On the relationship between science and the life-world: a biogenetic structural theory of meaning and causation by

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Charles D. Laughlin


All we can do is to gaze dimly at the infinitude of things, which lies beyond our finite apprehension. Words are inadequate for experience, and experience is inadequate to grasp the infinitude of the universe. Of course, this is a commonplace; but it cannot be repeated too often.

Alfred North Whitehead


The world view of Euroamerican society is both shaped by and is active in shaping our life-world -- that is, our individual world of immediate experience.2 This is as true for scientists as it is for everyone else in society. And it is true for everyone on the planet, regardless of sociocultural background. One of the characteristics of our life-world is that we experience events that require comprehension. The most dramatic of these events include such things as aging and death, the origin of things, conception and birth, destruction, disease, transpersonal experiences of one sort or another, astronomical events, seasonal cycles, malevolence, catastrophes, etc. -- the sorts of events that Tillich (1963) called "matters of ultimate concern." Of course everyday events also require comprehension, including events like planning a meal, getting to work, mowing the lawn, etc. Without comprehension, death remains a terrifying enigma and planning a meal forever beyond our capacity.

In other words, our life-world is always meaningful.3 It is so thoroughly meaningful that we take its elements and relations for granted as "the way the world is." Our natural attitude (as Edmund Husserl 1977:152-153 put it) toward our own life-world is one of uncritical acceptance. This is why my position in this chapter is by necessity a phenomenological one, for along with Husserl (1931, 1970, 1977) I would contend that a mature understanding of science requires a kind of "stepping back" (Husserl called this a "reduction") into consciousness to find out how much meaning is pregiven in the act of experiencing.

Hidden Forces

When one contemplates ones own consciousness, or when one studies the world views of non-Euroamerican societies, one is struck by the fact that meaning in the life-world often requires that the hidden forces that produce or relate phenomena in experience be revealed in some way to consciousness. By being revealed, these hidden forces may be anticipated and perhaps controlled and "matters of ultimate concern" may be psychologically resolved. In "stepping back" into our own consciousness, we notice immediately that not all of the ingredients of meaning in our everyday experiences are perceptually apparent. Anthropologists have noticed that all human societies espouse a world view which, often dramatically, reveals the more important hidden forces behind events. The hidden forces are given symbolic expression as animated, often anthropomorphic characters that play an epiphanic role in myths, mystery plays, and other forms of ritual performance.

The Problem

Science has had a major impact on events both for Euroamericans and for people in more traditional societies that have intensive contact with Euroamerican society. As John Cove (1987) notes, an absolute distinction between science and traditional world views may be more apparent than real. However, there are differences between the two that have relevance to the problem being addressed by this volume (see Vine Deloria in this volume). It is interesting that, whereas modern science is, like traditional world views, in the business of explaining phenomena by revealing hidden forces, science usually does not secure an integrated, meaningful life-world for most people influenced by the scientific world view. Of course, the conceptual and technological byproducts of science influence our life-worlds, and have done so for three centuries or more. But science typically usurps the cultural position of traditional world views and thereby exacerbates a general sense of anomia or alienation from the kind of world view that makes a totally integrated and meaningful life-world possible.

When we pause to ponder this failing on the part of science, we quickly come to consider the metaphysical foundations of science and how these may differ from the foundations of traditional views. And when we examine these foundations in a cross-culturally comparative way, we are led to the crucial question of the relationship between meaning and causation in experience. What exactly is causation, as contrasted with meaning, and why is it possible for science to produce models of the former without enriching the life-world of people with the latter in any deep or integrating way? How do the fundamental assumptions about the nature of the world and how we come to know the world differ in science compared with traditional world views?

In order to answer these questions, let us first examine how the brain constitutes its world of experience from a biogenetic structural4 perspective, and then consider within that context the relationship between meaning and causation and how this relationship reflects the metaphysical differences among systems of knowledge. We will then discuss some of the problems encountered in changing the metaphysical foundations of science and will end the discussion by addressing the essential tension between creative science and the life-world.

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