Archives for posts with tag: knowledge

Empirical scientific method admits as evidence only that which can be physically observed or measured.  Information which resists observation or measurement is deemed at best irrelevant and more usually unreal.  If we can’t measure it, pin it down or prove it, it is untrustworthy, flakey and unworthy of further attention.

Of course this approach has given us huge rewards: comfortable lifestyles, longer lifespans, cures for diseases…This is clear.  But could it be that these wonderful rewards have encouraged us to apply empirical thinking in more and more spheres of activity while other modes of thinking and perception become more and more marginalised?

So powerful has the dogma of objectivism become that we now see people applying it not just in science but in interpreting their own lives.   The following quote is from an article in the Guardian by a recovering alcoholic describing his experience at Alcoholics Anonymous and subsequent disillusionment with the organisation:

I now realise that the rush I felt from being in a room full of people in the same boat as me – the sensation of peace, of God entering in through the ceiling – was simply  oxytocin (the human bonding hormone) triggered by the familiar rituals of the meeting. I was mistaking a chemical experience for a religious one.”

Even leaving aside the religious angle, what a tragic interpretation this is of an experience of peace and of being supported: In calling it a “chemical experience”, the writer strips an experience (which he admits elsewhere in the article almost certainly saved his life) of all meaning.

I see two problems with this interpretation

1   There is no “un-chemical” experience

What this writer forgets is that, through this lens, his current disillusionment is another chemical experience, as was his beginning to drink, his childhood and every other experience of his life.  Biochemical processes are associated with every moment of every experience of our lives but they are not the experiences themselves.   And making this simple thinking error is a very fast short cut to despair.

  1.  We have no way of knowing what is “normal”

The writer above clearly believes that his current state gives him “true” perception while his previous state gave some kind of drugged up and distorted high.  Different hormonal states are certainly associated with different modes of perception but there is no evidence that any one of these gives us a truer picture of our world.  Empirical science will tell us that the state in which we see the world as physical, observable, measurable and separate from ourselves is the most “rational”.  But this is a circular argument:

  1. This state is gives us the most accurate picture of the world because we perceive empirically, and
  2. Empirical knowledge is the truest knowledge because that is how we experience the world in this “true” state.

Other states of consciousness, such as that described by our alcoholic writer above, have long been marginalised.  We may have discounted, kept secret or forgotten experiences which are not sanctioned or recognised in our culture.

So I realise that in describing some of the very un-empirical states of consciousness and modes of perception which I have very regularly experienced as part of a natural menstrual cycle, I run a very high risk of being dismissed out of hand.  Nevertheless, I believe that, sanctioned or not, the varying states of consciousness which are part of a natural menstrual cycle are a female birth right, fundamental to our identity and our experience of being human, female and fertile.  But because this is unempirical territory, it is invisible, unspoken of, unsanctioned and therefore all too easy to give up for the sake of “convenient” contraception.

I believe that understanding about alterations to one’s personality, identity and world view should be part of “informed choice” for women considering hormonal contraception.  This information is largely unmeasurable – certainly within the fertile lifetime of anyone reading this blog today – and of course there is no corporate funding for researching the downside of a multi-billion dollar product.  We can’t afford to wait for the scientists to get round to this.  Nevertheless, the information we need is available to us right now in the form of women’s lived experience.  I offer my story as one individual woman.  I don’t believe I have all the answers but I do hope to begin a new conversation.

 

 

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What is ‘real’ knowledge?  Empirical scientific thought tells us that only that which can be objectively observed and physically measured can be considered valid information.   This approach has clearly brought us great advances in many fields but it has also made us culturally blind to information which is not open to this kind of measurement.

Our daily experiences, the ways in which we perceive the world,  are complex, dynamic and invisible experiences and as such have largely been dismissed as irrelevant in science.  What is more, objectivist scientific thought has become so fully integrated into our culture that our subjective experiences have become marginalised, not just in science but across the board.  The very word “subjective” has come to mean something like “irrelevant to anyone but yourself”.

And yet, every moment of every day we live the experiences which make our lives real: we feel the sun on our faces, we are hurt by a cruel remark, we fall in love, we feel anger, we respond to a particular piece of music, we proceed through our menstrual cycle.  These are completely subjective experiences, each one absolutely unique to ourselves at a particular time and place.  And they are absolutely relevant to other people.

Without hearing the stories of others we have no way of making sense of our own.  By listening to another person’s experience and getting to vicariously experience it ourselves, we start to see where it intersects with our own experience and where it differs.  We gain a small glimpse of the infinitely complex web of interactions which have created this experience and thus bring another increment of understanding to our own life.

Contrast this with a conventional scientific approach.  When scientists examine human experience, the usual approach is to cut the complexity and reduce the experience to something that can be measured on a linear numerical scale.  We get questionnaires “On a scale of 1-5, please rate your muscle stiffness today”  or indirect measures such as how fast we walk after winning or losing a football match. Or sometimes it’s the concentration of particular biochemicals in our bloodstream.

All the other prolifically interacting variables that impinge on our experience: our memories and previous experience, our surroundings, the other people involved, the state of our bodies, the weather…all these are cut out as “noise”.  The very details which make an experience meaningful and a story interesting are ruthlessly stripped away.

And when conventional science presents its results and shows us that, for example, people tend to walk faster after winning a football match than after losing, have stiffer muscles at a particular time of the month, or have higher concentrations of oxytocin in the blood while breast feeding, the conclusions feel alien to us and do not seem to reflect our experience in the least.

Our stories describe our lives in complexity in a way that will never be open to objective science.  Our stories shared are our most powerful resource in learning how to live our lives.

So, without apology, I offer my story in these posts and invite you to share your own.   I believe that by sharing our experience, we can come to understand our bodies through the natural learning process with which we have evolved to date.  Objective science may chip in some useful information along the way but must never make us doubt our primary means of understanding our lives:  our own bodies and our own stories in communication with those around us.