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Science versus Phenomenology

05/10/12

Permalink 10:36:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 806 words   English (US)
Categories: Building Knowledge

Science versus Phenomenology

We all want to know the truth about the world and about ourselves. We all want to know what is the nature of reality and what is our place in it. Among the many systems of knowledge formation that have tried to answer these important questions, modern science has proven to be quite reliable. Modern science has made much progress in allowing us to understand the world and ourselves and progress continues to be made every day toward these ends. While it may now seem that science is the best way of answering any question one may have about reality, there are some who argue that there are important areas of life that must be partially outside the domain of science because they are known from personal experience and thus cannot be known objectively. The argument is that the nature of consciousness and other personal experiences, such as a sense of morality, can only be fully understood subjectively, but are nonetheless quite real examples of knowledge.

There does seem to be merit to this argument so what is needed is an epistemology that can apply to all aspects of life. This epistemology must include a clear basis for science and also must be able to apply to anything outside the realm of science that genuinely exists and is knowable. If there are aspects of life that are beyond science then this epistemology must be able to apply to these aspects. We can only judge whether an aspect of life is beyond the reach of science on philosophical grounds, not on scientific grounds. The arguments for what is within the domain of science and what is beyond the reach of science are closely related to the philosophical basis for science itself.

The domain of science is limited to methodology that can form objective knowledge. If there is a possibility of having subjective knowledge that cannot be known objectively, then this is beyond the reach of science. Objective knowledge does have benefits over subjective knowledge in that it can be shared amongst many people. Subjective knowledge, on the other hand, by definition can only be known by the one who experiences it. But different people who have similar subjective knowledge can communicate details of their experience through a shared medium and through this create intersubjective knowledge.

The practice of personally interpreting subjective experience and trying to form knowledge from this is called introspection. When introspection is practiced among different people who communicate with each other and find systematic ways of understanding each other's experiences to create reliable intersubjective knowledge, this is called phenomenology.

Phenomenology was created for the purpose of developing a clear and detailed understanding of subjectivity. In general, phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that involves the study of conscious experience. Those who practice phenomenology attempt to create an intersubjective understanding of the structures of consciousness. This is not the same as studying consciousness objectively, which is in the domain of science. It seems that there are aspects of conscious experience that are quite real but cannot be known objectively and are not in the domain of science. If it is possible to deal with these matters intersubjectively, then they are in the domain of phenomenology.

The central theme of phenomenology is that through focused introspection and reflection, one can come to understand consciousness as it really is. One who practices phenomenology pays close attention to immediate appearances of perceptions, imaginations, memories, feelings, and the like and from this they are supposed to be able to better understand reality. The phenomenologist then explains their experiences and conclusions to others with as much detail as possible with the goal of allowing others to understand these findings and to come to agreements, thus creating intersubjectivity.

Science and phenomenology are similar in some ways. Phenomenology may be a branch of philosophy, but science was also once a branch of philosophy before it developed a clear methodology and started producing reliable knowledge. In recent centuries and especially in recent decades, science has been increasingly successful because there is a detailed methodology for forming reliable knowledge through social structures that encourage independent testing of theories for the purpose of verification or falsification. Phenomenology has been less successful because unfortunately there is no such methodology associated with it.

One of the main purposes of the Enlightened Worldview Project is to formulate a methodology for phenomenology that can be used to formulate reliable intersubjective knowledge. This theory and practice of this methodology shall be called modern phenomenology because it is similar in some ways to modern science. This methodology has the potential to allow us to form a reliable and detailed understanding of the nature of conscious experience, thought, will, and morality. In future posts I will explain this new methodology and also give examples of phenomenological research projects that have used it.

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