I feel pain, therefore I am.
"Lived experience", Descartes, and opioid statistics.
|Oct 1, 2020|
Move over, Descartes.
Much of the Twitter debates about identity politics these days centers on the term "lived experience."
I generally abstain from intellectual gladiatorship on social media. However, I think the idea of "lived experience" raising interesting epistemological questions.
Leaders of the modern anti-racism movement argue for the acknowledgement and importance of lived experience in discussions about and policy-making around institutional racism.
Critics view “lived experience” as something of a trump card that woke people play to cancel out the logical and empirical arguments of an opponent in a debate.
What should you and I, dear reader, members of the numerati, think about “lived experience?”
Sentio dolorem, ergo sum.
About a year ago, I was sitting on my couch, typing away on my laptop when I was suddenly seized with extreme pain. I felt as if someone had shivved me in my lower spine.
After a good amount of floor-writhing, I got an Uber to the ER.
At the ER, they took measurements and asked questions. I don't remember much; at the time, I wasn't even thinking much, because the pain was my whole world.
But eventually, I started to notice the ER staff was treating me with suspicion. They didn’t believe that I was in pain.
I live in an epicenter of the American opioid epidemic. The ER staff suspected I was an addict trying to score some pain killers.
At that moment, my pain was the most real thing in my life. It was more real than my mother or my spouse. They were not room with me. Perhaps they were false memory implants like in some science fiction film.
The pain, however, was most definitely in the room with me. I didn’t even feel indignation at the ER staff for dismissing me as a deceptive junky. The pain left no space for other feelings.
I had a bit of a philosophical epiphany then. The pain was the most real thing in my life. Yet third parties could not observe or measure it. Moreover, they had empirical reasons to believe it did not exist.
I experienced a real-life example of Decartes’ famous thought experiment. One always has cause to doubt external evidence; I can’t be sure your pain exists. But I know damn well my pain exists. It’s one of the few things I’m sure do exist. Pain is assertive like that.
Sentio dolorem, ergo sum. I feel pain, therefore I am.
Takeaway for statistical modelers and empiricists in general.
In the end, the pain was due to a fairly common, famously painful, and easily remedied ailment.
There is a lesson there for those who engage in debating identity politics on social media. "Lived experience" may not work well as a logical premise in a deductive argument, particularly because it cannot be falsified.
However, if you have lived experience that proves the acute existence of something, engaging in a debate about whether that thing exists or not, from that your perspective, is supremely absurd. It is especially absurd if that something sucks.
Further, when others presume you are dutybound to prove the existence of that sucky thing to their satisfaction, it is demeaning, like being accused of being a junky and asked being asked to prove otherwise.
Whatever. People who spar about identity politics on Twitter won't listen to me. They are more interested in "pwning" the other side, and my insights won't help.
I think there is a more interesting takeaway for truth-by-numbers types like myself.
Empiricism is the best path to knowledge. But there are truths that empiricism cannot uncover.
There are truths that "lived experience" can uncover.
I find myself wondering if "lived experience" (of various sorts) is on the path to wisdom. Though, that feels a bit to Hallmark-cardy for me.
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