Making Sense of Private Experience
Ever since Kant we have recognized that we know reality only through our experience of it. We have no privileged epistemic access to the Dingen An Sich, the things in themselves. (In fact the presumption that there are many things is just that, a presumption.) All we have is phenomena, how reality appears to us; all we have is our experience. What is of interest, then, is how to make sense of that experience.
Along these lines, Tommy Kelly, a friend in the philosophy club and quite a bright and interesting fellow, has an intriguing comment on my blog post “Is Science a Religion?” In that essay I claim that there is a parallel between scientific observation and meditative experience. Tommy wants to take it a step further and say there is really no difference at all between the two. Here is what he writes:
Reading your article reminded me of a question I’ve had for a while but for which as yet I’ve not been able to figure out an answer. You say:
…religion at its best bears some resemblance to science. The phenomena it concerns are not public in the same way that the subject matter of the physical sciences is. But they are subject to verification. There exist, for instance, quite detailed sets of instructions for meditative practices that produce altered experiential states. …You can think of spiritual practice as a sort of experiment. You have to do the experiment to get the results, just as you do in the physical sciences. Unlike the physical sciences, the results are largely private, not public; but they are not unverifiable.
I agree with most of that, but I’m suspicious of this part: “The phenomena it concerns are not public in the same way that the subject matter of the physical sciences is.” Consider the following two experiments:
Experiment One: Look through a telescope oriented in a particular way.
Result: You will experience a set of phenomena (sights, sounds, feelings, etc.) commonly known as “the rings of Saturn.” Note that these phenomena—your observations—are private. As you peer through the telescope you and only you will “see Saturn.” Nevertheless, someone else can repeat the experiment; and we are confident they will experience their own private observations that, according to our shared language game, are considered the same as yours.
Experiment Two: Kneel down with your back upright then close your eyes and make mental notes—”rising…rising…rising” and “falling…falling…falling”—corresponding with the movement of your abdomen as you breathe.
Result: You will experience a set of phenomena (sights, sounds, feelings, etc.) commonly known as “the first samatha jhana.”(1) (Of course I understate the amount of such practice that is needed, but the point remains regardless.) Note that these phenomena—your observations—are private. As you perform the noting exercise, you and only you will “enter jhana.” Nevertheless, someone else can repeat the experiment; and we are confident they will experience their own private observations that, according to our shared language game, are considered the same as yours.
Generalizing, then, it seems that *all* observations are private. In that case, the private versus public difference doesn’t seem to exist after all. So in what way is science different from religion-at-its-best?
To Tommy I respond as follows:
Yes, all observations are private, but what they are observations of is a matter of interpretation. Some are usefully taken to be public, and others, private. Science treats the former, and religion treats the latter.
The difference between seeing the rings of Saturn and experiencing the first samatha jhana is that all those who see the rings of Saturn consensually agree that what is seen is a set of objects existing independently of anyone’s seeing them; but those who experience the first samatha jhana consensually agree that what is experienced is not one set of objects existing independently of anyone’s experience of it, but rather a state that is experienced only by the experiencer. In other words, there are as many states as there are observers, and each observer experiences his or her own state of jhana, not anyone else’s. (In addition, you can quantify what is seen when you see the rings of Saturn but you cannot (I think) quantify what is experienced when you experience the first samatha jhana.)
We all consensually agree that what scientific observations are of is a reality independent of us. I suppose that we can’t unequivocally prove that it is so, but such an interpretation makes very good sense of our experience, and it works to help us get around in the world and make intellectual sense of it.
What meditators experience, we consensually agree, is private to each meditator. I suppose that we can’t unequivocally prove that it is so, but such an interpretation makes very good sense of our experience, and it works to help us get around in the world and make intellectual sense of it.
So the difference between science and religion-at-its-best is found not in single observations, each of which is indeed private, but in the sense we make of multiple observations by multiple people. It is reasonable to take the objects of science as public. It is reasonable to take the objects of religious experience as private, or at least not public in the same way.
William James, the great American Pragmatist, puts it this way:
Ideas (which themselves are but parts of our experience) become [believable] just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience, to summarize them and get about among them by conceptual short-cuts …. Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is [believable] for just so much, [believable] in so far forth, [believable] instrumentally.(2)
James offers epistemological criteria for what warrants our belief. The idea that the rings of Saturn are public objects links our observations satisfactorily and saves intellectual labor compared to the idea that everyone seeing them observes something different. Similarly, the idea that the first samatha jhana is private to each meditator links our observations satisfactorily and saves intellectual labor compared to the idea that all the meditators perceive the same thing.
James took these epistemological criteria a step further into the metaphysical theory that all that exists is experience.(3) We need not go that far to understand that it is a good idea to examine our experience closely because our experience is all we have. Philosophically, the discipline of Phenomenology founded by Edmund Husserl is a useful method.(4) Practically, the disciplines of meditation, particularly Buddhist Vipassana, are helpful.(5) However we do it, investigating our own experience is a step toward knowing ourselves, the essence of wisdom.
(1) “Samatha” is a form of Buddhist meditation. “Jhana” is a Buddhist term meaning absorption. The first samatha jhana is the first of a series of states of meditative absorption. See The Dharma Overground, “Samatha jhanas.”
(2) James, “What Pragmatism Means,” p. 49. I substitute “believable” for “true” in this passage, as I think James, in his zeal, misuses the latter term.
(3) James, “A World of Pure Experience.”
(4) Wikipedia, “Phenomenology (philosophy).”
(5) The Dharma Overground, “Vipassana.”
James, William. “A World of Pure Experience.” Online publication http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/experience.htm as of 21 August 2013. Archived at http://bmeacham.com/whatswhat/OP/James_AWorldOfPureExperience.htm.
James, William. “What Pragmatism Means.” Pragmatism and four essays from The Meaning of Truth, pp. 41-62. New York: Meridian Books, 1955. Online publication http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/james.htm as of 21 August 2013. Archived at http://bmeacham.com/whatswhat/OP/James_WhatPragmatismMeans.htm.
The Dharma Overground. “Samatha jhanas.” Online publication http://www.dharmaoverground.org/dharma-wiki/-/wiki/Main/samatha+jhanas as of 19 January 2016.
The Dharma Overground. “Vipassana.” Online publication http://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/dharma-wiki/-/wiki/Main/vipassana as of 21 January 2016.
Wikipedia. “Phenomenology (philosophy).” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenomenology_%28philosophy%29 as of 21 January 2016.