Experience Determines Reality

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Last week, we discussed the prohibition of talking to the dead. (Deut. 18:11) We wrote:

"Truth is determined by what we experience. And no one in history ever experienced a conversation with the dead. The dead don’t respond. Never had, never will. That’s what “dead” means. And this is why Torah prohibits this act."

Moses too urges the Jews to adhere to this method of accepting what is true: "Guard your souls exceedingly, lest you forget the events which your eyes saw". (Deut. 4:9)

Moses warns us that matters which we do not experience, must not be accepted. And as God wished a proof to exist that He gave a religion to the Jews alone, He orchestrated Revelation at Sinai. Thus, all other religions bereft of actual experiences, and requiring blind faith, must be rejected as lies. Similarly, we must also reject mystical and unproven notions heard from religious Jews. 

The rule I suggested is this: "experience determines reality". 

However, discussing this rule with a friend, has asked as follows: "If you claim that experience is what determines truth, what if I see a spoon inserted into a half-full glass of water? I see the spoon's portion below the waterline as larger than that which is above the waterline, and it also appears like the spoon is broken. What if I see train tracks going into the distance, and they seem to meet? Yet I know that they do not. If I trust what I "experience", I will admit things that are not true, against what you say."

I maintain the rule is still true: experience determines reality. However, if one's experience is lacking, that ignorance will result in false assumptions. It is only when we have experienced all there is to experience, that we will possess absolute and accurate knowledge in all areas. Thus, we will all retain a great amount of ignorance as we will never experience everything. But, we can and must continually increase our knowledge as far as possible.  And in certain areas, we can master a majority of experiences affording us accurate knowledge, in that area. 

So let's walk to the point where we think the tracks meet, and we will increase our "experiences" to now include a new truth, that distance causes objects to "appear" smaller. (So small, the two tracks seem to touch) We thereby learn that our confusion was in equating things that we should not: appearance and fact. We now learn – from a new experience – that appearances are deceiving. Thus, it is still true that experience determines reality. Our new experience is that appearance – and not objects – become smaller with distance. However, when our experiences are lacking, we will make false conclusions. And when one dips an object into a glass of water making it appear larger and broken, but then removes it to find it unchanged, he now experiences two new truths: 1) a curved water glass magnifies objects like a magnifying glass, and 2) water refracts light differently than air, making the object below the waterline appear as though it shifted its position. Again, experience is what determines truth and reality. 

Returning to our initial point, our Torah observance too must follow Moses' words: we must reject what we do not experience. Ibn Ezra too made this vital point, worth repeating (Leviticus, 19:31):  "Those with empty brains say 'Were it not that fortune tellers and magicians were true, the Torah would not prohibit them.' But I (Ibn Ezra) say just the opposite of their words, because the Torah doesn't prohibit that which is true, but it prohibits that which is false. And the proof is the prohibition on idols and statues."  Aside from experience as a means to determine truth, we have God's word. All He says is absolute truth. Therefore, if we wish to determine what is false, study what Torah laws prohibit. Study the lives of the Prophets. Never do we find mystics or those who believed or accepted anything unproven. 

The next time you hear a "Torah" lesson where the teacher or Rabbis makes claims without demonstrating it, reject it. If he claims a story "once occurred", ask for witnesses. If there are none, or just a few, reject it. If he quotes a Talmudic source for such a "miracle",  follow the words of the Rabbis, that all such stories are allegories – not real events.

Act as a concerned Jew. Reject all unsupported claims: not only for yourself, but to prevent these lies from poisoning the next generation.