Heidegger and the scientific method
Let us first of all deconstruct what might be termed the myth of ‘scientific method’ as this is currently understood: a set of rational procedures guaranteed to eliminate mere dogma from “true” scientific knowledge, distinguish empirical fact from mere belief or hypothesis. So what exactly is the modern scientific “method” - that veritable barricade of investigative procedures designed to defend institutionalized science from empty supposition or pseudo-science? Modern scientific method understands itself as a five-stage process involving:
1. Observation and description of a phenomenon.
2. Formulation of a hypothesis that explains the phenomenon.
3. Use of the hypothesis to predict other phenomena.
4. Controlled experiments designed to test these predictions.
5. Validation of their results by independent researchers.
The first and most important questions raised by this self-definition are those it notably fails to address. The questions are:
1. What counts as a phenomenon in the first place?
2. What account is given of the phenomenon itself?
3. In what ways can the phenomenon be a ccounted for?
These questions are of fundamental methodological significance, for as Heidegger points out: “All explanation reaches only so far as the explication of that which is to be explained.” Heidegger himself gives several examples of phenomena to which the questions apply, amongst them “grief and tears”. Before we can formulate and confirm a ‘scientific’ hypothesis to explain the phenomenon of ‘tears’ for example, we must first ask ourselves what the phenomenon itself essentially is. Within the modern scientific method however, what counts as a phenomenon is above all that which is countable - measurable. To which Heidegger counters: “In reality you can never measure tears; rather when you measure, it is at best a fluid and its drops that you measure, but not tears.”
Are tears a somatic phenomenon, a psychical phenomenon or a ‘psychosomatic’ phenomenon - the somatic effect of a psychical phenomenon such as ‘grief’? If so, does that mean that the somatic fluid drops produced by an irritated and watering eye are just as much tears as those produced by a person weeping in grief, i.e. essentially the same phenomenon except with a different ‘cause’? The fact that, ‘scientifically’ speaking, we refer to ‘tear ducts’ as physiological givens, implies as much. The physiological designation sets aside the fundamental methodological question of what constitutes the phenomenon of tears as such - in distinction from other phenomena such as over-watering eyes. Before any possible hypotheses can be vouched or experiments ventured, therefore, the modern scientific method has already given its own dogmatic answers to the three fundamental methodological questions:
1. What counts as a phenomenon is only that which we can observe outwardly - measurable fluid drops produced by the eyes.
2. Our account of what tears are as a phenomenon will make no distinction between weeping in grief and watering eyes.
3. We can account for tears only by suggesting mechanisms of either physiological or ‘psychosomatic’ causation .
What possible experiment however, could be devised that would provide ‘reliable’ quantitative evidence of a causal relation between a psychic state such as grief and its somatic expression in tears? We would first of all have to be in a position to ‘measure’ grief. Heidegger again: “How does one measure grief? One obviously can’t measure it at all. Why not? Were one to apply a method of measurement to grief we would offend against the meaning of grief and would have already ruled out in advance the grief as grief. The very attempt to measure would offend against the phenomenon as phenomenon.”
Heidegger goes on to emphasise that the fact that we speak of someone grieving less or more intensely, does not mean we are speaking of a measurable quantity of grief, but rather of its quality. We are referring to qualitative depth and intensity. As for the tears that can supposedly be accounted for as something ‘caused’ by grief, we are once again offending against the phenomenon as phenomenon. Tears as tears - as expressions of sadness or unhappiness, pain or grief are not a physical phenomenon that we first observe and then account for, scientifically or otherwise. We do not first see drops of water in a person’s eyes, then conclude, from the circumstance, that they are grieving and therefore understand them to be weeping in grief. The immediately observed phenomenon is not fluid drops in a person’s eyes but a person weeping - not an isolated physical perception but a perceptual whole or gestalt. It is only through abstraction from this gestalt - from the phenomenon as a phenomenon - that we arrive at an account of what ‘tears’ are that reduce them to something ‘psychical’ or ‘somatic’. An account of the phenomenon that then demands explanatory accounting for in terms of some ‘mechanism’ of psychosomatic ‘causation’.
Heidegger goes on to question how things stand with the phenomenon of pain, comparing for example the pain of grief with bodily pain of some sort. “How do things stand regarding both these ‘pains’? Are both somatic or both psychical, or is only the one somatic and the other psychical, or are both pains neither one nor the other?” Any account we might give in such terms of pain as a phenomenon, or any typology of pain phenomena we might construct - distinguishing somatic and emotional pain, real and imaginary pain etc. would both immediately foreclose the question of what the phenomenon itself - pain as such - essentially is. But the question of what pain itself essentially is and how it can be accounted for is not the object of any possible experiment. It is first and foremost a question of what it means to us to ‘be in pain’ i.e. the different ways (mental, emotional and physical) in which we are aware of being in pain, and the different ways in which we interpret, emotionalise and embody pain as a state of being. The modern scientific method rules out in advance as possible objects of scientific investigation all phenomena that cannot be reduced to observable and measurable sensory ‘phenomena’ such as ‘tear’ drops or electrical ‘pain’ signals. In doing so it rules out any genuinely empirical approach to phenomena as such - any exploration of the way we actually experience those phenomenon. But that is precisely the task of any genuinely empirical, genuinely phenomenological science.
Peter Wilberg, "Heidegger, Medicine and Scientific Method"