The Inexistence of “Raw” Data in Science and Everyday Experience

The subject of this blog post might as well be catalogued as being among those things that scientists say that makes my head explode.  In this case, sitting in the Bloomington Starbucks across from Sample Gates about a month ago, I heard a cognitive science (currently dissertating) PhD candidate say something to the effect: “It’s raw data, so there is no possibility of it being biased.”  He was talking to a colleague, defending against some onslaught presented by a journal article, the title of which I didn’t catch.  What I want to emphasize is the erroneous thinking of this student, who has since this time successfully defended his PhD thesis.  I shake my head at this kind of lack of understanding so many scientists have of their own field and the general nature of science.  Particularly egregious was his follow-up comments, which asserted that biasing cannot be added to unbiased data without it being extreme and obvious to all, as if the heavens would open and Zeus would callout, “biased!,” if such were to happen.  I’ll only deal with the first statement that I paraphrased above.


I find it remarkable that so few scientists have heard of this notion, called “theory-ladenness.”  For this reason, I think that the project of such institutions as Lyman Briggs College are very, very valuable to the arena of science, because their project’s aim is to educate scientists in way that their general education requirements are largely predicated on history of, philosophy of, and sociology of science —which is to say, they are trained to understand science just as well as they are trained to do science.  These few scientists would understand that theory-ladenness means that instruments that produce data contain in them structure that is sensibly understood only through possession of that theory.  It is like cryptography: someone with the instrument, who goes about producing data, does not know what the data means unless that person has a key (i.e., the theory).  Having had this conceptual framework imposed upon the material object, the instrument, the object and its data are inherently biased.  There is a reason we call the electrical current baseline in a discriminator of any digital device a “bias,” namely, because there is an arbitrary bias imposed by the scientist, to begin with.  Anyone wishing to learn more about these ideas, I highly recommend looking to Norwood Russell Hanson’s work, as well as Pierre Duhem’s.


The above is bound to cause a reaction among readers not so knowledgeable about the more classical history of philosophy.  What about the “raw” data of phenomenal experience?  Actually, this is why Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is so important.  To summarize what that book talks about by asking a single question I posed to the cognitive science reading group I occasionally attend: How does the mind first cognize something without already knowing what it is that is to be cognized?  This is a difficult question, and much of cognitive science (neuroscience, psychology, etc.) has put forward many efforts to answering this question.  Even philosophers are still struggling with this sort of question, whether from a contemporary standpoint or a more classical philosophical standpoint (e.g., Adrian Johnston’s “The Genesis of the Transcendent: Kant, Schelling, and the Ground of Experience”).  Kant, for example, thought that the mind was already availed of categories, from which experience could be constructed.  It seems like a good idea; there are problems (see Johnston’s article tracing the elusive ground of experience).  In short, it seems like the world doesn’t give to the mind “raw” data, but who knows.  Philosophy and science are far from an initial decision on this, or, if they are, they lean toward the sentiment that there probably isn’t a such thing as raw data of experience.


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6 responses to “The Inexistence of “Raw” Data in Science and Everyday Experience

  1. Yea, Kant started the road to intentionalism with his categories… I tend to agree with R. Scott Bakker’s BBT which begins with ‘medial neglect’ that there are no intentional or directedness entities providing such support for intentional awareness etc. That we have no access to the brain’s complexity and its trillions of microsecond transactions and ultimately our self-reflexivity is but a temporary agent at the end of the decisional process not its starting point, etc.

    I agree that all thought and instrumentation of thought in experiment or apparatus controlled process or even creation of the apparatuses for controlled experimentation are all already biased: a self-inclosing loop of feedback second-order processing… etc. Funny you didn’t interrupt the scientist and ask him about your thoughts… would have been interesting to hear his answer… 🙂

  2. Good comment.

    One of the things that I think gets overlooked, though I think most would agree that it is obvious, is that phenomenal experience, in its construction, precedes contents in experience, unless there is no subject-object divide. (Pragmatism, some of the speculative realists, etc., have done much to eliminate the divide, but none have been completely successful yet.) For this reason, I think impressions of something as being a “brain” is a product of interpretation of data from the phenomenal field. Any science that proposes to explain consciousness, or attempting to answer the above question, will fail to be fundamental. Our window to the world, if there is such as thing in the way we conceive of it, will always be fundamental in a way that the world and content are not. I haven’t come across serious counterarguments, but I am open to them, for sure, if you know of any.

    • The difference is that one can study the brain through realtime interactions of scientific apparatuses and study the knowledge of the data thereby. The Mind is still a theoretical construct, the brain can be held in the hand. There are now eleven or so neurosciences that each has its own piece of that pie, as well as the 18 so far types of apparatuses that can study the brain in real time from imaging to pattern scanning etc. These sciences can reproduce the specialized functions of each area of the brain allowing for indirect observation somewhat agreeable to certain forms of speculative realism for sure…

  3. It’s interesting to consider the Vedic view of this. our intelligence – the “buddhi” (from which the term “buddha” or awakened one; a person with an illuminated “buddhi” – is derived) is merely a focus for a universal intelligence (not in any way resembling Jung’s collective unconscious) known as “Rta” (roughly translated, cosmic harmony).

    it helps to remember that the European idea of self-existent matter has no equivalent in Indian thought. Prakriti, the unmanifest matrix of the phenomenal world (including all we know as mind and matter, including even intelligence) is not truly distinct from Purusha or Being, it is simply the “objective” correlate (even our modern categories of subject and object really don’t translate well into Sanskrit – it’s almost impossible for us moderns to hear “subject” and not think of an individual, inherently existent subject; and as you’ve written, when we hear “object” we immediately conjure up “stuff”).

    A simple way to grasp this is to imagine your awareness as an infinite, unbounded ocean. The objective and subjective phenomena are merely ripples or waves in this ocean. It is not “one” any more than it is “many” as neither conceptual category applies. If it is infinite and unbounded how can it be “one”? if it is infinite it can’t be “many” either. yet in seeing it is is extraordinarily simple.

    But this might contradict your idea that it is only through thought that we can know in a valid manner. It may be that thought is the best tool to deconstruct whatever it is that keeps us ignorantly identified with subjective and/or objective phenomena, thus preventing us from recognizing this infinite, unbounded ocean of Awareness which is all there is.

    • I never thought of Rta as a self-aware entity, but more as a principle. I find that interesting.

      There might be a contradiction, yet there is a remarkable connection between the perspective you bring and what I’ve laid out. One of the things that sticks with me from Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” is the consideration/allusion that language can’t capture reality, because reality naturally has an obverse, possibly contradictory component that becomes stark when we try to utter true statements: 1 reality, 2 statements partially (yet truthfully) encapsulating some aspect of reality, and a contradiction in the language rears its head. That’s not to say that there isn’t something fallacious in what I’ve written, but certainly there is room for a tertium quid. As I am in my very nascent stage of studying Eastern philosophy, I find so many corrections and productive alterations in my Western view and education. It’s sad I (we, in the West) am not better educated and read in this massive branch of philosophy and its perspective.

      Since thinking on your comment, I have noticed a great deal of similarity between some of the sorts of things proposed by speculative realism and the philosophical writings of Meillassoux. It seems that Westerners are possibly trying to re-invent the wheel, as such concepts as the “infinitude” of awareness is examined. This is the closest I think Westerners have come to the reinvention, but there are others: Schelling’s little “I”/big “I” in Naturphilosophie, which give a small degree of awareness to the subject and a presumably infinite degree to Nature, the big “I”; and even the more philosophical scientists, like John Archibald Wheeler, have come with ideas like the participatory universe –a self-referentially aware entity, i.e., the universe as awareness. The speculative realists have attempted to eliminate the subject-object divide, and (somewhat strangely) Bruno Latour has recently taken up this project.

      I genuinely appreciate your comments.

      • Thanks. Fun to be here – I like your writings (long time amateur student of philosophy; have never taken philosophy 101 – still feel like I don’t understand anything about it; particularly western philosophy, which I’ve always found more confusing than Eastern);

        On my way out the door, but as a psychologist (and long time meditator) I find it fascinating the extent to which meditative experience can shed light on philosophy. My wife and I are working on an e-course on “spacious, heartful awareness”.

        A lot has been written how the left hemisphere mediates a form of attention sometimes referred to as “task positive’ or “narrow, detached.” It prefers that which is measurable, predictable, controllable, linear, etc. It almost seems to mirror the world view of Anglo American philosophy.

        The right hemisphere is more metaphorical, deals easily with what is immeasurable, not easily controlled. Panoramic, open, immersed attention is mediated by the right. Seems closer to continental philosophy. Recent contemplative neuroscience has been studying a form of nondual awareness which is neither narrow and detached, nor panoramic and immersed, but rather, easily switches between both but is not definable as either.

        I think it’s this awareness which is most characteristic of Eastern philosophy (especially Taoism, neo Confucian, some Tibetan Buddhist, Advaita Vedanta, etc).

        Here’s an incredibly simple exercise (but hard to do!): Visualize an apple. With your eyes closed, you notice two aspects of experience – awareness and the image. Now, erase the image. Stay with awareness. No matter what “clouds” of thought and memory come through the “sky” of awareness, remain as awareness. If this can be sustained, there comes a moment when rather than being aware “of” awareness, one is aware “as” awareness. Then the world turns, almost literally, inside out.

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