Limits of Personal Experience

Using our personal experiences as a guide to finding truth has its limits.  Our experiences provide us with the raw material of knowledge but, as the philosopher John Locke says, our mind is constantly interpreting what we experience. [1]  Trueblood amplifies what Locke observed by noting what the mind knows is a world of ideas which represents real things but is never identical to real things.  If the ideas were real things, errors in perception would be impossible but that is not the case. [2]  The philosopher David Hume agrees when he states our perceptions are not the same as the external objects we observe. [3]  What we experience is colored by our previous experiences and these previous experiences sometimes distort what we are currently experiencing.  When I was attending college, I was involved in an automobile accident on my way back to school.  What surprised me were the substantially different accounts of the accident given by the various witnesses.  These differing accounts were the result of different previous experiences which colored what was observed and of different visual perspectives of the accident, not a deliberate attempt to distort the truth.

Different perspectives make it more difficult for us humans to determine what is true but in spite of the limitations of our personal experiences, experience has its place.  Trueblood concludes:

We may, and must, go far beyond experience, but unless we use it as a way of touching reality there is nothing to keep us from imagining any kind of dream we like and the dream will be absolutely worthless. [4]

The importance of experience, in contrast to mere argumentation, accounts for the significance which we rightly attach to the famous experiment conducted at Pisa by Galileo (1564-1642).  Instead of merely arguing about falling bodies, Galileo dropped the balls from the top of the leaning tower and thereby changed an intellectual fashion.   Of course it would be naïve to suppose that the dropping of the balls, or any other single experiment, is sufficient to establish a case.  Seeing is not necessarily believing!  There is always the possibility of deceit, of optical illusion, or of the presence of peculiar circumstances which are effective though unrecognized.  But seeing helps! [5]

Our experiences are critical to determining what is true but they are notoriously unreliable.  We constantly discover that our perceptions are at times faulty.  Our experience teaches us by utilizing our experiences alone, we cannot make sense of this phenomenon we call life.  The universe is too immense, the world too complicated, and other people’s experiences too varied over the ages humans have been alive for us to believe that our individual experience tells us all we need to know.  Our experiences in this one life, in this short time of existence, prove little.  Each of us individually are just one drop in the ocean.


[1]   John Locke as quoted by David Elton Trueblood, General Philosophy (New York:  Harper & Row, 1963), p. 35.

[2]   David Elton Trueblood, General Philosophy (New York:  Harper & Row, 1963), p. 35.

[3]   David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (London:  Penguin Books, 1969), p. 266.

[4]   Trueblood, p. 70.

[5]   Trueblood, p. 69.

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