# Are extraordinary first-hand subjective accounts more likely to be true the more people report the same experience?

For illustrative purposes, let's take as an example the following claim X = "I went to sleep, but then I suddenly woke up at 3:00 a.m. feeling a terrifying evil presence, and then my bed began to shake violently" (real life examples: 1, 2). X is evidently an extraordinary claim, but X is also a subjective first-hand account. Of course, the personal testimony of a single eyewitness does not constitute formal proof of anything (in a logical/mathematical sense). However, under other reasoning paradigms that can handle uncertainty, such as abductive reasoning, does the claim X become more likely to be true as more people report having experienced X? Say, 100 claimants, 1000 claimants, 10^6 claimants, etc. What if people from different countries and cultures report the same experience X?

In short, under a reasoning paradigm that tolerates different degrees of uncertainty, does an extraordinary first-hand subjective account X become more credible as the number of people reporting X increases?

* Note: let's suppose that all the reports were made before video cameras were invented, so demanding live recordings of the events is not allowed. We only have access to the eyewitnesses and their first-hand accounts.

Edit: An interesting and possibly related video.

• Yes, it does. Each report is an independent confirmation (assuming that the witnesses are reporting first hand, do not have shared biases, reasons to lie or be gullible, etc.), and the posterior probability of the event should be updated by the Bayes's rule after each report, which increases it. Keep in mind though that all it is the probability of is that the witnesses saw the event as described, it may well have been a collective hallucination, etc. That would have to be ruled out separately. Nov 5, 2020 at 1:26
• @Conifold: is there an upper bound for the probability though, especially if the claim is quite extraordinary for materialist standards? I mean, an upper bound other than the default 1.0, of course.
– user48437
Nov 5, 2020 at 2:42
• Theoretically, the only upper bound is 1, assuming perfect credibility of the witnesses (which is never that and can always be challenged). Nov 5, 2020 at 6:20
• Note that it is also important that reporting people have not known of each other's story. For example, it is well known that UFO and ET sightings follow the trends of popular culture, which suggests that witnesses just identify and report what they expect to see. Nov 5, 2020 at 8:32
• The first singular, personal sighting of a Black Swan may be remarkable, ornithologically miraculous. The ornithologists may not be believed. More sightings add credibility, but at the cost of the "miraculous" aspect, until at last Black Swans are proven to exist in this previously unexplored land, and they are no longer remarkable. It is "predictive power" that closes the deal. As Popper notes, the more unexpected or surprising the "successful prediction," the stronger the theory. But "predictable miracles" are a contradiction in terms, you may want to read Hume "On Miracles." Nov 9, 2020 at 17:12

This is an excellent question, which brings into focus many challenging questions of modern philosophy. As a spiritual dualist myself, I have trod this path, and can offer pointers.

First, and an aside, the reference to "extraordinary claim", is a red herring, and represents a fallacy which must be disposed of. To do empiricism properly, there is no "ordinary" vs. "extraordinary" distinction in observations. Nor in inferences. Anyone objecting that either an observation or inference is "extraordinary" and demand overwhelming support before being considered, is engaged in the fallacy of wishful thinking, then specials pleading to raise the bar for an observation or inference they so not want to accept. Probe what they mean by "extraordinary" and most who use the term will ultimately admit they mean "non-material". And as we all experience non-material qualia (see "The Hard Problem of Consciousness" for how qualia are non material), and non-material abstract objects and information every day, calling non-material things "extraordinary" is a gross misuse of the term for rhetorical purposes.

What is relevant in empiricism, and a valid criteria which the "extraordinary" language misrepresents, is that observations and inferences which contradict well-established certainties, DO have higher bars to acceptance than those which do not. "Facts" are just observations or well-established inferences we have high confidence in. But that "the world is ontologically solely material" is NOT a well-established certainty, and neither observations nor inferences that contradict it are subject to any "higher bar" standards.

What we DO know, is that the material world mostly seems to operate without non-material interdiction, with notable exceptions of a) consciousness on living things, b) math on fundamental physics, c) ideas on human thought and society, and d) relational abstractions (relationships, causation, time sequencing) affecting ALL material interaction. These are a large and diverse enough suite of exceptions, that the bar to expand them, while somewhat higher than for phenomena that don't contradict them, is not justifiably particularly high.

Now to your example: "I went to sleep, but then I suddenly woke up at 3:00 a.m. feeling a terrifying evil presence, and then my bed began to shake violently" This example has a sequence:

• Sleep
• woke 3 am
• felt terrifying presence
• bed shook

None of these in themselves contradict what we know, nor does the sequence in combination, so no, this is not a good example of something "extraordinary". The INFERENCE to "there was an evil entity that I could sense which shook the bed" -- THAT has a higher bar to be accepted. However, note that the ability to sense morality -- is not contradicting what we know, and the ability of conscious entities to causally affect our world is likewise not contradicting what we know. The only noteworthy new assertion is that such an entity could be discarnate.

I still have not gotten to your core question, but I have one more tangent to address first, and that is first person empiricism. Humans are naturally empiricists. when trying to crawl, or walk, children try variants on motion, then gradually revise how they move based on observed successes or failures. A more refined process was that of learning how to make pots, or fletch arrows. This is primarily a first person process -- we humans do almost all of our empiricism in the first person. The problem with empiricism is not that one uses the first person, but that we humans are particularly poor at resisting confirmation bias. When one is just doing empiricism by oneself, there is no peer community to point out our blind spots in compiling evidence, or analyzing it, or considering alternative explanations. To do first person empiricism well, one must actively TRY to refute the conclusion one prefers, AND look to observations collected in more challenging circumstances than the ones that support one's conclusion. 3rd person empiricism has an advantage over first person, in that one is at least confirming the basic observation, and therefore excluding most instances of delusion.

Note that all observations are first person. 3rd person empiricism just is looking at confirmation from other first person observers. This final point lets me answer your question -- YES, having multiple observers report the same phenomenon DOES increase the credibility of the observation.

I will still challenge one more part of your question -- the inference to "more likely to be true" is a mis-statement of what empiricism provides. It references an absolutist "truth" rather than the pragmatic "utility". We cannot quantify "likelihood of truth", as we have no access to "truth". What we have is USEFULLNESS. And an observation or inference that applies to many people, and across multiple circumstances, would be more usefully generalizable than one that is based on a single instance or particular type of circumstance.

• We have a network of mutually supporting ideas. Extraordinary applies to overturning a chunk of that, and applies to say faster-than-light signals as much otherworldly presences. Perpetual motiin machines are a good example of why, have a look on Youtube to see how incredibly popular these are - even though we know they can't work. We put a barrier up to consideration of new perpetual motion machines, by requiring exhaustive extraordinary evidence, to avoid wasting everyone's time. Nov 11, 2020 at 15:07
• While downward causation is an ontological presumption and one with which I disagree, I find this answer to be very well constructed and demonstrative of subject-matter expertise! Che bravo.
– J D
Nov 11, 2020 at 15:41
• @CriglCragl -- FTL interactions have been verified in the confirmation of the Bell Inequality, and neither conservation of energy, nor the continual growth of entropy, which are the rationales for rejecting perpetual motion machines, are globally valid. For spontaneous breaking of all conservation laws, see: pnas.org/content/93/25/14256. For exception to entropy growth -- Stenger demonstrated that all expanding universes can have decreasing entropy, while all cyclic universe models propose an entropy-eating process. "Extraordinary" exclusions are just an approximation. Nov 11, 2020 at 17:31
• @JD -- it is a tangent off this answer, but the evolutionary tuning argument relative to consciousness that James applied to epiphenomenalism, and Popper extended to Identity Theories, can only be compatible with causal closure of the physical, if extremely strong downward causation (IE independent of the substrate) is accepted. One cannot have evolutionary tuning unless a phenomenon is independently causal. My spiritual dualism is fine with this. Popper's emergent dualism with very strong downward effects from emergent phenomenon is the best materialism can offer. Nov 11, 2020 at 17:44
• @Dcleve Thanks for a position for me to evaluate. I'm merely coming from the work Jaegwon Kim on this. Thanks for a path for pushback to it.
– J D
Nov 11, 2020 at 18:03

Of course, your question depends on metaphysical presuppositions. But from a scientific perspective, no. But that is because how you use 'to give account' is synonymous with 'to explain', and explanations range from hypotheses to theories, and questions regarding underdetermination of even the best theories are a philosophical problem. Thus, the question of how many times people have the same explanation for the claim 'the earth is flat' doesn't make the earth being flat any more likely.

At the base of this argument lies a presumption that scientists across their various methods reject: the frequency of an explanation does not entail the determination of that theory's accuracy in correspondence to reality (from the perspective of scientific realism) or best fit among possible, useful choices (from the perspective of an instrumentalist). Let's suss out some claims from an example and then draw the inference that allows us to answer the question from a scientific point of view.

Let's take another common example for a toy theory that a theologist might use. 'God is real and manifests cause and effect in the world, and this can be concluded because of the number of people who believe and explain the world in this way or who have witnessed God personally is too frequent to be false.

Thus, with a frequentist's notion of probability, one is essentially making the argument:

P1. Many people agree on the explanation about God and his existence.
P2. Since so many people agree, inductively and probabilistically we can claim that God exists.
C. Therefore, God exists.

So, here's where the inference to deny the validity becomes obvious. Induction simply does not work by the number of times people propose the hypothesis, but rather by how empirical evidence confirms the hypothesis. Simply put, the argument abuses the notion of induction.

So, we have an argument, and we have an inference that seems very persuasive, so by definition, we have a logical fallacy. Is this a fallacy anyone has named? Conveniently for us, yes. Any fallacy which presumes absolute determinism when we have only disposition is known as an appeal to probability. From WP:

An appeal to probability (or appeal to possibility) is the logical fallacy of taking something for granted because it would probably be the case (or might possibly be the case).1 Inductive arguments lack deductive validity and must therefore be asserted or denied in the premises.

Thus, you have again entered the territory of the scandal of induction. No matter how many times people present a hypothesis, or even collectively find evidence to confirm their hypothesis, one is left with mere correlation. This is the heart of why Richard Dawkins in his The God Delusion supports the claim 'God is a bad scientific theory', and is why Karl Popper's in his Logik der Forschung tried to use falsifiability as a criterion.

• Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Nov 10, 2020 at 6:11
• @PhilipKlöcking Sorry bout that. I tried, but I learned that some users can be banned from chat. Is there a way for me to move it before being asked by the system to do so?
– J D
Nov 10, 2020 at 19:33
• I'm pretty sure that all you can do is open a chat room (or use The Symposium) and ask the user to continue there. Generally yes, users can be suspended from chat as they can be suspended from the sites, but there has to be some serious misconduct for that to happen. Thing is, SE chat does not distinguish between sites, it is network-wide. So it might happen to people who always have been well-behaved here. Nov 10, 2020 at 19:37

It’s evidential and will suggest towards something so in that case, yes. But in terms of knowledge, no. A suggestion that something is true due to evidence does not lead to proof of it being true. That is the nature of the legal system, ‘If you believe beyond reasonable doubt...’

I think the premises JD mentioned above need tweaking but I don’t know how to comment on them

Why would I give an account of something extraordinary happening? A. Because it happened and I want the world to know. B. Because it didn’t happen quite like that but this version makes me look better. C. Because someone else reported this and got lots of attention, and I want attention as well, or I have a vivid imagination or both. Sometimes: Because I’m just lying.

So listening to these statements puts us in a difficult position, and each such statement needs to be evaluated individually.

No, it does not. The idea of something becoming more likely makes zero sense. Reality doesn’t obey a random process. The reality of whether or not a supernatural experience happened doesn’t obey a random process.

It happened or not. Either you have enough evidence to conclude that it did or it didn’t. Of course, this may be different to different people, but increasing degree of belief seems to make zero sense.