To marry, phenomenology and the natural sciences both have to lose their virginity.
Or, because it is philosophical paper, to make it less biological, both parties have to forgo some of their purity and basic premises. But, the rewards are so big that the proposed cooperation or union has no “if” sign but “how” and “when” (are we ready?- I will return to this sub-question later).
My idol, E.O. Wilson wrote a book about it: Consilience. The Unity of knowledge. 1998. In the endearing preface, he describes himself as a young scientist discovering the evolutionary way of thinking and dreaming about uniting biology, philosophy, and religion. He brings the metaphor of “Ionian Enchantment “ and human ambitious thinking like in the myth of Icarus: “Let us see how high we can fly before the sun melts the wax in our wings”. He says:(p.12)”There has never been a better time for collaboration between scientists and philosophers, especially where they meet in the borderlands between biology, the social sciences, and the humanities.” But he adds and I wholeheartedly disagree;”Philosophy, the contemplation of the unknown, is a shrinking dominion. We have the common goal(?) of turning as much philosophy as possible into science.” Italics and question mark are mine.
“Frequently, the assumption has been that a better understanding of the physical world will allow us to understand consciousness better and rarely, that better understanding of consciousness might allow for better understanding of what it means to be real.” D.Zahavi. Phenomenology and the project of naturalization. (p.336). So, obviously, the natural thinking goes that the major beneficially of the ”phenomenology project of naturalization”- is this branch of philosophy. The more we put the emphasis for the phenomenological discourse of embodiment, the more societal recognition such investigation can obtain and more viable such a curriculum can be in universities. According to Merleau-Ponty, our experience is always “into the world” and through his famous intentional arc, it connects permanently the experience with the experiencing body and with the experienced world. Now, when the experience is dealt with by the psychology, the medicine, the biochemistry or anthropology they talk about different type of sick and healthy bodies while the politics and economics try to tackle “our world” part of the experience. All of them are working disjointly employing distinct paradigms, models, and methods. Phenomenologists point to the naivety and narrow-mindedness of such an approach. Welsh cites Diaprose(1994):” The phenomenological model not only reinstates the dignity of the patient by stressing that the fabric upon which biomedicine works is the self, but also highlights the specificity of that person’s condition, however common that condition may appear to be” and she adds: ”A more phenomenological approach to illness would attempt to view illness in terms of the embodied person’s plans and projects, her relationships, her habits, and her environment.” T. Welsh, Unfit Women: Freedom and Constraint in the Pursuit of Health.(p75).
In my opinion, though the science would benefit from the phenomenological thinking the most. And I think it is not a choice anymore, the cost of ignoring the role of an observer, the cost of unscientific(sic!) paradigm regarding subjectivity and objectivity, these costs are slowing the progress and the shift in thinking is required. It seems that at this time the science world acts like the left brain “interpreter”- if things do not make sense it explains them anyhow using even most weird theories. When you read about “string theory”, the anthropic principle explanations, the description of “the time before Big Bang” or even Nagel’s “how is it like to be a bat”, the concept of the white bearded old man sitting in the clouds looks pretty sensible! It is why professor Nagel calls for a new paradigm, the theoretical physicists clearly need one, also non-human cognition and human preverbal cognition are stuck at the “explanatory gap” (Zahavi).
Phenomenology- au secours! Can it deliver? And what would it say? I think that the study of the evolution of the nervous system will be the great arbiter between phenomenology and the rest of the world. It takes phenomenology to do an excellent job with the boot-strapping ( a la’ baron Munchausen) of looking at our mind with our mind.
It is a little bit easier to look with our mind at “the mind” and the behavior of a primitive organism and assume that the primordial principles of being and sense of reality could not be changed during minute steps of the evolutionary progression. Dan Zahavi talks about the book “Naturalizing Phenomenology” with four co-editors, among them the name of Francisco Varela is very familiar. He would agree, he worked with phenomenologist Evan Thompson and with His Holiness Dalai Lama and he said: “living is making sense”. The book discusses in details different ways the phenomenology could be “naturalized” but, according to Zahavi, none of them are very satisfying or promising. The second part of the project , “Phenomenologizing Natural Science” was never written because Varela died in 2001 and also because that part would have to be more iconoclastic.
Shaun Gallagher keeps trying the same thing in his 2016 chapter in Phenomenology and Science. J. Reynolds, R. Sebold (eds.) Intercorporeity: Enaction, Simulation, and the Science of Social Cognition. The term and the concept of “intercorporeity” comes from Merleau-Ponty and together with “intersubjectivity’ and Husserl’s “reversibility” they are trying to nudge the science to abandon Newtonian “objective world” and accept that of “lived world” where the experiences would create for each person his or her personal, real, world. So it seems that the phenomenology is very close to the bold revision of the subjectivity/objectivity concepts. “They also speak in favor of recasting the very idea of nature, and of the need for modifying our modern conception of objectivity, subjectivity, and knowledge. “ (again, Zahavi, p343).
But science doesn’t seem to be ready to accept this “friendly help”. And not only sciences. It looks (and an insightful book of Adam Frank “About Time” illustrates this splendidly) that the changes in the way we live, our culture, the mores, and fears, they all have to open the door for the next scientific breakthrough. And, as long as we ride the frothy top of the technology wave, there is no chance for the paradigm shift. It would be sad if it took the global environmental catastrophe to find our way into our minds.