What’s the weather like where you are now? How would you check it – glance out the window, open it to get a feel, step outside, consult your preferred weather app? From this follows a more intriguing question – which would you trust more, your lived experience or a measurement?
I’m from a generation that still remembers life without mobile phones and the internet but quickly got used to all the comforts modern technologies can offer. Whichever approach I use to check the weather – opening a window, a door or an app – I am conscious that technology provides a measurement. However objectively accurate it claims to be, it differs from my lived experience of the weather.
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 shows that it will be +12 degrees Celsius tonight, but the “real feel” will be colder at +9. They explain this feature “is supposed to give people a sense as to what the temperature feels like“. Yet, both are measurements. I haven’t felt the temperature when I check the “real feel” estimated by the app.
So which one is it? What’s the actual temperature outside tonight – 12 or 9? Or is it a third option, something I can only tell when I physically experience it? The interesting philosophical question beneath the surface of my routine act of checking the weather app is this – what do I trust as closer to reality, experience or measurement? After all, we’d expect there to be one reality. Right?
A while ago, I chatted with a friendly taxi driver about heat waves in Malta. When I told him that the official measurements had recorded three heat waves on the islands in the summer of 2021, he didn’t put much stock in this information. He experienced one long heat wave the whole summer, worsening each year. Which is it? There cannot be three and one heat waves simultaneously in the same place. How can we tell who’s got it right?
Let’s say that the official measurement is more objective, making it more accurate (closer to reality) precisely because it relies less on individual experiences and more on vast amounts of statistical data. That will amount to telling the taxi driver that his temperature experience is wrong (farther from reality) because it deviates too much from the objective measurement. Do you feel it’s too hot? Well, your experience is mistaken because the measurements show it’s all within the norm. So, really, you should stop complaining and… and what?
Should I adjust my experience to align with measurement because that’s the reality? Isn’t it supposed to work the other way around – aren’t our tools meant to be helpful instead of regulative? Or do we grow so accustomed to the simple, standardised measurements performed by the various devices we use that our individual, lived experiences come to be perceived as somewhat bizarre deviations from the straight line?
Let me give another example of experiencing and measuring temperature. When I was a baby, my mother tried bathing me in water warmed to a temperature recommended in a parenting-advice book. There was just one problem. Whenever I touched that objectively-just-right water, I started crying. I experienced it as too hot. After a brief inner conflict, my mother decided to follow the advice of her child’s lived experience rather than an objective measurement. When she finally found the temperature I was comfortable with (no crying), it turned out she was bathing me in water considered too cold according to the measurement standards in that parenting-advice book. And yet, that was the temperature I enjoyed. What a nonconformist baby!
A final personal anecdote comes from my professional experience. Years ago, at my previous work for a large global corporation, we were told that management expected us to produce a certain number of monthly memos where we had to capture the main points of discussions we had with clients. While this corporate tool had its useful aspects, what struck me was the emphasis the senior management placed on it. Unless you showed that you fulfilled the required quota of such monthly memos, you were constantly reminded of it and criticised for failing to reach the target. The management’s concern was that employees do not interact enough with clients if there are few memos. So the measurement ended up regulating the lived experiences.
How can these anecdotes help me answer the philosophical question: what do I trust as closer to reality, experience or measurement? Measurements and tools that perform them can be, and often are, helpful. The question is how we use them. All three stories I related here share one crucial insight, I believe. When we judge experiences uncritically based solely on measurements, we have a problem.
If I tell the taxi driver that his experience of the weather is wrong or my mother that she was mistaken to bathe me in cold water (thank goodness she ignored that standardised rule book!) or criticise employees for failing to meet monthly memo targets, I make normative judgements about lived experience based on supposedly objective – because presumably experience-neutral – measurements. Of course, it is always worth questioning how neutral something can be if a human creates it.
Measurements and models are our ways of representing the world, aiming to approximate it as much as possible. However, we are both the ones who create such models and who interpret the world based on our experiences. In philosophy, phenomenology in particular, a rich concept captures the fundamental role our lived experiences play: the life-world, or Lebenswelt in its German original. Here is one explanation of it:
“The universally structured realm of beliefs, assumptions, feelings, values, and cultural practices that constitute meaning in everyday life… Scientific theories are seen as ‘idealised constructions’ (Husserl), dependent on immediate sense-perception which itself, however, is part of the human everyday world that is taken for granted. Accordingly, the life-world as such is understood as the unproblematic and pre-scientific presupposition of any understanding and meaning, providing an implicit background of once explicitly held or intended and now ‘sedimented’ beliefs, assumptions, and practices. Whereas the life-world has first been conceptualised as the world of the subject (Husserl, Schuetz), more recently its genuinely social character has been emphasised (Gadamer, Habermas).”Hans-Herbert Koegler (in “The Oxford Companion to Philosophy” 2005)
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Image Credit: Photo by Luis Aguila on Unsplash
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