Lesson 30 From experience to experiment. 



One of the dominant features of current scientific knowledge is the idea that science deals with facts, and is founded on observations:  in one word, science rests on experience and not on mere speculations hanging in thin air.  A theory is scientific only if it can be verified by experience.  Then the question arises what exactly we should understand by the word ‘experience’.  In everyday life we say we have learned our lesson by experience, which means that we have been somewhat harshly confronted with reality.  Experience is something one goes through, one is tried by it and learns its lessons.


On the contrary scientific experiences or experiments are not in any way “gone through”.  They are not the product of chance, as are encounters or events in real life, but that of a protocol.  They are organised intentionally, they are carefully prepared.  A scientific experiment does not fall from heaven like some kind of revelation.  It is not on par with miracles, unlike the expectations of a child who “experiments” mixing all sorts of substances in a test tube!


What does it mean to have an experience?  Is experience essentially some sort of trial in the sensible realm, feeling one’s self as structured by the time of conscious life?  Or would experience not rather be an invention of the mind?  In the expression “having an experience”, what is being had? Something pertaining to external reality, to which we would be confronted, or something like an initiative of the intellect that is trying to exert its control on reality?



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A.  The field of experience



Let our starting point be empirical experience, the very one that makes us say of some men that they have a lot of experience and that others are not yet very experienced.  The word experience has here two meanings.


The first is that of practice and routine that have been mastered.  The baker apprentice does not yet have as much experience as his master.  With time he will end up acquiring it.  Each time a practice is repeated this confers experience and with time and work the apprentice will, we say, gain experience.


Experience also designates the diversity and richness of life that comes from discoveries, encounters, adventures.  This is what makes one say of this or that man that he has “lived”.  In both these cases we think of experience as the result deposited in us by practice and perception through contact with the world.  He who has a lot of experience, who has long been in touch with reality, has an advantage that someone younger does not have.  It is interesting to notice the weight given ordinarily to this passive, often repetitive and humdrum, learning.  If there is one lesson generally believed it is that one “learns from experience”, just by living; this would mean that experience would of itself teach something or that it would somehow be enough to “endure” it in order to learn.  This is far from certain.


We will call empirical knowledge the one we draw from mere practice.  Thus one speaks of teaching “on the field”, placing the apprentice in front of the machine with only minimum theoretical explanations, for experience to do its work and so that he learns his profession through practicing it.  It is with this in mind that one criticises school education, on the grounds that it would not be teaching young people anything about working life.


This interprÉtation of experience is rather muddled.  First of all it is wrong to think that experience would teach anything.  What can be taught is not only what is acquired, but above all what can be understood.  Unless it is understood, experience teaches nothing at all, but is merely an observation of brute facts, or worse, it is a form of conditioning.  For there to be knowledge properly speaking understanding has to come with the experience.  The experiences of life may well be a repetition of the same mistakes again and again, and the lessons never learnt, simply because those experiences would not have been understood.  On the other hand if direct, deep and lucid understanding precedes experience this can spare us many a useless or alienating experience.  It is not necessary to experience the effect of drugs in order to understand that it destroys personality or the self.  An intelligent person can go beyond the necessity to learn through experience because he understands straight away.  The so to speak “wisdom” of “men of experience” with is in reality not exactly experience but intelligence, since only intelligence give them the maturity and insight one gives them credit for.  Hence we should not naively believe the range of empirical knowledge to be greater than it is.  What is the result of mere repetition and habit is not intelligent, and therefore it is not true instruction, but conditioning.  Of course on acquires some sort of practical dexterity, but not yet true knowledge unless one’s experience includes intellectual understanding.  Thus Plato distinguishes between empirical knowledge and science.  This is what distinguishes the country bonesetter able to put joints back in place and the medical doctor.  Reading in the great book of the world can be useful for someone who has spent too long studying books as a healthy counterpart.  But it is not necessary.  Understanding what is, is a possibility open to a lucid mind.


More importantly, we cannot reduce experience to the sole form of empiricism.  Experience is a vast and complex domain.  It cannot be reduced to repeated observations or to an experience of “worldly things”.


In social experience, the experience that is meeting someone does not mean “an experiment on something”.  Effectively I am much more passive in this sort of experience and the relation with another, being dual, can result in a conflict which is not part of the structure of experience of the sensible realm.  It is when it involves relating to others that experience can be most vividly provoking.  I have a lot to learn from relationships with others.  This does not only stage my sensitivity, but my entire affectivity, my sense of values and respect for other people, my feeling for others.


Ethical experience confronts me to the concern with good and evil, and is very different.  It confers a very original meaning to the expression “have an experience”.  In the case of a matter of conscience I experience a pathos encountered in no other situation.  Good and evil are not objects of objects experience, and they are not thing you can manipulate at will.  Compassion for suffering is not the same as skilfully manipulating a technical object.


The aesthetic experience  does not either consist in “object manipulation” but in a sensitive experience of beauty.  It supposes that the man who experiences this gives himself completely to this experience.  One can only feel music if one allows oneself to be charmed by its melody.


Spiritual experience is yet of a different order, it is either metaphysical or mystical.  In either case what is manifested is the revelation of an idea with all the strength of its certitude.  There again, the pathetic element is essential, because the mind must open up to reality for the sense of Real to give itself.


Clearly the word ‘experience’ cannot only be understood from an empiricist angle, too restricted to do justice to the richness and diversity to human experience.  Experience is not only an experiment.


B.  The idea of scientific experiment


Our idea of scientific experimentation is considerably distant from our previous analysis.  The distinction between the two is that of subjectivity and objectivity.  By scientific experiment one means a method that science puts to practice.  Then the word ‘experience’ is used in a sense that almost opposes it to its use in ordinary language.  It means not passivity, but the activity of the mind consisting in testing a hypothesis or making an assay.  The Natural Sciences rest on the protocols of experimentation.  Then the mind is not contemplating Nature in passive beatitude, but questioning it in order to verify an explanation that the mind itself advances.  To the crude experience of empiricism we therefore substitute a regulated experience which sets up a series of devices to verify an explanation.  Here nothing is discovered that has not been thought and posited at the start.  One finds in reality only what one is looking for, in conformity with the questions asked. Experimentation only allows you to discard wrong ideas or temporarily validate relevant ones.  The essential work rests on previous elaboration by human reason: no experiment without a theory, no experimentation without an interprÉtation of the phenomena one is studying.


The so to speak “discovery” by experiment in science is thus only a naïve view of the mind.  Observation in general is not experimentation.  Only the man who looks for something can find it and this even if discoveries sometimes seem to arise at random or appear when they were least expected.  Research does not consist in going out to pick knowledge in Nature.  Experimentation is a rational implementation of a protocol with the aim to validate a scientific explanation.


Ideally, the experiment should be carefully structured, conducted, controlled, verified.  One must eliminate everything in it that might pertain to chance, anything that might alter observation  and only keep the factors one wants to set apart in order to measure them.  experimentation in Physics supposes repetition, often hundreds of times, of the same phenomena in order to repeat their objective quantification.  What does the High School pupil do during Chemistry, Physics or Biology practicals?  He repeats experiments that have been made thousands of times before, allowing him to verify that the theory effectively yields the result that one discovers when measuring.  The school experiments have been worked out by scientists and one gives the pupils the possibility to redo experiments as an exercise.


This exercise does not amount to “discovering” anything, its chief interest lies in checking.   While allowing Nature a small amount of initiative, in fact the process of observation is entirely the business of the experimenting mind.  Hence it cannot be said that experiments are the “source” of scientific work; it would be more accurate to look upon it the opposite way, as the result.  It is the field in which theories are validated, where scientific work finds its proofs and confirmation.  The superiority conferred to the natural sciences stems from this, that they constantly refer back to experiments in order to bring the evidence that shows us that theories are not purely verbal constructs, but constructs that account for facts.


Hence there is very little passivity in experiments and subjectivity is controlled, in such a way that one finds oneself in a situation that is the contrary to ordinary experience.  For instance the authenticity of an inner experience comes from that fact that it arises spontaneously, having been neither prepared nor wanted.  On the contrary the validity of a scientific experience comes from the fact that it has been carefully prepared, wanted, elaborated.  The idea of the experiment that “happens” in response to an intuition or a certitude is one that is far too subjective and does not touch upon the experimental approach that instead aims for objectivity.   Similarly the values one can encounter inside subjective experience (aesthetic or ethical) are irrelevant in the scientific domain where one tends to stick to judgements of fact and avoid value-judgements.


C.  The experimental method.


Since the dawn of the objective approach to knowledge in the 18th century epistemologists have tried to isolate that which were at the heart of scientific method.  Descartes opened the road to this reflection in the 17th century in his Discourse on Method.  In this book he outlined the form of the scientific mind, essentially however in the notion of  science as deductive theory and of its final goal.  Contrarily to Pascal who was an eager experimenter, Descartes was not much attracted to experimentation.  The 19th century yielded more detailed descriptions of experimental methods.  Hence in his book An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine Claude Bernard outlines very clearly the musts of all experiments.


Having made some important discoveries in Biology, Claude Bernard came to asking himself how one rationally goes about making discoveries.  The notion of an experimental method had been elaborated in the particular case of biological experiments, but according to Claude Bernard what matters is to examine more clearly the interaction between mind and experiment in Science.  Thus he writes: “The experimental method, considered in itself, is nothing other than a reasoning which helps us to methodically subject our ideas to factual experience.”


According to Claude Bernard, the scientific reasoning can by divided in three steps:


1°  During a methodical investigation the research scientist “observes” a fact.  For example he sees that dew is better deposited on metallic objects than on wood.  In could be anything else like the oscillation of a pendulum, the propagation of ripples in the water of a pond when one throws a stone and so on.  These are facts needing an explanation. This is the moment of scientific observation.  The scientist focuses on a phenomenon, isolates it and somehow asks himself “how does it come that…” the pendulum swings this or that way, that the water drop has this or that shape, that skin changes colour under the influence of this or that illness and so on.


2°  This fact “suggests an idea” as to how the phenomenon might be explained.  An idea is born in the mind of the scientist, and this leads him to ask a question.  The reason behind the phenomenon of the dew would it not be that the propagation of heat is better in metal than in wood?   It is the moment of hypothesis.  Claude Bernard thinks that it is above all intuition and feeling that engender the experimental hypothesis.  The word “suggest” indicates that it is observation that is after all giving rise to an idea.


3°  Finally “the idea guides the experiment”.  In order to verify this hypothesis, the scientist works out an experiment the aim of which is to infirm or confirm the hypothesis that he has come up with.  If the hypothesis is correct then it is enough to deposit a bit of copper (excellent conductivity) on the lawn, and one of glass (almost no conductivity).  We then say that the experiment weighs the idea, it is the moment of checking.


Another example: Blaise Pascal observes after the hydrant men in Florence that water in a pump does not rise beyond eighteen fathoms above a water surface.  This is the fact to be explained.  Pascal asks himself if this would not be due to the weight of the air on water.  That is the hypothesis of atmospheric pressure.  He writes to his brother in law Périer asking him to arrange an experiment at the Puy de Dôme with mercury in a graduated tube.  Indeed mercury is heavier that the column of water and the apparatus consisting of an upside down tube with mercury could be transported to the top of the Puy.  If it is correct that the pressure of the atmosphere is exerted on bodies, then it ought to be different at the top of the mountain than at the foothill and the height of the column of air ought to be less.  This experiment verifies what Torricelli had already observed and corroborates Pascal’s hypothesis.


Whether it be the behaviour of a germ in the presence of some substance, an earthquake, or the regulation of climate, all these different orders of fact may be looked upon in a similarly pragmatic way.  We see that what makes the originality of this method in the natural sciences, as regards the mode of reasoning involved, is what should count as evidence.  To prove is to verify by an experiment that connects mind to Nature.  This is all the difference with Mathematics that do not in any way proceed to experiment, and in which evidence is derived in a purely deductive fashion by the sheer force of reasoning.  Deduction consists in drawing conclusions from postulates.  Yet here, according to Claude Bernard, we are not making deductions.  A circuit forms between the idea that explains the facts and facts that in their turn prove the idea.  The explanation is put forward by reason and evidence comes from facts.  The repetition of the experiment 10 or 100 times enables one to generalise the hypothesis.  One then proceeds in an inductive manner.  Induction is the operation by means of which one goes from a particular proposition relating to facts to a general proposition.  Hence we speak of amplifying inductions to say that from a few experiments one amplifies the results until one has extracted a general law.


Nevertheless this would be an ideal perhaps somewhat distant from the actual practice of the sciences.  What remains obscure in this analysis of the experimental procedure is the apparently slight role played by theory;  yet a scientist doing research works always within a theoretical vision.  Mostly he deduces consequences from a theory that has already been agreed or from a new theory that might apply to this or that fact.  Experimental reasoning uses induction and deduction; the former amplifies a laboratory result, the latter exploits the measurable consequences of a theory.  For there to be a “discovery” what matters is the halo of scientific imagination.  From where in the history of science come ideas of genius?  Let’s be clear, facts suggest no ideas.  Men have seen apples fall for thousands of years and seen no suggestion of the hypothesis of universal gravitation!  The genius of Newton does not consist in having observed that apples fall, but in having imagined the hypothesis of gravity.  This is very different.  The falling apple is but a convenient illustration, a telling trigger or an example, that’s all.


We need experiments to validate scientific hypotheses, yet we must also understand that on its own an experiment is “incapable of discovering the cause or causes of a phenomenon.  In any case it is necessary to prolong reality with imagination and experience this halo of the imaginary that completes reality.  This leap into imagination is fundamentally a ‘mental’ operation”.  This is precisely what no superficial observation or apparatus could provide.  Experimentation is not a substitute for imagination, thinking and invention.  It is not creative.  In fact its role is negative.  It may stick to weeding out bad ideas and keep only the good ones it could not have come up with.  “The experimental method will therefore yield no new and fecund ideas to those who have not got any; it serves only to guide the ideas of those who have any and to develop them in order to extract the best possible results.”  Consequently we must admit that putting enormous machines in the hands of unimaginative scientists will give no results!


One must not have too many expectations as to the range and extent of the experimental method.  It gives us the paradigm of modern science, it is pedagogical; yet the practice of research is often very distant from the procedure described by Bernard.  To do research is of course not walking among the clouds or dabbling in Chemistry with test tubes.   Science is not a matter of do-it-yourself.  However, it must also be said that many scientific discoveries have strangely been the fruit of chance without rigorous method playing no part.  Thus René Thom admits that: “it is certainly true that some of the most brilliant experimental results of our century have been the effect of mistakes, slips and chance, such as the accidental infection of colonies of germ with the penicillium notatum”.  Pasteur’s “discoveries” were not the result of any experimental procedure. They were not either originally motivated by theory, in the manner suggested by Claude Bernard.


If we place ourselves not from the point of view of an ideal, but of reality, then historically then experimental science would appear to have two motivations.  The first and main motivation is technical.  Initially Pasteur worked to improve beer fermentation for the benefit of the brewer.  There are many examples of discoveries that have been made under the pressure of the necessity to improve upon techniques.  Think for instance of the development of Geometry related to problems of survey after Nile floods.  The second is theoretical and corresponds to the procedure looking for an explanation.  There too we have many examples.


These criticisms do not suffice to throw the experimental method into the bin of “epistemological myths”.  There are many reasons for going on praising it.


a) The first is economical:  we need to believe in the powers of a rigorous, proven method if we are to continue investing in the expensive tools and materials of science.  “One would be at loss to socially justify keeping the formidable experimental apparatus that characterises our time were it for the sake of mere DIY or fecund errors.”  Socially speaking the only conception of scientific work that might count as justification is after all the belief in the fertility of the experimental method.  Scientific DIY, random results, cannot give consistency to a rational direction of research: “it would be difficult to make these arguments consonant with the expression ‘experimental method’.”  Therefore, even if the experimental method were a myth, at least it is a fertile myth.  These may make some people wealthy because of the technocratic exploitation of research.  We will come back to this problem in the section on technology.


b)  The second reason is of a pedagogical and rational order.  From the point of view of rational thought, we need a certain “logic of scientific discovery”, to paraphrase a well known title (Karl Popper The Logic of Scientific Discovery).  There might be a distance between the theoretical rigour of scientific method and a certain degree of irrationality that we find in practice, but one cannot found a high school or university course on irrationality.  This irrational aspect must be recognised.  This is the merit of the books of Paul Feyerabend who emphasises the importance of the liberation of the scientific imagination from the shackles of the too narrow, rational and rigid a vision of scientific research.  The myth of the experimental method is the justification of scientific teaching, even though we may have good grounds to be thinking Against Method.


D.  The part of reason and experiment


There is above all one important aspect to highlight:  experimental thought inaugurates a mode of representation that has played an immense role in Western thinking and that marks a rupture with the traditional thinking that preceded it.  The part played by experiment is clearly defined.  The experimenter who works in a laboratory is not a mere observer of Nature collecting herbs in some field.  The attitude of mind is radically different.  Let us take two examples:  while Claude Bernard is an experimenter, Aristotle is above all an observer, although both men contributed to the same field, Biology.  “The observer listens to nature; the experimenter interrogates it and forces it to reveal itself”.   This is all the difference between a science of Nature of the Ancient and our own.  What is at stake is a mode of operation that makes us go from the contemplation of nature to the manipulation of nature.  Kant sums up this change in the following way: “reason must force nature to answer its questions and not allow, as it were, nature to hold it in a leash”.  Instead of working randomly reason decides in advance what it is looking for.  The genius of Galilee, of Torricelli or of the chemist Stahl is, according to Kant, to have understood that “reason only sees what it itself produces from its own blueprints”.   In experimentation, reason, instead of passively submitting itself to Nature, submits Nature to the yoke of the authority of its laws.  Reason holds the reins of a specific experiment that it has imagined in order to exact from it the answer that it – reason – is looking for.  Reason imposes the form of the questions it is asking Nature, and this way it can go beyond the contingency of phenomena and structure their constancy in the form of laws, and therefor show the full necessity of natural phenomena.


Galilee, in his experience of the bronze balls rolling down a slope, did not naïvely observe, as one observes Nature, but experiments according to a theoretical hypothesis.  The same goes for Pascal and the experience of the Puy de Dôme.  There are specifics of the mode of representation proper to experimentation.  Indeed it requires:


1.   That the experiment has a specific status: it should be open, renewable and perfectible.  An experiment is a process that may be précised and refined in such a way that other scientists may be able to do it.  Ultimately it ought to be possible for any man to verify it, even though in practice we trust the experts!


2.   The experiment should be formulated in as univocal a language as possible.  Whence the importance of the language of Mathematics, the language most adapted to the experimental procedure.  Descartes saw in a dream that Nature is written in mathematical language.  Formalisation helps avoiding the randomness of interprÉtations in natural language.  It contributes to the universality of scientific knowledge.


3.   Experimentation always suppose measurements.  One has to measure all the conditions of the experience with the greatest precision.  The care to measure is crucial in the modern idea of science.  It is an idea that is missing from Greek thought, but that has become obsessive today when we want to measure everything.  It is even how we rate sciences: we say that science is as grown-up as its measuring tools.


4.  Experiments are therefore always referring to the quantitative aspect of phenomena.  In order to connect one phenomenon to another, one must relate quantifiable and objective concepts that pertain to the representation of space.  The consequence of this is that everything pertaining to the qualitative and the subjective is ipso facto ignored.  Since the beginnings of science the secondary qualities such as softness, cold, heat, colour taste, have been resolutely removed.  Hence our Western suspicion of whatever is thought of as “subjective”.


5.   The experiment is construed in an intentional way in order for facts to reply to a question, and this question should be as specific as possible: “is there an atmospheric pressure?”  “Are particles correlated to one another?”  Nature is summoned to reply in the very same terms to the question asked.  What predominates is the theoretical construction that allows one to answer questions and not just mere “observation”.


6.   We expect from experiments that they give us evidence.  Our idea of a proof has become experimental.  A singe experiment can in certain cases count as evidence.  The astronomical observation that light rays from a distant star are curved during a solar eclipse serves as evidence in favour of the theory of relativity.  It is not necessary to accumulate evidence in order to decide of the relevance of a law.  Experimental induction, if it exists, does not consist in summing up or collecting observed facts, as would happen in the case of a merely generalised observation.  There might be crucial experiments that allow one to clearly decide in favour of one or the other of two hypotheses, such as that of Alain Aspect to decide between relativity or quantum mechanics.


7.  Experiments include deterministic presuppositions.  They assume a necessity of natural phenomena, laws of nature.  Nature is subjected to its own kind of necessity, it does not arbitrarily change its way of functioning.  If one does not agree that this is so one finds oneself unable to repeat an experiment and to construe it in terms of experimental reasoning.  Indeed what would be the point of repeating an experimental protocol if the laws of nature had changed in the meantime!


These seven characteristics are found in modern experimentation and they show that what one calls a scientific fact is very far from the mere observation of a phenomenon or experiencing it.  Scientific experimentation is an observation that has been provoked with the intention to verify an idea, while observation is the mere witnessing of simple facts.  To create an experiment is to ask Nature a question, and solicit an answer, and this is always preceded by an idea.  The intervention of the mind can take us all the way to the artificial reproduction of natural phenomena.  For instance one reproduces inside a close system the conditions of the “primeval soup” that might have been the oceans of primitive Earth.  We must realise that experiments are always artificial, they are a mode of action upn Nature, a form of manipulation of the natural elements.  Observation on the contrary, such as we find it in say Aristotle, remains on the level of the natural.  This shows that the starting point of experimentation is not experience, research always begins with theoretical elaboration, which then corroborates or invalidates a theory.  In order to think observed phenomena we must be able to relate them to principles and for this our minds needs a theory.  In reality nothing is “induced from” or “suggested by” experience.  A fact is simply the circumstance of a piece of evidence, nothing more.  We may say that in the experimental method there is no observation without a theory.   Research consists in a dialogue with facts and it is this dialogue that we call experimentation.  This means that a scientific experiment means nothing on its own, but acquires its meaning within the framework of the theory supporting it.



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What then remains of the aspects common to both experiments and experience?  To both objective experimentation and subjective experience?  A space that is more or less open to reality, to what is there.  Subjective experience arises without having been artificially provoked, it surges in the opening up of Being.  There are vertical experiences that change the meaning of an entire life.  They are those through which the mind has an intuition of reality.


Yet it is clear that scientific experimentation has a more narrow range, because it has been provoked and it represents reality in advance somehow and as objectively structured.  A scientific theory is a mental construct that is like a net cast in the ocean in the hope of catching fish; and the fish caught by scientific theory are facts.         Scientific research, as Popper explains, consists in tightening the gap between the stitches of our theories so that nothing can slip through the mesh.                                                                  


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  Home         © Philosophy and spirituality, 2004, Serge Carfantan. Translated by Catarinna Lamm