Differing Interpretations of Experience

Do the sciences have anything to say about the possibility or genuineness of religious experiences? Religious experiences usually claim to be apprehensions of an Objective Reality. They are not just subjective feelings or purely mental phenomena. To that extent, they have the same basis as scientific claims, which are also founded on sensory experiences, apprehensions of an Objective Reality.

In science, however, there is a cumulative body of knowledge, agreed among all competent scientists, that can be experimentally confirmed. In religion, this is not the case. For that reason alone, some think that religious experience cannot provide reliable knowledge of any Objective Reality. So, we need to ask: can there be forms of experience the interpretation of which is not universally agreed upon and that are not experimentally confirmable and yet that give knowledge of Objective Reality?

I shall suggest that there are, that the scientific worldview is, in fact, largely an abstraction from ordinary lived experience, and that religious experiences form just one important subspecies of a large class of experiences that give rise to a body of nonscientific knowledge. In other words, science is not the only path to truth, though it is a necessary path to one sort of truth, truth about the publicly observable, mathematically measurable, law-like behavior of physical objects.

Many philosophers, from Thomas Aquinas to David Hume and Immanuel Kant, agree that all knowledge begins with experience. But they do not agree on just what "experience" is. And that is where we must begin.

Sensory experience presents us with visual, tactile, auditory, and olfactory data that are fused together into the apprehension of one experienced world in which we exist. But that world is experienced in many different ways. To some, it is a world of rich beauty and interest, while, to others, it is a boring and meaningless series of tedious impressions. Drugs like alcohol and cocaine are widely taken to alleviate the boredom of experience or to give an impression of greater significance and meaning to one's experience.

The world as we primarily experience it is not a value-neutral world of facts, to which we each have purely subjective reactions of pleasure and pain, liking and disliking. It is a world of beauty and ugliness, personal love and hate, promise and threat, security and danger. It is a world in which we are engaged as appreciative and creative or as indifferent and routinized, but always as involved, agents.

Existentialist writers, novelists, and poets, like Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger, have sought to capture the intricate texture of the lived world we inhabit, in which our personal integration of and response to experience gives a unique subjectivity to what Gerard Manley Hopkins called the "Inscape," the personal perspective from which we see and respond to our experienced world.

One of the things a scientific approach to the world does is to remove this rich texture of personal apprehension and response and construct a model of a depersonalized world of "pure objectivity," without purpose, passion, meaning, or value. This is not meant as a critical comment. It is simply an attempt to discern what science does to the richly interactive world of human experience in order to turn it into the value-neutral, publicly shared world of measurable, predictable processes with which the natural sciences deal.

The world of lived human experience is perhaps best expressed in literature, music, and art. In music, for example, an art without explicit cognitive content, we can enter a world of feeling that also speaks of different ways of being in the world. The sublime beauty of Mozart—the purity of line, the elegance of harmony, the freedom of spirit—speaks of a world other than our own, yet it shows that world in its most positive form, in a grace, formality, and decorum that mirror the limpid lucidity of the Newtonian modeling of nature as a beautiful machine and also the incisive rationality that was to be applied to human nature itself, dispelling the aristocratic traditions that had gone before. The darker side of the eighteenth century, the gross social inequality and the European colonization of the rest of the world, is hardly explicit here. That would come to some extent with Beethoven and the Romantics, whose music expressed the passions underlying the American and French revolutions and the rising concern with the "Rights of Man."

The point of this comment on the music of Mozart and Beethoven is to suggest that there are value- and feeling-filled apprehensions of reality that do give knowledge of what reality is like, but not in a dispassionately scientific way. My comment obviously expresses my own experience of and reflection upon their music. I can well imagine that someone else might regard this as a very superficial and perverse view, seeing significant connections where there is none, and interpreting the music in a very idiosyncratic way. But that is the nature of writing about music and about the arts in general. Disagreement is of the essence, and putting things in new and personal perspectives is what the appreciation of art is all about.

Are we to discount all this as just a matter of purely subjective taste? The music is, after all, just a sequence of vibrations or sound waves impacting the brain. Those, it may be said, are "the facts," and all the rest is reaction. The important thing to notice, I think, is that even this question can only be answered by a personal judgment, which we know will not be universally shared. If I say that the facts are "nothing but" sound waves and brain events and that all else is subjective reaction, I am going beyond experience itself and beginning to reflect upon how best to interpret it. Is the best interpretation to split experience up into bare facts and subjective reactions and to say that the facts belong to the objective world, whereas the reactions do not refer to anything in the objective world at all?

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