could provide any kind of explanation, which it can’t.

Either way, it should be clear that any statement along the lines of “my experience confirms this as fact” is quite simply untrue. A fact is something known to be true, and knowledge is a rational phenomenon. To be able to sensibly say “my experience confirms reincarnation to be a fact” it would have to be followed up by statements along the lines of “because I have observed this or that.” Right there we see that it is a rational and not an experiential conclusion; this or that is observed, therefore reincarnation is a fact. This is a rational process of deduction.

It is, of course, precisely the false belief that one is relying on experience rather than reason that blinds Eshelman, in this case, to the fact that he is being misled by his faulty reasoning. As we have said here many times, the rejection of reason causes one to fall prey to its vagaries.

However, the quotation given above shows another highly revealing motivation for this false belief: “My experience confirms [it] to me … Take it or leave it, I’m not going to get dragged into that discussion.” The real reason for invoking experience in this case is to get out of having to explain a belief, to get out of challenging it, and to justify the suspension of investigation. “Experience confirms it” is, in this context, a device not materially different to the argument that “it’s in the Bible, so it must be true”, or “God did it.” The invocation of “experience” is not here being used support a view; it is being used to suppress investigation of that view. Eshelman, in this case, has decided that he believes in reincarnation, and he’s fully aware of the arguments against it, but he’s simply not going to listen any more; he’s decided that it’s true, and that’s that.

Failure to understand the respective roles of experience and reason can always be expected to result in a succumbing to belief, which itself results in a significant restriction in the context of AL I, 41 and a corresponding failure to apprehend the will. This example should serve as a cautionary tale to all aspiring Thelemites.

6 Comments on “A belief in experience”

By M.Benders. April 12th, 2008 at 10:37 am

You should get rid of all those crappy ideas about ‘will’, they don’t mean a thing.

By Erwin. April 12th, 2008 at 11:33 am

You should get rid of all those crappy ideas about ‘will’, they don’t mean a thing.

Nothing means anything to anybody who doesn’t understand it. This is elementary.

By M.Benders. April 12th, 2008 at 1:31 pm

It wasn’t me who was fooled by that IAO31 guy.

By Erwin. April 12th, 2008 at 1:39 pm

It wasn’t me who was fooled by that IAO31 guy.

Neither was it me. You’re dreaming again.

Any further comments unrelated to the entry in question will not be published.

By IAO131. April 14th, 2008 at 3:25 pm


And I got a forum warning for calling his bullshit… (oh no!)

Anywho: isn’t it so, then, that its not possible to ‘confirm’ anything? All things arise from experience, all interpretations therefrom, etc… Hume touched on this when he related how only a priori conceptions may be absolutely confirmed (mathematical truths which have their basis in reason itself) and never a posteriori, or matters of fact (like the sun going around the earth like mentioned in the essay above). It really points to that line, AL I:41, and how these assumptions of confirmation are restrictions to the Will.


By Erwin. April 14th, 2008 at 3:45 pm

Anywho: isn’t it so, then, that its not possible to ‘confirm’ anything?

It is, but a lot of people get hung up on this. The impossibility of 100% “confirming” anything only presents a problem to those people who require 100% confirmation, which is nobody.

Even if it were possible to 100% confirm anything, you could only do so with complete knowledge of everything, which nobody can ever have, so it’s a mere academic concern at the best of times.

What’s important is consistency and coherence. When I drop an apple under normal circumstances, it falls to the ground. Every single time. It never, ever falls upward from my hand. This is something I can observe. Therefore, as far as I’m concerned, it is confirmed. It is theoretically possible that I am hallucinating, or that I am merely a brain in a jar, but until I get some convincing evidence of that, I’m calling it confirmed, because knowledge is only relevant in terms of other things that I know.

Now, where you have to be careful is in decided exactly which things you are calling confirmed. What I am calling confirmed here is the fact that the apple – and any other object of reasonable mass – will fall downwards when dropped. This does not confirm to me anything about any force, called “gravity” or otherwise, or anything about the nature of that force. It doesn’t, for instance, confirm that there are legions of invisible fairies flying around in chariots pulling objects downwards every time they are dropped.

This is where people go wrong; they believe “experience” to confirm things that the experience in fact does not confirm. They have an experience of talking to God, and they believe that experience to confirm that God exists. It doesn’t.

Determining exactly what observations do or do not confirm is the basis of the scientific method, and generally, the simplest and smallest explanation that predicts what you actually can confirm as happening is the one that it is most sensible to go with, and even then recognising that a better explanation may well appear.

What is categorically not sensible is observing that it’s impossible to 100% confirm anything, and using that as a justification for believing in any old pile of crap. For one thing, it’s a total lie. These folks who play the “imperfect knowledge” card act on the basis of hundreds of “confirmations” every single day; it’s only with respect to their pet beliefs that they want to apply that argument to.

In any case, the correct response to imperfect information is to accept as true only those things for which you have very good reason to accept as true, and then to be highly, highly skeptical of everything else, to the point of not even paying any attention to it. The incorrect response is to say “nothing can be 100% confirmed, so I’ll just believe this bunch of silly shit, because it doesn’t make any difference.” Yeah, well, jump off a fifty story building, because it “won’t make any difference” if you believe you won’t fall, and then I’ll start taking that argument seriously. Or, at least, I’d take it seriously if it weren’t for the fact that you’d be dead.

All things arise from experience, all interpretations therefrom

This is an unjustifiably broad statement. It’s quite possible that knowledge arises from – or it at least influenced by – the simple structure of the brain and the rest of our beings, which would be a form of knowledge not arising from experience. This, of course, doesn’t mean that such knowledge is “right”, but it would mean that not all knowledge arises from experience, even if experience affects all knowledge.

It really points to that line, AL I:41, and how these assumptions of confirmation are restrictions to the Will.

Some are, some aren’t. It is simply impossible to go through life without very strongly assuming that at least some things are true, even if they are unconsciously accepted; you’d have a hard time, for instance, if every time you went out of your door you weren’t sure whether or not you’d just float off into space.

Far more important than simply not assuming things is being able to determine when you are doing it. If you know you’re assuming something to be true it really isn’t a problem; it’s the assumptions you aren’t aware of that get you. I make the point yet again that these people who “reject reason” enslave themselves to it, because they render themselves blind to the rational judgments they are making.

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