On Moving The Goalposts
I want to tell you about a conversation I had with a neighbor the other day, because I think it will prove helpful and instructive for you regarding a common way of thinking about truth and spiritual things. First, some background. This was not our first conversation about spiritual things. The last conversation didn’t go so well, and became contentious. Mostly my fault. We agreed to give it another go. This time, my approach was to primarily listen and ask open-ended questions, to try to understand him better. In the process, my hope was that, as a by-product of listening, some of the questions would make him think. This young man is heavily into new age spirituality, reading and following self-proclaimed gurus like Neville Goddard. Goddard’s views are similar to the book The Secret, which came out a decade or two ago and was highly praised by the likes of Oprah Winfrey. When it comes to figuring out what is true, and figuring out who is trustworthy and who is not, my neighbor relies almost exclusively on “experience.” That is, he holds that if your experience confirms something, that means it is true. “Ok” I said. “Experience is one type of evidence, but what do you mean by ‘experience’? What counts?” Several other questions came to mind--some of which I did ask in the course of the conversation (Why do you put so much weight on experience? When experience conflicts with other kinds of evidence--like scientific, historical, logical, etc--what then? What would it take to make you question your interpretation of your experience?)--but I started there.
“Well, if something works, then that means experience confirms it.” This was substituting one vague slogan for another. So: “What do you mean by ‘works for me’? What counts?” His response was that Goddard holds that our thoughts have power to shape reality in a very strong way. This is true not just in the sense that our thoughts shape our emotions, behavior, and focus, or that visualizing something in the way an athlete does helps us improve in skill and achieve certain goals. Rather, it is true in a much stronger sense, a metaphysical sense, that our thoughts can literally manifest reality. If you truly want something, your thoughts can manifest it and make it happen. An example he gave was food. If I’m hungry and want a pizza, if I correctly manifest that positive scenario in my mind, my thoughts can make it happen, and a pizza will show up at my door eventually. In more substantive areas it is not that simple, he added, because in those times our thoughts conflict with others who are trying to manifest counter realities, so there is a competitive element to this “Law of Attraction,” but the point is that whenever he has tried this methodology, it has “worked,” which means it is true. He insisted that this has never “not worked” for him, which is complete tosh, but never mind that. Lots of paths to go down and questions to ask at this point. How he deals with suffering is one: is the kid who dies of starvation in a famine-stricken land just not having enough faith? We had already touched upon that in our earlier conversation, so I chose to challenge him on another point: manifest something right now. At this point he qualified: it might not happen “right now,” but if he did it in the right way and with enough conviction, it would eventually happen, maybe a week or two later, and thus if he thought a positive thought and it failed to manifest now, that is not disconfirmation. It still “works.” Ah, therein lies the rub. His view is completely unfalsifiable. Much like cults that continually talk of end times prophecy, only to quickly re-adjust when their predictions fail to come to pass, he can always move the goalposts when something fails to materialize. This is a way for him to save the paradigm from criticism and falsification. It is a blind-faith. He has the cart before the horse. I put that challenge before him, using the example of the stereotypical charismatic preacher trying to speak for God at a revival: to a crowd of 2,000 modern American suburbanites, he says “God is telling me that someone here suffers from….back pain. He wants to heal you today.” What are the chances? Pretty good, even if God is not telling him that. It is so vague that anything can be made to fit. Same holds for my neighbor’s worldview. No matter what happens, he can always shift to make things fit. Eventually, I asked, “do you have a breaking point? What would make you re-think your position? Under what circumstances might you be wrong?” He fell back on the “if it stops working” line. But as just demonstrated, he was defining that in such amorphous terms that nothing would ever qualify. That’s not rational. It helps to have a specified line in the sand. His reply was “look, I don’t need to have everything figured out. I don’t know everything. No one does.” But this request--what is your breaking point?--doesn’t mean he would “know everything.” You don’t have to be omniscient to know where that line is...you just need to be honest with yourself.
We had a good time in the discussion. Went much better than last time. He got to explain himself better, and I learned a lot about how he thinks. What’s more, it looked like that made him think. One can hope, anyway.
Here’s the point for you: a lot of people, some who are new-agey like my neighbor, and many who aren’t, rely upon similar reasoning for their beliefs. They put a lot of weight on experience and things “working,” which are defined in vague and unfalsifiable ways. At the same time, they consider themselves rational people, who tailor their beliefs to the evidence. That self-perception is key to a modern person’s identity. But: they can’t have it both ways. If someone has unfalsifiable beliefs, their beliefs are not evidence based. That’s not rational.
Experience does play a role in rational belief-formation. But it is not unassailable, and when confirmed in such cloudy ways, it doesn’t “work.”