Saturday, April 26, 2008

The problems with phenomenology

Sorry about the lack of posts for a week. I've been under stress.

In philosophy club Saturday, we discussed whether the scientific method was a method which produces most truth.

I argued that it was about the best thing we've got, and we can't understand what it's like to be anything else - for example, to use the classic philosophy of mind example, we can't understand what it is like to be a bat . We cannot echolocate, we do not have very good hearing, and we cannot fly.

Phenomenology examines first-person experiences. I think phenomenology is going to be stuck between what we learn of consciousness in the next decades and the fact that you cannot reproduce an individual's experience because it is so complex at the moment. We have a limited ability to reason logically which is constrained by our perceptions.

So can we in fact know what it's like to be a bat? Well, there are two factors in this:

- the bat's neurological milieus
- the bat's experiences

Generalizing from one bat to all bats is dangerous; there are different species of bats, and each one has different abilities. For example, a hawknose bat does not know what a vampire bat's perception of blood is, and within species, I suspect one bat does not know how exquisitely satisfying another bat's recent meals were.

The research by Tristan Bekinschtein, whose work I have cited before in this blog, deals with consciousness in patients with 'disorders of consciousness' - dementia, PVS and Alzheimer's. His research seems to suggest that there are significant impairments in affective cognition and theory of mind in such individuals (for those of you who don't know what theory of mind is, here is a Wikipedia article that describes it extremely well.)

This does not seem to mesh with how philosophers define consciousness, though, which is to say, they don't limit it to simple awareness of the self and of one's environment.

Subjective experience, by definition, is how we perceive a thing. Now, in my studies of neuroscience, our perception of something first goes through our sensory system. To use a complex example from my own experiences, say you are at a party, you are sober, and you are sitting next to someone who is drinking a beer. Your senses are not impaired, so you perceive the situation as accurately as possible. You smell the alcohol, see the color of the bottle, and see the person who is drinking it. The visual, olfactory, auditory, tactile, possibly gustatory, proprioceptive, nociceptive, and thermoceptive aspects of the situation all trigger certain responses in your sensory system. These varied responses are compared to your previous experiences, whether you have experienced it firsthand or heard about it.

You know, I think this can be best summed up in one angry sentence: Philosophy uninformed by science is sophistry.

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2 comments:

Pete Rooke said...

Science uninformed by religion is sophistry.

Kind regards,

Pete Rooke

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