Phenomenology and Computer Science
Computer Science as part of scientific endeavor is associated with the Cartesian method of exploring and understanding the world. It is true that Rene Descartes started his inquiry with the famous critical dictum “Cogito Ergo Sum” doubting the existence of anything except the thinking mind. Very soon, however, Descartes assumed not only the independent existence of the external world but also that this natural world contained the immaterial mind that was directly related to the human brain. Parallel to the realistic conception of the world thinkers like George Berkeley and others were developing idealistic models in which ordinary objects are only collections of ideas which are mind-dependent.
At the beginning of the XX century the dispute between the realists and the idealists came to an impasse. Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology was one of the solutions to this deadlock. Husserl advocates the view that we have to put aside our natural attitude towards the events that happen to us. In other words, we have to distance ourselves from preconceptions and beliefs about the external world that we naturally entertain and try to experience the reality more directly.
Husserl calls this distancing the phenomenological reduction or epoche which means suspension. We are encouraged to bracket out our initial models of reality and our pre-understanding of it and focus on our immediate experience of phenomena. This is not the only reduction Husserl invites us to undertake. The second reduction (called eidetic) is the quest for essence (eidos). We are urged to use our intuition in order to capture the essence of a given phenomenon.
Additionally our consciousness according to Husserl is always intentional which is to say that it is always in action (doing something) and it is always directed towards something (referring towards something). The former is called noesis and the latter - noema.
How, however, one is supposed to find the essence (eidos)? The proper way is to let noesis and noema cohere by checking out all the ways they may combine that are necessary and invariant. Husserl says we have to adapt the method of imaginary variation in order to bring about an intuition into something as essence.
Imaginary variation startlingly resembles machine learning techniques in computer science. One may therefore venture an idea that the real essence of things is available to robots more directly than to humans. The former have fewer preconceptions and entrenched beliefs, if any, as compared to humans. Moreover, the method of imaginary variation may be more effective in the robots’ case than in the case of ordinary people. It is intriguing, therefore, that computer machines may be closer to fathoming the real essence of things than we, humans. Husserl’s famous declaration ”back to the things themselves” might have been intended to be heeded not by humans but by the machines and the machines might have been supposed to experience the moment of “Aha!” when catching the elusive meaning of a particular phenomenon.
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