MWP 1.2.a Experience and its Adequacy

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What is experience? In some ways the answer to this seems obvious. Experience is what happens to people: the succession of mental events associated with a particular individual. In other ways this is not so obvious. In what sense do these mental events “succeed” one another and in what sense are they “associated with a particular individual” if they are not linked by a metaphysical self (see 1.j)? Given that my experience is unique, how can I talk about it at all? Most importantly, how can we use experience to justify claims of any kind?

In the remainder of this chapter I will offer some preliminary answers to these questions. However, like the arguments against metaphysics in section 1, these answers will depend on a particular account of meaning, considered in 2.b. In the remaining chapters of section 2 I will be clarifying how this approach differs from previous approaches that have appealed to experience.

In 1.j I accepted the Kantian distinction between the self of apperception and the empirical self. This is a crucial distinction in explaining how our experience can be structured without a metaphysical self. The self of apperception is simply a framework for experience that sets the limits on what we experience and determines the format in which we experience it. Many of the limits and formats of experience appear to be universal on the evidence available to us (though, as discussed in 1.f, we cannot conclude that they are actually universal), but nevertheless, each self of apperception has an individual version of those limits and formats. For example, all of us appear to perceive objects in time and space, to assume that objects are substantial and that they relate to each other causally: however, each of us perceives a different time and space, with different substances and causes, just as different computers may each be formatted with the same software, but each use this software to process different data.

In an important sense, then, I experience my own individual universe. If this were not the case we would not be subject to many of the problems of perceptual scepticism that are due to the relativity of perspective. However, if we distinguish this universe created by the self of apperception carefully from the self as an object of experience, there is no need to draw solipsistic conclusions. Solipsism is a negative metaphysical position, which assumes that because we have no absolute proof that there are others in the universe we experience, therefore there are no others. This is an example of sceptical slippage from uncertainty into denial of a kind that should now be familiar (see 1.h). It is enough that there seem to be others, and that our apperceptional universes appear to interact. We are also released from any requirement to identify other metaphysical selves, if we can let go of the idea of others being selves and instead think of them as egos (in the sense discussed in 1.j). There is no ‘problem of other minds’ if we refuse to get hung up on worries about the reality of other minds but merely investigate experience.

There are also obviously ways in which our experience interacts with the ways in which we signify it. We do not need to think only of experience happening first and then us describing or representing it, but also of representations influencing the way in which we experience our universe. One simple example of this is the selectivity of perception when we are searching for something. We have a representation in our minds of what we are seeking, which, put together with our drive to seek that thing, causes us to concentrate only on experience that may aid our search. If I am looking for greenfly on a rose, I am not likely to be admiring its bloom at the same time. Various psychological experiments have indeed shown that people can ignore bizarre and unexpected events when they are intent on something else in the field of view.[1]

This influence from our representations does not prove that there cannot be any experience that is independent of our representations and the expectations that they create, only that there is an interplay. We can always be surprised, and our representations may lead us to be more or less prepared for such surprises. If we believe that we know the universe, for example, surprises may be much more damaging than if we manage to maintain a degree of provisionality in our beliefs about it (see 1.c). In terms of the brain, if we stay in a state of left-hemisphere dominance we will assume certainty about the universe we represent to ourselves, but if we allow sufficient interaction with the right hemisphere we will be alert for threats to that universe. There seems to be good evidence that the right hemisphere does remain alert for such threats without the conscious linguistic activity of the left hemisphere being involved[2]: but it is still possible for a dominant left hemisphere to completely ignore its promptings.

We can try to signify experience, then, because the signification is linked to the experience in our minds. We can tag a set of words, a symbol, a mental picture or even an entirely abstract code, to our memory of a particular experience. However, as previously argued (1.a) we cannot be sure of any precise relationship between the experience and the signification, beyond the moment that we link the two. We may make mistakes ourselves about the link due to lapses in memory, and clearly others may attach a quite different signification to a particular set of words or symbol to what we intended. When I “talk about” my experience, then, all I do in effect is make a fallible mental link between the experience I am trying to signify and the experience of the signs I use to tag it in myself or in others.

To create a claim about an experience, I not only make this significating link, but associate that link with representational belief. Within my private universe of experience, I construct a smaller universe, the universe I believe I inhabit. This smaller universe is made out of propositions or other representations.

So what could justify me in putting forward propositions that are claimed to represent “the universe”? Not any certainty of its relationship with an actual universe, nor even any certainty of relationship with the universe of experience, as I have already explored. Instead, it must be the adequacy with which those beliefs have been formed, and the provisionality with which they are held.

If my beliefs merely state pre-conceptions, or pre-conceptions that are only modified slightly by experiences from beyond those preconceptions, they are not very adequate. If my experience itself has been shaped to a large extent by pre-conceptions, then the experience itself will not be very adequate, even if I report that experience fully. If I investigate thoroughly with an open mind, and represent my experiences as faithfully as I can, but then am not open to modifying my claims subsequently in the light of further experiences, my justification also loses adequacy.

So, more generally, adequacy can be understood as the openness with which the universe is experienced and represented, not just at one time but over a period of time, taking into account the limitations of our experiences and representations. Physiologically, this will correspond to the extent of effective links between left and right hemispheres,  that have not been inhibited by excessive left hemisphere dominance.

Adequacy can be limited both by things that we expect to find that unduly dominate our experience and representations (positive metaphysics), and by things that we do not expect to find that we are thus not open to experiencing and representing, because we reject any theoretical conception of them (negative metaphysics). So positive metaphysics tends to limit our experiential adequacy through confirmation bias, and negative metaphysics through disconfirmation bias. A believer in angels will look for them and see them in the architecture, whilst a denier of angels will not even look for them and is thus extremely unlikely to see them. Both are equally mistaken in the ways they limit their experience. Those with more adequate experience still need to be looking for something – whether angels or litter-bins – but will do so more flexibly and with a greater openness to the unexpected.

However, there is also a further aspect of experience that needs to be incorporated into this complex, balanced picture. This is the demand of action. Our experience does not occur passively in a vacuum, but is rather a function of our active behaviour in shaping our environment. Adequacy of experience must thus include not just adequacy of judgement in relation to what we represent as being the case in our constructed universe, but also adequacy of judgement as to how and when to act. Since action cuts off contemplation, our suspension of judgement often must have a time limit. I cannot look too hard for angels when I have to find bread for my family. My maximising of experiential adequacy must be maximising in the practical circumstances.

Very often our motive for accepting a certain provisional account of things is practical. My physical desires drive me to seek food, shelter, social status, stimulus or respite. To seek these things I must provisionally accept an understanding of the world in which they both exist and are important to me. Nevertheless, my search for bread need not bar me from distinguishing between types of bread that are more or less nourishing and acceptably produced. My anxiety about social status need not prevent me from being an empathetic observer of others as far as I am able. Nor need my need for stimulus lead me to accepting either distracting trash or baffling obscurity, when the need for stimulus itself can help me to understand the world around me at a level I can understand and absorb. Positive and negative metaphysics potentially interfere with the adequacy of my experience not just in moments of scientific investigation or disinterested philosophical contemplation, but also in everyday practical decision-making. I gain in adequacy by neither idealising bread, (or people, or entertainment), nor on the other hand being undiscriminating, and thus my experience is at a very basic level a differentiable ethical experience. 

So, experience is not, as the early empiricists suggested, a blank slate on which we represent a precise set of impressions of the universe as it enters our senses. Nor, on the other hand, is experience a clouded mirror, a necessarily confused approximation of eternal truths known through reason, as the rationalists claimed. Instead, experience is more like a net, from which we sample the variety of the ocean’s fishes, and incidentally make our livelihood. It is a net with a size of mesh that we have some influence over, and that may catch too much or too little of interest. When we create theories from our experience we also use a second net to fish a selection from the first. If either of our nets is too big or too small, is practically too easy or difficult to haul, or has too fine or gross a mesh, or has holes in it, or is vulnerable to damage, or we do not take into account the limitations of our sampling and vary the fishing grounds, we become much less effective fishermen.


[1] See Chabris & Simons (2010)

[2] McGilchrist (2009) p.107

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