Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Experience Has No Explanatory Power

This post reproduces the first post I made on the Temple of Thelema forums a few years ago. Some readers may recall that I appeared on those forums with the intent of offering a perspective that differs from the supernaturalism typically pedalled there. Of chief importance to this new perspective is the simple fact that bare experience -- all by itself -- explains nothing because the process of explaining is a rational one.

It is rational thinking about experience that has explanatory power.

After a period of my participation in the forums there, the moderator made the decision to institute a new policy: that any post would be deleted unless it starts from the assumption "that we are spiritual beings." Since I do not begin from this assumption, I am functionally banned from participation at the Temple of Thelema forums [Importantly, it should be noted that I also do not begin from the assumption that "we are not spiritual beings"...I make no assumptions at all about this point]. This is a decision that is entirely within the scope of the moderator and website owner, and it is not a decision that I consider unfair at all. Every person with a website is entitled to have whatever kind of website he or she likes.

For some reason, the moderator also decided to delete the thread I started upon my arrival there (the thread that opens with the post I will reproduce below). So much for my making a dissenting point of view available on the forums, eh? As luck would have it, Google retained a cache of the thread for some weeks, and I was able to recover nearly all of the thread and save it for my records.

Over the next several months, I may -- as time and inclination see fit -- examine different parts of the conversation on that thread to explore the kinds of faulty thinking that underlie supernaturalism.

Read on for my initial post.

[Note: The "Frater Potater" referenced in the first line was the screen name of a member of the Temple of Thelema forums who started a long, contentious thread, only to be banned from the forums and have his thread unceremoniously deleted]

There was an important point raised in Frater Potater’s long thread that was never sufficiently discussed, and I think it got lost in the shuffle of that thread, so I have decided to register a membership with this site for the express purpose of encouraging discussion of this idea, which I will present below, in more detail than Potater did. Even if it does not actually get discussed in a productive way, the idea belongs on the forum so that lurkers can familiarize themselves with it. As I will explore at the end of this post, the idea is fundamental to an intelligent practice of Thelema.

The idea is a relatively simple one that can be stated in a single sentence, but a full explanation will require a few paragraphs, which I will then provide. The quick statement of the idea is the title of my post: experience has no explanatory power.

What do we mean by this? We mean that bare experience, all by itself, can only ever tell people that they have had an experience, of some kind or another. When one wishes to figure out an explanation for the experience – that is, to figure out what actually happened – then one must enter the realm of reason, of claims and evidence, and attempt to analyze the experience as objectively as possible.

To give a simple mundane example, we all have the experience of watching the sun go around the earth. Actually, we don’t even have that. All that our experience tells us is that we see the sun in a number of positions during the course of the day. If we want an explanation of what’s happening, then we have to reason about it, and our reason infers that the sun is circling the earth.

This example provides a nice illustration of the way that our rational explanations for our experience can be wrong.

We could also use many other everyday examples, including our experience of the earth as flat versus our knowledge that it is an oblate spheroid and our experience of seeing bowling balls fall faster than feathers versus our knowledge that all objects fall on earth at roughly the same rate.

What examples like these demonstrate is that there is no such thing as an “experiential truth.” One cannot (validly) argue, “I think the sun orbits the earth because I experience it as such!” or “I think the earth is flat because I experience it as such!” and the reason that these arguments are not valid is that bare experience, all by itself, is unable to provide explanations for those experiences.

Once we realize that the rational explanations we attach to experiences can be wrong – even though they might intuitively *feel* correct – we can begin investigating what’s actually going on (as opposed to what seems to be going on). And when we do that, we discover a huge body of evidence suggesting that, for example, the earth orbits the sun, the earth is an oblate spheroid, that feathers and bowling balls fall at the same rate, and all sorts of claims that seem to fly in the face of our experience.

Of course, these claims only seem to fly in the face of our experience because – as I’ve been trying to make clear – experience, by itself, doesn’t have any explanatory power. It is only by believing that experience has such power that people could fool themselves into thinking that their experience “reveals” that the earth is flat, that bowling balls fall at a faster rate than feathers, that the sun circles the earth. Experience reveals no such things at all because experience is entirely devoid of explanatory power: it is our reason – and our dispassionate, objective investigation of the universe – that produces explanations for those experiences. We can refine these explanations by learning more about the universe and learning to come to better conclusions on the back of that evidence.

What’s important – what’s vital to understand – is that no one doubts that people have the experience of seeing the sun go around the earth, seeing the ground as flat, seeing bowling balls fall faster than feathers. Each of those is a perfectly “valid” and “authentic” experience (I’m not even sure what it would mean for an experience to be “inauthentic”). It’s the explanation for those experiences that we ought to question and study if we want to have a good idea of what’s actually going on (as opposed to what it feels like is going on).

Most people nowadays would agree with what I’ve said above, but some people – while accepting what I’ve said in most cases – resist the same exact point in a handful of arbitrarily-selected cases in which they are invested in certain explanations.

For example, many people have experiences of seeing “spirits,” talking to disembodied goblins of various kinds (“angels” or “demons” or even “aliens”), having “visions,” and receiving “communications” in some psychic manner. We might, for example, point to Christians, millions of whom report having a “relationship” with the spirit of zombie Jesus. Or we might point to Hindus, millions of whom claim to communicate with various kinds of goblins in their mind. Or we might point to a few members of these forums, some of whom claim to have received “communications” from otherworldly beings or goblins.

No one questions that these experiences occur. Or, to put it more accurately, no one questions that people have experiences that feel like those things, in the same manner that all of us have experiences that sure seem to suggest that the sun goes around the earth, that the earth is flat, that bowling balls fall faster than feathers. These experiences are each perfectly authentic and valid. What skeptics question, however, are the explanations attached to these experiences.

Indeed, one cannot support the claim that one has received a psychic communication via vision by saying “I have experienced it!” because bare experience, on its own, has no explanatory power. One needs to survey the body of evidence available: what evidence is there to suppose in the first place that there *are* goblins capable of sending such communications? What evidence is there to suppose that any of the other millions of “communications” are, in fact, actual communications and not examples of overactive imaginations and the powers of self-suggestion (which are phenomena that clearly do exist)? Are there any possible mechanisms by which such “communications” could even possibly be transmitted through brains? Are there any possible mechanisms by which otherworldly goblins could interact with the physical world?

These questions aren’t idle or superfluous: they’re vital to the process of deciding what’s what. Anyone interested in figuring out what’s actually happening (as opposed to what it feels like is happening) needs to honestly and dispassionately investigate these questions, judging not merely from the basis of a handful of isolated experiences but from the body of evidence available to human beings.

Crowley, by the way, says pretty much the exact same thing about the “spiritual experiences” of supposed historical figures:

By [Dhyana’s] light all other events of life are as darkness. Owing to this, people have utterly failed to analyse it or to estimate it. They are accurate enough in saying that, compared with this, all human life is absolutely dross; but they go further, and go wrong. They argue that "since this is that which transcends the terrestrial, it must be celestial." One of the tendencies in their minds has been the hope of a heaven such as their parents and teachers have described, or such as they have themselves pictured; and, without the slightest grounds for saying so, they make the assumption "This is That."

We are now in a position to say what happened to Mohammed. Somehow or another his phenomenon happened in his mind. […] he connected it with the story of the "Annunciation," which he had undoubtedly heard in his boyhood, and said "Gabriel appeared to me." But in spite of his ignorance, his total misconception of the truth, the power of the vision was such that he was enabled to persist through the usual persecution […]

The history of Christianity shows precisely the same remarkable fact. Jesus Christ was brought up on the fables of the "Old Testament," and so was compelled to ascribe his experiences to "Jehovah"
 In other words, these people all went wrong because – due to the “tendencies in their minds” – they attributed an explanation to their experiences without any grounds for doing so. They falsely thought “My experience reveals that I have received a communication from Gabriel (or Jehovah),” when in fact their experience revealed no such thing at all: their mind and their reason supplied an explanation, driven only by their mental tendencies or biases, but that explanation was insufficiently supported by evidence.

Of course, the question of whether Crowley lived up to the skeptical ideals of his system is an entirely separate question, and it doesn’t have any bearing on the point I’m making: that experience, all by itself, has no power to tell someone what actually happened.

Why is this point so important? Well, because those of us interested in Thelema (the philosophy of individual action that holds that a person’s activities should all be governed by his or her actual inclinations [aka “True Will”]) make a big deal out of having an accurate view of reality: since the True Will emerges from one’s actual self in conjunction with the realities of the environment, one can only seriously and intelligently discover and carry out the True Will by attempting to discover, as honestly and dispassionately as possible, what’s actually happening in the world and within one’s own self (as opposed to what one “fondly imagines” is happening, to use Crowley’s words from Magick in Theory and Practice).

As such, giving the conscious mind any permission at all to form faulty conclusions – especially about questions fundamental to grasping what’s actually going on in the universe – is a potential impediment to the True Will.

The question becomes incredibly pressing when we consider that one of the fundamental points of Thelema is that a person can be wrong about their conclusions about themselves and the universe. When Crowley writes, in Magick in Theory and Practice, that “A man may think it is his duty to act in a certain way, through having made a fancy picture of himself, instead of investigating his actual nature,” he’s not just being colorful: he’s explaining a situation that really happens, all the time. People mistakenly conclude that they are such-and-such a type of person or that they have a duty to do such-and-such, and it can feel, intuitively, for all the world, as if that’s the case. It’s only when a person begins to learn to pay attention – to evaluate the Self’s actual reactions within environment, as opposed to one’s conscious thoughts, feelings, and “intuitions” about the environment – that one can begin to have an inkling as to what “True Will” actually is: what the will feels like, how to observe it, how to ameliorate the distorting influences of the mind that veil it from us.

Like it or not, a dispassionate and honest appraisal of the world reveals that there’s not a shred of evidence to support the idea that there are spirits, goblins, or actual, honest-to-goodness “communications” of this sort. Nothing distinguishes these claims from the imaginative fantasies of religious lunatics the world over.

[Just a note: I specifically created my account because I read that dissenting opinions are welcome here, so long as they are presented graciously toward others. I intend to be the model of gracious behavior toward others while a guest on this forum, no matter how long or fleeting I choose to make an appearance here. If Jim wishes me to leave, he has only to say the word, and I will respect his wishes]

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