30 November 2018

Reframing the Perennial Philosophy. Part II: A Spectrum of Experience

In Part I of this essay I concluded that the Perennial Philosophy "ignores historical processes, fails to adequately distinguish epistemology and ontology, and asserts an untenable matter-spirit dualism." It is the second of these points that I wish to pursue in Part II. In particular, I will pick apart the claim of a metaphysical truth. Before I can do this, I need to introduce a way of thinking about experience that clearly distinguishes subjectivity and objectivity.

In the following diagram, I depict a model world with just four people. The field of experience of a person is represented by a coloured circle. 

The fields of experience may overlap with all others, with some others, or not all. It is assumed that people are able to communicate about their experience to about the same extent as their fields of experience overlap, because communication is a kind of shared experiential. I will present this as a general model of experience but also use it as a way of highlighting certain qualities of particular experiences.

Keep in mind that this is a simplified model created for rhetorical purposes. It does not perfectly represent a real person's field of experience. I will use the model to make analogies, but there are limitations. 

A general point is that most experiences are intentional. In philosophy of mind, intentionality refers to the quality of "aboutness". So we think about our day, or see an object, or feel happy to see our friend. Experience is structured by this epistemic subject/object distinction (later I will posit that this must also be true of the awakened). The structure is reflected in universal features of language. All human languages enable us to identify objects and processes using nouns and verbs, and specifically to identify agents and patients (who is doing what to whom). 

Note that subjectivity, as I am using the word, is not the same as ego or self-referential thoughts. Subjectivity is a point of view forced on us by the architecture of our bodymind. No one else can see through my eyes. And even the awakened still only see through their own pair (I don't take stories of ESP literally). One may have an egoless subjectivity, because subjectivity, as I am using the term, refers to all kinds of experience. By contrast I take objectivity to apply to any and all facts that are true without reference to our experience of them. In the normal scheme of things, all knowledge has an irreducible component of subjectivity, and it is really only collectively that we can infer objective knowledge, since comparing notes enables us to eliminate qualities that are only apparent to us.
1. Pure Subjectivity 

On the far left of the diagram, we see four fields of experience that do not overlap at all. These are four people in contact with four separate parts of the world, perhaps on different continents, and with no overlap of their sensory fields. In this artificial world, each person has only their own perceptions and while they can compare notes on experience, there is no apparent commonality and thus no possibility of agreement. It is as if they live in different worlds.

If this is a single experience, then all four people disagree on the nature of what happened. No two descriptions share any features.

An important class of experiences falls into this category, i.e., experiences where the object is apparent to us, but not to anyone else. Examples include, my private thoughts, or hallucinations (on which, see also my essay Realities).

2. Mixed Subjectivity

In the second left position, some of the fields of experience overlap. When they compare notes neighbours can find come commonality, but there is still nothing  that they can all agree on. There is no general sense of a shared experience. While red may agree to some extent with blue, and to some extent with yellow, blue and yellow have no common ground. As far as blue and yellow are concerned they are experiencing entirely different worlds.

With respect to a single experience we might say that some of the accounts partially overlap, but the opinions expressed about the experience are still largely unrelated to what others are saying.

As with pure subjectivity, there is no common point of reference. 

3. Middle Ground
In the middle all the experiential fields overlap to some extent. For the first time, there are some experiences that all four people in this world share. Note also that there is considerably more overlap generally. As well as all four sharing experiences, there are some experiences shared by three, but not the fourth. About one third of their experiences are available only to them.

For the first time, the four are able to agree on some details of a single experience. They will all agree that they experienced something similar, though they may still disagree on many details. We see here the beginning of objectivity, because comparing notes allows each observer to identify the aspects of the experience that are subjective and eliminate them from their account. However, a good deal of uncertainty remains for any knowledge inferred about the object.

4. Mixed Objectivity
In this state there is substantial overlap between all the experiential fields. About half of any given person's field of experience overlaps with all the others and less than a quarter is private to any one person.
The four are now largely in agreement on the core features of a shared experience, though they may still have their own opinions about it. In these cases, observers are able to infer knowledge about the object of experience with a high degree of confidence and begin to formulate descriptive and predictive theories about how objects behave to levels of accuracy and precision that are limited by their ability to measure. 

5. Pure Objectivity
At this end of the spectrum, the sensory fields of each of the four completely overlaps with the others. Nothing about the experience is private or hidden from the others. Of course this never occurs in nature because we all have our own views and thoughts that are inaccessible to others. But in discussing the perennial philosophy we need this extreme because it encompasses the category of absolute truth or pure objectivity.
This is the one experience that everyone has in exactly the same way and that cannot be distinguished between them. Every detail is perfectly aligned. Any knowledge about this kind of experience is entirely shared by anyone who has the experience: the observer has perfect knowledge of the object and completely understands everything about it and they know that the others know. In other words, this is what a metaphysical truth would be like.

General Comments
This, then, is the model and how it works on two levels: the general level of the extent to which experience is shared (from not at all to completely) and the level of agreement amongst people about a specific experience. I hope it is obvious that most of our experiences are in the middle ground. We share experiences to some degree with the people around us, but most of the people are not around us, so our sensory fields do not overlap. With respect to any given shared experience we can usually agree on the core features and some of the details, though there is always room for subjective, not to say idiosyncratic, conclusions and opinions.
For example, if I lean over the fence and ask my neighbour how the weather is and they say it's cloudy and raining, when I am experiencing clear skies sunshine, I will intuit that one of us us out of touch with reality, or they are feigning it for some rhetorical purpose, perhaps humour.
If I am sharing a meal with someone who likes searingly hot chili and is very much enjoying it, but I dislike the burning sensation, then we are having the same experience but interpreting it differently. There's overlap, but it's slight.
What can seem to be pure objectivity can still be wrong. For example, for thousands of years, people have watched sunsets. Their body tells them that they are at rest via multiple sensory channels (kinesthetic, proprioceptive, vestibular, visual, visceral). If I am at rest and there is perceptible movement of an object, then the only logical conclusion is that the object is moving. However, in the case of the sun, we know this is wrong. The fact is that we are moving relative to the sun, but the acceleration is so small that it does not register on our senses, giving us a false impression. I have called this the sunset illusion. We still talk about the sun "setting" even though we know that it does not because it feels right.  There are many other kinds of sensory illusions, as well. These are oddities of how our senses work and how the brain interprets signals from nerves and presents a picture to awareness. Such illusions are important to keep in mind when thinking about metaphysical truth, because, obviously, such a truth could not fall into this category.

Similarly, what can seem to be pure subjectivity can still have an objective component. Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean that they are not out to get you. Sometimes people will insist that we can't know how they feel, but of course we can. Emotions are universal and we do know how things feel. What we cannot replicate are the thought patterns that accompany emotions. Emotions themselves are relatively simple and can be boiled down to about seven or eight basic moods. And they are highly contagious precisely because we are empathetic: we literally experience the emotions of others. And empathy is universal in social mammals.

In practice, our individual knowledge of the world is always coloured by the physical nature of our senses and the architecture of our brains. Pure objectivity is never attained under normal circumstances. Mystics argue that it can be obtained under extraordinary circumstances and Perennial Philosophy rests on this claim. 

If there is a single overriding metaphysical truth, then in principle at least, it must fit my definition of pure objectivity, and to experience it would be to have 100% overlap with everyone else who experiences it. All descriptions and definitions of it would be identical because experiencing it would not involve any subjectivity. Indeed, the complete agreement on the truth could be seen as the defining feature of the Perennial Philosophy. Proponents assert that religieux completely agree on a core of common beliefs and that all religions point to (if they do not actually teach) this single absolute truth or Truth.

In my view, however, this is an impression created by a biased and highly selective reading of religion and mysticism. The supposed common core of beliefs is more like a collection of vague statements of values expressed in woolly terms. I have already pointed to a better explanation based on the necessary characteristics of social mammals: empathy and reciprocity. The social lifestyle requires these. As the social lifestyle becomes more sophisticated and groups grow larger, these two qualities lead to mores and to morals. Once we can think abstractly about our mores, we discover morality and we can begin to tease out ethical principles. Without the evolutionary argument for commonality, we tend to look to explain it by appealing to some external agent, such as metaphysical truth. Having a better explanation helps, but it does not eliminate the bad explanation. This requires a different strategy. 

The proposition I will defend is that all human experience occurs on this spectrum (or something analogous to it). Some philosophers of mind will counter that all experience is entirely subjective and inaccessible to others. But if this were true we'd never agree on anything. And on some things we find an extraordinary degree of agreement. Ask anyone at all, anywhere on the planet, about gravity and they will describe something similar because the experience of having weight is more or less the same for everyone. Put anyone in microgravity and they will struggle to orient themselves, and their physiology will change. Gravity is an objective fact and the only uncertainty about it is in the tooth-fairy agnosticism category (aka philosophy). We might explain things in different ways, but the phenomenology is so similar as to be beyond coincidence. We all know the experience of weight.

How the spectrum applies and the point of it will become clearer if I outline the examples that made me think of it. I will do this in part III. At the heart of my criticism of the Perennial Philosophy is a rejection of the idea that we can arrive at a purely objective state or the knowledge that pertains to it, via purely subjective methods or experiences. Indeed, this seems to me to be self-evidently false. 

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