Second-guessing subjective experiences

Mark Vernon wrote a response to Julian’s Heathen’s Progress series. It’s got to do with the fact that cognition is embodied, which Vernon somehow takes to mean that subjective convictions are trustworthy, or something along those lines.

…the modern sceptic is suspicious of subjective convictions. They fixate on the many ways in which individuals can be self-deluded, and forget that they can also be wonderfully discerning. They miss truths that can only be known by acquaintance, which is to say, by letting them in.

Alternatively, the modern atheist may admit that going to church can be tremendous and saying prayers valuable to cultivate thanks. But they will ensure that these activities remain contained – quarantined, you might say – by interpreting them as of strictly aesthetic or instrumental merit. They must not be allowed to become processes by which the individual becomes porous to the divine.

That’s because it hasn’t been shown that “the divine” exists at all, and because it’s well known that “becomes porous” is just another way of saying “gives up all reasoning ability and becomes credulous.”

Julian says this in his reply to Vernon.

I’m afraid it’s all too common for defenders of faith to start off by piling up a whole load of interesting scientific findings, only to follow up with a plethora of non sequiturs.

The question rightly asked, however, is how reliable are the various cognitive mechanisms we use for establishing different kinds of truth? And there seems to be no escaping the simple fact that subjective experience, in all its forms, is a very unreliable detector of objective reality. Despite the comfort Vernon draws from recent research, there is no escaping the fact that the vast bulk of it points in exactly the opposite direction, undermining any confidence we might feel that our intuitive judgments are effective truth-trackers.

And this reminded me of something. It reminded me of a post at Talking Philosophy a couple of years ago, and my post saying what I thought was wrong with it.

The TP post was a thought experiment about a subjective experience of a monster crashing through the bathroom window –

at least this is what you experience – and it’s on you. It doesn’t attack, but it’s right in your face, and you can smell rotting flesh on its breath. You close your eyes hoping it’ll just disappear, but you can hear its breathing, sense its malevolence, and in your head there’s this insistent thought: What if it’s real?

And then the argument that it would be reasonable to believe the experience not just at the instant it happened, but afterward.

I pointed out a lot of things, including the question of evidence: was there any broken glass? Was there any physical evidence of any kind? Where did the monster go? I pointed out all kinds of obvious things that would follow the hallucination, and thus make it untrue that it would be reasonable to go on believing the experience.

All good clean fun. Julian goes on

The reasons we have for doubting that prayer and meditation provide any kind of access to divine reality are not that we have an unjustified prejudice against subjective experience. It is that we use our reason to examine the reliability of various kinds of subjective experience and distinguish between the ways in which they lead us aright and the ways in which they lead us astray. A persistent pain is a pretty good indicator of the presence of bodily damage; the feeling that you have been touched by the Holy Spirit is only a good indicator that you have had a generic religious experience, shared by many the world over, and you have interpreted it according to the narratives and belief systems familiar to you.

Just what I was saying two years ago. “We use our reason to examine the reliability of various kinds of subjective experience and distinguish between the ways in which they lead us aright and the ways in which they lead us astray.”

If we have a waking hallucination of a monster breathing in our face that might be evidence that we should get our brain checked for a tumor.


  1. says

    Well… that, and the other problem which is that even if your subjective experience is good enough to convince you, why should that be good enough to convince me?

    Vernon isn’t half as clever as he thinks he is, starting with his silly comparison to Google. If you ask Google “Is it foggy outside” you don’t get a useless answer because Google doesn’t have a body, you get a useless answer because your question lacks useful context that Google needs to answer the questions. You wouldn’t get a better answer if you picked up the phone in Spain and called a random number in Alaska and asked “Is it foggy outside?” Where? Where you live, or where I live, or at a third location? If you ask Google for the weather conditions in a specific location at a specific time, you get a better answer. If you’re a fuzzy-headed theist, search engines are too complex for you to handle without adult supervision.

    And the hidden leap from thinking/knowing to feeling is there, as it always is when theists are trying to pretend that their faith-based beliefs map to something in the real world.

  2. platyhelminthe says

    An aquaintance once told me that he knew someone who had, literally and repeatedly, “heard the voice of God” in his head, telling him what to do. Concerned, I enquired if said person had sought professional medical advice. My aquaintance was deeply riled by this suggestion, insisting that this voice was proof of Yahweh’s existence, and that he was proud of his friend that the Lord had spoken to him directly. Any other explanation, including the very real possibility his friend was suffering from a mental illness, was dismissed instantly.

    (With friends like that, who needs enemies? Wow, religion is crap.)

  3. says

    “Alternatively, the modern atheist may admit that going to church can be tremendous and saying prayers valuable to cultivate thanks. But they will ensure that these activities remain contained – quarantined, you might say – by interpreting them as of strictly aesthetic or instrumental merit. They must not be allowed to become processes by which the individual becomes porous to the divine.”

    Vernon has clearly become porous to something, whatever it may be..

    The porosity makes the individual into something like a sponge, or a lump of dry wood or unglazed brick. ‘The divine’ or whatever is like moisture making its way in from the outside. One thus becomes marinaded in divinity, pickled in piety, soaked in serenity, and so on.

    Some completely different schools of thought maintain that this potential for personal transformation is there all the time, as part of one’s natural being, just waiting to be realised if it hasn’t been already. But Christianity remains impervious to the idea: that is to say non-porous. Its one gesture towards it is the phrase ‘the kingdom of God is within you’. Christian theologians hasten to explain that away, commonly by reframing it to fit within into the old story of sin and redemption, lest it be misunderstood and the flock go astray. The only thing the Christian is supposed to get out of self-contemplation is a realisation of how sinful, corrupt, flawed and unworthy he/she is, and how in need of salvation: usually under clerical supervision.

    For example, see:

  4. says

    Heh – yes I too thought the Google point was really absurd. A human at a reference desk would have the same problem – outside where? Garbage in garbage out. Not Google’s fault if you ask a really stupid question. It won’t help you if you ask “do you love me?” or “where is my dog?” or “what did I have for lunch last night?” either. Also the dictionary won’t help you with the bus schedule; the bus schedule won’t tell you what time Modern Family is on; a cookbook won’t tell you what to do for a burn dead car battery.

  5. says

    But Joe, your first question – “even if your subjective experience is good enough to convince you, why should that be good enough to convince me?”

    Well it might be. I think that was the point of the thought experiment, or part of it.

    But it would have to be genuinely good enough to convince you. For my money that rules out the purely subjective, because “good enough” should include knowing that purely subjective experience isn’t good enough, because it’s so fallible.

    That was part of the problem with the TE: it specified that the protagonist was a good skeptic. Well in that case – the protagonist would know perfectly well it wasn’t good enough, especially given that there was no physical evidence (and since the monster crashed through the window, there would have been). The whole thing just never hung together.

  6. Chris Lawson says

    There’s an old comedy routine — I don’t know whose — set in an Information Hotline where the operator keeps getting calls like “Where are my socks?” and “Does this dress suit me?” and the operator answers perfectly “You left them under the bed” and “It looks better with the green hat.”

    Vernon’s metaphor comes pre-mocked from long before Google existed.

  7. DiscoveredJoys says

    The phone rings…

    The receptionist (for ’tis he) says “Good morning, how may I help you?”
    The caller asks “Is that the local golf club?”
    The receptionist replies “I don’t know. Where are you calling from?”

  8. piero says

    Mark Vernon says:

    I suspect that this is why meditation can be so revelatory. It trains the attention towards aspects of embodiment like the breath. It exercises neurons that people never knew they had

    Is anyone conscious of any of their neurons? Of course not. What we perceive about our minds is on a far higher level. Verno is suggesting that some sepcial text typed into Word might make the program aware of the graphics card. This is about the most stupid thing I’ve ever read in any forum.

    For the rest, it is a sorry mix of platitudes and deepities. It is obvious that our bodies respond to our minds, and viceversa. But it is equally obvious that the greatest contributions to human knowledge have been laid in written form, not as gesticulating puppets.

    Whatever is worth knowing can be written. If it cannot be written, it’s just personal experience, which may be valuable to the experiencer, but not to anyone else.

    I cannot exactly describe in words the precise feeling of being feverish. Apparently, Vernon thinks that this inability holds the key to the secrets of the universe. He should re-read Wittgenstein.

  9. says

    … it would be Stangroom, wouldn’t it?

    Even if there was physical evidence, what would it be evidence of? Broken glass is evidence of a broken window, and cannot by itself be evidence of the cause of the broken window. On the other hand, if you set up a camera and I see you flung around the room in ways you could not do to yourself, glass break nowhere near you, that sort of thing it would be better evidence of that there is actually an event beyond hallucination. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how real the experience is to you, it doesn’t count as evidence for me. Adding an element of fear to the thought experiment doesn’t change the basic problems. I don’t buy religious belief as being valid because it makes people feel good, why would I suddenly change my mind if it makes them feel bad or mad or scared? Why would a scary delusion be more believable than a happy one?

    Plus, I’m just too much of a fan of optical illusions to ever be convinced by subjective claims.

  10. peterh says

    That man’s gotta take lesson from Depak Chopra; his woo is blatantly obvious woo without even a full first glance.

  11. Chris Lawson says


    I suspect you give Chopra too much credit — his woo is transparently woo at first glance, or at least I think so…

  12. emily says

    “They must not be allowed to become processes by which the individual becomes porous to the divine.”

    I don’t know, I actually quite like Vernon’s poetic turn of phrase in this sentence. I would, however, disagree with Vernon over the CAUSE of that experience, and suspect he is referring to an emotional state rather than a perceptual one. I wonder if one needs to believe the experience is perceptual in order to achieve the emotional state? Or whether one experiences the emotional state and then ascribes it a particular (socially-conditioned) cause? Or perhaps there is a more bi-conditional relationship?

    I think the closest I get to religious bliss is something like Spinoza’s “intellectual love of the universe” or somesuch.

  13. emily says

    And, on further reflection, it irritates me that Vernon implies the atheist use of ritual is devoid of profound emotion.

  14. Ruth says

    “a cookbook won’t tell you what to do for a burn”

    That’s a bad example. Quite a few beginner cook-books do tell you how to deal with a burn, as it’s an anticipated hazard of cooking.

  15. says

    I notice that I contradicted myself in reply to Joe (#7) – I said the purely subjective could be good enough to convince others then I said it couldn’t. What I meant was…it could be if it weren’t full of holes like the one in the TE, in which a monster crashes through a window but there is no mention of broken glass or of what happened after the subject closed her eyes. “Could” implies lots of other conditions, like not violating what we (so far) know about nature and its regularities. There’s a spectrum of potential-for-convincing-others in subjective experience. Lots of examples don’t call for skepticism at all, such as ordinary accounts of emotional states.

  16. says

    Right… we aren’t skeptical about someone’s favorite flavor of Jello(green) or whether or not puppies and gumdrops make them happy(yes!).

    There’s a build-up in the arguments that start with those acceptable subjective claims, and have a subtle shift from those claims to unreasonable subjective claims. In this case, Vernon starts with the idea of infants eating food, and the enjoyment of the food having both an objective and subjective element. You can enjoy the flavor of food and also notice that it keeps you healthy and satisfied. He ignores both the fact that there is good-tasting food that lacks proper nutritional value, and that there is bad tasting food that contains nutritional value. He also ignores the necessity of the objective evidence in evaluating the nutritional value; “tastes good” isn’t enough and is often wrong.

    … FFS, unpacking the dishonesty/stupidity of these people hurts my brain.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *