Monday, November 14, 2011

From the Archive: Phenomenology and Systems Imagination

I'd like to expand a bit on one question arising from the phenomenology of driving I sketched last week: How is it that theoretical knowledge from the sciences can enter into the ordinary lived experience of projects and places?

Ordinarily, I do not experience the car I am driving as a mechanical device. While I drive, I generally do not perform calculations of torque, mass and velocity, nor do I think about force of impact as proportional to the square of the velocity.

If my approach to driving were ever reduced to those terms, I suspect I would find it impossible to drive.

But is there a way in which knowledge of Newtonian mechanics could color or, perhaps, infect the fluid experience of driving so as to make me more attentive and more cautious?

From my own experience, I think it does. I know enough about the laws of motion, for example, that I feel exposed and vulnerable if I am not wearing a seat belt.

Phenomenologically, though, this is puzzling, since the attitude of ordinary experience and the attitude of the natural sciences are so distinct. The possibility of systems imagination, as an adjunct to moral imagination, seems to hinge, in part, on solving this puzzle.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a paper in which I attempted to take a few, small steps toward a solution, drawing from one particular work by Edmund Husserl.

The paper was not accepted to the conference for which I submitted it, and I have since moved on to other things, so it has been languishing in the archives ever sense.

I'm glad to be able to offer part of it here.

I introduce the problem this way:
Riding the bus on my way to and from work, I occasionally witness what I have come to call a failure of Newtonian imagination: someone driving a small car pulls into traffic directly in front the bus. The driver of the car, I suppose, is just not seeing the significance of the mass and velocity of the bus in relation to the mass and velocity of the car: should something go wrong, it is unlikely the bus would be able to stop in time on its own, and the car would be unlikely to slow it down very much. Drivers who do such things might very well be able to say who Newton was, and may even be able to recite the laws of motion, but from their actions it is clear they just are not feeling those laws.

But how and to what extent is it possible to feel a theory? This is a question of more than just academic interest. It has bearing on matters of practice and policy at all levels, from deciding when to pull out into traffic to deciding how to structure an international convention on climate change. To the extent scientific theory can enter into ordinary lived experience and inform moral imagination (see Johnson, Werhane), it will shape what we attend to, what we value, how we choose, and how we strive to avoid unintended consequences.

There is some practical value, then, in pursuing what might loosely be called a phenomenology of theoretical imagination, an elucidation of whether and how scientific theory shapes ordinary experience. For this paper, I will draw primarily from Husserl’s Ideas II in sketching the outlines of such an elucidation.

Newtonian imagination seems fairly straightforward. From the first time we fall down we begin to establish patterns of expectation, attention, and aspiration. Here, at least, we have some immediate way of relating to Newton’s formal mathematical expression of what we may already have come to expect. Other varieties of theoretical imagination may be much more elusive, as the theories involved further removed from ordinary experience. Of special interest from the point of view of current matters of public policy are thermodynamic imagination, ecological imagination, climatological imagination, and socio-technical imagination, among many possible others.
My main quarry in the paper is Darwinian imagination, which may well be the most vexing of all.

The whole thing hinges on what I called "the attitude problem." Husserl identifies a number of distinct attitudes or stances of consciousness, each with its distinctive correlates.

The "natural-practical attitude" is the stance we take in ordinary life. Its correlates make up the environing world, what Husserl would later call "the lifeworld." It is in something very like the lifeworld that Heidegger postulates we encounter things as ready-to-hand, as possibilities for action, rather than as discrete material objects.

The "theoretical attitude" is the stance we take in the natural sciences. Its correlates are the discrete objects and processes postulated by scientific theory, subject to quantitative analysis. It is conventional wisdom in the phenomenological tradition that the world of the natural sciences is abstracted from the world of ordinary lived experience, a process of abstraction that often amounts to impoverishment, but that's something of a side issue here.
On Husserl’s account, it is always open to us to pass back and forth between attitudes. I may at one moment live in the delight of seeing a clear blue sky, and the next consider that same sky as would a physicist or a meteorologist. Even if I still feel the same delight after the shift, writes Husserl, “there is an essential phenomenological modification of the pleasure, and of the seeing and judging, according as we pass over from the one attitude into the other.” (Husserl, p.10)

Husserl notes that attitudes can blur together in ordinary experience as we “constantly slip, quite effortlessly, from one attitude into another,” and yet it is his task as phenomenologist to distinguish clearly among them (Ibid, 189-190). Because each attitude has its own distinctive correlates, two attitudes cannot both be operative at the same time in the same way: one attitude will be dominant while others play a supporting role. (Ibid, p.14) The correlates of the supporting attitudes are co-presented along with the correlates of the dominant attitude, adding layers of meaning to them.

I suggest that, when the natural-practical attitude is dominant with the theoretical attitude of the natural sciences is in a supporting role, the theoretical realities may be co-presented as empty intentions the fulfillment of which lies over an indeterminate temporal horizon.

To illustrate, consider an example from another context: the intrusion of a little knowledge of thermodynamics into the experience of taking a hot shower. I am living in the delight of the cascading hot water, the incomparable feeling of getting clean. Yet I also know that my enjoyment is dependent on an irreversible conversion of useful energy into heat, and that sources of useful energy may soon no longer be readily available given finite supplies of fossil fuels, overwhelming demand for energy, and so on. This knowledge gives rise to the empty intention of an end to hot showers, off beyond some indeterminate future horizon. So far, this intention has not been fulfilled, and it is unlikely to be fulfilled within the temporal horizon of this particular shower. It remains a nagging co-presence that alters the meaning of the manifest flow of hot water.
A fragment I set aside from the finished manuscript provides another example, one that resonates with my later reflections on the tsunami in northeast Japan:
Or again, I am walking on a beach, living in my enjoyment of the sunlight and the crashing waves, or perhaps bent on getting back to my friends’ beach house in time for brunch. At the same time, in the background, I know of the uncertain risk of sea level rise due to anthropogenic climate change. The beach, these sunbathers, those houses, my various immediate purposes are all present to me. Co-present is the slow process by which this beach is first scoured then drowned by the inexorably rising waters, the sea floor this place may someday become. That none of this happens while I walk, that it is very unlikely to do so within the temporal horizon of this visit to the beach, leaves the rising of the ocean as a tantalizing future possibility, shimmering on the edge of my awareness. I may, as I walk, look for signs that the beach has begun some irreversible change, that the waves are washing higher than they every have before. (Not yet, as far as I can tell.) This is an instance of climatological imagination.
This brings me around to my main concern:
Much the same is the case with Darwinian imagination. We encounter other living things in our ordinary experience. With Darwinian theory in a supporting role, their presence may be limned by a tantalizing co-presence, beyond indeterminate past and future horizons.

Over the past horizon lie their origins in ongoing causal processes of variation and selection. This animal, this plant, is one of the fortunate ones, among the latest entries in an unbroken lineage of individuals who had some slight advantage in their struggle to survive and reproduce, a lineage that stretches back three and a half billion years. This plant, this animal was not destined from the beginning to be what it is, it was not destined even to be, yet here it is, carrying on the struggle.

In ordinary experience I do not perceive the process of evolution, nor do I have any memory of the long ages across which life has pursued its branching paths. Once the theory takes hold, however, I may attend to the living things I do see quite differently. I may, for example, be more attuned to the natural relations among living things, both their common kinship and the various external relations of dependence and competition into which they have entered.

Over the future horizon lie the struggles of each individual, the prospects for the long-term success or failure of species, the inevitability of extinction for many in the near term, most in the intermediate term, and for all in the long term. Over that same horizon lies the unforeseeable landscape of some future geological age inhabited by unforeseeable genera and orders of life. It is an Earth we would not recognize were we somehow to find ourselves there.

And yet, within the horizon of my present concerns, the arrangement of the living world remains much as I remember it, and it seems set to endure in its familiarity. The natural history of the future remains must remain an empty intention, shimmering behind the living world I inhabit in ordinary life. Because of that empty intention, I may start to see this kind of plant, this kind of animal, this set of ecological relationships as temporary even if I also see them as enduring realities. They are here, they hold sway . . . but only until something else happens.
The manuscript then turns to more vexing aspects of Darwinian imagination, as the theoretical attitude is applied to human human consciousness itself . . . but that is less relevant here.

Sticking with the question at hand, the interplay of attitudes points toward the possibility that our lived experience of place, and thus our conduct within it, can be informed by theoretical understanding of the dynamics at work in shaping that place.

In an urban context, then, the act of crossing the street can be informed by knowlege of Newtonian mechanics (among other things), the act of choosing a building site informed by knowledge of geology (among other things), the act of installing utilities informed by knowledge of thermodynamics (etc.), and so on, because those various knowledge sets shape the way we see, not just the way we think.

Edmund Husserl. 1989. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, Second Book: Studies in the Phenomenology of Constitution. trans. Richard Rojcewicz and André Schuwer (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Mark Johnson, Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics. 1993. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Patricia Hogue Werhane. 1999. Moral imagination and management decision-making. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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