// Patrick Louis

Myopic Experiences and Distant Observers

Salmon of Knowledge

Is someone that is subjectively experiencing something more knowledgeable than someone who didn’t or currently isn’t? Are analytical external observers sometimes more adept at understanding what is happening than the persons that are currently deep in the experience?

This is the premise that lead me to write this article to sort my thoughts on the topic. At first glance, it appears benign, and it probably is, however answering this question requires intermixing epistemology, the nature of knowledge, and ontology, the nature of being.

On one side, we commonly bring up the concept of the ineffable private and subjective experience that people have. The “metaphysical”, and hotly debated, quale (plural: ‘qualia’). In everyday parlance, we emphasize that there’s nothing like being present and performing the activity first-hand, that we learn something from that experience which others can’t put into words. Indeed, the experience seems like net positive knowledge. “How can you know if you haven’t tried”, “how can you know if you stopped”, or “the best teacher is experience”.
On the other side, the subjective should be faced with the empirical, and it often negates the reality of personal experiences. Could it be that having, or currently living, the subjective experience limits our perception and distorts our understanding? Would we be better off as an external observer considering how hard it is to detach ourselves from previously acquired information and self-illusion? Is it possible to be impartial and objective if we’re currently having a subjective experience?

While theoretical in nature, the question becomes ardent when the subjective experience leads to adverse consequences for the unaware individuals partaking, living, and consumed by it.

Let’s first take a detour in philosophy to better grasp what we’re dealing with.

Knowledge (or reason as some epistemology philosophers call it) is the bank of information and skills that we accumulate, often combined with the goal of understanding a subject.
Therefore, knowing isn’t the same as understanding. I might know that plugging an appliance is necessary to turn it on, however I might not understand why or how it works. Understanding is characterized by the form it takes as an inner language of thought and imageries (or other senses), generally an all encompassing, rational, logical interpretation or explanation of things.

Experience consists of our practical interactions, observations, and contacts with the world. As such, everything is experience, and experience is information as input. Furthermore, information is the quantum of knowledge, and thus without experience, we’re clueless.
However, in this article we’re more concerned with the contrast between subjective experience - living something - and the experience of an external analyst towards the situation “others” have lived or that the observer is currently not living. How do they differ?

Primarily, an observer will create an understanding by using inference, reasoning, imagination, and empirical knowledge; they might not require direct subjective experience. For instance, a scientist that studies subatomic particles, distant galaxies, diseases, or abstract mathematical concepts.

Conversely, a subjective experiencer will be “having an experience”, feeling it through the way it seems to them. This, as we said before, is called a quale or the “veil of perception”. It comes from within, from our awareness of having lived something, and is interpreted internally without mediation of anything else.
Such subjective experience cannot be denied by others, we’re all entitled to the way we’ve experienced something. However, it doesn’t mean that it is factual, indeed it is often the opposite. For instance, one could’ve felt the experience of having seen a ghost. Yet we can’t deny having lived the experience, we can only deny our understanding of our experience.

It goes without saying that an observer also has a subjective personal experience about what they observe.

Some philosophers have tried to write the characteristics of qualia, the subjective experiences that are said to give knowledge that can only be acquired by experiencing them. The most used example of a quale is the experience of having seen the color red.

Daniel Dennett lists the following properties of qualia:

  • Ineffable: they’re impossible to communicate with others through words, or any means other than direct experience
  • Intrinsic: they are experiences that are independent of other experiences lived before; other experiences shouldn’t affect how it’s felt
  • Private: they are not interpersonal
  • Directly or immediately apprehensible by consciousness: they are atomic in their nature, one will instantly know that their experience is a quale and instantly know everything that there is to know about that quale.

The neuroscientist Ramachandran instead lists the following, which are somewhat in sync with the previous ones but at a neurological level:

  • Qualia are irrevocable and indubitable: There’s no “maybe” about experiencing a quale, it is invariably and automatically reported to the brain.
  • Once the representation is created, what can be done with it is open-ended: The quale becomes an input representation that can be used for an infinite number of output.
  • Short-term memory: The quale creates a representation that persists in short-term memory enough to allow creating a multitude of output, i.e. it isn’t a reflex.
  • Attention: You need attention to fulfill the previous criteria.

Yet, not everyone agrees that these subjective experiences are special or particular, or even “metaphysical”. Many are debating that we’re trying to describe the essence of something that might actually not be there at all.

The main argument in favor of qualia as something special is the Knowledge Argument aka Mary’s Room. In sum, imagine that someone named Mary has learned everything there is to know about colors but never actually experienced them herself (living in a colorless world), would she gain any new knowledge by suddenly experiencing seeing color.

The people that argue against such thought experiment use the same definition of knowledge I’ve given above; which hinges on the concept that knowledge already comes from experience, thus she wouldn’t gain anything from going outside and seeing color.

Besides, other dissenters press that the properties of qualia are too ambiguous and that their main components lie only in the ineffability. Hence, the subjective first-person experience are unique simply because of our failed limitations as humans — not being able to transmit them to third-parties via the usual sensory communication methods (speech, audio, video, touch, …). Then the limit is human, and might not be universal, and qualia only describe things we currently have difficulties putting into words because they are too individualistic.

Moreover, others say that qualia don’t actually transmit information but that they unlock abilities. This is in relation to Ramachandran’s neurological definition of open-ended mean which says that by experiencing something subjectively we get the ability to remember, recognize, imagine, and link it to other ideas. This is sometimes called phenomenal information, or knowledge “how” (abilities) vs knowledge “that” (information).

Still, all this doesn’t help us with our case, since qualia can’t be extracted in respect to other things we already know, and we can’t use “pure reason” to acquire this ability.
Hence, the questions “is there more understanding in knowledge acquired by phenomenal information, or more understanding in knowledge from empirical evidence of an observer”? What if subjective experiences are hard to untangle from reality and misshape or limit our understanding by adding false knowledge, and in which case? Since everything is experience, and experience always passes through the subjective, are we ever free from our limitations?

In a sense, the idea of qualia is what makes us conscious human-beings, hence the philosophical zombie thought experiment that emerges from this (imagining someone that in apearance is “normal” but doesn’t have qualia). These experiences are what make up our narratives, and narratives are the definition of our selves, how our particular being feels and construct our beliefs of the world. Not necessarily in an epiphenomenal way, but close-enough, or the desktop metaphor or phenomenal consciousness. (saying we have a separate world in our head that is independent from reality, but fed from the experiences of the world, an interface hiding the details of something deeper).

Nonetheless, the private narratives have to strike a balance with the external world, other observers and nature. Le moi (subjective) contre le soi (empirical and encompassing), as they say. Furthermore, this overlapping of realities, in itself, is an experience too.
The overlapping gets us close to empirical knowledge, a window of truth.

However, let’s have a thought experiment that might shatter this conception. Imagine a group that has an experience that is also ineffable to persons or entities outside the group. Within the group, no one is aware of the possibility that the knowledge isn’t innate, yet, it is a combination of common private experiences that nobody outside would experience.
In that thought experiment, qualia could be assigned to groups, and following our previous ideas, that would be imply that the group has its own narrative that is conceptually indescribable to others. Additionally, it would ensue that no one in that group could deny having lived the experience, nor would it mean that it is inscribed in reality.
Consequently, this superorganism would be composed of individuals not aware, nor understanding that they’re one part of a greater being.

With that in sight, the title of this article should have used hyperopia instead of myopia, but it’s not as sexy. The gaining of the certain phenomenal/experiential knowledge sometimes takes away the ability of being an external and impartial observer. In other terms, by living an experience as a first person we lose the third-person perspective.

A fish in the water doesn’t know what water is, a fish would also be a horrible swimming instructor.

This idea has a clear parallel with certain social phenomena. Addiction is a great example of this concept. While a person is under its influence they have this subjective experience that is almost impossible to describe to others. Despite the topic having been studied amply and the situation being obvious to others.

Many of these, such as addiction, have physical factors that develop over time - the ability factor - but one can imagine other scenarios too.

Indeed, it could also be a genetic factor. We all have different sensory inputs and interpret things in their own ways. We could point out the people of the Pingelap island in Micronesia where a whooping ~10% of the population is colorblind and yet are able to describe to their peers what “color” is like. Would these people be able to discern color-related patterns within societies that don’t have colorblindness, and that are unnoticed by the ones in it.

This could also be related to the problem of defaut professionel, the curse of knowledge, or overly skilled individuals who cannot comprehend anymore what the perspective of a beginner is like and no longer relate to them. The frame of reference is completely shifted.

Similarly, why limit ourselves to humans when we could include other entities and species. We’re definitely able to notice patterns in other animals that they themselves might not be seeing, so why not the reverse too. They might be noticing things in us that we don’t understand.

Again, how would we know? Experience by definition redefines us, we could distance ourselves, but we’d still be impacted by the experience we lived. To un-experience it we’d have to redefine ourselves again — which would also be an experience in itself.

Clearly, this is a significant point to bring up: the nature of subject and object. In psychology, stages of development are sometimes depicted as encapsulated boxes where the subject of the previous stage is an object to the next. So is breaking the fourth wall possible, what does it entail?
If the limitation is physical, this would imply we need changes in our body, and if the limitation is mental then this would mean reviewing our narratives and conceptions.

We shouldn’t dismiss the human emotional factor too, disassociating subjectivity and converting it to an object will inevitably morph the sentimental and “meaningful” value it has. In other words: it might negate previously acquired knowledge.

With all this in mind, one can easily bring in this conversation classics such as Plato’s allegory of the cave, but instead a more recent philosopher called Guy Debord has a relevant book that delve into this perpetual overlapping of experiences that taints and affects knowledge at a societal scale.
Debord uses the term “Society of the Spectacle” to refer to a society in which interactions are increasingly mediated through images and representations. The social relationship between people isn’t based on reality but replaced by representations of reality that have been commodified and marketed to consumers. Human day-to-day life is seen through that lens.
Would an individual in this sort of society be able to know what it’s like to not be part of it? Would an analyst external observer have an understanding of what the flows of this society and its individuals is, without knowing what it’s like to be a subject in the Society of the Spectacle?

This idea is similar to the simulation and simulacra of Baudrillard and concepts from the symbolics of Pierre Bourdieu.

Another extension of this idea is that the most observant we can be is when we are babies, beings with almost no experience. As we grow older we slowly build walls around us that protect our thoughts. Living as fully observant would destroy us, it would be equivalent to being dead.
This can be resonant with philosophical ideas such as the theory of forms - the physical world not being as real as the world of ideas and that when we’re born we slowly lose these ideas as we continue living.

That component, which we all call “ego,” is a very fragile structure. It seems tough, but it’s actually a very fragile structure. It’s a structure that is created of mind, of learned neural patterns. This ego is designed to interface between our “impulse life” and society, to protect society from impulse.
When you didn’t have a framework, when you didn’t have a somebody-ness, you were just part of the universe, and there was no fear. One has to have a self-concept to be afraid, and when an organism is functioning instinctively in a scene, in an infant stage, each change in the homeostasis, each change in the balance of the situation, is just a new moment. It’s just a new moment to which it responds. — Ram Dass

This topic isn’t novel at all, it’s a typical discussion of epistemology, we all can blurt out about someone being blind about some things, be it culture, species, feelings, or societal and crowd behavior. We’ve all argued and rehashed the flaws of reductionism and its temptations (see also scale and argument) or non-reductionism, the emergent properties and non-emergent properties of the world.

So what’s the answer to the initial question?
The subjective experiencer definitely knows something that the observer doesn’t, but there are probably things that the observer can understand that they can’t and might not be able to ever grasp.

Have a great day!

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