Immediate Experience: The Starting Point of Inquiry

In my article Towards a Fundamental Epistemology, I explained that a truly fundamental epistemology needs to identify the starting point of inquiry. It also provided a simple criterion for a hierarchy of different levels from the starting point up. This criterion is dependency, the fact that some levels rely on others and are thus bound to them in perpetual subordination. The fact that a perspective cannot deny or even evaluate that which it presupposes. If we move back through these dependencies, from each perspective to the parent perspective that allows it to operate, we eventually arrive, one way or another, at the starting point of all inquiry: immediate experience.

By immediate experience I mean that which is experienced in the here and now, in the present. Everything you see, feel and think is immediate experience. Right now your immediate experience consists of these words, in whatever form you are accessing them, any emotional reactions you have to them, and anything else in your field of awareness. Right now, mine includes a cup of tea, the sound of a washing machine and a growing need to… be right back… Note that I do not use the term “direct experience” because that has connotations well beyond my meaning, namely experience of an object in its actuality. One point about immediate experience that must be emphasized is that it is very primitive. It is so primitive that the concept that something actually exists is meaningless. Immediate experience is the starting point of all inquiry into truth, but if we don’t progress beyond it, it’s not going to take us very far at all.

Immediate experience has a quality that sets it completely apart from just about everything that can be derived from it. This quality stems from one of the most simple and fundamental principles of logic: non-contradiction. This means the impossibility of p and not p, the impossibility of a precise state of affairs simultaneously being true and false. We encounter apparent contradictions, or paradoxes, all the time. These are generally contradictions arising from the incompleteness of our understanding, inviting the intelligent among us to explore more deeply. But we never encounter true contradictions because they are impossible. Contradictory statements, yes, contradictions in reality, no. The statement p and not p is an inherently invalid claim.

If you go to a doctor complaining of a sharp pain in your leg, he could have some surprising news for you. He might inform you that there is no physical basis for pain located in your leg. He might even inform you that the leg itself is not there. But the one thing he can never tell you, regardless of his evidence, is that you are not experiencing pain at all. The pain, as experienced, is not some falsifiable proposition. It is simply there, as evident as it is logically possible for something to be. The statement “I am not experiencing pain” is in direct contradiction to reality.

The fact that something is experienced in the immediate present at a given moment is an epistemological constant. The quality that sets immediate experience apart from more derived facts is that it is truly un-negatable. It is locked into place by the principle of non-contradiction itself. Immediate experience is the one area where, upon accepting non-contradiction as a given, we have the luxury of certainty. This level of certainty also extends to the subject, i.e. the “I” at the receiving end of experience, so if you’re wondering whether you exist or not, you can probably relax!

There is an important lesson in this. In everyday language, everything in immediate experience falls into the general category of “subjective”, although at that level of inquiry the distinction between subjective and objective is meaningless. In modern thinking the term “subjective” has connotations of “only in your opinion” and therefore “not necessarily true”. In light of the above, it should be clear that to crudely equate “objective” with real and “subjective” with not-really-real is downright clumsy. The fact that we experience things as individuals is the most concrete reality that we have, and (to quote Tommy Lee Jones) the fact that it’s “subjective” means, precisely, dick.

Immediate experience has another essential quality: it is insurmountably individual. No matter how mentally close we get, no matter how sharp our empathy, my immediate experience is not itself a part of your immediate experience, nor is yours a part of mine. The two are mutually isolated, separated by a fundamental epistemological chasm. This is the reason philosophers observe, (as I had figured out by the time I hit adolescence), that when we look at the color blue we do not actually know that we are necessarily experiencing the same color. The fact that we mutually recognize the color blue merely shows that we both call a particular color blue when we come across it. It does not mean that the color I see in terms of how it appears to me is the same one that you do. It could possibly be the one that you call green.

This basic problem reaches much further. Not only do you not know what my immediate experience looks like, but for the same reason you don’t even really know whether it exists at all. That is, you don’t know for certain that I exist as an experiencing subject just like you. The fact that I know that is irrelevant. The situation is logically comparable with the possibility of a lie. As far as you are concerned, I may have lied about making a toilet stop several paragraphs ago. I am privileged with knowledge to the contrary, but in saying that, I could be lying! The same fundamental problem goes for my knowledge (and claim) of my own existence as an “I” like you. Incidentally, this is the problem that tends to get swept under the rug in sci-fi depictions of synthetic humans. How conscious and sentient a construct is designed to appear to outside observers has nothing whatsoever to do with whether they are capable of experience of the sort I am talking about. The point is this: as far as you are concerned, I and every other person you have met could possibly be a sort of robot, appearing truly capable of experience, but actually being no more capable of it than a jukebox.

This may sound scary, but it’s just a theoretical point and there’s no real need to feel threatened by it. However, one might be tempted to try and find a way around it. Suppose that you thought about the relationship between different human observers more carefully and somehow reached the conclusion that my individualist orientation in this context was false. This counter-argument would be premised on the phenomenon of multiple subjects (i.e. experiencing “I”s) and claim to undermine the basis of the epistemological pessimism above. It should be obvious why this argument cannot work. It takes as its premise the existence of other subjects when the only essential thing telling you that other subjects exist in the first place is your immediate experience! You can’t then turn around and say that their existence somehow negates the need for you to establish their existence as an individual. That would be fatal circular logic. Ergo, it is logically impossible to epistemologically de-individualize immediate experience on the basis of the existence of multiple subjects.

As I said, immediate experience is epistemologically primitive. In some ways, it is indeed disturbingly autistic. It might even make this article seem pessimistic. But we must remember that it is only our starting point. Beyond it lies the far richer and wonderful world of shared experience. The social realm may stand upon the shoulders of the individual realm, but it is also a higher level spiritually. It is necessary to make knowledge as sophisticated as modern medicine possible. But it is also necessary for humanity for individualism to break down at some point or other.

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