Re: Experience vs. testimony [was Re: aluminum foil on the walls]

Matt Gingell (
Thu, 16 Sep 1999 05:41:06 -0400

From: Robert J. Bradbury <> To: <>
Sent: Thursday, September 16, 1999 4:26 AM Subject: Experience vs. testimony [was Re: aluminum foil on the walls]
>On Wed, 15 Sep 1999, Spike Jones wrote:
>> Modern technologists and even many modern scientists carry
>> superstitious religious memes.
>> What I find the most disturbing of all is that superstition does not
>> seem to be dissipating nearly as quickly as I would have expected
>> with the advance of science and technology. Superstition seems
>> to be a stubbornly persistent aspect of human nature, one that will
>> be carried into the next century.

I wonder if we really are any less superstitious than we were a thousand years ago, or if weíve just replaced fairies with aliens, witch-doctors with alternative medicine, soothsayers with 1-900 numbers, mysterious demonic powers with Black Helicopters, etc. It seems sometimes that these sort of memes fill a fundamental cognitive niche and the basic archetypes just get different wrappers and new labels.

>Ah, Spike, you have voiced **the** fundamental problem we face
>as extropians. Since one of the major axioms of extropianism
>is to "value rational thought", the problem lies in discovering
>exactly *who* is capable of this.

>For *most* people, what they consider "rational" is what they
>"experience" to be true. Gravity makes things go down --
>I experience that so it must be true. Electricity or
>gas makes stoves hot and hot things burn my fingers --
>I experience that so it must be true. If I forget to
>put the brakes on in my car and it runs into another object
>and makes a big mess, there must be something involved
>with inertial energy that must be true.

But what about people who swear that they've had a psychic experience or felt the presence of God? From my point of view, questioning and analysing your experience is a fundamental part of being rational. Post-enlightenment style reasoning is a framework for understanding and integrating your experience - if I see something happen that I donít understand, then I assume that thereís a rational explanation which Iím just not getting. For instance, if I have a dream which later Ďcomes true,í I assume Iím misremembering or that itís a coincidence. Iím not sure that this is rational in the sense you discuss above.

>But someplace not to far beyond the above descriptions one
>runs into the limits of "personal" experience for the
>average person in the population. After that one enters
>the realm of newpapers claiming hermaphrodites can fertilize
>themselves, men can walk on the moon and FBI agents are part
>of a government conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens
>(spanning the credibility range from unlikely to likely
>to possibly).

Thereís a great Carl Sagan quote: ďExtraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.Ē If you tell me youíve found a new species of beetle in the Amazon, Iíll take your word for it. If you tell me you were visited by aliens, prepare to be debunked!

>How do you deal with individuals attempting to invoke
>rational thought when so much of rational thought depends
>on the belief of what others have told you? And if you believe
>what others have told you, you may just as well believe the
>garbage as the stuff that is really serious.
>Rational thought is counter-intuitive. How can you say
>something that is heavier than air should actually fly?
>Eric had it absolutely right in one of his discussions where
>he argued that you have to rate the raters. If you can get
>a number of trusted opinions that an opinion is trustable
>than that can give you high confidence in it. Then you
>have the problem of getting the average person to trust
>opinions of people they don't know over people they know.
>How do you get the average person on the street to believe
>something in Science is any more valid than something
>in the National Enquirer???

Donít try. Just sell them a Beanie-Baby (TM) and go about your business.