Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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As so often happens with important insights, the truths contained in what is termed Phenomenology (PNM) have been built into a complete system of thought. Despite its failure to be adequately all-inclusive, its impact upon us is nevertheless great.

The background and development of PNM are complex and boring. I don't pretend to understand more than the barest outline. More important is, I think, to try to get a grip on why its concerns might be important to us in the 21st century.

Each of us is nowadays used to thinking of the world around us as a "space" in which there are physical things - including living beings. These things are" real" in the sense that we all experience them. Both you and I experience the weather and the effects of gravity, for example. We may argue about both - but we don't generally deny that they exist, that they are real phenomena.

What is less in the forefront of our awareness is an underlying assumption that the things around us are experienced differently by different people. That is, I relate to the world in my way and you in yours. A song made popular by Frank Sinatra some years ago was entitled My Way. Perhaps it was so popular partly because it reflected a perception of separate individuality. Thinking of oneself as an individual first is more and more common today and is gradually replacing the older tribal or group context of individuality. In communal societies, the individual tends to have meaning only as part of the group.

The position summarised above is known as "relativism". That is, our personal perception of the world around us is "relative" to each of us. There is a sense in which neither you nor I understands the physical world as it "really is" except insofar as we know it from our own individual, personal point of view. If this is true, who is to say what the world "really" is? All each of us can do is claim our own point of view as valid or true "for me".

We all must of course assume that the physical world around us is actually there, that it is not an illusion. Unless we did this life could not be lived. You may love and treasure cats; I may fear and hate them. But we both must take the cat to which we react so differently to be real. When it purrs for you, something real is happening - though when it scratches me, I may be in less doubt than you about its reality. This sort of absolute reality was, until  recently, taken to apply to physical things right down to the atomic level. No matter how small the building blocks of things turned out to be, it was supposed that we could rest assured that physical things are physically there and in that sense real.

In effect, then, we have to note that the position "All I can know is my own perceptions" is itself a perception which only I (or you) can truly know. As such it is relative to you or me. In the end, therefore, it seems best to recognise that there is a reality "out there" - even though we can't be certain exactly what it is. One philosopher puts it like this:

.. all human understanding and experience of reality is affected by the creative activity of human minds, located as they are in specific historical language-using cultures. What depends on us and our cultures are our beliefs about reality, not reality in itself. Our beliefs about the world, which unreflectively seem to us to reveal its independent reality, are never in fact purely objective, because they are formed through a process to which our own nature, our own mind, is one ineradicable contributor ... [1]

Very recently (in historical terms) the basis of physical reality has had to be redefined. Mathematicians and physicists have discovered that the most basic particles don't exist quite in the way previously thought. Sometimes we see them in one form and sometimes in another - but never both forms at the same time. More recently even these forms have been brought into question. It now appears that all physical particles, in whatever form, are comprised of "strings" of "energy" wound together in various combinations. (Note that neither of the words "strings" and "energy" at present relates to anything that can be described except in terms of its effects or consequences.)

Philosophers don't like this sort of uncertainty. They have searched for at least three thousand years for the holy grail of an all-inclusive way of summing up the basic nature of things. It turns out that not only is physical reality uncertain, but also that we ourselves can talk about it only with some uncertainty. Language itself is imprecise. We can shuffle words around and still not agree about what's real and what isn't. And who is to say that one person's reasoning or perception is more true than another's? If relativism is correct, truth depends upon standpoint. There is no such thing as a statement which is absolutely true for everyone at all times.

The philosophical position of PNM evolved during the 19th and into the 20th centuries as an attempt to respond to this puzzle [2]. But before that, Emmanuel Kant (d.1804) had distinguished between reality as we experience it and objects and events as they "are" in themselves. He called the things we experience "phenomena". Things as they "really" are  he called "noumena". He thought that the former are the only things we can ever know. 

G W F Hegel (d.1831) said that Kant had got it wrong. His first major work [3] set out to demonstrate this. For Hegel PNM is a science through which we study and get to know "mind" as it really is. Once mind (the Absolute) is known for what it is, then we are in turn able to think our way through to proper conclusions about the facts of our existence. As the 19th century progressed, the understanding of PNM gradually broadened. It eventually became synonymous with "fact" - or, if you like, with "whatever is observed to be the case".

This outcome has led to the present understanding of PNM. It is now generally understood as the study and description of anything included in the meaning of "to be". Given this wider definition it should be possible to study anything as a phenomenon, including perceptions themselves. When I think about something, the thought itself can be studied and described - and so on, presumably ad infinitum

Theoretically, however, PNM must strive to describe dispassionately, not interpret. Only when the "thing as it really is" has been described should we attempt any explanation of it. In this sense, PNM has become a method, a way of doing philosophy rather as formal logic is one way of making sense of language. Thus PNM also refers to a specific school of philosophy which uses pure description (if there is such a thing) as its key to knowledge.

The average person today might suppose that properly rigorous description requires tough empiricism. In other words, if we want to know something really well we should analyse it down to its constituent parts. Once we know how these parts fit together and how the whole "thing" works, we will have an accurate description. It's not enough to state that a butterfly has wings. Describing a butterfly accurately requires that we know everything about it.

Unfortunately that isn't what its exponents mean by PNM. In fact, it turns out that PNM is regarded as a non-empirical science (if it should be called a science at all). As far as I can make out this means that it is concerned not with analysis, but with what underpins or lies behind analysis. 

When, for example, we try to work out how human beings think and feel, we talk about a discipline called psychology. It turns out, however, that the findings of psychology are vague generalisations. What we should really study is the logic of behaviours, which is more precise. Similarly, the findings of empirical science rest not upon "fact" but upon probabilities. When a scientist gives the orbit of the moon around the earth the actual orbit remains unknown because there are tiny variations in the movement of the moon within the tides of gravity. These tiny variations can't be anticipated. Similarly, the characteristics of water can be measured only approximately because no sample of water is absolutely identical. Logical truths, in contrast, are necessary truths. 

Again, all science is inductive - that is, it takes a finite number of individual cases and derives conclusions from these alone. It then proposes general rules on the basis of these conclusions. It's impossible to cover every case. If I say that heat causes water to boil, and I observe water boiling, I can't conclude that it is hot (low pressure can cause it to boil just as well). Logical reason doesn't suffer from this defect. Logical truth follows regardless of circumstance. Finally, PNM lays down that while empirical truths are valid only for what is observable, logical laws are valid for all possible worlds.

The upshot of the PNM stance is to deny that truth or falsity depends upon what we can see, hear and touch. But if we can't discover the nature of the real world by observing and analysing it, how are we to know either what "really" is out there, or psychologically "in here"? How are we to know anything about a "phenomenon" if we don't observe and analyse it?

The answer involves a long and difficult line of thought - one which can only be drastically simplified and summarised here. For PNM to work as a particular way of describing things we must know what a phenomenon is, since it clearly isn't what we usually mean by the word. 

Once we know what we're looking for, we can perhaps tell if the PNM method succeeds. Richard Schmitt thinks that the PNM method is still being worked out [4]. Hardly surprisingly, therefore, PNM thinkers disagree about what a phenomenon is. As far as I can work it out, 

  • phenomena are the essentials of a thing, those invariable features which make it what it is.

  • These essences are not derived by abstractions derived from observations. That is, they are not merely the observed characteristics of a thing which are then formalised into an abstract statement such as, "Education is good for children."

  • Essences are derived from the scrutiny of particular things through the process of a kind of intuition (anschauung or "seeing" in German). That is, a statement about a phenomenon is self-validating.

  • "Intuition" proves to be a complex and elusive concept. It requires that the observer cuts free from the necessity of a quality actually existing. It seems to boil down to the statement of the necessary and invariant qualities of a thing. These qualities need not be observable. 

    An example might be the "intuition" of a person as a thing which possesses sense organs. That is, for anything to be a person there is a necessary relationship between that person and "possessing sense organs". 

    To put it another way: Whatever has the property of being a person must also possess a property of having sense organs. This is not the same as saying "Whatever has sense organs is a person" because a rabbit also has sense organs. Nor does the "intuition" require that a thing called a person, but without sense organs, should actually exist. Nor does it refer to persons as things without sense organs, since rocks don't have them but do exist.

  • It follows that a statement about a phenomenon must lay down the criteria by which a thing is to be known. These are criteria of "coherence".

If I were to venture a assessment of the present-day place of PNM, I would suggest that it has lost influence considerably since the 1940s. This seems to be because the nature of the scientific method has been more satisfactorily described of late [5]. Erudite philosophical discussions continue apace. But the ordinary person has begun - albeit in small numbers as yet - to recognise

[a] that each of is in a sense an island. You and I have different ways of perceiving the world around us. We may have considerable similarities, but each is unique. Only I can describe my inner, subjective reality. You can only hypothesise about it on the basis of what I tell you.

[b] There is a real, physical reality "out there", which each person perceives in his or her own way. Genes, upbringing and cultural context all influence individual perception. What is "out there" is relative to individual perceptions.

[c] Because of differences of perception, we need to arrive at a consensus about what is the best method to describe the world "outside" each of us.

[d] Most people combine various ways of describing the world (and themselves a part of it). Religion is one common way, science is another. The latter seems to be supplanting the former as a major way of describing what is "out there"..

In this context, the tortuous verbal gymnastics of Edmund Husserl and others who espouse PNM seem curious to the non-philosopher. Yet they have influenced Christianity to some degree, if only in a negative way. They have, in effect, accepted that the worlds "out there" and "in here" are all that exists. 

If we want to know the truth about things, it's futile to search for it in other worlds, such as the supernatural worlds of religion. Reality can be described only in material terms. There is no spiritual dimension impacting the natural world. All that we can address is what can be seen, heard, smelt, touched. Nothing remains of the supernatural or the spiritual or the human soul.

To consider a specific example, traditional Christian theology teaches that the foundational truths of the faith derive not from reason but from revelation. This position was relatively easy to maintain as long as the world around us was perceived by the vast majority as on a continuum which includes the supernatural. Revealed truths in this context are invisible truths from one part of reality passing over into another part.

If this is the case, what place does PNM's "intuition" have in relation to Christian tradition? First, reason engages revelation only in the sense that it interprets revealed truth. The truth itself can't in theory be successfully challenged by reason. Second, revelation is not self-evident in the way that intuited phenomena are in PNM. That "God loves us all" may or may not appear self-evident from a person's life-experience. At any rate, there is no guarantee that everyone will intuit that conclusion. That a person must have sense organs is, in contrast, definitive. Thus revelation is true only if the authority which states or conveys its propositions is accepted without question as infallible.

One influential Christian defence against the PNM position is difficult and unsatisfactory. In effect it attempts to seal off revelation from the kind of rational processes which drive PNM. Revelation is linked to something called "faith" - an approach to reality which proclaims itself essentially beyond reason. That "God loves us" cannot be proved or even reasoned about. "Faith" is a kind of inward disposition which perceives this truth as self-evident and doesn't need to argue its case - or at any rate, expects that some people will find faith and others will not. They will do so on the basis of whatever arguments are presented - but only to a point. After that, "faith" takes over. 

This reaction against the PNM train of thought and other similar approaches to what is "real" outside the individual perception, was typified by the work of Karl Barth. Faith, he said, is always in response to God's initiative. Reason is a human phenomenon and its findings can only be adjudicated by those individual, personal judgements we usually call "faith".

Therefore revelation is all that matters, since only from this beginning can true faith spring and mature. This position held sway in the West until the 1950s. Since then it has gradually given way to a return to reasoned exploration of Christian tradition. 

R H Roberts puts it like this:

This sort of approach emancipates theology from the constraints of historicism and purports to overcome difficulties posed by [the] alternative principles used by the ancestral "houses" of authority of Protestantism and Catholicism. [6]

- which appears obscure, but is actually saying the same thing.

The "out there" part of our world was called the lebenswelt ("life-world") by Husserl. We get to know this lebenswelt by dint of ongoing decisions to explore everyday life in various ways. The task of PNM is seen as working out what are the implicit criteria by which we investigate and learn to master the world "out there".

A student of Husserl's, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), recognised the importance this sort of reflection - that is, putting into words what is familiar about life but which is not usually described accurately. But he reverted to the age-old question about "what is" or "Being" (Sein), attempting to bend the PNM method to this more traditional philosophical topic. Just as PNM tries to put meat on the bones of lebenswelt, so he thought that the increasingly empty philosophical concept of "Being" needed restoring to pride of place. His philosophy tried to do just that.

The question remains: Is PNM a satisfactory way of dealing with the problem of describing and knowing that "out there" world which each of us knows in his or her own, unique way? I doubt it. 

First, PNM's abstruse methodology places the world beyond the reach of all but an elite few philosophers. How are you and I to understand the PNM "intuition" - never mind actually use it day-by-day? Any "solution" to the problem of knowledge which is confined to the privileged few isn't of much account.

Second, it is true that some combinations of words and symbols are indeed both self-evidently true and non-empirical. "All cats are felines" is self-evidently true. "The fire has gone out" is empirical and either true or false (it can be verified by simple observation) as is "Stress increases high blood pressure" (which can be confirmed by carefully controlled observations). But some entities such as a "perfect sphere" are self-evidently "true" but non-empirical (you and I will never observe one). 

But it doesn't follow that the truth of a perfect sphere is the same kind of truth we need to know the "out there" world. In fact, it is only useful (and in that limited sense "true") to predict how spheres may (or may not) behave or be experienced in real life.

In short, PNM turns out to be an interesting sideline in the day-to-day business of modifying our inner worlds to be as much as possible in tune with the harmonies of the world "out there".
[1] John Bishop, The Future of God-Talk, address to Sea of Faith, New Zealand
[2] A prime mover was Edmund Husserl 
[3] Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807
[4] In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Phenomenology, Macmillan, 1967
[5] See Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
[6] Theology and the Social Sciences, in The Modern Theologians, Ed D F
      Ford, Blackwell, 1997

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