Believe Experiences, Not Explanations

Believe Experiences, Not Explanations

My friend's friend suffered from migraines. The traditional healer told her that she had displeased the ancestors and needed to slaughter a sheep; when that didn't work, that she needed to buy two cows and let them loose in the river.

Sheep and cows are expensive; my friend's friend spent all the money she had to pay for them, then borrowed money she could never pay back from various people, including my friend, who didn't have much to spare.

Then she kept having migraines.

In my current social circles – and, I suspect, for most people reading this – it's acceptable not to believe that loosing two cows in a river will cure a migraine. But if we took a parallel situation in my own demographic, the reaction would be different.

Imagine: a person suffers from migraines, and goes to a psychiatrist who says that she has displeased her unconscious and needs weekly talk therapy for it. Therapy is expensive, and this person spends all their money on loosing their subconscious to the therapist three times a week. But it would not be acceptable, in my circles, to disbelieve that this is helpful or effective for this particular situation.

There's a kind of hidden causal chain here that might be worth making explicit:
1) person says they're having a particular experience,
2) person believes a certain explanation for that experience,
3) person tries a treatment, based on their explanation

If a given explanation is considered valid in a certain social circle, doubting the explanation (and therefore the treatment) is often, non-explicitly, seen as doubting the underlying experience. Which I think is conflating distinct and disconnected things.

I do think this instinct comes from a good place, and as a corrective to a bad tendency: the tendency to tell people that they're not really having the experiences they are. This is terrible! And common, and disproportionately implemented against certain types of people and not others. Bad, bad! Don't do this!

But experiences and explanations are separate things, and we have better reasons to think people understand their own experiences than that they reached the right explanations for those experiences. I think what we should be doing is believing people's experiences, but not necessarily their explanations for those experiences.

My intuition for not-always-believing people's explanations for their own experiences comes from a first-person source: namely, a lot of my explanations for my own experiences are bullshit. I have too-often realized, after much time and trouble, that my explanations for various things in my life were not very good, and that I was actually being prevented from solving my problems by having wrong explanations for what was causing them.

An important caveat here: that someone might be wrong about what ails them doesn't mean you, specifically, are right about what ails them. And of course people have access to certain kinds of information about themselves that nobody else does; it could be that people are more credible judges of their own experiences than any other specific outsider, while still being wrong more often than right.

Another important caveat is that – to steal a certain kind of terminology for a moment – false beliefs can be "load bearing," holding up other parts of someone's heart/mind/spleen. My explanations for my experiences might not be true, but if they're coming out of pride or fear or defensiveness about other aspects of my life, the solution might not be as easy as clarifying why my explanations don't directly make sense.

There's no clear line from "believing people's experiences doesn't necessarily entail believing their explanations for their experiences" to what you should actually do about it. But I think it's still a distinction worth making.

Subscribe to Atoms vs Bits

Receive our weekly posts by email