Home > Philosophy > Proposal for an International Group for a First Person Science

Proposal for an International Group for a First Person Science

Eugene T. Gendlin
International Focusing Institute
34 East Lane, Spring Valley, N.Y. 10977

Don Hanlon Johnson
California Institute of Integral Studies
1453 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

Japanese Translation

We need to develop a publically recognized science in which experiencing by persons (you and I) is not systematically dropped out. We need to add a third science to the two we now have. The one that is usually called "science" employs the atomistic unit model, but there is now also "ecology" which employs a holistic model. The existence of two models protects us from some of the blind spots in either. The second model poses questions and defines variables which could not be conceived of within the atomistic science.

Models differ in methods, assumptions, the ways of going about studying anything. Whatever may be studied along the lines of a certain model will seem to have certain characteristics, because what can be defined and found has to be conceivable in terms of the model.

The unit model which governs most of our natural sciences can be understood most easily as the mathematical model. It is also the model of the machine. A machine is constructed out of parts. The parts exist separately. Each is an understandable unit. When we add numbers, for example 3+4, we keep the units clear-cut, to get seven. The number 71 is ten times this plus one more unit. Each unit can stand alone, and unites with others only if we unite them. With the unit model, anything we study is first divided into stable units, parts, atoms, particles which are understood separately. Then we use the separate units to reconstruct what we are studying. When we can make it ourselves, then we say we "understand" it. So, of course anything studied with this model seems to be something constructed, made out of separable parts. This model has given us more progress and benefits than any other kind. But like every model, it has its limitations

In the unit model there is no basic difference between living and inanimate things because everything is assumed to be made of the same inanimate parts. The parts are separately understood as if they could exist alone. The recombination is a construction. Everything complex is rendered as a kind of machine made out of separable parts. Animals and persons are just machines insofar as this kind of science can study them. How you and I experience ourselves and each other disappears in the reality presented by this science.

At home the unit-model scientist looks into the eyes of the child, and the child looks back. But the scientist thinks: "Isn't it sad that you are really just a machine!" This belief would not be possible if it were recognized that every science uses a certain approach, and that the model of the natural sciences renders anything we study as if we had made it out of separately existing units in the way in which we make a machine. The natural sciences cannot really construct living things, but the unit model leads one to assume that some day we will. Meanwhile a great many changes and artificial designs can be introduced into living things.

In ecology, on the other hand, everything is thought about within a living whole. The holistic model is the opposite of the unit model. No separate part can be understood alone. To understand it one must see its role within the whole. In recent decades much has been observed in ecology, which could not appear in the unit model. The new variables were then also given operational definitions for regular operational research.

Ecology uses the opposite model: Everything is part of the whole. Therefore "Don't do anything to the algae. It might affect everything else. One change can change the whole system." Although the holistic model is surely valuable, it has its own limitations. We are part of the whole cosmic system, and it is fruitful to study ourselves within this larger whole. But in this model we are absorbed into the wider system. Again we do not appear.

The fact that both sciences are successful, and that their contributions differ, shows that the use of different models is fruitful. Many predictions which could only have come from ecology have now been verified. The indispensability of ecology is generally accepted. There is every reason to think that a scientific model more appropriate to the reflexive processes of human beings would lead to variables and findings which might be as important for us as the results of ecology have been for the preservation of fish and other species.

The processes of humans and higher animals involve a self-reflexive dimension. Reflexivity is not a mere "consciousness" added to processes that can be understood without it. It is not just an observing awareness that hovers over a merely physical body. It is rather an inherent dimension which gives organic processes many characteristics which cannot appear in the two existing sciences with third person concepts about what occurs over there. Both sciences miss first persons, but we are here, after all.

A third model exists. It is a model of processes. It involves a philosophical shift from content to process. Instead of analyzing separated objects, one defines different kinds of experiential processes. This approach has already led to many humanly significant new variables which would never appear in the other models. There is already a great deal of verifiable knowledge, but it has not yet been integrated and systematized as a public science. The formation of a genuine first person science with its own model seems quite feasible.

The study of processes does not depend on stable units, nor on a single whole. Organic process consists of a series of always freshly created wholes. It puts the holistic model on wheels, so to speak. A reflexive process makes itself as a string of wholes that cannot be predicted, deduced, or constructed from previous ones. The process makes its own next steps.

With a process model there is no precision in terms of units, nor about the whole. The model is precise in another way: There are precise distinctions between different kinds of processes, precise ways to identify whether a given kind of process is occurring or not, the precise conditions under which it can be brought about, and its precise results.


Whether a set of assertions is science or not, doesn't depend on the basic model. It is science when one need not trust charismatic individuals or untestable reports. It is science when the findings of a given research group can also be found by other groups elsewhere.

Although unit model science and ecology differ, they both lead to the same kind of operational research with objectively defined variables. The ultimate operational research studies are the same for both, but ecology arrives at hypotheses and variables that could not arise within the atomistic model.

First person science can similarly arrive at variables and hypotheses which could not be conceived or discovered within the two existing sciences. Once recognizably defined, a first person variable can give rise to an operational (third person) version. But these objective variables can be derived only if experiencing is first studied. Then third person versions of these variables can be devised, and can predict other objective measures.

We already have such studies in a number of specialties. We also have many scattered islands of the kind of knowledge which can lead to defined variables.

Procedures and results have a truth apart from theories. Someone may object to seemingly "subjective" variables but if they can be measured with testable reliability, the erstwhile objectors become interested in the measures.

Excellent correlational methodology has long existed. What has often been lacking are precise recognizable definitions of humanly significant variables. Once reliably observable, these can be correlated with any other measures.

This is not to say that third person variables are superior in themselves. Validation of third person and first person measures is needed equally in both directions. In the human sciences the researchers need to administer their "objective" test to themselves, since this is the only way they can find out what the measure actually measures. Only on the basis of their own first person experience of what a measure taps in them can they determine whether their theoretical predictions have any chance of being verified.

The purpose of a developed first person science is not to generate correlations with the unit model science. Such correlations would occur, but rarely. Currently many scientists assume that anything experienced can be "reduced" or equated to something defined just within the unit model. Here we assume that this will turn out to be quite false. Correlations between different models are few and they never indicate an equation. Rather, for a variable in one model the correlated variable in the other model can only constitute an index, not something parallel and equal. For example, if a certain kind of anxiety correlates with sweating, this won't mean that anxiety "is really" sweating, nor is it right to assume that anxiety "is" the collection of all indices on other levels, for example the associated chemical or neurological patterns.

Even within the unit model there is no reason to assume the reduction of humans to lower level variables only. Organic chemistry does not in fact reduce to inorganic variables. Fodor ( ) points out that science increasingly develops new specialties with new variables, without anyone attempting any reduction in practice. Neurology has overtaken organic chemistry as the science to which humans are now said to be reducible. There is no reason why further higher level sciences cannot soon develop as well.

Human processes are not understandable in terms of physical, mechanical or neurological levels of explanation alone. The individual personal living process suffuses every organ.


Currently a new technology or a new drug is tested for unintended effects. If otherwise no differences are found, then it is announced that there are no differences. But of course one can test only for differences one can think of. Finding nothing does not enable one to conclude that there is "no difference." To want to "prove no difference" violates the universally accepted principle of research that "one cannot prove the null hypothesis." This is impossible because it is easy to find no difference even where there are well-known differences, if one uses inappropriate instruments. With a thermometer one could show no difference between rain and dry weather.

The first person science would provide a large field of precise variables in terms of which one could discover and evaluate the effects of technological manipulation. From the great number of variables which now exist informally and scattered in many places, the new science would soon develop a whole field of precisely defined variables, and would discover relationships between them.

In additon to its own findings, the new science could also help to evaluate a new technology. Its variables might let us recognize differences which cannot be asked about at present. When many experiential variables have been collected and some have been operationally specified, many differences might be recognized.

The current testing of new technological applications is unfortunately not yet a serious science even within the unit model. There is no systematic matrix of variables and findings. One could almost say that there is no real science concerned with the effects of technological innovations on humans. Genuine science builds each new study on previous studies, develops variables that are the same in many studies, involves a community that pays attention to any exceptions and modifies elaborate theory when the findings go against it. In comparison, we have one study on microwave ovens, two studies on power lines, perhaps one comparing natural and bio-engineered soybeans. Where there is more than one study, the variables are different and not validated against other measures. The studies are never replicated. This field is utterly unlike the systematic series of studies that characterize a serious branch of science. A first person science would remedy this lack.

A first person science with a large number of human experiential variables might find differences that are now not definable. Consider the following examples:


Newborns are routinely given many injections of drugs for various purposes, So far as can currently be determined, these achieve their aim without other consequences. In recent research on infants, Boukydis ( ) found that certain talented nurses and parents are much better at holding and fondling a newborn so as to recognize subtle difficulties, and to bring the infant to physical balance and well-being. He has defined a cluster of specific variables which nurses and parents can learn to recognize, provided that they learn a certain mode of internal attention in their own bodies. This process is now teachable and can be reliably recognized. This training is a good example of a first person process. It involves individual experiencing, but the performance it enables can be measured. If the training becomes established, it will probably improve our treatment of newborns. It will also enable us to measure whether a treatment during pregnancy or at birth makes a difference on these variables.

Differences in infants need to be measured not only right after birth, but also some years later. When a first person science has developed, we will be able to test for differences at later stages of life and on many kinds of variables, for example different kinds of dreams, different kinds of emotional blockages, different kinds of body-movement patterns, different capacities for concentration, and so on.

Drug companies and investors might like to know about undesirable effects of a treatment in advance. It would often be cheaper to take them into account in redesigning the product. We actually have this kind of knowledge already, but it is scattered and not organized and available.

Take for example, the current controversy about the drug Ritalin given to small children. Attention-deficit behavior is reduced; otherwise there is said to be no difference. But gather first person observations from close human observers: One of them nearly cried in describing her relief during vacations, when the children are without Ritalin. But what are the differences she experiences? Shall we not specify and study those?

Don Hanlon Johnson, an expert on body work has engendered a project to define the terms used in the training of several well-known methods including the Alexander Technique and Effort-Shape. When these and other such bodily variables have been specified, they can also be used to test for differences resulting from technological interventions and treatments.


It is often said that social policy decisions are influenced by the billions invested in scientific applications. Science and finance constitute a single system. Objective decisions seem impossible. Nevertheless, our social policies are argued and largely decided on the basis of science.

Politicians do not take it upon themselves to decide scientific or professional issues. They look to the officially recognized associations of experts in each field. In this regard the existence of ecology now means that the unit-model scientists no longer govern alone. Government committees making policy have to take ecology into account. We want to bring together an organized science of humans which can also be consulted in decisions that affect human beings.

Imagine yourself on a professional policy-making committee, for example on whether the removal of certain genes should be declared "safe." Certainly the company that owns the patent has a large investment, and is pressing the agency under which your committee meets. Certainly your chief has indicated which decision would make her happy. Certainly your own upbringing and culture may make you uncomfortable about the idea. All this weighs on you, but the crux is still: You must go by the best available information. And the best available information is -- science. Suppose science found that other than the intended effect, there is "no difference?" As responsible people, what else can you and your committee go by?

How can social policies possibly to be decided, if not on the best available evidence? But wherever ecology is not relevant, the best evidence today involves the assumption that human beings are machines. You can reject the assumption from your own "cultural" point of view, but this does not entitle you to reject the "best evidence." Therefore, under current conditions, social policy decisions will be based on the assumption that we are machines.

The obvious fact that we are reflexive human processes and not machines is brought home by the following science fiction story. A computerized robot realizes its condition and what is planned for him. (When it can realize ..... -- whatever "realize" involves -- the robot-man becomes a "him.") The story tells how he was made and that he is a machine. But, the story shows that if a machine could do this ....., (whatever it is that the man does), then it is human. The "this ....." includes the self-reflexive processes of wanting, feeling, and acting with an appreciation of his situation. It turns out that it hardly matters whether he is in origin human or not; if he can appreciate his situation in being treated like a machine, and if he can want something else and act on that, then he is not a machine.

We are in fact very largely in the position of the robot-man, with the difference that most of us do not yet know that in social policy-making we are assumed to be machines. But this is not a scientific finding or a well considered judgement.

It is important to let people know that the actual policies of their society assume that they are machines. It would become possible at least to slow down the current trends, if this assumption were publically known and recognized as not due to findings but due to the immensely fruitful but limited model of the natural sciences.


Francis Bacon created modern science. He recognized that no social result was coming out of the scientific experiments in which many gentlemen engaged as a fascinating hobby. Bacon understood that if their findings could be brought together, compared and collected on a society-wide basis, then a real science would result. And it did.

In a public science any new discovery is soon heard about. One knows where to announce it to all those whom it might concern. And, what is more, those concerned will respond. The discovery will be welcomed or contested, widely tested, then accepted or rejected.

In our own case, currently, there is a great deal of first person knowledge, but there is no single collection, no organized public science, no one proper place to announce it. There is little reaction to a finding. Those who don't like it feel no necessity to retest it, to find what is wrong with it, or to accept it if they cannot find anything wrong.

In the human sciences there is hardly ever a study that aims only to replicate an earlier study, or to determine what went wrong in an earlier study.

Currently there are hundreds of practical procedures, many of them very valuable for many people. The crucial variables remain the intuition of practitioners. They are capable of specificity, but there is no public motivation or call for such specificity. From a scientific point of view we would want to develop reliably recognizable marks to determine exactly what procedure is being instituted, and when. But currently this would not repay the effort because there is no public science in which it would lead to interrelations with other work, and to further discoveries.

The possibility of a first person science manifestly exists. This kind of science is developing in a number of dispersed location. There are many findings and a great deal of knowledge about first person experiencing, although not yet organized, compared and located as a socially available body of knowledge. If it were, it would make major contributions. Therefore it would soon constitute a third science which would have to be consulted and taken into account.


We advocate ADDING another kind of science, not in any way lowering our respect for the unit-model science. With computers, elevators, airplanes, electricity and countless other technologies on which society depends, the unit-model science is now so deeply built into our lives that no one could wish to do without it. We are saying only that it is not the only kind of science, and that the kind of reality it presents is not the only reality.

The public knows of many truths which science denies, ignores, or considers impossible. The credibility of science would be enhanced if the official scientific attitude included the limitations of any one model. The excluded phenomena would not be stupidly denied, but rather left to be studied by a science with a different approach. The respect for science would no longer be eroded by well-known effects which science denies.

Science is now widely viewed as mere political power. A large proportion of the population does not believe in science. There is widespread belief that nothing at all holds.

Many students arrive at the University with the attitude that there are no truths and no values, except whatever one's social group demands. "At home we say this and this, but here it will no doubt be something else. We're ready for whatever it is. Privately we know that nothing holds." Students pay lip service to research because the faculty believes in it. Privately they think it's a game.

Many people currently deny even the possibility of objectivity because findings seem to depend entirely on the hypotheses. They miss the fact that nature responds to experiments with more than we had in our hypotheses. Nature is not a single set of units, but it is never arbitrary. Nature always responds exactly just so. Nature is a responsive order with responsive objectivity. Naive objectivism and relativism are not the only alternatives.


The unit-model science is running ahead so fast, one cannot be sure that humans can catch up with its effects. Whole industries and financial networks invest billions long before anyone can know the eventual applications. And science itself is now partly on "automatic pilot." The findings from one experiment can be put directly into the computer to generate the next experiment, without a human decision about what it means coming between. Ecology does reveal some effects which would otherwise be seen only when it is too late to avoid them. But on most topics there is no alternative science.

Behind the Bronx zoo (and in other laboratories) new animals are being created. Defending this, one man asked me: "Well, would you want irresponsible people to do this?"

A combination "cowpig" was recently created. It could not stand up and was therefore not a practical success. It was also in constant pain. Currently it is often said that "evolution" is now happening through science. But evolution was in the interest of the creatures. The purpose of an all-lean pig is the market. The patenting of "superior" animals is opposed by the farmers who will have to pay a high price for them to just one company. The creature's own interest does not enter in.

Unit-model science is redesigning the plants, the animals, and now also us. Certain illness-causing genes are already being taken out. Soon anything can go if someone will pay to delete it in a coming child. But bodily human beings are capable of an immense variety of kinds of processes, and thereby also kinds of "self," kinds of "contents," and kinds of observable results. In certain kinds of process we find that the body has a capacity to generate quite new life-forwarding steps. This must not be lost. Before we redesign humans without understanding our own processes, let us establish an experiential first-person science, not instead, but along with the other two kinds of science.

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