If other people have had a given experience, we can learn more about the world by taking that experience into account as if it were our own experience. For instance, many people have experienced cancer, and learned from this that having cancer sucks. We take these experiences into account by forming the belief that having cancer sucks. We do not need to experience cancer ourselves in order to form this belief.
Eliezer Yudkowsky discusses a related idea in Making History Available, where he argues that we should treat the events of history as if we had experienced them ourselves.
“The inverse error is to treat history as mere story, process it with the same part of your mind that handles the novels you read. You may say with your lips that it is ‘truth’, rather than ‘fiction’, but that doesn’t mean you are being moved as much as you should be. Many biases involve being insufficiently moved by dry, abstract information.”
We can extend Yudkwosky’s idea from history, to everything that happens to people not ourselves. It seems that we will gain a more accurate picture of the world if we treat others’ experiences as being of equal weight to our own experiences — if we are moved by others’ experiences like we are moved by our own. This seems impossible to achieve in practice, but it is an ideal to which we can aspire.
There exist numerous reports of subjective experiences of being abducted by aliens. The foregoing comments suggest that we ought to be moved by these experiences as if they were our own. Each of us ought to feel as if we ourselves have subjectively experienced being abducted by aliens. And this ought to factor into our decision to believe or disbelieve that aliens are in contact with humans. This line of reasoning leaves us with several options:
1. We can reject the principle that we ought to give others’ experiences the same weight as we give our own.
2. We can believe that aliens are in contact with humans.
3. We can pre-commit to the position, “if I ever subjectively experience being abducted by aliens, after that event I will still believe that aliens are not in contact with humans.”
4.. We can argue that to the reports of being abducted by aliens, there correspond no significant number of subjective experiences of being abducted by aliens.
Which of these bullets do we bite?