QR7.1.7 Experiential Science

Experiential science arises because experiences are observations and science studies observations. The aim of science is to reduce bias, our tendency to see what we expect instead of what is actually there, so it is a method of observing not an edifice of facts:

Science is not about building a body of known ‘facts’. It is a method for asking awkward questions and subjecting them to a reality-check, thus avoiding the human tendency to believe whatever makes us feel good.(Pratchett et al., 1999) p90.

The scientific method works by requiring observations to be valid and reliable:

a. Valid. An observation is valid if it represents what it says it does, so to see a rope as a snake is invalid. Hallucinations, dreams, and magic observations aren’t scientific facts because they are invalid.

b. Reliable. An observation is reliable if others can confirm it, so a bird on my head that others don’t see isn’t a reliable fact. Ghosts, fairies, and mermaids aren’t scientific facts because they are unreliable.

An observation is a scientific fact if it is valid and reliable. That the sun moves across the sky is reliable but invalid because the sun isn’t really moving, we are. We see the sun moving because the earth’s spin is moving us. Conversely, ESP (extra-sensory perception) isn’t scientific because valid experiments can’t reliably repeat it. Both validity and reliability are needed for an observation to be a scientific fact.

This also applies to experiences, although some take the extreme view that only physical events are scientific facts, so violent behavior is a fact but the anger experience that others can’t see isn’t. It sounds good in theory but in practice, science often uses observations that aren’t physical events at all:

1. Money isn’t a physical fact because it isn’t the coins and notes we see but the value we attach to them.

2. Software isn’t a physical fact because observing a computer reveals only physical hardware.

3. Perceptions like red aren’t physical facts because the light spectrum has no red section.

4. Language isn’t a physical fact because a physical sound or word can have any meaning given to it.

5. Number isn’t a physical fact because no-one has ever seen a “three”.

What use is business science without money, computer science without software, or psychology without perceptions? A science that accepted only physical facts would be small indeed! Universities study politics, mathematics, languages, societies, and cultures because science is based on observation not physical events. Scientific facts can be classified by the type of observation made (Whitworth, 2009), as follows :

1. Physical. Facts based on observing physical events, measured by hardware instruments.

2. Informational. Facts based on observing informational events, measured by software context.

3. Experiential. Facts based on observing experiential events, measured by human brains.

4. Social. Facts based on observing social events, measured by group agreement.

These levels describe how we observe not what we observe, so engineers see a phone as hardware, computer scientists see it as software, user analysts see user experiences like usability, and socio-technologists see social results like group norms. Note that hardware doesn’t cause software because both are just ways of observing the same reality. Observation levels change the observer not the observed.

Table 7.1 Scientific disciplines by subject event level

These levels cumulate because information is how we view physical events, experiences are how we view brain information, and societies are how we view group agreement. If physical events are how we observe quantum events, every discipline of science is just a reality view (Table 7.1), including physics, so the rigor of a discipline depends on how it observes, not what it observes. This doesn’t deny physical facts but just adds informational, experiential, and social facts to them. The breadth of science is based on observation not materialism.

Experiences are intrinsically valid to the experiencer. My pain is a certain fact for me, so if you report a similar pain, we agree it is a fact. Headaches are a fact of medical science because people report them not because we know their physical cause. In science, causality follows validity and reliability, so phantom pains in limbs that aren’t physically there are accepted. In general, any experience that others can repeat as described is accepted, even synesthesia, the hearing of colors or seeing of sounds.

Yet if experiences can be facts, can’t people just make them up? They can but they can make up physical data just as easily (Bohannon, 2015). Faking isn’t new to science, so the answer isn’t to reject experiences but to apply validity and reliability to them. Social factors like reputation reduce physical and experiential fakes. In practice, some people lie but most don’t and those who do are revealed by comparing reports. A science that applies validity and reliability to experiences will succeed by productivity of new facts, not by making them physical.

If science can study experiences like pain, why not consciousness, the observer experience? That observation occurs is valid by direct experience and reliable by common report so science can and does study it. Yet what we experience isn’t always real. An experience is imaginary if it refers to what doesn’t occur, and isn’t if it refers to what does. In hallucinations and dreams we experience events that didn’t occur, so is consciousness the same?