Experience. A wonderful word. So important. It's all that we have, really. Experience. Without it, we're nothing. Dead. Unconscious.
So saith the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
3 a : the conscious events that make up an individual life
5: the act or process of directly perceiving events or reality
But note key words in the various definitions of "experience" above. Direct. Conscious. Individual. Personally.
Experience isn't communal.
The only experience each of us will ever know is our own. In my 63 years of experiencing, I've never directly, consciously, personally known another individual's experience. Not another human's. Not another animal's. Not another anything's.
And neither has anyone else. The only clues we get to someone else's experience are those which enter our own experience.
Spouses talk to each other about how their days went. People write autobiographies which attempt to convey what it's been like to live their life. Movies give us insights into how other individuals, often utterly unlike us, experience the world. Intimate conversations are attempts to bridge the ultimately unbridgeable gap between I and other.
I'm interested in other people's experiences. We all are. It's lonely existing solely inside our own heads. We long for the expanded vistas that can be seen through descriptions and depictions of how others view reality.
Here's the thing, though:
If there's essentially a zero possibility that I could ever experience what you've experienced; if your experience is so subjective, so personal, so individual that it has essentially no connection with any experience I could possibly have, it means essentially nothing to me.
I'm not saying you mean nothing to me. Just that your utterly subjective, personal, individual experience means nothing to me.
For example... the dreams that my wife often tells me about when she wakes up in the morning. I care about them because I care about my wife. But I know that what she experienced in her dream never will be experienced by me.
Likewise... the descriptions of spiritual experiences that people share in comments on this blog, or in so many other ways elsewhere. (There's a whole publishing genre of books about experiencing the presence of God, Jesus, angels, heaven, and other divine presences.)
I'm interested in these descriptions of spiritual experiences to just about the same extent I'm interested in descriptions of other people's dreams.
I enjoy learning about how other people describe their subjective inner world. However, since that world is completely different from my own experience, otherwise it doesn't hold any interest for me. I'll never experience someone else's dream, and I'll never experience what someone else considers to be "spritual" -- if it is supernatural.
Of course, the difference between dreams and spiritual experiences is that many people feel the latter point to an objective truth. God, heaven, a higher dimension of reality, whatever.
OK. Some people (like Jungians) also feel that dreams can be pointers toward universal archetypes, or clues about truths lying beyond everyday waking awareness. I'm open to the possibility that both dreams and spiritual experiences are something more than the result of subjective brain processes.
Without evidence of this, though, I have to assume that someone else's heartfelt vision of divinity means as much to me as the dream they had last night. Which is, nothing.
Again: if there's essentially zero connection between what you're experiencing, and what it's possible for me to experience, why should I care about your experience? Remember, I can care about you, because your obvious physical nature is part of my own experience; but your purely subjective experiences are closed off from me.
This morning I came across an inspiring, interesting, intriguing You Tube video called "Make It Count." It shows two guys racing around the world, having all sorts of experiences that, almost certainly, I never will have myself.
Nor, mostly, would I want to have. (One exception: taking photos of lovely bikini-clad girls on a beach.)
Yet nothing prevents me from going to the places these guys went to. If I did that, naturally I wouldn't have the same experiences they did. After all, they are themselves, and I am me. However, there would be a connection between their experiences and my own.
I could stand on the edge of the high cliff shown in the video, wondering if I could survive a jump into the water. I'd see the rocks, hear the sound of the ocean, feel the sea breeze brush across my face.
That's a lot more connection between their experiences and my own, compared to someone's utterly subjective experience of sensing the presence of Jesus while in a church, or of divine light/sound while in a guru's meditation session.
In one case there is a there for me to experience; in the other, there isn't.
So if you share a personal spiritual experience in a comment on this blog, or in some other fashion, please realize that I understand how meaningful that experience probably was to you. In return, you should realize that I'm not you, nor you me.
And when it comes to dreams or spiritual experiences, never will the twains of you and me meet. With other sorts of experiences we can look at each other and say, "Wow, did you see that?" Not with purely subjective experiences, though.
Which is why they mean nothing to me, if those experiences aren't mine.
Blogger Brian - if in fact the "spiritual" experiences of others mean nothing to you, why does it seem that you are so enthusiastic about communicating your own lack of same?
You seem to differentiate between what might be called ordinary awareness of being alive and subjectivity. I strenuously object to such an arbitrary bifurcation: all awareness whatsoever is subjective. The very notion that there is actually a "you" in Oregon and a "me" in New Jersey is completely subjective. It's a handy notion but there is no significance to it. There is a bedrock, undeniable component associated with the spatial and temporal realities which give rise to subjectivity, but it is beyond experience.
All experience is exactly the same: temporary and bereft of meaning.
Posted by: Willie R | May 20, 2012 at 05:18 PM
Willie, I agree with your last statement, insofar as the meaning experience has is objective. That is, somehow rooted in the cosmos, rather than in human brains. I just found my "Nihilism" wristband in a drawer and decided to order two more as backups -- to remind me that meaning comes from me, not anywhere outside.
I think we're more or less on the same page. Leaving aside the minor problem that I have no idea what "page" means in this context. If there's a "less," maybe it has to do with my assumption that an objective reality exists, but all we humans can do is know it subjectively, using our decidedly limited human perceptions, brain, and such.
This is why I argued in this post (perhaps not all that coherently) for the primacy of experience rooted in the observable world, as contrasted with experience rooted inside our heads. Yes, all experience is subjective. However, the content of that experience can be objective.
My wife and I can both see a bird enjoying our bird feeder and ask each other, "Do you know what species it is?" I don't know that my wife is experiencing the bird exactly as I see it (her eyesight is different from mine), but it's apparent that we both see something we agree is a "bird."
With a dream, or a supposedly supernatural spiritual experience, there's no "there" for two people to jointly experience. I accept that I won't ever experience many things other people have, like standing on the top of Mt. Everest, but at least the possibility exists for me to do this. I also can see photos or videos of the summit.
So I agree with you that all awareness is subjective. But I'd argue that the contents of subjective awareness can either be rooted in the objective outside world, or emanations of our own brain.
Posted by: Brian Hines | May 20, 2012 at 07:47 PM