Experiential vs Scientific truth

It’s important not to get mixed up between what is true in our experience (experiential truth) and what is true scientifically. Realising the difference between these two types of truth and how they are related will allow us to have a much clearer enquiry into suffering and how it can be ended. Let me illustrate these two ideas with a few brief examples:

Specific truths for you and scientific truths which are applicable for all cases

If you are scared of spiders, maybe every time you see a spider, a strong sensation of fear arises. This is an experiential truth, for you. For you, every time you see a spider, fear arises. This is the truth of your experience. However it does not mean that spiders are intrinsically scary. ie. it is not a scientific truth. We can conclude that at this moment in time you are scared of spiders, but we cannot extrapolate this finding that specifically related to a single individual and say it is always true for everyone.

Just because something is true for us, doesn’t mean it is true for everyone.

We can make this example even more obvious by using a more ridiculous example, such as someone being scared of ice cream. The experiential truth is that fear arises whenever ice cream is encountered, but we cannot conclude that scientifically speaking ice creams are scary.

This is contrary to something like the medication ibuprofen, which is, scientifically speaking, an analgesic or ‘pain killer’. It, broadly speaking, has the same effect on almost everyone, both scientifically, and also experientially.

The basic point here is that we must be careful when taking a specific example that is true for ourselves and then extrapolating this to make a general case that something is scientifically true.

Appearances vs reality

Here is another example. Take the sun rising and setting. Experientially it is true to say that each morning the sun rises in the East, then moves up and across the sky to be high up at midday, then gradually lowers and finally sets in the West. We can say that, experientially speaking, the sun’s path in the sky forms an arc. We can say, experientially speaking, the earth appears stationary and the sun is moving around it.

However scientifically speaking we know this is not true. A more complete scientific explanation that also accounts for this experience is that the earth moves around the sun which gives rise to the above described experience of the sun rising and setting.

Just because something appears to be true in our experience, doesn’t mean that is actually the case.

The point in this example is to illustrate that just because something appears to be true ie. is experientially true, it doesn’t mean that is actually the way it is, ie. scientifically true. However it is worth noting that understanding the scientific truth that the earth moved around the sun doesn’t actually change the experience that the sun rises and set. The raw sensory experience remains unchanged, it is just our understanding of the what gives rise to the experience that changes, and that in turn can change our perspective and our attitude and the decisions we make.

Optical illusions

Another simple example it the example of an optical illusion which appears to be one thing, but actually in reality is quite different. One of my favourite optically illusions is the checkerboard and cylinder illusions. This is an example of how the brain actually alters the way we perceive physical objects based upon is preconceptions of how things should look:

optical illusion

It’s difficult to believe if you have never seen this before, but the 2 squares marked A and B are actually exactly the same colour, but our brain change the way the colours are perceived as it ‘knows’ that in the shadow of the cylinder the squares ‘should’ appear darker. If you cover up the cylinder in the picture or look at the diagram below the illusion should become more obvious:

optical illusion cylinder board

There are many more optical illusions you can see. Here is another simple one – both these lines are actually the same length scientifically speaking, but the experience is that line B appears longer that line A:

optical illusion lines

Why is this important?

This is particularly important in non-dual teachings where we are seeing there is no evidence for a doer, even though we think that it feels like a doer is present.

Just because it appears that we are the author of our thoughts and actions, doesn’t mean this is actually the way things are.

It also has ramifications for what I call The Awareness Teachings, in which we are taught that awareness or consciousness is ever-present experientially speaking whilst we are awake (ie. in the waking state), but that does not mean that scientifically speaking it is true that the essence of who we really are is awareness. This is an experiential truth, sure, but it may or may not be true scientifically speaking. Even if it is not true scientifically, that doesn’t mean the teaching has no value. In fact The Awareness Teachings in my view has incredible value, and that is why I teach it, but I teach it in a specific way that makes sense both experientially and scientifically.

Just because awareness/consciousness seems to be an unchanging part of our experience, doesn’t necessasarily mean that this is true scientifically speaking.

The other reason it is so important is that suffering itself is an experience. Therefore, freedom from suffering is also to do with our experience: learning to examine aspects of our experience and changing both our interaction with experience, our understanding of experience and even also changing the content of experience, such as changing our reactive habitual thoughts and behaviours if they are causative of suffering into something that is based on more truth, is less destructive in our relationships and society, and generates less suffering for ourselves and those around us.

Experiential truth is very important – why? Because suffering itself is an experience, and it is this that we are trying to understand and remove.


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