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Experiential vs. Authority Base Learning

As a kid, I loved reading history books. I couldn’t have enough of them. But I read them the way a child reads a story: my attention was on the story and not on the historian. Even when I came across conflicting reports of specific historical events, the writer’s agenda and credibility were non of my concern.

It gave me comfort knowing there is an omniscient author who provided me with irrefutable facts. This kind of comfort a child is looking for in some authority erodes as we lose our innocence. As we become more sophisticated, we usually become also more sceptical.

However most of what we usually consider as knowledge stems from some authority or another: a book, a person we consider an “expert” or even the media (“as shown on TV”) remain an important source of knowledge.

Authority based knowledge is very important. This is how we pass most of our knowledge to each other, the way we can learn things we did not experience directly, and often it allows us to avoid bad experiences others may have had (“don’t put your fingers into the electric outlet, you may get electrocuted”). One of the most instrumental tools in aggregating and passing this type of knowledge is language.

However, authoritative learning contains certain inherent dangers, problems and disadvantages. It forces us to squelch certain internal voices (“intuitions”) that may contradict the authoritative knowledge, authority can and is often used to misinform us (politics are the most blatant, yet not the only example), and it often puts two or more authorities in conflict, a problem that may cause us a cognitive dissonance.

Lets look at a simple example. We want our authority (book, physician, coach or even a trusted friend) to help us choose the food we should eat. However, we have one vegan friend that tells us that if we do not eat vegan food we will get sick, then we have a Paleo friend that says depriving ourselves of meat will make us weaker, and then we have a medical dietician who tells us they are both wrong, and we should eat according to the nutrients in each food item.

Unfortunately, so far, I could not think, and did not hear of a solution to this problem other than to try and see how well we feel after we try our dietary strategy for a while. Nevertheless, the trial and error approach is not satisfactory in this case: it is hard to isolate the effects of nutrition, the placebo effect plays a major role in our dietary experience, and we often have the feeling that we can not risk being wrong at the expense of our own health.

An experiential approach to learning is based on trying things out for ourselves and learning through doing. It is obviously an energy intensive type of learning and is limited to specific fields of knowledge: I cannot learn through experience about things I can not be experienced in. Since I will never live in 1942, I cannot learn the history of that year through direct experience. Perhaps I can deduce from my experiences in 2018 to get a sense of how people living in 1942 may have felt, but of course I am basing my assumptions on experiences that may be very different than what people at that time had, let alone on information I do not have, especially if I do not rely on authoritative knowledge.

When it comes to our own conduct, one of the major drawbacks of experiential learning is that it exposes us to danger: if I learn how to parachute from an aircraft simply by jumping out perhaps there will be no second lesson in which I could correct my mistakes.

I am also always running into the risk that even though I err, I will not have the clarity needed to modify my conduct if I do not use an external eye to observe and counsel me.

However, there are a few major advantages in learning through experience. Learning through direct experience gives me a higher confidence in the validity of my knowledge: if I taste liver and I hate its taste I value this experience far more than a critique in a Michelin culinary critique.

Experiential knowledge allows me to listen to parts in me authoritative knowledge tries to repress. The best example for that will be our intuition, which we learn to rely on when we learn experientially, and which we need to over ride when we learn authoritatively.

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