Science is empirical; it is based on what can be observed, what can be experienced. This has several important implications. First, explanations are natural, not supernatural. Second, scientific knowledge is based on observed data, not on guesswork, tradition, or sentiment. And third, evidence must be public. In principle, more than one person should be able to observe the evidence; indeed, anyone who is properly positioned to have the experience should have it.
But this is not the only meaning of experience, or even the primary one, in many contexts.
A part of the controversy over evidence-based medicine can be traced to different ideas about the kind of experience that is the basis for medical knowledge. Evidence-based medical practitioners think of medicine as being like a science, for which controlled empirical studies of large numbers of patients provide the best evidence for which treatments work. Others see medicine as being more like a craft that is based primarily on the clinical relationship between doctors and their patients. For them, experience is personal, and some doctors believe that what they have learned from their experience treating patients as distinct individuals cannot be replaced by generic studies.
In an April 2007 New Yorker article by John Colapinto titled “The Interpreter: Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?”, the linguist Dan Everett claims that members of the Piraha tribe are “the ultimate empiricists.”
The tribe embodies a living-in-the-present ethos so powerful that it has affected every aspect of the people’s lives. Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Piraha do not think, or speak, in abstractions - and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths. Everett pointed to the word “xibipio” as a clue to how the Piraha perceive reality solely according to what exists within the boundaries of their direct experience–which Everett defined as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living has seen and heard. “When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Piraha say that the person has not simply gone away but “xibipio”–”gone out of experience,” Everett said. “They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light “goes in and out of experience.”The extreme attitude toward experience of the Piraha points out the limits of empiricism, and why a culture that is empiricist to such a degree could never develop anything resembling modern science, because science is just as dependent on the trustworthiness of testimony as it is on the trustworthiness of direct experience.
On the one hand, our culture, which is a culture thoroughly permeated by science and technology, is resolutely empiricist. On the other hand, we are reliant on information about experiences that are not our own.
I’m reading a book about children and education that quotes ecological psychologist Edward Reed:
There is something wrong with a society that spends so much money, as well as countless hours of human effort—to make the least dregs of processed information available to everyone everywhere and yet does little or nothing to help us explore the world for ourselves.and
[We are beginning] to lose the ability to experience our world directly. What we have come to mean by the term experience is impoverished; what we have of experience in daily life is impoverished as well.
I have a hard time seeing that what we mean by experience is at fault, or that abundance of information is necessarily a barrier to having first-person, direct experiences.
Although Reed is allied with pragmatists James and Dewey, to hold that our concept of experience (as second-hand, testimonial information about the world rather than direct perception) strikes me as less than pragmatic. Isn't it possible that our easy access to information, and increasingly good and well-vetted information, may serve us in gaining direct, first-hand experience? For instance, if I’m interested in trees, I might look up what trees grow in the forest outside my back door, learn that tulip trees are common and a little about them, and then by going into the forest be able to distinguish tulip trees from other trees by their flower and leaves. Although this is not the same kind of activity as aimless noodling about, I can learn to be a better direct observer by having access to second-hand information.
In the context of childhood education and the value of spending time in nature and time in creative play, then it seems to me that it is not the meaning of ‘experience’ that is at fault but an education system that is relentlessly competitive on many different levels and that relies on simple tests to gauge complex learning. A completely different matter.