The experience of revelation

An experiencing system is one to whom things occur. Now, as far as you can feel, everything that happens happens to you. But if you are only human, you can only have human experience. And part of the human experience is to speak or think of whatever happens to any system as experience, or even as feeling. For instance, John Gribbin (2004, 11) writes that ‘Newton’s first law says that every object stays still or keeps moving in a straight line unless it experiences – or feels – a force.’ This usage of ‘experience’ (as a verb) in physics is not unusual. Whatever ‘feels’ a force in that physical sense is affected thereby, and we can and do say this of inanimate objects. Yet ‘affect’ (as a noun, accent on the first syllable) refers in psychology to the realm of feeling, as opposed to ‘detached’ cognition or observable behavior.

Likewise, when Peirce speaks of Firstness as pure ‘feeling’, he is speaking in a human way – the only way we have – but is not speaking only of the peculiarly human kind of feeling. He is speaking of happening viewed from within the entity to which it occurs. And when he speaks of Secondness as ‘reaction’, he is speaking of the opposition (or to put it more mildly, the difference) between entities, each of which is Second to the other. This is the core of ‘experience’ as Peirce generally uses the word: feeling is Firstness, experience Secondness.

Feeling devoid of the ‘Outward Clash’ of ‘reaction’ does not count as genuine experience for Peirce, because the possibility of its being internally generated can’t be ruled out, and its independence of anyone’s belief is therefore questionable. ‘Spiritual illumination from on high,’ for instance, is not experience in this Peircean sense (EP 1:234). If someone claims to have received a direct revelation from God, and our knowledge of it is based entirely on that person’s own testimony, then belief in the authenticity or authority of that revelation is not based on experience. The prophet may be absolutely sure that his message comes from God and not from himself, and the believer may feel strongly that he is forced to accept the prophet’s authority (even against his will); but these beliefs are ‘fixed’ by tenacity or authority – not by experience (or induction, which is the only kind of reasoning based directly on experience). This is especially clear when the revelation is given privately, i.e. is received by only one person.

If an original (unprecedented) message were given to many people unacquainted with each other, and they all simultaneously published it independently of one another, and all recorded versions were identical, then we would have good evidence that the source of this revelation really was independent of anyone claiming to have received it. If there were any such case in the public record of human experience, surely we would have heard about it. Lacking that kind of evidence, we can only take the revealer’s claim about his private experience of the revelation as irrefutable and thus untestable. Considering that revelation as a sign, the interpreter who hears and believes in it has no collateral experience of its object, or at least no way of knowing that the present interpretant is a sign of that same object. You can believe in a revelation – that is, you can be determined to act according to your understanding of it – but you can’t know that you know what it refers to, or what its Author’s intention was.

The experience of being a sentient agent is no less than being the locus of something that is incessantly and spontaneously emerging. This experience is itself an emerging locus at the center of a vast but only weakly constraining, weakly determinate web of semiotic and physiological influences.

— Terrence W. Deacon (Weber and Depew 2003, 305-6)

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