Open Thread for Episode 20.43: Russell and Tracie

Today I want to share two stories that were told to me by different people about their personal experiences and conclusions they drew from those experiences. Interestingly, although they are different stories, they are, in fact, the same story.

STORY 1:

An acquaintance of mine once told me she could tell when bad things were going to happen. She said when she was dating her current partner, they went out to dinner at a restaurant. She soon felt a sense of foreboding, and insisted they had to leave, as something bad was going to happen. And so they left.
“So, then what happened?” I asked, expecting to hear that the building collapsed that night, or several people who ate there were soon hospitalized with food poisoning, or there’d been an armed robbery on the premises an hour after they’d walked out.

“I don’t know. We just left–because I knew something bad was going to happen.”

STORY 2:

An acquaintance of mine once told me she learned she was an empath when she was walking one day and began to feel a sudden and overwhelming onset of negative emotions for no apparent reason. She realized she had just passed a man walking in the other direction and knew that she’d picked up on his emotional angst.

“So, what was he upset about?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t actually talk to him.”

I could spend time writing about what is wrong with the reasoning here, and on what level these two stories are “the same,” but I won’t insult the reader by explaining the obvious.

Viewer Mail: On Personal Experience

Letter from R:

I was raised as a protestant christian. All my life I was told that there is a god and that he loves us all. Yet all through my life,from as early as I can remember, a single question plagued me: “Why did god create a world based on suffering?” The natural world of which we are a part, is a constant struggle to eat or avoid being eaten. Metaphorically the same is still true for humans today. If I share my food among the starving, I starve. If I stand alone against an army of murderers in defense of an innocent, I will be killed.

Combined with this childish intuitive critique of god’s creation I also possess a university scientific education. I acknowledge the total irrationality of the supernatural. Whilst at university some years ago I realized that I could not continue to believe in god without continuing to grow in contempt for him. My contempt became rage, and my rage soon quickened to hatred. I literally tore my soul apart trying to find a way to reconcile my belief with my hatred. I had to make a decision. Allow hatred to twist and embitter me, or deny god once and for all. I still struggle with the decision.

Cognitively I am an atheist. I know no god. Yet still I feel him in the pit of my guts like a bout of acid reflux. It is hard to deny the evidence of personal experience when the experience is your own. It causes me to fear the words “I deny god”. Ashamedly I shed tears at the knowledge that my cognitive faculties are at the mercy of my old brain, those structures that we share with all vertebrates.

I type this message as a plea. I do not believe in the soul yet I fear that mine may drive me insane. Please, if anyone among you has struggled with these feelings and overcome them, tell me how. I cannot continue to live in dissonance.

My response:

Hello R:

Yet still I feel him in the pit of my guts like a bout of acid reflux. It is hard to deny theevidence of personal experience when the experience is your own.

This is going to sound flip, but there is a point: “Have you taken any antacid for your god?”

Feelings are products of minds, which are products of brains. I have a degree that includes communication studies, and one thing they drilled into us (using quite a lot of research to show it’s true) was that our feelings are produced internally by our own brains. The brain interprets data and offers emotional and physical responses to that data. But we own those responses.

Example: I am walking down a dark, narrow, lonely street alone at night. I see a moving shadow behind a trash can and I feel myself getting anxious. I need to walk by the bin to get to where my car is parked. My breathing becomes quick and shallow and I feel adrenaline beginning to flow and make my head tingle, I see the shadow move again and I pause. Do I go back or keep moving ahead. I fear there is someone hiding there—a mugger or a rapist…and nobody is around if I end up in trouble…

There is NO doubt that my personal experience of fear is totally real. But does that mean that the shadow is a rapist waiting to do me harm?

It turns out it’s a cat.

You don’t have to deny your personal experience. Just don’t assume the experience is evidence of any particular cause when you have no evidence or insufficient evidence. Yes, you “feel something.” But there is no reason for believing it has anything to do with gods.

-th