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08/09/12

Permalink 10:44:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 548 words   English (US)
Categories: News

You Can be a Part of this Project!

In recent weeks this blog has received more hits per day than ever in its three year history. I figured my series on modern phenomenology would strike a chord with some people. I see that dozens of people find this site every day from search engines and other sites link in as well. My post that provided an example of how modern phenomenology can be practiced was for a few days a featured news item on the website for Nova Southeastern University's journal The Qualitative Report. In the future, I will be submitting a more polished version of some of these blog posts to academic journals such as this.

As I have explained in the “About the Book” section of this site, I am actually working on two books that will cover similar subject matter, one of which will be for an academic audience and the other will be for a more general audience. I have a 250 page manuscript, but it is not ready for publication. I would not at the moment be comfortable even taking any portion of the book, even the sections that I have already posted on this blog, and submitting them to an academic journal for consideration. It is not that everything has to be perfect before I can do this, it is actually that there are significant gaps in my manuscript. There is still a lot of research and editing that needs to be done. I have a day job so this kind of moves slowly but I do have some nights and weekends and I am determined to see this thing through until it is completed.

I will of course be doing most of this work myself, but I am also looking for people to help me with this effort. I plan on establishing a business and I will probably be hiring or contracting with people who will help me reach my goal. That's right, there are opportunities for others to contribute to this effort and make some money! Just to make clear though, this is probably a few months out. I need some time to ramp up to that phase of the project.

In the near term, I would really like to get in touch with people who are interested in the philosophical topics covered within this website and this blog, including the problems with traditional religion and secularism, the foundation of morality, modern phenomenology, the mystery of consciousness, the nature of language and communication, etc.

I would really like to hear from any of you who are interested in these topics. I am an interactive author. We can communicate with each other via email, telephone or Skype. Also for anyone living in Northern California, I am interested in meeting in person to talk about these issues or any other philosophical issues. Even if you live far away from me, on the East Coast or Europe or Australia or wherever, please contact me. If you are interested in what you read here, then if you contact me you can be a part of this project. I cannot do all of this myself and besides, I enjoy discussing these topics with people. The best way to contact me at first is via email at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com. I look forward to hearing from you!

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08/02/12

Permalink 11:41:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1149 words   English (US)
Categories: Building Knowledge

Skepticism: What do We Know? What Can We Know?

Skepticism is a very important concept in epistemology, and it comes in different forms. In general, skepticism refers to a questioning attitude and having doubt regarding ideas that are often taken for granted. There are countless areas of inquiry in which some people will try to assert knowledge and try to explain their reasons for believing this or that. One can apply a skeptical argument to cast doubt upon any such positive assertions. Skeptical argument help us to understand that life is not as certain as we would often like to think.

There are two main forms of skeptical arguments. On the one hand, there are skeptical arguments that give reasons why one should withhold judgment in certain circumstances. These arguments are often in the form of “It is difficult to see how, given those methods of observation and those assumptions, how one could reasonably come to that conclusion”. For example, if one person were asserting that they fully understand a certain historical figure's motivations for acting as they did, another person could ask how it is possible for anyone to know what thoughts might have been going on in someone's mind who is long since dead. How can anyone come to know the motivations for someone who lived long ago and nobody living today ever knew them alive? It is hard enough to do this for anyone living today, even if one has been acquainted with them for some time. Arguments of this form take after the Ancient Greek school of Pyrrhonian skepticism, which emphasized listening to all arguments and withholding judgment. I will refer to arguments of this form as “doubt-skepticism”.

On the other hand, there are assertions that knowledge is inherently limited in certain ways. These are arguments that certain types of knowledge are impossible. So rather than simply giving reasons why some knowledge might not be possible, these arguments positively assert that certain things are outside the range of possible knowledge. For example, in response to a similar argument from above, say that a history professor saying that he knows why Franklin Roosevelt ordered the atom bomb dropped on Japan, one could respond with a skeptical argument of this form by saying that it is not possible for anyone to ever know why someone who is no longer living acted as they did. One could even go further and say that it is impossible to understand the motivations of even living people. Saying something like “We can never know why people act as they do” is a skeptical argument of this form. Some commentators say that this form of argument was popularized by another school of Ancient Greece: the Academics. I will refer to arguments of this form as “constraint-skepticism” because they argue that out knowledge is constrained in certain ways.

I believe that doubt-skepticism is quite reasonable and arguments of this form often help us to realize that building solid knowledge is more difficult than we would like to think. Our minds seem to be lazy at times and we will often just accept claims or rush to judgment without giving a lot of though for why or why not we should believe these things. Doubt-skepticism is often quite reasonable for anyone who lives in a world where there is much uncertainty and where appearances can be misleading.

I have also come to see that constraint-skeptical arguments are used more often than is justified. David Hume famously argued that it is impossible for one to gain knowledge through inductive reasoning and that therefore it is impossible for one to know the factors that cause events to occur and by extension it is impossible to know the laws of nature. Hume rightly points out that we can only directly know states of affairs in our experience and that when we see several things happen that seem to be correlated, we think we know the cause. He argued that we think we know that it must be the case that the sun comes up every day because we know it has come up every day of our lives, so it must come up tomorrow and the next day and so on. Hume argues that we actually have no knowledge of the factors that caused the sun to come up before and hence we cannot know for certain what will happen in the future.

Hume's argument is absurd, however, because he is positively asserting something that he could only have known through inductive reasoning. He is making statements about how things work and what causes us to believe as we do. If it is truly impossible for one to know causes and laws of nature, as Hume insists, then it is not possible for him to know the very things he is saying. His arguments are thus self-defeating.

Immanuel Kant also advanced some constrain-skeptical arguments. He said that in our experience we must have certain ways of conceptualizing reality that innately involves time and space. So basically, he says that our minds create our conception of time and space and we can never know how accurate these conceptions are. He says that our experiences must be caused by things external to us, but that our raw sense data is interpreted by our minds and that the product of this is our experience of things being in space and events occurring successively through time. Are things really in space? Are there really events occurring in time? Kant argues that we can never know this because we only know our own experiences, which are determined by the innate nature of our minds. We cannot step outside of our minds and directly experience the “thing in itself” that is external to us.

Kant's argument is also absurd because he assumes that there is something external to us that causes our minds to react and from this to create these experiences that we have. If he can know that there is something external to us and know that it has some effect on our minds, then it seems that he must have some genuine knowledge of both space and time. If he cannot know anything beyond his own experience and he cannot know to what extent his conception of space and time accurately reflect the external world, then it seems he also would not be able to know that there is anything external to himself, including other people who have their own minds. It seems he would not be able to understand anything about how other minds work if he cannot know anything about the succession of events that occur external to him.

So in conclusion I will say that doubt-skepticism is reasonable and helpful to us while constraint-skepticism is unjustifiably pessimistic with regard to the possibility of knowledge. Both Hume and Kant made great advances in philosophy, but they both made assertions about the limits of knowledge that seem unreasonable.

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07/25/12

Permalink 11:06:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 420 words   English (US)
Categories: Building Knowledge

Phenomenology: Past, Present, and Future

I believe that phenomenology, which can be concisely defined as the study of the structure of subjective experience and consciousness, is very important for anyone who wants to find answers to the great questions of life. It is unfortunate that this discipline is so poorly understood by most people these days. We all know that science is a powerful tool in our efforts to understand the universe, but even the most advanced science of our time has limitations. I believe that modern phenomenology can complement the knowledge that we have gained from modern science and that the two in conjunction can lead us to the formation of a comprehensive worldview that is based on observation and reason.

How is any of this possible? First, I encourage you to read my prior posts on phenomenology, each of which has been taken from the book I have written. If you take the time to read each of these posts and think about these ideas, you should be able to realize the power of phenomenology in allowing us to form more detailed and reliable knowledge into aspects of life that modern science has only limited application, such as consciousness, mental ideas, free will, and morality.

I recommend starting with this post about the similarities and differences between science and phenomenology. Perhaps the most important aspect of any form of phenomenology is introspection, which is where one personally observes the workings of their own mind.

It is also quite important to understand the history of phenomenology. It is notable that phenomenology existed to some extent prior the twentieth century, but the most important thing to understand regarding the history of phenomenology is Edmund Husserl's contributions to this discipline and also its development after Husserl.

While Husserl and his successors contributions should be honored, I am disappointed that phenomenology has not advanced much in the past 50 years or so. I see a lot of problems with traditional phenomenology, which led me to formulate a methodology for modern phenomenology that is largely based on traditional methods but is also heavily influenced by the methodology of modern science.

My final post in this series is an example of the modern phenomenological method in use. This is a simulated research project that seeks to show how one could use this method to find a reasonable foundation for morality. I am interested to hear your thoughts and feelings regarding these posts. I am also available to answer any questions you might have on any of these posts at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com.

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07/19/12

Permalink 11:28:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 3276 words   English (US)
Categories: Building Knowledge

An Example of the Modern Phenomenological Method in Use

This post is the conclusion of the series on phenomenology. The previous post explained my version of the Modern Phenomenological Method (MPhM). Today's post provides an example of this method in use. In this example, the methodology outlined in last week's post is used to simulate a phenomenological research project (PhRP). The subject of this simulation is finding a reasonable foundation for ethics that is based on objective and intersubjective evidence.

As a recap, here is the list of steps that need be be performed within a phenomenological research project:

  1. Introspect on the structures of consciousness and reflect on this so that reasonable conclusions can be made.
  2. Try to understand existing well-respected theories regarding the structures of consciousness.
  3. Examine the most common beliefs that people have regarding the structures of consciousness, based both on people's explicitly stated beliefs on these matters and also what seems to be implied by the common statements that people make.
  4. Have phenomenological discussions with others.
  5. Formulate a transcendental theory, which is done by taking into account all intersubjective knowledge while bracketing out objective knowledge and scientific theories.
  6. Bring the transcendental theory formulated in step 5 together with all objective knowledge and the well-respected scientific theories that derive from objective data in order to formulate a unified phenomenological theory.
  7. Explain and describe phenomenological theories to others.
  8. Try to find evidence for or against existing phenomenological theories. Try to improve upon existing theories.

I, the phenomenologists, have already performed steps 1 through 6 of MPhM and in writing this and explaining this process to you, the audience, I am performing step 7. I decided it is best to start off by providing an analysis of the terms that will be used so that readers can better understand this work. After this I will examine the existing phenomenological theories that are meant to provide a foundation for ethics, which will constitute step 2. Then I will analyze the common beliefs relating to ethics, which comes from step 3. Then I will describe my own introspective sessions and the findings that came out of this that relate to ethics, which comes from step 1. I have discussed my findings with others, which step 4 calls for, but I have decided not to specifically describe these conversations in this chapter. For step 5, I will provide an explanation of the transcendental theory that I came to on the basis of the findings from the first three steps. Finally, for step 6 I will explain how I merged this transcendental theory with some scientific theories to produce a unified phenomenological theory.

Ethical Terminology

Ethics is the branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality, which includes questions about the nature of value and how it can be maximized. This field necessarily involves the study of both values and possibilities. Works of ethics and morality commonly use axiological terms, which are those that seem to refer to positive or negative value, such as “good”, “bad”, “right”, “wrong”, among others. The words “should” and “ought” are also very common in such works, but are even more useful than any in the first list because they imply conditions in addition to values. What this means is that in most contexts, ether of these words can be paraphrased as “it would be better if” or “this hypothetical scenario would result in a higher level of overall value”.

Existing Theories Relating to Ethics

Questions regarding the nature of value and how it can be maximized are the most important in ethics. This field can be very broad, so to narrow it down this chapter will only be focused on normative ethics, which is the study of the factors that make an action right or wrong, or in other words, the factors that associate an action with positive or negative value. This contrasts with prescriptive ethics, which is the study of constraints placed upon people or other moral agents that logically commit them to acting certain ways, and this also contrasts with descriptive ethics, which is the study of people's beliefs about morality and deals with descriptions of how people behave rather than how they ought to behave.

Theories of normative ethics are quite diverse, including numerous formulations of virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism. This post is merely an example of how modern phenomenology can be used, so it does not need to be comprehensive. A comprehensive study would investigate each possible theory of normative ethics, but this example will focus on consequentialism, which is the idea that the moral value of an action is based on its consequences.

Late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century philosopher Jeremy Bentham formulated an influential version of consequentialism called utilitarianism. Bentham argued that positive and negative feelings are ultimately the only factors that motivate people:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.

Bentham argued that because everyone prefers pleasure over pain, positive value must logically be equated with pleasure and negative value with pain. Therefore, we should act in a way that results in the greatest amount of pleasure across the population of those affected by our actions.

The theory of utilitarianism has been adapted and expanded by Bentham's student John Stuart Mill and also by modern day philosophers such as Peter Singer, among others. Many different specific formulations of utilitarianism have been advanced since the time of Bentham, but in general this theory says that when one is deciding how to act, they should analyze every conceivable action and for each one to add up the positive experiences that will likely result from each action (including pleasure, happiness, etc.) and compare this to the negative experiences (pain, suffering, etc.) that would be expected to occur as a result of performing each action. Within the reasoning of utilitarianism, it is a tautology that the best action is the one that results in the highest value, which is the action that results in the highest total amount of positive experience versus negative experience.

The benchmark for what should be considered or ignored is based on what beings actually have sentient experience. Any being that is thought to have the experience of pain or happiness is taken into account, and any being that is thought to be devoid of any such experience is ignored when deciding how to act. Anyone who uses utilitarian ethics to figure out how to act needs to assess what kinds of beings have positive and negative experiences and which do not. It is generally assumed that living, breathing, thinking human beings have these experiences, but with regard to animals this idea is controversial. There must be a limit somewhere as to which beings have experience and which do not. For example, while one can damage a rock, it is generally assumed that a rock cannot feel pain. And while it is possible to make a simple computer program that makes noises that sound like someone in pain, it is nonetheless generally assumed that such programs do not actually have an actual experience of pain or anything else.

This benchmark for how utilitarianism applies to the world is significant for phenomenology because it makes use of intersubjective information. The experience of pain or happiness is only directly known from a first person point of view. Knowledge of the experience of pain and happiness and other emotions can only begin as subjective and only after multiple people communicate details of their experience can this knowledge become intersubjective. There is no way for knowledge of the experience of pain to ever become truly objective. Though science may be able to tell us a lot about how pain and happiness come about and might be able to tell us about the neurological processes associated with emotions, this is not the same thing as the actual experience of emotions, which along with all other personal experiences, are in the domain of phenomenology.

Common Beliefs Relating to Ethics

It is natural for people to have moral beliefs. Every human society in history has had norms for what is right and wrong. Every religion has a code of conduct that is considered good and certain behaviors that are considered sinful. Throughout the world, people's moral beliefs are quite diverse, but there are actually a few such beliefs that are so common that they are near universal. One notable example of this is the so called Golden Rule, which exists in some form or another in nearly every culture in the world. In general, this rule states that one should treat others the way they themselves would like to be treated. In other words, if one does not wish to be harmed then it is wrong to harm others and if one wishes to be happy then it is right to make others happy.

This rule has important metaphysical implications. First, it is implied that there are a variety of experiences that one can have in life and that some are inherently preferable over others, which means that one can have good and bad experiences throughout their life. Second, it is implied that there are other beings that have similar experiences as one's self. One can certainly understand that other people and to some extent animals as well have certain characteristics that are similar to one's self such as having eyes, ears, and the ability to communicate. Though it is clear there are some similarities amongst different people, no two people are ever exactly the same. Despite this, the Golden Rule implies that others have to have some properties in common with one's self, specifically with regard to positive and negative experiences.

Detailing My Own Introspective Findings Regarding Ethics

I, like all other people, have moral beliefs as well. When I introspect to find the origin of these beliefs, I am able to find that many of them originate with cultural norms or perhaps with the dogma of the religion in which I was raised. I have regularly engaged in introspection for several years now and I have tried to identify any beliefs I have that are not epistemically justified. As such, I have discarded many of my former moral beliefs because I was not able to find evidence in their favor. What remains are moral beliefs for which I am able to explain my reasons for having these beliefs.

There are many things that I value in life. I can see that often times something that I value only actually provides a means of achieving some other thing that I value. One thing that I can see that has intrinsic positive value is my own experience of positive emotions, such as happiness, joy, pleasure, satisfaction, love, etc. I can also see that some things have negative value to me, but sometimes this is only because these things end up bringing on something else that I prefer not to have. One thing that I can see that has intrinsic negative value is my own experience of negative emotions, such as pain, suffering, agony, embarrassment, fear, etc.

I can see that these emotions can come in a variety of flavors, but there is nonetheless a certain aspect that always manifests as some degree of positive or negative, and thus the value of these emotional experiences can be approximately quantified. Also, I always prefer the positive over the negative, which means that given the choice between a positive and a negative option, all other things being equal, I will always choose the positive. The distinction between positive and negative is absolute, as opposed to being relative to an arbitrary point of view like the terms “tall” and “short” are relative to height. Nothing is tall in an absolute sense, but the experience of positive emotions are either positive or negative. What this means is that having a comparatively less positive experience is still positive and vice versa. Also this means that there can be experiences that are completely neutral.

I can see that my moral beliefs derive from my positive and negative experiences. I prefer to experience positive emotions and I assume that others do as well. I thus assume that I am creating overall higher value when I act in a way that benefits others in addition to benefiting myself rather than always acting to benefit myself without regard to the experience of others.

Formulating a Transcendental Theory of Ethics

Taking into account the theory of utilitarianism, the Golden Rule, and the findings from my own introspection, I can formulate a theory for what seems to be going on. The most fundamental conclusion is that there are many living beings in the world that have subjective experiences of positive and negative emotions. It is a difficult thing to judge what kinds of beings have these experiences and this analysis did not provide enough information to be able to come to a conclusion on this matter. I will have to simply conclude that probably all or most humans have this quality and perhaps animals as well. It is even conceivable that a complex computer program could have a first person experience positive and negative emotions as well. This concept of positive and negative emotions is a bi-directional continuum, and I shall call this quality “valence”. This quality is universal across all beings that have an actual first person experience of emotions. All such beings have a range of feelings that are some degree of positive and negative, and they always prefer positive.

Formulating a Unified Phenomenological Theory of Ethics

The transcendental theory from the last step was for the most part formulated only from intersubjective knowledge. Theories of this nature do not take into account objective scientific knowledge. This final step involves merging the transcendental theory from the previous step with what is known from modern science.

The theory of valence that is described above has some similarities to some well known cognitive functions. All living beings that have nervous systems have, at least to some degree, what can be called negative and positive emotions. Nervous systems are hard wired to cause the being to work towards certain interests and to protect the being from harm. When an interest is met, a rewarding emotion is felt by the being's brain so that it can know to continue to work towards fulfilling these interests. When some part of the living being is damaged or if it fails to meet its objective, a punishing emotion is felt by the brain so that it can know to avoid damage and to work harder to meet its objectives. This is a natural process that can be understood in purely physical terms. Though there are apparent similarities between the reward/punishment function of the nervous system of living beings and that of the theory of valence as described above, the two cannot be exactly the same thing. Though there are similarities, a close analysis of each of these shows that the details of how each of these function is actually different.

First, the experience of valence manifests as some degree of positive or negative emotion on a bi-directional continuum. At a very low level, neural functions of living beings can be understood as a series of complex chemical reactions. There is certainly correlation between these chemical reactions and a living thing's experience of valence, but these two do not work the same way and thus must be qualitatively different. The best conclusion is that the physical reactions that occur in the nervous system of a living being end up causing the experience of valence. The degree of positive or negative that is experienced is proportional to the chemical reactions that either punish or reward the living being. Thus valence can be said to supervene over the nervous systems of living beings.

Second, there are properties of the experience of valence that are common to many living beings. As stated above, it is not known now what kinds of beings have this quality, but we can conclude that it does exist across a population of beings that are quite different physically. No two people are the same physically, but yet we can conclude at the very least that any two people that have cognitive functioning also have the experience of valence. So there must be something nonphysical about such people that is common amongst them. If valence were simply equated with certain neural functions then this could not be consistent with the definition of valence that was provided above. So once again, it is concluded that valence supervenes over the physical processes in the body that are associated with emotions. This allows for there to truly be properties of valence that are common to multiple beings.

Because each of us has an experience of valence and we are able to conclude that others experience this as well, this becomes the foundation of morality. We can observe our own nature and realize that we prefer positive experience and we can also realize that others prefer positive experience as well. From this we can conclude that one creates more overall value if they act in a way that causes more overall positive experience and less overall negative experience among sentient beings. Thus, through phenomenology, we can use intersubjective and objective evidence to form a theory of the foundation of morality that is consistent with both the Golden Rule and the generalized formulation of utilitarianism.

Phenomenological Progress

The theory presented above is only a demonstration of how MPhM can be used. This example is not very detailed and probably has a few flaws, but it nonetheless has the structure of a documented phenomenological research project. The theory that was provided in the concluding section probably sounds silly to some people because it involves a version of dualism, which means that it not only depends on there being a physical world but also on there being certain mental properties that are ontologically distinct. The evidence and arguments provided herein are not actually supposed to be convincing.

What is important to understand is that any conclusion that comes out of a PhRP can conceivably be improved upon if better evidence comes to light or if flaws are found in the reasoning that led to this conclusion. This theory of valence might be true or false, and it is possible to use MPhM to demonstrate this one way or another. Even if one disagrees with everything that was concluded in this example, perhaps because it partially involves dualism, it actually does not make sense to think that this might hurt the credibility of MPhM because built into this method, appearing at step 8, is a way for theories to be tested and from this to be verified or falsified. So anyone can go through this same method and try to find a better foundation of morality than the theory of valence as presented above.

Over time, it is expected that phenomenological theories will be improved upon using the method described herein or some more advanced methodology for modern phenomenology. Thus over time we can expect phenomenological progress, similar to how we have come to rely on scientific progress. The methodology that I have outlined in this series of posts (and is the main subject of my forthcoming book) might eventually come to be seen as a paradigm shift in phenomenology, similar to Thomas Kuhn's description of paradigm shifts in science.

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07/11/12

Permalink 10:16:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 2747 words   English (US)
Categories: Building Knowledge

A Methodology for Modern Phenomenology

This post continues the series on phenomenology. The previous post in this series was on the problems with traditional phenomenology. Today's post is the most important in the series because it explains the Modern Phenomenological Method, which is abbreviated MPhM.

You may ask what is so “modern” about the method that I am going to be explaining. In order for phenomenology to be “modern” in a way that is analogous to modern science, the following are needed:

  1. A clearly defined methodology through which reliable theories can be formulated.
  2. An understanding that so-called phenomenology that is not conducted with anything close to a clearly defined methodology and has not produced reliable theories should probably be considered proto-phenomenology because this is analogous to the relationship between modern science and protoscience.
  3. A way of demarcating between legitimate phenomenology and pseudo-phenomenology in a way that is analogous to the demarcation between legitimate science and pseudoscience.

The most effective way to formulate a methodology for modern phenomenology is to incorporate the best of what phenomenology and science currently have to offer. This means to take a generalization of the process of traditional phenomenology, which is summarized in an earlier post, and synthesize it with the hypothetico-deductive method of modern science. Clark E. Moustakas proposed something similar to this in his book Phenomenological Research Methods, which involves introspection by multiple people and using science to interpret the findings from such introspective sessions. Moustakas' methodology can be useful, but it lacks an organized way of synthesizing science and phenomenology to produce reliable unified theories. The following is a brief summary of a proposal for the modern phenomenological method (MPhM), which is based largely on the work of Husserl and the modern scientific method and expands on Moustakas' methodology:

  1. Introspect on the structures of consciousness and reflect on this so that reasonable conclusions can be made.
  2. Try to understand existing well-respected theories regarding the structures of consciousness.
  3. Examine the most common beliefs that people have regarding the structures of consciousness, based both on people's explicitly stated beliefs on these matters and also what seems to be implied by the common statements that people make.
  4. Have phenomenological discussions with others.
  5. Formulate a transcendental theory, which is done by taking into account all intersubjective knowledge while bracketing out objective knowledge and scientific theories.
  6. Bring the transcendental theory formulated in step 5 together with all objective knowledge and the well-respected scientific theories that derive from objective data in order to formulate a unified phenomenological theory.
  7. Explain and describe phenomenological theories to others.
  8. Try to find evidence for or against existing phenomenological theories. Try to improve upon existing theories.

In order to maximize effectiveness, a phenomenological research project (PhRP) will probably have to go through all of these steps, though not necessarily in this order. Also any step can probably be repeated any number of times. Steps 1 through 4 have to come before steps 5 and 6 because the former are fact finding while the latter involve the formulation of theories that are based on this raw data. Step 7 can only be conducted if there are actual theories to communicate, so steps 5 and 6 have to come first. Step 8 is less of a step in itself as it is a directive to repeat prior steps as necessary and to iterate through some combination of steps 1 though 7 for the purpose of achieving phenomenological progress. While step 1 can only be conducted by one's self alone, there is an inherent social component to phenomenology, which covers steps 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7. Step 5 can be a social process as well. Each step is explained in more detail below.

Introspection and Reflection
I wrote a post on introspection a while back, which I recommend reading if you wish to understand the method that I am proposing here.

Understanding Existing Theories
There has already been quite a few well thought out and influential works of phenomenology and any new PhRP would likely benefit from an understanding of some of these works. This might include the original works of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, etc. or perhaps also that of scholars who have commented on these works. It should also be helpful to research philosophical theories that depend partially on analysis of subjective experience but that might not commonly be called phenomenology, including the works of David Chalmers, John Searle, etc. For the sake of making sure all perspectives on a subject are understood, it would probably also be a good idea to research philosophical theories that are only based on objectivity and do not take into account any subjective experience, such as the works of W. V. O. Quine, Daniel Dennett, etc.

Existing philosophical works, whether they be phenomenological or based on some other style, might include thought experiments that are intended to help stimulate the reader's intuition. Everyone has experiences and gains knowledge from these experiences and everyone should be able to categorize these experiences and understand something about the nature of their experience, though they may need a thought experiment to help them understand this.

Examining Common Beliefs Regarding the Structures of Consciousness
Similar to the need to understand influential phenomenological works is the need to understand the phenomenology of the common people. It is true that common people do not practice phenomenology, but it is a natural part of life for people to introspect and thus people can be expected to have beliefs that derive from their own introspection. Also, if there are structures of consciousness that are common among all or most people then these people would naturally have some understanding of these structures. When someone has beliefs regarding the structures of consciousness then this will be reflected in the statements that they make and how they behave as well.

Sometimes people explain their beliefs regarding the structures of consciousness. Most people do not do this but it is possible for phenomenologists to interpret the statements that they make and other aspects of their behavior and from this to get a good idea of what people tend to believe. The best phenomenological theories are those that seem to explain why large numbers of people tend to believe in certain structures of consciousness. On the whole, there is immense variety amongst people's beliefs in this area, but there might actually be certain core beliefs that are common amongst diverse peoples. If a very significant percent of peoples from various different backgrounds, cultures, and religions seem to all have similar beliefs about the structures of consciousness, and these are beliefs that could conceivable be known subjectively but could not conceivable be known objectively, then it is worth investigating whether these people might be epistemically justified to believe these things.

Phenomenological research projects should study how people behave and what people tend to believe and they should compare this to the conclusions that they come to from introspection. A phenomenologist should be able to observe other people’s behavior and the ideas that people subtly communicate and from this they should be able to come to an understanding of the most common beliefs that people have regarding the structures of consciousness. If the phenomenologist finds that their own conclusions that come from introspection match quite closely these commonly held beliefs, then then this is more evidence in favor of these beliefs. Of course, people believe things all the time that are wrong. Simply because millions of people believe something doesn’t mean that it is true. But if there are common beliefs that seem reasonable then a good phenomenological theory should take them into account.

Discussions
If multiple phenomenologists are working on a PhRP, it is highly likely that there will not be consensus on every conclusion amongst them. In such situations, these people will have to debate their differences and see if they can come to an agreement. Also even if a phenomenologist is working alone, it is still necessary for them to discuss their conclusions with other people to hear what they have to say. If possible, phenomenologists should consult with scholars who are experts in phenomenology.

Formulation of Transcendental Theories
After all introspective sessions have been completed, all common beliefs have been examined, and discussions have been conducted, phenomenologists can formulate theories regarding the structures of consciousness. At first, these theories should try to only take into account intersubjective knowledge without considering the relations this might have to objective knowledge. This is a technique that Husserl called “bracketing” and he also called theories of this nature “transcendental” because of the similarity this has to Kant's theory of transcendental idealism in which it is thought that one can only actually have knowledge of their immediate sensory data while being unable to know much if anything about external reality. In the strict sense, transcendental idealism is wrong because it is actually natural for people to understand facts about the external world. Husserl, though, argued in favor of a moderate version of this in which it is acknowledged that one only has direct access to their own sensory data and where it is thought that forming knowledge beyond this only becomes possible if one is able to figure out what is implied by their sensory data.

It is helpful for phenomenologists to think in a transcendental way at times. The purpose of this step is for the phenomenologist to try to bracket, as much as possible, any preconceptions that come from knowledge of the external world. This is because it is easy for one to let scientific facts and theories contaminate their understanding of the structures of consciousness if they do not first make an effort to bracket these out and to just look at the intersubjective findings from the first steps of MPhM. Only after these findings have been carefully considered and a theory formulated with only these facts in mind can this new transcendental theory be merged with existing scientific theories. A transcendental theory must be formulated before considering scientific data and theories because if one tries to bracket out preconceived notions of scientific theories then they will be more likely to take seriously intersubjective data rather than to discount this data and to reinterpret it in terms of scientific theories, or in other words, to reduce everything to that which can be known objectively.

Formulation of Unified Phenomenological Theories
Transcendental theories are only temporary because an adequate phenomenological theory must take into account both intersubjective and objective knowledge. Phenomenological theories can be formulated by finding a way that existing scientific theories can coexist with the the transcendental theories that were recently formulated. Phenomenological theories should always be coherent with the findings of modern science, but they need not be in line with every single scientific theory.
There are usually several ways of interpreting scientific data and formulating theories from this. There is, for the most part, a consensus within the mainstream scientific community on many matters, such as the four fundamental forces and the components of the atom. At the same time, there are certain matters, most notably quantum mechanics and how it relates to general relativity, for which there are several competing theories that all seem to equally explain the existing data and are all able to predict future outcomes to some extent.

It is necessary for a unified phenomenological theory to be consistent with scientific theories that have consensus support within the scientific community, but not necessarily for theories that are controversial. If there are multiple competing scientific theories that each seem equally as good in applying to purely objective evidence then it is possible that taking into account transcendental theories can help sort out which scientific theory is best overall. If there is a transcendental theory that has widespread support because of the prevalence of intersubjective evidence in its favor, then it might be possible to apply this theory to each of the competing scientific theories and to see which best fits the combined objective and intersubjective data. From this the chosen scientific theory can be combined with the transcendental theory to produce a unified phenomenological theory that can not only explain the intersubjective data, but also make sense of the objective data in a less ambiguous way than was previously possible.

It is also conceivable that some widely accepted scientific theories could be slightly wrong and for phenomenology to provide some insight that can help improve these theories. The burden of proof would be quite high for something like this so it is unlikely that the scientific community will come around to changing their views unless overwhelming evidence of some form or another is provided. Though it is conceivable that phenomenology could actually shake the foundation of modern science, this is highly unlikely and will probably not become necessary. Phenomenology's best role in relation to modern science is probably to help narrow down the possible interpretations of data for which there currently is nothing close to a consensus theory.

Explaining Theories
After a unified phenomenological theory is formulated, phenomenologists must explain them to others, both verbally and in print, as detailed as possible. This should document not only the phenomenological theory, but also the process that led to the formulation of this theory. Phenomenologists should document how each of the steps 1 through 6 were conducted for the purpose of guiding others in their own phenomenological studies. The descriptions of each step do not have to be in the same order as they are numbered as shown in this chapter. Although one's own phenomenological study might begin with introspection, this does not mean that the eventual description of this study would need to list step 1 first. It might, in fact, be helpful to the reader first list steps 2 and 3 and then to list step 1. In other words, it might be helpful to first explain the existing phenomenological theories in the same subject matter as the new theory, and then to explain the analysis of any common beliefs that are related, and then to explain the new introspective sessions. The first three steps, which involve fact finding, do need to be explained before steps 4 through 6 are explained because the latter steps involve the formulation of theories.

In order to explain any PhRP to an audience, the phenomenologist will inevitably have to use language terms that have different meanings in different contexts. Therefore, an important aspect of this step is analyzing the different possible meanings of the terms that are used and explaining what these terms are supposed to mean within the context of the PhRP. In fact, it will probably be helpful if this language analysis is explained before any of the other steps are listed because that way the reader can better understand the meaning that the phenomenologist intends to convey.

Those who read or hear these descriptions should hopefully be able to go through similar introspective sessions as the phenomenologist so that they might be able to make similar observations regarding the structures of their own consciousness and so that they might come to similar conclusions, thus creating intersubjectivity. The more clearly written and carefully explained a PhRP is, the more likely it will be that readers will understand what the phenomenologist has in mind.

Finding Evidence For or Against a Theory and Improving Upon Existing Theories
An important element of the scientific method is where scientists can test the theories of other scientists and either verify them or falsify them, and this is also an important element of modern phenomenology. Any phenomenological theory must be open to feedback from anyone else. Existing theories are tested by going through the steps of MPhM and seeing if one comes to the same results as prior phenomenologists did. Any existing phenomenological theory can conceivably be falsified by newly observed counterevidence and/or a newly formulated theory that better explains all objective and intersubjective data. Also when new data is observed that corroborates an existing theory, this is more evidence that this theory is a representation of the laws of nature, at least to some extent.

Conclusion
I believe that this method complements the modern scientific method and the two can be used in conjunction to help us better understand the natural universe. If there is an aspect of consciousness that cannot be fully understood through science, then modern phenomenology should allow us to make progress in this area. This method might also be helpful in understanding the foundation of morality and other mysteries of life. Next week I will provide an example of MPhM in use with a sample PhRP. Please let me know what you think about this proposal at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com.

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07/04/12

Permalink 10:46:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1825 words   English (US)
Categories: Building Knowledge

The Problems with Traditional Phenomenology

This post continues the series on phenomenology. The previous post in this series was on the developments in phenomenology after Edmund Husserl. Today's post explains some of the problems with the traditional way of doing phenomenology.

I'll start by acknowledging that the summary of the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger that I provided in prior posts barely scratches the surface of their work. There are many influential phenomenologists whose work I did not even begin to summarize, including Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Emannuel Levinas, etc. So how, one may reasonably ask, can I then begin to criticize traditional phenomenology when I haven't adequately summarized the major works of this genre? The reason is that most of the content of most phenomenological works, at least most of those conceived after Husserl's development of phenomenology, primarily involve descriptions of metaphysics rather than dealing with the nature and process phenomenology itself, which is essentially epistemological. The purpose of this series of posts is not to criticize the metaphysical conclusions that these thinkers came to and advanced as part of their phenomenology. My concern is with the phenomenological method, or lack thereof.

While I admit to not being an expert on the writings of any phenomenologist, I can summarize how they go about performing phenomenology with regards to epistemology. All of the aforementioned thinkers conduct phenomenology in close to the same way. This process always begins with one paying attention to consciousness as it appears to them (introspecting) and reflecting on this. They might then discuss the findings of these introspective sessions with others. In some cases they might also read some philosophical works and make an effort to interpret these works. Finally, the phenomenologist writes down their conclusions, which are often metaphysical in nature, and then tries to explain their beliefs to people.

This is essentially the phenomenological method as it has been practiced since at least the time of Husserl. The problem with this method is that it is unfortunately quite easy for one to perform these steps to the best of their ability and to nonetheless be very wrong in their conclusions. Epoche, defined as the suspension of all preconceptions, is not fully possible. It may be possible for one to suspend some preconceptions, but one's introspection and reflection will always be contaminated by their experiences in life, their upbringing, their culture, etc. Everyone has information filters and interpreters programmed into their brains and one cannot will these away and just understand external objects exactly as they are in reality.

Heidegger understood that Husserl's notion of epoche was not entirely possible, but he still went about his “circumspection” (which is really just a disorganized mix of introspection and interpretation of things) as if he could understand the reality of being in the world from this. Heidegger actually believed that phenomenology is essentially a way of thinking that has the potential to elucidate the reality of being and that there could never be a general methodology that drives it. The reality that Heidegger failed to see is that simply going about phenomenology alone and without a clearly defined methodology has the tendency to lead to fanciful and unreliable theories. Unfortunately, it is quite possible for any phenomenologist to misinterpret or misunderstand their own experience and from this to come to false conclusions. Even if the phenomenologist is able to understand some facts about reality from introspection and reflection, communicating these facts is another matter. It is quite difficult to adequately explain one's own experiences to the point where others can grasp this meaning and for intersubjectivity to be created from this.

There have been many phenomenological texts that have advanced their own metaphysical systems regarding the structures of consciousness and their relations to the world. Though there is often agreement amongst these texts on some matters, there is more often disagreement and there does not appear to be a reliable way, within phenomenology itself, to figure out which of these metaphysical systems is correct, if any at all are. The best one can do to assess the correctness of a given phenomenological work is to follow the author's train of thought and to try to go through the same introspective and reflective steps as the author does. This exercise may allow one to come to some judgment as to whether a given metaphysical conclusion makes sense, but this likely does little to sort out the confusion amongst the diverse theories of the structures of consciousness that are out there.

The traditional phenomenological method is inadequate towards forming reliable theories and working towards consensus. There is a remarkable contrast between this and the modern scientific method. One notable difference between the two is that science deals with objectivity rather than intersubjectivity, but there are other very significant differences as well. The scientific method involves designing and conducting experiments and interpreting the results and forming theories for how things work. Once one comes up with a theory, someone else can come up with an experiment that either verifies or falsifies the theory based on empirical evidence. So there is constant competition among different parties to come up with theories and experiments that better explain nature and are as verifiable as possible.

Even when following the scientific method, it is expected that scientists will formulate some theories that are not entirely correct. It is also certainly possible for scientists to misinterpret or misunderstand data and from this to come to false conclusions. But since it is a part of the scientific method for scientists to test theories of others and to try to come up with new theories that better explain the past and more reliably predict the future, this allows scientific progress to occur as time goes by. On the other hand, the traditional phenomenological method does not have a mechanism for phenomenologists to test existing theories and to try to come up with newer and better theories.

It is a part of the structure of science for scientists to try to check each other's work and try to find and correct errors. Phenomenology does not have a clearly defined structure through which phenomenologists can check the work of others. When there are competing scientific theories, there are ways within the scientific method of sorting out which of these is more correct than the others. Within the traditional phenomenological method, the best phenomenologists can do try to present arguments for their theories and try to convince others that they are correct. There is no criteria through which these competing theories can be evaluated.

It is probably at least partially due to these problems that traditional phenomenology has not made significant progress towards the end of allowing us to better understand the structures of consciousness. There should be a way of practicing phenomenology more like science is practiced so that these problems no longer exist, at least not to the extent where they are outright hindering phenomenological progress. It should be possible to formulate a clear and detailed methodology for modern phenomenology through which we can achieve reliable knowledge of aspects of nature that cannot be known objectively but can be known subjectively.

This methodology must keep an empirical mindset, though one based on radical empiricism rather than a traditional understanding of empiricism. This methodology must work within the framework of the modern scientific understanding of nature. Modern science has given us enormous knowledge of nature and has proven to be quite reliable towards forming new knowledge. Modern phenomenology should be able to bring to light a better understanding of the metaphysics that underlie conscious experience, but this should work hand-in-hand with modern science.

Though the human brain is the single most complex object in the universe, the physical and social sciences have provided us with a reasonably detailed understanding of its functions and our understanding of our own minds deepen with every new study that is released. Modern phenomenology should make good use of the findings of cognitive science and psychology, rather than operating under the assumption that one can know everything important about the mind from introspection and reflection.

Science does not provide anyone with all the answers. There are always gaps in scientific knowledge and competing scientific theories that seem equally plausible from a purely objective standpoint. There are situations where phenomenological evidence should be able to shed light on ambiguous scientific outcomes and to show that some theories make more sense than others. Intersubjective data can help interpret objective data and vice versa.

Some will argue that formulating a more detailed methodology for phenomenology that is partially based on scientific method is misplaced because phenomenology is a philosophical movement, whereas science is a separate discipline from philosophy altogether. Actually science used to be a philosophical movement as well, at least as far back as ancient Greece up until the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th Centuries. It then became its own distinct discipline because it attained a more highly developed methodology and became more reliable.

It turns out that the only real difference between the two is that science is the system of methods for objective study whereas phenomenology is the system of methods for intersubjective study. Both science and phenomenology are types of epistemes, which means that they are ways of coming to know things. Other examples of epistemes include mathematics, philosophy, and common sense. Both science and phenomenology are a posteriori epistemes (given the assumption of radical empiricism), while mathematics is an a priori episteme. Philosophy and common sense might fall somewhere in between because they can both in certain circumstances be dependent on specific experiences. Common sense can be thought of as a very simple form of philosophy that we all do by our very nature and which we don't put much mental energy into. It is probably the case that all interesting philosophical ideas that multiple people can understand that are not based on any specific experiences and are therefore a priori. Of course the very basis for phenomenology, as with the basis for science, is philosophical and a priori. But the actual practice of phenomenology is similar to the actual practice of science in that they are both a posteriori.

Overall, phenomenology is a good idea and there should be a way of getting it to work so that it can lead to significant progress in the ongoing effort to understand reality. There was a time, centuries ago, when the practice of science was not leading to much progress towards this end. Science was revolutionized with the advent of the scientific method and this brought about what we now know as modern science. Phenomenology can be revolutionized as well. Science alone does not seem to be able to apply to all aspects of reality. What is sorely needed is a more detailed methodology for intersubjective study. This can be the foundation of modern phenomenology. In my next posting on this subject, I will lay out my proposed methodology for modern phenomenology.

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06/27/12

Permalink 11:01:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 837 words   English (US)
Categories: Traditional Religion is Flawed

Does Hell Exist?

Evangelical Christian teaching traditionally holds that one must believe that Jesus Christ is their personal lord and savior in order to achieve salvation and if one does not do this that they will be sent to hell upon their death, where they will suffer for eternity. This dogma comes from a literal reading of the Bible, specifically the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Jesus does not say this in this stark of terms, but he does use parables to allude to what will happen if one is deemed unworthy of the kingdom of heaven. He strongly emphasizes the rewards of faith and says that those who lack faith will be left in the darkness where there is weeping and grinding of teeth.

I recently heard a story of an evangelical preacher who had a crisis of faith regarding the commonly understood Christian conception of hell and the consequences that result if one lacks faith in Jesus Christ. This man is Carlton Pearson, founder of Higher Dimensions Family Church. He studied under Oral Roberts, one of the founders of the modern evangelical movement. His church was very large, with thousands coming and worshiping every Sunday. As recently as 2002, he was seen as one of the most influential evangelical Christian preachers in the United States and his energetic and intelligent style of preaching gained him interest among Evangelical Christians throughout the world.

Though Pearson had so much, he could not shake the realization he had come to that the traditional Christian conception of hell is just horribly wrong. He saw on television and heard stories about the immense suffering of people in Rwanda during the genocide that occurred in 1994. He understood that many of these people were not Christians and had never even heard of Jesus Christ or of the Bible. He realized that many, many people throughout the world live their lives in constant suffering and die completely unaware of any of the teachings of Christianity.

The traditional Christian view, at least among evangelical Christians, is that any person who does not accept Jesus as their lord and savior will go to hell upon death, even if they never heard of this and had no opportunity to reject this teaching. In fact, this is one of the main motivating factors behind evangelism. Preachers tell the faithful that they must go out and tell everyone about Jesus in order to try to save them from hell. It is quite common for an evangelical preacher to persuade their flock to become preachers themselves and to promote the Gospel wherever they go and to whoever they meet, because this is the best way of saving people from hell.

Pearson was deeply conflicted when he thought that these suffering and dying people are destined to an eternity of torment simply because they never heard the Gospel preached to them. He rejected the idea that it was his duty to convert all of these people because he knew it is impossible for any person to convert the entire world to Christianity. He came to believe that hell is not a place where the nonbelievers go when they die, but hell is instead right here on Earth. He realized that he was witnessing hell on the television set when he saw the images of the destitute in Rwanda. Hell, he reasoned, is what we humans make for ourselves on Earth, not some other world where nonbelievers are burned for eternity.

Carlton Pearson and his family and his church suffered greatly when he started preaching these views since they are not in line with the generally accepted views of evangelical Christians. Most of his congregants left his church and he was branded a heretic by his close preacher friends. Pearson had the courage to speak out against this horrible idea that God would create people just to let them suffer for all eternity simply because they never heard about the Gospels in their lives.

Now, I should also note that I do not believe in the Bible at all. I am not a Christian, though I was raised Catholic. I do, however, believe that the universe and all people were created by God. I also think it reasonable that there is an afterlife that might be similar to the Christian conception of heaven. I do not believe in hell, certainly nothing like the common Christian conception of hell, because this would also involve the believe that God allows his creation to be tormented for eternity. The God I believe in is benevolent, not hideously wicked like that.

Perhaps some people are not deserving of any heaven-like afterlife because they are evil people. People who live lives of murder, terrorism, and other treacheries are probably not deserving of heaven, but neither should they be tormented for eternity. I will say that God simply annihilates the souls of those who are so evil that they do not deserve any afterlife. Thus such souls no longer exist. This seems to be the most just punishment.

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06/20/12

Permalink 09:10:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 908 words   English (US)
Categories: Building Knowledge

Phenomenology After Edmund Husserl

This post continues the series on phenomenology. The previous post in this series was on Edmund Husserl's contributions to phenomenology. Today's post is on some of the major phenomenologists who came after Husserl and were influenced by him.

Martin Heidegger was a student of Husserl's and was greatly influenced by his teacher, but he actually took phenomenology in a different direction. Whereas Husserl believed that one could bracket out all of their prior conceptions of reality and suspend judgments in order to better understand their own observations, Heidegger rejected the idea that one could suspend all preconceived notions. Unlike Husserl, Heidegger did not see the need or the possibility of bracketing or epoche, which is the word Husserl used for the highest level of bracketing and suspension of judgment. Whereas Husserl saw phenomenology as a rigorous science, Heidegger resisted the idea that phenomenology could ever be such a thing.

As commentator Dermot Moran wrote: “For Heidegger, phenomenology is the attempt to make manifest the maters as they manifest themselves. As a radical allegiance to the things themselves, phenomenology can never be a single method” 1. While Husserl saw phenomenology as primarily epistemological and through which one could come to know metaphysical truths, Heidegger argued that phenomenology could be used to address the central questions of metaphysics which had been misconceived and taken for granted throughout the history of philosophy. Whereas Husserl emphasized introspection as a way of understanding things in themselves, Heidegger instead preferred circumspection, which is the careful observation of one's surroundings. He argued that circumspection involves understanding which way one is oriented and understanding the most basic aspects of existence. For Heidegger, experience is continuous and flowing and needed to be understood as a whole in the process of doing rather than through stepping back and thinking.

His works detail his stream of consciousness as he goes about trying to understand the the fundamental question of the nature and reality of being. He thought that philosophers had been fundamentally mislead by language going all the way back to Plato. He argued that one way one can make progress in dealing with these pervasive problems is through hermeneutics, which is the interpretation of language, thought, and behavior. His critique of modern philosophy focuses primarily on the idea, articulated by Descartes and assumed by many others both before and after him, that Humans are fundamentally rational beings. Heidegger argued that instead our existence is first and foremost experiential and active rather than rational. He also argued that care is the most fundamental aspect of existence, with anxiety, authenticity, and resoluteness also having special importance.

He sought to understand the concept of being and how it relates to time. Prior to Heidegger, nearly all philosophers had assumed that an objects exist at instances in time and that as time moves forward these objects can either change or stay the same. Heidegger argued that this preconception regarding the concept of being is mistaken and he used his version of phenomenology to argue that being cannot be separated from time. It is not that an object exists at different instances in time, Husserl argued, but that the passing of time is an essential component of being. An analogy he used is that it is not a hammer that constitutes being, but hammering. He used this conception of being to address the nature of human existence, which he called Dasein.

Heidegger's phenomenology influenced many including Jean-Paul Sartre, who was influential in his own right. Sartre focused on the concept of being in contrast with nothingness and contingency and what this means for human existence. Sartre was concerned with how the experience of emotions such angst, nausea, and anxiety relate to human freedom. Sartre and more recent phenomenologists had similar ways of going about phenomenology as did Heidegger. For them, phenomenology was less based on epistemological methods than on describing one's stream of consciousness and interpretations of metaphysics. These phenomenologists often did make an effort to perform epoche before making new judgments on matters regarding life, being, time, nothingness, etc. but they did not believe that it was possible to entirely eliminate all prior beliefs or even to come close to doing this.

There have also been philosophers who have practiced something like phenomenology in the broad sense of the word as I outlined in an earlier post. This includes philosophers of the analytic tradition who emphasize the first person study of consciousness like David Chalmers and John Searle. Both Chalmers and Searle are from the Analytic tradition and thus are not often considers phenomenologists, but they do both strongly emphasize that there are aspects of consciousness that are outside the realm of science and they came to this conclusion partially on the basis of introspection and reflection.

I largely agree with Husserl's phenomenology and find that I disagree with Heidegger and Sartre and other phenomenologists who came after him. I agree to a large extent with Chalmers and Searle regarding their analysis of consciousness, but they do not really go about this in a phenomenological way. I see some problems with traditional phenomenology and I have a proposed solution. I will be writing more posts on phenomenology in the coming weeks where I will explain the problems with it, at least as it has been practiced traditionally, and I will also explain my proposed solution. If you have any questions about this, please email me at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com

1 Dermot Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology p. 227

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06/13/12

Permalink 11:41:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 802 words   English (US)
Categories: Traditional Religion is Flawed

The Christian Reformation: Some Pros and Cons

I suppose you are all at least somewhat familiar with some of the most significant events in the history of Christianity. This religion became quite popular from the 2nd through the 4th centuries AD, and over the course of these centuries Christians were persecuted by the Roman authorities. In the late 4th century, Christianity became the official religion and from then on, over the course of the next 1000 years, the political authorities in Europe and parts of the Middle East fervently enforced the doctrine of Christianity upon their subjects. In Western Europe, especially in the period from around 800 AD to 1500 AD, the Catholic Church based in Rome had enormous religious, cultural, and political power.

Unfortunately, along with this power came countless examples of abuse and corruption. The Pope had always claimed to have a special connection to God that nobody else could have. Successive popes used this privilege to enrich themselves and also used the respect that they had among the faithful as a threat to anyone who dared challenge their authority. In the early 1500's a priest named Martin Luther had the courage to openly challenge the church's selling of indulgences to people. This practice involved people paying money to the Pope in exchange for him absolving them of their sins and thereby allowing them to go to heaven. The Pope claimed this power through his supposedly special connection to God and many people believed this.

Luther had many enemies in his fight against the injustice of the powerful church, but he also had many allies. In the years and decades that followed his original challenge, several other religious reformers gained influence and new versions of Christianity were founded. Some of the most influential reformers included John Calvin, John Knox, and William Tyndale. While there were different views among the reformers, the main point that all seemed to agree on was that the Biblical scriptures are the sole authority, rather than any church authorities, least of all the Pope.

Looking back on all of this, there is much to admire in the the courage and conviction that the reformers showed in challenging the very corrupt and powerful Catholic Church and the Pope. This is a church that wanted absolute power over all religious matters and wanted things to stay the same year after year, century after century. The popes all seemed to want to use their power to enrich themselves and were intolerant to any challenges to their authority. When the reformers did make these challenges, slowly the church was less and less able to wield its injustice upon Christendom.

That being said, there is also much foolishness among the church reformers and we are still living under the tyranny of their ideas. They should be commended for coming to realize, at a time when few were, that the Catholic Church is evil and not deserving of respect. Now, certainly the Catholic Church then and now performs good works to the poor, but these can all be done just as well if not better outside of the strict hierarchy that the Pope leads. Overall, the Catholic Church is unnecessary and the reformers were wise to realize this.

What they completely failed to realize, however, is that the Bible itself is also full of injustice and falsehood. They believed fervently that the Bible is the word of God, and in the centuries since then, the Christian denominations that they founded or that were based on their work still preach this dogma. Millions and millions of people throughout the world profess Christianity of a sort that preaches 1) that the Catholic Church is not an authority on religious matters, but nonetheless 2) also foolishly preaches that the bible is the true word of God. The first one makes sense, but the second is just ridiculous to believe this day and age.

So while the Christian reformation had the benefit of lessening the power of the very corrupt unjust Catholic Church, it seems to also have contributed to an unfortunate trend that is still very much alive today whereby people think that the Bible is infallible. I cannot even begin to list the terrible things that the belief in the Bible has led to. Certainly there is some truth in the Bible. Certainly there is wisdom as well and some parts are helpful to people. But the belief that the Bible is 100% true has led to countless acts of injustice carried out by the faithful, and this continues to happen every day. So while the Christian Reformation had some benefits, there are also downsides.

It is only when we go with the principles of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment that we can begin to find ways of overcoming the injustice that we would otherwise be capable of if we were to believe the wrong things.

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06/06/12

Permalink 08:58:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 870 words   English (US)
Categories: Building Knowledge

Edmund Husserl's Contributions to Phenomenology

This post continues the series on phenomenology. The previous post in this series was on phenomenology prior to the twentieth century.

In the early Twentieth Century, Edmund Husserl sought a new way to understand reality that could be more comprehensive and more reliable than any that had been proposed up to that point. At that time, there were some philosophers who were idealists and some who were material realists. The idealists of the day, often times being rationalists, tended to think of reality as ultimately being in the mind and that everything that one perceives is entirely mental. Material realists of the day, most often being empiricists, believed that perceptions gave one knowledge of the external world, and some material realists believed that they could directly perceive objects that are external to ones self while other empiricists believed that perceptions merely represented external objects.

It is through the assumption of empiricism that the scientific method becomes possible. In the centuries leading up to Husserl’s time, scientific methodology had become increasingly detailed and the results gained from scientific experiments were increasingly reliable and allowed people to understand the world in a way that was never before possible. In the century since, the belief in empiricism among those pursuing a greater understanding of nature has helped make incredible achievements happen. Amazing progress has been made in widely diverse areas of inquiry and continues to be made every day.

Husserl realized the usefulness of science in his day, but he wished to apply it in a way that was slightly different than that of its empiricist roots. He seems have been operating under the assumption of radical empiricism, though he does not use this term. He thought that the introspective study of consciousness could become a rigorous science and through this one could understand reality better than any based solely on the naturalized epistemology or scientism of his day. He tried to develop a set of methodology for this new science-like discipline, which he called phenomenology. Now, the first person study of the structures of consciousness had a history prior to Husserl, but he was the first to develop a methodology for this. Though the word “phenomenology” was used by Immanuel Kant and also Georg Hegel, prior to Husserl the definition of this word was not clearly established.

Husserl argued that the preconceived notions that people have about things, such as beliefs about how the mind works and of physical science, keep them from understanding the truth about reality. He argued that the best way to understand things in a truly objective manor and to understand the true essence of objects is to suspend all prior judgments, which is a process he called epoche. Husserl argued that one can take anything that they believe, even those most central to their life, and “bracket” them, which means to set them aside during careful and systematic introspection and reflection. In this he took inspiration from Rene Descartes, who detailed in his Meditations how he tried to doubt everything he believed to be true as much as he could and found that the one thing he could not doubt was his own existence. Similar to Descartes, Husserl argued that it is possible for anyone to suspend all existing preconceptions of reality and to re-interpret everything in terms of immediate experience. He said that phenomenology is a presupposition-less discipline and that therefore it cannot take into account the result of any other science.

Husserl highly emphasized intuition in his formulation of what he called the “principle of principles” which he describes as “that every originary presentive intuition is a legitimizing source of cognition, that everything originarily (so to speak in its 'personal' actuality) offered to us in 'intuition' is to be accepted simply as what it is presented as being, but also only within the limits in which it is presented there.” (Ideas I Sec 24, p. 44). What this means is that if one goes through the process of epoche and eliminates all preconceived notions, including all assumed scientific knowledge and ordinary matters of fact, and then focuses solely on what is immediately given to them by experience, that they should be able to intuitively grasp the essence of any object.

My own work has been much influenced by Husserl's. I believe that Husserl made great advancements in philosophy and that his work is quite underrated. I will have to say, though, that Husserl was wrong that one can simply bracket out all of their prior knowledge and preconceptions and then to grasp the objective essence of any object. Epoche, to the extent that Husserl described it, is simply not possible. One's thoughts will always be slightly contaminated with their preconceptions, no matter how hard they try to bracket them out.

I do like that Husserl emphasized the importance of trying to bracket out preconceptions and trying to grasp the essence of things through introspection and reflection. I believe that we can understand much more about reality by using his methods in conjunction with the methods of modern science. This is one of the main purposes of the Enlightened Worldview Project and I will explain more about phenomenology and science and how they work together in future postings.

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