The equation of experience

I cringe when I hear people speak casually of their reality, since I think what they mean is their personal experience and not the reality we live in together. Speaking about “realities” in the plural is more than an innocent trope. It is often a way to justify belief or opinion, as though private experience is all that matters because there is no objective reality to arbitrate between perspectives, or because the task of approaching it seems hopeless. But clearly there is an objective reality of nature, even if people cannot agree upon it, and what we believe certainly does matter to our survival. So, it seems important to express the relationship between experience and reality in some clear and concise way.

The “equation of experience” is my handy name for the idea that everything a person can possibly experience or do—indeed all mental activity and associated behavior—is a function of self and world conjointly. Nothing is ever purely subjective or purely objective. There is always a contribution to experience, thought, and behavior from within oneself, and likewise a contribution from the world outside. On the analogy of a mathematical function, this principle reads E = f(s,w). The relative influence of these factors may vary, of course. Sensory perception obviously involves a strong contribution from the external world; nevertheless, the organization of the nervous system determines how sensory input is processed and interpreted, resulting in how it is experienced and acted upon. At the other extreme, the internal workings of the nervous system dominate hallucination and imagination; nevertheless, the images and feelings produced most often refer to the sort of experiences one normally has in the external world.

Of course, one should define terms. Experience here means anything that occurs in the consciousness of a cognitive agent (yet the “equation” extends to include behavior that other agents may observe, whether one is conscious of it or not). Self means the cognitive agent to whom such experience occurs—usually a human being or other sentient organism. World means the real external world that causes an input to that agent’s cognitive system.

But the “equation” can be put in a more general form., which simply expresses the input/output relations of a system. Then, O = f(is, iw), where O is the output of the agent or system, is is input from the system itself, and iw is the input of the world outside the system or agent. This generalization does not distinguish between behavior and experience. Either is an “output” of a bounded system defined by input/output relations. For organisms, the boundary is the skin, which also is a major sensory surface.

While it seems eminently a matter of common sense that how we perceive and behave is always shaped both by our own biological nature and by the nature of the environing world, human beings have always found reasons to deny this simple truth, either pretending to an objective view independent of the subject, or else pretending that everything is subjective or “relative” and no more than a matter of personal belief.

The very ideal of objectivity or truth attempts to factor out the subjectivity of the self. Science attempts to hold the “self” variable constant, in order to explore the “world” variable. In principle, it does this by excluding what is idiosyncratic for individual observers and by imposing experimental protocols and a common mathematical language embraced by all standardized observers. Yet, this does not address cognitive biases that are collective, grounded in the common biology of the species. Science is, after all, a human-centric enterprise. To focus on one “variable” backs the other into a corner, but does not eliminate it.

Even within the scientific enterprise, there are conflicting philosophical positions. The perennial nature versus nurture debate, for example, emphasizes one factor over the other—though clearly the “equation” tells us there should be no such debate because nature and nurture together make the person! At the other extreme, politics and the media amount to a free-for-all of conflicting opinions and beliefs. Consensus is rarely attempted—which hardly means that no reality objectively exists. Sadly, “reality” is a wild card played strategically according to the subjective needs of the moment, by pointing disingenuously to select information to support a viewpoint, while an opposing group points to other select information. The goal is to appear clever and right—and to belong, within the terms of one’s group—precisely by opposing some other group, dismissing and mocking their views and motives. Appeal to reality becomes no more than a strategy of rhetoric, rather than a genuine inquiry into what is real, true, or objective.

How does such confusion arise? The basic challenge is to sort out the influence of the internal and external factors, without artificially ignoring one or the other. However, an equation in two variables cannot be solved without a second equation to provide more information—or by deliberately holding one variable constant, as in controlled experiments. The problem is that in life there is no second equation and little control. This renders all experience ambiguous and questionable. But that is a vulnerable psychological state, which we are programmed to resist. On the one hand, pretending that the “self” factor has no effect on how we perceive reality is willful ignorance. On the other hand, so is pretending that there is no objective reality or that it can be taken for granted as known. How one views oneself and how one views the world are closely related. Both are up for grabs, because they are themselves joint products of inner and outer factors together. How, then, to sort out truth?

I think the first step is to recognize the problem, which is the basic epistemic dilemma facing embodied biological beings. We are not gods but human creatures. In terms of knowing reality, this means acknowledging the subjective factor that always plays a part in all perception and thought. It means transcending the naïve realism that is our biological inheritance, which has served us well in many situations, but has its limits. We know that appearances can be deceptive and that communication often serves to deceive others. Our brains are naturally oriented outward and toward survival; we are programmed to take experience at “face value,” which is as much determined by biological or subjective need as by objective truth. We now know something of how our own biases shape how we perceive and communicate. We know something about how brains work to gain advantage rather than truth. Long ago we were advised to “Know Thyself.” There is still no better recipe for knowing others or knowing reality.

The second—and utterly crucial—step is to act in good faith, using that knowledge. That is, to intend truth or reality rather than personal advantage. To aim for objectivity, despite the stacked odds. This means being honest with oneself, trying earnestly to recognize one’s personal bias or interest for the sake of getting to a truth that others can recognize who also have that aim and who practice that sincerity. Holding that intention in common allows convergence. Intending to find that common ground presumes that it should be mutually approachable by those who act in good faith. In contrast, the attitude of all against all tacitly denies the common ground of an objective reality.

No doubt convergence is easier said than done, for the very reasons here discussed—namely, our biological nature and the ambiguity inhering in all experience because of the inextricable entanglement of subject and object. With no gods-eye view, that is the disadvantage of being a finite and limited creature, doomed to see the everything through a glass darky. But there is also an advantage in knowing this condition and the limitations it imposes. To realize the influence of the mind over experience is sobering but also empowering. We are no longer passive victims of experience but active co-creators of it, who can join with others of good will to create a better world.

Compromise is a traditional formula to overcome disagreement; yet, it presumes some grumbling forfeit by all parties for the sake of coming to a begrudged decision. In the wake of the decision, it assumes that people will nevertheless continue to differ and disagree, in the same divergent pattern. There is an alternative. While perceiving differently, we can approach agreement from different angles by earnestly intending to focus on the reality that is common to all. Then, like the blind men trying to describe the elephant in the room, each has something important to contribute to the emerging picture upon which the fate of all depends.