The Ethics of Learning from Experience

09 December 2021 in Resource Center.

The way in which any tradition of inquiry and action is practiced is beset with issues about the correct or proper way to conduct inquiry and act within the tradition. Learning from experience has been proposed as a core epistemic virtue for our comprehensivity, our inclination to understand it all and each other. This resource explores several issues which may arise as we consider how we should learn from experience. Buckminster Fuller’s thinking about experiential learning will instigate much of the exploration.

The value of learning from experience, also known as the inductive attitude or empiricism, was introduced in the resource on The Comprehensive Thinking of R. Buckminster Fuller and was further developed in The Inductive Attitude: A Moral Basis for Science and Comprehensivism and has been reprised in the summarizing resources Comprehensivism in the Islamic Golden Age and Dante’s Comedìa and Our Comprehensivity.

Beginning with All Humanity’s Experience

Our comprehensivity is about our aspiration to understand it all and each other. Our perspective effectively requires us to begin with an all-encompassing inclusion of all the experience of all humanity. This view is captured by Buckminster Fuller’s definition “The universe is the aggregate of all of humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience”. Bucky recommended that we begin all inquiry with this notion of Universe so that we don’t omit anything from consideration. For comprehensive learning, we begin with Universe because it includes all the other others who we aspire to better understand.

In comprehensive learning, we must include the experiences of indigenous peoples, historical peoples, extinct peoples, minorities, paupers and billionaires; criminals, terrorists, tyrants, as well as heroes and saints; you and me: all these experiences become valid starting points for our comprehensive exploration. We must also include our experiences with microbes, plants, animals, eclipses, the Sun, Moon, planets, and other star systems. Comprehensive practice invites us to include everything that anyone has experienced as an event sequence or imagined as a possibility. In short, comprehensive learning is about learning from experience.

A major alternative is to begin with some principles that are assumed to be apodictic or necessarily true. Sometimes these are called first principles, axioms, self-evident principles, metaphysical or theological principles, logos, divine logos, faith-based beliefs, rationality, the principles of critical thinking, and many other formulations. Such, assumed to be certain, truths are the beginning point for many systems of learning. We might call such systems of inquiry and action apodictic since they begin with certainty.

It may seem that apodictic systems of learning are incompatible with comprehensive learning because a system with necessarily true starting points is inclined to discount or reject beliefs that are at odds with its first principles. Moreover, apodictic systems may reject alternative starting points. From the comprehensive perspective which values all experience and all starting points, it may seem arrogant and imperial if not colonial and violent to insist that other beliefs and starting points are invalid.

But, if we are serious about understanding it all and each other, we need to examine even those traditions whose first principles put them at odds with both our comprehensive learning and other antithetical systems of learning. For the comprehensive learner, delving into such worlds is par for the course. Comprehensive practitioners are endlessly curious about how other systems of knowing work, even apodictic ones.

I think comprehensive practitioners should take the long view with respect to apodictic systems of learning: some day we might learn of an absolutely correct principle governing our worlds. If it concurred with everyone’s experience we might conclude it was demonstrably true or apodictical. In fact, for all we know, such principles may already have been identified. So we should be curious and appreciative of apodictic systems of learning even if our experience with so many of them leaves us a little skeptical about many of their claims.

To contrast learning from experience and apodictic or self-evident systems of learning further, let’s consider Bucky’s self-discipline for “experientially based thinking”:

My definition of the word believe means to accept an explanation of physical phenomena without any experiential evidence. At the outset of my resolve not only to do my own thinking but to keep that thinking concerned only with directly experienced evidence, I resolved to abandon completely all that I ever had been taught to believe.

—R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path, 1981, p. 151

Bucky’s proposed approach to learning from experience radically rejects everything that is not supported by experiential evidence. He calls this doing my own thinking. Bucky takes the strident stand that to really learn from experience we should abandon all our beliefs unless there is support for them in our inventory of experience.

Bucky’s approach rejects the apodictic principles of other systems of learning unless they can be supported by experiential evidence. Bucky suggests that their logic is backwards: start with experience and then infer reliable generalized principles. Apodictic systems start with core principles which often include some way of interpreting and examining experience. Experience is a secondary consideration in apodictic systems. Bucky’s learning and my recommendation for comprehensive learning starts with experience, with all Humanity’s experiences.

It is important to realize that Bucky includes the experience of others as acceptable “directly experienced evidence”. We can see this by integrating into our interpretation of Bucky this excerpt from Synergetics (recall, as mentioned above, Bucky’s definition of Universe is “the aggregate of all of humanity’s … experience”):

People say to me, “I think you have left something out of your definition of Universe.” That statement becomes part of my experience. But never will anyone disprove my working hypothesis because it will take experimental proof to satisfy me, and the experiment will always be part of the experience of my definition, ergo included.

R. Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics 306.01

Bucky is not stridently rejecting all beliefs, just subjecting them to testing against experiential evidence. Interpreting Bucky can be challenging. How do you make sense of his self-discipline to do one’s own thinking by abandoning all beliefs?

More broadly, how should we start our learning?

Should we start with apodictic or necessary truths as our first principles?

Should we start with experience and reject all our received wisdom until we can validate it with trustworthy experience from ourselves and others?

If we are to accept Bucky’s idea of starting with experience but reject his strident abandonment of all beliefs, how might we go about learning from experience?

The Ethics of Empiricism

We have been considering Bucky Fuller’s self-discipline for learning from experience by rejecting any received wisdom that cannot be supported with experiential evidence. There are other approaches to learning from experience. In the resource The Inductive Attitude: A Moral Basis for Science and Comprehensivism, we saw that George Pólya also starts his learning from experience:

[Induction is the endeavor] to extract the most correct belief from a given experience and to gather the most appropriate experience in order to establish the correct belief regarding a given question.

—George Pólya, Induction and Analogy in Mathematics, p. 3

So far Pólya and Bucky agree: experience is the central tool for learning. In this long quote Pólya stakes out a far more tolerant position about our beliefs than Bucky:

The inductive attitude. In our personal life we often cling to illusions. That is, we do not dare to examine certain beliefs which could be easily contradicted by experience, because we are afraid of upsetting our emotional balance. There may be circumstances in which it is not unwise to cling to illusions, but in science we need a very different attitude, the inductive attitude. This attitude aims at adapting our beliefs to our experience as efficiently as possible. It requires a certain preference for what is matter of fact. It requires a ready ascent from observations to generalizations, and a ready descent from the highest generalizations to the most concrete observations. It requires saying “maybe” and “perhaps” in a thousand different shades. It requires many other things, especially the following three.

First, we should be ready to revise any one of our beliefs.

Second, we should change a belief when there is a compelling reason to change it.

Third, we should not change a belief wantonly, without some good reason.

These points sound pretty trivial. Yet one needs rather unusual qualities to live up to them.

The first point needs “intellectual courage.” You need courage to revise your beliefs. Galileo, challenging the prejudice of his contemporaries and the authority of Aristotle, is a great example of intellectual courage.

The second point needs “intellectual honesty.” To stick to my conjecture that has been clearly contradicted by experience just because it is my conjecture would be dishonest.

The third point needs “wise restraint.” To change a belief without serious examination, just for the sake of fashion, for example, would be foolish. Yet we have neither the time nor the strength to examine seriously all our beliefs. Therefore it is wise to reserve the day’s work, our questions, and our active doubts for such beliefs as we can reasonably expect to amend. “Do not believe anything, but question only what is worth questioning.”

Intellectual courage, intellectual honesty, and wise restraint are the moral qualities of the scientist.

— George Pólya, Induction and Analogy in Mathematics, Chapter 1, p. 7–8

The big difference between Bucky’s self-discipline to do his own thinking and Pólya’s inductive attitude is the principle of wise restraint. That is, the view that “we have neither the time nor the strength to examine seriously all our beliefs”, so we should only explore “our active doubts for such beliefs as we can reasonably expect to amend”. Pólya recommends caution in changing our beliefs. Bucky’s self-discipline was to “abandon completely all that I ever had been taught to believe”. That is a big difference.

How ought we learn from experience? Should Bucky or Pólya be our guide for experiential learning?

Let’s gain some perspective on this question by considering “everyday theory,” principles that ordinary people invent to explain their worlds, in comparison to a theory from a scholarly tradition as discussed in this six minute video of Smitha Radhakrishnan and Patricia Hill Collins:

Smitha Radhakrishnan and Patricia Hill Collins discuss everyday social theories.

Patricia Hill Collins makes the poignant point that the everyday theories of ordinary people may be both not-quite-true and yet very empowering for living a human life. In seriously considering her point, I came to realize just how violent it is to disabuse someone of their not-quite-true coping mechanism just because I believe my theory is supported by better evidence or better scholarship or apodicticity (being incontrovertible). Focusing on the truth of our beliefs misses the more important operational view: identifying and appreciating the value of our beliefs as tools for living our lives, even when they are not-quite-true.

This insight from sociology powerfully reinforces an observation I made after studying “Advanced Introductory Classical Mechanics” with David E. Pritchard on MITx in 2016: so-called inferior theories like Newtonian mechanics are still essential for effective thinking in physics. Universities still teach these allegedly obsolete theories because effective learning requires both generalized and specialized tools to understand the world. Patricia Hill Collins, it seems to me, is arguing the same thing in the context of sociology.

Now, how can we come to value Bucky’s recommendation that we think “only with directly experienced evidence” despite Patricia Hill Collins’ observation that not-quite-true beliefs can be more empowering and despite our realization from physics that so-called obsolete beliefs are still useful? Let’s consider Bucky’s quote again:

My definition of the word believe means to accept an explanation of physical phenomena without any experiential evidence. At the outset of my resolve not only to do my own thinking but to keep that thinking concerned only with directly experienced evidence, I resolved to abandon completely all that I ever had been taught to believe. —R. Buckminster Fuller

Bucky presents a self-discipline. It is not a manifesto, it is a suggestion to test the beliefs we have been taught with the inventory of experiential evidence we have accumulated. I hear Bucky saying: to think about the world more effectively than our received beliefs permit, you need to boldly question those beliefs. Bucky’s unique way of seeing the world was probably forged from his willingness to abandon the beliefs he had been taught. If we are to to see the world in new ways, we too must be willing to abandon what we have been taught.

Bucky is not telling us to disabuse others of their beliefs. To remind us to refrain from zealously imposing Bucky’s ideas on others, it is helpful to be reminded of his comment in the interview “Only Integrity is Going to Count” on February 26, 1983: “I never try to tell anybody else what to do”.

Bucky is offering us the service of his self-discipline in the hope that some of us may find it helpful to rethink the world anew with fresh eyes. Maybe you are ready to abandon the beliefs that are blocking you from really doing your own thinking. In that case, Bucky’s approach can be valuable.

But, as George Pólya reminds us, changing our beliefs can upset our emotional balance. Maybe, you prefer Pólya’s inductive attitude because it invites us to learn from experience with less upset. Or, maybe, your apodictic (certain) beliefs are so strong that you would not change them no matter how strong the evidence.

Our inventory of experiences clearly includes contradictory advice about how to learn. From the comprehensive view, we would like to adopt values to guide us in learning from experience. Since our guidance is contradictory, each comprehensive explorer must take on the responsibility to design their own system of values.

How do you think you should learn from experience?

How should we learn from experience for our comprehensive practice? How might it change depending on our life history (the timing and events that comprise our lives such as age, number of children, grandchildren, etc.)?

The Ethics of Comprehensive Practice

Ethics is the system of values and principles about proper behavior a community develops to regulate its practice. As we try to imagine values to guide the proper conduct of comprehensive inquiry and action, we are effectively designing the ethics for our comprehensive practice. The ethical values recommended for a system of knowing are called epistemic virtues.

All traditions of inquiry and action share stories to perpetuate and regenerate their cultural system (see the resource The Fundamental Role of Story in Our Lives). All storytelling is fictive: it is a construction or invention imagined to communicate ideas and values. Storytelling is the imaginative repackaging of experiences in support of a tradition. Experience may be the unit of communication in our stories.

To further develop a process of imagining the epistemic virtues needed to properly learn from experience, we have explored the moral qualities that George Pólya and Buckminster Fuller included in their accounts of learning from experience. The proper epistemic virtues for comprehensive practice may vary from time-to-time, from place-to-place, or even at different moments in one’s life history. To foster the kind of dynamic thinking needed to considerately develop your own ethical guidance, we leave it to each explorer to choose values to guide their own comprehensivity, their inclination for comprehensive exploration.

This essay was written to provide ideas in support of the 15 December 2021 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Addendum: 2h 13m video from the 15 December 2021 event:

Read Other Resource Center Essays

Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.

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