Patterns Within Experience: the Phenomenological Approach to Science

* Phenomenology

* The Phenomenlogical Approach to Science

* Science and physics.

* "Phenomenological" physics.

* Operationalism and phenomenology.

* Hume's problem.

* Patterns and prediction.

* Universality and particularity.


Roughly speaking, phenomenology is a philosophical approach which
studies common features of human consciousness while remaining
non-committal about what is "outside" consciousness. It is very broadly
related to metaphysical idealism and scepticism. It differs from the
stronger versions of scepticism by not going so far as to deny a world
outside consciousness. It differs from the stronger versions of
idealism in its insistence on studying common features of multiple
consciousnesses, thus avoiding, if by fiat, consciousness.

The Phenomenlogy Approach to Science

The Phenomenological Approach to Science consists of a number of claims
which are not always distinguished by the proponent of phenomenalism:
* Science can be done in a phenomenological way

* Science is done in a phenomenological way

* Science should be done in a phenomenological way

Science and physics.

The idea that science should be non-committal about the existence of
its objects of investigation would come as quite a surprise to the
average geologist or botanists. Phenomenalism in science is realyabout
physics, since the existence of quarks or magnetic fields is so much
more deniable -- at least dubitable -- than the existence of rocks or

"Phenomenological" physics.

There is a certain kind of procedure in physics which is called
"Phenomenological". It consists of finding a pattern within data
without -- for the time being -- relating it to any deeper laws or
principles. This is at least analogous to what phenomenologists want.
It is perhaps not the same thing, because it deals with
instrument-readings, not literal phenomena, ie conscious experiences --
see Operationalism and phenomenology.
The other issue is that this procedure is very much second-best within
physics. The establishment of a "Phenomenological" pattern is regarded
as only a prelude to the job finding a deep theoretical interpretation
(see Hume's problem).

Operationalism and phenomenology.

Operationalism is the idea that the content of a scientific theory goes
no further than operations and measurements that can be performed with
laboratory approach to science that is at least parallel
to phenomenology. Like phenomenology it eschews "deep" explanations,
and seems considerably more applicable to physics than to the special
sciences. At a pinch, an electron might be a bundle of
instrument-readings, but a bacterium is hardly a microscope!

Hume's problem.

Hume's critique of causality hinges on the unobservability of causes as
such. Realism supposes that causes exist but are unobservable, like the
magnetic field that causes iron filings to form a pattern. Strict
empiricism and phenomenalism have little option but to reject
causality. Phenomenalism does so quite explicitly with its stated
preference for "description" over causal explanation.
But is science illegitimate in positing causes? Hume's arguemnt really
has bite when dealing with necessary connections between events. The
explanatory mechanisms posited by scientific realism are always
revisable, so apriori necessity is not asserted.

Patterns and prediction.

The revisability of scientific theories -- along with their
confirmability and their falsifiability - -all depend on their ability
to predict. The phenomenalist's substitute for prediction is pattern.
But the mere fact that a pattern of experience has held in the past in
no guarantee that it will continue to hold in the future. Of course, a
phemomenalist scientist can go through the same motions of
theory-confirmation as a realist physicist, she just can't give an
account of why prediction works when it works, because she is not
confirming anything beyond the data itself. Rather than saying "the
Higgs Boson exists", she is saying something like "the Higgs pattern
has held up to now. This is relevant to the question of whether science
(or at least physics) should adopt the phenomenological approach. It
cannot do so without changing anything. What is changed is that a
certain kind of explanatory understanding, the ability to answer "why"
questions, has to be foregone.
Most scientists see themselves in the business of explaining and
understanding, and so prefer realism to phenomenalism.

I suppose the phenomenologist could still mount an argument to the
effect that science should adopt phenomenalism because science should
abandon explantory understanding. But explanatory understanding is
evidently a good thing. The phenomenlogist presumably thinks abandoning
it would lead to a better thing. The main candidate seems to be
enhanced autonomy and significance for areas other than science.

Universality and particularity.

We are beginning to see how the particularism of phenomenology connects
up with its preference for shallow explanation. The point of
explanation is to link data together in a causal framework. Hume's
problem shows that causality must be found in "depth", so abandoning
depth amounts to abandoning explanation. It seems, then, that
preserving the autonomy of non-scientific fields is the ultimate
motivation of phenomenology. For instance, Creatonism and evolution are
just different patterns in experience with no ultimate truth behind
them. This rescues creationism from being disproved by science, without
giving it (or anything else) the status it really wants -- that of
being actually true. Having rejected "depth", and therefore, too a
large extent, explanation itself, phenomenology is in an awkward
position when it comes to promoting itself. It cannot claim to be a
better theory when it is not really in the business the theories are
in, the business of explanation. This is an instance of the problem of
self-refutation which affects all sceptical approaches to some extent.

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