The Argument from “It Just Makes Sense to Me”

Someone at the Sunday ACA Lecture series alerted me that my (brief) introductory topic on the last show I cohosted might have confused some people. They asked if I could provide some examples in order to clarify what I was trying to describe. I’m always appreciative when someone lets me know I’ve been unclear, as it provides me an opportunity to clarify. And so, with that, I offer my clarification.

There are many examples to choose from. I have conversations in everyday life that could illustrate this, and there are also examples among famous figures that demonstrate it well, but the most clear and concise example I recall is the story of Steven LaBerge.

Questioning Our “Reasonable” Assumptions:

LaBerge is a psychophysiologist who established the phenomena of “lucid dreaming” as a reality that is now part of routine sleep and dream research.

In a nutshell, LaBerge had the capacity to lucid dream, and it was something that interested him. As part of his field of study, he ended up doing research on the history of the phenomena and discovered many historical accounts of it and references in the writings of some prestigious individuals. He decided to present a paper on the history of lucid dreaming, drafted his idea and submitted it for presentations and publication at symposiums and in professional journals in his field. He was rejected across the board. And the explanation given was that there was no evidence this phenomena was what he interpreted it to be.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with a lucid dream, it is the phenomena of becoming aware that you are dreaming, while you are dreaming, and continuing on in the dream while conscious of the fact you are dreaming. For people who have had this experience routinely, the response is generally something like “Oh yeah, I’ve done that,” along the lines of “Yes, I’ve had the dream where I’m in a room full of people in my underwear.” For people who have never had this experience, there can sometimes be doubts about this even being possible. And LaBerge encountered this sort of reaction among his peers.

The criticism was, “How do you know you are conscious while you are dreaming, and not that you are dreaming you are conscious?” In other words, is this simply one more form of dream, such as the “maze” dream, the “underwear” dream, the “unprepared for a test” dream, and the “dreaming I’m awake while I am dreaming” dream?

LaBerge’s initial reaction was disbelief that people would doubt what was, to him, a very mundane occurrence. But as the rejection letters piled up, he began to understand his critics and reassess his own assumptions. Ultimately he realized no matter how subjectively “real” this phenomena “felt” or “seemed” to him, he honestly did not have any way to know it wasn’t a dream about being conscious, rather than really being conscious. His subjective experience, and the experience of others, did not provide anything to differentiate between those two possible scenarios. And so, “belief” in one or the other scenario was not merited. For LaBerge, it didn’t become a quest to prove he was right. It became a quest to actually determine if he was correct or confused in his interpretation of his personal experience. And it is a perfect example of how all of us should approach such assumptions that are based on “it seems to me,” and not verified or verifiable.

Why Verification Matters:

But, how to demonstrate or verify that a person who feels conscious in a dream, really is conscious within that dream, and not only dreaming they are conscious? If I’m honest, I would, personally, probably have thrown my hands up and declared we’ll never know the answer; because how, exactly, one would test for this would not have occurred to me. But LaBerge knew he was obligated to demonstrate this, not only for his peers, but for himself, if he wanted to know what was really happening to him, and if it really was what it “seemed” in the subjective experience. Were his interpretations reliable?

He chose body parts that do not go into paralysis routinely during sleep, and he focused on the eyes. LaBerge found subjects who claimed to be efficient at entering into lucid dreaming, and controlling the dreams. He also worked with other researchers who study eye movement during sleep to come up with what they would agree were not normal REM eye movement patterns. Then he instructed his subjects to enter a lucid dream, and move their eyes in an agreed-upon, nonrandom pattern, that could be tracked during sleep, to signal they’d entered the conscious dream.

The research was a success. The subjects were shown to be able to enter dream states and signal the eye patterns, repeatedly. LaBerge did all sorts of testing and signaling for many different reasons, and opened the door to a lot of new information about how similar or different dreams are to the brain than is reality. But the main thing to take away was that he showed that his subjects recalled the instructions given to them while awake, took them into their sleep/dream states, and were able to relay that information back to researchers while sleeping. So, the consciousness the subject experienced was not a dream of consciousness, but the same consciousness experienced while awake.

When LaBerge began working on lucid dreaming, his work was based on “It seems to me” this is something real. It just “made sense” to him. He felt no need to verify, because it was so obviously true, in his mind. But confronted by critics, although he initially was defensive, he ultimately realized he wasn’t justified in his belief this was what he interpreted it to be. He realized he could be wrong, and the only way to know if his belief was true or not true, was to find some means to verify it—to differentiate between being in a conscious state versus dreaming you are in a conscious state. Without that, he could not say lucid dreaming was what he claimed it to be. He could not call it true. He could not be justified believing it. “It seems to me” is not justification for accepting an idea as true. It was not sufficient justification to expect others to accept it. And it was not even sufficient justification for him to believe it, once he realized that was all he had. No matter how strongly he felt that his consciousness in the dreams was legitimate conscious brain activity—he really could not justify or honestly promote it as correct.

When he was able to verify his claims, he was congratulated, and his findings accepted—most of all by his critics.

Carl Sagan’s “Dragon in My Garage” essay, in his book Demon Haunted World, is a wonderful example of the need for verification in order to justify beliefs—ideas we label as true. His summary is quite correct that “If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.”

LaBerge went from being unable to differentiate between a world where his interpretation was correct, and one where his interpretation was not correct, to being able to differentiate. While you cannot make that differentiation, labeling something as “true” because it “makes sense” to you, is sloppy reasoning that shows an utter lack of concern for the truth value of claims you accept as being true.

No matter what a theist has to tell me, in the end, if he’s not going to offer any method to demonstrate his god exists, then all that talk was wasted. He has a nice story, an interesting idea, and might even get me to say “I see why you think this makes sense.” But what he won’t have is any justification to assert this idea is true, nor any traction in getting me to be so sloppy as to accept his ideas as true. Like LaBerge’s ideas about lucid dreaming, it may be very interesting. I may see why you believe it warrants a good looking-into. But until that time, you and I have no reason to think there’s anything “true” about it. Anyone who has ever been wrong before knows that “it makes sense” can still result in wrong conclusions. So, stopping at “it makes sense,” and not bothering to move on to the next step of “but are we right?,” means acknowledging that truth of the claim is not going to be established.

Additionally, “convincing Tracie” is not the metric of whether or not claims are true. Convincing Tracie to agree does not justify your beliefs in any way. Convincing 1,000 other people that your thinking “makes sense,” is a form of the Argument from Popularity fallacy. You’re simply working it backwards. Rather than saying “I believe it’s true, because it’s popular,” you’re simply saying “I believe it, and if I can make it popular, it will be true.” And I should not have to explain why this is problematic.

In the end, having some justification to suspect a claim might be true, is not justification for accepting it is, in fact, true.

Claims We Don’t Care About:

One area where this tends to not come into play would be claims about which we don’t actually care. Claims that do not impact our lives in any meaningful way, we simply do not assess as true or false, because we don’t need to.

The “I had eggs for breakfast” claim is generally not questioned, because many people have eggs for breakfast, and I simply don’t care if you actually had eggs or not. This is sometimes described as “believing” mundane claims with little evidence, but I tend to think it could be more correct to say we don’t even assign a truth value to such claims, out of a lack of concern for their truth value. I don’t care if it’s true you had eggs or not—so I don’t bother asking for evidence. If someone came along after Sally told me she had eggs for breakfast and added, “That’s not right, Sally. You ordered the eggs first, but then you changed your order, and got the pancakes,” and Sally replied, “Oh, that’s right, I did have pancakes, not the eggs,” my world is hardly shattered. If you ask me if I “believe” Sally had pancakes, I would find that question odd, because I don’t care if she had them, as it is no matter to me whatsoever what Sally eats. I don’t even bother to consciously assess it as true or not true, and would find a request that I do so, absurd and useless.

Why Coerced Decision-Making Is not Ideal:

Another area is forced decision-making. Religion tries to make people believe we are in this category with claims of god. They put “hard sell” tactics on the table. “If you don’t buy this car today, the price will be double tomorrow!” They toss in hell, and remind you that you have to answer this burning god question before you die—or else! They even have an apologetic where they try to compare it to a burning building—saying, “If someone yells fire, you’ll get out, you won’t wait around asking if it’s true.” Note what is actually being said: “Don’t worry about whether or not it’s true, worry about avoiding even a fake threat of fire, just in case there really is one!” It’s not even an attempt to demonstrate the truth of their claim, but, rather, an attempt to get you to merely conform, without assessing the truth of the claim.

But if you merely run from the building, without regard to the truth of the claim “fire!,” is that a “belief”? Is that the same as assessing the claim as true? Is acting like it’s true, just in case it is true, really the same as accepting it as true? I don’t see how that would qualify as a belief.

It’s not news that decisions made in pressured negotiations are often regretted. When someone doesn’t want to give you time to consider the information, and attempts to pressure you to make a decision, be wary. This is what we are forced to do in courtrooms, and sometimes in business or emergency situations. People in these situations aren’t necessarily subscribing to beliefs. They’re trying to make a smart gamble. “I think A is more likely than B,” is clearly not justification for asserting that A is true. A may be more likely, but we all know the “more likely” scenario is not always the correct one. Ask any gambler who has ever cashed in on a long shot. Religions, like Christianity, pressure, threaten and rush you to decide. They explain they can get you as far as “it makes sense,” but then you must “take that final leap of faith” to move from “it makes sense” to “it is true.” It is a truly horrible arrangement that results in a sloppy, but sadly effective, method of getting people to adopt unjustified beliefs.

Everyone understands the trial by jury system is woefully imperfect. We know we convict innocent people who are exonerated after spending years in prison, or even after being placed on death row, or worse, put to death. Many people who would support the death penalty in principle, cannot support it in practice due to our inability to verify jury decisions. The fact is, it’s simply not the best method of determining truth. It’s a good country mile behind verification by the scientific method (which is just a fancy label for “the best way we know, to determine the truth value of a claim”). And so, those, thankfully, few times we are in the horrific position of having to make a coerced decision, knowing we don’t have sufficient justification to call a claim “true,” but can only give our best judgment as to some level of reasonability, we do the best we can, knowing that if we fail, we will have caused a great deal of unjust harm and consequence. Nobody should envy this situation. And nobody should willingly subscribe to it when it’s not absolutely necessary to do so.

But this is what a religion like Christianity asks you to do. They ask you to lower your standards, because, they claim, you simply have to make a judgment without sufficient evidence and information available to determine the actual truth value of their claim that god exists. To try and coerce your decision, they make threats about your limited time in this life and the horrendous consequences if you do not come to the conclusion “god exists” and join their group. When you protest that you do not want to suffer horrible consequences, but there is not enough evidence to make such a determination, they respond by telling you to just “take that leap of faith” and save yourself from death or eternal torment. As the saying goes, faith begins where the evidence ends. You can’t verify, but you have to decide, so just move yourself from “it’s reasonable enough,” to “it’s true,” even though there is not a valid means of connecting those two assessments without an interim step of verification.

Consider that I ask you to adopt a belief in the existence of fairies. I would expect most adults to assert there is no such thing, based on the overwhelming lack of evidence for their existence. If I tell you the fairies will torture you if you don’t decide they do exist, before you die, it’s unlikely you will take that threat at all seriously, and it is likely you will still come down on the side of “I do not believe they exist.” Somehow, Christianity has gotten people to give it deference in the form of taking its claims and threats with some level of seriousness, without first (or ever) demonstrating the god exists and can make good on any of these threats. Classic “cart before the horse,” but when it comes to religion, people often don’t notice the switch that has been made there. Use “fairies,” instead, and suddenly it becomes obvious.

Coerced decisions should remain the extreme exception, and not the rule. Why anyone would subscribe to the far less reliable and problematic method of assigning a truth value using this forced decision-making method, when they are not required to make an immediate decision about the truth value of a claim, escapes me. If you go around assigning “true” to important claims, that you have not verified, you’re simply being sloppy and showing a great lack of concern about whether or not your beliefs are likely to be true. This may be fine when we’re talking about Sally’s breakfast choices. But it’s an extremely disadvantaged method to use when you’re building the foundation of a worldview.

Bonus Points:

As a side benefit to LaBerge’s story, he, himself, actually recognized something I agree with, and something some people have a problem understanding. There is a saying that “your personal experience justifies your belief, but I haven’t had your experience, so it can’t justify it for me, since I only have your claim.” But LaBerge demonstrated that his personal experience wasn’t sufficient to justify his beliefs. Personal experience, depending on what it is, is not automatic justification for adopting a belief—especially if you are forced to admit you aren’t personally able to confirm your interpretation of what you experienced. When you tell me you saw a ghost, I not only wonder how you plan to verify that to me, but how you ever managed to verify that to yourself? And if you didn’t, then you are no more justified in your belief you’ve had a ghost encounter, than I would be.


  1. eric says

    Very interesting example. I don’t just realize I’m dreaming, I’m also generally aware – in the dream – when I’ve had the same dream before. When that happens I often intentionally skip to the end of the dream or change things while I’m in it. I brought it up to my family once and, yeah, was really suprised to learn nobody else did this. I thought it was a normal part of becoming an adult.
    But its curious that some people can intentionally enter this state. I can’t go to bed and make it happen. I typically become aware/lucid partway through a dream, and its not every dream; sometimes I do have to just watch it progress, like a TV show. So I probably would have failed his test. Or, at least, it would’ve taken them a lot of failed nights to get a positive from me.

  2. says

    As a result of his research, methods have been developed to improve the odds of entering a lucid dream. I had only had one in my life, and, like LaBerge, I came across a description of one in a book one day and thought “Oh, that’s like the one dream I had where I knew I was dreaming!” I started researching it, which was no piece of cake, without knowing what it’s called, and finally found more information. I got some of LaBerge’s books, and used his methods, and started lucid dreaming about a month after following his instructions. Additionally, I joined a dream forum for lucid dreamers and received some excellent advice about how to trigger them and how to remain in them (since I tend to begin to wake up once I realize it’s a dream). It’s not just something you can/can’t do naturally, it can be cultivated. It’s just a brain state, and we do have the capacity to alter it to some degree.

  3. Alberto says

    I remember having a kind of random dream, and I was aware I was dreaming, so before I woke up I just said to some person in the dream: Gotta go! or something like that, then I woke up, it’s fascinating to have lucid dreams, it’s like entering the Matrix.

  4. Joe Schoeler says

    I’ve had lucid dreams before. There are a few tricks you can use to make it more likely that you realize that you are dreaming. Certain things don’t work right when you are asleep. Writing looks like gibberish. The time shown on clocks tends to change each time you look at it. Mirrors look strange or don’t show reflections. When I tried it, I wore a digital wristwatch, so I got into the habit of checking my watch several times a day. Look at my watch, look away, and look at my watch again. That habit carried over into dreaming, and if the time completely changed, I knew I was dreaming.

  5. JE Hoyes says

    Maybe part of the reason why we have trouble disputing claims based on personal experience or personal faith, is that these claims become so intrinsically part of someone’s psyche (as their faith) that we are in danger of trampling on their hopes and dreams if we ask them to prove it and we seem to be calling into question their trustworthiness… Shooting the messenger along with their message.

    So, sometimes, although we can be sceptical, it seems kinder to accept what a friend or relation says on trust rather than to dissect their assertion, or flat-out refuse to believe them unless they can come up with further evidence as corroboration. In many “it makes sense to me” settings, the arena is not like a court room but more like a friendly gathering, where camaraderie is more important than absolute truth. So faith-based beliefs can build momentum through a lack of applied scepticism in the early stages of hypothesis testing with one’s friends.

    I guess, that momentum can become unstoppable when you build a head of steam with like-minded friends agreeing with beliefs expressed by community leaders who are too high up in the pecking order to be questioned in the specifics of a claim – one person’s faith-based claim becomes group-think. Again, the person making the claim is unassailable, so their claim must be as well. It’s a kind of popularity contest where the naysayer usually loses and has to choose between isolation or acceptance. Most people prefer acceptance because “there’s safety in numbers”. So, then it becomes a numbers game. “It makes sense to me” becomes “it makes sense to us”. And this helps all kinds of dogma to be born (and borne): from religions to politics to conspiracy theories to “pink for a girl” social attitudes. The Culture Express hurtles along the tracks and getting in its way is dangerous and potentially futile.

    In my neck of the woods, one of our mantras is “it stands to reason, dunnit?” Which is shorthand for “this claim is a spurious claim that I can’t be arsed to verify but I can be arsed to propagate”.

  6. says

    I certainly take a “situational” approach to when and how hard to press anyone’s claims. But I would say there is a great deal of difference between saying “I don’t believe what you’re telling me happened to you,” and “I am not sure that what happened to you was necessarily what you think it was.” So, if someone tells a ghost story, I see a big difference between calling them a liar versus saying “Oh, I definitely have no problem accepting you saw *something*. I’m just not sure how we’d determine it was a ghost?”

  7. jacobfromlost says

    Interesting last point about verifying or justifying a personal experience to yourself.

    I’ve seen a lot of strange things upon awaking suddenly. When I was about 5, I awoke to see a spider two feet wide right next to my head. Another time I saw a swarm of black spiders with little orange rings around their legs. But I had no supernatural beliefs about ghost spiders, so after a bit of screaming and waking up, they disappeared.

    But one time when I was about 7, I awoke suddenly to see the ghost of my mother standing beside my bed. She looked exactly as she did in a family photo, and I suddenly had an overwhelming feeling as if everything would be all right. She slowly faded away in the darkness, and as she faded away my head started to clear a bit…and I realized something.

    My mother wasn’t dead. She was sleeping in the room next to mine.

    If circumstances had been different, if I had seen a dead relative at that age and had that feeling (while partially asleep), I’m sure I would have thought for years that I saw a ghost who was relaying an important message to me.

    Every few years I still awake suddenly to see something a little odd–but now I immediately start testing it. I turn on lights, I put on my glasses, I try to touch it (even if it’s a spider)…and before I can do two of these things, it’s gone. Because I’m still dreaming just a bit, and I know that’s how my brain works (ie, not terribly well when coming out of a deep sleep).

  8. says

    Very nice essay. I may point “believers” your way to explain my disbelief in their magic juju.

    I still think it boils down to how sensitive your “credulity meter” is. Christians in general have a very insensitive credulity meter — fundamentalists even less so, young earth creationists have it turned off altogether.

    No, no one walked on water, turned water into wine, or raised himself from the dead after about 36 hours. Didn’t happen. You’re not defending your “faith”, you’re demonstrating your level of credulity to believe in such patent nonsense. It’s no wonder so many of them play the lottery or go to casinos. Or voted Republican in the last election.

  9. jacobfromlost says

    Astral projection? But she didn’t remember it.

    Unconscious astral projection? Must be, since “sleepy-dreamy head” just isn’t as exciting of an explanation, and explanations must be exciting to be true, as we all know. 😛

    Tracie, have you ever made the point to Matt about verifying/justifying personal experiences to oneself? I totally agree with you on the matter, but I’ve heard Matt say many times that personal experiences are enough to justify belief for oneself, just not to others. I don’t think personal experiences as such can or do justify personal belief even for oneself. I’ve had lots of personal experiences of strange things, but since they are seemingly so strange I must reject what they seem at face value until I can verify or justify them beyond very mundane explanations.

    This reminds me of the caller who experienced what seemed to be out of body experiences, but wanted to know if it was real or not, and so he devised an experiment to put a random (unseen) playing card in a room so he could go “out of body” to see what the card was, then verify to himself that that was actually the card. He failed his own test, so now knows he isn’t actually leaving his body and is still unjustified in believing he is. I don’t think simply making no attempt to verify it to himself, and yet hypothetically continuing to believe his personal experience is a justification for believing in his OBEs even for himself personally. It would seem Matt’s position would suggest it would be a justified belief, even personally.

  10. says

    It’s situational though. Consider how skeptical they become when it’s someone else’s religious claims. Suddenly you can’t pull the wool over their eyes. It’s often limited to their specific religious claims or claims that support/align with them.

  11. says

    I’ve had 6-8 lucid dreams myself. Typically, I’m all like “Yeah!”, jump up in the air and start flying around. Although, accomplishing levitation is less an act of flying, and more of an act of convincing yourself that you’re floating… and up you go.

  12. jacobfromlost says

    Or if you give some kind of alternative hypothetical belief (such as the Cosmic Toaster Lynnea used a couple weeks back), they either say it doesn’t count because no one believes in that, OR they say, “If that’s what you want to believe.”

    The former response suggests that *wanting* to believe something makes it more likely to be true (even though lots of people can and do often want mutually exclusive things to be true), and the latter simultaneously suggests that wanting something to be true makes it likely true *and* if it is absurd you are stupid for wanting something absurd to be likely true (and thus making it true).

    I loved Lynnea’s approach to that caller because you really can use the same kind of arguments/thinking to define anything into existence. But the caller didn’t seem to get it because he defined something else into existence that excludes the Cosmic Toaster, never seeing the problem. (I usually invoke the “very long list” of things that are unknown, unknowable, contradictory, or false that those arguments all support, and yet believers still pick ONE thing off of that list of unfalsifiable claims and act as if their “arguments” don’t support all the other mutually exclusive things on that list.)

  13. wholething says

    When the fire alarm goes off, we leave the building whether it’s a drill, a small fire, a big fire, smoke, or a prank. Religion can’t tell us it’s not a prank.

    Some Christians have described their personal experiences with me. It’s always Jesus/angels/recently deceased relative appeared to them while they were in bed but they KNOW they were awake. They won’t accept the phenomenon of a waking dream.

    I tell of when I was in bed and heard someone coming in the back door. When I tried to get up, I couldn’t move. I knew I was having a waking dream but was lucidly trying to end it to see who was there.

    It was Old Hooknose with a knife coming at me and I was in a sleep state that would prevent me from defending myself. At the last second, I was able to turn my head away and then throw my blanket at him. I found myself on my knees on the bed with fists ready to pummel wherever the blanket was. But it fell to the floor.

    I warily looked under the bed and listened for footsteps. I searched the apartment.

    Then I noticed that the back door was still closed and I distinctly remember hearing it open and stay open.

    I had objective, verifiable evidence that it was all in my waking dream. I knew I was having a waking dream but couldn’t distinguish between the dream elements and reality. Nobody has been able to provide even a little bit of evidence that their experience wasn’t a waking dream even though every element was consistent with one. The fact that each was certain they were awake is the sine qua non of a waking dream.

  14. wholething says

    I agree. As Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

  15. says

    I awoke to see a spider two feet wide right next to my head

    I think we were haunted by the same giant spider with unfinished business in this world. The one I saw was huge, on my ceiling, and after 3-4 seconds of being awake, it faded away like some cheap Star Trek dissolve effect.

  16. Gwaap says

    I’ve had several lucid dreams, the problem for me though is that they always come when I’m about to wake up. So every time I gain awareness I have to “fight” or rather try to forget about the fact that I’m waking up, and continue dreaming, however most of the times I can only fight this urge to wake up for what feels like a few minutes. However those times when I manage to stay asleep, I gain almost full control over the dream, however there are these “flows” of thoughts/ideas of how the dream should continue which I have to fight off and stay focused on what I really want to dream about, which also works more or less successful.

    The best way for me to have a lucid dream is to sleep for an hour around noon on my couch, also if the sunlight shines through the window and onto my face. Dunno why the sunlight helps, but from my experience it does.

  17. says

    This topic is fairly relevant to my approach to dealing with the assertion from theists that I need to first believe in God and then I’ll get the evidence. We get that in a lot of varieties. I understand why it’s a faulty approach, but it’s difficult to convey why that is to the theist.

    Whenever a Christian pops in to take that route, I ask:

    I don’t know whether the experience you’re talking about is a delusion or not. If I were to replicate your instructions, and have the same exact experience you did, how would I confirm that it wasn’t a delusion? For all I know, now I’m hallucinating.

    It’s usually a conversation-stopper. You can tell that many of these people have merely stopped all searching/analysis as soon as they came across an experience/argument that appear to confirm their beliefs, so once you ask a tough question, it sends them reeling.

  18. curiousgeorge says

    “It does not do well to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” ~ J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sourcer’s Stone

  19. tosspotovich says

    “Somehow, Christianity has gotten people to give it deference”

    Surely this is only common amongst the indoctrinated though. I wonder if there are any statistics comparing numbers of believers vs non-believers based on whether they were taught to believe from birth.

  20. rilian says

    My mom has told me a bunch of stories about how she figured out she was dreaming because the stuff that was happening didn’t make sense. When I dream crazy things, I just accept them, and it’s only after I wake up that I realize they were impossible. But when my mom dreams that she is suddenly in a different room or something, she thinks, “This doesn’t make sense… this is impossible… this must be a dream.” Then she wakes up.

    Is it possible for a person to only dream that they know they’re dreaming and not really be conscious?

  21. rilian says

    I mean, is it like some people really are lucid dreaming and some people only think they are?

  22. Aaroninaustralia says

    “I have thought it was faith which saves. Does meeting an angel or Jesus take out someone’s faith?”
    This is a key question, which I term the “First Believer Conundrum”. We can take it as a given that the “faithful” learned their beliefs from other “faithful” who in turn learned it from other “faithfuls”. But at some point you hit Ground Zero: the first believer. At that point we ask “Did the first believer have faith, or did they have evidence?” If they had evidence, this destroys any argument about how essential faith is because belief based on evidence is possible and thus there is no need for faith; if they only had faith, then the whole thing is shown to be a house of cards with the first believer having nothing more than guesswork and claims that their guess ‘must be true’ on the basis of nothing.

  23. says

    I have heard it expressed on TAE. I think confusion comes in because there are occasions where personal experience of something could be justification; however, I find most often what is presented to us is not in that category.

  24. says

    It is not just theists who grant this deference, unfortunately. You cannot say to a theist “god does not exist,” without an attack on your omniscient assertion. You can say to that same theist that fairies do not exist, and that theist will not take issue with the statement, and will further agree. Many atheists argue similarly, though, that I have seen. I had a dialog with one just this past week, in fact.

  25. Jubal DiGriz says

    Very interesting essay. I’ve been aware of the lucid dreaming phenomenon for a long time but wasn’t aware of the research behind it, and have never thought of it as an example of applied skepticism.

    What I find the critical idea in this is that LaBerge learned new things about and improved his experience by learning how to criticize it. Criticism and disbelief is not rejection out of hand but how knowledge is developed. The core problem of faith is that it shuts this process down and claims that’s a virtue.

  26. says

    Unfortunately, there are far too many theists who will claim they have “experiences” which lead them to believe, but when you question them about the validity of their experiences, it turns out they are entirely unwilling to examine or question the experiences or the causes they blindly attribute them to. Most theists will shuck and jive their way out of talking about how they’ve verified that the experience they had actually meant what they think it meant or came from where they think it came from because, let’s be honest, they haven’t verified it, they’ve embraced the idea emotionally and don’t want to think about it beyond that.

    LaBerge learned a lesson because he approached his beliefs rationally, he was able to set aside his own personal emotional attachment to the idea, the “it just makes sense to me” and look at it from a detached, logical perspective. Since virtually all theists are unable to do such a thing, to change their perspective from a wholly emotional standpoint to one which is more rational, it’s no wonder they have such difficulty admitting that they have no good reason for believing the things they do.

    As Ben Goldacre quite astutely said, “You cannot reason people out of a position that they did not reason themselves into.”

  27. says

    I honestly am not sure of any examples where personal experience alone, especially personal experience which cannot be verified or validated in any way, can be a rational justification for any sort of belief. After having an experience, it’s important to ask oneself “how do I know what I think I know?”

    If someone is not willing to do that, then how can the beliefs about the experience, even if the experience actually happened, be considered justification?

  28. says

    Really good comment you have made!

    I always found weird that the “apostel of faith”, Paul, didn’t have really “faith” in the sense I understand. Did he needed “faith” in the sense that his auditive vision and experience was really an experience with Jesus?

  29. wholething says

    The Acts version isn’t likely to be accurate. 1 Corinthians 15 is straight from the horse’s pen and it’s consistent with a revelation from seeing it in Scripture as he argues elsewhere. He uses the same words to describe how the others had Jesus appear to them. He doesn’t think the Disciples experienced Jesus any different than he did.

    In Acts 26:14, *Jesus asks Paul why he kicks against the goads or pricks, depending on the translation. That was probably a cliché in those days and Luke likely used it they way we use Shakespeare quotes as clichés without knowing the source. This one came from Euripides’ Bacchae. So we have Luke quoting Paul quoting Jesus quoting Dionysius, the Greek god. Like a god is going to make a trip to Earth to quote a god from another religion from a work of fiction.

  30. says

    If you had a puzzle, like a Rubix cube, that you solved while just messing about with it, and later I claim the puzzle cannot be solved, you would be correct to point out you actually once did get all those sides in alignment. If I ask you to do it again, you probably could not, as you don’t know how you did it–but you know it can be done. However, the fact you got it “solved” while sitting around one night a year ago, wouldn’t demonstrate it to me.

  31. says

    I’m not sure I understand the question. Our ability to track and map brain activity has advanced since LaBerge’s time. But these people are conscious, but dreaming. So, their dreams are like being in a play to them. They can observe, interact, and sometimes control events happening in the dream. But they know while it is happening that they’re actually asleep, in bed, having a dream.

  32. John Kruger says

    Tracie really is my favorite host. She has such a great grasp on epistemology and is such a straightforward and accessible communicator. The whole essay is a great example of what I am talking about.

    I am often struck on how believers attempt to do good epistemology but miss a key element. Getting peer review and having other people agree with you is a good practice, but they miss the procedural requirements and end up with an argument from popularity fallacy. In a similar way appealing to a legitimate expert in a field on matters you do not know about is a good practice, but if one is too sloppy about how to establish a person is an expert when citing them one ends up with an argument from authority fallacy. (On a small aside, if someone was able to convince a careful and practiced thinker like Tracie, it would carry at least a little weight with me.) Personally replicating experiments is also a good practice, but the careful methodology is important. Failing in you method gets you the argument from personal experience fallacy.

    Of course, the best thing is to incorporate all the good methods to converge on good and useful concepts. One of the most important concepts to learn, when thinking about what is actually true, is that there must be a way to distinguish an idea from something completely imagined.

    Great essay. It sums up quite well what I think it means to be a good skeptic. Not sure I am on board with the “not caring” dodge for belief, but I will have to think about it. Hearing about something that fits easily with my understanding of things gives me little reason not to think it is false, so it seems like some level of belief could be applied. “I had eggs for breakfast” is much more believable than “I had unicorn for breakfast”. But now I am just arguing about the meaning of words.

  33. brianpansky says

    “If someone yells fire, you’ll get out, you won’t wait around asking if it’s true.”

    I’d also say that if the person doing the shouting doesn’t have evidence of a fire, they should not be tolerated. they are awful.

  34. says

    Given enough time, I probably could do it again, but your statement was not that I couldn’t solve it again, but that it could not be solved. There’s tons of proof that it’s been solved millions of times by millions of people. Youtube is proof that your statement is incorrect.

    However, I did say that personal experience, where one cannot validate or verify the experience, cannot be a rational justification for belief. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that someone claimed to have solved Zeno’s Paradox in their sleep. Yes, I know that they finally did solve it but let’s pretend they hadn’t, this was a classic math conundrum. If someone tells you they solved it, but they have no idea what the solution was after they woke up, they have demonstrated no knowledge of advanced mathematics, in fact, they don’t even know what the Paradox is, not only should you not believe that they did it, there’s no way that the individual making the claim should believe they did it because the evidence simply doesn’t stack up. They cannot conceivably justify their claim, based on the facts surrounding it.

  35. says

    To be perfectly honest, as a die-hard rationalist, if someone did yell “FIRE!” I wouldn’t run until I had some external verification that there likely was a fire, such as smoke. I don’t react to statements which cannot be justified.

  36. says

    It may be this is just a personal thing about the “eggs for breakfast.” Clearly I can’t get in other people’s heads. But if someone, for example, asked me if I “know” where my husband is, I would answer “at the store” (assuming that’s where he said he was headed). However, I don’t put any stock in that at all. Maybe he ended up going to the arcade, or had an accident, or who knows what? I’m just relaying something I was told, not something I believe. If they asked me “Are you sure?” or “Is that what you really believe?” I would not answer “yes.” I am far more likely, knowing me, to answer with “well, that’s where he *said* he was going when he left here 10 minutes ago.” I don’t adopt it as “true.” It’s just the only information I’ve been given, and I’m happy to share it–but I’m surely not vouching for it as true. If I were in a courtroom, for example, and asked to confirm where he was during that time, I would not say “He was at the store.” I would very likely say “he said he was going to the store, and came back 20 minutes later.”

  37. busterggi says

    I can only remember one lucid dream from back in 2001 – it was during a typical hypnogogic ‘old hag’ type dream when I realized what was happening and got royally pissed about not being able to move or wake up even though I knew I was dreaming, at least for a brief time before I really did wake up swearing my head off. Damned flu fever dreams!

    I’ve tried to teach myself to dream lucidly but so far it sn’t working or I’m not remembering.

  38. says

    Well, there is zero evidence my hypothetical puzzle was solved. You mistook my statement to be saying I was talking about a Rubics cube specifically. I was not. I was using that as an example of *a* puzzle. I’m saying you have a puzzle in your possession, not a RC, but something akin to one, for which you do not have evidence it has ever been solved, beyond the fact you happened to, by chance, do it one day. You would not be able to demonstrate you could solve this on command, and if someone asserted they don’t believe you did it, you would not be able to demonstrate it without doing it again–which you might not be able to do. In the case where you could not redo that solve, you would have reason to believe, personally, that it was solve-able, as you saw it solved. But the other party does not have that evidence. That would be an example of you having personal experience to your satisfaction, that is reasonable evidence, but they would only have your word.

  39. says

    This would also be the case if you saw someone else solve it. You could assert you watched someone else work it out successfully, and your friend, who does not believe you, would have no cause to believe your claim. But you saw someone do it, in front of you. And that is reason to believe the puzzle can be solved. The person who did it, not being around any longer, is not there to support you. But certainly a claim that a puzzle was solved is not something you should discount as a hallucination, because it’s more likely, from your perspective that someone really did solve the puzzle in front of you.

  40. says

    Another example could be an alibi where you are alone. If I were accused of a crime, and said I was home reading a book, alone at the time, I would have great difficulty justifying that to anyone else. But I would have every reason to believe it myself if that is what I were doing.

  41. says

    “Faith” in modern Christianity does not mean what it used to mean. When you read the Book of Hebrews, it lists a bunch of Hebrew Old Testament heroes and calls them men of great faith. Many of them interacted with god in some way. Abraham actually had god to dinner, and is considered the “father” of their “faith.” Here is a little Bible Study page to show these “men of great faith” listed in that new testament text:

    Note that with Abraham, it was not “faith” god existed, but faith that god would honor his promise to Abraham. Modern Christians use it to mean “faith a god exists.”

  42. wholething says

    What about a bomb threat? You would be obligated to comply with the authorities evacuation prior to verification of the truth. If they say “bomb”, I’m out of there by the time they say “threat”!

  43. wholething says

    Last month, a Christian kept asking if I was 100% certain and felt superior that he was that certain in his religious beliefs. I replied that if I was 99.9999999 (inhale) 9999999% certain, I wouldn’t lie to him and say I had 100% certainty about anything. He finally understood.

  44. starskeptic says

    On that “Dragon in my garage” essay: Sagan didn’t just use “a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin” – the whole example in its entirety was lifted from Franklin’s book Overcoming the Myth of Self-Worth: Reason and Fallacy in What You Say to Yourself. Worthwhile reading in itself – along with all the other books listed in Sagan’s references to The Demon-Haunted World.

  45. jdog says

    I have it on good authority that it’s more about throwing yourself at the ground and missing.

  46. jacobfromlost says

    Well, justifying a belief to myself about one instance would not necessitate disproving the opposite claim (eg, “that puzzle cannot be solved”). And I’m not sure I would trust myself alone (my personal experience alone) to believe I had accidentally solved the (extremely difficult) puzzle without having any idea how–that would seem very extraordinary to me, and before I would believe what appeared to be the case to me, I would have to verify it with others. (Given the fact that the puzzle is apparently so difficult that stumbling upon a solution is unlikely.) Thus I still don’t think I would be justified, with personal experience alone, to believe I had actually solved it. Indeed, my mind would race through similar situations where some novice thought they had done something extraordinary, only to be dismissed by an expert who points out an obvious flaw in my perception.

    As for the alibi example, I would not find it extraordinary to be alone at a time when some crime is happening outside of my sphere of influence. Crimes happen all the time when I’m not around, so ultimately all I would be justifying to myself in this instance is “I am alone at x ‘o clock”–not really an extraordinary thing to justify to myself. (Also, not having an alibi is not even evidence for others one way or another in regards to the possibility you committed the crime. You are still a possible perpetrator, just as you were before they asked you if you had an alibi.)

    So I guess I would still say that if I had some personal experience that was extraordinary, I would still not feel justified in believing it is what it appeared to be without some way to verify it to myself. With ordinary personal experiences, I don’t feel the need to continually justify them to myself. So ultimately I see very little difference in justifying claims/perceptions to myself or to other people.

  47. says

    This is the only way I can respond, sorry. The reality is, the initial argument made here, if I remember correctly, wasn’t that you can’t prove things to others, but that you have no way of justifying the belief to yourself outside of dreams or memories or experiences. In the case of the puzzle, you’d have the finished puzzle, even if you have no idea how you accomplished it. In the case of the crime, you’d have the completed pages of the book, which you could recall what happened, so clearly you actually read them. You may not be able to prove it to others, but you have a logical, rational reason to believe that it actually happened.

  48. brianpansky says

    O: yaaaa

    no, actually. you are stretching the equivocation into nonsense land. what is it about “police and bomb and obligated-to-comply-with-authorities evacuation” that is similar to the christian stuff? it certainly can’t be the ample examples of real bombs, and real police preventing real deaths.

    the only similarity is once again the fear. and once again whoever is declaring there is a threat without evidence is awful.

    the difference is that someone’s verbal threat “without evidence” is realistic evidence for a bomb, they can do it themselves. we have seen this method of reasoning to prove successful time and time again for bombs. therefore it is reasonable to take bomb threats seriously.

    how about magic spell threats without evidence? not reasonable to take seriously.

    category 5 implausibilities (on a scale from 1 “I ate eggs for breakfast,” to 4 “I have an interstellar star vessel”)? no chance that it can be seen as credible.

  49. Barefoot Bree says

    I don’t have lucid dreams, per se, but rather semi-lucid moments within dreams. I’m one of those people who are constantly daydreaming, very involved storylines – some of which I eventually write down – and I tend to imagine juicy scenes over and over and over. It’s something of a comfort thing.

    So, a few times, I have been within a dream and something neat happened, and I’d say to myself, “let’s do that again, but this time, this other thing happens,” and I’d re-run the last portion of the dream again. The control doesn’t last very long; often, I don’t even make it through to the point where I wanted to change things before it slips sideways into another dream avenue.

    But I do have those moments. I’d probably be a pretty good candidate to learn to lucid dream, if I could ever find that round tuit and learn about it.

  50. guthrie says

    The hitchikers guide to the galaxy has a large caveat saying it isn’t guaranteed to be correct. (Or I think it does, I can’t quite recall for sure)
    My experience of flying in dreams is more like Jaspers, requiring conviction which it it wears off during the dream means I stop flying.

  51. Andrew Ryan says

    I understand what rilian means in the question. I’ve had dreams where it felt like I knew I was dreaming and was able to influence what’s going on, but the reality is that I couldn’t really influence the dream events, I was just dreaming that I could. It was like I was a character in the dream who knew he was dreaming. Or to put it another way, I was dreaming that I was lucid dreaming. I could easily have dreamt that I’d woken up from the dream I knew I was in, and still been dreaming.

    It’s kind of like in the film Inception, where a character might be two layers of dreams in. He realises he’s in one layer, but doesn’t realise that ‘reality’ is just another layer.

  52. says

    Ok thanks for the link!

    As you have mentioned, ya I forgot that even in latin like fideis (or something like that has the meaning also of being faithfull and share the same roots as well with “fidelity” in English.

    Funny how today “faith” is used in the sense of believing without evidence, but in the old and new testament meant more to remain faithfull and fidel from the evidence they had.

    I guess for the Hebrews of the OT, was then understood as to be faithful and fidel to YHWH and not be seduced by the other gods who were “present” at that “time”.

  53. wholething says

    @ericvon germania

    Robeet M. Price’s The Christ Myth and Its Problems collects the work of many scholars on the roots of the Gospels. Mark used the Old Testament, and Homer’s Odyssey, mostly. Price doesn’t mention this but Legion is the Cyclops. It’s quite obvious from the Greek text. I think Mark knew Galatians and based his Peter, James and John characters on Paul’s words.

  54. wholething says

    Most bomb threats are fake but the consequences of it being real and not evacuating is akin to Pascal’s Wager. Everybody is required to comply with the evacuation so the bomb squad doesn’t need to worry about the possibility of the bomb being moved.

    Sometimes there really is a bomb and if you do the Bayesian calculation, the religious views have a non-zero possibility. In that case, compliance could be mandatory.

    Geez, I’m doing apologetics for an analogy.

  55. miles says

    I have lucid dreams from time to time. It’s nice – “ooh i’m dreaming… okay I’M IN CHARGE NOW”. Way more commonly when I know I’m dreaming it’s because whatever is happening is so horrible that I realize I must be dreaming. Then I force myself to wake up by jamming my eyes open.

    On the flip side, when something sufficiently sucky happens IRL I get the “oh man am I dreaming? OPEN YOUR EYES” going (e.g. when I crashed my jeep – stood there for 30 seconds trying to wake up)

    This is an interesting and intriguing point you bring up – not something I think would convince any of the Christians in my family (their minds shut off when things get complicated), but still very interesting.

  56. Bill Openthalt says

    The important lesson from LaBerge’s approach is the fact that he could examine himself (and his beliefs) at least partially as a third party. It is this ability to step outside and observe oneself as a third party would that is, in my eperience, not very common.

    As far as understanding how christianity (or islam, which in many aspects is even less “believable”) got its traction, don’t forget that the people who originally adopted it were coming from even less believable religions. Compared to some antique religions, christianity is rather sane. Once a religion is established in a young family, its teachings will be “normal” to the children. We learn how the world works by observing our parents, and if they accept their religion, it will be totally normal and evident to the chidren (at least the vast majority). This is a direct result from the fact that information transfer from the older to the younger generations is only useful if the younger generation accepts it without the need for verification.

    So the real important thing for a religion is to get parents to pour it into their children, which starts a self-perpetuating cycle. This is why for the average catholic Mary’s immaculate conception is self-evident, and not the source of wild, incredulous laughter it is for non-catholics.

  57. brianpansky says

    yes I didn’t mean to disagree about “sometimes things are very unlikely but we do still have to choose the safe option”

    I meant to disagree about applicability. That “safe choice” reasoning does not apply to category 5 implausibilities.

  58. says

    Me, I would (I used to lucid dream a lot, not so much anymore) jump higher and higher and higher until I stopped going down at the peak of the arc of my jump.

    This backfired on a few occasions, as I would end up jumping hundreds or thousands of feet into the air, then failing to float and falling back to earth in a terrifying manner.

  59. says

    LaBerge actually has instructional books available. The most useful tips I used were the following:

    1. Put signs all over the place saying things like “Am I awake or am I dreaming?” Try to remember to ask yourself this as often as possible in your waking hours.

    2. Test light switches and look at text and clocks to see if they work/look normal. If they don’t, this is a sign you may be dreaming.

    3. Keep a dream journal to help you identify “dream signs.” These are literally signs that you are dreaming. You will find patterns in your dreams. One person I knew realized he often walked through doors in his dreams, and began asking “Am I awake or am I dreaming?” anytime he walked through a doorway or portal in waking life. I often dream about people and situations that are unfamiliar to me–not mundane in my normal life; so anytime I would go and do something outside my normal routine, I would ask “Am I awake or am I dreaming?” Eventually, you will find that you do this one day, and you will realize you’re not awake, but dreaming.

    4. WBTB technique, I learned in a forum–really worked well for me. “Wake Back To Bed” is what it stands for. Get to sleep as normal. We all wake up throughout the night as a normal part of our sleep. We just generally adjust a pillow or somesuch and go back to sleep. Try to get yourself up during one of these intervals, and use the bathroom. Keep a book in there–nothing that will be enthralling, but something to just read as cursory surface material that is NOT engaging. The idea is to get your brain alert enough to read, but not so interested you can’t go back to sleep. You want to wake up JUST a tad more than normal, but not so much you can’t get back to sleep. It’s totally a sweet spot that may take a few tries to hit. And do it over a weekend when it won’t interfere with your sleep on work/school nights. I used this and had several lucid dreams in succession in one night.

    There are other tricks–such as “if you start to wake up, spin around”–it helps people stay in the dream if they have a tendency to wake up when they realize they’re dreaming.

    I’m sure there are tips I’m forgetting, but this is the idea–get your brain to tie your awake time and sleep time together, so you can “wake” during a dream.

  60. thebookofdave says

    I haven’t read any of LaBerge’s books, or had any training in the technique, but I have experienced to my own satisfaction that conscious awareness of dreaming while dreaming is a real phenomenon. Also, sensory inputs alter the content of dreams, and may trigger a lucid state.

    I am occasionally triggered during a dream by a specific physical stimulus. In the dream, I pause, and assess whether I am dreaming, by remembering what happened during the day. If my recollection isn’t an unbroken chain of events leading back to the time I last woke, or I cannot recollect the current date and time, then I know I’m still dreaming (I do the same review when awake). My lucid dreams are always shortlived, since I invariably have to wake myself up to respond to the initial trigger impulse.

    I had a few other dreams featuring an abrupt sense of consciousness, and a feeling that I had control over events. Dream events were never relevant to external ones, though. And waking up to get out of bed never came to mind as an option. Nice dreams, though.

  61. anomie-p says

    I think it depends on what is meant by saying “personal experiences are enough to justify belief for oneself, just not to others”. Having perceived something is certainly justification for believing that you perceived it – but there’s a difference between believing that you experienced something and believing that what you experienced has a particular explanation. I was standing in my back yard one night and I saw a shadowy, human-sized figure with glowing eyes. Upon further investigation it turned out that my brain was just interpreting some shadows and some light reflected off some metal on my back yard fence. The reflected light happened to look about as far as eyes would be on a face, in (at least, I think) much the same way that a picture of a particular peice of martian terrain can look like a face if shadows are right, but not at all like a face if they aren’t. Assuming I didn’t have after the fact knowledge of how it turned out, saying “I saw what looked like a dark human shape with glowing eyes” would be justified, as I did see that (or at least, thought I did), where I’d stay far, far away from a claim like “I saw a human with glowing eyes” until I attempted some kind of self-verification (which, obviously, I did, and which turned out to have a fairly simple explanation)

  62. Ted says

    for the love of god, please: “phenomenon” is singular, “phenomena” is plural. it’s obviously not just a typo.