Random thoughts on random topics


On the relation between experience and theoretical explanation

The ultimate justification of a theoretical explanation resides in the fact that it changes our experience. It allows us, not only to see things differently, but better: for our understanding of things is in the way we experience them. In that sense theories are a means, not an end in themselves.

A good example seems to be provided by certain mathematical theories, in particular geometrical ones, that, when really understood, change our ways of perceiving objects and their relationships. Or rather, allow us to perceive them differently. It is this added freedom of perception that deepens our understanding: things are not just like this, they are much more.

Similarly, mythologies, mystical explanations, good philosophy. (Is there something of this in Wittgenstein’s  remarks on Frazer?)

But, of course, this will work only if we realise that a new way of looking at things, a new way of experiencing them, is just that: one among many possible ways. The crux of the matter is that we should not exchange one view for another, but ‘collect’ them, exploit them, amplify them.  Of course, we can’t hold onto all of them at the same time (in  much the same way that we can’t entertain two different sets of certainties).  Which means that we should engage in flexibility,  change, train ourselves to switch back and forth, enjoying the distance in between.

To come to grips with the relation between experience and theory (in a wide sense) seems a crucial issue: experience alone will not do (pace the claims of sensualism) because experience never comes only by itself. It is always accompanied by feelings, thoughts, emotions that transcend it. (Even when we are not aware of this. This shows itself in how we act upon our experiences.) It is in this sense that we are not a database of experiential input and some calculating device. We need theory, not to knit the experiences together, but to understand that what holds it together in the first place: our own selves. But understanding ourselves in that way is not enough: the understanding remains sterile if it is not tested again in new experiences, or rather, in new ways of experiencing.

Another aspect: certain types of theories, say particle physics, or neurophysiology, are hard to fasten unto everyday experience. We may know that what looks as a solid material object is nothing but a swarm of particles, but we can not experience it in that way. Similarly, we may know that certain feelings arise from certain stimulation patterns in the brain, made possible by the production of certain neurotransmitters, but that is not an account of what we experience. This, too, points towards a distinction between the experiential aspect, or content, of an experience, and the accompaniments thereof. Experience is that total, not one of its components. And such theories as indicated above mainly pertain to the ‘data aspect’ of experiences. 

Martin Stokhof
[from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22-08-1998]

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