Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What is experience?

I’ve been thinking a little about what philosophers and scientists mean by “experience.”

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.”

Colapinto writes
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.
[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.


Sharon Crasnow said...

But couldn't it be argued that now that you know that these are tulip trees you are going to see them through that understanding and so may miss some kernel of truth about them that you would have seen if you had been observing them more directly? Here I am just thinking of how to play devils advocate, but in doing so I think I may find myself responding to my own argument. Notice that there is an assumption that there is such a thing as direct seeing, that is, some kind of unmediated seeing. This is something that would be more like what a very young child does, I suppose. But the thing is that such seeing really isn't very useful (even if there is such an "unmediated", direct sort of seeing). And part of why it isn't useful is because there isn't any network of other beliefs that this seeing comes connected to. Finding out that these are tulip trees does fit them into such a network.

Here is another forest example. I am currently at Seoul National University which is set up against heavily forested mountains. Though heavily forested, I think that these are pretty clearly new growth forests (though it is also possible that the sorts of trees growing here just do not grow very tall or have very thick trunks). I only have either of these hypotheses at all because of other things that I know about forests (not much, but something). Walking with my husband yesterday morning, I wondered about these hypotheses out loud and discovered that all he saw, with his unmediated seeing, was "forest" or maybe even more generally "greenery".

So, if knowledge is based on experience, the gap between knowledge and experience seems like it can only be bridged by more knowledge. Experience on its own doesn't really get you much.

Evelyn Brister said...

I agree with you that
"if knowledge is based on experience, the gap between knowledge and experience seems like it can only be bridged by more knowledge."
All kinds of education--whether through teachers, guidebooks, whatever--seem to recognize that we can make better sense of experience when we have help interpreting it.
The book I'm reading that got me thinking is Richard Louv, The Last Child in the Woods. He includes a quote by T.H. Huxley:
"To a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or seaside stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall."
Louv is concerned about how little natural history is part of school and college curricula.
There is another assumption that you and I are both making, which is that it is important to be getting truth and knowledge out of a walk through the forest. While I think that I do enjoy my stroll more because I see more when I know something about the forest--or at least when I'm curious about the forest--one of Louv's points is that there are other goods that come out of being in nature. Relaxation, sociability or solitude, sense of place, and emotional well-being.
Also, I should make it clear that I agree with Reed that it is valuable to get students out in the forest because it is a form of primary (or direct) experience that can't be substituted by only reading about trees. This is why labs and field trips are an absolutely essential part of science education. I only disagree that it makes sense to prioritize these different types of learning. Both seem to be essential to learning and doing science.

Khadimir said...

I offer an alternative understanding of what the education psychologist Mr. Reed may have meant. First, I understand him to be articulating the common line that children are increasingly going to “information sources” to inform their experience rather than experiencing the situation itself (or doing both as Dr. Brister mentions). This is the fear that I have, which may unduly alter my reading, hence let me articulate my own fears on the subject.

With the advent of the information age and the wide availability of instantaneous information, too many people live progressively more of their lives in the reflective moment of experience rather than just having the experience (Deweyan primary/secondary experience distinction). Imaging technologies are representing remote experience in ever more sophisticated ways, and I fear that the value of first-hand, lived experience of what is being represent is being lessened, ignored, perhaps discarded. The value of certain kinds and modalities of experience is changing without much discussion of the consequences. Though this concerns me in many areas, consider the possible effects in early education.

My concern is that the realms of instructive experience are larger than what can be had through deciphering information. Mere information can never be the core of curricular athletics, art, craft, shop, etc. However, primary education has been trending away from these forms of education and towards “core subjects” and technological literacy that privileges technological tools of information management.

We are what we experience and what we know. A curriculum of mere information and formal knowledge ignores the core truth that experience and knowledge is transformative of the person. That is, lest I stray from my point, information and formal knowledge enriches the reflective moment of our lives, but the reflective moment is always founded on the non-reflective moment. An education that solely cultivates the reflective moment is a deficient education; it breeds, at its best as I have too often seen, people who know too much and test well, but do not understand, don't get it, are out of tune, etc.

It breeds people who have already interpreted the experience that they have not yet had.

Evelyn Brister said...

Thanks for your insights, Khadimir. I especially like your point that relying on secondary experience encourages us to form opinions (prejudices) about things before we have a complete understanding of them. We think we know more than we really know when our impressions are based on a video or a TV program rather than getting out and being in the world.

What you write raises the question of whether there is a difference between knowledge and information. Information seems limited to propositional (factual) statements. While knowledge includes information, it seems as though it is a more expansive category. Much has been written about the limits of "S knows that P" epistemology, and I think these debates about hands-on education vs. the kind of education that is preparatory for standardized testing gets at the practical importance of challenging a narrow definition of knowledge as propositional.

In Louv's book, he interviews a neurology professor, Frank Wilson, who believes that today's medical students have less experience solving physical problems than virtual ones. Wilson says that it's hard to teach today's medical students how the heart works as a pump "because these students have so little real-world exerience; they've never siphoned anything, never fixed a car, never worked on a fuel pump, may not even have hooked up a garden hose."

But you also get at another worrying aspect of early education, besides the lack of hands-on activities. That is, that the kind of education that prepares students for standardized testing is at best, reflective. Very often, though, they are taught "facts" and not taught about the process of inquiry.

Khadimir said...

At the end of your comments, Dr. Brister, you mention the dangers of teaching students facts and not about the process of inquiry. I see this problem first-hand in an extreme way every day.

East-Asian educational systems, particularly China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, are founded on route memorization and narrow analysis. I have taught and befriended many such students, and the problems became starkest when I began to be a conversation partner for Taiwanese students.

In the process of helping them with their graduate work (principally instruction in conversational English and editing of assignments), I have noted that they are generally terrible at synthetic, critical, second-order, etc. thinking. After discussing the matter with many of them, it became clear that though I am constantly astonished at the breadth of their knowledge and skills, they commonly lack what we would call a real-world understanding of the material.

I take this to be an instance and case study of what happens with the extreme privileging of information in the reflective moment. To use common educational terminology, they excel at theoretical knowledge and the management of the requisite information to explain this knowledge, but their ability to apply it is terrible.