Is Physicalism Enough? Can Consciousness be Naturalized? – Owen Flanagan in dialogue with Evan Thompson

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?).



14 Comments Add yours

  1. evanthomps says:

    Thanks, Matthew, for the write-up of our dialogue/debate.

    1. It was great to watch, way more palatable than most “debates” I’ve seen.

      1. Ken Paller says:

        Glad you liked watching it, and that it provoked your write-up. We enjoyed hosting it.

    2. By the way, I didn’t really take sides in my write up, only because I figured readers of my blog would already know where I stood. But I should add that I’m very sympathetic to the position you’re trying to carve out. As a Whiteheadian, I agree with you about the bankruptcy of physicalism as currently understood. The transcendental perspective you take on consciousness is also appealing to me, but only as an argument against physicalists. Once physicalism has been dispensed with, though, I start wondering about the merits of transcendental idealism/phenomenology… I’ve read my Deleuze, which depending on your constitution you might consider either cognitive poison or mental medicine, and while he certainly draws much inspiration from the transcendental tradition, he also chews it up and spits out something entirely new, something with a more realist spin. Are you familiar with the emerging critiques of continental phenomenology coming from the speculative realists and object-oriented ontologists? Deleuze and Whitehead are important inspirations for this critique, which I will hastily summarize: the speculative realists take Husserl et al to task for privileging human consciousness in such a way that the evolutionary picture of the world most of us currently accept becomes incomprehensible. The incompatibility arises because evolutionary theory tells us in no uncertain terms that there was a time when no human consciousness (or even cellular sentience) was here to intend the world. And yet there was still a universe of objects interacting. Similarly, there will be a time when all life goes extinct… So how are we to reconcile the insights of phenomenology regarding the primacy of consciousness with ancestrality and extinction? I think something like Whitehead’s panexperientialism might do the trick: there wasn’t always and won’t always be specifically human consciousness, but there has and always will be some modicum of experience there to intend the world (even in the most fundamental physical entities).

      What do you think?

      1. evanthomps says:

        My view is that consciousness has transcendental primacy, which I take as meaning that lived experience is a precondition for any appearance or disclosure of anything, including in the domain of science. But this kind of primacy doesn’t entail the ontic primacy of consciousness—that consciousness is the primary being or stuff out of which things emerge or are constructed. I think Husserl would agree—he doesn’t see consciousness as fundamental in that ontic way, so he isn’t an idealist (or panpsychist) in that (pre-transcendental) sense.

        As for whether Husserl privileges human consciousness, that’s a complicated question. I think in certain ways he does, but not in a way that prevents him from acknowledging that human consciousness is a late arrival on the cosmological and biological scene. He privileges consciousness from the point of view of phenomenological method, but not empirically in a way that conflicts with biology. So I think the speculative realists are simplistic in their statements about Husserl.

        In any case, 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” (understand 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.

        So, although I admire Whitehead a lot, I’m not convinced by the route he ultimately takes. That said, I hope to think about this more, guided especially by Isabelle Stengers’ book on Whitehead, which I haven’t yet had a chance to delve into. (And I still haven’t studied Deleuze carefully enough to offer thoughts on his work.)

  2. Thanks for your reflections, Evan. I think you may be right about some of the critiques of Husserl coming from the speculative realists. I find Merleau-Ponty a bit more enticing because of his more embodied take on transcendental phenomenology, and because of his ontological/cosmological shift late in life. I’m sure you’ve read his lecture notes on Whitehead and Schelling that speak to this.

    Good luck on Stengers’ book! It is dense. Stengers’ is definitely a Deleuzean reading of Whitehead.

    1. I really appreciate that ethical turn on the question of consciousness. What kind of consciousness do we want to accomplish?

      In terms of the transcendental primacy of consciousness, the speculative realist argument is that, although we may state that consciousness is a precondition for any appearance or disclosure of anything, scientific exploration has disclosed entities and processes that appear prior to the possibility of appearance to consciousness. These findings subsume consciousness, burying it in a ravine lying between the emergence of life and the death of the Sun.

      But, it seems to me that the ethical turn posed by Evan renders the prior question (What is consciousness?), obsolete. And if Buddhism is going to participate in this dialogue, perhaps the greatest contribution it can make is the observation that consciousness IS nothing. It seems to be more of a process than a thing. As Buckminster Fuller once said, “I seem to be a verb.”

      This perspective seems to naturally lead to the ethical question then, if I am a process, what kind of process do I want to be?

      So, not, WHAT is consciousness, but HOW is consciousness?

      I sense that concept of NOTHING is still neglected far too often, for we value positive knowledge far more than we do negative knowledge, which, really is the essence of Buddhism. Negative knowledge. The cutting away of delusion. The Diamond Sutra comes to mind here. After all, when Shakyamuni was asked a question reifying metaphysical terms, he responded with physical terms, and vice versa.

      1. Well put, posthumousman. I am more and more convinced of the need of a turn toward ethics, not only in the scientific study of consciousness (where its relevance should be obvious), but in all sciences. I don’t mean I think we should allow inquiry in physics and biology to be dominated by teleological presuppositions about how the world ought to be. I mean that there is no such thing as an ethically neutral science. Knowledge itself, whether scientific, artistic, or philosophical, is a product of some ethical effort and itself produces ethically relevant effects. Knowledge is the result of an ongoing social process, and as such is an ethical achievement in constant need of maintenance.

        As for consciousness being a kind of “nothing,” I think we need to tread carefully here. Such a characterization works if we remain open to process-ontological account of consciousness, where it is not understood to be any sort of persisting substantial “thing” but rather as a serially ordered string of “occurrences” or “happenings.” So consciousness is nothing thing-like; but maybe we can think it differently? As Plato enigmatically says in the Sophist, “non-being is a kind of being.” Even in physics, it is now generally accepted that the quantum vacuum from out of which space-time emerged, while apparently “nothing,” nonetheless has precisely determinable properties (e.g., those revealed by the quantum field equations). “Nothingness,” it seems, has a huge role to play in what actually happens. Perhaps we can still be speculatively expressive about what consciousness “is” while remaining cognizant that our theoretical speculations are simultaneously practical interventions altering the very “thing” we are thinking about.

  3. What comes to mind here is the mountains of research being done for military purposes…weapon development, military defense research, etc., which constitute a huge majority of scientific funding today. This seems to me to be an issue that must be confronted if the threads of these dialogues are followed through to their implications, military research and how it is made possible and encouraged.

    It seems to me that an ethical turn would not only transform scientific thought, but philosophical thought, speculative thought. A speculative thought that renounces the appeal to a Big Other (Jehovah, God-in-the-future, Historical Necessity, the State) and, as Martin Huggland puts it, “seeks to articulate why everything remains to be done, by refuting the untenable hope of redemption and recalling us to the material base of time, desire, and politics.” What we have, then is beginning to look to me more and more like a political turn.

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