November 18, 2018

The “Experience” Fallacy

Our culture is dominated by a fallacy that has ensnared people of all persuasions and creeds.  It afflicts the pro-abortion and pro-life crowd, the anti-marriage and pro-marriage crowd, conservatives and liberals alike.  This fallacy is the unchallenged assumption behind most arguments now a days, and the implicit belief in the truth of this fallacy is so pervasive that many who subscribe to it are unaware that they hold this view.  This fallacy is the “experience” fallacy.  The “experience” fallacy is the belief, even the conviction, that unless a person has experienced a certain thing, they cannot speak authoritatively about that thing.  The vast majority of people loosely subscribe to this fallacy and believe that the opinion of those who have experienced something always has more credibility.  Some are more extreme and believe that you cannot expect to be taken credibly unless you have experience in a particular area.  This fallacy insists that a priest who has never been married cannot talk authoritatively about marriage, that a person who does not suffer from same-sex attraction cannot talk authoritatively about the effect of homosexuality on society and the Church, that a couple who does not have children cannot talk authoritatively about God’s vision for parenthood, and that a man cannot talk credibly about pregnancy because he cannot become pregnant.

The first part of this article will explain the utter irrationality of this view.  The second will delve into its damaging effects upon society.  The third will discuss the experience fallacy as different from personalism and authentic evangelization.

I. The Irrationality of the Experience Fallacy

As is often the case, it seems best to explain this fallacy in reference to specific scenarios.  Although we could discuss all of these situations, two will be sufficient to illustrate the point that “experience” as such is not and was never intended to be the primary means of acquiring knowledge.

Let us begin with a priest who has never been married. Who will listen to him when he preaches about the evils of contraception and divorce?  How can he expect to be taken seriously if he has never been married? Does not his unmarried status make his views on marriage suspect at the outset?  Perhaps the reason many priests do not preach enough about the sins of contraception and divorce is because they have bought into the “experience” fallacy, that is, they honestly believe that they cannot preach about marriage because they have no experience in this area.  Before debunking the “experience” fallacy in this context, it is worth mentioning that two of the most insightful and illuminating documents on marriage ever written were written by unmarried priests: Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter Humanae Vitae [1] and Pope John Paul the Great’s Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio. [2]  Anyone who carefully reads these texts will see that they contain incredible insights that escape the vast majority of “more experienced” married people.

Considering the case at hand, it must first be established that the truth of married love, the truth about contraception, the truth about divorce is a matter of objective reason.  God’s plan for the family is in Scripture, consistent with philosophical principles such as complementarity and total union, and observable by all human beings whether they are married or not.  Because these truths are accessible through the faculty of reason, the subjective experience of being married is unnecessary to know the truth.

Some may object that while it is not necessary, being married is helpful because it provides a ground for testing one’s convictions.  But whether the subjective experience of being married is actually helpful in understanding marriage depends upon how the subject assimilates that experience. For example, perhaps person A has better learned the truth of marriage because of his experience being married for 25 years, but perhaps person B suffered through a terrible marriage and far from understanding marriage better, actually has developed an unhealthy understanding of marriage.  You see, experiences do not always make us better.  Sometimes experiences set us back and actually move us further from the truth that sets us free.  Given then that one’s subjective experience of marriage can be helpful in better understanding marriage or harmful in understanding less about marriage, we should not uncritically assume that a married person’s views on marriage are more credible than those of a priest.  They may be, but they also may be nothing more than the expression of a bad experience.  Our modern world uncritically assumes that all experiences, whether good or bad, are worth having.  But in fact, the experience worth having is an experience of God’s love and that is precisely what marriage is intended by God to be.

Let’s move on to the couple that does not have children. Does their lack of children mean that their views on parenthood should be dismissed?  This would be the case if the subjective dimension of having children was the only way of obtaining knowledge about parenthood.  But, in fact, like God’s plan for marriage, His vision for parenthood is in Scripture and consistent with reason. Consequently, a married couple without children or a priest can have more clarity about God’s vision for children than a married couple with children.  Once again, the subjective experience of having children can bring one closer to God’s vision or further away.  After all, it is so difficult to be objective about one’s own children, so in this case in particular, experience may not lead to clarity of vision.

II. The Negative Societal Consequences of the Experience Fallacy

Since then the experience fallacy so predominates politics, culture, religion, and virtually everything that is worth discussing, it is worth examining the impact of this on society.  Given the immensity of this question, I will have to paint with broad strokes.

Firstly, the experience fallacy diminishes the rational capacity of people to understand the truth.  If one has not experienced this or that, there is no need to reason about it because the assumed method of knowing truth is through subjective experience. This is not good for those with experience because it teaches them to rely too much on their experience and to equate the truth about a thing with their subjective impressions about that thing. Similarly, it is bad for those lacking experience because they are not inclined to seek the truth if it is unobtainable to them because of their lack of experience.  As a result, honest conversations that seek the truth rarely occur. For example, in the realm of politics, instead of laying out a plan to fight poverty, a politician will argue that because their opponent has never been poor, they cannot possibly know what it is like to be poor and are, therefore, ill-equipped to serve the poor. This sort of ad hominem attack is supposed to replace real substance, which is totally lacking in such an argument.

Secondly, the experience fallacy promotes relativism. By replacing the search for truth through objective reason with the search for truth through subjective experience, truth itself becomes as relative as the various experiences people have.  Without objective reason, one experience is as true as another.  Any arguments about what is right based on Scripture or philosophy will be met by the unassailable response: “well, you are only saying that because you have not experienced x, y, or z.”  And since there is always an experience a given person has not had, that will be the end of the conversation.  Plainly, the relativism promoted by the experience fallacy makes all conversations not worth having from the outset.

Thirdly, and this is arguably the worst effect of the experience fallacy, it promotes spiritual blindness by encouraging people not to reflect analytically on their own experiences.  If a person uncritically assumes the goodness of their experience without reflecting on that experience and setting it side by side with reason, Scripture, and objective truth, how will they ever discover the areas in their life where they are blind and in need of the Holy Spirit’s clarifying light? In truth, we are all blind in certain areas.  We fail to see the full truth about ourselves.  This can only occur through much prayer and examination, but the necessary presupposition for such prayer and examination is that one’s experience is not the sole or even primary means of understanding truth.

III. Why Personalism and Authentic Evangelization Do Not Necessitate the Experience Fallacy

Despite the irrationality of the experience fallacy and its significant, damaging effects upon society, it is possible to confuse this fallacy with the high regard for personal experience prominent in both Thomistic personalism and authentic evangelization.  In truth, neither Thomistic personalism nor authentic evangelization are compatible with the experience fallacy.

To begin with, Thomistic personalism prioritizes the human person, the unique, unrepeatable, human person endowed by God with intrinsic dignity.  It affirms that people experience things as unique persons, and that their experience has value because it is inseparably tied to their human nature, and, thus, their dignity.  In other words, Thomistic personalism affirms the value of subjective experience, but presupposes man’s rational nature, which is what endows the human person with dignity.  Human, subjective experience is valuable not merely because it is subjective, but because that subjectivity expresses the dignity of the human person, which is objectively known through reason.  In contrast, the experience fallacy argues that experience as such is inherently valuable, and there is no longer any grounding of subjective experience in the objective truth of human nature.  As Thomas Williams so eloquently puts it: “A purely subjectivistic approach to personhood, so characteristic of modern philosophy [such as the experience fallacy] risks losing the objective base which makes human subjectivity and lived experience possible.” [3]  The experience fallacy removes the objective base of subjective human experience; tragically, it substitutes subjective experience for logic, truth, and analysis.

Now evangelization is the proclamation of Christ “by word and testimony of life,” [4] that is, lived experience.  Some will take this to mean that because we evangelize by word and deed, we cannot evangelize unless we have experienced something.  But this is absurd.  One may as well say that you cannot evangelize about God’s plan for marriage if you cannot speak eloquently about marriage.  Plainly, the Catechism is referring to evangelization in general terms, affirming that what we say and what we do, our experience, are both important. But it is simply not the case that every word we say needs to be demonstrated by experience, nor that every experience needs to accompany a verbal explanation.  Certainly, if we are hypocrites and we act differently from what we say, we justifiably lose credibility, but simply not having experience in an area does not make us ill equipped to speak authoritatively in that area, particularly if we have Scripture, history, and reason to support our words.

Authentic evangelization is about revealing the person of Jesus Christ and to do that, we need to be open to following His Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit may ask us to speak authoritatively about an issue we have no experience in.  The Holy Spirit may ask a priest to speak about God’s vision for marriage, the Holy Spirit may ask an unmarried man or woman to talk about marriage, or a married couple without children to talk about raising children. Let us not be foolish and refuse such invitations because of our lack of experience.  The experience of thousands and thousands of people cannot hold a candle to the Truth of Jesus Christ, and the ability of the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, to move hearts does not require our limited human experience in any case.

So the next time you hear a person discussing an issue they have no experience in, please remember not to dismiss their ideas outright for lack of experience.  It may be precisely their lack of experience that gives them the clarity they need to see the truth and communicate it effectively.  In this way, our experiences will serve as lessons used by God to guide us, but not as barriers which prevent authentic dialogue in charity and truth.

###

[1] https://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html (last visited October 27th, 2018).

[2] http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_19811122_familiaris-consortio.html (last visited October 27th, 2018).

[3] Thomas D. Williams, L.C., “What is Thomistic Personalism,” pg. 176, available at http://www.uprait.org/archivio_pdf/ao42_williams1.pdf (last visited October 27th).

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 905.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Written by
Michael Vacca

MICHAEL ARTHUR VACCA, Esq., is a devout Catholic and passionate about Catholic social teaching. He graduated from Hillsdale College with a B.A. in English and Political Science, holds a J.D. from Ave Maria School of Law, and is a licensed attorney in Michigan. He worked for the Pontifical Council of the Family in Rome, where he advised the Church on pro-life and pro-family issues and advanced Catholic social teaching. Michael is the Managing Editor of the International Center on Law, Life, Faith, and Family, which produces and provides resources on these issues, www.icolf.org. He is a founding board member of Sidewalk Advocates for Life, and currently serves on the board of the Casa Vitae Foundation.

Mr. Vacca is author and co-author of various articles on bioethics and law, including: “A Reexamination of Conscience Protections in Healthcare” and “Best Practices: Laws Protecting Human Life and the Family Around the Globe” (International Law Journal, Ave Maria School of Law). He is also a co-editor of a book entitled, “St. Paul, the Natural Law, and Contemporary Legal Theory” (Lexington Books, 2012).

A regular contributor to the Catholic Journal, more than anything, Michael is grateful to be a practicing Catholic and for his lovely wife Sarah.

View all articles
Written by Michael Vacca