Observation is theory-laden

One of Deutsch and Popper’s oft-quoted phrases is that ‘observation is theory laden’.1 This is a revelatory point about the nature of science: no statement that we can utter, or observation that we can record, is a pure observation statement, completely divorced of all theory. A statement like ’there is a table over there’ assumes a whole collection of theories about tables, spatial positioning, and existence. Even a more hard-nosed statement like ‘a copper atom weighs 63.546 u’ invokes theories about mass, numbers and atoms.

Popper drives home this point with an anecdote from a lecture:

I tried to bring home the same point to a group of physics students in Vienna by beginning a lecture with the following instructions: “Take pencil and paper; carefully observe, and write down what you have observed!” They asked, of course, what I wanted them to observe. Clearly the instruction, “Observe!” is absurd.

Observation is always selective. It needs a chosen object, a definite task, an interest, a point of view, a problem. And its description presupposes a descriptive language, with property words: it presupposes similarity and classification, which in their turn presuppose interests, points of view, and problems.2

Scientific discovery doesn’t begin with observation; it begins with a scaffold of theories, many of which are implicit or even unconscious, and only within the context of those theories are observations even expressible.

The theory-ladenness of observation motivates Deutsch’s rejection of empiricism, which he defines as the view that scientific knowledge is derived from sensory experience.3 This is wrong, Deutsch would say: knowledge can’t simply be derived from sensory experience because any one experience can be explained in so many different ways.4 Whenever we come up with a theory, we’re making an unjustified, creative leap—rather than a logically necessary inference—and only then do we seek out observations to try to test the theory.

What about qualia?

This is all well and good, but some critical rationalists take theory-ladenness further. I’ve seen some people argue that all experience is theory laden—that our access to conscious experience itself is mediated by theory.5

The line I like to draw instead is that while observation is theory-laden, qualia are not. I’m defining observation as something that exists specifically in the context of scientific discovery—something you can utter or write down, which corresponds to (but is not equivalent to) your qualia. By virtue of merely being written down, an observation is always theory-laden, because language itself can be thought of as a theory.6 Qualia, on the other hand, exist even before we have theories. They need not be written down or described in order to exist. They are not mediated by thought or concepts: they are literally just there.

I don’t mean to say that concepts have no impact on our conscious experience—they clearly do. Once you’ve internalized the concept of a flower, your subjective experience of that flower changes. In some sense, you superimpose the concept of ‘flower’ onto your raw sensory experience.

But we can have experiences in the absence of concepts. This is most apparent in meditation. It seems possible to stop thinking and conceptualizing for moments at a time (or longer, if you’re skilled). People who do this never report an absence of consciousness during these periods. If our access to qualia were truly mediated by concepts and thinking, then an interruption in thought would mean an interruption in consciousness.

There’s one other argument against the theory-ladenness of qualia: it results in an infinite regress. If our only access to qualia is via theories in our mind, then how do we access theories themselves? We would need theories that mediate our access to the theories that mediate our access to other qualia, necessitating endless layers of concepts mediating access to concepts.

What about inexplicit theories?

My criticism of the view that ‘conscious experience is theory-laden’ makes a strong assumption about what counts as a ’theory’. In the above section I take theories to be thoughts and abstract concepts. But as I alluded to earlier, you could broaden your notion of what a theory is to include inexplicit and even unconscious theories. This makes it easier to believe that qualia are indeed theory-laden, but I still think that’s not the case.

I’ll make my point with a hypothetical dialogue:

Kasra: I am seeing the color blue in the sky. This visual quale of blueness is directly present in my consciousness.

Critrat: No, it’s not directly present, because the concept of ‘blue’ is itself part of a theory that mediates your experience of the color.

Kasra: Sure, but even before I had learned of the word ‘blue’, there was still some experience I had when looking at the sky, and that experience was not mediated or dependent on the concept ‘blue’, which I learned later. So I can experience blueness directly, regardless of whether I’m thinking about it conceptually.

Critrat: Even if you’re not consciously thinking of (or have never learned the concept) ‘blue’, the blueness is still not ‘directly present’ in your awareness. It’s mediated by ideas you have about the sky, by inborn expectations about colors, by early childhood experiences with blueness, many of which you’re not even aware of.

Kasra: Agreed, my experience of blue is laden with a vast web of memories and associations in my brain, many of which I’m not immediately conscious of. But there is some well-defined set of things I am immediately conscious of in this moment, and I’m saying that my access to that set of things is not laden with yet another layer of theories and concepts, unconscious or inexplicit or otherwise. That experience is direct.

Is there such a thing as ‘immediate experience’?

My disagreement with critical rationalists on this issue boils down to my hard-to-shake intuition that there is a field of awareness in the present, and that there are some things that are in this field and some things that are not, and that the field is ‘just there’. This is the only way I can even make sense of the term ‘qualia’: the qualia are the very things that are ‘just there’, independent of any conscious or unconscious theorizing. I think I’ve inherited this intuition at least partly from extensive meditation practice with the Waking Up app.

I can imagine at least three ways this intuition could be flawed:

  • Perhaps consciousness, rather than being capturable as a fixed set of qualia at each moment in time, is better described as a process. It doesn’t make sense to say “X and Y are present in my consciousness right now” because you are only ever aware of change through time rather than individual moments of time.
  • Even if consciousness can be divided into present-moment snapshots, perhaps inclusion/exclusion in the field of awareness is graded. Is the sensation of your right shin currently in your conscious awareness? Kind of, but not quite? Maybe membership in the field of awareness is a continuum rather than a discrete boundary. And perhaps theory has a role to play here: theory might mediate the extent to which a given quale is present or absent in your consciousness. (I’m spitballing.)
  • Relatedly, some people argue that qualia don’t actually exist in the first place. If true, this would definitely undermine my intuitions about consciousness.

Does ‘direct experience’ undermine fallibilism?

Does my view that there are qualia I have ‘direct access’ to undermine fallibilism? Yes and no. I still think fallibilism holds with respect to all our theories about reality. All our knowledge, statements, observations, and arguments are fallible. Any time we start speaking about anything, we have entered fallible territory.

But when it comes to awareness, I’m not so sure that it makes sense to say that are qualia are fallible. To see what I mean, consider an example from a totally non-intelligent, non-conscious domain. Imagine a leaf that falls into a river and flows down with the water. It comes into contact with the water and other objects in the river, colliding with things, rotating and flipping and flowing. Is the leaf fallible? Is its movement through the water, or its relationship to its surroundings, fallible? No, it is directly embedded in the water; it’s causally coupled with it.

In the same way, I’d argue that awareness and the objects inside it (qualia) are embedded and inseparable; there is no ‘bridge’ between the contents of experience and the experiencer—there is just the contents, immediately available. Fallibility only arises when there’s an aboutness relationship between two things: when something (e.g. a person, or a theory) is intended or is intending to represent something else. There is no inherent aboutness to qualia.7

By making this distinction between theories that are about something and those which are not (which, perhaps, shouldn’t be called theories in the first place)—we can preserve fallibilism in science and knowledge-creation, while also accepting the existence of ‘direct conscious experience’.

Deutsch’s claims about ‘direct experience’

While we’re here, I thought I’d point out two possibly contradictory passages in Deutsch’s books about the existence of ‘direct experiences’. In his argument against finitism, Deutsch says in The Beginning of Infinity that (emphasis mine):

All observation is theory-laden. All abstract theorizing is theory-laden too. All access to abstract entities, finite or infinite, is via theory, just as for physical entities. In other words finitism, like instrumentalism, is nothing but a project for preventing progress in understanding the entities beyond our direct experience. But that means progress generally, for, as I have explained, there are no entities within our ‘direct experience’. (165-166)

But when talking about virtual reality in The Fabric of Reality, he says (emphasis mine):

Our external experience is never direct; nor do we even experience the signals in our nerves directly – we would not know what to make of the streams of electrical crackles that they carry. What we experience directly is a virtual-reality rendering, conveniently generated for us by our unconscious minds from sensory data plus complex inborn and acquired theories (i.e. programs) about how to interpret them. (121)

While in the former passage he seems to suggest that we experience nothing directly, in the latter he claims that we do experience something directly: the virtual-reality rendering generated by our brains. (He does say that the rendering is a combination of ‘sensory data plus inborn and acquired theories’, so there is still theory there, but it nonetheless would seem that the combined output of those data and theories is accessed directly, rather than through further interpretation.) So I’d put the question to Deutsch and other critical rationalists: is there anything within our direct experience?

  1. Fun fact: it actually looks like Thomas Kuhn is more widely associated with this phrase than Popper! Regardless, it’s an idea many people have emphasized over the years in different flavors. ↩︎

  2. From Conjectures and Refutations, p 61. ↩︎

  3. This may be a skewed definition of empiricism, but it’s the one Deutsch often invokes in his criticism of it. ↩︎

  4. For example: there are innumerably many equations that equally well describe the trajectory of a falling object. Many different theories can fit the same data. ↩︎

  5. This has many implications, one of which is that any being that is not capable of theorizing is not conscious. This excludes a whole lot of beings! ↩︎

  6. Deutsch, in The Fabric of Reality:

    Languages are theories. In their vocabulary and grammar, they embody substantial assertions about the world. Whenever we state a theory, only a small part of its content is explicit: the rest is carried by the language. Like all theories, languages are invented and selected for their ability to solve certain problems. In this case the problems are those of expressing other theories in forms in which it is convenient to apply them, and to compare and criticize them. One of the most important ways in which languages solve these problems is to embody, implicitly, theories that are uncontroversial and taken for granted, while allowing things that need to be stated or argued about to be expressed succinctly and cleanly. (153)

  7. Or is there? I could imagine someone arguing that qualia are meant to be representations of the outer world, but I don’t think this view is necessary. If we take Bernardo Kastrup’s metaphysical idealism as our ontology, there’s no need for qualia to be about anything because they are all that there is. ↩︎