04 July 2014

Is Experience Really Ineffable?

What could this possibly be?

There's an old story from India that seems to crop up everywhere. In Buddhist literature it is found in the Udāna (Paṭhamanānātitthiya sutta) and possibly elsewhere. The story goes, that a group of men blind from birth (jaccandhā) were rounded up and asked to participate in an experiment. They are told "this is an elephant" (‘ediso, jaccandhā, hatthī’ti) and allowed to touch part of it. Then asked to describe "an elephant" they assert that it is either like a pot (the blind man who felt the elephants' head), a winnowing basket (ear), a ploughshare (tusk), a plough (trunk), a granary (body), a pillar (foot), a mortar (back), a pestle (tail) or a brush (tip of the tail).

The parable is supposed to illustrate a principle something like "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing". It says that we get a hold of part of something and claim to know everything, but we're like the blind men who don't see the big picture. The parable ends there, but it has to because the story would fall apart if it didn't. A while ago I noticed that a physicist, whose blog I read, had this as his Twitter profile bio:
If the blind dudes just talked to each other, they would figure out it was an elephant before too long. @seanmcarroll 
I bloody love this! I'm so sick of smug religious platitudes and I really love it when someone slam dunks one. Sean is responding to the way the story is typically told, in which the blind men have to identify an unknown animal. But as I say in the Buddhist version the "blind dudes" are told "this is an elephant" and have to describe it. The difference is not crucial.

Part of the reason I love Sean's comment is that I stood right next to an elephant when I was in India in 2004. It was on the road near Kushinagar, where the Buddha is supposed to have died. Elephants are big, smelly animals. If you got a lot of people crowding around an elephant to touch it, the thing would fidget at the least, and probably shuffle it's feet. As a herbivore an elephant not only eats a lot, but it shits a lot. Many times a day. Chances are it dropped a big load of dung while being examined. Maybe it grumbled in low tones. The elephant's handler would have kept up the constant patter of the mahout: an elephant will do as it's told, but it needs a lot of reminding not to just wander off in search of food. And if you'd grown up in India in the time of the texts you'd know exactly what an elephant was like: sight or no sight. No conferring necessary. 

And this is the problem with so many of these smug little parables. We who tell or read these stories are supposed to be much cleverer than those people who are in the cross hairs. But the story itself is... (shall we say) unsophisticated. How naive do we have to be to take this tripe seriously? 

Even so, Sean Carroll has put his finger on something very important about knowledge that is all too often left completely out of philosophical accounts. We don't live in perpetual isolation from other people. We communicate with them incessantly. A blind man is not of necessity unable to communicate because they can't see. 

In the story the elephant is standing still, it makes no sound, has no smell and the blind men get one touch and no chances to confer, and seem to have been kept in isolation for their whole lives. How is this reasonable? It is a poor story designed to make a presupposition sound plausible. Why does everyone nod sagely when they hear this rubbish? Why do they congratulate themselves on not being like the stupid men in the story? The story is self-defeating - it displays the very attitude it is supposed to guard against. To a scientist it's a ludicrous scenario. Scientists work by comparing their observations and coming up with a theory which will explain them all. If the blind men were scientists they'd want to compare notes, to repeat the experiment with another animal and see what happened. If they were presented with various animals at random could they identify which were elephants? And so on. 

The Tennis Match.

When I read philosophers of mind talking about subjectivity, I find myself experiencing cognitive dissonance. Of course we can argue about the ontological status of the objects behind our experiences: do they exist, do other people exist? But take the case of a tennis match before a crowd of some 10,000 people. What we observe is that heads turn to follow the ball. They do not turn at random, they do not turn in an uncoordinated way. 10,000 people's heads turn in unison, at the same time, at the same speed, and they do so without any connection between the people. Are those 10,000 people really having a completely different experience? Would they really struggle to describe why they where turning their head to follow the ball?

True each person would have had a unique perspective on the ball, but there is a considerable overlap. Different people might have supported different players. Some might be elated that their player won, or dejected that their player lost. Does the fact that they had different emotional responses to the experience of watching a ball get batted back and forth mean that they saw an entirely different event? Surely it does not.

If we go to a concert with like-minded friends, afterwards we can talk coherently about what we've seen and experienced during the show. We don't usually find that we heard Arvo Pärt while our friends heard Metallica. We hear the same music. We might have noticed different nuances. My friend might have noticed an out of tune French Horn, while I was oblivious. Our attention to the details will depend on many factors, but we see and hear the same performance and can talk coherently about it afterwards. If my friend found a particular passage moving and they describe that to me, I may well have responded differently, but I can relate to my friends account with empathy. Or I might have been moved but not understood why and when my friend articulates their experience I will suddenly experience understanding and know exactly what they mean.

If I go to a comedy film and find myself laughing along with a few hundred other people am I truly cut off from them in my own little bubble? Robin Dunbar (of the Dunbar Numbers fame) has shown that we are 30x more likely to laugh at a film when we are with four people than if we are alone. Laughter is very often a shared experience. Dunbar hypotheses that shared laughter is a sublimation of primate grooming behaviour. Physical grooming in the large group sizes that human beings live in (facilitated by our large neocortex/brain ratio) would take up too much time, so we laughter, dance and sing together which has a similar physiological effect to physical grooming. See Dunbar's new book Human Evolution (highly recommended).

Thus is seems to me that characterising each person as being in an impenetrable bubble is not accurate. For a social animal like a human being, a good part of our experience is shared.

Private Experience vs Public Knowledge

It's sometimes said that our subjective experience is entirely private. But I don't think the examples above would be possible if this were true. So am I now a proponent of morphogenic fields? No! We know about the emotional state of another person through various cues that that other uses to broadcast their state: facial expression, posture, tone of voice, direction of gaze, etc. And we take these cues and use them to build an internal model - if I were to make my own face and body take on the configuration of the other persons face and body, how would that feel? And this is surprisingly accurate. Indeed we very often go one step further and adopt the posture of the other in solidarity. Less dominant individuals will adopt the body language of dominant individuals, and so on.

Human beings are capable of mentalising to a much greater extent than other animals. So for example Shakespeare wrote a story in which he has us believe that Iago convinces Othello that he (Iago) believes that the love Desdemona feels for Roderigo is mutual (and we the audience can understand the first person perspective of each character and how they see all the others). We understand our own minds from a first person perspective. We and many other animals are aware that other individuals also have a first person perspective that is just like ours. This is second order mentalising. But we humans can take this inference to a whole new level. On average humans can manage fifth order mentalising: for example we (1) might think that he (2) thinks that she (3) thinks that they (4) believe the proponent (5) is a liar. But in order to write such a story the author must be able to stretch to at least one extra order, they must be able to put themselves in our shoes as we take in the story. This is part of why Shakespeare is a remarkable writer, he has an extraordinary ability to see other points of view. The best story tellers place us inside the head of another human being and allow us to experience the world from their point of view. It's a remarkable gift!

We can easily comprehend the inner world of another person, especially if their identity is shaped by the same cultural factors as ours, but even with humans of very different cultures to a large degree. The capacity is not present in very young children but develops by about age 5. When the capacity does not develop, as in Aspergers Syndrome, it can be very painful to know that other people have inner lives but not to have easy access to them. It can be a source of considerable anxiety. Which is not to say that people who cannot assess the inner states of other person don't have inner lives themselves. They do.

One of the interesting features of the Buddhist tradition is that it seems to be understood that knowledge follows from experience. Far from being ineffable for example, the Spiral Path texts suggest that from the experience of liberation (vimutti) comes the knowledge of liberation (vimuttiñāna). I've noted in the past that Richard Gombrich makes this distinction also. The experience itself might be ineffable, but having had that experience we can say what it is like to have had it. We can say a lot about how the experience changed us, about how we feel about other things now we've had that experience. And this is why early Buddhist texts are full of descriptions of what it is like to have had the experience of bodhi.

In a recent talk at the University of Cambridge philosopher John Searle made an interesting distinction between ontology and epistemology (Consciousness as a Problem in Philosophy and Neurobiology). He said:
"The ontological subjectivity of the domain [of consciousness] does not prevent us from having an epistemologically objective science of that domain".
So conscious experience is ontologically subjective. Our first person perspective is internal to our own mind. By contrast molecules, mountains and tectonic plates are ontologically objective, they undoubtedly exist independently of our minds. If I say "Van Gogh is a better painter than Gauguin" that is an epistemologically subjective statement. It's something I think I know, but it is an aesthetic judgement that others may disagree with. However if I say "Van Gogh died in France", then this is epistemologically objective - it's knowledge that is external to me, something that everyone knows and there is no disagreement over.

Searle says that the argument that we can never study the mind scientifically is mixing up ontology and epistemology. This is a fallacy of ambiguity. We regularly use our ontological subjectivity to create a class of phenomena about which we can then make statements that are epistemology objective. There are many examples of this kind of phenomenon. Searle gives the examples of money, property, government, and cocktail parties.

Computation (2+2=4) is another ontologically subjective phenomenon about which we can make epistemologically objective statements. If I have two bananas and you give me two more, then objectively I have four bananas. As a written statement this is epistemologically objective, despite the fact that as a mental operation perceiving bananas, counting and addition are entirely subjective. Despite the subjective nature of these mental operations, there is no barrier to you having objective knowledge of what's just happened in my mind.

Searle uses the example of a falling object. If you drop a pen onto the floor it follows a path which defines a mathematical function: d = ½gt2 (where g = the acceleration due to gravity, t = time and d = distance). But nature does not do computation. The pen is simply a mass that travels through space. And close to the earth space is bent by the mass of the earth (the pen's mass also bends space, but not nearly as much because the effect is proportional to the quantity and density of matter). The effect looks just like a force of attraction. And that effect is described by the equation given above. But the universe doesn't calculate the distance. Calculation, computation, is purely subjective. Never-the-less the statement d = ½gt2 gives us objective knowledge (it allows us to subjectively make objectively accurate predictions), it's independent of our point of view.

Thus, according to Searle, the argument that the subjectivity of consciousness precludes any objective knowledge of it, is simply a logical fallacy that stems from confusing ontology and epistemology. And this means that consciousness is not ineffable in the way that some Buddhists argue that it is.

I would add to this that it's now possible, through stimulating individual neurons to provoke experiences. We discovered this during surgery on the brain. In some forms of brain surgery the patient remains conscious. If a tumour is in a delicate place the surgeon may want the patient to report what happens when a particular part of the brain is stimulated so as to avoid damaging a crucial function. What patients report under these conditions is entirely dependent on which part of the brain is being stimulated, at times which particular neuron: the results can be memories, sensory hallucinations (the illusion of sensory stimulation coming from direct neuron stimulation), motor activity, and so on. One could spend hours trawling through the search results of the search "awake during brain surgery". It's fascinating.


We need to think critically about parables that smack of platitude. Are they telling us something important, or are they, as in the case of the elephant and the blind man, simply religious propaganda that in fact blind us to greater truths? The whole arena of discussion about consciousness is fraught with difficulty. If Searle is right then there is widespread confusion over epistemology and ontology (which is one of the problems that plagues Buddhist philosophy too). Thinking clearly under these conditions can be exceedingly difficult.

It's true that an elephant, like any complex object of the senses, is a beast of many parts. It does have a ear like a winnowing basket, tusks like ploughshares, a trunk like a plough, a body like a granary, a leg/foot like a pillar, a back like a mortar, a tail like a pestle, and the tip of its tail is like a brush. Ears, tusks, trunk, legs, body, and tail all contribute to the animal we call "elephant". If we know what an elephant looks like we know we're looking at one from the slightest clue. Hence the picture accompanying this essay. I don't expect any of my readers to have any difficulty in identifying the elephant in the picture from its legs alone, even if they've never seen a real elephant.

We need not be like the blind men in the story and remain ignorant. We don't live in isolated bubbles. If we just compare notes on experience we come to a collective understanding. Even if there were plausibly a dozen people blind from birth in Sāvathī and even if plausibly they had never before had any experience of an elephant, the conversation they had would have revealed the bigger picture. In a sense this is what is implied by Mercier & Sperber's account of reasoning: reasoning is something we do together and on our own we're rather poor at it (see An Argumentative Theory of Reason). There's no a priori reason why we cannot compare notes, share knowledge and come to a greater understanding. And even if the domain is subjective, by comparing notes we do know that there are similarities which allow us to gain objective knowledge of that subjective domain.

I know some people like to play up the differences and discontinuities, but that story on its own is incomplete and partial. It's the kind of thing the elephant story warns us about. We always only have partial knowledge. Claims to full or ultimate knowledge are far more likely to come from religieux than scientists. Yes, experience is subjective, but this does not mean we can have no objective knowledge about experience. We can and do have partial objective knowledge about experience - else I could not expect anyone to read these words and find them meaningful. To my mind, religious stories like the elephant parable just get in the way of understanding.


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