Empirical means “depending upon experience or observation alone.â€1 Thus, empiricism is defined as â€œthe doctrine that all knowledge is derived from sense experience.â€2 Notice the assumption that experience is synonymous with the senses. It is frequently assumed that sensory experiences (taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight) are the only â€œrealâ€ experiences. If that were so, then to rely on experience would mean to rely on only the physical senses.
When categorizing sources of knowledge, empiricism is often contrasted with logic or revelation, which are considered other sources of knowledge. But perhaps we are too quick to draw lines between empirical experience and revelation. In a previous post, â€œOdd Realities and Moral Imperatives,â€ Jeff posited that spiritual revelation can be considered empirical. Relying on experience does not rule out spiritual experiences, and thus it is not â€œunscientificâ€ to trust in revelation.
I love the idea of considering spiritual experiences as equally empirical as sensory experiences. Usually someone with a mechanistic/scientific mindset would say, “But you can’t trust spiritual experiences, because they can so easily be confused or misinterpreted, as evidenced by all the conflicting ideas people attribute to religious experience.”
To that I say, cannot the physical senses be confused of misinterpreted just as easily? Put a stick in water, and it appears to the eyes to bend. Touch the skin with the right chemicals, and it appears to be colder or hotter than it really is. Ask ten eye-witnesses about an event, and get ten different stories. The ability to be misinterpreted does not rule something out as a source of genuine, useful experience that can be used to gain knowledge about the world. Just because people are often confused about right and wrong does not mean there is no real right and wrong outside of what we each invent for ourselves. In other words, your physical nose can be confused just as much as your spiritual nose can.
Some might reply, “But aren’t ‘spiritual senses,’ assuming they’re real, more frequently fooled than the physical senses?”
Perhaps. If they are, then that isn’t cause to ignore them; it’s more reason to train them and pay more attention to them so as to develop them. And perhaps that frequent misinterpretation isnâ€™t so much a sign that spiritual senses are inherently untrustworthy as it is a sign that an active, intelligent force is constantly trying to confuse our spiritual senses. (Maybe Satan has less interest in confusing our physical senses, since that is less useful to his plans for us.)
But I don’t know that the spiritual senses are more frequently fooled than the physical senses. Maybe the person asking only thinks so because they have spent so little time trying to use them. Or maybe it depends on the society; maybe some societies have been phenomenally good at perceiving and interpreting experiences through spiritual senses, through teaching and training their children right.
It seems unwise to dismiss spiritual experiences as inferior to sensory experiences. I would hate to be like the olfactory-impaired man who declared people crazy for sniffing flowers and buying perfume.
Continued in “The Spiritual Laboratory.”