What is More Real – Experience or Measurement?

What’s the temperature outside right now? How would you check it – look out the window, perhaps open it to get a feel, or look into your prefered weather app?

I’m from a generation that still remembers life without mobile phones and the internet, but that got quickly used to all the comforts these technologies can offer. However, whichever approach I use – getting a real feel or an app measurement – I am always conscious that what the app provides is a measurement. Not the actual experience of the temperature. There’s a difference.

At some point, several weather-app creators must have become aware of this and added a feature that is now becoming more ubiquitous – the “real feel”. For example, the app I’m using (AccuWeather) might show that it is currently +31 degrees Celsius, but the “real feel” is +35. They explain this feature “is supposed to give people a sense as to what the temperature feels like” (source). Yet, both are measurements. I haven’t felt the temperature.

So which one is it? What’s the actual temperature outside – 31 or 35? Or is it a third option, something I can only tell when I physically experience it by going out? The more profound philosophical question beneath the surface of my routine act of checking the weather app is this – what is more real, experience or measurement? After all, we’d expect there to be one reality (let’s put the multiverse hypothesis to one side for the moment and try to get some clarity in our present universe). 

Recently I had a friendly chat with a taxi driver about heat waves in Malta. By the way, when you are abroad, living or travelling in a foreign place, taxi drivers are a great source of insider information on anything from the country’s politics to the weather trends.

When I told my friendly taxi driver that the official measurements had recorded three heat waves in Malta in the summer of 2021, he didn’t put much stock in this information. He experienced the whole summer as one long heat wave, worsening with each year. Which is it then? There cannot be three and one heat wave simultaneously in the same place. How would we judge who’s got it right?

Let’s say that the official measurement is more objective (it relies less on individual experience), making it more accurate. That will amount to telling the taxi driver that his temperature experience is wrong because it deviates too much from the measurement.

Oh, you feel it’s too hot? Well, your experience is mistaken because the measurements show that it’s all within the norm. So, really, you should stop complaining and… and what? Should I adjust my experience to be more aligned with measurement because that’s the reality? I thought it was supposed to work the other way around…

Let me give another temperature experience vs measurement example. When I was a baby, my mother tried bathing me in water warmed to a temperature recommended in a parenting-advice book. Plus, my mom is a doctor, so she knew all sorts of objective measurements that are supposed to guide parents in their child-caring decisions.

There was just one problem. Whenever I touched that objectively-just-right water, I started crying. My experience of it was – too hot! After brief inner cognitive dissonance, my mother decided to follow the advice of her child’s temperature experience rather than an accurate measurement.

When she finally found the water temperature I was comfortable with (no crying), it turned out that she was bathing me in cold water according to the objective measurements. And yet, that was the temperature I enjoyed.  

So, what is more real – experience or measurement? I think they are two mind-dependent categories differing in their distance to reality. The problems occur when we start judging experiences based on measurements too indiscriminately.

If I tell the taxi driver that his experience is wrong or my mother that she was mistaken to bathe me in cold water (thank goodness she ignored that rule book!), I make normative judgements about experience based on measurements that rely on supposedly experience-neutral models.

Measurements and models represent the world, aiming to approximate it as much as possible. However, we are both the ones who create models and who interpret the world based on our experiences. So, if our models aim at resembling the world as experienced by us (what other world is available to us?), they should build on our experience, not be taken as its dictators. 

keep exploring!

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