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Subjectivity, Scientific inquiry, and meaning: A brief analysis of the intrinsic limitations of subjectivity, the scientific objectification of the natural world, and a revival of a meaningful science. (Brief version)
Shawn X. Hernandez
History of Modern and Contemporary Philosophy Dr. Richard Rose 26 April 2013
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If there is a single phenomenon where proponents of every system simply must converge it is on the intrinsic value of subjective experience. Subjective experience, regardless of its physical or metaphysical origins is, in fact, all we can value. It is here, in the dauntingly mysterious and intuitively opinionated (for better or worse) consciousness that we become aware of our own capability to contemplate, imagine, reason, plan, and individually attempt to create coherent meaning (however far-fetched)—all this done without stepping outside one’s own subjectivity. But what happens when we venture outward? What new problems arise when we develop complicated systems that represent and allow us to communicate our experience in Language? How far can we stretch the periphery of possible applications of our innate capacities? What can a body of empirical knowledge about a world that we cannot know directly imply about the nature of experience? These are some of the questions that underlie the issues in a recollection and analysis of the history of thought—ranging from philosophy and religion to modern science—that will be covered in this essay. It is my intention to analyze the basic problems that have arisen in philosophy on subjectivity, discuss a brief retrospection and criticism of the course and aims of science through Edmund Husserl’s The Crises of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, and finally, in response to Husserl, to demonstrate modern sciences’ ability to both eradicate unjustifiable claims about the natural world and establish a meaningful and sound set of human values1.
1 I mean values in a very broad sense here. I imply that there can be such a thing as a Scientific Moral System and will touch on this further in the essay. I will briefly cover many of the ways science has already had profound influence on the secularization of ethics by citing prominent moral philosophers of our day on specific topics. I will not however contend for an entire value system based on objective scientific facts in this essay however, for clarity of purpose and intent, I do believe it to be not only conceivable but existent. I plan to write a separate essay in correspondence to this issue.
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The Problems of Philosophy It is first necessary to address the issues that we encounter in a modern discussion that have clearly plague the history of human thought; for if we are intellectually honest we can agree that a fact, whether seen as a blessing of newly-found clarity or an embarrassing disillusionment, has, if it is truly a fact, always been true regardless of the absence of knowing it. If we are even the least bit competent in following the ongoing dialogue in philosophy we aware quickly made aware of the importance of assessing subjective experience in the epistemological quest and the difficulties run into in Rationalist philosophy. Dating back to the Greek pre-Socratic Sophist schools of thought, the ability to know anything actually existed was argued against on grounds of the limitations of subjectivity. Descartes founded his entire First Philosophy on the certainty that he was conscious, and Berkeley2 reasoned that although this was true, he could not be certain that that which was consciously perceived was anything more than the perception or idea itself, and therefore postulated that all things are reducible, in fact, to ideas3.
2 It is acknowledged that Berkeley was an empiricist but Iâ€™m simply using his conclusions to illustrate the possible conclusions when relying on solely the philosophical exercise and lack consideration of whether or not the question is a question worth asking. This is not to say that not asking in a fearful defense mechanism, but to say, for example, that it is quite rationally defensible to hold the position of materialism that is backed by a considerable amount of evidence even if a philosopher has reasoned his way into contending for solipsism. 3 In the rewrite of this essay I plan to cover these problems in greater detail by making illustrations on the process of introspection and realization of the difference between sense-data and the thing-in-itself, etc. and to provide a parallel between the issues of language as argued by Wittgenstein.
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Relying solely on the combination of introspection and reason inevitably leads to problematic conclusions that simply defy practicality and logic.4 This is not to negate the necessary admittance of the fallibility of our subjective experience5. It is the acceptance of this fallibility and the intellectual honesty of reasonable people that invigorates value in created methods that allow us to extend our capacities through the systematization and quantification of empirical research; I.e.—mathematics, empirical science and the scientific method. It is important to address the assumptions necessary to provide a foundation to any system. Science assumes, very proudly, a materialist foundation. On the other hand, it is very possible to subscribe to an Idealist perspective and sustain a working system. Without getting into the philosophical intricacies of this debate, the functionality of science must be acknowledged. We are all subject to the laws of nature and this simply cannot be denied with any seriousness. Whether the world we experience that science attempts to objectify, at its most basic, is made up of consciousness or physical material, science provides us with functional certainties6 about the world “out there.” As we continue onward in philosophy we can discuss the
4 Making the assumption that practicality and logic are essential properties to a working system. I do however, realize that this is an assumption made for the sake of the system and that there are those who do not find absurdity problematic. Again, this would have to be addressed in a different essay for the sake of the length of this paper—this is another planned paper discussing a scientific system coming into conflict with mysticism that can be expected in the future. 5 In fact it is this conclusion that strengthens the rationale to both embrace science as a competent voice on issues of morality and value (among all it has to say about the natural world) and to simply leave the sophistry of Idealism and notions like free will behind—this we will get back to. 6 The reason I use the term functional certainty is to ensure that I do not perpetuate the erroneous notion of scientific dogmatism and claims for actual “certainty.” Yes, scientists are smart enough to understand that absolute certainty isn’t possible.
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implications of scientific findings for philosophy—even here we recognize that science simply cannot be ignored whatever it may be at its core7.
Husserl’s concern: In light of the functionality of science, Edmund Husserl in an excerpt from his work The Crises of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology argues that “the specifically human questions were not always banned from the realm of science; their intrinsic relationship to all the sciences...was not left unconsidered.i" Husserl proceeds to argue that there has been both a perversion and outright removal of the importance of philosophy in light of “new sciences” disposal of metaphysical meaning. Philosophy is saturated with the subjectivity of human experience and individuality and it seems that science has gone far astray from its philosophical roots. “Those in the specialized sciences were fast becoming un-philosophical experts.ii” Science has stood on the shoulders of greats of philosophical history and has since lost all concerned with it. Husserl ultimately warns us that philosophy is at stake in a world that is so coldly objective and argues for a revitalization of inquiry on meaning through a retrospective meditation on the progress of science past, and the continuation of such inquiry for the future. “The understanding of the beginning is to be gained only by starting with science as given in its present day form, looking back at its development.8”
7 The materialist/naturalist vs. Idealist/mystic/ debate will no doubt continue to go on and it is my position that science consistently erodes on the metaphysical claims of the Mystics and I believe it will inevitably fully support the materialist/naturalist system. For example, Neuroscience has much to say about the illusion of free will, a topic that many Religious/spiritual hold on to. It is from this data I have confidence it will eventually have much to say about the origins of consciousness as well.
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Although I strongly identify with Husserl’s sentiment for the rekindling of the relationship of philosophy and science, there are a few issues upon which I diverge from his proposal for the revisiting of our quest for subjective meaning. Namely; the equivocation of ethics or meaning with metaphysics—if this were the case I’d think it dubious for nihilism to have any real competition—and the extrapolation of the implications of this, if it were true, would, in my opinion, establish a false dichotomy of between ethics and science, and values and facts. Husserl has given us, in my opinion, a very accurate description of the coldness of sciences’ “decapitation of philosophy” throughout its early stages. Husserl argues that the new science, in attempt to rid itself of the burdens of subjective complications, has, in effect, removed the very quality that enables any meaning to come into existence and therefore has barbarously nullified the opportunity in such a restricted purview of study. However, this seems to be a tactless equivocation of an entities’ underestimation of its’ own abilities and the actual inability to carry out such a task9. This assumption was detrimental to the progress of a meaningful
8 This is as bare boned an analysis of Husserl’s argument, but I wanted to make sure I at least somewhat touched on his argument in summary form for the coherence of this essay and correspondence to the thesis. For the sake of time and space I have left out the following points that will be covered in the detailed re-write of this essay; (1) A much more detailed and complete summary will be provided on the excerpt from Husserl’s work, (2) a meditation and analysis of Husserl’s critique of mathematics and the implications for all systems in which abstractions are a tool used to represent meaning—this will be paralleled with footnote #3 on Wittgenstein and language. 9 This point will be argued much more in detail in my second write-up. I am arguing that the philosophical, religious, and scientific proponents of this day had made the assumption of a “non-overlapping magisteria.” This idea has been argued for as recently as 1997 by Steven J. Gould who coined this term. We must agree that the religious assumption was inherent in the history of philosophical thought for most, if not all, of the last 2000 years.
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science on grounds of a worldview bias—we assumed the all too common derogatory cliché that “science can tell us how but never why!10” -End Section 1 Modern science has in many ways been liberated from the confines imposed upon it and there has been, hopefully appeasing Husserl, a strong development of a philosophical and scientific community focusing on the parallels, if not things that are one in the same, between scientific findings ,our subjective experience, and ties to meaning. In section 2 it is my intention to establish two conclusions in a progression in order to ease the transition of embracing this system; (1) scientific knowledge has much to say about values and ethics, and (2) that the correspondence of our individual sentiments which this knowledge can establish a Science of Morality—our only hope of a sound foundation for an objective Ethics11 Section 2 Pt.1: A brief progression to Modern Sciences’ current position: In retrospection of our road to the establishment of meaning in moral or ethical terms we can begin at a point prior to philosophical and scientific analysis. We are emotional and judgmental creatures. In the most practical of existences, the rational human mind experiences a range of states of experiences that give rise to value judgments12. We have a consistent contact 10 As to why this assumption persisted for so long, we could look at any critique on the psychology of religion. This is not to say, although it is the case occasionally, that the religious worldview itself restricts sciences ability to say anything on questions of meaning by blatantly rejecting scientific findings, but to say that the implications of the religious worldview might directly affect other systems of knowledge acting simultaneously. 11 Dr. Rose, I know you’re not going to like this one. 12 All experiences that, we have now come to understand , are attributed to brain states and explainable by modern biology and neuroscience (neurophysiology, neurobiology, etc.).
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with experiences of hunger, fear, empathy, happiness, etc. in correspondence to our sets of circumstantial and individual events that give us our unique notion of “self13,” if you will. We can acknowledge that the sentimental judgments of an individual agent do establish some sort of meaning. It is from the collaboration of individuals that cultural moral systems religious or nonreligious come into being. At this point we do, as the anthropologist might argue, have a range of systems that are completely relative to very different groups of people14. We have a multiplicity of subjective feelings and intuition that severely lack justification15. But we are also rational and truth-seeking animals. It is safe to say that we strive and enjoy being right. It seems to me that the birth of philosophical investigation was induced by the brightest minds’ value of the pursuit of the intellectual justification of beliefs on either grounds of sound reasoning or empirical observation16. As we discussed in the “Problems of Philosophy” section, the soundness of the relationship of philosophy and science becomes very strained when we come to the impossibility of philosophically arguing for the existence of a material universe outside our subjectivity as demonstrated by Berkeley and Hume. Regardless of the difficulty, we can easily decipher the hesitation to outright denying something being out there by both— Berkeley replaces physicality with Idealism, but nonetheless postulates God to hold our very real experience of such a world together without breaking any philosophical rules. Hume, one of my 13 We can think of this as our Phantasms or stream of thought and memory in correspondence with one another. 14 I have much to say about cultural relativism and it will be added into this essay in the second draft. 15 Not to say that it isn’t justifiable in the context of the culture or group, but in relation to what we as philosophers and scientist hold to be a justifiable and intellectually honest claim—one that is in accordance with what we know to be true about the natural world, logic, etc.. It can also be argued that prior to science and philosophy this sort of morality could be at the peak of progress in the development of morality and I concede to this. However, this is a retrospective point being used to illustrate our assessment of these types of judgments given what we (I and the scientific community) consider justifiable. 16 Here I would like to provide a more adequately detailed account of the progression of rationalist and empiricist philosophy leading up to the scientific revolution—this will be done in the second re-write.
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all-time favorite skeptics (arguably as pure a skeptic as Berkeley is a most pure Empiricist) very much doubts the ability to “know” causality is an existence phenomena much less the existence of ever coming in contact with a physical world, but nonetheless necessitates our reliance on habituation in living “as if” there were a physical universe to avoid absolute insanity. It is here that I readily admit that I am not only willing but confident17 to make the necessary assumption of materialism in order to preserve the value and validity of modern scientific evidence and the continuation of raising the voice of “New Science” on modern ethical issues. Pt.2: New Science and a young Science of Morality(brief)18 Modern science has been, in a sense, the cold and indifferent litmus test of justifiability of all claims made about the natural world. It has been methodologically devised to apply a healthy amount of skepticism to every claim until evidence in its favor has been discovered, compiled, and analyzed in accordance with the rules of the scientific method and foundation and in this way has ensured that the most reasonable conclusion is established.19 Inherent in the scientific system is the necessity of establishing functional certainties. That which we cannot verify through science is analogous to that which is not true about the natural world.20
17 Confidence does not imply faith—I have not the necessity of making any leap provided the wealth of functional certainties modern science has provided. 18 In my second rewrite, this section of my essay will be the bulk of the material. I will provide analyses of philosophers who have already begun to embrace a Scientific morality as well as provide a solid amount of scientific evidence that supports my claims. For the sake of this essay which is much more of a summarization of the key issues, I will leave out all research and just provide a sort of thesis to cover argument of this section. 19 I plan on going into an extensive argument here about the humility of science in response to claims about scientific dogmatism, etc.—and I plan on explaining and discussing the importance of scientific skepticism and the scientific method. 20 This is an extreme simplification that will be expanded upon in second rewrite.
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It seems that the rendering of the modern sciences’ voice as cold, insensitive, and lacking meaning seems to have much to do with what the voice has on sensitive and personally meaningful issues. Scientific discovery has uprooted much of our traditional metaphysics, the fantastical claims at the core of our historical religions, and even our archaic scientific notions. Firstly, hurt feelings cannot simply be the grounds for being so dismissive of such a voice. It seems to me rather odd that anyone would rather be left alone to persist in delusion than to be proven wrong. It the scientific and philosophical spirit that embraces the circumstance of refusing to believe in something unjustifiable and to be left empty handed rather than persisting in delusion21. We must realize that the employment of the scientific method was made in the interest of obtaining facts that are justifiable regardless of any preconceived notion we subscribed to prior22. In the quest for a sound foundation for ethics, given that modern science has a steadily increasing amount to say on the subject—providing a naturalistic foundation for morality in the Nuerosciences as well as provided a foundation for morality in a number of philosophical systems, namely those of Peter Singer and Sam Harris—I must admit that I not only contend for Science of Morality, but that we ought to want science to have much to say about morality. What more functional a body of knowledge could we hope to ground our ethics in? The secularization of our ethics and values in correspondence with scientific understandings has been felt tremendously in the last 200 years and it is this practice I hope to ultimately continue23. 21 This bitterness and unwillingness to embrace science as a source of meaning in most cases is explicitly religious. I realize that progressive religious movements embrace the change, but the majority of my opposition are not intellectual theologians and it is to this majority that I am speaking to on this point. 22 Here is where I will add a discussion on the re-visitation of the subjective meaning issue—Is the meaning we put in to an inquiry evident somehow in the answer we get, is the meaning actually in the fact itself or do we interpret and add meaning, etc.. 23 I will provide examples of this in the rewrite.
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Conclusion In conclusion, I hope that this essay has allowed us to reflect on the demanding feat of addressing the hurdles and impacts of the reality of subjectivity has had on our religious, philosophical, and scientific community, acknowledged and described Husserlâ€™s argument for the reconciling of science and the practice of philosophy, and soundly established a basis for looking to science as an ethical voice. It is my hope for the future that the dichotomy of philosophy and science dissolve and that we return to a traditional notion of a broad purview of Philosophy. It seems quite necessary that this occur in order for a Science of Morality to truly be able to continue to grow as a possibility in the future of philosophy ***I want to assure you that I am not allowing for the replacement of philosophy by science. If that is not clear, I hope clarify in the rewrite that I believe that for a Science of Morality or Moral philosophy based on science it is necessary for philosophers to embrace in a dialectic with the scientific community. Scientists may still be unphilosophical, but the philosopher will pull the meaning out of the facts. I love philosophy too much to ever develop a system in which science replaces it.***
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i Cite Husserl and Dr. Rose Notes iiDr. Rose cite
A brief analysis of the intrinsic limitations of subjectivity, the scientific objectification of the natural world, and a revival of a meani...
Published on Sep 6, 2013
A brief analysis of the intrinsic limitations of subjectivity, the scientific objectification of the natural world, and a revival of a meani...