Personal Experience and Empirical Knowledge

15 February 2015


Patinir's painting of Charon crossing the river Styx has always impressed me for its overview effect of the landscape.

Patinir’s painting of Charon crossing the river Styx has always impressed me for its overview effect of the landscape.

In my first post on the overview effect, The Epistemic Overview Effect, I compared a comprehensive overview of knowledge to the perspective-altering view of the whole of the Earth in one glance. Later in The Overview Effect in Formal Thought I discussed the need for a comprehensive overview in formal thought no less than in scientific knowledge. I also discussed the overview in relation to interoception in Our Knowledge of the Internal World.

This account of the overview effect in various domains of knowledge leaves an ellipsis in my formulation of the overview effect, namely, the overview effect in specifically empirical knowledge, i.e., the overview effect in science other than the formal sciences. What would constitute an overview of empirical knowledge? The totality of facts? An awareness of the overall structure of the empirical sciences? A bird’s eye view of the universe entire? (The latter something I recently suggested in A Brief History of the Stelliferous Era.)

A subjective experience is always presented in a personal context, and when that subjective experience is of the overview effect the individual life serves as the “big picture” context by which individual and isolated experiences derive their value. The overview effect, as documented to date, is a personal experience, therefore ideographic, and therefore also idiosyncratic to a certain extent. The traditionally ideographic character of the historical sciences, then, has been uniquely well-adapted to being given an exposition in overview, and so we have the recent branch of historiography called big history. Big history in particular gives an overview of the historical sciences even as the historical sciences are employed to give an overview of history. There is a twofold task here to interpret all the physical sciences historically (in ideographic terms) so that their epistemic contributions can be integrated into the historical sciences, and to move the historical sciences closer to the nomothetic rigor of the traditionally ahistorical physical sciences. We will truly have a comprehensive overview of scientific knowledge when the ideographic historical sciences and the nomothetic ahistorical sciences meet in the middle. This constitutes an ideal of scientific knowledge that has not yet been attained.

Every individual has an overview of their own life — or, rather, every individual with a minimal degree of insight has an overview of their own life — and this is the setting for any other overview of which the individual becomes aware, including the overview effect itself. (Individuals also, partly in virtue of their personal overview of their own life, possess what I have called the human overview, such that in the experience of meeting another person we can usually rapidly place that person within a social, cultural, ethnic, and historical context.) In the future, the personal experience of the overview effect may be harnessed for the production of knowledge understood more broadly than the knowledge engendered by purely personal experience. All empirical knowledge is ultimately derived from personal experience, has its origins in personal experience, but once personal experience has been exapted through idealization and quantification for the purpose of the production of empirical knowledge, it loses its personal and experiential character and becomes impersonal and objective.

It may sound overly subtle at first to make a distinction between personal experience and empirical knowledge, but the distinction is worth noting, and in any theoretical context it is important to observe the distinction. Experience is ideographic; empirical knowledge is nomothetic. Thus personal experience of the overview effect to date is an ideographic overview effect; the possibility of the empirical sciences converging upon an overview effect would be a nomothetic overview effect. If this nomothetic overview effect of scientific knowledge can be further extended by rendering the ahistorical nomothetic sciences in terms of the historical sciences, and the overview effect of scientific knowledge can be given a history in which we have an overview of each stage of development, we can get a glimpse of the possibilities for comprehensive knowledge, and what the future may hold for scientific knowledge.

Science has always been in the business of attempting to provide an overview of the world, but the approach of science has always been a form of objectivity that attempts to alienate personal experience. One sees this most clearly in classical antiquity, when the most abstract of sciences flourished — viz. mathematics — while the other sciences languished, partly because the theoretical framework for constructing objective knowledge out of personal experience did not yet exist. Hundreds of years of the development of scientific thought have subsequently provided this framework, but the paradigm produced by science has come at a certain cost. We are still today struggling with that legacy and its costs.

One way to approach the role of personal experience in empirical knowledge is by way of Bertrand Russell’s distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description (“Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description” in Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays). The task that Russell set himself in this paper — “…what it is that we know in cases where we know propositions about ‘the so-and-so’ without knowing who or what the so-and-so is” — is closely related to the cluster of problems addressed by his theory of descriptions. Russell’s distinction implies two other permutations: the case in which we have neither knowledge by acquaintance nor knowledge by description, which is epistemically uninteresting, and the case in which we have both knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. In the latter case, knowledge by description has been confirmed by knowledge by acquaintance, but for the purposes of his exposition of the distinction Russell makes it quite clear that he wants to focus on instances of knowledge by description in which knowledge is only by description.

I am going to make my own use of Russell’s distinction, but will not attempt to retain any fidelity to the metaphysical context of Russell’s exposition of the distinction. Russell’s exposition of his distinction is wrapped up in a particular metaphysical theory that is no longer as common as it was a hundred years ago, but I am going to interpret Russell in terms of a naive scientific realism, so that when we see the Earth we really do see the Earth, and the Earth is not merely a logical construction out of sense data. (If I, or anyone, wanted to devote an entire book to Russell’s metaphysic in relation to his distinction between acquaintance and description this could easily be done. Indeed, an exposition of the Earth as a logical construction out of sense data would be an interesting intellectual exercise, and I can easily imagine a professor assigning this to his students as a project.)

Russell wrote of knowledge by acquaintance: “I say that I am acquainted with an object when I have a direct cognitive relation to that object, i.e. when I am directly aware of the object itself. When I speak of a cognitive relation here, I do not mean the sort of relation which constitutes judgment, but the sort which constitutes presentation.” Thus in the overview effect, I have a direct cognitive relation to the whole of the Earth, not in terms of judgment, but as a presentation. Intuitively, I think that Russell’s formulation works quite well as an explication of the epistemic significance of the overview effect.

Russell described knowledge by description as follows:

I shall say that an object is “known by description” when we know that it is “the so-and-so,” i.e. when we know that there is one object, and no more, having a certain property; and it will generally be implied that we do not have knowledge of the same object by acquaintance. We know that the man with the iron mask existed, and many propositions are known about him; but we do not know who he was. We know that the candidate who gets most votes will be elected, and in this case we are very likely also acquainted (in the only sense in which one can be acquainted with some one else) with the man who is, in fact, the candidate who will get most votes, but we do not know which of the candidates he is, i.e. we do not know any proposition of the form “A is the candidate who will get most votes” where A is one of the candidates by name. We shall say that we have “merely descriptive knowledge” of the so-and-so when, although we know that the so-and-so exists, and although we may possibly be acquainted with the object which is, in fact, the so-and-so, yet we do not know any proposition “a is the so-and-so,” where a is something with which we are acquainted.

There are a lot of interesting philosophical questions implicit in Russell’s exposition of knowledge by description; I am not going to pursue these at present, but will take Russell at his word. In the context of the overview effect, “the so-and-so” is “the planet on which human beings live,” and we know (to employ a Russellian formulation) that there is one and only one planet upon which human beings live, and moreover this planet is Earth. In fact, we know that it was a considerable achievement of scientific knowledge to come to the understanding that human beings live on a planet, and all this knowledge was achieved through knowledge by description. For the vast majority of human history, we were acquainted with the Earth, yet we did not know the proposition “x is the planet upon which human beings live” where x was something with which we were acquainted. This is almost as perfect an example as there could be of knowledge by description in the absence of knowledge by acquaintance.

In Russell’s distinction, ideographic personal experience is a kind of knowledge — knowledge by acquaintance — but is distinct from knowledge by description. What Russell called “knowledge by description” is a special case of non-constructive knowledge. Non-constructive reasoning is the logic of the big picture and la longue durée (cf. Six Theses on Existential Risk) — the scientific (in contradistinction to the personal) approach to the overview effect. Just as science has always been in the business of seeking an overview, so too science has long been in the business of elaborating knowledge by description, because in many cases this is the only way we can begin a scientific investigation, though in such cases we always begin with the hope that our knowledge by description can eventually be transformed into knowledge by acquaintance. In other words, we hope to become acquainted with the objects of knowledge we describe. Knowledge by description is here the theoretical framework of scientific knowledge in search of instances of acquaintance — evidence, experience, and experiment — to confirm the theory.

Although Russell was not a constructivist per se, his position in this essay is unambiguously constructive in so far as the thesis he maintains is that, “Every proposition which we can understand must be composed wholly of constituents with which we are acquainted” (italics in original). Russell’s foundation of knowledge in the personal experience of knowledge by acquaintance demonstrates that Russell and Kierkegaard not only have a conception of rigor in common, but also the ultimate epistemic authority of individual experience.

Part of the importance of the overview effect is that it is a personal vision, such as I described in Kierkegaard and Futurism. The individuality of a personal vision is a function of the subjectivity of the individual, hence how the effect is experienced is as significant, if not more significant, than what is experienced.

An interesting result of this inquiry is not only to bring further philosophical resources to the analysis of the overview effect, but also to point the way to the further development science. I have often emphasized that science is not a finished edifice of knowledge, but that science itself continues to grow, not only in sense of continually producing scientific knowledge, but also in the sense of continuing to revise the scientific method itself. One of the most common objections one encounters when talking about science among those who take little account of science is the impersonal nature of scientific knowledge, and even a rejection of that same objectivity that has been the pride science to have attained. To fully appreciate the overview effect as a moment in the development of scientific knowledge is to understand that it may not only give us a new perspective on the world in which we live, but also a new perspective on how we attain knowledge of this world.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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