What does it mean to "have an experience?" When do you "have experiences" and when do you not? Or more specifically, when do experiences occur and when do experiences not occur?
Does this kind of question make sense? How could we know when experiences do not occur? Experience is a basic presumption behind everything else. Are there times when we have contents without experience? When is that? What does it mean to have contents of experience but no experience, itself?
Are there experiences we have without awareness? Are there things that happen to us, things that we are not aware of that affect us? I have a cold for instance. But I'm not aware of when, or where I acquired the infectious bug that is currently tormenting me. In fact, I'm not even sure what kind of bug it is. Nor am I aware what my immune response is actually doing.
What I am aware of is that I am sick. I have a stuffy head. I am not regulating my body temperature very well. I have an occasional cough. My throat is sore and I feel like crap. It seems like a cold to me. I am experiencing being sick.
While I experience being sick. I don't explicitly experience the cold virus that infected me. I am aware of it possibly affecting me, but only as an idea. I am aware of how this period of sickness differs and is similar to other times when I have been ill. But that's about the extent of my awareness and experience of this cold.
Let's suppose that I was sick but I wasn't aware of it. Say I was comatose and my body was infected with a virus. After being ill, I awoke from this coma and was asked if I could recall the experience of being sick? The answer, of course, would be no. If I woke up while sick, I would certainly be aware of it. But unless I was aware of some event directly, it would only be an idea to me, and not a direct experience.
A corollary would be reading about a character who is ill in a story. We can conceive of the character's illness. But the conception is nothing like the actual sensations and perceptions when you yourself are ill. The direct experience of being ill is much more overwhelming, detailed, and pressing.
This difference, in the quality of experiences between the experience of an idea of being sick and actually being sick, seems to be about how much awareness is happening in an experience. Even when sick, there are periods where we can escape into a movie or a fitful sleep. Periods where we our experience of illness recedes from awareness and when the experience of illness grows and fills up awareness. Where the awareness of discomfort and illness grows and recedes the contents of our experience seems to grow and recede.
Are awareness and experience different?
Living in a city, I don't awaken every time a car goes by at night. But if I lived far into the country where a car driving past was a rare event, I probably would awaken if one drove past at night. It's not unlike how I awaken when there are unusual sounds inside or outside my house at night.
Is this unusual at all? That an event happening to a mostly unconscious person can produce an awareness that interrupts an unconscious phase or state? Smelling salts work so well, why? An interesting neuro-cognitive question that I don't know the answer too. What is obvious is that our body and our awareness are tied together.
There are studies that show our bodies respond to stimuli that are not part of our "ordinary" awareness. That is, our body is aware of things of which we are attentionally unconscious. These things are part of our experience. Even if we only think of them as being at the periphery of experience. Or perhaps the periphery of awareness. As one might expect, these peripheral things would seem to affect our mood or inclinations.
Many events happen to our bodies that affect our moods. A drop in blood sugar may make us tired or irritable. We are not normally aware of the drop in blood sugar, but the event is the predecessor for changes in mood. we certainly experience the change in mood. And with effort we may become attuned to our blood sugar levels as we pay closer attention to what precedes our changes of mood.
Altered states of consciousness make us aware of things that we at other times do not experience. When we hallucinate we have an experience that doesn't endure in ordinary states. We may become more relaxed for instance after consuming alcohol or marijuana. We may feel contented after eating a warm meal. While it is the experience of those things that we are aware of, it is the changes in brain chemistry that seem to produce our altered states.
But these actions are about modifying experience through their attendant effects. I am hungry; so I eat to not be hungry. I am uncomfortable; so I might have a drink to loosen up. Or that food looks good, and I want to taste it. Or I want to have a good time; so I'll get stoned. The root of these activities are pursuits to cause a change in experience. One way we often want to change an experience is by making it more or less intense.
When we dream, we seem to access the unconscious. And when we are conscious and remember these dreams we get to have an experience that certainly is "going on" in our brains, but which at other times we seem cut off from. Most of us don't remember our dreams. And most dreams are not intense ones full of meaning and insight. So does the person who remembers and even participates in their dream life have a richer experience than the person who does not? What about the person who spontaneously dreams?
Does the person who participates in their relationships, or their garden, or their cars inner workings have a richer experience than the person who doesn't? Is it possible to create a more intense experience simply by being more attendant to the experience, by being more aware?
The closer you look into anything, the more there appears to be a relationship between increased awareness and increased experience. By increase I mean more - is more experience with something (x) more awareness of that thing (x) ?
What about big shifts in awareness?
A young baby, or a dog for instance do not recognize themselves in a mirror. But as a child develops, mirror self-awareness arises. And with it, we can observe an increase in experiences. This change is not only quantitative, but qualitative. What is the quality that is changed or added to to allow an organism to gain mirror self awareness?
Perhaps self-recognition is an example of awakening from a simulation. Self-recognition as embodiment, the recognition of having a body which is the self. For example, we recognized that the world itself is not disturbed when we am ill, only our body is. This separation of world and self is dependent on an awareness of self being separate from the world. Even though when we are sick it often seems like the world itself is changed.
Note: The stories, Flowers for Algernon and Secrets of Nimh go into some of these issues.
In an ordinary sense, we readily accept that limitations of awareness are limitations to experience. And we ordinarily accept that increased awareness means increased experience. Even if it's increased awareness of hallucinations or fictions we naturally understand that the experience is more intense, that there is more content to the experience.
But this is not an ordinary association. Limitations of awareness are always limitations of experience.
We see a difference in our experiences through drug taking such as by smoking pot. What we do not experience is the quantity of TCH entering our blood stream, even though it is the THC which interacts with our brain and changes our experience.
As we become more experienced, or as we pay more attention, increases to our awareness increases our experience. Awareness and experience are malleable. An increased experience appears to always be an increased awareness and vice versa.
Are these two ideas the same thing? These ways of speaking, about awareness or about experience carry with them certain implications. Perhaps what confuses is that awareness implies a being which is aware, whereas experience implies the content of experience. And that content can intrude onto or into the being. Experience can intrude into awareness, just as awareness intrudes into experience.
But are there ever cases where a person could say, I had such and such an experience, but I was not aware of it? And if they did, what does that mean? I was born in 1967. And in 1969 before I turned two, men landed on the moon. If I were to say, I watched the moon landing as child, but I don't remember it, then how could I know I watched the moon landing? There are no photos of me having done so.
If someone is unable to form a memory of an event, even though they have an experience of the event at the time, and can not later recall the event. The event is not an experience for them.
That is true for everyone. If you recall an event, the experience you are having is the remembering. It is not the original experience itself. this is one of those fascinating things about strong dreams. Once in awhile, we relive a time or a place, and the experience is fuller than our memory of it. But we quickly realize even our dreams are not the same as the original experience.
But what is different? Our full awareness is different. Or the contents of our awareness are different. There are memories in our awareness that were not available when the original experience occurred. The totality or fullness of experience includes thoughts and memories too. And this alteration of what we are aware of during experiences, or the multiple facets of a whole experience distinguishes each experience from the others.
And what we see is that even when we repeat the same things, the most minute differences in our awareness corresponds to a change of the experience. The contents of experience, of awareness are always shifting.
And this brings us to deja vu. Deja vu is the experience of doing something before coupled with the awareness of having done it before. As some readers may know, deja vu can be extraordinarily predictive. As the deja vu begins, it's possible to notice where the deja vu experience begins to break down or differ from the prior experience. And what changes the most rapidly when experiencing deja vu? Our own thoughts.
The ephemeral variation of thought, perception, attention, and focus shifts experience constantly.
Where does that leave us?
I propose that awareness is really interchangeable with experience. And by experience I mean the fullness of awareness. For instance, I am experience the typing of keys on my keyboard. But I am also seeing the monitor, noticing the water bottle next to my mouse. I have the desire to take a drink. the light above my monitor is on. I can hear the hum of the computer. the cat is playing with a bag on the floor behind me. the bag is paper.
I could go on and on enumerating all the various contents of this full experience. But I could, just as accurately enumerate them not as "experiences" but as objects I am aware of. And if I were to enumerate them in full, each list would be the same. There is not some content of experience that is not an object of awareness.
If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?
No it does not. We imagine that it does. Our science tells us that it does. But without experiencing it ourselves, without it being part of our direct awareness, the sound is a supposition we make from having seen and heard trees fall.
I cannot prove the falling tree made a sound. My experience of the tree falling is entirely imaginary. My awareness is of the concept that fallen trees fell and when a tree falls in a forest it makes crashing noises. I don't have an awareness of the falling, I have an awareness of the supposition the tree falling.
This works in reverse too, sometimes I have the experience of someone staring at me. And when i look up, there is no one there. The thing I thought that was staring at me was a mail box or funny shaped sign. Could I have said "aware of being stared at" instead of "experience of someone staring at me"? Sure. we can reframe all the experience language into awareness language.
We can do this because being aware means having experiences and vice versa.
And the contents of awareness is what we have access too. Like the idea of the tree falling in the forest, or my cold, what comprises an experience, is the content of awareness. And that content is all we have to work with.
There are not things that are outside of my experience. There are not objects about which we could talk that I don't have some experience of. Even if my ideas about the content of experience are erroneous my ideas do not diminish the fact of experience. Experience underlies the ideas we have whether the ideas are true or false.
This ability to talk about experiences and form ideas and references to objects and states of experiences occurs not just with the individual elements or things we experience, but it occurs with experience as a whole.
For intance, if I take THC it will affect the experiences I have. If I am unknowingly given TCH, I may not know what is going on until the effects start to manifest in my experience. but then I could say, "it's like I'm stoned!" If I had never experienced that, I could not say what my experience was like. I would just be suffering from the time distortion and other effects of THC. This would be doubly true if I was under the illicit affects of LSD or another hallucinogen. It's also true for food poisoning, or migraines or for any other perception altering experience.
The first time such experiences happen we actively try making new references to other experience. We seek some explanation from the people around us to make sense of the changes that happen to us in these circumstances. We make an effort to create a context for the experience we are having. We make an effort to contextualize the various differences in the contents of our experiences.
The ideas we derive from experience, the experiments we conduct to test ideas about our experiences, the information we share amongst ourselves to explain how experiences occur is very important to increase our understanding of ourselves and the world. This testing and demonstrating of experiences forms the basis of modern science. But this process only occurs after the fact of experience.
Ideas we have about experiences or it's contents are explanatory or they are about proving or disproving propositions about how our experience fits together. But they are after the fact dependent on having direct experiences (such as sensation or perception) and on having experiences with thoughts and ideas (such as reason and logic).
For instance, the world is flat is an idea that has been disproved. It's not that the world being flat does not exist. The world being flat does exist. It exists as an idea in history and literature and in some religious circles the world still has four corners. We experience the world in a flat sense and our language has many references to a flat earth.
But the statement the world is flat is not true. The world is round and we can prove it with a bit of math and measurements taken a certain distance apart on the earth will show a curvature as Eratosthenes did in 240 B.C.
But this is post-experiential reasoning. Our experience is what we are aware of, and that experience is what exists. And we are aware of everything. Whether it's true or not is a different matter. We may say there are lots of things we are not aware of, but that is wrong. By saying so, we are dimly aware of those things. And because we have awareness, we entangle the existence of those things. Even if our associations and ideas about those things turn out to be completely wrong, their existence, even if imaginary, is assured.
I am not suggesting the quality of awareness or experience indicates any truth or accuracy of statements we make about the contents of experience. I am arguing only that the existence of objects is correlated to awareness. And that awareness itself is the one thing we cannot ever refute. And that awareness necessarily entails objects of awareness.
Descartes himself arrived at this very point. There are things he experienced and that he couldn't refute having experiences.
I am making that same claim, only much stronger. That there is nothing outside of experience and that experience, or awareness captures, in toto, all things.