We do not have direct experience of physical things: evidence is theory-laden. That is well-understood and generally regarded as true. Much less appreciated is that we do not have direct experience of abstract things either: self-evidence is theory-laden too.

The empiricist intuition is that as we approach the things of which we have “direct experience,” our beliefs become more certain, obvious, and less prone to error. It is ironic, then, that at the very end of this chain are qualia, perhaps the only things we could be said to “experience directly,” and they are among the least understood phenomena of all.

About Lee Kelly

Amateur philosopher
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7 Responses to Evidence

  1. Daniel Kuehn says:

    I’m not sure if the intuition is that they are more certain, less prone to error, etc. – it’s simply more relevant.

    The difference between what we “directly experience” and abstractions is not so much that one is firmer than the other – since neither are firm in an ultimate sense being “firmer” doesn’t get you very far. The difference is we actually live in the world of “direct experience”, so these things are more relevant. Our knowledge of experience might not be as direct as we pretend it is sometimes, but it’s certainly more applicable to the way we live our everyday lives – because we live our everyday lives through experience.

  2. Lee Kelly says:


    I am not drawing a distinction between “direct experience” and “abstractions.” My opening point is that we no more experience abstractions directly than we do physical objects. All experience, including what is called “self-evidence” or “mathematical intuition,” is theory-laden. There is nothing more or less relevant about empirical evidence than self-evidence: relevance depends on the particular problems being addressed, not the nature of the evidence itself.

    The more layers of theory which stand between our direct experiences and our interpretations the more there are possible sources of error. For example, we interpret assortments of numbers and letters on a sheet of paper about “GDP” and “inflation” to inform us about the emergent properties of complex economies composed of millions of acting individuals. We have theories about how paper and ink behave. We have theories about institutions and the incentives they establish. We have theories about individuals and their motivations and competencies. We have theories about possible error ranges in the data and theories about whether such error would be important. We have theories about how individual interactions produce these emergent macroeconomic facts and what is implied about the microeconomic particulars. All these theories, and many more besides, must be true if our interpretations of the letters and numbers are also to be true.

    Logically, infinitely many assumptions must be true for our interpretation is true, and each and every one of these assumptions is a possible source of error. In this sense, it is meaningless to suggest that there can be more or less layers of theory standing between our direct experiences and our interpretations, since there are always infinitely many layers for even the most mundane observations. Our interpretations of what we experience appeal to a vast array of explanatory theories that have consequences which go far beyond anything that has or can be experienced.

    The empiricist assumption is that as we approach “direct experience” in these chains of intepretation, (e.g. our theories about how paper and ink behave rather than our theories about institutions) our claims become more certain, more self-evident and less prone to error. We eventually terminate with the most certain thing of all: our direct conscious impressions themselves, qualia. At this point, there are no interpretations but just the raw stuff of experience … ostensibly.

    It is ironic, then, in my opinion, that less is understood about qualia, and there is as much disagreement, than almost anything else. Moreover, people do not seek explanations of qualia in what is most “certain,” i.e. the qualia themselves, but rather in some of the most far-reaching and layered interpretations of reality that we have, such as quantum physics or computer science. What the “raw stuff of experience” is, rather than being self-evident, ends up being dependent on the thickest webs of explanatory theories that have so far been conceived.

  3. Daniel Kuehn says:

    Right – and I get your own interest in the irony of qualia. I’m simply saying that it’s not just a matter of an empiricist’s perception of things becoming more reliable as we get closer to unadulterated experience (if there is such a thing). It’s also simply that because what we care about in the world is tied to our experience of the world, more experiential modes of thought are more closely tied to what we, as reality experiencers, really care about on a day to day basis.

  4. Bruce Caithness says:

    Richard Dawkins makes a total hash in his discussion of “facts” and induction in “The Greatest Show on Earth”. Our current Darwin’s bulldog seems to be stuck in the H.G. Wells style of argumentation. I am disappointed that such a champion for science has not absorbed Popper’s epistemology.

    Quote: “It is ‘a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment and, by generally informed consent, it is ‘a statement of what are heldl to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed: It is certainly very far from ‘a mere hypothesis, speculation, conjecture’. Scientists and creationists are understanding the word ‘theory’ in two very different senses. Evolution is a theory in the same sense as the heliocentric theory. In neither case should the word ‘only’ be used, as in ‘only a theory’.
    As for the claim that evolution has never been ‘proved’ proof is a notion that scientists have been intimidated into mistrusting. Influential philosophers tell us we can’t prove anything in science.”

    I find it surreal that Richard Dawkins writes such poorly digested fodder.

  5. Rafe says:

    Along the lines of Daniel’s comments, like animals we have evolved a suite of instincts and reflexes which enable us to survive, most of the time, in a world of medium sized objects moving at moderate speeds.

    Then as language evolves to the descriptive and argumentative level, parallel with the rise of public knowledge, and speculative myths to explain things, we start to consciously and self-consciously in worlds of abstraction, and things can get very complicated.

  6. Mark Peaty says:

    I think Lee Kelly’s observation is true about the indirectness or ‘theory laden’ nature of abstract thinking being as much so as perception of physical things. The way I prefer to put this is that every thing we perceive, contemplate or believe is constructed within the brain. Our normal state of being however is usually some degree of naive realism. In other words we normally mistake the construction or representation of the thing for the thing itself, and this is usually just fine.

  7. Rafe says:

    Yes, it is fine as long as our perceptions and responses are adequate, which they tend to be for things like perception of natural phenomena which have been stable over a long time. That applies to perceptions, but in a changing social environment our responses are often out of step!

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