The Consequences of Immediate Experience

In my article Immediate Experience: The Starting Point of Inquiry, I outlined the fundamental principles that necessarily apply at the level of immediate experience. This article outlines the contents of immediate experience themselves and focuses on their consequences. It concerns what follows from these contents and, equally important, what does not follow from them. The answer to these questions constitute the two key claims of this article. In short, what does not follow from the contents of immediate experience is any reality suggested by those contents, beyond the sheer fact that they are perceived. What does follow from them is that there is, in fact, a necessary epistemological starting point for discussion of “value” and hence for morality. This is a refutation of a widely held view among philosophers: that “subjective” experiences like suffering are ultimately arbitrary as a basis for moral judgment. I propose to disprove this view, a bold claim and the major pay-off of my epistemology.

The most prominent component of immediate experience, and the ultimate foundation of most of what we call knowledge, is perception. Don’t get caught up in the distinction between sensory information and its cognitive processing, i.e. the traditional division between sensation and perception. This is the subject of psychology, physiology and metaphysics, not fundamental epistemology. All that matters at the level of immediate experience is the experience itself. When I experience a visual pattern, how I experience that pattern does not itself depend on the sensory and neurological mechanics behind the experience, or even whether there are mechanics involved at all. Whether the pattern is straightforwardly sensory or a text-book example of Gestalt psychology is irrelevant.

There is, however, a manner of distinguishing sensation and perception which is meaningful at the level of immediate experience. When I see a chair, I am perceiving that there is a chair, qua external object, within my sight. In contrast, when I see spots after gazing at a light bulb, I am not perceiving the existence of something floating around in front of me. It is merely a sensation, like pain. A perception is something that actually appears to exist, to which the sensation is merely a pointer.

Most perceptions are of tangible objects, and come in some combination of what are traditionally categorized as the five senses. Such perceptions are evidently familiar to the vast majority of people. Others are somewhat more esoteric, and because they lack meaningful coordinates in time and space, it is very difficult to gauge the extent to which they are shared by others, although it often appears obvious that they are not. One of the most controversial such perceptions is that of the transcendent, the apparent experience of God. This experience, as opposed to the auditory hallucinations of God that sometimes characterize schizophrenia, is strikingly different to most perceptions.

The most obvious difference to the experiencing subject is the absence of a sensation aspect. Whereas spots seen after glimpsing the sun are sensations without a corresponding perception, the experience of the transcendent is a perception without a corresponding sensation. There is no sensory pointer to the transcendent. Another fundamental difference is that in this case the “thing” being perceived is itself a pointer. The individual experiences a symbolic arrow saying “it’s over there”, “there” being beyond all conceivable reality. Her vision of the world thus becomes dualistic. Reality becomes part of a bigger picture. The other part of the picture transcends reality as radically as reality transcends fiction.

It does not, however, allow one to escape from logic, and we must come back to fundamental epistemology for a reality check. The reality check is this: from the fact that something is perceived, it does not follow logically that it is really there. This fact cannot be escaped by virtue of the particular percept. Analogously you can imagine something that has the quality of definite existence, but doing so brings it no closer to actually existing, much as a movie depicting a character’s escape from the movie into the real world does not actually bring about that depicted event. A perception, however grandiose, remains a perception and is inescapably subject to the possibility of falsehood. The fact of perceiving something is part of immediate experience, so you get that part for free. But the truth of the thing perceived lies beyond your immediate experience, and in the realm beyond immediate experience fundamental skepticism is not negotiable. There is no way you can talk yourself out of it. The fact that visual illusions are known to exist merely illustrates the problem of skepticism, it is not the reason for it. If I say “I see it, therefore it exists” and you prove me wrong with modern psychology, my error was not that I did not take psychology into account. My error was that I was not justified in deducing the existence of the object I saw in the first place. This also applies to the experience of God. Regardless of how otherworldly the experience may be, epistemologically it is still in the same boat as everything else we perceive.

Does it follow, then, that we should not believe in what we see? The answer is no. At least, not deductively. A reason for believing in something is not the same as an argument that it exists. The two are conceptually distinct. You might claim that a valid reason for believing something is by definition an argument that it exists, but this claim is ultimately arbitrary, based on a pre-supposed criterion of justification. As an aside, it also appears to be the epistemological premise of the New Atheists.

There is another component of immediate experience that is absolutely screaming for the philosopher’s attention. This is the fact that many experiences have a distinct quality to them. The quality is that they are experienced as having a value in the simple sense of being positive and negative. As many particles possess a positive or negative charge, many of our experiences have a positive or negative nature. And as experienced they are actually positive and negative in the sense of “good” and “bad”. If my use of these words seems philosophically problematic at this point, that is because language is ultimately inadequate. I must rely on the reader to understand the sense in which the experience of severe pain, for example, is inherently negative, at least normally, and to connect that to my words.

This inherent value that often colors experience is not to be confused with the judgment that something is positive or negative. Indeed, we frequently fail to distinguish the two properly: sometimes a judgment itself is the only thing that actually affects an individual. But there is a point at which pleasure and suffering precede judgment. You will likely find the experience of a fist to the face negative in itself well before you have the presence of mind to judge it to be so.

It is also not to be confused with ultimate value. Whether it is good or bad to experience something in the grand scheme of things is obviously a completely different question, and a mature outlook on life, not to mention a remote chance of a happy one, requires us to develop a higher level of valuation that can find positive value in experiences that aren’t immediately pleasant. This is part of growing up.

Yet, the value quality that is an inherent part of immediate experience remains, and like everything in immediate experience it is un-negatable. The “badness” of pain as normally experienced is as necessarily true as the existence of pain, and so cannot be dismissed on the idiotic objection that it is “subjective”. All that means is that it is specific to the individual, not that its reality is somehow lessened.

Thus we have an un-negatable quality of positive and negative in immediate experience. Ergo, we have a concrete basis and starting point for value and morality located at the lowest possible level of epistemological dependency, the ultimate foundation of all inquiry. Ergo, those who claim that experiences like pleasure and suffering are an arbitrary basis for value and morality are in fact demonstrably wrong. What is arbitrary is defining value as some disembodied and objective attribute that by nature cannot be directly assigned to experience, an elusive “ought” that can be understood in a purely linguistic and abstractly logical discourse, without the wishy washy work of paying full attention to the reality most directly accessible to you. This is the sort of value that many among the philosophically minded seem to be looking for, and it leads them away from the basic truth.

You can propose that the manner of deriving a moral system from immediate experience is arbitrary. That, at least, is in the realm of logical possibility. But the claim that pleasure and suffering are an arbitrary basis of value is false. They are a moral constant, such that a moral theory that disregards them is immoral. A mature moral theory must move past the childish id and consider value from higher levels than immediate experience. But it must never be forgotten that suffering by its nature is negative at the level of immediate experience, regardless of whether it is judged ultimately bad from a loftier perspective.

Back to top