When Tricycle asked me to introduce the Western intellectual tradition of human science to our readers, I knew it would be a challenge. This tradition originating in 19th-century Europe has profoundly influenced a wide range of fields in the humanities and social sciences. Over the years, Tricycle has highlighted—and I have written about—many thinkers who have been deeply influenced by it, including Robert Bellah, Charles Taylor, and Eugene Gendlin. But few Buddhists are aware that the tradition exists or that these scholars share an intellectual lineage. I knew little about human science myself, except that it included some of the most abstruse yet foundational philosophical theorists of the 20th century, such as Wilhelm Dilthey, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Hans-Georg Gadamer. The prospect of taking them all on at once was daunting.

I started my research in the usual way: by borrowing armloads of books from the library. But the reading stopped me short. I felt like I was inching my way through a dense fog. Sometimes, though, there were extraordinary moments when the fog lifted, some light of understanding broke through, and I glimpsed how important these ideas were. But then, quickly, the clouds would close in again.

Then my editor sent me to meet Amedeo Giorgi, a renowned psychological theorist who is now in his eighties. Giorgi is a pioneer who has spent 50 years introducing human science perspectives into mainstream psychology and developing qualitative research methods for psychology based on the thought of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. (Husserl founded the field of phenomenology, which studies human experience and consciousness.) Giorgi codeveloped the very first phenomenological psychology doctoral program in the United States at Duquesne University starting in 1962 and then initiated another like it at Saybrook University in 1986.

When we first met, Giorgi told me about his own encounter with the human science tradition. His story resonated with me, in part because it was reminiscent of how Buddhists talk about “meeting the dharma” as a kind of homecoming. From the time he was in college and first encountered the American philosopher and psychologist William James’s writings on consciousness, Giorgi said, he had been driven by the question of what it means to be human. Believing that the field of psychology held the answer, he pursued rigorous training in experimental psychology. But during Giorgi’s three years of undergraduate and four years of graduate work, none of his professors ever touched the question of consciousness. Instead, Giorgi told me, he got “physiology and tests and measurements and statistics and experimental psych.” So when he became a psychology professor, he was deeply conflicted. “I didn’t believe what I was teaching,” Giorgi said. “I would present it and then rip it apart.” But when a few years out of graduate school he stumbled upon the writings of human science philosophers, he knew right away that he had finally found what he had been looking for.

Giorgi has taught a lot of students. So when I relayed my difficulty with the reading to him, he understood right away. He explained that because this way of thinking requires a fundamental reorientation in our mode of thought—it basically turns one’s ordinary assumptions about the world upside down—learning it wasn’t a straightforward ordinary matter of progressively accumulating knowledge. He reassured me that these flashes of “getting it” followed by “losing it again” were typical for novices. And then he gave me some pith advice: “You have to be prepared to stretch your understanding, maybe in uncomfortable ways, or you risk collapsing everything that is new into what you already know.” I got it—this was a whole new way of seeing.

Over the next nine months, I met regularly with Giorgi. Our talks ranged from deep questions like “What is the difference between a living body and a dead one?” to practical ones like “Where can you find a good croissant in New Hampshire?” (Giorgi had just moved there from Berkeley.) During those meetings, Giorgi talked to me about this way of seeing, but he also modeled it—showing me, just in the way he responded to my questions, what very different intellectual moves one can make when starting from a different set of assumptions. I started to catch on to this new way of thinking. And as I did, I also began to understand how human science perspectives could recast the conversation between Buddhism and the contemporary world.

As Western practitioners, we are challenged to reconcile our modern education and everyday experience with a Buddhist sensibility born in a very different place and time.

In confronting this challenge, we have largely ignored an important question: What’s the best way to do that? Instead, we typically assume that question has already been answered and we ask instead: “How do we reconcile Buddhism with science?”

What happens then? The scientific community typically doesn’t engage with fundamental Buddhist metaphysical tenets like reincarnation or karma that don’t lend themselves to scientific validation; similarly, practitioners who consider themselves scientifically-minded can feel they have no choice but to dismiss as legends the claims made by masters of the Buddhist tradition to extraordinary experiences and yogic attainments that fall outside scientific credibility. Even the more scientifically acceptable spiritual experiences practitioners care about, like compassion or insight, can seem reduced or even unrecognizable once science has explained them in terms of physical causality. We can be left wondering, “Does knowing the neural correlates of our experiences, or their chemical or genetic causes, help us to grasp their meaning?”

If Buddhism is to take its place as a serious body of knowledge relevant to the modern world beyond just the margins, it must participate in sustained dialogue with contemporary forms of knowledge; certainly the dialogue with science is a necessary part of that. But what we generally think of as “science” (natural science) is not the only contemporary form of knowledge. The human science lineage from Dilthey and Husserl up to modern theorists like Giorgi has developed a parallel system of knowledge, equally exacting as natural science but specifically tailored for inquiry into meaning and human experience. If the Buddhist tradition wants to engage in a dialogue where it will be received and honored in its entirety, and if Western practitioners want to find an authentically Western perspective that accommodates and illuminates the things they care about, we might well consider the tradition Giorgi advocates. The human sciences can bring rigor and intellectual acuity to an encounter with Buddhism, but do so without denying or reducing to physical causes its cardinal experiences, values, meanings, and purposes. Such a dialogue will be both critical and mutually affirming.

Linda Heuman           

Why do we need human science? What’s wrong with using natural science to understand human beings? What most of us know as science is limited to science based on empiricism. But that science has grown up dealing with nature—physical things and processes. Now suppose I want to deal with humans. Of course humans are part physical, but not one hundred percent; you can’t reduce a human person to a physical object, to his or her body. So from a human science perspective, the science will have to get modified, because now the subject matter is humans and relationships rather than physical things and processes. But what happens in the mainstream scientific tradition is that humans are taken to be simply another form of physical nature. So you reduce humans to a physicalist perspective (it is called “naturalism”) and you keep doing science of the physical sciences!

But you can’t reduce aspects of a human like consciousness and qualitative experiences to physicality. Can love be reduced to physical sensations? And what about the many types of love, like love for a daughter verses love for a wife verses love for an old parent? Are you going to put it all down into physical feelings? Naturalism says that subjectivity or consciousness has to be like nature—but what if subjectivity isn’t like nature?

How is subjectivity different from nature? Say I’m a natural scientist and I examine an object. I don’t care what the object is—it could be a rock, it could be a star, but it is always an object. Now I come to human beings. Even though a human being is a subject, the presupposition is that this is also an object like all the other objects we study. So I treat him as an object, and subjectivity is understood objectively, which is not taking into account that my consciousness is upholding and sustaining this world.

You insist that science needs to respect humanness. What do you mean? To respect humanness, you need to start out with a better philosophical anthropology—that is, a better conception of what it is to be human—one that gives humanness everything that belongs to it. Then you need to create the methods to study that adequately. The mainstream scientific tradition puts the cart before the horse: “We know what science is, so we apply these methods to humans.”

We need to respect the question “What is a human being? What does it mean to be a person?” That’s really critical. Of course it’s tough to answer, and there’s not only one answer. But the main idea is that if you take as a departure point some of the more humanistic understandings of person, you can’t do the same things the natural sciences do, like assume that using the experimental method or quantifying a phenomenon is the best way to understand it. 

Why call human science “science?” Why not come up with another word for it? Because it fits. Getting the most rigorous knowledge you can get, that is called “science.” And we get knowledge about nature and natural phenomena, so why can’t we get knowledge about humans and human phenomena? I want knowledge of human beings as genuine human beings in the world, which means that no reductionism is allowed. I’m saying that that can be done meeting these criteria of science: the results are rigorous, they can be replicated, and they can be criticized. I claim any other phenomenologist who does this analysis should see what I saw, and if they don’t, there’s something wrong. But I don’t use the word experimental. I say I have “research situations,” because “experimental” has too many connotations of cause and effect. To me it’s meanings that matter, and meanings are not caused.

The idea that meanings are not caused is really at odds with a scientific view of the person where experience always seems to have some kind of genetic, chemical, or neuronal cause, or the popular psychological view of mental causation—say, that your neurosis goes back to something that happened in your childhood. Experience doesn’t have to be causal. Theoretically there is room for other ways of understanding it. The whole idea that I had this early experience that makes me the way I am—no, not necessarily! You may choose to be that way and bring that in as an excuse, but from my perspective, that’s not a cause because you could be other than the way you are. If it were a cause, you couldn’t do other than that. If you drop a penny, gravity is going to pull it down; it has no choice. But on the human level, it’s rarely that determined.

Husserl uses the word motivation. I look here and I’m motivated to go further. And then there is a kind of implicatory relationship among the meanings as they unfold through an experience. But the first meaning doesn’t cause the second one; rather, it is implied—and I’m motivated to pick up that implication and then I see another implication. I’m choosing.

We don’t deny causes. Cause and effect works in nature. Push me out the window and I’ll obey the law of gravity. But that’s not a human act; it is I’m an object falling, obeying the law of gravity. But what would be the psychological question? Not “How fast you were falling?”—that’s a physical question. The psychological question would be something like, “My God! Why did you do it? Did you fall? Were you pushed? Are you trying to kill yourself?” The human question is: Why? What were your motivations?

With a natural science approach to religion people can feel like their spiritual experience isn’t respected, because they get neural accounts of what to them is a meaningful experience. So there’s a gap there. You need a brain to experience, granted, but you can’t reduce experience to the brain. The assumption always is that once we understand the brain fully, we’ll understand human beings. Wrong! The brain is a marvelous organ, but it’s not the whole human being. The person is more than that.

The other thing we don’t understand well is life. As soon as a person dies, there’s still the whole brain there. You want to ask, “Why isn’t it doing what it used to be doing? What’s going on?” “Life is gone,” natural scientists say. But life—what’s that? There are certain really obvious things that natural scientists often ignore, like you need a live human being!

A lot of biology is still mechanistic in its approach, because we understand how mechanisms work, and we apply that understanding to the body. But the body is not mechanistic. Any machine you can take apart and put back together. You can’t do that to a body. Why? Because there’s life.

Husserl introduced the notion of “lifeworld.” What is it? There are several meanings in Husserl, but the basic meaning of lifeworld is the ordinary world as we live it in everyday life. Pre-scientific. Pre-any specialization whatsoever. You and I meeting at the door was a lifeworld experience. You were looking around for me, checking if this is the right apartment, and I was looking out for you. We met and we said hello. That’s lifeworld. For Husserl the lifeworld is the basis of anything else you want to do. The world of science presupposes the lifeworld. The world of economics presupposes the lifeworld. The world of entertainment presupposes it. The lifeworld is that most fundamental everyday life experience that one has. It is the absolute ground of any other world that may develop.

How does that compare to a scientific conception of the universe? The scientific concept would be a derived understanding. Husserl makes a distinction between the lifeworld and a specialized world. For example, say I want to talk about the world of math. Mathematics is all that matters now. But the lifeworld has much more than math in it. Or take the world of entertainment. Are you a good singer? Let me see if we can use you. Will your talent fit the entertainment world? Will we respond to how you sing? You keep adding specifications that meet entertainment criteria—but the world itself is bigger than entertainment. So any other world narrows all that happens in the lifeworld. Or say now I’m going to be a natural scientist. Then all of a sudden I’ve got certain presuppositions like that the “really real” is the physical. But that is the world of natural science specifying certain criteria that are narrower than the lifeworld criteria. It is building a specialized world. Then you try to put the results of the specialized world back into the lifeworld and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Natural science builds a specialized world, but when it tries to go back to the everyday world, it doesn’t always work, because the everyday world is richer than what the natural sciences produce.

How does the world of natural science become the whole world for many scientists? They make it a privileged world, so that unless you meet scientific criteria, they are not going to take you seriously. There are explicit movements like positivism that make statements like that: “Unless it’s perceptually given to me or unless I can experiment with it, then I’m not going to take it seriously.” Somebody has an extraordinary experience and they’ll say, “That’s not possible. Science doesn’t understand that, so I’m going to dismiss it.” But even ordinary experiences like friendship are difficult for natural science to account for in a way that isn’t reductionist. They might try to explain it physiologically, for example: two rats like to touch each other because it is rewarding, so that is why they became friends.

So you’re saying that the lifeworld is most fundamental, and then there are all these specialized worlds that are derivative from the lifeworld. And what happens with natural science is that one particular derivative model of the world then gets reapplied back over all worlds. It is established as a priority over the lifeworld. What happens in natural science is “really real” and what’s in the lifeworld is not. Phenomenology reverses that. Phenomenology says, no, the primary thing is the lifeworld, and science is a derived world.

Let me put it this way. We’re beings in the world. “World” means everything. It means nature, humans, consciousness—anything you can find there. How do we get nature? World minus all consciousness, all subjectivity, gives you physical nature. Then how are you going to go from physical nature back to subjectivity, when you have removed subjectivity? But that’s exactly what psychology [conceived as a natural science] is trying to do. They’re saying subjectivity is a being of nature. No, subjectivity is a being in the world. You need worldness, which means consciousness, spirituality, morality, values—and whatever else you want to have—because the whole shebang is there in world. The initial situation is world, not nature. 

I can see how this perspective counters scientism, the belief that natural science is authoritative in every area of investigation. It gives breathing room for religion and science to coexist, for example, or for art, literature, or other humanistic disciplines to stand on equal footing with science. Genuine science says, “I admit I’m a perspective. And I do come up with certain good things, but I acknowledge the legitimacy of a theological perspective, a philosophical perspective, an aesthetic perspective . . .” But scientism doesn’t: “You can fool around with those things if you want, but they don’t really count. Only science counts.” But it’s very difficult to argue with advocates of scientism, because they use the criteria of that system as their criteria. So they might say, “Prove to me that there is a spiritual dimension to human experience.” How can I prove that according to their criteria? Remember ESP? They would try to do experiments like “predict the card that’s going to come.” To me that’s ridiculous! You’re not going to prove ESP in that way, because you’re submitting to the situation of natural science to prove something that natural science doesn’t believe in. It is in the world, but you can’t establish it by means of an experiment.

Buddhist texts also speak of experiences that science doesn’t believe in or cannot establish, like clairvoyance or mind-to-mind transmission. In what sense are such experiences legitimate if science can’t establish them? Why is science the criterion here? At Lourdes, for example, Bernadette Soubirous saw the Blessed Mother. Am I going to wait for science to prove that? She had a vision of the Blessed Mother. Church authorities looked at it and examined it: “Are you making up a tall story?” “No.” “Are you lying?” “No.” You go on and you finally say, “I guess she really did.”

Are you saying that there are other means of establishing legitimacy? Yes.

Or that “legitimacy” has a different meaning? No.

Are you still meaning that it really happened? Yes.

In a scientific or a historical sense? In a historical sense, not scientific.

Okay, but did it actually happen? I would not turn to science for that.

Suppose there were three people in the room and one of them saw the Blessed Mother and the other two didn’t. Did it happen? If I examine it and find it to be true.

But on what basis are you finding it to be true? On the basis of the evidence of her speech, the description of the vision itself, the plausibility of it—a lot of different criteria like that. I might make up criteria as I go along. “If you really saw this vision, then what are the consequences?” At Lourdes, a spring came up and water came, so there was some physical evidence to go along with the vision. But I would not turn to science to legitimate that.

You mean that there are other frameworks for legitimizing than science. But that also must change the meaning of what it means to be legitimate. No. Legitimacy means that you give credence to an event, but there are other ways of solidifying evidence.

Think of it like this: There are different ways of establishing legitimacy according to how a phenomenon presents itself. For example, if we are to judge a piece of music or a painting, we have to use a different criterion because one is auditory and the other visual. So to judge a religious phenomenon by scientific criteria is like a category mistake, and the opposite is equally true. We need religious criteria for religious phenomena and scientific criteria for scientific phenomena. The world is too rich and versatile to be judged by one type of criterion only. But there’s not one set of criteria for everything.

Are there other things that count as evidence then? Depends on the nature of the phenomenon. If a person says he is feeling depressed, how am I going to know if he isn’t just saying that? Well, watch him. Is he gloomy? Does he not do much? Is he suicidal? So we won’t leave him alone or leave knives near him. Isn’t that some way of responding to this reality—the guy is suicidal—without being “scientific” about it?

Then how would you legitimize ESP, for example? You said it wouldn’t be through an experiment where you test it, so what would be a way to legitimize something like that? I once got a proposal from a student who wanted to research ESP experiences. She found a woman who thought that her husband was having an affair and not telling her. He was supposed to be at work, and the woman said she got this vision of him being in a certain place with another woman. She got in the car, drove, and he was there. Now is that evidence?

You could say: She had good intuition. She knew how to read his behavior. She had maybe watched him have a conversation with the woman. But she says, “I had this vision of him there.”

That’s what she says. She said, “I could just see him. Then when I went there, and exactly what I had the vision of is what I saw when I arrived.”

So you are still looking for some kind of evidence, aren’t you?  Sure. We look for evidence. Only faith doesn’t have evidence.

But not the kind of evidence a card experiment would produce? A card experiment is not a vital thing. Can I pick the right card that’s going to come up? What changes in the whole world? Nothing. Whereas this other one, “My husband’s having an affair”—that’s pretty vital!

I see. You are saying that when people report ESP experience, it is usually within a deep meaning structure. An experiment isolates the event from its meaning. And doesn’t that change its identity? So what the scientists were looking at in that experiment wasn’t even ESP. They are testing something. They are testing the ability of a guy to guess the next card. But so what?

Either ESP is possible or it isn’t possible. How would you find out? I would go to the lifeworld where there are people making these claims. How can I give some kind of credible evidence to the claims? And if there’s no evidence, then it falls back on faith; either you believe or you don’t believe.

So anything experienced is part of the lifeworld? The lifeworld doesn’t just include what actually exists? The lifeworld is the sum total of anything that people can even imagine. If I come across something like ESP, for example, I don’t experience it; I’m on the skeptical side. But I’m open. Tell me the story. Tell me your experience. Then I’ll look around and say, “Is there some way for me to support that?” And if not, then there’s still the option to believe it in faith. Or I’ll say, “You know, it’s something I don’t think I can believe in without more evidence.” And I don’t think I can have evidence for everything. There’s more things in the world than I can count on, in that sense. And I’m comfortable with that. I don’t have to understand everything. I can’t!

There is much hope and anticipation, especially among non-scientists, that advances in neuroscience will soon solve the mysteries of human nature. What do you make of this? Psychology follows fads and technology. The cognitive revolution was because of the computer. Imagine, we take something the humans invent—the computer—and then we use that as the model for the human who invented it! It took a while but finally now cognitive psychologists are saying maybe the computer is not the best model for the way the mind really thinks. So then neuroscience comes along with the fMRI machines—and if it weren’t for fMRIs we wouldn’t have an emphasis on neuroscience. But that’s reductionist also and it’s not going to lead anywhere in my view.

What would be the way forward, in your view? We have to come to grips with what I call “the non-palpable.” Husserl claims there are irreal objects. For example, the concept of justice—where is it? For Husserl, “anything in space, time, and regulated by causality” is real. But we have ideas; so where is the idea? The empiricists and the positivists say that since there’s nothing there, the mind must produce it. They make it a psychological thing—something the mind does. Husserl says, no, it’s just as much of an object as that coffee table, but it’s not a real object. It’s an irreal object. It doesn’t have the characteristics of a real object, because it’s not in space, time, or causality. But it still is an object, because I can say meaningful things about it, I can describe instances of it, and I can tell you what it means.

So the big breakthrough is: we’ve got to admit the irreal. We have to acknowledge that there are such things as non-palpable objects that are psychologically very meaningful.

And you are not just talking about extraordinary phenomena like ESP right? Because by Husserl’s “space, time, causality” definition all qualitative phenomena are irreal: friendship, love, happiness, spiritual experience, meaning… They are all irreal! And that’s why what we need is that breakthrough where we admit that there can be irreal presences, like ideas. Then you cannot reduce everything to looking in the brain. Do you really expect to find an idea in the brain?

So is this the reason why people think understanding the brain will solve all the mysteries of human nature: they haven’t acknowledged the existence of the irreal? Right. Because in the sciences, as soon as you admit irreal, they say, “You are getting religious,” and they don’t ever want to let religion come in. You’re also getting subjective, and they’re trying to be objective. Subjective is dangerous because it leads to religion. Everything that leads to religion gets squelched at the beginning. It’s sort of like the NRA; you can’t let a single law about guns go through because that’s the end. Human science is a slippery slope to religion. As soon as you say nonmaterial, spirit, ideas…

And yet friendship, love, happiness, spiritual experience, meaning… They’re in the world like justice! But no, that’s not natural science, see? That’s where they come in with: “We’re scientists. We don’t accept everything that’s in the world. It’s our task to correct the world.”

The whole point is: Can you see a psyche? No—the very subject matter of psychology is irreal! [Laughs.]

That’s why until they start acknowledging the irreal, they are not going to get anywhere. How do you know you’re conscious? Do you taste, smell, hear, see, or touch consciousness? No. Consciousness itself is irreal! It’s not known by empirical data. So it’s a huge phenomenon that has to be acknowledged. They turn to the brain, because it is sensorial—you can look at it and touch it. And they keep thinking by understanding the brain they’re going to understand consciousness. I say it’s a big category error. 

For more on how human science perspectives could recast the conversation between Buddhism and the contemporary world, see “A New Way Forward” in the Spring 2015 issue of Tricycle. 

Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters