Phenomenal evidence

Rejecting externalism

What do we mean when we talk of evidence and knowledge? Do we necessarily mean something outside ourselves? Or could we ground the concepts in our own experiences? Philipp Berghofer explains what a phenomenological account of evidence will look like. 

Certainly, there is a lot we know about ourselves, the world we live in, and abstract objects. I know I like Star Wars, that there are several books in front of me on my desk, and that 2 + 3 = 5., It’s also uncontroversial that human knowledge is fallible. I can fall prey to optical illusions, I regularly miscalculate, and sometimes, sadly, I even err about my own beliefs and desires. What’s more, people can be systematically manipulated into adopting false beliefs and abandoning truth and reason. Philosophers like thought experiments, like contemplating the idea of an evil demon who systematically deceives some poor soul. Even scarier, perhaps, is the idea of an old friend or kind relative getting lost in conspiracy theories, becoming insensitive to any criticism, counter-evidence, or scientific results. For many of us, this is no thought experiment but reality.

What are our sources of knowledge? Why are they fallible? What strategies can we implement to best avoid being deceived and manipulated? These are questions as old as philosophy but as relevant as ever. Often people seem to think that if a question is old but remains unanswered, there has been no significant progress towards answering this question. This is not true. Consider physics. One question as old as physics is: What are the most fundamental objects of physical reality? Even today there is no consensus in the physics community. Is it elementary particles, quantum fields, strings, or something entirely different? Is there even a most fundamental level of physical reality? We don’t know.

We may not know the answer, we certainly do not agree on one, but over the course of history, we abandoned ideas and approaches that turned out to be problematic.

But surely there has been progress in physics. Physical theories that turned out to be inconsistent with increasingly sophisticated empirical evidence and experiments have been abandoned and replaced by more refined (and dare I say, more accurate) theories. Something similar is true for many philosophical questions. We may not know the answer, we certainly do not agree on one, but over the course of history, we abandoned ideas and approaches that turned out to be problematic in the light of our increasingly sophisticated intuitions, understanding of the world, and logical and conceptual tools and replaced them with more refined (and dare I say, more promising) ones.

In this article, I address this age-old topic of sources of knowledge and the nature of evidence. I do so from the perspective of phenomenology. By “phenomenology” I refer to the philosophical tradition inaugurated by Edmund Husserl at the beginning of the 20th century. Often the phenomenological tradition is contrasted with the currently dominant so-called analytic tradition. However, just as philosophers in the analytic tradition significantly differ concerning their respective views, methods, and styles, the phenomenological tradition is not one entirely uniform movement. Broadly speaking, phenomenology is primarily concerned with the structures of consciousness, employs a descriptive, first-person methodology, emphasizes the interrelatedness of subject and world, and considers the various types of experiences as our primary justifiers. Furthermore, special emphasis is put on the intentionality (directedness) of consciousness which is identified as an essential feature of consciousness. In what follows, I am concerned with Husserlian phenomenology, i.e., phenomenology in the spirit of Edmund Husserl.

Husserlian phenomenology is an ambitious project. Husserl not only wants to establish phenomenology as a science among others, but phenomenology is also and more importantly intended to be the ultimate science. Roughly, this means that for any science, indeed for any piece of knowledge, phenomenology must be capable of elucidating the legitimacy of this science/piece of knowledge. But how can phenomenology, the science of the structures of consciousness, serve as the ultimate science? How can phenomenology epistemically ground all the sciences?

Phenomenology seeks to clarify why certain experiences are sources of knowledge and epistemic justification. What gives them their justificatory force?

Here the basic idea is that every piece of knowledge can be traced back to epistemically foundational experiences. Our perceptual experiences, for instance, are our points of interaction with the physical world. Our acts of seeing, hearing, touching, etc. provide us with justification concerning our beliefs about our immediate environment. Based on our experiences, via mathematical models and reasoning, we have learned to establish scientific theories such that our knowledge of the physical world is not limited to our immediate environment; instead, we can make sophisticated predictions about future events and can reconstruct past events. Importantly, however, even our most sophisticated scientific theories are based on our experiences, and ultimately must conform to our experiences (e.g., must be in accordance with our observations and measurements).

A similar story can be told with respect to mathematics. No matter how complex our mathematical theorems have become, they are epistemically grounded in mathematical intuitions such as “1 + 1 = 2.” Here I consider a mathematical intuition to be a type of experience. The term “experiences” is understood in the broad sense of mental states that (re-)present their objects or contents in a phenomenologically distinctive way. This includes perceptual experiences, introspective experiences, mathematical intuitions, etc. Different types of experiences differ in what types of objects/contents they present and how they present them. Visual experiences present physical objects as bodily present. Mathematical intuitions present mathematical propositions as necessarily true. Every scientific endeavor, in this sense, originates from epistemically foundational experiences. Providing the phenomenological-epistemological foundations of an individual science, then, means to analyze which experiences are involved and which role they play in the practice and reasoning of the respective science.

Finally, phenomenology seeks to clarify why certain experiences are sources of knowledge and epistemic justification. What gives them their justificatory force? When you believe, imagine, or hope that there is a table in the next room, these mental states or experiences cannot justify the belief that there is a table in the next room. But when you go and check and see the table, this perceptual experience does the job. So what is it that perceptual experiences have and that mental states such as beliefs, imaginings, and wishful thinking lack?

Experiences that exhibit a presentive phenomenal character are our sources of knowledge and they also constitute our ultimate evidence.

As mentioned above, phenomenology employs a descriptive, first-person methodology. This implies that when we phenomenologically investigate a certain type of experience, we are not concerned with external factors such as light conditions, wave-lengths, or brain states. Instead, we want to know what it means for the subject to undergo such an experience. Fittingly, a phenomenological approach to experiential justification (i.e., justification provided by experiences) locates an experience’s justificatory force within its phenomenal character. An experience’s phenomenal character denotes the what-it-is-like character to undergo the experience. For instance, when visually experiencing an apple tree in your garden, there is something it is like to undergo this tree experience. A tree with green leaves and red apples is presented to you within experience and there is a clear phenomenal contrast between visually experiencing an apple tree and imagining or wishfully thinking about an apple tree.

Returning to our question as to what perceptual experiences have and what mental states such as beliefs and wishful thinking lack that qualifies perceptual experiences as sources of knowledge, we say that perceptual experiences have a presentive phenomenal character. Your belief that there is a tree with green leaves and red apples in your garden is directed at your tree, it represents your tree, but it does not present the tree to you. By contrast, your perceptual experience presents the tree as immediately given, as bodily present. Similarly, introspective experiences and mathematical intuitions also possess a presentive phenomenal character.

Concerning our topic of sources of knowledge and evidence, we can summarize our phenomenological approach as follows: Experiences that exhibit a presentive phenomenal character are our sources of knowledge and they also constitute our ultimate evidence. Husserl called such experiences “originary presentive intuitions.” Such experiences or intuitions gain their justificatory force precisely by virtue of their distinctive presentive phenomenal character.

This phenomenological approach to experiential justification is straightforward and well in line with commonsense. However, it has not been popular in the analytic tradition. Contemporary analytic epistemology is dominated by externalist approaches, particularly by reliabilism.

Roughly, the idea of reliabilism is that a belief is justified if and only if the belief is the product of a reliable process. Concerning experiential justification, the reliabilist may postulate that an experience has justificatory force if and only if the experience is the product of a reliable process. This is to say that your visual experience that there is a table in front of you can justify you in believing that there is a table only if your visual experiences sufficiently often turn out to be veridical. To put it differently, usually there really is a table when you have a table-experience. Importantly, for the reliabilist it does not matter whether you believe, know, or have any kind of evidence that your belief/experience is reliably produced. All that matters is that, as a matter of fact, the process in question is reliable.

In other words: Only if it is objectively true that most of your perceptual experiences are veridical, then your perceptual experiences are a source of justification. This is why reliabilism is a form of externalism. What matters are external factors, in this case, reliability. Whether the subject has any kind of access to these justifying factors, how it is for the subject to undergo a justification-conferring experience, all this is irrelevant from the externalist perspective. Although such anti-phenomenological externalist approaches are popular in current debates, recently the phenomenological approach has gained some prominence. It is a virtue of the phenomenological approach that it’s in agreement with commonsense and philosophers of the analytic as well as the phenomenological traditions have begun to develop novel accounts that focus on the subject and her experiences, investigating the various types of experiences descriptively, from the first-person perspective.

The perspectival nature of our evidence, the fact that how we experience and what we know about the world is shaped by our previous experiences and our beliefs, has negative but also positive implications.

Importantly, our phenomenological approach has several interesting implications, connecting various disciplines, traditions, and fields of research. It connects epistemology and philosophy of mind in the straightforward sense that the justificatory force of an experience is located within the phenomenal character of the experience. It connects the phenomenological tradition and the analytic tradition in the sense that phenomenological ideas and methods are employed in order to improve current debates in analytic epistemology. And it connects philosophy and various empirical disciplines such as experimental psychology in the sense that empirical results can be used to motivate the phenomenological conception and to specify the phenomenal character of certain experiences.

This being said, it should be noted that our phenomenological approach does not support the naive view that our experiences amount to windows to the world through which we see how the world is in itself thoroughly objectively.

Instead, perceptual experiences are genuinely perspectival. The experienced object is always presented from a certain perspective, and how the object is given depends on the subject’s location relative to the object. Furthermore, perceptual experiences do not present objects in their totality. When you look at the laptop in front of you, your experience presents to you the laptop’s screen, case, keyboard, etc. Your experience has a presentive character regarding these aspects of your laptop. But your perceptual experience does not only intend these directly perceived aspects. What is co-given to you within experience is the laptop’s back, that its back has certain properties such as a smooth surface, that it also has a smooth underside, etc. What’s more, our experiences are shaped by our constitutional history. This is to say that our previous experiences and our beliefs and expectations affect the way we experience the world, ourselves, and others.

This leaves us with the following picture: All we know about the world, we know, ultimately, by way of experiences. But our experiences do not constitute some magical purely objective view from nowhere. Our experiences are shaped by previous experiences as well as by our beliefs, desires, and expectations. Furthermore, perceptual experiences affect our concept formation and symbolic thinking, and the concepts we use, in turn, affect our experiences. All this resonates well with current research in experimental psychology.

The perspectival nature of our evidence, the fact that how we experience and what we know about the world is shaped by our previous experiences and our beliefs, has negative but also positive implications.

On the positive side, there is the phenomenon that is often referred to as perceptual expertise. Concerning their respective domains of expertise, the world looks different to experts than to novice subjects. The radiographic image of a cancerous lung looks different to the radiologist than it does to me, the pine tree looks different to the tree expert than it does to you, and your loved ones look different to you than they do to strangers. Perceptual expertise manifests such that the expert recognizes crucial patterns more efficiently and more reliably. Your partner may look calm to a stranger but you can “see” that now you should stop making stupid jokes.

On the negative side, there is the danger that your account of the world gets too one-sided. All new information you gather is looked upon from your favorite perspective, and the world looks to you in accordance with your wishes and biases. This may manifest in the extreme way that you really believe that, from a certain point of view, more people attended your inauguration than Obama’s. Returning to the phenomenological notion of evidence, we say that your judgments should be based on what is immediately given to you within experience. Comparing pictures (of different sources) of Obama’s and Trump’s inaugurations should provide you with sufficient evidence to come to a rather clear verdict.

To summarize, while our experiences constitute our sources of knowledge and our ultimate evidence, they do not provide a purely objective view on the world but are shaped by various influences. However, instead of aiming for an unreachable view from nowhere, we better be mindful of the limited and perspectival nature of our experiences and knowledge. Clarifying how we experience and access the world improves our understanding of the world. Clarifying how our experiences are influenced by our beliefs, desires, and previous experiences helps us to achieve a more accurate look at the world, to cope with our prejudices and biases, and to be less easily manipulated by one-sided news and information. For future research, it will be crucial to pair descriptive phenomenological reflections with empirical-experimental investigations.


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