The Experience Train of William James (Part II)
As James developed his philosophy of Radical Empiricism that philosophy rested on the idea that reality is made up of “pure experience.” It was a philosophy of subjectivity and with it he was able to eliminate another of his nemesis dualisms, the split between mind and matter. The thoughts and feelings that we usually see as mental, and the material objects that we usually see as physical are not two kinds of things. They are simply two different experiences. Take for example flames. Mental flames are one kind of experience, they can be colorful and hot, but they can never burn physical skin. Physical flames may have almost all of the same experiential characteristics of mental flames except they actually can burn physical skin. They are not two different kinds of things; they are the same kind of thing. They are experiences like everything else.
James’ world of pure experience was a world in which each of us was a train of experience. Each moment our experience train was squeezing forward in time. Our choices about where to put our attention, what to respond to and how to act are the steering mechanism. At any moment the future of your experience, which means form a certain point of view the future of reality, can proceed forward in many different ways. Your choices will determine which ways it moves forward in and since for James you are your experience, you are deciding who you will become. In James’ own words:
The ethical energy par excellence has to go farther and choose which interest out of several, equally coercive, shall become supreme. The issue here is of the utmost pregnancy, for it decides a man’s entire career. When he debates, Shall I commit this crime? choose that profession? accept that office, or marry this fortune? — his choice really lies between one of several equally possible future Characters. What he shall become is fixed by the conduct of this moment.
The world as William James saw it was a train moving at full speed ahead. There was no way to slow it down. Our experience just keeps growing and our choices will always affect that growth. Even if we choose to try to stop our experience from growing, or slow it down in some way; that will result in some new experience and that will become who we are. Ever moving forward at the helm of an experience train that is only partially in your control you speed forward in time.
Each act and each choice on our part is an act of faith for we can never know for certain how our choices will effect the future of our experience. Yet our experience relentless moves forward and every choice takes that train in some particular direction, simultaneously blocking it off from all of the other possible directions of that moment. Our human choices are therefore moral choices because they are choices about what will be. And as we speed along guiding our experience ever forward, we at times encounter the experience train of another, or many others. When we encounter others all of our experience trains for a time merge into one. We have a shared experience for a time before we part ways. Upon parting however the future experience of each party will now have been altered and hopefully enriched by the other. In this way as colliding trains of experience the universe heads toward a more and more unified state of being.