The authority of experience

Written by Tayria Ward on March 3, 2010

I was reminded today in a conversation with a dear friend of a value that I learned at an early age from Buckminster Fuller. He said he felt the world would be a different place if people depended “always and only on their own experience”. Bucky even re-wrote whole systems of mathematics and geometry because he found that the systems he was being taught didn’t match his experience. As he looked into it he discovered faulty conclusions made long ago on top of which had been built more mathematical systems which then of course would be false.

Reflecting on this I thought of conflicts and prejudices that continue for generation after generation. An Irish friend recently wrote about growing up Catholic in Ireland, internalizing the idea that Protestants were the “enemy”, even though he never even met a Protestant until he was in his teens. He was writing of the immense sadness he felt for his people, and all of us, that such animosities get carried along without even the simplest efforts toward dialogue and mutual understanding.

Similarly I remember hearing in high school that so-and-so was a “slut” and not realizing until more than a decade later that maybe, probably, this wasn’t even remotely true. So-and-so might have just innocently kissed someone behind the barn, and had to wear that label indefinitely because of it. It is shocking to realize how much of our own thinking gets built around assumptions unconsciously created and then just as unconsciously perpetuated and defended as if they were “truths.”

I remember reading in Jung’s writing once that if another man has a vision of a burning bush, what is that to him (Jung)? So the other fellow talks to God, but how do we know that what God supposedly said to that fellow is true for us? The early Celtic Christians were taught to value the authority of personal experience over anything a priest or anyone else said. Only when Rome came in and imposed their own “truths” were these people forced to defer authority to someone else or die.

Which brings me back to what I learned from Bucky Fuller. What if every one of us worked hard to discern whether our opinions or assumptions are based upon personal, direct experience or upon hearsay or solidarity with a group? What might happen if we did this? It might actually cause a lot of chaos, but also might give birth to a lot more consciousness as well. Consciousness is a high value, I believe, in this world that too often runs on automatic, unexamined life. I would like to see this experiment happen. I re-commit to the project myself.