A Man With Experience Is Never At The Mercy Of A Man With An Argument…Or Is He?

The most frequent criticism I receive on my blog is that I haven’t personally experienced some of the things I talk about or make arguments for. I have not dated, so I can’t know that it’s bad. I have not courted, so I cannot argue that it is better than dating. Sure, I quote people who DO have experience, but it doesn’t matter because I personally have not experienced it.
One such critic told me that, “A man with experience never has to answer to a man with a theory,” which seems to be a rephrasing of the common expression, “A man with an experience is never at the mercy of an argument.” I prefer the second iteration of this expression, since the first is self-contradictory, and blindly dogmatic. It’s self-contradictory because the expression itself is a theory, and to say you believe this theory is true because you have experience that it’s true, is circular reasoning. Also, there is quite a difference between “never has to answer to” and “is never at the mercy of.”
There is some sense in which this saying is very true. A person who has experience building databases on a computer is likely going to be more knowledgeable than someone who has never built a database. This quotation is very applicable in specific instances. Indeed, experience is extremely valuable.
However, there are several very real problems with relying too heavily on one’s experiences, or using the fact that I have not dated/courted to disqualify me from writing about my beliefs.


1. Experiences are unreliable
A theory, by definition, is a group of ideas meant to explain a certain phenomenon. Science is merely the observation of phenomenon. Therefore, any professional scientist will tell you that science doesn’t prove anything. Why? Because science is simply making observations of the natural world. Scientists draw from these observations (experiences) to create theories, but theories often change when something new is observed, something that contradicts the old theories–the old experiences. This shows that experiences are unreliable, because we may not be seeing the whole picture. 
The idea that experience trumps all assumes that experience is always trustworthy: it is not. Something can be successful nine times out of ten, but the tenth instance hasn’t happened yet. Whereas, if one has a logical argument, something can be shown to be right or wrong all, or most of, the time without relying on something as ethereal as experience.
An example:
Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth without leaving Egypt. According to the theory that experience trumps theory, we would have to say that Eratosthenes was wrong! He had no experience. He didn’t travel around the Earth with a tape measure. He never left Egypt! Based on our limited perspective, the Earth appears to be flat. Indeed, most ancients believed the Earth was shaped like a disk. And yet, Eratosthenes had a theory that the Earth was a sphere, and he accurately calculated the circumference. Experience, therefore, can’t be the lone arbiter of truth, or we would have to say that Eratosthenes’ theory “doesn’t have to answer to” the experiences of the common person living at that time.
What is more, if it is true that experience is the only way we can come to know something to be true, then we cannot claim to know anything about the distant past. How can we even know a person like, say, Abraham Lincoln really existed? I have no experience of Abraham Lincoln. I’ve never met him, and never seen him. Sure, I’ve read about the experiences of others who have met him in history books, but apparently that doesn’t count, because I’ve read about the experiences of others who have courted, and that doesn’t count. So since I can’t claim to have any knowledge of how to court without having done it myself, I can’t claim to have any knowledge about Abraham Lincoln since I haven’t met him myself.

2. Experiences can contradict each other
Maybe a Christian will say they know God exists because they had a personal experience. Okay, fair enough, but what about the Mormon who has received a “burning in the bosom”? According to the Book of Mormon, this experience is proof its contents are true and correct. Does the Christian with a theory have no answer to the Mormon with an experience?1 According to our catchy slogan, we would have to say, “yes.” Therefore, the faith of the Mormons who have had “experiences” must be confirmed to be true whereas the faith of Christians who have had no special religious experiences must be proven to be false.
Or perhaps you are an avid football fan, and you find that every time you wear your neon green lucky socks, your team wins. Drawing from this experience, you start to wear your neon green lucky socks every time your team plays. Your team keeps winning and you become very pleased with yourself, and the fact that you are single-handedly leading your team to victory. Then, one day, your team loses. You look down. Yeah, the socks are still there. So what gives? Every time you wore the socks your team won. Now you wear the socks and your team doesn’t win. These experiences contradict each other, and are also evidence that correlation doesn’t imply causation. Experiences, on their own, are not reliable. You don’t need any experience to figure this out.

3. This theory implies that one must experience something to have a view on it.
Like I said above, I have been told to stop sharing my beliefs about things I have not experienced, specifically dating and courtship. I’ve been told I have no idea what I’m talking about and that I cannot possibly be right because I have “no experience.”
First of all, it is not true that I have no experience. Second, this accusation implies that I am not allowed to have beliefs about things I have not experienced. Not only is this absurd, but very hypocritical. We all have many beliefs about things we have never experienced.
I’ve never been shot in the face with a shotgun, but if the habit of shooting one’s self in the face with a shotgun arose, and I abstained from such a practice, I guess I would be disqualified from voicing an opinion, negative or otherwise, because I have no experience.
I’ve never drank poison.
I’ve never done drugs.
I’ve never broken a bone.
I’ve never gone snorkeling amongst a feeding frenzy of sharks.
I’ve never driven a car while blindfolded.
I’ve never jumped out of an airplane without a parachute.
I have not done any of those dangerous or harmful activities listed above but I still think I’m fairly safe in saying I know they are dangerous and harmful without having to try them out for myself.  (I have run with sticks, and put metal Hot Wheels cars in the microwave. But hey! I turned out okay! According to my experience, it must be okay to do these things!) There are ways of discovering truth besides merely experiencing it for yourself. Experience definitely is a good teacher, and it does have the potential to brutally impart knowledge, but not everyone is a good student, and such people continue to make poor choices despite previous experiences.
One time a football teammate was telling me how great drugs were. He even told me they had made his grades improve! While I have no experience taking illegal drugs, I am going to go out on a limb here and say that the minuscule increase in his GPA was not the result of the drugs he was taking, but the fact that his GPA had nowhere to go BUT up! That, and the school system we were in actually made it hard to fail since grade inflation was so high. However, I just have a theory. He has EXPERIENCE! He doesn’t have to answer to me. Maybe drugs really are good. HOW CAN I KNOW UNLESS I TRY THEM???
On the other side of the coin, I have never been married, but I have good reason to believe that marriage is a good thing.  I’m not going to wait until I’m married to begin to think about what I need to do in order to become the kind of husband God expects me to be. We don’t have to experience something to know if it is good or evil. Adam and Eve didn’t have to eat the forbidden fruit to know it wasn’t a good thing to do–God told them it wasn’t. 
Yes, experience definitely CAN get the point across, and help us to see what is true and good, and what isn’t, but a lot of times, there are better methods to discover truth. As Tesla said of Edison. “If he had a needle to find in a haystack he would not stop to reason where it was most likely to be, but would proceed at once, with the feverish diligence of a bee, to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. … I was almost a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor.
—New York Times, October 19, 1931 (the day after Edison died)
Whether or not Tesla is making a fair observation of Edison is beside the point. The point to be made here is that there are smarter and safer ways to gain knowledge and learn truth than stumbling from one experience to the next. Sure, experiences can teach us a lot, but why not learn from the experiences and mistakes of others rather than going through the pain ourselves? That’s one of the main reasons we study history—so we don’t repeat the same mistakes others have made.
Do we really have to put our hand in the fire to see if it will burn us? Or can we trust the knowledge and experiences of others who have gone before us? Or, perhaps, we could also employ a little bit of logic and reason? Perhaps we could consider the fact that fire is really hot, and that really hot things burn other things, especially flesh.
I believe dating to be dangerous and harmful, and I believe courtship to be less dangerous if done right (though everything worth anything requires some risk) and also more God-honoring because courtship takes an approach that seeks the good of others, rather than pleasing the self. (And do not be offended of my harsh criticism of “dating.” I realize there are some who use the word “dating” but are actually referring to something I would call courtship. I simply use the word “dating” to refer to what is prevalent and the norm in society today.)  

Also, contrary to the beliefs of my detractors, I actually DO have personal experience. I’ve been in and around dating and the dating culture. I’ve seen the effects and the harm. I am an eye-witness. I have seen up close the damage dating can do. I’ve seen and heard the selfish motives behind it. Based on my personal experience, dating is harmful. And yet! Many say they date precisely for the experience, and to “learn what they like” in a future spouse. Yes, I’m sure their future spouse will be thrilled to hear about all the experience they have.
However, if I were going to use the same argument my critics have used, then I would have to say they have no right to make judgments about me. I have experience not dating, which is something they have no experience with, since they have. They are, therefore, disqualified from having opinions about my experiences having never dated. Since they have dated and/or begun a “relationship” before they were ready to marry, they cannot speak about my beliefs in waiting to court until you are prepared for marriage.
Of course, I don’t believe that their lack of experience disqualifies them, just as my lack of experience dating does not disqualify me from sharing my opinions and beliefs. If my critics could bring forth a logical and reasonable objection to anything I have said, I would listen. I certainly don’t have all the answers. I am trying to learn, and I am basing a lot of my beliefs off of the experiences of those older and wiser than myself.
Mysteriously, the only real objections I’ve received are that I have no experience. This makes me wonder if perhaps such critics have no reasonable objection to what I have argued, and the real problem is that they simply don’t like what I said because it’s not what they want to do. Perhaps if I wrote blog posts supporting their beliefs (even though I have no experience doing what they are doing) they would praise me, and make no mention of my “experience” or perceived lack thereof.  

But I can’t say for sure. This is just my experience.
Experience definitely is important, but catchy slogans stating that experience trumps all, are just that, slogans.
Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false,” but as “academic” or “practical,” “outworn” or “contemporary,” “conventional” or “ruthless.” Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.
By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?
~C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters

One final fact that I find very interesting is that practically all of my critics are the same age as me, or even younger, while the majority of my supporters are married adults in their mid-40s or above. It seems to me that experience is on my side. 

1http://theosophical.wordpress.com/2010/03/20/%E2%80%9Ca-man-who-has-an-argument-is-always-at-the-mercy-of-a-man-who-has-an-experience%E2%80%9D/

7 Comments

  1. ” I’ve never drank poison.
    I’ve never done drugs.
    I’ve never broken a bone.
    I’ve never gone snorkeling amongst a feeding frenzy of sharks.
    I’ve never driven a car while blindfolded.
    I’ve never jumped out of an airplane without a parachute.

    I have not done any of those dangerous or harmful activities listed above but I still think I’m fairly safe in saying I know they are dangerous and harmful without having to try them out for myself.”

    ^My favorite part of the whole article. Well said, yet again, Reagan. Thank you!

  2. Glad you liked it! Thanks for the comment!

  3. It is so great to see a quote from Screwtape Letters! I really loved that book! There were so many great inward battles of sin captured in that wonderful piece of literature!

    I also appreciated your stance on never doubting the truthful facts of something that is wrong and straying from the truth itself, as well as relying on the wisdom of those who have come before you and already experienced for themselves if something is good or bad. History is God’s Story, and even outside of the Written Word, we receive the truth from the characters who have walked this earth before us, have faced hardship from bad choices, and even written their own accounts that we might learn from them. I was so glad you touched on this; I myself am learning over and over just how true this really is. God is truth. Man is sinful. Yet The Lord uses His servants to bring restoration to the future generations! Blessed is He!

    In Christ alone,

    Jessica
    The eldest sister and singer

  4. I know! The Screwtape Letters is definitely one of my favorite books. Pretty much every sentence is gold.

    I’m definitely still learning a lot too. It does seem to be–at least in my case–that when I rely too much on my own understanding, generally, things don’t tend to go as well as they could have. Haha! I guess that’s why we are told in Proverbs 28:26 that, “Those who trust in themselves are fools, but those who walk in wisdom are kept safe.”

    Thanks for the comment!

    – Reagan

  5. So Faithblum, can you imagine just how strong an argument, a person who had experience those things would have over someone who just used knowledge. I think that is more along the lines of the point of the quote.

  6. Interesting article and your arguments (challenging the saying “…an experience is never at the mercy of an argument” were very thought provoking. Although I can appreciate the idea that an experience cannot and will not always trump a theory that was developed via a research method or tested by science, I take the saying to imply that the exact same thing on the flip side (ie: a theory developed via a research method or tested by science cannot and will not always trump an experience).

    And although it’s common sense that jumping out of an airplane without a parachute would likely lead to death or serious injury (one would not really need to rely on research or a scientific study to concluded this), often research and scientific studies do not leave room for (or include) variables and factors that would challenge, change, or negate their findings that they report to others.

    To use your parachute example…

    Certainly there are survivors who have jumped out of planes, without parachutes, and survived. Things to consider when these exceptions-to-the-rule (if you will) occur include:

    – What was altitude was the plane flying at when the jump occurred
    – What speed was the plane going at when the jump occurred
    – Where did the jumper land (ie: in water, snow, a field, etc.)
    – What devices may the jumper have used other than a parachute
    – Was the jumper trained in jumping from planes using different safety procedures and devices
    – Does the physical make up of a jumper make a difference (ie: their age, sex, gender, weight etc.) if they jump out of a plane without a parachute in different conditions

    And of course, it’s not safe to jump out a plane without a parachute even if there’s a chance you could survive. However, it appears clear that the fact that people have survived (due to one or a mix of exceptional exceptions to the rule) is a reason “…an experience is never at the mercy of an argument”.

    The fact that there are exceptions and anomalies to popular beliefs, common anecdotes, or peer-reviewed theoretical reports does not negate the truth there are exceptions to said popular beliefs, common anecdotes, and peer-reviewed theoretical reports.

    The experiences of those who’ve jumped out of airplanes, without parachutes, and survived cannot be negated simply because others have died jumping out of planes without parachutes.

    So although it’s common (and understandable) for someone to say or believe “if you jump out of a plane, without a parachute, you’re going to die”, it’s not a literal or absolute truth. Is it likely, sure. However, it likely occurring doesn’t make it an absolute fact.

    And this same line of thinking can be applied to most every other theory, belief, and peer-reviewed scientific finding.

    Being a critical thinker (ie: “thinking outside the box”), I do appreciate coming across articles and thoughts that challenge my thinking. “An experience is never at the mercy of an argument” begs to question why individual and exceptional experiences are minimized and devalued when pitted against a popular theory (that often came about through a biased agenda or belief).

    It’s very interesting. Why do people promote and follow popular and common beliefs rather than the exceptions (to the rule) and remarkable experiences that also exist?

  7. Reagan, good work. While it is NOT necessary to have an experience in order to have an opinion – I believe Dr. Ravenhill is still right – those with a given experience are never at the mercy of your argument or opinion. We each experience our own lives and circumstances. If you haven’t walked in my shoes, you shouldn’t judge how I have. (That pesky Jesus and his, “Do not judge.”) Still, I appreciate that you don’t leave out all that can be gained by living from the example and experience of those we know who HAVE different experiences. Therein lies the source of most wisdom. If, “We grow wise when we walk among the wise.” It is in learning hard lessons from their hard experiences – without having to go through the same ourselves.

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