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An Example of the Modern Phenomenological Method in Use


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