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?).