Sense experience provides much of the data that we manipulate with reason, even though there are difficulties with some of it that diminish its usefulness. What we see, taste, smell, feel, hear, and read (and what we remember of such things, for that matter) can be unreliable. That means that we must exercise great caution when we use such input as a basis for our thoughts. Standard tests and benchmarks, however, provide ways to exercise that caution. So sense experience need not be banished altogether. The need for testing the bases of our reasoning is not limited to sensory input. Indeed, is any sort of input self-guaranteeing, transparent, intuitively obvious, or in any other way exempt from standard tests?
Experiences of one sort or another provide most of the data that we manipulate with reason. A. These include the following, at least: 1. Sense experience (see, taste, smell, feel, hear) contributes new firsthand data. 2. What we read and what we are told contribute secondhand data. 3. What we remember keeps old firsthand and secondhand data in play. B. Experiences might also include dreams, imaginings, visions, and transports.
There are difficulties, however, that may prevent some experiences from doing the job.
A. What we sense, read, are told, and/or remember can be unreliable for a wide variety of reasons. Some experiences are ambiguous, vague, and/or indistinct. Even clear and distinct ones can suffer from the effects of many factors.
1. Perspective shapes (and may even distort) the input.
2. Bias (a kind of “attitude perspective”) can do the same things.
3. Defective equipment (our own body parts, as well as our instruments) can alter the input or even block it altogether.
4. Intruding illusions, delusions, and dreams can make it difficult to distinguish between “real” input and that which is internally generated.
B. For these reasons, we must exercise great caution when we use experiences as a basis for our thoughts.
Standard tests, benchmarks, and helpers provide ways to exercise that caution and to work around the difficulties.
A. Public accessibility mitigates the risks of entirely “private” data.
B. Repeatability mitigates the risks of “one-off” data.
C. Various aides-mémoire (such as notes, diagrams, recordings, and so on) can help us work around memory failures.
D. Specifying “standard conditions” (for example, temperature or pressure) can help us avoid input distorted by circumstances.
E. Cross-checking experiences (and experience modes) against each other can help isolate defects or distortions that are unique to a particular experience episode or channel.
F. Becoming aware of (and then either eliminating or at least controlling for) “limiting conditions” in ourselves and our sources is crucial to the establishment of reliable data. Such limiting conditions include bias, faulty equipment, unnoticed or uncontrolled variables, lack of due care, and lack of expertise.
G. We also need to be sure that the theoretical framework or paradigm in which we are construing our sources is “viable.”
1. A viable framework is coherent.
2. A viable “local” framework meshes smoothly with other local frameworks and keeps the global framework coherent.
3. A viable framework is fertile.
4. A viable framework is broad in scope.
5. A viable framework has the capacity for self-correction. 6. A viable framework minimizes ad hoc “adjustments after the fact.”
We can never avoid the need for testing the bases of our reasoning.
A. Some bases are said to be self-guaranteeing, transparent, or intuitively secure.
1. Perhaps some human insights are “self-evident” or “necessary.”
2. Perhaps we can have direct “extrasensory” perceptions of how things are.
3. Perhaps religious experiences are guaranteed by their divine source.
4. Perhaps we can defer to the pronouncements of authorities as being beyond question.
5. Perhaps we can rely on common sense—what “everyone knows.”
B. Actually, we need to take more care in these special venues, not less, and special pleadings (such as tests that are “cut to fit”) are out.
1. While analytic claims may be necessary (a priori), they are empty, and while synthetic claims are rich in content, they are contingent (a posteriori).
2. ESP is notoriously unreliable and frequently fraudulent.
3. Religious experiences have rivals and have to be interpreted.
4. Pronouncements by authorities also have rivals that we must choose between.
5. It is easily demonstrable that what “everyone knows” is local and changeable. Common sense is frequently wrong.
[Courtesy: Professor James Hall]