MWP 1.2: The Appeal to Experience

Chapter outline level

a. Experience and its Adequacy

Experience is formatted in ways that can be understood without appealing to metaphysics. There are some respects in which each person’s experience appears to be unique, but this does not imply solipsism (which is a negative metaphysical interpretation). Our experience is influenced by an interplay with our conceptual expectation, but that doesn’t imply whether there is or is not any experience free of concepts. How much our concepts format our ‘reality’ seems to depend on the interaction of the brain hemispheres. The degree of adequacy of claims that are justified by our experience depends on our degree of openness to right-hemisphere information not entirely determined by our concepts, as much as it does on the coherence of our conceptual beliefs. That adequacy is negatively impacted by metaphysical beliefs that close off new information. It is also subject to the demands of practical judgement, when we are obliged to close off that openness and assume a particular state of affairs.

b. Experience and Meaning

Meaning needs to be understood in terms of inextricably interdependent cognitive and emotive elements, using the embodied approach to meaning explored more fully in volume 3. The adequacy of our experience depends on both these elements of meaningfulness in varying proportions, in relation to desire and belief respectively. Our experience is made more adequate by the meaningfulness of the words and symbols we are using, whether that meaningfulness is primarily created by a role in representation, or by the emotive power of drawing our desires. The adequacy of experience is thus made up of the adequacy of desire (the energy given to engaging with experience), adequacy of meaning (the extent to which the cognitive and emotive meaningfulness of symbols helps us interpret experience) and the adequacy of belief (how far the beliefs that shape our experience are coherent and critically examined).

c. Theory in relation to Experience

To assess the adequacy of experience in relation to our beliefs that try to represent it, we need to think in terms of probabilities: the weight of experience makes a theory based on it more probable. However, probability can’t just be based on a number of confirmations or disconfirmations, as all these are subject to scepticism. Instead, the adequacy of our experience needs to be taken into account together with the weight of confirmations and disconfirmations. With second-hand evidence, we also need to judge the credibility of sources on similar grounds of adequacy, not just by absolutizing the truth or falsity of a source. Falsifiability is not rationally decisive, but is a psychological attitude of openness to alternatives, adding to adequacy.

d. The Phenomenological Use of Terms

The avoidance of metaphysical claims, whether positive or negative, in Middle Way Philosophy, could be seen as phenomenological, in the sense of “universal epoche with respect to the being or non-being of the world” (Husserl). However, this suspension of ontological assumptions should not be mistaken as giving us any new kind of certainty. Phenomenological analysis may be useful in some respects, but also does not create any guarantee of provisionality: it is psychological states that produce this.

e. The Limitations of Empiricism

Middle Way Philosophy share with empiricism a concern with experience as a basis of judgement, but not the series of limiting assumptions empiricists have made about experience. We can’t assume that the universe is pre-formatted to be intelligible (Aristotle), nor that ‘facts’ about it can be gathered in a way that excludes values (Hume and the logical positivists). We can’t build certainty on an atomic analysis of experience (Hume), nor justifiably assume that we can do no better than analysing conventional intuitions used to interpret experience (analytic philosophy). A priori reasoning also can’t be wholly rejected as a source of information, it just needs to be understood in non-absolute terms.