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Phenomenology, Empiricism & Science

11/06/09

Permalink 05:52:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1128 words   English (US)
Categories: The Mind, Building Knowledge

Phenomenology, Empiricism & Science

In the early 20th 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 who were idealists and some who were empiricists. The idealists of the day tended to think of reality as ultimately being in the mind and that everything that one perceives is actually mental stuff, as opposed to actually being something external to ones self or representing something external to ones self. The empiricists of the day believed that perceptions are of things that are external to the self.

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 allowed us to achieve constant progress in many areas of inquiry.
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 thought that the first person study of consciousness could become a rigorous science and through this one could better understand reality. He tried to develop a scientific method for this new type of science, which he called phenomenology. He might have been trying to unify idealism with empiricism, since idealists believe that there is something distinct about their first person experiences.
Empiricists tend to downplay any first person subjective data in favor of objective data that everyone can scrutinize. The most reliable way of scrutinizing data for the purpose of understanding reality is through the scientific method. This 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.

The problem with applying this methodology to the first person study of consciousness is that it is very difficult to test other people’s hypotheses because one cannot see another’s raw data due to the fact that the raw data is experienced by another person. The gathering of subjective data begins with introspection, which is where a person observes their own consciousness. After people introspect and then describe their experiences, there can sometimes be reports of one entering another dimension or communicating with spirits. The problem with these reports is that there does not appear to be a way of independently verifying whether or not these reports are accurate.

Did Husserl come up with a methodology for verifying or falsifying such reports and for leading to progress in understanding consciousness? Unfortunately not. His phenomenology probably borrowed too much from the idealists because it seems to lead to one interpreting the world as though everything revolves around his or her self.

In this day though, there has been some progress towards a methodology that can allow us to understand things from a first person point of view while still keeping an empirical mindset and a modern scientific understanding of nature. First, it should be noted that modern objective science does not explain all phenomena. One notable example is the fact that there are several competing interpretations of quantum mechanics. Some of these use a first person understanding of consciousness to better understand the data and to formulate theories for what is going on. I believe that this is the right approach to the interpretation of quantum mechanics, though I do disagree with most of the more popular interpretations out there.

So one aspect of modern phenomenology is to use a personal understanding of consciousness in order to fill in the gaps that objective science leaves. Another aspect is study how people behave what people tend to believe and compare this to the data one gathers from introspection. If one introspects and finds that certain things appear to be the case that modern science does not deal with, then this should be considered evidence that this exists, but only to ones own self. If one is able to observe other people’s behavior and what people say and write and then is able to conclude that they have had these experiences as well, then this is more evidence that something exists that beyond the scope of objective science.

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. And people tend to misinterpret their own introspection, so it is probably irrational for one to place too much emphasis on this. But there are some things that are near universally believed among people and that should become so clear from introspection that one should conclude that they exist. We discuss these things all the time and it is overly skeptical to deny the existence of everything except what modern objective science tells us is true.
The one thing that I am thinking of here is the foundation of morality. Most people seem to believe that morality has some basis in reality. Not simply as a function of human instincts or cultural norms, but that there is an element that is a part of nature. If this exists then it is outside the realm of objective science. From introspection, I have become certain that all value judgments ultimately derive from a personal experience of positive and negative that I call valence. Though many value judgments derive from other things as well, such as what works or what is necessary in a given situation, there is always an element of these value judgments that comes from this personal experience, and all people act as though this is a real phenomenon.

The belief that subjective experiences such as value judgments, along with objective scientific data, should all be considered true knowledge is called radical empiricism. This belief was first formulated by John Dewey, who lived near the same time as Husserl. The philosophy that I have outlined here is a new formulation of phenomenology and radical empiricism in order to understand consciousness, fill in the gaps of modern objective science, and to realize the foundations of morality in our contemporary age.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Can anything be known subjectively but not objectively? Let your voice be heard in the forum. You can also email the me at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com

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