I recently heard a preacher repeat the oft-cited aphorism, “A man who has an argument is always at the mercy of a man who has an experience.”  This is quite true as an anthropological observation, but I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing.

The aphorism was quoted by the preacher in the context of those who doubt the reality of Spirit baptism and glossalalia.  I am inclined to agree with him in one very real and practical sense.  No matter what argument someone might present to me against glossalalia, the fact of the matter is that I have experienced it for myself and, thus, I know it is real.  But the blade can cut both ways.  What about the Mormon who claims to have received a “burning in his bosom” confirming the truth of the Book of Mormon?  Should the Mormon trust his experience over sound reason to the contrary?  I imagine the preacher would say that in this case, reason should trump experience.  But why should the aphorism apply to us, and not to the Mormon?  To the Mormon, his experience was equally as real as our own.  If we can reject arguments that contradict our experience, why can’t the Mormon?

Or consider Copernicus and Galileo.  They claimed that the Earth was not stationary, but was moving around the sun (the sun wasn’t moving around the Earth).  If we look to our experience as the lone arbiter of truth, we must reject this hypothesis because in our experience, the Earth is stationary and the sun revolves around it.   But in fact, based on astronomical data/arguments, we know Galileo was right and our experience is misleading!  If the man with an argument is at the mercy of the man with an experience, however, we should reject heliocentrism.  And yet nobody in his right mind would do so.  The evidence is so compelling for heliocentrism that we believe it despite our experience to the contrary.  So why would anyone in his right mind think a man with an argument should be at the mercy of a man with an experience?

My point is not to say all experiences are equally valid, or that all claims to an experience are even veridical.  My point is that experience alone should not be viewed as a trump card against any and all arguments to the contrary.[1] After all, it could be that we did not experience what we thought we did (it’s amazing what people will “experience” when they are expected to experience it), or that we misinterpreted the experience we had.

While the aphorism that a man who has an argument is always at the mercy of a man who has an experience may aptly describe how people often approach matters of truth (experience takes precedence over reason), it should not be understood as prescriptive; i.e. it should not be understood to mean that we should prefer experience over reason when it comes to assessing what is true.  While it may be a valid observation about human psychology in general, it is not an epistemological dictum.  We should always consider both reason and experience when assessing matters of truth.


[1]I should note that in saying this, I am not claiming the preacher in question would disagree.  He may very well agree with this point.  In his message, however, he only cited the aphorism to show that experience should trump arguments, at least on the issue of Spirit-infilling and glossalalia.