Experience is Experiment

Photo by Julia Koblitz on Unsplash

I think of questions and experiments as deeply related: Experiments are questions we ask the world. My philosopher friend Stephen Taylor recently posted this insight:

The principle of the hermeneutic priority of the question sees understanding an idea as a matter of hearing it as a response to an implied or explicit question. If a reader hears the idea as the response to the question intended by one expressing the idea, the idea is understood, or at least it is not misunderstood.

What if not only our ideas arise from questions, but our experiences as well? This triggered the following provisional epiphany: All experience is experiment. In terms of questioning, one could put it: All experience flows from questioning.

Having long ago learned that my epiphanies are rarely unique, I googled [“experience is experiment”], and I was richly rewarded.* This exact claim was made by an early (less well known) pragmatist, FCS Schiller:

Experience is experiment, i.e. active. We do not learn, we do not live, unless we try. Passivity, mere acceptance, mere observation (could they be conceived) would lead us nowhere, least of all to knowledge.
Studies in Humanism

I then dug a bit deeper by exploring the etymologies of experience and experiment and discovered they share the same root:

They are both rooted in the Latin word, experīrī, meaning to try. I find this connection immensely satisfying. We do not experience the world passively, our experiences are generated by what we actively try to do.

This seems the exact opposite of the Yoda’s aphorism, Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.

If one embraces the claim that experience is experiment, then a more fruitful aphorism is: There is only try.

A more well known Pragmatist, John Dewey, seemed to come close to claiming experience is experiment:

We may compare experiment and experience. Normally we think of experience as being passive, with its order not controlled by human action; it exists only in a chronological sequence. But this is not the case with experiment; experiment is intentionally directed and controlled by human action and directed toward a foreseen purpose. Or we may say, if we wish, that there are three kinds of experience. The first is trial and error, blind effort without anticipation of results. It takes time and energy, but gets significant results only by accident. A second type of experience is withdrawal — a pulling back from experiencing. The less one tries to do something, the better. The third type of experience is experiment. This type is different from the first one in that it is guided by intentional anticipation instead of being blind trial and error. It is also different from the second one in that it is a positive attitude; it is experience marked by the intent to act upon the idea, rather than by withdrawing from the situation. This is experience by experiment.

The experiment is to be distinguished from blind trial and error, and it is the opposite of withdrawal.

The method of trial and error can, it is true, be spoken of as a kind of experimentation, but it is not scientific because it lacks the element of anticipation, and seeks success by chance alone.
Lectures in China

Though Dewey distinguishes three kinds of experience, he admits that two of them are both kinds of experiment, and I would claim that the remaining kind of experience, withdrawal, is either not a kind of experience at all or is yet another kind of experiment.

In sum, all experience arises from questioning, questioning by trying is experimenting, hence all experience is experiment. Note that this fits well with the theory of biological agency known as active inference: biological agents experience the world by actively testing their models of the world.




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Nick Gall

Nick Gall

I am an Ironist currently exploring new career paths.

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