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VI. Knowledge Gained Through Vicarious Experience

The second source of knowledge is knowledge gained through some means other than your own direct experience (e.g., such as reading a book about it or using trigonometry and math to find the separation of a chasm). Each person cannot directly experience for themselves all possible events. We rely on language, logic, and mathematics to provide us with information indirectly. A synonym would be symbolic experience. It acts like direct experience in its relevant aspects. It makes it possible to predict what would happen (i.e., respond correctly) in a new situation which has never been personally or directly experienced. Someone can tell you the path through a maze you never saw; you can determine the validity of complicated statements; or you can calculate the distance between two points. These systems can be categorized into three general types of vicarious experience.

Precisely speaking, all three of the following types are language. Language is that activity which controls behavior as if that behavior had been under the control of "actually experienced" contingencies. A useful perspective for language is therefore that it is correlated with differential outcomes and is thereby reinforced. It is under the same reinforcement contingencies as actual experience with a thing. Language, logic and mathematics are listed separately because mathematics and logic are often seen as somehow different than "simply talking to someone."

If someone tells you the path to a store it works as well as you driving around until you find it.




Only to the degree that safeguards are taken to assure that a communication expresses the “truth” and “understanding” will it be productive. The usefulness of a vicarious system depends on its ability to eventuate in a reinforced response more quickly than the alternatives.

The following figure schematically illustrates the issues involved in your obtaining productive information from a vicarious system. If the system is not grounded in reality then what you get from the vicarious system will not necessarily be accurate. It will produce statements which cannot be depended upon and are therefore unproductive.

Problems come about if systems of vicarious experience are not used correctly: problems with respect to the rules of the system (syntax) and problems with respect to the rules connecting the “model” to “reality” (semantics). Correctly carrying out the math involved in calculating πr 2 is proper syntax. Measuring the radius rather than the circumference is correct semantics.

We must keep in mind that the epistemological foundation underlying our vicarious experience is crucial to its usefulness. We impose rules on what we accept through vicarious experience before we accept it as real or believable. Otherwise we would believe everything we were told or that we read. We would believe in unicorns and believe that we could buy the Brooklyn Bridge. We must separate vicarious material which does not pass a reality test from productive vicarious information; just as we must learn to separate fantasy from real experience. This is covered in more detail in the section labeled "The Nature of Explanation."

Information obtained through vicarious experience can be unproductive or productive.

If you find yourself in some problem related to language, it is probably because some of the rules or controlling variables of the language have been violated. As a result it fails to accomplish anything. For example, 1. What is love? Can you even describe it poetically to satisfy everyone at all times? It cannot be done because there is not one meaning for all situations. As another example, what does the referent for the noun “home” look like. 2. A different type of misuse of language is illustrated by the trick question obligating someone to answer yes or no to "have you stopped abusing children?" 3. Many words have no empirical, natural-world referents, yet we react to them as if they did, for example “where can we find a unicorn?” 4. Words can have contradictory meanings each selected for a different situation. Conundrums are frequently compound discriminations with the control ignored. For example, what is the meaning of “lead”? Is it a heavy metal or is it to cause someone to follow? Which is it? With the provided information, it could not have been answered. You had to have the additional information to differentiate the meaning. 5. Language has many levels of usage, from a common imprecise level to a precise unambiguous scientific level. Sunrise refers to an event but it is not the sun rising on a flat earth. The differences must be understood. When we say we have made up our "mind" or that we know it in our “mind.” We can communicate what we mean but we are not correctly characterizing the causal mechanism or why we did something. Our language is just as wrong as it was when we said "sunrise" The sentence simply does not correctly describe or explain a "real world" event. The earth turning causes it to appear that the sun goes around the earth. Behavior change causes us to mistakenly look to an inner mind for the cause.

Verbal, mathematical, and logical statements which are purely rhetorical and are not necessarily true are of little use other than as the raw beginnings of research. They are dangerous because many people uncritically believe them without first proving them. Descriptions of this type may or may not be accurate. For example, just because it is physically possible for someone to say, or even to believe that 2 + 2 = 5, does not mean that if you make a pile of two objects, then add two objects, you will then have five objects. Explanations of this type are based on verbal proliferation, rhetorical sharpening, and appeals to emotion and common sense. Various observers often disagree. These types of statements have a very poor track record because they can allow permanent self-deception. When one purely rhetorical observer cannot agree with another purely rhetorical observer, there is no method to resolve what is actually the truth. They cannot be labeled scientists because what they are doing is the antithesis of science.

This can be seen as a "ballistic" approach. If the statement of belief happens to be right at the beginning then it is right all along. However, if it is wrong at the start then correct knowledge can never be reached. A ballistic approach has no method of correcting error. It has no "court of appeal." When people do not test their perceptual beliefs (I see pink elephants) we call them crazy. When people do not test their vicarious or cognitive beliefs they are equally crazy. Clinical judgments or research judgments are ballistic when practitioners eschew the need for proof.

The rules for substantiating communication through the vicarious system (semantic and syntactic) are the rules which have previously been shown to be essential to separate fact from fiction.

As pointed out before, the ultimate base of reality is sense data within the maximally productive paradigm. Therefore science is the most appropriate foundation for validating the vicarious system. This method allows for self-correction. It is a "guided" or feedback approach. If it is wrong at the start it does not necessarily stay wrong. These procedures correct themselves and keep trying until they get it right, much like a person correctly playing "hot and cold." If they err at first they can correct their belief by listening to the clues and then changing direction based on the obtained knowledge.

Communication formats such as reviewed journals are designed to provide support for the truthfulness of vicarious information. The subject and procedure section help people determine whether confounds existed in an experiment. The results section documents the exact findings and their reliability. The discussion section is to provide all the nonstatistical support necessary to prove the case: e.g., what other evidence for the phenomena exists, who else has found that same basic finding, and how it fits within the paradigm. Journal reviewers are researchers who are so familiar with specific research areas that they can spot potential trouble areas.

In addition to being true or substantiated, knowledge must be understood. Again, professional journals legislate rules to assure that the author understands what happened and why, and that the reader can come to understand that knowledge by reading the paper.

The following figure illustrates various elements of a vicarious system in terms of the dimensions of rigor, generality, and epistemology.

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Date Last Reviewed: November 17, 2002