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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

On the Variety of Experience

In a previous blog (see here) I put forth a "refutation of empiricism". The problem with this refutation (and I think I was somewhat aware of it at the time but couldn't fully figure out how to vocalize it) is that it fails to make some distinctions between different kinds of experience in favor of how experience has been treated, historically, in epistemology. My overall critique, I think, is accurate in the sense that it points out the failure of epistemology to address important issues due to very specific (and quite honestly bad) simplifications which fail to deal with matters in a more intelligible matter.

Part of my own explorations in the philosophy of mathematics is to accurately characterize how knowledge is obtained via mathematics. Mathematics, whether correctly or incorrectly, has historically been viewed as the prime example of knowledge for which all other sciences can only hope to attain. This is, in my view, still true today. I suggest that it is no coincidence that there is a correlation between how "hard" a science is and how much math is involved, with physics being considered supreme amongst the sciences. The general thesis that "knowledge comes from experience" and "by experience we mean sensations or observations" is clearly incompatible with the view that mathematics is the prime example of knowledge since mathematics fails to have those essential properties. But I would actually suggest that the way in which the empirical sciences actually work is contrary to the way empiricism is often worked out in the philosophical literature. I've noticed that even many scientists fall into the mischaracterizations, as given by the philosophical literature of the very work they do. In any event, these are, more or less, underdeveloped thoughts on my part. What I intend to do is list three kinds of experience. I will not say that these are exhaustive but I do think they better clarify this matter.

1) Experience as "sense impression"

I borrow the phrase, roughly, from Hume. I could very well use "sense data" or "observation" or "perception" (although this word is certainly not univocal; it's possible to "misperceive", for example.) This is the sort of empiricism which I most certainly rejected.

2) Experience as experiment

This more resembles that of what the empirical sciences use. Experimentation was advocated by a number of philosophers including Descartes and Bacon as well as many scientists such as Galileo and Newton (and to some extent I abhor the distinction between these two: scientist and philosopher. I'm not sure why it is we don't count Galileo and Newton amongst the philosophers; I hope this mistake will be rectified.) Here we set up a controlled experiment and record the results of that experiment (which are often measurements of some sort.) It should be clear that my critique of empiricism does not address this form of experience although I still have some considerable doubts as to the claim "all knowledge comes from experience", even in this sense of the word. I do think that some knowledge comes from experience of this sort.

3) Experience as practice or "know-how"

This sort of experience is a practical sort of experience. It's typically an activity of some sort which is practiced and "with experience" one comes to "know how" to perform this activity. Playing an instrument, riding a bike, performing surgery: these are all activities which require time and practice in order to learn and become better at. They require "experience". Again, my critique of empiricism does not address this form of experience but I would conjecture that the form of knowledge obtained via this kind of experience is a different kind of knowledge. The general concern of epistemology is propositional knowledge, for example: I know that 1+1=2. In this case we have something different which I'm not entirely sure how to classify. I think it may be, perhaps, reducible to knowledge by "acquaintance" or at least related to acquaintance in some way. What this seems to be are examples of the form: I know how to ride a bike.

As mentioned before, it's not entirely clear that the above is an exhaustive list but it should clarify my rejection of empiricism more by clarifying what sense of "experience" I am rejecting.

1 comment:

  1. Although you're on a very interesting subject, I find this piece a little confusing.
    I think it might help if you start with a definition of "knowledge."

    When you read something in a book, deriving all the facts second-hand, you have what I would call "synthetic knowledge." If, however, you actually GO fishing instead of reading about it, you will have experienced it first-hand and then have real knowledge of the subject.
    So what IS knowledge?

    If we don't want to be ambiguous about it, we must settle on a fixed definition, and that definition must be rooted in concrete reality whence all our knowledge is derived.

    What of men who have fantastic notions? Is it KNOWLEDGE that they have? When a man dreams-up his own facts to describe a fictional situation, would you say he was employing KNOWLEDGE?


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