Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Difference Between Experience and Theory

Some people claim that intellectual knowledge is just as good as experiential knowledge, that you don't have to actually practice what you preach to be considered a credible source of advice. That there is little difference between being able to describe how to do something, and actually doing it. That theoretical knowledge is a sufficient substitute for experience.

I really couldn't disagree more.

To me the whole point of a theory is practical application. Certainly both philosophy and practice are important, but I would have to say that experience is even more important than theory, because without practical application, all your theories are little more than unsubstantiated fantasies.

The whole point of brainstorming ideas, of proposing speculative theories, is testing them, and putting them into action, otherwise what's the point? Life is about living, doing, implementing, interacting, not about daydreaming in isolation.

For instance, if you are thirsty, you don't go read a book about water, or visualize a picture of water in your mind, and expect that to quench your thirst. If you read about water, or think about water, you do so for the purpose of helping you actually find water, or to improve your relationship with water (how to find it, purify it, store it, use it); and unless you actually apply this information to the real world, you will die of thirst.

No amount of theorizing on its own has the power to sustain or enhance life. The value of anything depends on whether or not you find it useful. Does it add value to your life? Does it help you in anyway?

Real world experience and the practical application of ideas, is the only thing giving an idea substance, the only thing giving an idea life. An idea is like a seed, and the experiential application of the idea is like a seed bearing fruit. Unless an idea is actually applied, it remains barren, like a disembodied spirit without a body.

If all you do is understand things on an intellectual level, without ever actually applying the things you know experientially, your life will remain very much like that seed that does not bear fruit.

I'll give you another example.

Imagine there are two little boys who both dream of someday riding a bicycle.

1. One day one of the boys is given a bicycle. He rides his bicycle all the time all over the place, to such an exent that he becomes quite an expert cyclist. Not only does he ride his bicycle well, but he knows what foods and drinks provide the most efficient fuel for his body, he knows how to fix his bicycle, how to maintain it, how to prevent it from getting stolen, and also how to travel well over any terrain and in any weather, in the city, in the country, off road, uphill, over long distances, and riding with traffic. Everything he needs to know about bicycles, he learned from riding his bicycle. He may have paged through a few books on bicycle repair, but only through the trial and error practice of actually working on his bicycle and riding it, did he actually learn how to fix his bicycle and ride it well.

2. The other boy did not get a bicycle, but instead he got a pile of books about bicycles. So he read them all and became quite an expert on the subject, memorizing everything that he read. You could ask him any question about bicycles, and most likely he could answer it. Except that the ideas were not really his own, he was just repeating what he read, as he still hadn't actually road a bicycle himself. He hadn't even seen one in person, only pictures and descriptions in a book is the closest he ever got to one. His knowledge of bicycles was very much like a blind man describing color after being told what to say, but because his memory was so good, he spoke like someone who knew what he was talking about.

Who knew bicycles better? The person who actually road them, or the person who only read about them?

Isn't it fucking obvious?

The major difference between these two ways of knowing bicycles, is that one is a spectator, the other is a participant.

One is based on fantasy, the other is based on reality.

Both intellectual theory and practical experience go hand in hand, it's helpful to have both, but the whole point of knowing about something is putting it into practice; otherwise without doing it, you're engaging in little more than a fantasy.

The boy who knows all about bicycles from having read about them, but who has never actually rode one before, can't actually call himself a cyclist. He could call himself an expert in bicycle history and trivia, but he will never be a cyclist until he actually rides a bike.

It's all well and good to speculate upon things, to contemplate abstract philosophical concepts, but unless you can actually apply it to your life in some way, to put the philosophy or theory into practice, it's like doing nothing at all, and where is the value in that?

A person possessing intellectual knowledge without experience, is like someone looking into a reflection of reality as an outside observer, but not actually participating in it. Like watching a dance, but not dancing; like reading about bicycles, but not actually riding one. It's not the same thing. To know something you must participate with it. Trying to do otherwise, is like describing the taste of fruit, based on what you have read about it, without ever tasting it yourself. It's fake. It's hollow. It's like a blind man accurately describing color without ever seeing it for himself, because he's memorized someone else's description of it.

The point is that there is a substantial difference between knowing things from experience and knowing them from a theoretical perspective, and that the only thing that really makes ideas come alive, is when they are applied.

Failure to apply any idea, to demonstrate its practical value to the world (and practical in this sense does not only mean utilitarian, but is anything that adds personal value to your life, including entertainment and the arts) is an indication that you are engaging in a fruitless pursuit, a form of intellectual flatulence. Unfortunately there seems to be a lot of that going around lately, especially here in blog land. If you like gas, all the power to you, otherwise maybe you ought to try something else.