17 January 2009

Existential Musings, I

Part of the course requirements for Existentialism is that we keep a journal of thoughts that occur to us as we're reading at least some of the texts. I have a funny feeling that I'm going to have to do a lot of cutting and pasting, as he wanted about 20 pages, double-spaced, and after reading half of one article, I've got 2.25 pages, single spaced, so about 4.5 double-spaced.

The reading consisted of selections from Husserl's Paris Lecture, and the first part was pages 2 through 10 as available on google-books. Interestingly, he advised that we not read both sections in one sitting, which I found odd, as the first part wasn't that difficult a read (much easier than Quine, for instance, or Heidegger, who was one of Husserl's students). Anyway, my random musings are below the fold. Mostly I just noted a quote of interest and typed "out loud" about it.

“absolute foundation for knowledge” … What does “absolute” mean? Unable to be doubted? Certain? Perfect? I don’t know. And I don’t think that it is necessary. What is necessary is that all presuppositions accompanying a supposed piece of knowledge be examined and brought to light. If one is found wanting, then the piece of “knowledge” must be re-examined, to see if it can survive without that particular presupposition. Quine realized that even things which are considered known truths based on their meanings alone could be called into question. A qualifier is needed: given a particular set of definitions and an understood grammar, certain statements are known truths based on the definitions and the grammar.

“It is the spirit of science to count nothing as really scientific which cannot be fully justified by the evidence.” In one sense, yes… in another, absolutely not. Nothing in science is ever considered to be “fully justified”. There is always room for doubt, always room for the possibility that new evidence may arise and force us to throw out the old conclusion. Still, it is true that evidence must exist that supports the scientific hypothesis, and that the more evidence that exists in harmony with the hypothesis, the more confident we are in that hypothesis. But we always must leave room for the possibility that we’ve missed something. “fully justified” implies that it is certain and settled, that there is no room for doubt; i.e. we’re back to “absolute.”

“we, the beginning philosophers, make it a rule to judge only by the evidence.” What counts as evidence? Are thought-experiments “evidence” or merely suggestive? Are subjective experiences evidence, or must there exist others who can confirm X for it to count as evidence? In general in science, “evidence” must be equally available to all, in the sense that anyone with the same equipment and the same test subject would get the same results. If everyone gets different results, that, too, is evidence, but now the differences need to be explained before the results can mean anything.

“We can no longer say that the world is real — a belief that is natural enough in our ordinary experience — instead, it merely makes a claim to reality.” If the world makes a claim, then it presumably must exist to make the claim. So can things exist without actually being real? Presumably this is where Husserl gets the reality of the phenomena: they make a claim to reality on him, so the phenomena themselves must exist, whatever their correct interpretation must be. Sidetrack: Hallucinations also make a claim to reality. They also are phenomena. Can we label them as having the same degree of reality as other phenomena? Generally there is something that is observable going on in the brain/blood chemistry to cause the hallucination, but it must be measured by a machine, almost certainly operated by someone not experiencing the hallucination. Supposing that the hallucinatory is so far gone that he/she is unaware of the machine and cannot observe its results, would the hallucination then be real to that person and the machine not? Is there an observer-independent reality? Husserl’s early comments about science notwithstanding, the lack of an at least mostly observer-independent reality would render science useless.

“On the contrary, it is precisely the phonomena themselves which, without excption, render possible for me the very existence of both reality and appearance.” If the observed phenomena are all that is real, how is it meaningful to distinguish between reality and appearance? And in the same paragraph, “I no longer judge regarding the distinction between reality and appearance.”

“I must similarly abstain from any other of my opinions judgments, and valuations of the world.” Is not the decision to abstain also a phenomenon? Is not the decision to adopt a phenomenological framework also a phenomenon?

“ubiquitous detachment from any point of view regarding the objective world” also a phenomenon. Also implies that there is an objective world which might differ from the phenomena. Something in all this strikes me as circular. It’s one thing to decide to take all observed phenomena at face value, and just examine them. It’s another to claim that this is in any way detached.

“Everything in the world, all spatio-temporal being, exists for me because I experience it, because I perceive it, remember it, think of it in any way, judge it, value it, desire it, etc.” (emph. mine) Then would we say that if I experience the sight of a dragon in my living room, which no one else reports, that dragon is real for me? I would say yes, but I’m not sure that’s particularly helpful in coming up with a basis for knowledge, as Husserl seems to want to do.

“I cannot live, experience, think, value, and act in any world which is not in some sense in me, and derives its meaning and truth from me.” Seems to presuppose that the phenomena are all that exist, and so whatever meaning they induce in the one experiencing them is automatically true. Thus he has exchanged an assumption of an external world for the assumption of a solely internal one. Yes, the internal world must be considered, but it seems vacuous to allow it to be the sole world, and to allow that all truth depends on the person experiencing…whatever. It seems to be advocating an extreme form of relativism.

“I do not exist as a human being … But through all this I have discovered my true self. I have discovered that I alone am the pure ego, with pure existence and pure capacities.” I suspect part of the problem here is the simple limitations on language for discussing these ideas, but what is the ‘I’ of which he writes? He identifies it with himself, but is there really an ‘I’? Is there really an ‘ego’? If there is no ‘I’, how can ‘I’ be the pure ego? I think what he means to say is that the ‘I’ goes away when it is sought, and seems to expand into pure existence. (could also be a translation issue)

“Consciousness is always consciousness of something.” Agreed. But isn’t consciousness itself a phenomenon? Likewise, consciousness of consciousness being a phenomenon, is itself a phenomenon.

“the concrete contents of experience, precisely as these are experienced” Oh, good. Concrete. Another synonym for absolute. This passage also presupposes the existence of adequate language for describing experience, and the existence of adequate memory of said experience and the existence of adequate processing power so that every aspect of the experience can be held in awareness. Recent research indicates that when we remember something, our memory of it will change. Our brains function on the “Save As” modality.


Irving said...

Hahaha, I have an MA in Philosophy, and know this kind of circular thinking can drive you crazy lol.

The human mind constructs its own points of reference, as in Husserl's Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness, and loves absolutes that give it an anchor. Einstein pretty much ruined that, but they still tend to think that way, using loaded words that actually mean absolutes.

Good luck in your studies :)

Qalmlea said...

Yeah, the funny thing is that I actually agreed with most of what Husserl was trying to say (at least, with what I thought he was trying to say), but my natural inclination is to argue, and look for the parts that bother me.

It also seems slightly odd to be looking for the "absolute" basis of knowledge in one's subjective experience of the phenomena. I can see what led him down that path—the phenomena he experiences he can at least be certain that he experiences—but I just don't see that as forming the basis of all knowledge. I can see it as a starting point, but not the starting point.