The Laws of Experience:

The important thing to mention here is that the logic and the geometry and the arithmetic of experience is completely different from the logic, the geometry, and the arithmetic of public, objective objects. If you want to think about and talk about experiences, the subjective, personal side of our existences, you have to get adjusted to this fact.

Say you are walking after a rain storm, and your eyes fall on a wet, bright yellow leaf laying on the ground, glistening in the sun. The glistening captures your attention. What you are experiencing is a wet, yellow leaf, but you are also having a visual sensation. And, according to the logic of experience, what you are experiencing is a leaf and a sensation at the same time. A leaf is not a part of me. A sensation is. It is part of my sensorium. So my experience is of something that is both me and not me. According to ordinary logic, this is impossible.

Now a leaf is outside of me, but a sensation is mine and in me. So what I am experiencing is both inside and outside me which is impossible according to ordinary geometry.

And we can say a whole series of contradictory things that would not want to write out in a logic class but that are inoffensive in the discussion of experience. For example, we can say that what we are experiencing (in the leaf experience) was independent of us (the leaf) but was also dependent on us (the visual sensation of the leaf). And it is public and objective but also personal and private and subjective. It is mine and not mine, me and not me. It is an object, but not an object — that is, it is an object and not an object at the same time.

As to arithmetic: The leaf is quite beautiful, radiating a subtle color and light, glistening in the sunlight. But the feeling of appreciation and beauty of the leaf is internal, inside our bodies, a feeling. Yet, as I just said, it is also out there in the leaf. At first, the leaf is beautiful. The beauty and the leaf are one, but there are also two — the leaf that is out there and the beauty which fills the body.

More on the Logic of Experience

It may seem to the reader that I am playing with words, but I am perfectly serious. I predict the reader will come to the same conclusions after a careful observation of his or her experiences.

What shows that this is not a frivolous word game is that, even though descriptions of experiences are often contradictory, this doesn't mean that any thing we say about experiences is true. We can make contradictory statements about experiences, but we can't make any contradictory statement. For example, what we experienced was a leaf and not a leaf, but this doesn't mean it was a tree and not a tree. It was a leaf and not a leaf, not a tree and not a tree. Only certain contradictory statements are true about experiences, not all contradictory statements.

It is the desire to fit the logic of experience into the logic of the regular world that has caused so many problems in certain areas of philosophy and psychology. "That thing over there" can't be a leaf and a sensation at the same time. That would be a contradiction. So it must be one or the other. But if it's a leaf, how can we explain that it seems to disappear when we close our eyes? So it must be a sensation, dependent on our eyes being open, and our belief that there is a leaf is based on our sensation of the leaf. But if it's a sensation, what is a leaf. Are we forever cut off from leaves and only have access to our sensations? Isn't a leaf what we see with our eyes?

— And it goes around and around. But what if it is both a leaf and a sensation? Then there is no problem (or, at least, not the same one). This is the logic of and instead of the logic of either/or.

Two more examples

If I look at my hand I am experiencing a part of my body but also a visual sensation of my hand. I close my eyes, and the visual sensation of my hand disappears, but my hand remains. I know it remains, because I still feel it (and I can touch it and move it and even smell it if I try). This experience is a mine-field of difficulties for ordinary logic, but it is real. When I experience my hand visually, that thing is my hand but, also and at the same time, it isn't.

Regarding time: The events we experience have passed the moment they are present, and, while present, they are also, already, partly in the future. But they are not in the past or the future, because neither the past nor the future is present now.

Two attempts to get out of the contradictions

If the contradictions bother us, and we believe in logic and believe that there must be a way of understanding experiences so that the contradictions disappear and that we can see they were only apparent, then we will not stop until we find a way out of the contradictions.

For example, we might say that all the examples given so far are really not contradictions, because they all depend on an assumption that isn't true. We said that the experience was of a leaf and of a visual sensation at the same time, but the experience of the leaf and the experience of the visual sensation (of the leaf) were not one experience but really two experiences that took place at two different times. First there was the experience of the yellow leaf, and then, an instant later, there was the experience of a visual sensation (after we thought about it). The same thing for the feeling of beauty of the leaf. First we experienced the beauty of the leaf as out there in the leaf, and, second, we experienced the beauty as inside ourselves. — But, someone will say, there really is no contradiction, because we are not speaking of the same thing being "x" and "not x" but of two things, one being "x" and the other being "not x" — no contradiction.

A second attempt to get out of the contradiction might be to say that the situations we are discussing are parallel to the situation where we see something one way (accurately) and then see it another way (also accurately) that is inconsistent with the first way. There is the famous example of the rabbit-duck drawing. Looked at one way the picture is of a rabbit.


Looked at another way it is a picture of a duck. This seems contradictory, because how can the same picture be a picture of both a rabbit and a duck? But there is no contradiction, because first we see it one way, and it is only at a later time that we see it the other way. If we saw it both ways at the same time, that would be impossible, but where is the contradiction in seeing it first one way and then, later, seeing it another way? A slight shift of our eyes and our attention to different parts of the drawing lead to two separate experiences. Similarly, a slight shift of attention, from the leaf to the me who is experiencing a sensation, leads to two separate experiences — hence, no contradictions.

Whether one or both of these explanations get rid of the contradictions I can not say. They don't for me. The reason is that, I think, even if there are two separate experiences — say of the leaf and then of the sensation — still, the content of that visual experience remains invariant between the two. First we call it a leaf and then a sensation, but the thing that we call "leaf" and then call "sensation" is there from the beginning to the end of the experience. Our thoughts about it change, our beliefs about it changes, but it doesn't change.

A few more examples

Take any experience — but we might as well return to the yellow leaf seen yesterday. Of course we are not returning to the leaf. For one thing you probably didn't see a leaf yesterday. For another thing, how can we return to the past. All this is business about leaves is in our imagination. But let's pretend we all saw a yellow leaf yesterday, or we can take any thing we are seeing right now. I am seeing black print on a computer screen. So I will stick with this black print on the screen in front of me. I experience the black print as here, but, I also can experience it as there, as out there and distinct from me. Further, it is something I see and know, but it is also a mystery that escapes me and is beyond me. It is filled with meaning, and it is also a meaningless jumble of marks. It is more than it is but less than it seems and feels. It is real, but it is also part of my dream, my plans for the future. It is a whole, while I am absorbed in it, but it is only a small part of another whole when I shift my attention to things that are bigger than the screen.

In fact, the whole world (the universe) I experience is clearly real, but it is also my own experience of it, an experience that many would say will disappear when I die.

Are there even such things as experiences?

Some people argue that there are no such things as experiences. This gets rid of the problem for them. If there are no experiences, than there are no other law of logic and geometry and arithmetic. And we can answer in the same vein. They are right. There are no such things as experiences. We can't see each other's experience. We can't feel them or taste or smell them. They are not public. Talk about them is always self-contradictory. So they aren't real and don't exist. It is just one more delusion, and we better stick to the practical matters of our lives like earning money and cooking our food. At the same time, however, even in the last few sentences we couldn't help but speak about feeling and tasting and seeing, and what are these but experiences? They aren't, but they are.

I have argued in other articles that the language used to describe experience and psychological phenomena is, on the whole, metaphorical and grows out of and is dependent on the language of real, objective things. I completely agree that, from one angle, experiences do not exist, they are figments of our imagination, they seduce us away from our real responsibilities in the real world. I believe this fully. Yet, at the same time — and in line with my view that it can be valid to contradict yourself when talking about experience — all we ever know and can know is our own experience. It is everywhere and everything and the only thing that is precious, even if it is nothing and unreal and dangerous and useless and worthless.

Symbols of experience

If we were alchemists and looking for a substance that we would use as a symbol for experience, it would be tempting to nominate mercury for this duty. If you have ever touched mercury and tried to pick it up, it's behavior and qualities are surprising seem contradictory. It looks like a metal, but it shatters apart when you touch it, and so on. It is fascinating and beautiful, and, it turns out, it is poisonous. 

Water would be another useful symbol, as you can see it and touch it, but, if you try to pick it up, it slips right through your fingers. It's there, and then it evaporates in the heat of the sun. It is beautiful and innocent looking and necessary for life, but, in an instant, a small brook can become a powerful river and wash away any houses in its way. It is subtle and yet powerful.

Or light. What is light? Even scientists argue about whether it is a wave or a particle or both or neither or what? So light could be a symbol of experience.

Air could be a symbol of experiences, because it is real and important and necessary for life, but it can't be seen or held.

It is probable to me that anything you can think of or see or feel or taste or touch or imagine can become a symbol of experience, just because it is an example of an experience.

One last example

For those who have never taken a university course in logic, everything that has been said may seem like so much water under a bridge. However, once you have been bitten by the logic bug, either from reading such philosophers as Plato and Aristotle or from taking a formal course in philosophy or logic, it is difficult to take what I have been saying seriously. As an ex-philosophy professor, I have had qualms, not only about writing what I have just written, but about even allowing myself to think such thoughts. If I had read this article fifty years ago, when I was in college, I would have used the word "hogwash," a word that was popular in the philosophy department where I studied. Yet, here I am, writing the unthinkable. I say that, because I want to allow myself to give one last example in which I let go (of my reason) even by one more step. Here I want to focus on the idea of sounds. Better I want to focus, not on the idea, but on particular sounds, and not even on particular sounds but some one specific sound. And I want to pick out one particular sound, a background sound, that I hear and that I can't identify. I don't want the sound of the car that went by, because I know what that was, and I don't want the sound of hum of the computer, because I recognize that sound. But there is a vague background sound — I think I can pick it out and focus on it — and it is that sound I want to discuss.

I want to say what I experience regarding it without any thought to the logic or consistency of what I am saying. I am half assuming that the reader will do a similar exercise. What I would say about this sound is pretty much what I have said about the other experiences described in this article, but I will add a few other points as an ending to the article. The sound certainly a sound of something, even though I don't know what that something is. It is a sound also, and it is a sound sensation, so it is something that is not me, but it is also part of me. It is me and not me, objective and subjective. It is a vibration. The vibration is outside me, but it is also in my ear. I feel it in my ear. So it is one thing outside me, but it is also another thing inside my ear. I even feel the vibration through the upper part of my body, not quite as strong as in my ear, but there none the less. I am thinking about the vibration and the sound and their difference and the thinking is different from the sound and the vibration, but the thinking itself was wrapped up in the sound and one with it. Now it seems separate from the sound and so separate, that I have forgotten the sound. The sound is gone, but, if I focus, I can hear it again, and now the thoughts are gone, but the thoughts aren't really gone. They are still going on.

Going on, the sound (or vibration?) has a feeling, not such a good feeling, but I recognize immediately that this feeling is in my body and not in the sound. Or is it? I can experience it both ways. And it is an unimportant sound. What I mean by this is that it isn't the sound of a raging wind or thunder or of someone screaming or crying. It is a sound of something I don't know. It is vague and unimportant, yet it is vaguely disturbing, but I'm not sure if that's me or it or both. It is ominous and has to do with the future, yet it is in the present, but it is also past, or part of it is past. It is out there, but it is in me, part of me. It has some vague feeling and some vague value to me but not a big one, though I feel it could become bigger if I found out what it is. It is part of my imagination. My imagination, with its own set of feelings and images, has brought more to it than was there before, and that "packet" seems to be part of it or, better, inseparable from it.

The sound is a whole, but, if I listen closely, it has parts. I can hear an actual modulation, like a vibration, or am I feeling the modulation? So it has parts. Remembering when I first started to pay attention to it, it seems that those parts were always there but that I wasn't paying attention to them. The whole had parts. The one was many — to put it philosophically. And, though the sound was and is whole, it was and is also a little, tiny, insignificant nothing. I would never have noticed it if I wasn't doing this psychological exercise. It is whole, but it is a tiny, insignificant part of something bigger. It is part of another whole that is my whole experience of everything going on now. And this is only one tiny piece of my life-time experiences, all the experiences I feel are like a weight in a satchel that are my memories. And then there is the satchel filled with my hopes and expectations and fears for the future. And all these thoughts about all this and all the memories and fantasies for the future and goals and everything I'm sensing and experiencing as well as my images of the whole universe that I've gotten from pictures and reading, all this is my idea of the whole, which is nothing more than one tiny experience in the life of one ordinary human creature at one particular moment in his life. And this moment is no more, and it is time to leave all that behind, the experience of the last few minutes which was all absorbing and that seemed whole and eternal and important and the center of everything — to leave all that behind as the chaff of yesterday's wheat harvest, and get on to real life, where talk of experience and contradictions and the like is self-centered and selfish and even dangerous.

Concluding thoughts

Thoughts like this, exercises such as these, are useful, I think, but experience and thinking about experience is a little like dreaming. There is a time and place for that and a time and place for laying that aside. Or is there a way to continue with it and to take up the burden of everyday life? I think there is, but I am not sure. Even more though, the question arises if it is possible to get out of it even if one wants to. It may be that is just another one of those contradictions we find in all experiences: no matter how much we want to lay them aside and get on with real life, we can't. We can give them up, turn away from them, back to hard reality, but we are still in them. We can acknowledge this or not, but that's about it.