Sunday, June 08, 2014

Do our ideas taint our experiences?

When we ask, "Are religious experiences real?", part of the discussion revolves around whether we really remember the thing itself, or whether our later thoughts about what happened alter our memories and shape the experience.

This was discussed in Hinman's book The Trace of God, as he interacts with Proudfoot's understanding of religious experience: 
"He is arguing that the experience is reformed in our minds ex post facto as we re-describe what happened." (p 193)
In general, I think that phenomenon happens -- that experiences are reformed to some extent as we re-describe. I remember hearing of an experiment on the reliability of witnesses where witnesses were shown a video of a car accident They were more likely to report that the car accident involved broken glass if the question was phrased to use the word "smashing" or something to that effect, rather than in more neutral terms like "collision" or "accident". So even the questions we're asked about something have the potential to shape our recollections. That may be especially true when the recollections were brief or confusing. However, I think there are limits to how much our memories can be shaped: I don't expect that any question could lead the witnesses to "recall" that there was no collision. So what are the effects and limits of re-interpretations?

The more "pre-cognitive" our original experience is -- the more it was an experience without any expectation or interpretation in the moment that it happened -- the more open it is to re-interpretation in terms of our background expectations of the world. That does not mean the original experience is worthless or unreal; it means we have an especially tricky task in getting beyond our own frameworks. (On the topic of trusting our perceptions, I think this is less of an indictment of those unfiltered experiences, and more of an indictment of how much filtering we generally perform on routine events that we expected.) When we examine our recollections, it's because we're seeking understanding, we're seeking meaning, we're trying to put it into perspective when we describe it. And that exercise consists of fitting it into our conceptual framework; it carries a risk of misinterpretation. (That's how different religions -- and atheists -- can come up with some conflicting interpretations for their sense of the holy or transcendent.) That kind of reinterpretation doesn't happen only to religious experience, it happens to all experience.

In the way that a religious experience can redefine our understanding of the world, social constructs can redefine our understanding of a religious experience. None of that touches the fact that the religious experience was experienced before we sought the understanding. The experience was the original cause for seeking that understanding. So the act of seeking understanding doesn't invalidate the reality of the experience itself. The experience was, as Hinman's book terms it, "pre-theoretical", even if later retellings pick up the signs of reflection. (It's the same reason that historians tend to put more weight on the Gospel of Mark than the Gospel of John. Whether or not you agree with the Gospel of John's interpretation of things, there is no doubt that there has been a lot of reflection and interpretation in it, and the only way to double-check the validity of the later view is to go back to earlier sources.)

How do frameworks shape our understanding of the world? Consider a toddler who touches a hot stove: the toddler's immediate reaction shows an experience and some emotions, without understanding or concepts. But when we help the toddler understand, not all the "concepts" that we teach to the toddler are going to cloud his judgment. We teach concepts that lead to a fuller understanding of the world: concepts of excessive heat, injury, pain, healing, the uses of stoves. We teach enough of the concepts -- which are built on shared experiences -- to allow the toddler to navigate the kitchen without injury in the future. We give the toddler a framework for understanding the nature of injury and healing that may help him cope with the next tragedy in life, such as a skinned knee.

So not all conceptual frameworks poison or distort our understanding. There is such a thing as a good understanding, in which our experiences take their rightful places in a coherent and reality-driven understanding of the world. The better the conceptual framework, the more successfully people navigate the world.


Martin LaBar said...

Don't we have to have some sort of conceptual framework?

Weekend Fisher said...

You'd think so, wouldn't you? (IOW "of course".) But when it comes to religious experience, there are some people who claim (basically) that the whole experience is manufactured from our conceptual framework. Which is why a point like that needs defending ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF