Phenomenology and Physics

The philosophical field known as phenomenology, initiated by Edmund Husserl in the early 20th century, can perhaps most simplistically be described as the charge to describe phenomena; to describe, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, the “experience of or about some object.”

A core principle of practicing phenomenology is what Husserl called phenomenological reduction or epoché, a term borrowed from the Skeptics. In order to properly describe a phenomena, he argued, we must first bracket out certain biasing factors.

As Sarah Bakewell describes in At the Existentialist Café, phenomenology frees us “from ideologies, political and otherwise…forcing us to be loyal to experience.”

In other words, ” the Husserlian ‘bracketing out’ or epoché allows the phenomenologist to temporarily ignore the question, ‘But is it real?’, in order to ask how a person experiences his or her world. Phenomenology gives a formal mode of access to human experience.”

Phenomenology is a rigorous philosophical exploration, but on its surface it seems far removed from the basic tenants of physics. Phenomenology seeks to describe the world as it’s experienced, physics attempts to describe the world as it is.

So I was struck yesterday, when a professor described the process of developing a physics model in somewhat phenomenological terms; to model a complex system, we must strip away all the noise, focusing on those elements which really matter.

Interestingly, while similar in practice, the approaches are very different in interpretation. In phenomenology, this reduction is something of a purification process. Focusing on the core elements of an object, freed of ideologies and constructs, allows a phenomenologist to more truly describe a phenomenon.

The hard sciences have a different understanding: all models are wrong, but some are useful. The reduction process of modeling is logistically and computationally necessary, but it removes an element of truth from your understanding. The goal is to always come up with more and more complex models; methodically adding more elements to the model in order to better describe complex, real-world systems.

In some ways, phenomenology is an important topic of debate in physics. Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment where a cat is both alive and dead until observed was intended to illustrate the limits of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. That model indicates that wave forms collapse when an observation takes place; that the cat is both alive and dead until observed.

This strikes me as a phenomenologically valid reality; no phenomena really exists outside the experience of that phenomena. But this seems scientifically unlikely; a cat cannot be both alive and dead.

The fields of phenomenology and physics have some stark differences, but it seems they may have more in common than one might initially think. And it raises interesting questions for the social sciences – which continually tries to be more and more like it’s hard science peers. But in stripping away the noise and complexity, in reducing too far to a mathematical model, we strip the phenomenological aspects of reality; we think we’ve modeled the world as it exists but neglected the world as its experienced.


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