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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Scientific vs. Phenomenological Reality

Scientific vs. Phenomenological Reality

By Jim J. McCrea

It is believed by many, that the mathematical means used to model nature, constitute a valid and intrinsically comprehensive means of understanding reality. Religion and religious experience, it is believed, certainly has a place in the modern scheme of things, but it is viewed as a projection of personal meaning onto the life we experience. It is not seen today as statements of and contact with an objective reality.

The modern scientific method of description is mainly quantitative. Reality is reduced to measurement (This is a legacy of Descartes). For example, suppose you were to show a scientist a table and ask him what it essentially is. He would first describe it as a top supported by legs. Both the top and the legs could be described as rectangular solids (These are geometrical entities). In describing the material, he would discuss the various molecular and atomic bonds which exist within the substance of the table. These would be described in terms of bonding angles (a quantity), and electrostatic forces (another quantity). This, in turn, depends on quantum mechanics (reducible to probability). For specific phenomena, reality is reducible to the measurement of a ruler or the reading on a meter. For general phenomena, mathematical formulae are applicable.

Is this view sufficient, or is there something more? To answer this we have to invoke an analytical method known as phenomenology (phenomenology as a method of investigating reality, was developed by the philosopher Edmund Husserl early in the twentieth century). Phenomenology is an analysis of our immediate and pure perceptions of reality, which puts aside all preconceptions about it (you attempt to clear your head of all biases, prejudices, and mental comments on what you see. You perceive things purely and simply). This is fundamental knowledge which precedes all systematic descriptions of reality. In order for an individual to make any statements about reality, he must begin with what his consciousness perceives. Phenomenological reality is precisely that which is perceived by the mind, before any thinking about it takes place in the intellect.

An example may help to clarify this. This example will use the phenomenological method itself. Let us imagine that you are on a camping trip in the north, and let us consider a small time period within that trip:

You are at a point in the day when you decide to build a fire. You feel the air beginning to cool. The trees cast long shadows as the sun begins to set behind the mountain. You see a dead tree which is still standing. You pick up the ax and feel its weight. The application of the ax to the tree has a certain dull sound to the ears and sharp feeling to the hands. After the wood has been cut and the fire started you sit down and relax. The forest is dark now and the air is cold. The fire provides light to the immediate area and warmth to your body. The smell of burning wood hangs in the air.

What can be considered the truth of the camping trip, as it is presented to you? The very truth of the camping trip is what is purely and immediately experienced, as described above - prior to any intellectual analysis (This is provided that the intellect and senses are functioning properly. We must realize that the truth perceived here is not the subjective experience, but the subject's perceiving of an objective reality). This is *primary truth,* which is the phenomenological reality. This involves all five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. It involves our entire body. The intellectual analysis of our experiences (which is science), on the other hand, is *secondary truth* and primarily involves our brain. It is called secondary truth because it is derived from primary truth. Phenomenological truth is knowledge of reality, while scientific truth is knowledge about reality. Scientific knowledge, in general, consists of superficial featuresabstracted from phenomenological knowledge. Mathematical modeling is so useful for understanding reality because a large number of physical phenomena have features which closely approximate mathematical forms (Aristotle mentions this in his Physics).

Another example may help to clarify this principle. Suppose an engineer is to model an electronic circuit. A very simple model is initially chosen. Resistors are modeled with current proportional to voltage, and capacitors are modeled with current proportional to the derivative of voltage with respect to time. All the other components are modeled with such simple relations. The equations roughly approximate the behavior of the circuit. The modeling may be improved by considering non-linear effects within the resistors and parasitic effects within the capacitors. The model may be improved still further by considering electromagnetic effects between components.

The point is, no matter how refined the modeling process becomes, the full essence of the reality of the circuit board escapes the modeling methodology. This is because while the board is considered in more and more detail, the methodology is simply the consideration of superficial features derived from its phenomenological being. These aspects may be likened to a wire frame which approximates the outline of an object. The frame may be constructed in more and more detail, but the outline of an object never amounts to the object itself. The real "stuff" which fills these frames is its phenomenological reality. This is the real being, of which scientific reality is merely an approximate description. This is why metaphysics is required, in addition to the particular sciences which describe the universe. If the quantitative sciences alone were sufficient, all that would be real would be abstract measurements, with no actually existing things that they would apply to.

Although the true reality of the object is not contained within these mathematical forms (since these forms are mere abstractions from reality), these forms are still necessary for the understanding of material reality. They stand to phenomenological being as a skeleton stands to a living creature. They give phenomenological being its structure.

The conclusion is, we need not invoke religious faith directly (as a starting point) to understand the existence of a reality which transcends the empirical scientific method of thought. As explained above, such a reality is immediately present to our natural perceptions. If reality (as has been shown) is not confined to the scientific/mathematical mode of understanding, it may also be possible to infer the existence of levels of being above the level of phenomenological reality we have discussed (The deadlock of reality being confined to the traditional materialistic scientific mold is broken). By further analysis, the existence of a non-material soul may be inferred, as well as the existence of a supreme being. This would establish the validity of religious faith, which in essence, consists of statements about and contact with an objective reality.