Is Objective Experience Possible?

We all view life from our own perspective: of course, we cannot do otherwise.

Is Objective Experience Possible?

Ironically, we often assume others share the same perspective as we do. That this is clearly not the case becomes obvious when our interactions with others result in disagreements, arguments, or even conflict. Should it really be so difficult to see things from the perspective of our counterparts? Is such disharmony in our relationships with others unavoidable?

These are pertinent questions, whether we yearn for peace, or just to escape the disharmony our subjectivity causes. The same conundrum arises when we try to experience something as others would, or put ourselves in the shoes of another in an attempt to understand why they experience and react differently to us. Indeed, is it even possible to be an objective participant in our interactions with others?

In his explorations in Haiti, the Canadian anthropologist and ethnobiologist Wade Davis endeavoured to chronicle his scientific observations of the Vodou religious experience, described in “The Serpent and the Rainbow[1] and “Passage of Darkness[2]. His investigation into the Haitian Vodou religion centred on the origin of the Zombie, a quasi-mythical state of suspended consciousness allegedly inflicted on its victims as a means of discipline or control. While the victim of Zombification is physically alive, they seemingly lack any conscience or consciousness of their own, becoming completely susceptible to manipulation or control by others.

The purpose of this scientific endeavour was to identify the secret active ingredients used in the Zombification process to determine their potential for use in Western medicine. Davis became engrossed in his endeavours to gain a genuine understanding of the religious phenomena he was observing. Haitian Vodou is a complex and deeply spiritual polytheistic religion, which originated in Haiti as a synergy of West African traditional religions and Roman Catholicism. Davis wanted to discover not only how a Vodou believer could become susceptible to Zombification, but why.

As his explorations progressed, Davis realized that the effectiveness of the biological and biochemical components of their magic potions was integral to the spiritual life, rituals, and culture of Vodou adherents. While the biochemical components of the Vodou magic potions were psychoactive, their activity and effects alone were not sufficient to explain the phenomenon of Zombification. Rather, the Vodou convictions of the believer were an integral part of the effectiveness, or otherwise, of the Zombification process.

The climax of Davis’ experience with the Vodou secret religious societies was the moment he fully realized the dilemma of modern science, anthropology and ethnobiology in particular. As he learnt more about the religion and participated in its practices and rituals, Davis reached what was – for him – an impassable threshold: the border between observing and believing, between objective observation and subjective experience. At this point, Davis realized he had to choose between two irreconcilable choices: remaining an outside observer, remaining the renowned anthropologist that he was, or leaving behind his treasured worldview and scientific career and becoming initiated into the Vodou religion, in order to experience it as a true believer.

As Davis was preparing for his initiation into the Vodou religion, the advice of the Bizango society leaders conveyed for him

a deep warning, a powerful declaration that my actions bore consequences. To complete the initiation into the Bizango society […] would be an irrevocable step. No longer would I be an outsider, free to alight wherever I chose. I would become part of a matrix, bound to the other members by vows and obligations. […] It would not be enough to document a set of principles as perceived by the Bizango leadership; I would have to observe how they were played out in the day-to-day community.

Having realized it was simply impossible to continue his studies as an objective observer, Davis could not go through with his experimental endeavour of

completing my initiation into the Bizango society, not as an end in itself, but only as a means.

To do so would require he negate his academic training: becoming a true believer required more than just suspending all objectivity; it required full engagement in the community as a genuine participant and member, without any thought of temporality, nor any possibility of apostasy or recantation of his Vodou experiences and beliefs. Only in this way could his be a truly authentic experience.

These observations and experiences convey to the seeker on a spiritual path two entirely pertinent dilemmas. To experience a spiritual path or belief system in the way one who is genuinely following it does – that is, to truly understand the world view and life experience of a true believer – the seeker cannot have in mind an exit plan, just as the true believer does not. To experience as a true believer one must be a true believer, one’s faith must be a living faith, without reservation, qualification, or limitation.

Moreover, even if one was to wholeheartedly commit to following the way of life of a believer, one can only ever experience it from one’s own perspective, based on and in the context of one’s own karmic heritage and life experience. And how one experiences a new way of life is inevitably influenced by and dependent upon one’s previous state of life and its accumulation of experiences. The experience one has is inevitably unique to every individual.

Therefore, we could conclude that one’s own experience cannot be used to define or describe definitively the life-experience of others.

What does all this mean for the seeker of the Truth? It suggests that any participation in a spiritual belief, faith, or knowledge system that is anything other than a wholehearted and genuine living immersion in it cannot reveal its truly living reality. The truth cannot be found in any doctrine or explanation of a spiritual path or belief system apart from the living experience of it. For we are living beings, and so the truth can only ever be perceived from our own perspective, our own state of life – in its entirety, its honesty, and its transience.

Therefore, if we were to enter a spiritual path simply to explore whether its teachings reconcile with our particular worldview, we should not be surprised if we do not find anything more than what we already believed we knew! And if we engage in our exploration of a spiritual path with an escape plan tucked firmly into our back pocket, we should not be surprised if we do not see or experience it as our ‘fellow’ believers do!

Being a seeker for the Truth implies one does not already presume to possess it, nor any concrete or theoretical idea of what it is. One is then not surprised or disappointed when what is found bears little resemblance to what one initially expected to find. Seeking the unknown truth in this way brings insights into one’s own path of experience and present state of consciousness, and this becomes, in itself, the living expression of that truth.

We stand before a sublime dichotomy. As individual personality beings, we realize we are unable to attain the Truth for ourselves, whilst discovering that our perception of it differs from one individual to another. And as soul-conscious beings, we discover it is not the Truth itself that we seek, or find, but the image of it that is borne in us, and is revealed through us.


[1] Davis, P. W., Davis, W. (1985). The serpent and the rainbow. New York: Simon and Schuster

[2] Davis, W. (1988). Passage of darkness: the ethnobiology of the Haitian zombie. United Kingdom: University of North Carolina Press

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Date: November 1, 2021
Author: Joseph Murray (Australia)
Photo: Marion Pellikaan

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