Existentialism as science?

This post is a result of considering the comments from my previous post.

Perhaps with the aid of some thoughtful comments by my readers I’ll be more able to quickly clean this draft up into something coherent.

If there is any philosophy that can eventually be scientifically proven, existentialism appears to be it. One of the primary tenets of existentialism is that human experience and all things meaningful are inherently subjective. The limits of human knowledge can easily be demonstrated. So at least in a general sense, subjectivity can be shown as part of the human condition by that observation.

One’s understanding of truth and meaning can likewise be shown as subjective assuming neuroscientists eventually pinpoint how these ideas are constructed in the brain. This is not to assert that truth and meaning cannot transcend subjective experience, but that the intrinsic subjectivity of humanity necessitates equally subjective ideas. Thus, any absolute or transcendental truths are outside the scope of human understanding and verifiability. Even scientific objectivity is ultimately subjective in the sense that it’s always relative to human experience.

Science depends on the validity of the observer. Studying the observer has the power to validate science itself by showing that observable reality is superior to other possible realities because it is the only reality we experience. It is ‘superior’ in a subjective sense as that’s the only sense we have. Perhaps to an absolute being, absolute reality is superior. However, we are not absolute beings.

Scientists can verify a fact with rigorous, peer-reviewed experiments. Philosophers can question the nature and scope of that fact, but my argument is that such questioning is pointless. The only reality we experience is the reality we observe. It follows that the only truth we experience is the truth we observe. What purpose do truths outside our experience serve? And if we cannot observe them, how can we possibly know or understand them?

In a sense, existentialism is like a philosophical version of Einstein’s relativity. The only truth we can know is relative truth. We are our own frame of reference. And although we can imagine what it’s like to see things from another point of view, we must always compare and contrast with our own perceptions in the end.

Agreement with others does not make a perception more likely to be absolute. It only shows a likeness in observational capacity with members of our kind. We could all be dreaming the same dream, and in absolute terms, all truth would be illusion. But that’s irrelevant. What we experience is real because it’s what we experience. Reality’s nature is beyond observation and is consequently beyond human knowledge and significance.

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “Existentialism as science?

  1. “Scientists can verify a fact with rigorous, peer-reviewed experiments. Philosophers can question the nature and scope of that fact, but my argument is that such questioning is pointless. The only reality we experience is the reality we observe. It follows that the only truth we experience is the truth we observe. What purpose do truths outside our experience serve? And if we cannot observe them, how can we possibly know or understand them?”

    Exactly, that’s basically what I’ve been arguing in the comments over here: http://bdkeller.wordpress.com/2006/11/26/two-types-of-people-in-the-world/
    But we seem to come to different conclusions after that. While knowledge based on observation is ultimately subjective according to philosophical criticism, it is the most objective knowledge that we have, so when multiple people observe the same thing using rigorous procedures, it seems that that is more likely to represent a preexistent objective reality than a single observation or thought by an obviously subjective individual.

  2. Your conclusion makes sense to a degree. Scientific objectivity demonstrates a consistency in observed reality, which is why I personally trust scientific fact. In this case, if it’s true for others, it’s most likely true for me. However, the significance of a fact and the decision to believe it in the first place is of greater importance to any given individual and is always a subjective matter. Subjectivity precedes objectivity because it is only the observer who can acknowledge and give meaning to an observation, regardless of the ultimate reality of that observation.

    Let me try to express this another way.

    […] when multiple people observe the same thing using rigorous procedures, it seems that that is more likely to represent a preexistent objective reality than a single observation or thought by an obviously subjective individual.

    It seems more likely to whom? For someone who strictly believes in science, yes, it seems more likely that such observations reveal an objective reality. But for someone else it’s possible only a single subjective observation is enough to be convincing, or in cases such as religious belief, observation can be entirely absent. Who’s method is ultimately correct? That appears to be a matter of opinion. You can’t prove any amount of observation to be truth-revealing without first assuming the validity of observation itself. All systems are self-validating.

    Personally, I do assume the validity of observation. Science and its objective claims follow from that assumption. My point is that it is one’s initial assumption which is subjective and paramount.

    I read through the link you sent, and for the most part I agree with your views. I’ll be sure to leave a comment of my own when I have more time.

  3. 1. Is showing that subjectivity is *part* of the human condition equivalent to showing that there are limits to human understanding? If one assumes that there are degrees of objectivity (Nagel) then it is not clear what is meant by *inherently* subjective. Exclusively? As in *only* subjective?
    As the sufis say: the water takes on the shape of the container but still remains water…

    “assuming neuroscientists” That’s assuming a lot! And would the ‘truth’ of the neuroscientists claims about the inherent subjectivity of thought also apply to their claims?

    if science itself is *ultimately* subjective how can it *show* anything?

    I’m not sure about the observer bit. The observer can be a machine can’t it?

    so, if we observe people believing in God , if for them that is an ‘experience’, does it follow that there is a truth there?

    Even if we cannot know other levels of reality (fully) does it follow that they are impossible or do not exist (which I think was your initial contention)? Religion has always, as far as I know, made a distinction between creation of the Names that can be known and a divine essence that remains inscrutable, unknowable.

    Because something is beyond knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean that it is beyond significance in my opinion. As Iris Murdoch once said: we intuit unity and fill in the details later. If by knowledge you mean scientifically verified knowledge the aren’t we already talkign about a limitation? . I mean, one has to *assume* that religion offers no knowledge because one has on a priori grounds ruled out that type of knowledge.

    what we experience is real. Maybe. Given that you earlier said it might all be an illusion I’m not sure what you’re saying here. But is that the same thing as saying that what we do not experience is not real?

  4. I think I may be misusing the words “subjective” and “objective.” Or at least I should better define them before carrying on with that part of the conversation. Wikipedia explains how objectivity is a complicated subject in philosophy:

    Objectivity has various meanings in philosophy, and is surely one of the most important philosophical problems, since it concerns the epistemological status of knowledge, the notion of objective reality and the question of our subjective relationship to other objects in the world.

    However, “In science, objectivity is usually considered as the result of the observance of the scientific method by the scientific community, including debate and agreement on certain paradigms.”

    When I said scientific objectivity is ultimately subjective, I was using “subjective” in a philosophical sense. I should rephrase a few sentences in my post to avoid confusion.

    And would the ‘truth’ of the neuroscientists claims about the inherent subjectivity of thought also apply to their claims?

    Yes. But I’m arguing that all knowable truth is subjective (in the philosophical sense) and that therefore subjective truth is perfectly adequate.

    if science itself is *ultimately* subjective how can it *show* anything?

    I would respond as I did to the last question. But I would also add that, subjective or objective, it really doesn’t matter. Science shows us truths about the reality we experience.

    The observer can be a machine can’t it?

    Observations still need to come back to a sentient being for them to have any meaning.

    so, if we observe people believing in God , if for them that is an ‘experience’, does it follow that there is a truth there?

    Yes. The truth is that people believe in God. They experience an idea which they’ve labeled “God.” Recognize, however, that it’s only an idea that they’re experiencing. How can I be sure of that? Because of the claims people make about God, e.g. that He created the universe and is omniscient. People are only witnessing the idea of these powers, not the powers themselves.

    Even if we cannot know other levels of reality (fully) does it follow that they are impossible or do not exist?

    Anything’s possible. But we naive beings can only know so much. The best we can do when it comes to things outside observable reality is to speculate. But there is no way to come to any conclusions as there are countless possibilities. So I ask, what’s the point to that? And why place significance on what is ultimately speculation? Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.

    Because something is beyond knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean that it is beyond significance in my opinion.

    How can something be significant to one if one doesn’t know about it? Sure, there may be all sorts of factors beyond my knowledge that affect my life. And in that sense, they’re significant. But they’re not significant in the sense that there’s nothing to be gained by pondering things I can’t know.

    One has to *assume* that religion offers no knowledge because one has on a priori grounds ruled out that type of knowledge.

    Maybe religion does offer knowledge. But which one is correct? I’ve given no credit to religion because I can’t tell which religion to give credit to! I don’t have to assume anything. On the contrary, aren’t believers the one’s who are assuming?

    But is that the same thing as saying that what we do not experience is not real?

    What we do not experience is irrelevant because we do not experience it. If we don’t experience something, it’s beyond our reach, beyond our reality, and beyond our knowing. Whatever the nature of what we do experience, I label it “reality” because it’s all we can ever observe and know. Again, anything beyond that reality we can only speculate about.

    Now I feel like I’m the one who’s being confrontational! I’m not as certain as I might sound. I’m only playing with ideas and seeing where they lead if I assume they’re true. That’s to be expected in philosophical argument, I suppose. But it’s been a long time since I’ve had anyone to converse with!

    Excellent points and questions, Khalid. I imagine I will be considering them for quite some time.

  5. All I can say is that we need to think carefully about the phrase “experience an idea” and whether even such a thing is possible in a scientific outlook (unless, of course, we do away with common language and words like ‘idea’ that express an inner experience ..science can only limit iteself to the outer boundaries of thought, its mainfestations or , even though it is absurd, reduce thought to *nothing but* a mechanical process)

    I feel you’re going down the same line as Enlightenment thinkers : religion or God is essentially an “idea”? Well, the “experience” of people throughout history has not been that. So, either one says that they have all been delusional -and one wonders how modern man has escaped this delusion!-or one recognizes that one’s approach can say nothing about religion. No wonder the enlightenment turned to ridicule!

    “labeled” an idea ‘God’. Oh dear, more nominalism! :)

    “What’s the point of that”. We do not “know” lots of things but they are valuable to our ways of life: art, poetry, love, friendship are not known but understood. I sometimes wonder if the modern west’s inability to face the unknown is what drives his/her restless mind to reduce everything to what can be known, to its own terms of self-understanding. [I think Levinas called this a defence mechanism of bourgeois man].

    For us it is an article of faith to believe in the ‘ghayb’ (hidden)

    “nothing to be gained”…Well, there goes 10,000 years of mystical specualtion!:)
    Jason, we can always ponder over things that we may not fully know or ever fully know. Desert theology is a way, a direction ….

    your last para made a lot of sense and I need to think about it. I think the root of our difference is this: religion says what is beyond our current reality is more real and the aim of it is to widen and deepen our experience. Revelation itself -the fact of it and the content of it-establishes a link,a relationship , between these different levels. It is a ‘sending down’ and a ladder’. [of course, through science and love and art there is also a move out of subjectivity.. i take on board your acute point that subjectivity is not thereby ‘annihilated’ (to use a muslim term)]

    What is beyond our knowing is not necessarily beyond our understanding or something that does not have meaning. I fear this is the legacy of Kant: faith must be ‘blind’..how well we would do to remmeber Anselm: I believe in order to understand, I do not understand in order to believe. The moderns have succeeded in separating reason from faith. The Pope was right on this, if little esle in his recent speech. (I haven’t said ‘Protestants’ have succeeded just in case Brad is reading this!)

    No, not confrontational at all Jason. I haven’t studied philosophy and so the level of my response is therefore quite poor. Apologies.

    Salaams,

    K.

  6. Your distinction between philosophical and scientific objectivity is helpful. I think I tend to use objectivity in the scientific sense more often than objectivity in the philosophical sense. I mean, what’s the sense in calling something philosophically subjective if objectivity is impossible? If everything is subjective, then there’s no reason to label them as either ‘subjective’ or ‘objective’. I guess I’m just a bit too pragmattic and prefer the scientific one. I’ll chock it up to my lousy (i.e., nonexistent) philosophy education at Harding…

  7. Jason: Yes. The truth is that people believe in God. They experience an idea which they’ve labeled “God.” Recognize, however, that it’s only an idea that they’re experiencing. How can I be sure of that? Because of the claims people make about God, e.g. that He created the universe and is omniscient. People are only witnessing the idea of these powers, not the powers themselves.

    Khalid: I feel you’re going down the same line as Enlightenment thinkers : religion or God is essentially an “idea”? Well, the “experience” of people throughout history has not been that. So, either one says that they have all been delusional -and one wonders how modern man has escaped this delusion!-or one recognizes that one’s approach can say nothing about religion. No wonder the enlightenment turned to ridicule!

    Hmmm…
    Methinks that Jason’s utterance of “idea” was not clearly defined. “Idea”, as both of you know is a painfully polysemous word – just take a look at websters:

    1 a : a transcendent entity that is a real pattern of which existing things are imperfect representations b : a standard of perfection : IDEAL c : a plan for action : DESIGN
    2 archaic : a visible representation of a conception : a replica of a pattern
    3 a obsolete : an image recalled by memory b : an indefinite or unformed conception c : an entity (as a thought, concept, sensation, or image) actually or potentially present to consciousness
    4 : a formulated thought or opinion
    5 : whatever is known or supposed about something
    6 : the central meaning or chief end of a particular action or situation
    7 Christian Science : an image in Mind

    Before ridiculing the enlightenment and its legacies, maybe Khalid needs a clearer definition of “idea” in relation to this discussion.

  8. Brad, thanks for your input. Maybe you are right. I think Jason was quite clear-but I may be wrong- when he said that people have an ‘idea’ and then put a label to it calling that idea “God”.
    For me, that sounds like God (or religion) is a mental phenomenon. I may be misreading him -in which case apologies.

    As for ridiculing the Enlightenment: I don’t think I’ve said anything that would indicate that. To criticise its perspective and its implications with regard religion is not, in my opinion, to “ridicule” it. In my post I have tried (not very clearly, admittedly) to give my *reasons* for my position and so that can hardly be construed as ridicule.

    It is possible to think that the enlightenment or, more accurately, parts of it, was about “immanence” and “totality”. Whether one agrees with that or not is a secondary issue…but it is certainly a position that can be *argued*. No?

    Anyway, the point I was making about the Enlightenment ridiculing religion was made by Leo Strauss in his book, Philosophy and Law.

    In your definitions it seems to me that “idea” in 1.a) is really Realism. When he says “that is *only * an idea they are experiencing (my emphasis) I think one gets the distinct impression that Jason is thinking more along the lines of 4.

  9. I meant “idea” as a mental concept about a possible reality—an imagining or thought. I wanted to illustrate that an experience of God is always indirect. One first has an experience, then associates it with or identifies it as “God.” This process is prone to error, especially since it assumes the existence of God prior to the experience.

    Another way to look at it is this. If we humans haven’t experienced or observed omniscience or omnipotence, we must have imagined them. All thoughts have a source. If not from outside reality, they must come from our own minds.

    That’s an over-simplification however, as it neglects the fact that thoughts are communicated. What I see are divine concepts being passed from person to person. The assumption is that one or more people originally observed God or His powers, such as the authors and certain characters of the Bible. Faith in God is really faith in the idea of God as described and passed on by others.

    art, poetry, love, friendship are not known but understood.

    Again, I’d argue that all these things can be explained scientifically and therefore can be known. But I’m not sure what you mean when you differentiate knowledge and understanding.

    I sometimes wonder if the modern west’s inability to face the unknown is what drives his/her restless mind to reduce everything to what can be known

    It makes sense to embrace only that which we know and to discover what we can about what was previously unknown. What remains is vague and useless uncertainty.

    “nothing to be gained”…Well, there goes 10,000 years of mystical specualtion!

    Just trying to trim the fat :)

    we can always ponder over things that we may not fully know or ever fully know.

    Of course we can. But does it accomplish anything more than mental masturbation?

    religion says what is beyond our current reality is more real and the aim of it is to widen and deepen our experience.

    Much of philosophy and spirituality say the same. I understand the concept. But consider someone in my position who has no spiritual or philosophical preference to indicate what is beyond observable reality. On what basis do I decide what to consider or believe? There are infinite possibilities and not one of them stands out as being more likely or reasonable than the others. I want to know what’s “out there.” I honestly do. But I can’t. And I’m learning to accept that.

    There’s no need for apologies, Khalid. Your responses are expressed prefectly well. Besides, I haven’t studied philosophy either!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s