What is experience?

Updated: Jul 7


The problem


Years ago in graduate school, I wrestled with John Dewey's 1916 Democracy and Education, his thesis that education requires both theory and practice, the latter more specifically "experience". A philosophy programme more often than not includes one or more courses on empiricism, usually the British empiricists - John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. Of course, there are others, like the famous John Stuart Mill, Dewey, and just about anyone else arguing our knowledge comes through our senses. I often wondered about non-British empiricists (See the excellent summary of empiricism in Wikipedia.), while providing some history and relation to other ideas like scientific methods, phenomenology, and so forth, doesn't say much. Doing a bit of internet skulking, I came across "The myth of ‘British empiricism’", but, alas, even a lot of scholarly institutions are capitalists and prefer garnering profit over sharing scholarship, this article written in 1981! Being intrepid, I found Alexander M. Klein's 2007 doctoral dissertation, The Rise of Empiricism, introducing psychology's importance, as in that of William James. Here is a thread hanging from the neuroanatomical correlates to mentation ("consciousness", ideas, intelligence, and even emotion). Reams could be written about the history. However, my focus is on a more modern scientific approach underpinning how it enters into an organic relationship with what it is not: pure mind and abstraction. Herein I have located two research avenues, the first application, the second theory.

The "application"


Supplementing human thinking extends back to automata as early as King Mu of Zhou (1023-957 BCE). The Hellenistic period saw Ctesibius or Ktesibios or Tesibius (Greek: Κτησίβιος; fl. 285–222 BC) a Greek inventor and mathematician in Alexandria, Ptolemaic Egypt building various water organs and clocks. From the abacus through Babbage's Analytical Engine (the first programmable digital computer) through modern computers, humans have come closer to replicating mentation.

Norbert Wiener in his famous 1948 wrote of Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine about:

… the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal, by the name of Cybernetics, which we form from the Greek.'χυβερνητής, or steersman ', taken after the way a steamship is driven, deviations of its tiller fed back into valve control mechanisms, that is, feedback, the results of an action used to initiate the next action.

More striking is the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) (strange word for a government body) in areas like MICrONS (Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks):

  • Logic, human judgment, critical thinking, forecasting, machine learning

  • Bioinformatics, DNA sequence screening, functional genomics, systems biology, infectious disease, and synthetic biology

  • Technical emergence, text analytics, knowledge discovery, big data, social network analysis, natural language processing, forecasting, machine learning

  • Forecasting, human judgment, machine learning, decision making, human/machine interfaces, text analysis

  • Knowledge discovery, brain, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, cognitive bias, judgment, decision making, behavioral science, human factors, training, tradecraft, data sense-making, linguistics, language, semantics, culture

  • Natural language processing, machine translation, cross-lingual information retrieval, domain recognition and adaptation, multilingual ontologies, Multilingual speech recognition, cross-lingual summarization, keyword search algorithms, low resource languages, automatic language identification, machine learning, rapid adaptation to new languages, domains and genres

  • Behavioral science, cognitive psychology, human performance, mobile computing, context sensing, signal processing, data fusion, machine learning, data privacy and security

  • Cognition, psychometrics, fluid reasoning and intelligence, neuroscience, human performance.

  • Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks (MICrONS) seeks to "revolutionize machine learning by reverse-engineering the algorithms of the brain. ... understanding of the representations, transformations, and learning rules employed by the brain to create ever more capable neurally derived machine learning algorithms."

On the IARPA website, you will read about:

  • Reverse-engineer the cortical microcircuits that instantiate the cortical computing primitives

  • Identify their structure, function, and parameterization with high-resolution (single-synapse / single-spike) brain mapping tools – Capture results as attributed graphs / annotated schematics • Identify the functions (primitives) performed by these microcircuits • Use primitives as building blocks for novel machine learning algorithms (IARPA – Microns, 2021)

as well as many other programs designed to replicate human consciousness.

The U.S. National Institute of mental Health (NIMH) in its Research Domain Criteria (RDOC) correlates mental states with neuroimaging and genetics, hopefully substantiating neural correlates of consciousness. Left out are the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the International Classification of Diseases - 10 (ICD). That is,

RDoC is not meant to serve as a diagnostic guide, nor is it intended to replace current diagnostic systems. The goal is to understand the nature of mental health and illness in terms of varying degrees of dysfunctions in general psychological/biological systems.


Mainly the research is ongoing, and neurocorrelates to psychological disorders have not been firmly established. Yet, I see this as a future project.


Initiated in 2009 NIMH states, RDoC is a research framework for new ways of studying mental disorders. It integrates many levels of information (from genomics to self-report) to better understand basic dimensions of functioning underlying the full range of human behavior from normal to abnormal.


Some main neuroimaging techniques now are Positron Emission Tomography (PET) for brain activity, Computerized Axial Tomography (CAT) locating brain structures, and electroencephalograms (EEG) to detect electrical activity. For an interesting introductory scholarly bibliography see The National Institutes of Health (NIH) its “Is intelligence determined by genetics?”.

Numerous projects are afoot to develop an artificial brain. Search for:

  • Riken Brain Science Institute;

  • IBM -Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics [SyNAPSE]. ;

  • Human Brain Project. [Human Brain Project.

The above research looks at the effects of mentation, like a mood disorder or synesthesia (experiencing a phenomenon with two or more senses, as in tasting a sound). From the empirical research on the concrete replicating human mentation, we come to the more abstract, or theoretical, aspect of experience. Keep in mind our physical-mental (body-mind) duality.


The theory


To appreciate the value of theory, we must be aware of two "axioms", the unity of difference and philosophy having two essential pillars: ontology and epistemology. Details of the former may be found in my previous "The logical and social foundations of occupational organicity" [National Reformationist, No. 13] and elsewhere, but summarizing, we apprehend things because of what they are not. Ontology concerns what exists. Epistemology is how we know.

Metaphysics is ultimate knowledge, explaining everything, reality, existence, who we are, why we are here, and so forth. There are no more questions. I think of the "absolute", such as:

  • timelessness;

  • causality and end of everything – entropy;

  • uniformity – no distinctions;

  • everything answered and known;

  • everyone knowing The Truth;

  • the merging of dualities (infinite-infinitesimal, mind-body, free will – determinism, etc.).

Add to the list time, dimension, infinity/infinitesimal, the singularity, space, and why it is we cannot apprehend something alone without difference. We don't even know what exists. Read Plato's cave allegory in the seventh book of his Republic.


You also can suspend judgement, agnosticism or simply not want to consider a proposition. My solution is the same mathematicians and logicians use to establish their "facts": bootstrapping (also known as "axioms", "postulates", definitions, and so forth), or starting points. Think of your exploration like a jigsaw puzzle without having seen the image you are attempting to assemble. In extreme cases, you may not even have an image but a single color, or all the pieces may be shaped alike, making your identification of a goal nigh impossible, save for knowing all the pieces have been hooked together. These somewhat bizarre situations aside, starting anywhere ultimately will lead to final assembly, and our lives are not all that different. So much for justifying bootstrapping, it just as good a reason as any for establishing existence, especially considering the alternative. Impelling the search is faith there indeed is a goal.


Why do we say so, i.e., epistemology? We come to several traditional ways of knowing, philosophers calling it "justified belief".

Some epistemologies are:

  • Tradition – It was always done that way and it previously worked. Included in this may be tales, myths, parables, and the like. Tradition, more often than not, substitutes for written accounts, history.

  • History – There is a record of the way things are achieved, and we rely on that for affirming an assertion. Circular time – oral societies (events repeated) - becomes linear (unique events) - written, or historically-oriented.

  • Reason/rationalism – All knowledge comes from how we arrange things in our minds according to certain rules, precepts, etc. See my discussion of number, above. - observe – memorize – recall – apply uniformly.

  • Empiricism – We know things through observation, the senses, and experience, extrapolating based upon past events.

  • Science – We use a combination of the above in attempt to extrapolate from the past to project to the future. The future resembles the past, hence the ability to predict accurately.

  • Faith – An affirmation or pure belief without any substantiation or reason.

Summarizing and applying, tradition is repetition, history is a recording of past events, and science combines all the other epistemologies in special and organized ways. In essence, we sense and experience the environment (empiricism), figure it out (mentally process it, or reason it), and apply the results (recursion).


Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, add another epistemology, the "aha", "I get it.", the closest example I can think the realization you have done a mathematics or logic proof correctly. I mention Paul Feyerabend's Against Method.


I reduce these to two: reason and empiricism. Faith is ideology, dogmatic bootstrapping, clutching a set of ideas without question. A bootstrap is provisional, "let's say that … ". Given a poor trajectory towards an undesired conclusion, we change the bootstrap and try something else. Faith continues the process without heed.


Why the reduction to reason and empiricism? Go back to the duals of mental-physical, ideal-real, wave--particle, theory-praxis, science-application, where the former is more amorphous, the latter concrete.


At the outset, observe rationalism more the immaterial (abstract, idea, etc.) and empiricism the material (actual, "real", etc.), a dual, each existing because the other does. Comes describing the initial puzzle piece. Here is what they are and how as a dual they give us knowledge.

  1. Untangling rationalism

Let's put "rationalism" under a microscope. It is the "ism" of "rational", meaning etymologically, from Etymologyonline:

  1. rational (adj.)

  2. late 14c., "pertaining to reason;" mid-15c., "endowed with reason," from Old French racionel and directly from Latin rationalis "of or belonging to reason, reasonable," from ratio (genitive rationis) "reckoning, calculation, reason" (see ratio).

"ratio" meaning:


ratio (n.)

1630s, "reason, rationale," from Latin ratio "reckoning, numbering, calculation; business affair, procedure," also "reason, reasoning, judgment, understanding," from rat-, past participle stem of reri "to reckon, calculate," also "think" (from PIE root *re- "to reason, count"). Mathematical sense "relationship between two numbers" is attested from 1650s.


So we have rationate, meaning "divide", "ratio", and so forth. Abstraction is intangible (not capable of sensory detection). Abstraction is "opposite" the "concrete", "material", "physical", "solid". Instead, are "idea", "concept", "mind", "intelligence", "consciousness", "thinking", "immaterial", and related notions, all unclear to us, if the Towards a Science of Consciousness (University of Arizona) conferences mean anything. Not one has identified positively what "consciousness" really is. If so, we would be able to produce it (and presumably determine its quality, as in raising the intelligence level of a mammal), even in an artificial device. Too, what divides the "mental" from the "physical" (the nagging boundary conundrum)?


Computer geeks delight in their "the ontology of abstraction", surely nothing metaphysical, bootstrapping, itself, clever, not profoundly edifying.


Abstractions are ideas about sense-based observations and thinking with no necessary correspondence. Contrast "the room is cold" with gods, flying horses, unicorns, and so forth. There may be logical existence, but I am more interested here in the nature of abstraction. Explaining the effects (properties) of something is not adequate for understanding what it is, any more than measuring the effects of heat identifies its ultimate source and why or the metrics of electricity (volts, ohms, amps, etc.) describing the electron.


After conversing with a dear colleague and friend of mine, I have to answer for "irrationality" answering "rationality", since we have to address the unity of difference. Commonplace meaning suggests:


From my favorite thesaurus, Word hippo, I brought up "irrationality":

is bootstrapping "irrational"? Tell that to a mathematician or logician. Axioms may not be built from "self-evident" truths but should reflect our empirical sense of repetition. Again, observe (empiricism), remember (rationalism), and apply (empiricism) recursively. Given the metaphysical barriers, I await a better suggestion than just putting on those boots. After all, you have to start walking, or "are gonna walk all over you" (from "These boots are made for walking").


Untangling empiricism


"Empiricism" inherently means experience and using the senses to capture information; it is a physical way of knowing. Now, go back to the table of duals and put "empiricism" on one side and "reason" (rationalism) on the other, the former material, the latter abstract. They are duals because physically sensing requires intellectual processing (praxis requires theory), and intellectual processing ultimately (intermediately, it may) does not occur in a vacuum; something physical is required.

Empiricism, itself, epistemologically is knowing through the senses – sight, taste, touch, hearing, and smell. Yet, these by themselves are insufficient, as the very neuroanatomy of nerves and the brain interpret them. Missing is our fathoming of consciousness, cognition, mind, and so forth. Even Kant in his day of limited knowledge realized the problem.


Immanuel Kant said,

There can be no doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience. For how should our faculty of knowledge be awakened into action did not objects affecting our senses partly of themselves produce representations, partly arouse the activity of our understanding to compare these representations, and, by combining or separating them, work up the raw material of the sensible impressions into that knowledge of objects which is entitled experience?”


Reason is never in immediate relation to an object, but only to the understanding; and it is only through the understanding that it has its own [specific] empirical employment. It does not, therefore, create concepts (of objects) but only orders them, and gives them that unity which they can have only if they be employed in their widest possible application, that is, with a view to obtaining totality in the various series. The understanding does not concern itself with this totality [of reason], but only with that connection through which, in accordance with concepts, such a series of conditions come into being. Reason has, therefore, as its sole object, the understanding and its effective application. Just as the understanding unifies the manifold in the object by means of concepts, so reason unifies the manifold of concepts by means of ideas, positing a certain collective unity as the goal of the activities of the understanding. [Kant,1787/1929, B1: and B 671-672: (emphasis added)]

  1. Towards a solution

So, rationality exists because of empiricism and vice versa, but I have omitted describing the generic coupled to form the whole, that characterized by its organicity, also covered by my "The logical and social foundations of occupational organicity". So, how does all this come together to provide knowledge?


In short, you apprehend empirically. You memorize what you saw/experienced, that is, the first part of rationalism. Looking at something else, you recall from memory the magnitude, now a unit, and compare it to what you see, the second part of rationalism, plus empiricism. Those in agencies like the NIMH and IARPA will ultimately describe the mechanics. "Empiricism", you say? You are giving something a quality your five senses detect and process, our calling it "experience".


Technically, any sensor at this level experiences a phenomenon. Your eyes and associated components receive photons from an object. The photons are absorbed by synapses in the photoreceptors.

General eye anatomy


The electrons in the synaptic atoms are displaced by the incoming photons and are carried by neurotransmitters via rods and cones to the brain, where they are processed. From that point becomes mysterious very quickly.


So here is how empiricism works for us. In the outside world, for example, I look at a small animal, like a mouse. I remember its size. I then see an elephant, comparing it to what I remember about the small animal, the mouse. At the same time, I can from memory (the NIMH and IARPA research), represent it by sketching a mouse and ascertain exact size by setting one mouse to the next until the elephant is filled. As each mouse is added, I ascribe a symbol, enabling me to remember the object or process (and this starts giving meaning to the word). If I stop partway, noting the object or process, I can compare it to what the elephant requires.


Rationalism depends upon neuroanatomy and our understanding of what an idea, mental, thinking, and consciousness are, just like the research described above is attempting to uncover. However, they remain only effects, our failing to identify the ultimate (and sub-Planck-scale) cause. Here, we are at the depths of foundational philosophy, again confronted by those barriers to metaphysics.

It seems all we can do is bootstrap with the most fundamental and phenomenological law, the unity of difference, mindful of the mental-physical poles, the former as abstraction, the latter sensations, coupling the two to give us knowledge.




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