Theory and Experiment in Philosophy

Journal of Consciousness Studies (1999), 6, No. 2-3, pp. 241-244,
an invited comment on the special issue titled
First-Person Methodologies: What, Why, How?

Piet Hut

When I got my first camera, I noticed something very interesting. After an intensive period of picture taking, the streets of my familiar small town had somehow landed in a different world. I saw everything in a different light. More accurately, I saw the world as light, rather than as matter. My attention had shifted, first rather innocently from seeing a lit-up building to seeing a lit-up building. Then the shift deepened, from seeing a building that was lit-up by the sun light to seeing the light itself, that happened to carry the imprint of a lit-up building.

Soon afterwards, still in high school, I experienced a different shift. In Latin class we were given the option to choose a favorite writer. My choice was Seneca, and I started reading the collection of letters he wrote to a student of his, in which he gave him his Stoic advice to drop our usual neurotic engagement with the everyday world. Whenever I would read Seneca's advice to view everything in a more calm and detached way, a strange change in atmosphere would occur. I marveled at this predictable and reproducible shift. Something seemed to stop. The atmosphere would quickly grow quiet, as soon as I would start reading. It felt as if someone had just switched off a radio that had been playing continuously in the background. And on an almost physical level, it changed my whole sense of embodiment.

Around that time, I began to read a wide variety of other books in philosophy and religion, European as well as non-European. And always this change in atmosphere would be a sign that a book had something real to say, something rooted in a reality that is normally obscured through our frantic absorption with the next moments in time, and the objects nearest to us, in the light trance that we call daily life. I began to realize that the shift did not signal the start of a new form of trance, but rather the dropping away of an old form. The shift coincided with a letting go of an obsession with the trivia of daily life: the preferences and petty goals that pull us through the day. Such a liberating form of shift occurred when I was reading about people like Socrates, Ruusbroeck, Ramakrishna, Dogen, or Thoreau. In each case a wonderful, and more and more familiar form of detachment would set in.

Only much later did I stumble upon Husserl's writing. After I had studied various Asian philosophical and contemplative traditions, and while my career in astrophysics was well underway, I felt the need to search for a form of stepping stone. I wanted to make a connection between the objective scientific approach that I valued so much, and the contemplative introspective methods that seemed no less scientific, even though they embraced a more explicit role for the subject. And it was at the junction between both types of tradition that I felt that Husserl's method of the epoche could play a role. Making philosophy more scientific, by adding a form of experimentation to what often had degenerated into armchair theorizing, Husserl seemed to have found a balance between theory and experiment, in a way that reminded me very much of the methodology of physics.

While first reading Husserl, I felt a sense of home coming. I recognized what type of experience he was trying to point at, in describing the epoche, a systematic method for suspending judgment. Stepping out of the world in order to step more fully into it, this move is ubiquitous in all kinds of contemplative training, in one form of another. And indeed, it is analogous to the role that a laboratory plays in natural science: we step out of the vast complexity of the world, and retreat in a small controlled environment in order to get greater insight -- which we can then apply to the world we stepped out of, in order to understand that world better.

What struck me was that Husserl seemed to be far ahead of his time. As a Leonardo da Vinci, drawing a helicopter, he had no clear way in practice to embed the epoche within the program he envisioned. Indeed, he sometimes complained that even his best students did not seem to understand what he was after. The problem was, I think, that he used a 19th-century philosophical writing style to describe what I expect to become a 21st-century style of investigation in experimental philosophy.

The notion of an epoche, as an exploration of new degrees of freedom in experience, is a very rich one. The possibilities go far beyond the specific ones that Husserl envisioned. He was a trail blazer, but as Varela has emphasized repeatedly in his contributions to this volume, we should not limit ourselves to study his writings. Instead of going into the mode of an historian, the attitude of a physicist is more appropriate, taking past accomplishments as inspiration for finding whole new ways to extend both experiment and theory.

My opening example already presented a different form of `reduction': to step back from seeing objects `as' physical objects to seeing them `as' light. I have found this to be an effective way to introduce students to the epoche, in a way that beckons them beyond a mere theoretical or verbal analysis. Reading about the epoche typically leads a student to contemplate the concept of the epoche, rather than really performing the epoche (a danger Husserl kept warning about). In contrast, shifting to seeing light where previously one saw matter is more likely to have a real impact, in a way that goes beyond intellectualization. Since light is still something external, although mediating between the external and the internal, an initial half-step to a light shift may be easier. Moving on to the epoche proper, by shifting to see objects as given in their conscious-experience aspect, is then less likely to lead to a getting stuck in conceptualization.

Let me mention one other way of playing with unsuspected degrees of freedom in our every-day world. It is instructive to take a pen and hold it in front of you, at a comfortable viewing distance. Now move this object closer to you and away from you a few times, and observe what is happening. Notice how the perceived size of the pen is getting smaller and larger. Notice too how the felt size of the pen does not change.

Clearly, two different types of seeing are involved. And corresponding to them, two types of pen are `seen'. There is the apparent pen, shrinking and growing. And there is the `real' pen, which we feel to maintain the same size. And presumably, the `real' pen is indeed the real, objective pen that other people can agree upon, even though they will see an apparent pen that is different (as an image) in many ways from the apparent pen I perceive. Or is it?

Would it not be more correct to say that we have three pens? There is the apparently shrinking pen that you `see' directly as clearly shrinking, at least in appearance. Then there is the `real' pen that you can also clearly `see' as keeping its old size. And then there is the `really real' pen, the one objectively out there, the one you and your friends all agree upon. This is the objective pen, that can be talked about, handed over, borrowed and forgotten-to-be-given-back; the pen that can be analyzed physically and chemically and described in scientific equations of various sorts. In contrast, the other two pens are subjective, in the sense of being part of subjective experience, according to our normal interpretation.

But wait, there are more distinctions to be made. Simply closing our eyes is enough to split our notion of the `real pen that we see in front of us' into two separate branches. With closed eyes we no longer see the `real' pen, but still we believe there to be a `really real' pen. With open eyes we saw both, or more accurately, a package deal of both-in-one: the seen-to-be-there pen and the convinced-to-be-there pen. And so it seems that closing our eyes is a good trick to pull out the `really real' one. Alternatively, we could have pulled out the `real' one while suppressing the `really real' one, by holding up a mirror. While looking at the reflection of the pen in the mirror, we would of course know that the really-real pen was not really behind the mirror. All the same, we could still watch the pen in the mirror as not-really-changing-in-size, when moving to and from us, in the space of the world conjured up behind the mirror.

But were we correct in our identification of the two branches in which our closing-the-eyes had split the object? Surely, the `real' pen, `meant' as a constant-size pen in its overlay on top of the apparent pen had disappeared. What we were left with was our conviction that the pen was `really' still there. But is a conviction the same as an objective object? Clearly not. The conviction was still something that belonged to us, to our realm of experience. In contrast, the objective pen by definition is not something that as such can enter our experience. Conclusion: somehow we have to admit that a fourth pen has appeared in our midst!

To sum up: there is the apparent pen, the seen-and-felt-as-real one, the assumed-to-be-there one which remains as a conviction when we close our eyes, and there is the objective pen, that others can agree upon. The third is still part of my subjective experience, and the latter is (posited as) objectively present.

And while we are at it, why not throw in an additional pen, by making a distinction between the objective pen of the every-day world, as a piece of metal and plastic, and the scientific model of the pen, as a congregate of atoms and molecules.

So we have the pen as it appears to us, the pen as we feel it to be, the pen as we think it should be, the pen that others can agree upon as a piece of plastic and metal, the pen the scientist sees as a collection of molecules, and, yes, there are more! The last pen immediately splits once again in several varieties. There is the pen of the solid-state physicist, describing its molecular structure. There is the pen of the nuclear physicist, describing the properties of the nuclei and the electrons that are the building blocks of the molecules. There is the pen of the particle physicist, who see the nuclei as made up out of a bunch of quarks and gluons. And so on.

So, which is the real pen? What is reality and what is imagination? Are all of these pens real, but somehow real in a different way? Or are some of them more real than others? Do the `less real' ones have some degree of imagination mixed into them? Whatever answer we come up with, we simply have to accept the striking differences between the various pens, as soon as our attention has been led to them. And all these differences can play a role in an extension of science which studies not only a world of objects, but which admits subjects to appear in the world as well.

To conclude, I see great potential for the Husserlian notion of epoche, as a tool to make philosophy more scientific, and to make science more philosophical. The present collection of articles, in this special issue, forms one of the steps towards a rekindling of the Husserlian method of `going back to the things themselves.' It is wonderful to see such a serious attempt at redressing the balance between the study of the object and subject poles of experience. The articles are certainly provocative, in claiming that a whole dimension of investigation has been overlooked in science, by focusing only on third-person knowledge. I hope my brief remarks about the epoche will also help to provoke a reaction, towards the establishment of what Natalie Depraz refers to in her article as a co-empathic community of individuals dedicated to a serious study of the epoche. I plan to present more detail elsewhere (Hut 1999b,   see also Hut & Shepard 1996,   Hut 1999a).


Hut, P. 1999a, Exploring Actuality through Experiment and Experience, in Toward a Science of Consciousness III, eds. S.R. Hameroff et al. (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press), pp. xxx-xxx.

Hut, P. 1999b, On the Role of the Subject in Science, in Tokyo '99 - Toward a Science of Consciousness: Fundamental Approaches, to be held in Tokyo, May 25-29, 1999.

Hut, P. & Shepard, R. 1996, Turning `The Hard Problem' Upside Down & Sideways,J. of Consc. Stud.3, 313-329; reprinted in Explaining Consciousness , ed. J. Shear (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), pp. 305-322.

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