Almost three years ago, Steve Ramirez (neuroscience grad student at MIT) and I exchanged a few videos and blog posts about the scientific study of consciousness (see HERE for a run down). Ramirez began and ended our brief electronic debate convinced that I, like most other philosophers he’s encountered, have developed a profound misunderstanding of how science works. In his original post back in 2010, he argued that the tools of neuroscience have become precise enough to explain consciousness without remainder by causally reducing it to intracranial neural states. Two years later, Ramirez published a fine bit of neuroscience in the journal Nature, seemingly making good on his promise. He and his colleagues’ memory re-activation experiment on lab mice has been making its way around the Internet recently and also led to this TEDx talk. It is truly an ingenious experiment that raises all kinds of interesting scientific and ethical questions regarding how such “optogenetic reactivation” technology might be used in the future on human brains (see for example this Scientific American article about the arrival of “memory engineering”).

In their paper, Ramirez et al. don’t comment on the far more difficult because more general project of explaining consciousness itself, but rather focus in on memory, one particular faculty said to be related to consciousness. They claim in their paper to have proven that activation of “specific ensembles of hippocampal neurons that contribute to a memory engram is sufficient for the recall of that memory.”

Given that we know specific memories are often stored holographically (as Karl Lashley famously showed), I can’t find a reason to assume that activation of a specific neural ensemble is even necessary for the recall of a related memory, much less that such activation is sufficient for recall. It doesn’t make sense to me to claim that a memory is simply located in this or that group of neurons when so much research has already corroborated the global distribution of memories throughout the nervous system. That the controlled activation of these neural ensembles in surgically altered lab mice with giant lasers attached to their hippocampuses should seem to cause a reactivation of previously learned behaviors in no way proves or even suggests that the mouse’s experience of said memory is somehow caused by or localized within those particular cells.

Part of it depends what we mean by “recall.” If we define recall behavioristically, as was the case in this study, then sure, I will grant Ramirez et al.’s claim. When they flip the light switch, the mouse freezes (ostensibly because its fear response is being reactivated).

If, however, we approach memory from a phenomenological as well as a neurological point of view (i.e., neurophenomenology), we will not be able to settle for a behaviorist definition of memory recall. A neurophenomenologist would be left wondering what the mouse was experiencing when the light switch was flicked on. Was its recalled memory identical to the original experience? Was it the same in some ways, but different in others? How can we say? Claiming that reactivation of a localized group of neurons is sufficient to recreate the memory said to be somehow caused by or “inscribed” on those neurons begins to seem way more speculative from the neurophenomenological perspective. We simply don’t know what the mouse’s remembered experience is like, and unfortunately we can’t ask it. Whether or not we can or should perform similar experiments on speaking animals capable of describing their experience remains to be seen. I suspect it won’t be too much longer before technology is available that is just as precise but way less invasive than that used in Ramirez’s experiment. Indeed, developing this sort of technology is one of the main goals of Obama’s government funded Brain Initiative.

But I didn’t begin this post to pick at Ramirez et al.’s experiment. It is good science, as they say. I think they’ve developed an amazing research technique that will prove to have many applications in the future (medical, commercial, political, military, etc., applications). (I can only hope these future technological applications enhance rather than undermine the spiritual freedom, aesthetic intensity, and moral depth of human existence. Based on prior technological augmentations of human cognition, I can’t say I’m all that optimistic. I am open to being surprised. Life always finds a way.)

I am writing this post not to critique his science, but to redirect his wayward philosophical interpretations of that science. In a recent post on his blog titled “Conquering All Mysteries,” Ramirez writes:

The starry heavens above and the moral law within — these were the two things that Immanuel Kant claimed were immune to scientific investigation. Equally untouchable was the vague abstraction known as consciousness. That was in the 1700s… [Nowadays] consciousness can be explained solely in terms of orderly neural activity and is fully measurable; and, morality is and ought to be understood in light of the brain states of conscious creatures. We can — and do – have a neuroscience of both, because we’re not in the 1700s anymore.

My almost instinctual response to any scientist’s aggressive attempt to explain away consciousness by causally reducing it to neurophysiological mechanisms in the skull is to fall back upon transcendental philosophy. Transcendental philosophy is said to have begun with Kant’s critiques (of pure reason, practical reason, and judgment), all published in the last decades of the 18th century. Kant’s philosophical discovery (or invention?) of the transcendental method has made him the modern equivalent of Aristotle (who for 1500 years Islamic and Western scholars simply referred to as “the Philosopher”). But unlike with Aristotle, whose metaphysical decrees were swallowed almost without chewing by medieval European thinkers, Kant’s work repeatedly mutated as it was chewed over, swallowed, digested, and improved upon by the best scientific minds of his era. Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel (and Husserl in the 20th ce.) vastly expanded the reach of transcendental philosophy. Where Kant believed he had been forced “to limit knowledge in order to make room for faith,” his three main German predecessors, each in their own way, broke open all dogmatic limits to scientific knowledge–not only to knowledge of nature, but also to knowledge of God (because as Spinoza taught us, God is Nature).

Kant didn’t exactly claim that the natural world and human consciousness were “immune to scientific investigation.” Rather, he tried to uncover the a priori conceptual and perceptual conditions under which any science of nature–whether cosmic or human nature–must necessary proceed in order to remain scientific. Kant was in a sense trying to place limits on positive science (whether it purported to produce knowledge of the cosmos, the soul, or the divine), but he was also trying to provide a firm foundation for the possibility of scientific investigation of the natural world (the world that appears to our senses and conforms to our logic). I don’t count myself as a transcendental philosopher when in conversation with other philosophers (see HERE for example), but when confronted by anti-philosophical scientific materialists, I can’t help but invoke the transcendental position. If subjective consciousness is the condition for the possibility of the experience and cognition of external objects (as transcendentalists argue), then an explanation in terms of those objects, no matter how sophisticated or complexly arrayed they may be, will always fail to explain said consciousness. What so many scientific materialists seem to neglect is that a reduction of human consciousness to the deterministic playing out of neurophysiological mechanisms is also a reduction of the scientific enterprise to a talking primate’s delusion of grandeur. If consciousness (and with it, rigorous logic and honest empiricism) is just an empty word, just a culturally acquired illusion with no causal or physical role to play, then we have no reason to take science–one of human consciousness’ greatest achievements (right up there with art, religion, and morality)–seriously. Neuroscientific reductionism (usually unknowingly) undermines its own philosophical conditions of possibility. As Hegel argued, it treats spirit as though it were a bone.

Ramirez’s approach to the brain remains at the level of what Owen Barfield called “dashboard knowledge.” Such knowledge gives us the ability to manipulate and control the brain from the outside, but tells us very little about how the brain is related to the consciousness we experience directly “in here.” For the latter, we need something like phenomenology or contemplative practice (or both, as Evan Thompson argues). Any hope we have of explaining experience (whatever that might mean…) is going to have to emerge as much from a transformation within experience (i.e., through a new first person expression of subjectivity) as from outside it by way of a new third person description of or technological intervention upon the behavior of the objective brain and body.

Ramirez claims that his hypothesis regarding the neural causes of consciousness is falsifiable. I fail to see how this is the case. He isn’t researching the brain to see if it causes consciousness. That the brain causes consciousness is a presupposition of his neuroscientific research method. If we grant that there is some kind of correlation between conscious experience and neural processes (which I am perfectly willing to do), he can’t help but confirm his hypothesis with every experiment. Ramirez’s hypothesis is blind to the difference between mind-brain correlation and brain-mind causation (as I argued in my response to him three years ago). It is no surprise that neuroscientists operating from within such a reductionistic paradigm can only confirm their own initial hypothesis. Brain-mind reductionism is more a metaphysical position than a falsifiable scientific hypothesis. Its faults and merits would be better considered in the court of philosophy. The situation today is no different than it was for Kant more than 200 years ago. There were reductionistic neurophysiologists then, too. His transcendental arguments still apply, for those who care to understand them.

Ramirez responds to the claim of a philosopher in this MIT neuroscience magazine (see p. 23) that scientific study of the brain has only shown and could only ever show mind-brain correlation rather than brain-mind causation. According to Ramirez, we philosophers “deeply misunderstand what correlation and causation really mean.” But his rebuttal entirely misses the point both the author of the magazine piece and myself are trying to make, which is not at all concerned with whether physical manipulations of the brain (using laser beams or pharmaceuticals, etc.) can alter consciousness. Obviously they can. The point is that, no matter how proficient we are at altering consciousness by manipulating the brain (i.e., “dashboard knowledge”), this tells us nothing about the causal relationship between physical brain states and subjective experience, nor does it tell us anything about the ontology of the latter. We know they must be somehow related, yes. But how? If Ramirez or any other neuroscientific reductionist has a theory for how the grey matter in the skull could generate mental experience, I’m all ears. Thus far, I’ve yet to hear of such a theory. What I hear are aggressively asserted unfalsifiable metaphysical claims masquerading as science, claims that can only be properly adjudicated philosophically.

In philosophy, there are no final solutions. No philosopher’s judgment ever goes unchallenged by another’s. Every genuine philosophical problem is therefore an infinite task. I approach the hard problem of consciousness as precisely such an infinite task. If there is an explanation for experience, it better include an injunction for erasing experience, a sort of Zen koan or psychedelic trip that opens me to the emptiness that is supposed to reside inside my “no-mind.”

Here is my original video response to Steve Ramirez three years ago:

Here are some of my reflections from several years ago on materialism:

A few excerpts from professor of human ecology Alf Hornborg‘s book The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (2001).

Alf Hornborg

“We seem to have difficulties understanding exactly in which sense human ideas and social relations intervene in the material realities of the biosphere. Rather than continuing to appraoch ‘knowledge’ from the Cartesian assumption of a separation of subject and object, we shall have to concede that our image-building actively participates in the constitution of the world. Our perception of our physical environment is inseparable from our involvement in it” (10).

“Calling world trade exploitative, I insist, is more than a value judgment. It is an inference based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. If production is a dissipative process, and a prerequisite for industrial production is the exchange of finished products for raw materials and fuels, then it follows that industrialism implies a social transfer of entropy. The sum of industrial products represents greater entropy than the sum of fuels and raw materials for which they are exchanged. The net transfer of ‘negative entropy’ to industrial centers is the basis for techno-economic ‘growth’ or ‘development.’ In other words, we must begin to understand machines as thoroughly social phenomena. They are the result of asymmetric, global transfers of resources. The knowledge employed to keep them running would be infertile if the world market did not see to it that the industrial sectors of world society maintain a net gain in ‘negative entropy’ (or in exergy). Inversely, the non-industrial sectors experience a net increase in entropy as natural resources and traditional social structures are dismembered. The ecological and socioeconomic impoverishment of the periphery are two sides of the same coin, for both nature and human labor are underpaid resources of high-quality energy for the industrial ‘technomass.’ In not reckoning with the intimate connection between economics and technology–the social and the material aspects of industrialism–we tend to talk as if technology were primarily a matter of knowledge. We imagine that education and ‘technology transfer’ might solve problems of ‘underdevelopment,’ forgetting, as it were, that new centers of industrial growth require new peripheries to exploit…The science of technology is not simply a matter of applying rational thought to nature, for the ‘natural’ conditions for matter-energy conversions in privileged, so-called developed areas have been transformed by world trade…Conventional economics, in recognizing no other concept of value than exchange value, tends to conceal this inequality” (11).

“Money in itself is merely an idea about the interchangeability of things and about the mutability of the rates at which things are exchanged. In practical, social life, it is a regulation of people’s claims on one another” (14).

Deleuze writes of Spinoza’s epochal realization that we do not know what a body can do:

Spinoza will engender all the passions, in their details, on the basis of these two fundamental affects: joy as an increase in the power of acting, sadness as a diminution or destruction of the power of acting. This comes down to saying that each thing, body or soul, is defined by a certain characteristic, complex relation, but I would also say that each thing, body or soul, is defined by a certain power [pouvoir] of being affected. Everything happens as if each one of us had a certain power of being affected. If you consider beasts, Spinoza will be firm in telling us that what counts among animals is not at all the genera or species; genera and species are absolutely confused notions, abstract ideas. What counts is the question, of what is a body capable? And thereby he sets out one of the most fundamental questions in his whole philosophy (before him there had been Hobbes and others) by saying that the only question is that we don’t even know [savons] what a body is capable of, we prattle on about the soul and the mind and we don’t know what a body can do. But a body must be defined by the ensemble of relations which compose it, or, what amounts to exactly the same thing, by its power of being affected. As long as you don’t know what power a body has to be affected, as long as you learn like that, in chance encounters, you will not have the wise life, you will not have wisdom.
Knowing what you are capable of. This is not at all a moral question, but above all a physical question, as a question to the body and to the soul. A body has something fundamentally hidden: we could speak of the human species, the human genera, but this won’t tell us what is capable of affecting our body, what is capable of destroying it. The only question is the power of being affected. What distinguishes a frog from an ape? It’s not the specific or generic characteristics, Spinoza says, rather it’s the fact that they are not capable of the same affections. Thus it will be necessary to make, for each animal, veritable charts of affects, the affects of which a beast is capable. And likewise for men: the affects of which man is capable. We should notice at this moment that, depending on the culture, depending on the society, men are not all capable of the same affects.

I’ve been reading some of the theoretical biologist Robert Rosen‘s essays on the relationship between biology and physics and can’t help but compare him to Friedrich Schelling.

Rosen writes:

[Contemporary physics embodies] a mechanistic approach to biological phenomena, whose only alternative seems to be a discredited, mystical, unscientific vitalism. [It] supposes biology to be a specialization of something inherently more general than biology itself, and the phenomena of life to be nothing but very special embodiments of more universal laws, which in themselves have nothing to do with life and are already independently known. In this view, whatever problems set biology apart from the rest of science arise precisely because organisms are so special.

One prevailing manifestation of such ideas is the naive reductionism that passes today as the prevailing philosophy underlying empirical approaches to organisms. The very word connotes that living things are special cases of something else, and that we learn everything there is to know about them by reducing them, treating them as mere corollaries of what is more general and more universal.

However, organisms, far from being a special case, an embodiment of more general principles or laws we believe we already know, are indications that these laws themselves are profoundly incomplete. The universe described by these laws is an extremely impoverished, nongeneric one, and one in which life cannot exist. In short, far from being a special case of these laws, and reducible to them, biology provides the most spectacular examples of their inadequacy. The alternative is not vitalism, but rather a more generic view of the scientific world itself, in which it is the mechanistic laws that are the special cases.

-(p. 33-34, Essays on Life itself, 2000).

Schelling, considering nature’s fundamental organization, writes:

the particular successions of causes and effects (that delude us with the appearance of mechanism) disappear as infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism in which the world itself persists.

-(p. 70, On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI).

Find the article in SubStance HERE.

“Deleuze and Guattari’s mode of immanent critique is linked to the possibility of founding identities and collectivities which, because inherently relational and constantly in a state of becoming, can not be the subject of straightforward representation, whether in ontological or political discourse. I will argue that sorcery is an important reference point for such a politics precisely because of the inherently relational character of the intensified affects, experimental semiotics, and alternative power structures sorcery calls into play. In this way I hope to indicate how it might be that precisely in this most esoteric or spiritual of models we can discover rudiments of resistance to the present, and perhaps even reverse Adorno’s appraisal of the status of occultism in capital times.”

Let’s spend some time with Alan Watts. I recommend a decent dose of sour diesel just prior to pushing play.

So then, is it true? Is the modern idea of consciousness–the so-called “me,” my “I,” the “ego”–a hallucination, a sort of muscle knot inside our forehead in sorry need of a meditative massage? Is our battle with a mechanical nature just a terrible nightmare, a dream that our true identity will soon awaken from?

Schelling and Whitehead were speculative philosophers. This appellative, like that of metaphysician or theologian, may carry with it certain baggage that those of a skeptical or positivist bent are wont to do without. But aside from those epochal moments when thinkers are suddenly inspired by speculative imagination, or by the break through of concept creation, or the influx of divine logos, I can’t see any further sources of genuine philosophical insight. We may as well admit we don’t believe in these possibilities anymore and let philosophy die. It’d be more honest to just call our actual endeavor that of “linguistic analysis” or “skeptical reflection upon factual evidence” or “techno-scientific transformation of nature” or whatever.

Whitehead, for one, was not ready to lay wisdom in her grave. In The Aims of Education, he wrote:

“In my view the creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done.”

Schelling and Whitehead both attempted to philosophize in the context of revolutionary advances in science. For Schelling, it was electricity, magnetism, and chemistry. For Whitehead, it was evolutionary, quantum, and relativity theories. They strove not to contradict these scientific advances in order to protect the sanctity of the human soul, as we might interpret Kant’s project (“I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith”), but rather to understand the human psyche as an outgrowth of the dynamic natural world science was coming to know.

In Process and Reality, Whitehead wrote:

“It is the accepted doctrine in physical science that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom; but it is doubled-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body.”

In Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1797), Schelling wrote:

“So long as I myself am identical with Nature, I understand what a living nature is as well as I understand my own life…As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from nature, nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.”

This continuity between mind and life, nous and physis, is the speculative philosopher’s wager. A speculative philosopher approaches philosophy both as a creative task and as a journey of discovery. Speculative philosophy relies as much on synthetic power of imagination as it does the analytic power of understanding, as much on feeling and desire as logic or theory. To speculate is to construct conceptual networks that tell meaningful stories concerning the course of natural history. For this reason, speculative philosophy will always have a mythical flavor. But I’d argue the root images and creative concepts seeded, sprouted, and grafted together by Schelling and Whitehead connect myth directly to the elemental powers of a dynamic and evolving nature. Their goal is not to explain nature as the design of deities (or Deity), but to reveal the way in which what get called deities in cultural stories are in fact just the creative dynamics of nature itself (e.g., gravity and light, earth and sun, etc.) operating at a higher power or potency. The physical tension between light and gravity in nature becomes the spiritual tension between love and evil in the realm of human culture (physical polarity^2=spiritual polarity).

In Philosophical Inquiries into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809), Schelling writes:

“As a thunderstorm is caused in a mediated way by the sun but immediately by an opposing force of the earth, so is the spirit of evil aroused by the approach of the good not through a sharing but rather by a spreading out of forces. Hence, only in connection with the decisive emergence of the good, does evil also emerge quite decisively and as itself, just as, in turn, the very moment when the earth becomes for the second time desolate and empty becomes the moment of birth for the higher light of the spirit that was in the world from the very beginning, but not comprehended by the darkness acting for itself, and in a yet closed and limited revelation.”

Later in the same text, Schelling writes:

“Nature is the first or old Testament, since things are still…subject to the law. The human is the beginning of the new covenant through which as mediator, since he is himself tied to God, God also accepts nature and makes it into himself. The human is hence the redeemer of nature toward which all formation in nature aims. The world that is fulfilled in human beings is in nature as a dark, prophetic (not fully pronounced) word.”

I had a friendly exchange yesterday with the cognitive scientist and philosopher Evan Thompson about his debate earlier this year with another cognitive scientist Owen Flanagan. The two distinguished thinkers disagreed about whether physicalism as currently understood can provide an adequate account of consciousness. I wanted to revisit several of the themes Evan and I discussed in our comment exchange. I suggested in a comment that, while I agree the transcendental/phenomenological perspective provides a knock-down argument against any sort of objectivist explanation of subjectivity, I’m not as certain that, having laid such dogmatism to bed, Husserlian phenomenology is capable of helping us re-construct a less naive, more robust form of ontological realism (although I do try to push the late Husserl toward such realism in this paper on ecophenomenology).

Maybe Evan isn’t as interested as I am in a post-transcendental attempt at realism. I have a lot of sympathy for the more constructivist enactive paradigm he, Francisco Varela, and Eleanor Rosch first articulated in The Embodied Mind (1993). But since my fateful encounter with the thought of Alfred North Whitehead [which occurred just about the same time I was reading Evan’s next book, Mind in Life (2007)], I realized I needed to think constructivism ontologically, rather than epistemologically. Which is to say, I needed to think being as a process of self-construction, rather than being constructed by thought.

Now to be fair, as I understand the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy that Varela and Thompson draw upon in their articulation of enactivism, nothing is to prevent us from interpreting the “dependent co-arising” of all things in ontological terms. Whitehead himself acknowledged that in certain respects his “process-relational” ontology bears more resemblance to certain stains of Indian and Buddhist than to Western thought (see Process and Reality, pgs. 244, 342-343). For Whitehead, every actual occasion of experience is internally related to every other actual occasion. This means that there is nothing in the universe that can exist independently of anything else (for Whitehead, this includes even God). Everything there is emerges in concert with everything else. On the other hand, I’ve repeatedly argued against the over-simplification that Whitehead reduces individual occasions of experience to their global relations (HERE, HERE, HERE). Like Varela, who attempts to displace the old substantialist self with a more flexible conception of an emergent “virtual selfhood” or “subject-pole” (as he describes it in this paper just before his untimely death in 2002), Whitehead articulates individuality in terms of the “subjective form” of each occasion–an occasion’s unique feeling-toned concern for and response to the data it receives from the past occasions out of which it emerges. In this sense there is a lot of overlap between a process ontology and enactivism.

Here is what Evan had to say in a comment under my last post about his debate with Owen Flanagan:

…in my own work I follow the trajectory that arises in the later Husserl and continues in Merleau-Ponty, and that calls for a rethinking of the concept of “nature” in a post-physicalist way—one that doesn’t conceive of fundamental nature or physical being in a way that builds in the objectivist idea that such being is intrinsically or essentially non-experiential. But, again, this point doesn’t entail that nature is intrinsically or essentially experiential (this is the line that panpsychists and Whiteheadians take). (Maybe it is, but I don’t think we’re now in position to know that.) All I want to say for now (or think I have grounds for saying now) is that we can see historically how the concept of nature as physical being got constructed in an objectivist way, while at the same time we can begin to conceive of the possibility of a different kind of construction that would be post-physicalist and post-dualist–that is, beyond the divide between the “mental” (understood as not conceptually involving the physical) and the “physical” (understood as not conceptually involving the mental). This is what I had in mind when I invoked “neutral monism” or “neutral non-dualism” in the exchange with Owen.

Evan also mentioned that he plans to read Isabelle Stengers‘ recently translated book Thinking With Whitehead, at which point he’ll have a better sense for exactly what prevents him from following Whitehead all the way. I look forward to his reflections on that front. For now, I’m encouraged by his invocation of “neutral monism,” a position that William James fleshed out more than a century ago and that had a tremendous impact on Whitehead’s philosophical development. James’ notion of some substratum of “pure experience” from out of which subject and object, mind and matter, emerge and constellate themselves into more or less stable patterns of perceptual habit is very close to Whitehead’s own brand of panexperientialism.

I’ll leave you with this lecture by David Kleinberg-Levin on Merleau-Ponty’s late thought, including his understanding of the elemental flesh of the world. Thinking with Whitehead, I’d argue, can help us follow the late Merleau-Ponty’s desire not only to unify the mind with the flesh of the body, but mind and body with the flesh of the world. In this way, as Levin puts it, things become a prolongation of my body, just as my body becomes a prolongation of the world. (The authors of the recently published Nature and Logos: A Whiteheadian Key to Merleau-Ponty’s Fundamental Thought agree with the tremendous potential for cross-fertilization of these two thinkers).

 

Great piece by Trevor Malkinson on the state of the planet:

A Time to Mourn, A Time to Weep- The Many Faces of Progress.

Malkinson quotes the process theologian John Cobb Jr. from this recent interview:

If I tried to be very philosophical, and look at things very broadly, I think that the divine experiment on this planet is not going to continue much longer. But I think whatever we have done, whatever we have accomplished, has enriched the life of God and it has not been a waste, so the experiment has not been a total failure. And I hope somewhere else in the universe, maybe many other places in the universe, there are other experiments and some of them will be more successful then this one. 

Check out the video from their exchange at Northwestern earlier this year. Below are some of my notes and reflections after watching…

Owen Flanagan argues that physicalism is the only feasible view. Naturalism is the inference to the best explanation. Conscious states are brain states. At some point in evolutionary history, somehow dead matter came to life, and some time later, somehow, life became conscious. There can only be physical solutions to these problems.

Flanagan argues that I can never have another person’s experience, that consciousness is inherently private.

Flanagan quotes the Dalai Lama, who counters physicalism with the claim that, while gross mental states may be physiological, our innate nature–the luminous core of consciousness–is not limited by the brain.

Evan Thompson had four key points: 1) consciousness is primary, 2) physicalism won’t work as metaphysics or methodologically, 3) neuroscience must integrate embodied phenomenology, and 4) contemplative practice can help us with this integration.

1) Primacy of consciousness first established by Kant, elaborated by Husserl… Consciousness is not something we have, it is something we live. If we lost it, we would no longer be. Without consciousness, there is no world, there is no science. This is a horizonal conception of consciousness. It cannot be objectified.

Consciousness has epistemological primacy. Scientific models of the world are distillations of our conscious experience as observers. We never step outside consciousness to see the world from nowhere. It makes no sense to try to reduce consciousness to one or another of our scientific models.

2) Physicalism won’t work as metaphysics or methodology. What is it to be physical, anyway? Let’s try to define it: the physical is what today’s science says it is. But that can’t be right, since there are deep and fundamental problems with current physics, so we have to define the physical by pointing to some future scientific conception of matter… But what if it turns out that the panpsychists are right and it turns out that mental states are as fundamental as material states at the most fundamental scale? Or, what if it turns out there is no fundamental scale?

We need to enlarge our conception of the scientific method if we hope to account for consciousness scientifically.

3) Neuroscience must integrate phenomenology. Science cannot objectify the subjective if it hopes to understand the subjective as such. For Thompson, consciousness requires not only a brain, but a body and a world. Science must therefore approach consciousness intersubjectively. Which is easy, since science is already an intersubjective enterprise guided by peer review. Scientists are always already involved in lived experience and their work is always already phenomenological.

4) Contemplative traditions can teach us about the ontology of consciousness. The training of awareness and emotional response, learning to cognitive reappraise our knee-jerk reactions, etc., may be necessary to understand the underlying nature of experience. Learning to distinguish our narrative sense of self from our present moment experience or embodied sense of self has measurable neurological effects. The science of consciousness requires a circle of hermeneutical exchange between (at least!) neuroscientists, phenomenologists, anthropologists, and contemplative practitioners.

As Thompson describes it: “Whatever counts as ‘nature’ can’t be understood apart from human cognitive practices of investigating nature, and therefore can’t be given absolute explanatory primacy over mind.”

I with him for the same reasons I’m on board with Bruno Latour‘s ontological constructivism. I’m not sure Evan would go so far, however, as he seems to plant his feet firmly on phenomenological ground, and so in some sense his claims about the limits of physicalism are not really metaphysical, but epistemological. I don’t know if Husserl is enough here…

Thompson ends with some questions about the ethics of consciousness studies. He wants us to ask not only “what is consciousness?, but “what sort of consciousness do we want to cultivate?” This isn’t a question many cognitive scientists seem to be asking…

….

In his rebuttal, Flanagan acuses Thompson of “romantic rhapsodizing” for claiming that consciousness is “all we are and all we have.” He questions whether we can really take our phenomenological intuitions seriously. He also wonders if even highly refined introspective practices (like Buddhist meditation) aren’t just unnecessarily theoretically front-loading experimental work. Unlike Thompson, Flanagan thinks science can objectify consciousness.

In his response, Thompson clarifies the ontological principles underlying the particular school of Buddhism (Madhyamika) that he thinks is relevant to the scientific study of consciousness. For Mādhyamikas, there is no underlying substance or essence to anything, whether physical or mental, because all apparently separate things are really dependently co-arising phenomena. From this point of view, not only can’t consciousness be objectified, nothing can. Thompson looks to this Buddhist tradition in an attempt to draw Western cognitive scientists into a cross-cultural dialogue, not so we can all become Buddhists, but so we can learn from a tradition that has been studying human mental processes from a first and second person point of view for thousands of years longer than Western science has been studying it from a third person view. And learning from them doesn’t mean we accept bad arguments about the ontology of consciousness.

Thompson agrees with Flanagan that we can objectify the mind, he just doesn’t think we can do so exhaustively. There will always be something left out of an objective account of subjectivity (duh?).

 

“Everything that Rises…” Or Synthetic Thought, Florilegium and the Networked Age: ITC 2013.

English: spider web with fog droplets, San Fra...

My friend Jeremy is the official blogger for ITC 2013 here in San Francisco. I’m completely with him in his call for a move away from integral theory as an assimilation of other ideas to a more decentralized and rhizomatic network-logic where the whole point of theoretical integration is to get ideas to evolve, which is to say, to have mutant babies with each other.

Thanks to Adam/Knowledge-Ecology for pointing me to this one.

I really dig what he says about physics and science…

These posts are relevant to some of what Caputo has to say about correlationism, the philosophy of religion, and physical reality:

https://footnotes2plato.com/2011/03/02/owen-barfield-and-quentin-meillassoux/

https://footnotes2plato.com/2011/10/04/speculative-philosophy-and-incarnationalism-in-whitehead-and-meillassoux/

https://footnotes2plato.com/2012/01/18/tilting-at-windmill-materialism-towards-an-ontology-of-organism-ooo/

https://footnotes2plato.com/2011/05/05/towards-a-christological-realism-thinking-the-correlation-with-teilhard-and-barfield/

I posted this on FaceBook in a thread about humanities departments needing to get over Aristotle’s biology and was told to stop spamming, so I suppose I’d better just post it here instead.

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If contemporary biology is going to throw out “purpose” and “essence” as concepts, it needs to throw out correlate concepts like “accident,” as well. I’d want to affirm that individual organisms were not planned in advance by God’s envisionment of the eternal forms as divided into a particular array of genera and species. By definition, a unique individual exists in excess of any abstract universal, whether at the special or general level in the chain of being. Even if there is such a Platonic God envisioning eternal objects, this envisionment could not determine the playing out of cosmic evolution. If time is truly evolutive–if it is a creative advance and not just a collision of particles–then even an all-knowing, all-powerful Laplacian God could not have known in advance (on “the first day”) what the physical universe would become in the last (today). We can’t think the realities of earth and sky in Aristotle’s terms anymore. No more purposes or essences determining species, but no more “accidents” or “mutations” determining them, either.

Organisms are negentropically powered homeodynamic systems that emerge, transform, and go extinct in the course of historical time. They live only by surfing thermodynamic gradients in their local environments. When these physical energy currents shift courses, organisms can either adapt or die. But so long as organisms meet the minimal entropic requirements of their energy environment, they are ‘free’ to evolve creatively. They can drift and are not simply shaped by pre-existing niches. Niches emerge alongside the creative decisions of organisms and are the not one-way causes of speciation. Random mutation and natural selection alone cannot account for the current or future biosphere (as Stu Kauffman is fond of repeating in ever-more convincing terms: http://www.necsi.edu/video/kauffman.html).

This doesn’t mean organisms are pre-programed by eternal forms, this means there is a non-random, non-programed “creative” aspect to the evolution of life. So gone are the ancient concepts of Creator and creature, Mind and matter, Essence and accident, Purpose and perversion, etc. What we need now are mediating concepts like Creativity, Imagination, Emergence, Expression, etc.

See also this essay on Whitehead’s ontologization of evolution.

English: Ludwig Wittgenstein / Pencil on board

There was a period of about 3 months back in college when Wittgenstein was all I could read (this essay emerged out of that period). His genius had infected me. I was sure his solutions had dissolved all my philosophical problems (indeed, I thought he’d cured me of philosophy). Of course, back in college, I had only just begun to construct philosophical problems for myself. At that point my collection was minuscule. The most confusing of my two or three problems was the so-called “mind/body” problem–a problem that Wittgenstein’s words seemed to be working therapeutically upon like a sore knot in my semantic musculature. In time, however, I came to learn of many new problems… like the “body/body” problem, and the “zombie” problem, and of course the “I/me” problem… Wittgenstein was never refuted or surpassed for me, far from it! But his solutions began to fade from memory as unforeseen philosophical problems continued to multiply. Even if Wittgenstein did in some sense solve the “mind/body” problem for me, the new problems which emerged began to seem less like stiff muscles and more like the growth of new appendages or new organs of perception.