How do you explain personal spiritual experiences in the absence of a personal God?

Such as near death experiences involving real knowledge of what went on during the time a person is clinically dead (knowledge of conversations, procedures, people in surroundings, etc.) or experiences like the one I had at age 17 in which a dear friend of mine was brutally murdered. I saw him in a vision in the middle of the night around the time he would have died, despite the fact that I would have had no reason to even suspect that such an event was taking place. It seems to me that there is an intelligence to existence, a connectedness which points to a reality beyond what can be presently be known through empirical means.

Posted: November 3rd 2007

flagellant www

The problem with your question is that it highlights unusual experiences and fails to see them in the context of normal life. Firstly near death experiences.

Many people who have been near death report absolutely nothing untoward; they were just completely unaware (deeply unconscious) until afterwards and all they could say is that it was like being deeply asleep. I’ve asked several people who’ve been in that position and none of them has talked about anything unusual. My own experience was quite typical, too. Why do people think that strange near-death experiences are common? They’re not. It’s the exception that gets reported; the vast majority (i.e. nothing) never get a mention.

I’m sorry for your loss of a friend but I’m a little surprised that you imply that you 'saw him in a vision.’ Why not simply say that you dreamt about him? Then things begin to make sense. I’ve had several dreams that seemed coincidental at the time but, on mature reflection, the dreams were explicable. Just as an example, I dreamt recently that the son of a friend had died. Of course, he’s still alive! That sort of thing doesn’t get reported, either.

There has been some statistical work on coincidence. Given the extraordinary number and variety of experiences we have every day, it would be even more surprising if there were no coincidences at all. Just on the basis of natural chance, you must expect some. When you enumerate the enormous number of things you do, the places you go to, the people you meet, and the things that happen, you must consider that you are trying to highlight something in isolation that makes perfect sense only in context.

Incidentally, I have a friend who had a similar experience to yours, except that it concerned his dead father. It involved a spectacular number of coincidences – far more than those you mention – but when he, as a rational atheist, thought about it, he concluded quite correctly that nothing untoward had taken place.

One of the characteristics of rational thought is that one looks for rational explanations of strange phenomena. 'Coincidence’ does not make something supernatural.

Posted: December 4th 2007

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George Locke

First off, even if you saw something that science will never explain (which is not granted), there is no basis to conclude that God or something God-like exists. Certainly God could explain your vision, but so could aliens or time-travel. My point is that the absence of a scientific explanation does not intrinsically favor one particular alternative explanation, it only suggests that a non-scientific explanation is called for.

Secondly, a non-scientific explanation is not necessarily called for in this case: there may be some scientific explanation for premonitions such as yours. I know of none, but I see no reason to rule them out categorically. Most near death experiences hardly require supernatural explanations, although the exact physical/psychological mechanism at work is not known to me. (An interesting problem is to work out an evolutionary advantage to near-death experiences. However no advantage is required; the near-death experience is a byproduct of some independently promoted faculty).

My own (unscientific) speculation for experiences such as yours is that humans are 'designed’ (read: 'evolutionarily selected’) to interpret certain kinds of sensory input highly accurately (face recognition, language use, etc etc), but when faced with something highly unusual, the brain cannot properly interpret the senses and synthesizes a cognitive response. I offer that dreams may be such a case (note that the 'sensations’ in this case are completely sourced within the mind/body complex). I believe spiritual experiences, abduction experiences, and the like to be other examples. The brain experiences something strange and reacts by creating a dream-like response.

Whether or not my musings hold water, there’s no reason I can see to throw them out in favor of a God hypothesis.

Posted: November 6th 2007

See all questions answered by George Locke


I accept your experiences, but not your explanations.

The human brain is an incredibly complex mechanism which we are just beginning to explore; the universe is vastly more complex, and our understanding of it is similarly at its early stages.

May I suggest that
Quantum entanglement
may provide the mechanism which explains your experience.

Posted: November 4th 2007

See all questions answered by logicel


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