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To what extent can we acquire reliable knowledge about the world through religious, mystical, or spiritual experiences?

Does the answer hinge on the context of these experiences?

Does the answer hinge on the specific religious framework these experiences align with?

Furthermore, does the answer depend on whether we directly undergo the experience firsthand or merely hear about it through others' accounts (i.e., secondhand or thirdhand)?

And regarding the point of hearing other people's anecdotes, would it be beneficial to undertake a comprehensive phenomenological and ethnographic analysis of testimonies regarding religious, mystical, or spiritual experiences across diverse cultures and religions throughout the world? This could involve in-depth interviews with individuals worldwide who claim to have encountered phenomena such as:

  • Out-of-body experiences (OBEs)
  • Near-death experiences (NDEs)
  • Demonic possessions and exorcisms
  • Paranormal phenomena
  • Psychic phenomena
  • Spiritual gifts
  • Mediumship
  • Witchcraft
  • Encounters with entities such as demons, angels, deities, aliens, ghosts, etc.
  • Ecstatic experiences
  • Miracles
  • And more.

Would engaging in such research bring us closer to the truth? If so, what might that truth look like?


Note: In light of @Conifold's concern that the current wording of this question might lead to debates and subjective opinions, I kindly request responses that draw on the insights of respected authors who have contributed relevant literature (such as papers, books, or blog posts) to this topic. Make sure to cite their work and include pertinent quotes if possible.

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    If you learn something useful, it doesn't really matter how. Don't start a spiritual inventory of the world, please. Do your own investigation yourself with personal experience. Don't be surprised when it turns out similar to other people's.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 21 at 0:01
  • 5
    By "answer" you apparently mean the answer individuals would be inclined to give rather than anything objective. Because objective answer, if any, obviously does not depend on any frameworks or firsthand familiarity. And comprehensive study and analysis of testimonies is, again obviously, always beneficial to finding out what is behind them. I just do not see a question here that is both non-trivial and answerable based on something other than subjective opinions about getting "closer to the truth".
    – Conifold
    Mar 21 at 0:19
  • 7
    Not at all. Questions can indicate a school of thought, or even an author, they are supposed to be answered under (when it is non-obvious), or they can ask for a school that gives an outlined answer, or ask for arguments for/against such an answer, etc. In this case, you will (obviously) get one answer from theists and another from physicalists. And this is the problem with free-floating questions like this one (what is "the truth" and how do we get there?), they invite debates and opinions that we try to avoid here.
    – Conifold
    Mar 21 at 0:30
  • 4
    @Conifold: they invite debates and opinions that we try to avoid here - How often is that actually the case? According to my own anecdotal experience, hardly ever are questions on this site explicitly scoped to be answered from the perspective of a very specific school of thought or author. But I'm open to being proven wrong with concrete statistics.
    – Mark
    Mar 21 at 0:35
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    @Mark Correct. Philosophy is rooted in debate and without debate there is no philosophy. There is no constant school of thought that stays married to the same philosophical position anyways. We are individuals and our thoughts on matters change like the waves. Almost all of the top questions here are not questions along the lines of “What was this person’s position? What was that person’s position?” The questions that generate the most interest are precisely the ones that do generate debate. Unless this site wants to stay irrelevant, these kinds of questions should be allowed Mar 21 at 9:00

11 Answers 11

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Short Answer A key point to realize in thinking thru your question, is that all empiricism is first person, and subjective. Science tries to harden its data as much as it can, by trying to cross check the subjectivity, making things as intersubjective as possible. But the closest we can ever get to "objective" is "intersubjective consensus".

Additionally, there are subject areas where one simply cannot go intersubjective, and empiricism is solely subjective. This is the case for almost all informal empiricism -- such as learning how to walk, or developing the technique to consistently throw and catch a boomerang. Many aspects of selfhood and psychology have to be purely subjective as well.

We do not have a settled ontology for the universe. For physicalist worldviews, none of these practices could possibly lead to truth as they presume non-physicalist ontologies. But since basic ontology is in dispute, that is not a valid prohibition.

For those worldviews which postulate a mystic/spiritual realm -- such as interactive spiritual dualism, or consciousness-based idealisms -- direct mystical experiences are in many cases the best, or often the only, way to access significant aspects of our world, and gain understanding of it. So, based on the critical role of first person empiricism in knowledge generation, and the possible case where the only source of knowledge for major aspects of our world would be mystic experiences -- the answer to your question basically has to be a "yes".

However (caveats) the accuracy of mystic communication is not high. The best documented accuracy data I know of is from remote viewing.

Remote viewing passed multiple statistically significant test cases in lab settings. In many cases, the process was to pick four very visually dramatic and distinct locations, and take photos of them. Then send a "target" individual out to one, and have the RVer try to sketch what was around the target. Then a separate judge would evaluate which of the four photos, the sketches was the best match to. If it was the location the target went to, that was a hit, if not a miss. Hits were statistically above the 25% random level, indicating some degree of psi-based knowledge. https://osf.io/preprints/psyarxiv/r9yw5 The CIA then tried a few location based studies, and got occasionally breakthrough levels of knowledge by this method. The hits were good enough to set up a program for 25 years. In the CIA program, multiple RVers gained insights on the same target, and the PM compiled these results into a report.

The RV PM summarized the accuracy rate of these cold location searches at approximately 30%. This was the accuracy rate that 25 years of iterations/variations on method, PLUS the use of as much intersubjectivity as possible, could get to. So -- any given claim or observation had over twice the odds of being wrong as right. Now for a blind set of guesses, they would fall far below 30% accuracy, as there are so many different possibilities that a real site could consist of,. so, just like with the lab data, the field application of RV was helping discover "truth". BUT -- with a very high error noise factor.

For some references on this program, here is a book by the initial scientist who inspired it: Limitless Mind: A Guide to Remote Viewing and Transformation of Consciousness One by its long term program manager: Anomalous Cognition: Remote Viewing Research and Theory and one by its most decorated RVer: The Stargate Chronicles: Memoirs of a Psychic Spy

So mysticism needs to be taken with a grain of salt I AM a practicing mystic. But I generally don't trust mystical "knowledge". This is an intrinsic failing of the of the mystical process: the methods to gain insight, and the methods to do narrative speculation, or narrative reinforcement of prior beliefs, use the same mental channels. Insights and speculation are close to impossible to distinguish internally.

I use mysticism for helping others, rather than being seduced by the allure of a shortcut to knowledge. Seductive allure, and in particular the special status that "being the true prophet" offers as temptation, is VERY skewing and distorting of one's judgment. The contradictions between the messages of the world's self-declared prophets -- is an effective test case on the validity of the "truth" conclusions their method can deliver.

But apply empiricism to the useful practices, and these can provide knowledge, even if not "revelation-based" knowledge.

If one can cure health and psychological problems of today, by spiritual healing, or past life regressions, these useful practices serve as useful bits of data on how a spiritual realm works. If one can communicate with and interact with lost souls, demons, earth-sprites, and "old gods" like Yahweh, these experiences likewise are data about the spirit realm. I gain my spiritual knowledge from useful practice, not from dogma or revelation.

It is true that part of the source of my conviction of reincarnation, lost souls, spiritual attachments, etc. comes from personally experiencing parts of a past life, doing first person spiritual rescue, and experiencing depossession. But I also know how my own mind can mislead me. Part of my conviction also comes from the utility of regression-based healing, the changed feel of a location for others when its ghosts are rescued, and the psychological benefits of depossession.

Learning by Reading?

Now, one does not have to DO these practices oneself in order to gain this knowledge. Reading about other's experiences is not as personally convincing, but can have the same empirical insight. For example, Joe Fisher's discovery of the dark side of the beings that his channeling circle has taken effectively as their "gods" -- is a useful narrative for anyone thinking at all seriously about interacting with the spirit realm: https://zaporacle.com/the-siren-call-of-hungry-ghosts/ The shamanistic experiences of Carlos Castaneda, while not quite as eye-openingly calling for a rethink of one's prior assumptions, also suggest a spirit realm that is not all rainbows and butterflies. Reading Robert Monroe, Edith Fiore, and William Baldwin will give some more positive examples of what one can discover about the sprit realm -- although the cautionary tales of Fisher and Johannes Greber are also very useful https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R1DX7Z1BLMJ1MZ?ref=pf_ov_at_pdctrvw_srp

Final takeaway The best method I have found for doing practical mysticism is that of Ben Swett: http://www.bswett.com/1990-03TwoWayPrayer.html

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    It might be more interesting to ask if these mystical experiences are possible from an evolutionary standpoint why don't we see more of them Mar 22 at 6:41
  • @MoreAnonymous Rupert Sheldrake has pointed out that we all have these capacities more or less (in some statistically loose sense — as much as we all can sing even those who will protest they are stone deaf — just put your ear outside the shower!) Rupert Sheldrake's data (casual anecdotal) is about say phone calls: Oh I just thought of you and you called... Amazing!!... And its ten years since we last talked!!! This kind of data is so common its the norm not the exception. Its just that the physicalists have unilaterally arbitrarily and hi-handedly decided that this data is not data.
    – Rushi
    Mar 22 at 7:08
  • And if you want actual repeatable experiments, Sheldrake has done statistically significant work in "Dog-telepathy" — dogs knowing about their owners returning home when the distance makes no (physicalist) sense
    – Rushi
    Mar 22 at 7:10
  • Some references backing up the Remote Viewing section would be handy. Otherwise, this is the best answer so far, +1.
    – Mark
    Mar 22 at 10:05
  • @MoreAnonymous -- We see mystical practice in all societies today. Evolutionarily, human technology has been disrupting sociology so steadily since the development of agriculture that we are in continual environmental flux, so evolution is not able to march our memes to an optimum. But look at preagricultural societies, which did have time for evolution to act on their meme-plexes. Basically all pre-agriculture societies have very similar shamanistic practices, which is what societal evolution would predict for a real phenomenon.
    – Dcleve
    Mar 22 at 13:50
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Can religious, mystical, or spiritual experiences reveal truth?

As @ScottRowe mentioned, any experience has the potential to reveal truth. So technically, the answer is yes.

However, mysticism and spiritualism are at the bottom of the list when it comes to reliability: It's unverifiable hearsay. Math, science, philosopy provide great, reliable tools for acquiring and verifying knowledge and truth. I can't think of any knowledge revealed through mysticism but I'm not an expert on mysticism.

A broken clock reveals the truth about time twice a day but is unreliable the rest of day.

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    A coin toss or a random number generator can "reveal the truth", even if by pure chance and thus zero reliability. Mar 21 at 9:50
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    Source of inspiration, whether random or divine is a separate matter from proof. As long as you test knowledge it doesn't matter so much where it comes from.
    – David
    Mar 21 at 19:50
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I don't have the full answer to your question but I do have an answer to this:

Furthermore, does the answer depend on whether we directly undergo the experience firsthand or merely hear about it through others' accounts (i.e., secondhand or thirdhand)?

I think it HAS to matter if you had it yourself or not. The world is full of people claiming mystical experiences, and a huge portion of them are mutually exclusive. Joseph Smith's mystical experiences are mutually exclusive with, say, L Ron Hubbard's.

When it comes to religiously specific mystical experiences, at the very least MOST of them have to be "incorrect" in some way - "incorrect" takes a wide range of meanings here, from "the person is lying about or misremembering their experience" to a more benign "they are misinterpreting their experience" to "it was just a dream/hallucination and nothing more".

And when you realise that they have to be mostly incorrect, in one of those types of ways, you then realise that you can't take for granted ANY of them. You cannot make any significant theological conclusions based on the mystical experiences other people report, including people you know and trust.

You should seek your own, AND you should be willing to consider interpretations of that experience that are less obvious (including questioning it entirely).

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  • Joseph Smith's mystical experiences are mutually exclusive with, say, L Ron Hubbard's. - I don't think the experiences themselves are mutually exclusive. The interpretations thereof might be.
    – Mark
    Mar 23 at 0:17
  • @Mark Joseph Smith's mystical experiences are mutually exclusive with, say, L Ron Hubbard's Its more complex than the scientism-ists and materialists project. Take the simple question: What is the time now? And imagine we are all on a common call with less than a few seconds delay. I say Its 1 pm. You say Its 8 am It could be a disagreement, it could be an agreement and we both understand longitudes, timezones etc, we could be in different timezones and one (or both) of our watches could be off....
    – Rushi
    Mar 23 at 7:45
  • ...And we could be flat-earthers who dont or refuse to understand the world is round. So seeming disagreement between people can have a resolution in a frame where both are true. Coming to religious matters: eg. Among Hindus One will say Rama is God another will say Krishna is God. This can be a quarrel or there can be a resolution: Both Ram and Krishna are descents (avatar) of the supreme God Vishnu. Likewise people can agree (or not) that Ram is God and Jesus is God. Likewise one can say Bible Koran Torah are the same book with different editions and appendices Or keep quarreling!!
    – Rushi
    Mar 23 at 7:48
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In medieval times religious revelation was considered the only method to get knowledge of supernatural phenomena. Today the attitude concerning religious revelation and all kinds of paranormal experience has substantially changed.

The century long discussion whether statements obtained from revelation are true or false, shows the necessity to document each case and to check the truth or falseness of the statement. For several fields from your list such controlled examination is already on their way. Applying methods from psychology, sociology and specific scientific diciplines to investigate paranormal phenomena. As a first pointer to the broad field of relevant investigations see parapsychology. Its section “Further reading” lists relevant authors, papers and books for further information.

A claim can be true or false, independently from how it originated. The question is “How to check whether the claim is right?” One has to question and to classify each report separately by a well-defined list of predefined criteria: The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

“Would engaging in such research bring us closer to the truth?” – Of course, that’s the method of scientific investigation.

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  • A claim can be true or false, independently from how it originated. The question is “How to check whether the claim is right?” One has to question and to classify each report separately by a well-defined list of predefined criteria: The proof of the pudding is in the eating. - how would classifying the claims help us determine which ones, if any, are true?
    – TKoL
    Mar 21 at 13:45
  • @TKol Classifying the claim according to criteria like the following: Is the claim intersubjectively testable? Those who make claims on the same field, do they agree with each other? Which counter arguments present those, who deny the correctness of the claim? If the claim is an interpretation of a personal experience: Which rival interpretations and explanations exist?
    – Jo Wehler
    Mar 21 at 13:59
  • Are any mystical experiences intersubjectively testable?
    – TKoL
    Mar 21 at 14:15
  • @TKol Obviously they are not. And this brings the endless discussions about their truth or falseness. The proponents often confuse certainty of belief with truth of the claim.
    – Jo Wehler
    Mar 21 at 14:22
  • I'm a bit confused here. I was under the impression that you were suggesting we classify all reports of mystical experiences to help us determinie which are true, but now it seems like you're saying they're not intersubjectively testable anyway, which kinda leaves me confused about how this classification process could be useful. Unless you're saying the use of it is just to unambiguously demonstrate that none of them are testable.
    – TKoL
    Mar 21 at 14:27
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Many "truths" revealed in the religious, mystical or spiritual realm have been proven to be untrue, and some have proven to be true. The famous untruth of the world being flat being one.

I think you have to experience something firsthand to know whether it is the truth or not, regardless of context or religious framework. A wise sage can expound many truths he claims he realized, people can share their encountered phenomena, but you will always stay in the shadow of doubt, unless you have some form of personal experience or realizations yourself. Also because of the following point.

"Would engaging in such research bring us closer to the truth?"

Honestly would love to have research on this field but it's pretty much impossible to do research into the phenomena you've described. Many of them are personal experiences (out of the body experience for example). How do we ascertain if the person is truly having an out of body experience? We don't have tools to document or verify the fact.

All in all, in my opinion, personal experience in this field is your best friend.

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  • Yes, and even with personal experience, it is possible to be mistaken about what happened, how it happened, why it happened and so on. Anecdotes rarely convince anyone else, unless they have decided to be convinced.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 23 at 12:12
  • Many "truths" revealed in the religious, mystical or spiritual realm have been proven to be untrue, and some have proven to be true. The famous untruth of the world being flat being one. - Can you justify this claim a bit more? I thought that the belief in a flat earth used to be based on the rather mundane experience of perceiving the earth as flat, NOT in a "supernatural" or "mystical" experience. Are you saying that someone a long time ago had an OBE in which they saw the world from outer space and it looked flat, and that's why people used to believe the world was flat?
    – Mark
    Mar 23 at 13:05
  • I don't see how mystical experiences have anything to do with the belief in a flat earth. The topics seem completely unrelated.
    – Mark
    Mar 23 at 13:06
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Even truth itself is subjective in many cases. One might consider something a conspiracy theory and believe that makes it inherently false, despite the incredible number of conspiracies that have later been confirmed as having been valid. It has been said: If you put 3 strange men in a room with limited resources 2 of the men will always conspire against the third. Even mystical experiences that would seem to be mutually exclusive are not necessarily so.

Enough people have reported experiences such as seeing a loved one while temporarily deceased, seeing a light as they pass away, that society widely accepts the notion that it is true that the person perceived what they claim. Enough people have been told it's not their time yet and returned from a flatline, that there is more evidence confirming the phenomenon is possible compared to the complete lack of evidence that it is not possible. Therefore it is a empirically factual statement to say that sometimes deceased people encounter a loved one, despite your lack of having experienced it yourself. Science and observation are not as reliable a system as they are given credit for. Ultimately scientific understanding doesn't carry any guarantee of truth. If I were to tell you there are a thousand voices in the room with you where you are alone. Some are dead some are alive but they are there regardless of your inability to hear them. You might then say I was wrong because there Is literally nothing but dead silence in the room. But you would be wrong because the voices don't follow the radio around hoping to be heard. They are there regardless of your ability to perceive them.

One could claim that the Higgs field is the mechanism by which God Wills the universe to exist, and that His belief that it does what it does is what causes it to do what we think it does. Or with radiation coming from a black hole. It doesn't come from the black hole it comes from what is displaced by the black holes attraction. Otherwise black holes would cumulatively increase the cumulative negative pressure of space. Resulting in a vacuum that would instantly affect everything in the universe.

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    This is the kernel of a good answer though it could be improved. I've taken the liberties to clean up some formatting and correct some grammar/spelling mistakes. You are at liberty ofc to reject, accept or accept these modifications selectively. [If you click on the edited xyz time ago it will show the exact changes]
    – Rushi
    Mar 22 at 8:51
1

It seems as I'm too late as an answer is already accepted, but let me respond to

To what extent can we acquire reliable knowledge about the world through religious, mystical, or spiritual experiences?

Hales wrote a short book addressing this question, Relativism and the Foundations of Philosophy. From the description:

His claim is that philosophical propositions are relatively true—true in some perspectives and false in others. Hales defends this argument first by examining rational intuition as the method by which philosophers come to have the beliefs they do. Analytic rationalism, he claims, has a foundational reliance on rational intuition as a method of acquiring basic beliefs. He then argues that there are other methods that people use to gain beliefs about philosophical topics that are strikingly analogous to rational intuition and examines two of these: Christian revelation and the ritual use of hallucinogens. Hales argues that rational intuition is not epistemically superior to either of these alternative methods.

The book covers in depth the system of western empiricism / the scientific method ("rational intuition" he calls it). He clearly lays out how this is a foundation for philosophical beliefs. Well, one possible foundation for philosophical beliefs. He goes on to consider some religious experiences/practices that also claim to be a foundation for philosophical beliefs.

To be clear, Hales is not saying the scientific method is wrong, or that alternative methods of acquiring beliefs are superior to the scientific method. Instead he makes clear that the reasons for preferring one over the other are really quite difficult to justify, and the book is his argument that you cannot prefer one over the other (at least as long as there are no contradictions).

He kind of glosses over some important epistemology ideas like coherentism, and I have other minor criticisms, but the book is worth reading in regard to the above question.

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  • You are in good company. +1
    – Rushi
    Mar 22 at 16:06
  • I just hope that whoever is driving the bus I am on is not ranting or taking hallucinogenic drugs. "Stop the World! I want to get off."
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 23 at 12:14
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All knowledge is implicit in the brain and body of the person who possesses such knowledge. We do not find explicit logic, similar to computer code, in the brain and body of a person either while alive or when performing an autopsy. Speaking about true knowledge just means some person holds knowledge that is evaluated in the local body-mind as true or untrue in the context of implicit knowledge. Objective truth is a topic of discussion among two or more subjects where each subject has to evaluate truth-values in the mystical or personal implicit knowledge context.

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Your question is ridiculously vague. You ask about whether research would bring us closer to 'the truth'. The truth about what, exactly? Clearly, research could generate factual information. You can, for instance, gather information about the numbers of people who have had each type of experience, about their ages, religious beliefs, cultural background, training, ethnicity, about the duration and timing of the experience, about the impressions gained by witnesses, about the existence of any physical evidence, etc etc etc etc. So yes, the research could reveal no end of factual truths in those areas. (As an aside, you could probably save yourself a lot of time by analysing research already done by others over the decades.)

However, if by 'the truth' of possession, say, you want to know whether people are 'really' possessed by devils, you need to do more than just hold interviews with people who have been possessed. You need, to begin with, a testable hypothesis about what a devil is and how and why it causes the effects we call possession.

As for your subsidiary question about whether the insights you might gain depend on whether or not you experience the various phenomena first hand, I would say that if you were to have first hand experience of witchcraft, possession, NDEs, OBEs, encounters with aliens, and all the rest, you would be a very unusual researcher indeed.

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  • As an aside, you could probably save yourself a lot of time by analysing research already done by others over the decades. - Some references would be helpful here. (Not my downvote btw.)
    – Mark
    Mar 22 at 9:51
  • @Mark -- the work being done at the Division of Perceptual Studies at UVa is one good place to start: med.virginia.edu/perceptual-studies/publications
    – Dcleve
    Mar 22 at 14:55
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Can religious, mystical, or spiritual experiences reveal truth?

Reveal truth(s) about oneself? Yes, of course.

Reveal truth(s) about mathematics? Yes two!: Sometimes when looking for a theorem/proof, one experiences trance-like, altered states of consciousness, and conversely, such states, arrived at by other means, can be conducive to creativity

To what extent can we acquire reliable knowledge about the world through religious, mystical, or spiritual experiences?

"the world" as in "the material world"? Can one reliably know that there's a bright blue sky outside after days inside an underground bunker with no communication of any sort?

-1

As the other answers already imply, it simply depends on how you measure truth, so to speak. A common method in modern times is to apply logical reasoning and refer to observable facts, but it is by no means to only way; just look to conspiracy theories as an example, where 'The Truth' is decided a priori, and perceived reality takes second place. The point here being adherents genuinely believe this to be true.

Even in maths there isn't actually absolute truth; we choose our axioms as the ground truth, but that is a free choice each of us makes, and we could have chosen the opposite. The only things that we can declare to be universally true with some justification, are statements of the form 'If [axiom, axiom, ...] then [consequence, ...]' - that is, if we are convinced of the validity of boolean calculus; I am, but that is my choice.

The answer then, as others have already said, is yes, truth can be revealed through religious experiences; not only can you randomly stumble over something that is universally accepted as truth by rational criteria, but you can simply decree that something is true. However, whether this then stands up to reality is another matter.

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  • The Darwin Awards show some interesting test cases.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 23 at 12:22
  • heh - I stepped on somebody's toes, it seems. Shame they prefer to remain anonymous.
    – j4nd3r53n
    Mar 25 at 10:14

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