April 09, 2005
Authority and Experience
Both experience and authority are biased sources for truth. Actually, all sources are biased, but these two sources can be particularly so. A person's experience is an amazingly narrow slice of reality. Some people's slice is wider than others, but it can be simply put that a child raised in Mongolia turns out differently than one raised on the States. I ought to know. If you've experienced poverty, you have a different view of it. If you've seen lazy people getting by on the work of others, your view is colored by that experience.
I've been musing over these thoughts for the last little while, mostly in response to reading the comments of others on WatchBlog. What people believe to be true is enormously shaped by their worldview. Their worldview is shaped by their experiences and their authorities. Political opinions come in at least two kinds - those prompted by authority and those prompted by experience. Most people believe the first thing they were taught. I suppose this is natural - to believe the second thing you were taught would require rejection of the first thing, which requires effort and (often) ridicule, which people avoid. Quite reasonably, of course. Sifting truth and thinking is enormously difficult and confusing work. It's far easier to live with an imperfect worldview, particularly since it really doesn't seem to matter in day-to-day life.
Some people also arrive at their beliefs through experience. Experience is one of the few things powerful enough to challenge a worldview acquired through authority. Some of the most dedicated Democrats are the ones who've seen poverty and hate it passionately and want it wiped off the face of the earth. Some of the most strident Republicans are those who've seen people bumming off the system, getting by on the work of others, and despise those who will not work. Supposedly, neo-conservatives began as "liberals mugged by reality" - a case of authority meeting experience.
Both authority and experience have major problems as bases for truth. Neglecting the obvious fact that relying on authority only puts the problem of knowledge acquisition on others (meaning knowledge has to be gained somehow in the first place for anyone to become an authority), a more serious problem is that authorities differ. This is enormously annoying, particularly in politics, where authorities differ so much. Each side has its own statistics and comebacks. The winner is often the person who has the biggest bag of citations and statistics (which, on WatchBlog at any rate, seems to be leftists most of the time, which partly explains my frustration).
Experience can sometimes help adjudicate between authorities. Whichever authority agrees most with one's experience can be assumed to be correct, which results in a massive simplification of the problem. However, experience is also a faulty guide, for several reasons. First, and most glaringly, experience is too limited. One person's life (particularly when one is very young, as I am) is simply too short to have a sufficient library of experiences to consult. This can be remedied, to some extent, by listening to the experiences of others, but this has several issues.
First, the reason a personal experience is such a wonderful lever in debate is that you know for sure that it's true. No-one can challenge your experience. It was reality. It happened. But when you rely on the experiences of others (my friend lost his job because of X), you are back to authority, because you rely on your friend to
- tell the truth
- interpret the experience correctly
The problem of learning the right lesson from an experience is extremely knotty. It is quite likely that a Jew and a Nazi, going through the same historical experiences (roughly), learned very different lessons from WWII. The lessons a person learns from his experience depend greatly on that person's point of view. In other words, to a large degree, your worldview determines what you will learn from your experiences.
There are some happier notes. Worldviews are immense things, and it's quite unlikely that a person is mistaken on every point. As a matter of fact, most people's worldviews are reasonably accurate for their daily lives. They have to be, otherwise they'd act like lunatics. They're also reasonably similar.
There's also the supremely happy note that reality really exists. True, our experience of reality is colored by our worldview, but it is not determined by our worldview. Even the most hard-headed worldview can eventually split open under repeated assaults of real life. Even a racist can change through simple interaction with everyday people of a race he or she despises.
Experience is a valuable guide because it is closely related to reality. Even if the lessons you learn from an experience are greatly influenced by your worldview, the little bits and pieces left that don't quite fit the explanation are still stored in your memory. They'll continue to sit there and grow until you deal with them. When enough of your experiences go unexplained, thinking will probably take place. This can be a very good thing.
But, in the end, people believe what they want to. This is a supremely important point. To change a person's mind, you have to persuade them to want to. Beating people upside the head with reality has some effect, though. It can make them want to change, if only to stop the pain of running into reality.