Self Evident Experience?

Friday February 23, 2007


OK, so here’s a knotty conundrum that has – in spare moments during my self-imposed PhD-writing and proof-reading seclusion – been puzzling me. It is something that I have been thinking about for some time, particularly since reading Sue Blackmore’s Conversations on Consciousness. The question is this: how self-evident is experience? It is one of those questions that, at first, seems hardly worth asking. We to think it is self-evident that experience is self-evident, but I am not sure that it is. And the more you start asking awkward questions about experience, the more you start paying attention not merely to what you are experiencing (or what you think you are experiencing), but also to the gaps in what you are experiencing, the more it seems a rather puzzling affair, the more it seems the case that what we take to be our experience is really not a very good guide to what is going on at all.

Take, for example, our everyday assumption that we are subjects at large in a world of objects. It seems straightforward, but if you look more closely at your experience – or at the gaps in your experience – then it all seems far less obvious. The early twentieth century philosopher Franz Rosenzweig writes, in his essay “The New Thinking”:

For experience knows nothing of objects… it is nothing but a prejudice of the last three centuries that in all knowledge the “I” must necessarily accompany it; so that I would not be able to see any tree without the “I” seeing it. In truth my I is only present when it—is present; when, for instance, I must stress that I see the tree because someone else does not see it; then certainly the tree in my knowledge is bound up with me; but in all other cases I only know of the tree and of nothing else; and the standard philosophical claim that the I is omnipresent in all knowledge distorts the content of this knowledge.

Or, to put it another way, the object of experience and the subject who is experiencing seem to arise together; but in the absence of this arising, there is neither object nor subject. And this is to say that – whatever Descartes may think – much of the time we are relating to the world, we do not do so as subject, and the world is not a world of objects. This is not a mystical claim, or at least I do not read it like that. Instead it is a claim about the way that our experience is structured. It is suggesting that most of the time experience (if it can be called experience) isn’t structured in terms of objects and subjects; but only when we are asked about the experience, then both objects and subjects arise together and we tell a story. Nagarjuna puts it like this, in Garfield’s translation:

Someone is disclosed by something.
Something is disclosed by someone.
Without something how can someone exist?
Without someone how can something exist?

It increasingly seems to me – as I reflect on the gaps, on the bits that, in the interests of telling a coherent story, I gloss over when I say to myself “I am experiencing a tree (or a cat, or an itch, or a cold breeze, or a piece of banana cake…)” – that experience is anything but self-evident. When you start asking these kinds of difficult questions, when you start to look more closely, experience seems rather less like a drawing by the wonderful Hergé, in which everything has clear boundaries…


… and more like a pointillist image by Seurat.


At first glance, this questioning of the self evidence of experience may seem like madness. Of course we say, experience is self-evident. There is nothing more self evident than my own experience. But there are plenty of ways testing whether experience is really as commonsense as we think it is and of calling into question the everyday assumptions that lie behind our ideas about what is going.

One of the easiest experiments relates to vision and to the phenomenon of change blindness. In change blindness large changes in the visual field go undetected by the viewer. Until you know what has changed, these changes can be bafflingly hard to detect. There are a few examples of this phenomenon on the website here, where two versions of the same photograph alternate with short flashes of grey in between. The question is, what has changed between one version and the other? Give them a go. You will notice that the changes are not all immediately apparent. Once you know what they are, they seem obvious, but it can take a bit of time scanning the image before you work out what the difference is. This, however, is entirely contrary to what we think is going on, the idea we have that we can take in the entire world in a glance, that vision gives us a beautifully rendered snapshot of the world, projected onto our minds like a holiday snap onto a screen in a darkened room.

I have been testing myself out lately with just this kind of thing, looking for the spaces and gaps in “experience”, trying to see behind the narratives and the commonsense stories. So, in terms of vision, if I am on the bus and I catch myself glancing quickly at something and looking away again, it certainly seems to me as if I have taken in an entire scene. But if I ask myself what that scene was – what colour was the car? how many windows there were on the building? – more often than not, I simply don’t have the information available, not until I look back and check. Or, in terms of the division of the world into subjects and objects, if I am walking down the street and I suddenly think “Aha! I am walking down the street!”, I ask myself, “Where were the subject (me) and the object (the street) before the moment that I thought ‘Aha…’?”

Who knows where such investigations will lead? But it is an intriguing process.

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#1 · Gabor

29 April 2007

How do you meditate on them?

About saññā and vedanā, this sutta ( ) helped me a lot to reflect on them! And also, to reflect on the illusiveness of them, this deceitful nature of them that tries to convince me that it is not a dependently arising process.
The model of sense activity that the Buddha taught really hits the nail: If there is an intact sense-organ, AND sense-contact by sense-object, only then, is the arising of sense-consciousness, and feeling, and experience. There is no “I” involved in the whole thing, nothing that gets the feeling, or hurt by it, or anything that something is taken away from… there is no need to complicate it, or intellectualize over it, like a good haiku, isn’t it? Do you like haiku? :)

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