More on Bill Nye’s market-based defense of science

Someone started a reddit thread about my post last week on the Ken Ham v. Bill Nye debate. The user hpyhpyjoyjoy brought to my attention that Nye has promoted Bill Gates’ philanthropic projects, in particular his Foundation’s effort to eradicate disease among poor people. Hpyhpyjoyjoy writes:

“Nye was shilling for Bill Gates in his Gates Foundation newsletter not too long ago. The ‘science’ contained therein intimated that infectious disease was a static slice of a pie chart to be whittled away by triumphal government-corporate agencies. A creationism of static bacterial and viral kinds, ironically.”

Below is another example of Nye in one of the Gates Foundation’s promotional videos attempting to “dispel poverty myths” about disease:

Let me be clear. In criticizing Nye’s form of “science education,” I don’t mean “we” ought to accept Ken Ham’s Biblical literalism, nor do I believe “we” can just ignore the suffering of children in Africa. But who is this “we”?

I can’t help but cringe when Nye defends his white man’s burden to use techno-science to solve all Africa’s problems. Its the old Enlightenment myth about Western science conquering the darkness of nature, rationalizing it, economizing it, making it cleaner and more efficient. Nye’s image of science hasn’t yet shaken off its colonialist presumptions. His scientific materialism functions as an apology for American imperialism and the global capitalist system it supports.

Ham’s creationism is no better. His fundamentalist brand of Christianity can only function in the context of consumer capitalism, where one buys into this or that personal belief system like one wears Nikes, Reeboks, or Adidas. The credal product Ham is selling is extremely attractive in today’s unstable and anxiety provoking marketplace. Unlike so many of the other belief systems or world views operating among various populations of postmodern society, Young Earth Creationism has the benefit of being the one and only such system that offers its adherents complete certainty due to the fact that it is unquestionably true (at least for those who buy into it). “The world was created by a transcendent God several thousand years ago; it was perfect until Man sinned; but as long as I believe in God and His revealed Word (literally interpreted), I will be saved.” All of life’s confusion explained, all its suffering assuaged, just like that.

Scientism is another popular belief system providing its adherents with certainty about the way the world really is. It may not save souls by assuring them safe passage to heaven; but by dissolving the very idea of the soul it allows its adherents to enact different fantasy, that of improved bodily comfort through endless technological progress (a sort of heaven on earth). Scientism should be distinguished from the method(s) of science and the always re-interpretable body of scientific knowledge this method leaves in its wake. Nye does not strike me as an especially dogmatic believer in Scientism (unlike, say, Dawkins or Krauss). He seems to conceive of science as a disciplined process of discovery whereby the more you know the more you know you don’t know. I am not opposed to this description of science, but I do think it is partial: it leaves out the constructive side of its endeavors. The enactive epistemology I’d want to defend implies that all our knowing dwells in the tensionality between discovery and creation. Science doesn’t simply mirror an objective nature more or less accurately. Science is always wed to technology, to certain ways of intervening upon the natural flux, of actively resisting its given resistances. The implications of this marriage include the fact that the scientific project can never be “value free,” and that certain kinds of techno-science, like that deployed in service of the values of global capitalism, can have dire social and ecological consequences. Nye is better than some others, but he falls prey to the myth of the Enlightenment when he characterizes techno-science as a “fight against myth.” Science is not a fight against myth; rather, it brings forth a new kind of myth. Eric Voegelin warns of the “serious consequences for the stability both of personality and society” that emerge with the Enlightenment belief that humans might be made free of myth. Voegelin continues (excerpted from Volume 16 of the Collected Works, Plato and Aristotle):

“The model of positive science destroys the understanding of the myth for the past as well as for the present. With regard to the myth of the past the symbols and dogmas that have grown historically will be misunderstood as concepts and verifiable propositions and will inevitably be found of doubtful value. The symbols of the myth are cut off, through this attitude, from their basis in the unconscious and are required to legitimate themselves as if they were propositions concerning objects. The myth is erroneously supposed to be meant ‘literally’ instead of symbolically, and consequently appears as naïve or superstitious. With regard to the myth of the present the result is equally destructive. The myth has a fundamental function in human existence and myths will be created no matter what anybody thinks about them. We cannot overcome the myth, we can only misunderstand it. With regard to the contemporary myth, of the eighteenth century and after, the positivist misunderstanding has the consequence that the mythical symbols are claimed to be what the symbols of the past are charged not to be, that is, ‘science’ or ‘theory.’ Such symbols as ‘reason,’ ‘mankind,’ ‘proletariat,’ ‘race,’ ‘communist society,’ ‘world-peace,’ and so forth, are supposed to be different in nature from pagan or Christian symbols because their mythical truth is covered and obscured by the superimposition of the additional myth of science. Since the myth does not cease to be myth because somebody believes it to be science, the telescoping of myth and science has a peculiar warping effect on the personality of the believers. As long as the movements of the unconscious are allowed to express themselves in myth in free recognition of their nature, the soul of man preserves its openness toward its cosmic ground. The terror of an infinitely overpowering, as well as the reassurance of an infinitely embracing, beyond as the matrix of separate, individual existence, endow the soul with its more-than-human dimension; and through the acceptance of the truth of this dimension (that is, through faith) the separateness of human existence can, in its turn, be recognized and tolerated in its finiteness and limitations…When the balance of openness and separateness is destroyed through the telescoping of myth and science, the forces of the unconscious will stream into the form, not of the myth, but of theory or science. The symbols of the myth become perverted into intramundane, illusionary objects, ‘given,’ as if they were empirical data, to the cognitive and active functions of man; at the same time the separate, individual existence suffers an illusionary inflation because it absorbs into its form the more-than-human dimension…The powers of man can create a society free from want and fear; the ideas of infinite perfectibility, of the superman, and of self-salvation make their appearance” (241-242).

Nye and Ham would seem to have more in common than the dichotomous framing of their debate suggests. Both misunderstand the mythic dimension of the human unconscious because of over-literalization. Further, the scientific materialism and religious creationism each defends are both complicit in capitalism’s assault on the earth community. Neither world view is sufficient to guide us through the current planetary crisis. Another way is possible. And at least here in America (and in other countries whose cultural unconscious, for better or worse, has been deeply shaped by the Bible), one of the most politically pragmatic ways forward may involve a radicalization of the Christian mythos (see, for example, my essay “Remembering Creation: Towards a Christian Ecosophy”).

Phenomenology and Process Ontology: Evan Thompson, Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead, and the Growing Together of the Flesh of the World

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).


Evan Thompson on Autopoiesis and Enactivism

I’ve been fascinated by the development of the enactive paradigm since I read The Embodied Mind back in college at UCF, where I studied cognitive science with Prof. Mason Cash and Prof. Shaun Gallagher. I feel fortunate that I was able to study cognitive science and the philosophy of mind in a program where the phenomenologies of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty were taken seriously, since traditional approaches to cognition still tend to rely heavily on computational metaphors for mind and see the development of artificial intelligence as the most effective research program. The enactive paradigm is fundamentally opposed to such metaphors, and to the idea that mind can be understood independently of living systems.

Evan Thompson (University of Toronto) is perhaps the foremost researcher associated with Enactivism. He studied very closely with Francisco Varela as a graduate student, and even before that as a child at the Lindisfarne Association (started by his father, William Irwin Thompson), where Varela often lectured. I had the opportunity to meet E. Thompson earlier this year when he lectured about his upcoming book on neuroscience and meditation at the CIIS Consciousness Forum. I asked him then what his empirical and phenomenological research implies about the ontology of consciousness, a question he answered by giving an autobiographical account of his personal spiritual development. Having grown up at Lindisfarne surrounded not only by new paradigm scientists, but new age mystics, he said he was more inclined early in his life to believe that consciousness was indeed basic to, if not constitutive of, reality. Since becoming an academic philosopher and immersing himself in the neurophysiological and biological sciences, he has stepped back a bit from this ontologization, and is now inclined to believe that life, rather than consciousness, is basic to at least our knowledge of reality (as per his “strong continuity thesis”). I continue to follow his work very closely and will probably reference enactivism quite a bit in my dissertation on the ontology of imagination. Having studied and internalized the perspectives of Whitehead, Schelling, and other cosmologically-inclined thinkers since initially encountering the paradigm in college, I think enactivism, though epistemologically and methodologically robust, remains ambiguously afloat in murky metaphysical waters. What lies beneath the surface of the co-constituted umwelt of organism and environment? Meaningless chemical reactions and thermodynamic gradients? Is the emergence of sense-making autopoiesis possible in the universe as it is depicted by scientific materialism? Kant certainly didn’t think so, but he was still living in a Newtonian universe. Have systems theory, quantum mechanics, and relativity made his comment about the impossibility of a “Newton of the grass-blade” passé ? These are the kinds of questions I’m left wondering about…

Thinking etho-ecology with Stengers and Whitehead

I’ve been reading Stengers’ recently translated book Thinking with Whitehead (2011) with an eye to developing an eco-ontology, or ecological realism. Adam and I are still in the process of searching for an adequate characterization for this project, but in nuce, we want to untangle the ethical, epistemological, cosmological, and ontological knot that is the ecological crisis. The hope is that a coherent and adequate philosophical grasp of the complex relations between each of these threads will enable us to bring forth more resilient modes of living and dying as human beings on planet earth. We are just the latest participants in a tradition of cosmopolitical thought, and with the help of philosophers like Stengers and Whitehead, perhaps we can play some small role in transforming the danger of ecological crisis into an opportunity opening up an entirely novel civilizational adventure.

Whitehead’s metaphysical system, if understood in the creative spirit with which it was conceived, is itself always in process, always open to ongoing tests of logical coherence and experiential adequacy. It is an open system oriented toward a similarly processual cosmos without pre-established foundations, material, spiritual, or otherwise. The order and harmony of the universe is achieved, not given. What holds together now may cease to hold together in the future. Global climate change is just the latest creation/discovery by modern scientific practice of the contingency of nature. Such a catastrophe forces us to think of “the environment” in a more participatory way, where organisms are not passively fitted to a stubborn, pre-given Nature, but actively cooperate to symbiotically shape their own environments. Climate change challenges us to conceive of living beings as existing in precarious relationships of trust with their environments: their success depends upon the patience of their environment, of the environment’s ability to maintain a hold on the conditions constituting viability in any given instance.

I quote Stengers at length:

That endurance is a factual success without any higher guarantee may be expressed as follows: may those who are no longer afraid that the sky might fall on their heads be all the more attentive to the eventual impatience of what they depend on. Thus, it is not without interest today that the new figure of Gaia indicates that it is becoming urgent to create a contrast between the earth valorized as a set of resources and the earth taken into account as a set of interdependent processes, capable of assemblages that are very different from the ones on which we depend. In order to distinguish the endurance of Gaia–and of the multitude of bacterial populations that play an active role in its assemblages–from the precariousness of our modes of existence and of those of other large mammals, some speak of Gaia’s “shrug of the shoulders” capable of making us lose our foothold: “Gaia is ticklish, we depend on her patience, let us beware her impatience.” The contemporary period is exploring the difficulty of a transformation of what are called “values” in a sense that corresponds well to the Whiteheadian use of the term: a particular way of shaping our attainments, presupposing the stability wagered upon in this way, while explaining itself in terms of habits (p. 163).

Stengers invokes the Gaia theory, which construes the earth as a self-organizing assemblage of living processes–a superorganism–in order to illustrate the need for an etho-ecology, or an understanding of earth that links the ethos of living beings with their oikos. A living being succeeds in enduring only in relation to other beings, all of whom make their homes within a vast environment upon whose patience they depend.

Thinking ecology with Whitehead has implications beyond just biology and environmental ethics. His ontology is organic, not in the sense that it privileges wholes over parts, but in that it encourages chemists to think reactions in terms of the “ethology of molecules,” and physicists to think protons and electrons as species of elemental organism. Organisms, for Whitehead, are not self-subsistent entities that might serve as explanations for everything else. “Organism” is a concept Whitehead employs to think the active, enduring production of order at any and all levels amidst ever-changing conditions. It risks vitalist associations to avoid any bifurcations between subjectivist free causes and objectivist mechanical causes. Everything from carbon atoms, to elephants, to hospitals survive as organisms amidst their environments due to the ongoing effectiveness of canalized habits in securing the modes of organization peculiar to their purposes. Maintaining their wholeness as organisms requires that their parts continue to play the roles required of the whole. If patients refuse to give up most of their rights upon entering the hospital, the hospital would quickly degenerate. When the patient accepts the role assigned to them by the organism of which they are to become a part, doctors and their assistants can then perform their various expertises upon her, usually without her having the slightest knowledge of the details of the procedure (see p. 175). Organisms are genuine wholes, but only as long as they last, as long as their parts are able or willing to be infected by the purposes of the whole.

A philosophy based in an ecological realism must, I think, rececitate some conception of organism to successfully navigate the new imaginal territories that it enacts. I’m more inclined to speak of “organisms” than I am “objects” when trying to ontologize because the former foregrounds both the active role of these entities in constructing the real, as well as their fragility: the fact that they may perish should their environment suddenly change. I think “organism” also highlights the extent to which relationality and individuality are co-constitive (OOO seems to overemphasize the individual while demoting relationality to a secondary phenomenon).

In subsequent posts, I’d like to flesh out what Francisco Varela‘s and Evan Thompson‘s autopoietic/enactive approach to the life sciences [see The Embodied Mind (1992) and Mind in Life (2007)] can contribute to both an etho-ecology and a more robust account of the epistemic issues surrounding the study of the same life processes constituting our capacity for study. Varela and Thompson’s philosophical attitude runs parallel to Whitehead’s, but neither explicitly mentions being influenced by his philosophy of organism. I’m especially interested in drawing out the connections between these thinkers in light of Ray Brassier’s critique of Thompson to be delivered later this month at a conference in Crotia on vitalism. The enactive perspective is radically participatory, in that it recusisvely weds ethics, epistemology, and ontology. The way we think the world immediately begins to translate into the way we make the world. I feel responding to Brassier’s nihilistic philosophy of extinction is thus more than a merely academic exercise. It is my way of responding to an invasive species of thought threatening to disturb the environmental norms that constitute my life.

Consciousness: Problem, Paradox, or Practice?

A quick contextualizing note for those who are just joining the tangled thread of my recent blogalogue concerning the nature of consciousness and its relationship with the nervous system and surrounding cosmos: Last month, Steve Ramirez, a PhD candidate at MIT, posted an entry on his blog ( concerning neuroscience’s supposed successes explaining the “problem” of consciousness purely in terms of electrochemical behavior in the brain. My name and some of the ideas I have expressed on YouTube were mentioned in his victory speech, so I decided to respond with a video. You can find his original entry, along with my short comment in response, here. Steve has since posted a follow-up rebuttal, to which I will respond in what follows.

Perhaps it would be best to begin by making my interests in this philosophical discussion about neuroscience clear. As a philosopher, I am not so much interested in the experimental results of neurophysiology labs across the world (which are only occasionally surprising), but in the paradigms that are employed to design and frame their research programs (i.e., to define “problems,” or what Thomas Kuhn called the “puzzles” of normal science).

Take the so-called “problem of consciousness”:  Is, or is not consciousness entirely reducible to/explainable in terms of  intracranial collisions between molecules? I will argue it is not, for philosophical reasons. Many neuroscientists, including Steve, believe it is. This belief informs the design of conceptual models and experiments, making it no surprise that results typically confirm the original hypothesis. The puzzle for neuroscience was never “what is the nature of consciousness?”, but “how is consciousness represented in the brain?” I think there are institutional reasons for this. The continued existence of the neuroscientific discipline as currently conceived depends upon framing the “problem” of consciousness in a reductionistic manner from the get go (this is not true of more interdisciplinary approaches, like neurophenomenology).

Steve sums the classical neuroscientific paradigm up well:

Your conscious thoughts really, and I mean really, are “just” the sum total of patterns of neurons firing.

My interest in claims such as this is existential, even emotional, rather than scientific. Thinking is the source of my very identity, the fount out of which all I know and am pours forth. I am unable to conceive of myself, or anyone else, as a bundle of neurons without first sterilizing my thinking, so that it gives birth only to abstractions and generalities, losing sight entirely of concrete, embodied life. Ethics is, for me like for Emmanuel Levinas, first philosophy. Only a sociopath could take literally the idea that thinking is “just” the mechanical interaction of neurons, because to do so would be to entirely ignore the radical ethical responsibility that comes immediately upon conscious recognition of another consciousness. Human beings are not objects, or the result of the activity of many tens of billions of tiny objects. No amount of objectifying knowledge about another consciousness could ever cancel his/her irreducibility as a consciousness. Thankfully, no scientist I know of actually does take literally the idea that consciousness is “nothing but” the brain. Something more complicated is encoded in their brazenly reductionistic rhetoric.

Science is not the disinterested pursuit of truth absent the emotions and feelings associated with goodness and beauty, or at least it can only be fallaciously conceived of as such. Sam Harris’ neo-Aristotelianism (or maybe neuro-Aristotelianism?–I discuss it again below) is a sign that science is beginning to realize that its findings have always had sociopolitical implications, and even Richard Dawkins gives an almost spiritual significance to the aesthetic value of science, calling it “the poetry of reality.”

So what underlies the seemingly absurd claim that thought is merely the movement of molecules? Not the truth of any empirically demonstrable theory. The reason I take issue with neural reductionism has nothing to do with a disagreement about scientific facts, and even if it did, “mountains of evidence” can easily be reduced to an ant hill by a shift in paradigmatic perspective (there was plenty of evidence for the Ptolemaic solar system for thousands of years; it took the Copernican metanoia to see it otherwise).

Then what leads some neuroscientists to claim in theory what they could never and would never live up to in practice? I believe it is a rather philosophically unreflective commitment to certain outmoded Enlightenment values (like the desire to rationalize and control all of life). The social imaginary associated with scientific materialism and the technologization of society has shown itself historically to be both dangerous and ultimately impossible.

It’s no secret. I’m an Idealist and a Romantic and am proud to carry forward, as adequately as I can, the spiritual and intellectual lineage of figures like Plato, Plotinus, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, Coleridge, and Emerson. I also champion science and the vastly expanded cosmological picture it continues to paint for humanity. But I conceive of science as another cultural activity alongside the likes of art, spirituality, and philosophy. These other spheres of cultural meaning approach the truth independent of the puzzle-solving of scientists. Consciousness in particular is a sort of ultimate issue, since it is, as far as we can tell, what makes us human. Steve nominally agrees that we need a multi-dimensional (or what I’d call a transdisciplinary) approach, though I think his choice of language says a lot  about how he’d like to go about collaborating (i.e., the “problem” of consciousness must be “attacked” from all sides). What if consciousness is neither a problem nor something best understood by way of assault?

The shortcoming of an overly scientistic approach to consciousness is precisely that consciousness’s paradoxical and participatory nature (paradoxical and participatory in that it manifests in different modes as both subject and object, noumenon and phenomenon) is artificially framed as a “problem” to be solved by way of reverse-engineering. But consciousness and its trinitarian panoply of thinking, feeling, and willing cannot be understood in the same way a mechanic understands an engine.

Steve writes:

A person’s (mis)understanding does not necessarily depend on how many “evident facts” they know – it depends on their ability to properly interpret a finding independent of their emotional state.

To approach an understanding of consciousness, you must fully participate in it. It is the living, breathing matrix within which everything we do and know and feel arises and subsides. Being conscious must be practiced and developed to be known, otherwise it remains not a problem but an insoluble intellectual paradox. In other words, emotional involvement is of the essence if it is our own and others consciousness we hope to understand. (Even from within the neuroscientific paradigm, research like Harris’ on the neural correlates of moral decision-making shows that the recognition of seemingly objective truths like 3-2=1 depends upon activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, associated with emotion and taste. I mention this study with some reservations about the notion of “neural correlates of consciousness” that I will explain below.)

I am not interested in the “problem” of consciousness, though I may on occasion philosophize about its paradoxicality as such. In the end, however, what concerns me most is the practice of deepening consciousness, which means not only striving to learn the truth, but to feel the beautiful and to will the good. Is neuroscience relevant to these pursuits? Of course! Do its methods, paradigms, and data have some sort of a priori authority over other ways of knowing? Of course not!  (Which is not to say that there may not be a posteriori reasons for altering a philosophical perspective because of a neuroscientific discovery–it is only to say that critical appraisal is always warranted of supposedly scientific claims that border on the metaphysical).

I’d like to close by offering a take on the research program geared toward discovering the “neural correlates of consciousness” (NCC). Steve cites Crick and Koch’s research often, and writes the following in support of the general theory:

Specific qualia are evoked  from the interaction of the specific [neural] regions…depending of course on the properties of that of which we are aware. So if you’re reflecting on a painting in front of you, it involves the interaction of thalamo-visual-prefrontal networks, which transform and encode the painting (i.e. the stimulus) as a specific pattern of neural firing that you experience.

This approach to the study of consciousness conceives of brain activity as a kind of internal representation of the surrounding world. The basic idea is that some sort of isomorphism exists between the structure of things in the environment and the pattern of neural firing in the brain. The brain, it is said, generates a mental picture of the external world. This is where the paradox begins… On the face of it, the NCC approach claims that all we are finally aware of is the neural activity inside our skull, which is an encoded version of what our senses were able to perceive regarding the features of the mind-independent world. In theory, this neural activity should be sufficient enough on its own to convince a conscious subject that they were having an experience of the mind-independent world. In other words, even a brain in a vat, fed the proper electrical impulses to mimic sensory inputs, could be conscious (albeit of an entirely virtual world). The paradox is that if the neuroscientist is right about the neural basis of consciousness, he simultaneously calls into question the substantiality of the world he believes he inhabits.

But regardless of any hypothetical situation reminiscent of Descartes evil demon, the NCC approach ignores the extent to which consciousness is fully embodied and augmented by various cultural practices and artifacts (language, first and foremost). As Evan Thompson makes clear in his book Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, to claim that the content of a neural state and the content of an experiential state are identical is simply a category mistake.

Thompson writes (p. 350):

Experiential content and neural content are different kinds of content…Experience is intentional (world-presenting), holistic (constituted by interrelated perceptions, intentions, emotions, and actions), and intransitively self-aware (has a nonreflective subjective character). Neural content as standardly described has none of these features. Although there are various sorts of systematic relations between experiences and neural processes, we need not assume that these relations include any content match.

Thompson goes on to criticize the “building block model” of consciousness (a phrase coined by John Searle) upon which the NCC approach is based. It is an aggregative model wherein the full richness of actual experience is analyzed into separate sensory modalities so as to isolate the specific neural regions that these modalities may be associated with. Thompson follows Searle in problematizing the the assumption that consciousness is the summation of distinct sensory events that are somehow bound together into the unity of our experienced world. Instead, he suggests a different approach, which Searle called the “unified field model.”

Thompson again (p. 351):

According to this model, the neural substrates of individual conscious states should not be considered sufficient for the occurrence of those states, for those states themselves presuppose the background consciousness of the subject. Any given conscious state is a modulation of a preexisting conscious field. An individual experience of conscious state (such as visual recognition of a face) is not a constituent of some aggregate conscious state, but rather a modification within the field of a basal or background consciousness.

With the unified field approach, consciousness is recognized to be an embodied process always already engaged with and interested in the world. Consciousness is understood not to be locally produced in specific neural regions, but brought forth through the ongoing dynamic interaction of brain, body, and world. Thompson’s approach to neuroscience is phenomenological, meaning it has roots in a Husserlian tradition where empathy, intersubjectivity, and the irreducibility of the lifeworld take precedence over the abstractions of scientific materialism. If you’re curious to know more about his approach to issues surrounding consciousness and neuroscience, read this essay about ecologically-informed epistemology, or an older blog entry about enactivism.

Here’s a clip of that ol’ rascal Alan Watts that seems relevant after all this headiness:

Enactivism, Integral Theory, and 21st Century Spirituality

The following is lifted from my old blog at, which has since shut down. Sorry of some hypertext doesn’t work!

I first want to thank everyone for participating in this symposium. The intersection of integral spirituality and enactive cognitive science is, for whatever reason, one of my passions, and I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity to engage others about these ways of thinking and living.

I’m going to begin this essay by breaking down the topics of enactivism and integralism (specifically Ken Wilber’s integralism) as they relate to one another. I’ll do so in two separate sections, the first on the biology of cognition and communication as described within the enactive paradigm, and the second on biology and enactivism as perceived and appropriated by Wilber. I hope to highlight a few areas of agreement, as well as disagreement, and to lay down what I think the most promising path of synthesis might be. If you are not too keen on abstract philosophical discourse, please bear with me, as these sections may qualify as exactly that (feel free to skip to part 3 if you must!).

The last section will be more concrete and, hopefully, poetically evocative. It will focus on what an embodied and integral spirituality might look like, contrasting it with the unfortunate developments in the contemporary New Age community. Popular but shallow spiritual salesmen (and women) have developed clever marketing campaigns geared toward convincing people that they can “create their own reality.” While this idea is not entirely false in some contexts, it is grossly misleading and requires quite a bit of unpacking before it begins to bear any resemblance to reality. With the help of some of Varela’s ideas, I hope to offer a vision of the potential of being human in the creative cosmos we all call home.

Circularity (Escher)

Part 1: Enactivism and the Biology of Cognition

1-A: Co-gnosis, or “Knowing-with”

If one had to distill the central tenet of enactivism, as developed by Humberto Maturana and the late Francisco Varela, it would be that “everything said is said by an observer” (Maturana, 1988, p. 27). An observer is any language-using being, specifically a human being. We human beings use language to describe the world we inhabit with others. Typically, we describe without explicitly referencing ourselves as observers. Enactivism (I’ll use this term even though it is Varela’s; Maturana, though not directly associated with it, would probably not be opposed to the label) suggests that self-referentiality is always implied, as to speak a language with others is to bring forth a world of shared significance whose relation to an independent reality outside the one we constitute with and for each other is irrelevant.

This holds true for all modes of language, whether colloquial or scientific. When molecular biologists investigate the structure of cellular organelles, they come to know what they see through their microscopes by agreeing upon appropriate linguistic abstractions and relations between abstractions. These abstractions designate the important features of reality as distinguished by those with the skills and training required to do so. Even when the science being practiced is physics, our descriptions amount to consensual agreements about the nature of the world under investigation (shaped also by our biological structure and organization, which are not arbitrary choices but historical necessities resulting from our evolutionary inheritance; more on this below). This may be hard for materialists to swallow, but one of the core suppositions of enactivism is that science, as a form of languaging, is indeed a social activity embedded in a particular historical situation bearing the marks of the prejudices that affect every other human sphere of life, whether political, religious, or otherwise.

“A physicist will say that we’re made of atoms,” says Varela. “Such statements, while true, are irrelevant… There is a reality of life and death, which affects us directly and is on a different level from the abstractions” (

The reality of life and death that Varela here refers to is that of our embodied existence as conscious observers. There is a tendency in the sciences to assume that the knowledge brought forth by the scientific method amounts to an objective representation of reality as it exists independent of human subjectivity. Maturana and Varela want to replace this notion with that of “objectivity-in-parenthesis.” Their aim is to avoid the transcendental objectivism which results when the observer “…implicitly or explicitly assumes that existence takes place independently of what he or she does, that things exist independently of whether he or she knows them, and that he or she can know them, or can know of them, or can know about them, through perception or reason” (Maturana, 1988a, p. 28).

Remember, for enactivism, “everything said is said by an observer.” This is to remind us that all of our descriptions come from a particular perspective. There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as pure objectivity. As philosopher Thomas Nagel put it, pure objectivity amounts to a “view from nowhere,” which, when taken literally, is contradictory. Conceptually, we can certainly imagine reality and ourselves outside our embedded perspectives; but such mental exercises remain a function of ouroperationally closed (more on this later) nervous systems. In other words, our imagined objectivity is still a product of our embodiment, and so remains an “as if” objectivity; or, as enactivism suggests, an “objectivity-in-parenthesis.”

To be clear, though, as Bruce pointed out last week, Varela and Maturana do not mean to replace objectivity with a form of solipsistic idealism, nor a form of complete social constructivism. On the contrary, they want to call our attention to empirical biological realities. We will now shift from what has primarily been a discussion of language into a discussion of the “bio-logic” underlying it.

1-B: Bio-logic

There is a bit of a scandal in the biological sciences. After nearly 400 years of what might be considered modern scientific investigation (and 3,000 years of natural philosophy), a widely agreed upon definition for the central object of study, life, has yet to be produced. There are plenty of qualities that have been ascribed to living systems, but (arguably) the only serious attempt to define it was Varela and Maturana’s theory of autopoiesis. Briefly, an autopoietic system is a unity easily distinguishable from its surrounding environment, containing components that continually produce and maintain both themselves and the unity. The term is a literal translation into Greek of “self-producing.”

There is a more technical definition of the term, but for the purposes of this paper, I won’t get into it. Click the hypertext above if you are interested. The reason the autopoiesis –or self-producing organization— of organisms is important for this discussion is the extent to which it helps us see how the nervous system brings forth both our individuality and our world. The term is meant to apply specifically to the organization of a cell, but it applies equally well (with a few caveats) to multicellular organisms, which biologist Leo Buss has appropriately called “somatic ecologies.” Why the term is appropriate may need some unpacking. From the point of view of autopoietic theory, the process of living is synonymous with cognition. So even a single bacterium flagellating up a sucrose gradient is bringing forth a world based on its own internal dynamics. When evolution gives rise to multicellulars, the worlds of each cell must somehow be coordinated such that “…potential conflicts between cells and the individual [are mediated], while the organism is simultaneously interacting effectively with the extrasomatic environment” (Buss 1987). Varela was fascinated by just how this mediation was pulled off. It drew him into immunology, where he attempted to improve upon the traditional understanding of the immune system as a kind of military defense against intruders by redefining it as a “self-referential, positive assertion of a coherent unity” (Varela, 1991, Autopoiesis and a Biology of Intentionality, pg. 9). But what interests us is his investigation into the “somatic ecology” of the nervous system, which along side the immune system allows a network of trillions of cells to function as a coherent whole.

Varela put it thus: “The fundamental logic of the nervous system is that of coupling movements with a stream of sensory modulations in a circular fashion” (Ibid.). Let’s break this down. The first thing to notice about this “neuro-logic” is that perception becomes an active process. We know the world by moving around within it. Bruce alluded to an experiment with kittens validating this in a comment under his essay. In this sense, the term “perception” is a bit of a misnomer, as it implies the passive reception through the senses of an already constituted reality. This brings us to the second important feature of Varela’s neuro-logic, which is that perception is a circular process generated by ongoing sensorimotor coupling. This is true both at the level of individual neurons (dendrites are sensors, axon terminals are motors) and at the level of the whole organism (eyes, ears, skin, etc. are sensors, muscles, tendons, etc. are motors).

This circularity is why enactivism posits the “operational closure” of the nervous system mentioned earlier. We know only the world the structure and organization of our nervous systems allow us to know. As Varela says, “The neuronal dynamics underlying a perceptuo-motor task are… a network affair, a highly cooperative two-way system, and not a sequential stage-to-stage information abstraction” (Ibid.). In other words, the typical linear notion of information picked up by the senses from a pregiven world, processed into perceptions, and then translated into appropriate motor responses is not just a simplification, but is actually wrong. What we perceive is based more on the ongoing operations already taking place in our nervous system prior to any perturbations by the environment. If we now reconsider the first point about active perception, we see that “all doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing” (Maturana & Varela, 1992, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, p. 27).

This concludes the section on enactivism, but we will revisit and further explore some of the concepts discussed above, as well as introduce a few other important features of the enactive paradigm (such as intersubjectivity and groundlessness) as we go along.

(Click here for a video of Evan Thompson, co-author of The Embodied Mind, on 1st personal consciousness, and a much younger Varela speaking about objectivity.)

Part 2- Wilber, Biology, Enactivism

I’ll assume that most of you are already familiar with Ken Wilber’s work. For our purposes, a general grasp of his AQAL model will suffice.

As Bruce has already pointed out last week, Wilber embraces Varela et al.’s attempt to move beyond the gross reductionism of the representational paradigm in cognitive science, which sees the mind as essentially identical to a sophisticated computer. As Wilber says, “From the field that claims to be the final authority on such matters, what we learn about consciousness and lived experience is this: basically, it doesn’t exist” (Wilber, 1995, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, p. 564). Part of Varela’s project is to find a place for conscious experience in the scientific worldview. But Wilber’s support for enactivism as presented by Varela et al. is not without a few important reservations. While he applauds them for deconstructing and replacing the notion of a pregiven world found in the representational paradigm, he argues that they fail to fully appreciate the subjective dimensions of organisms. To be more specific, I refer you to the diagram below:

Wilber’s drawing

We see above in what is labeled figure 3 that each quadrant has both an interior and an exterior aspect, each with its own appropriate epistemological methodology. Varela is credited with rightly correcting the traditional Darwinian idea that something called “Nature” is responsible for singlehandedly sculpting the evolution of species, selecting which traits live on and which don’t. This idea, while not entirely wrong, fails to appreciate the degree to which organisms participate in their own evolution based on their autopoiesis, or self-organizing properties. Varela’s is a biology that emphasizes the autonomy of the organism, whereas most evolutionary biology sees the organism as the victim of a pregiven environment. In other words, organism and environment (or Nature, in Darwin’s terms) co-determine one another. Wilber further explains: “… autopoietic theories remind us that the objective organism is not merely a strand in a Web, but also a relatively autonomous agent enacting its environment, an environment that is not a pregiven Web but is rather brought forth in part by the autopoietic regime of the organism itself” ( Wilber suggests, though, that Varela “…escapes the crude mirror of nature paradigm (monological and pregiven), but only by attacking the pregiven part, not the monological part: the paradigm shifts from the monological mirror of a sensorimotor world to the monological enactment of a sensorimotor world” (Ibid., p. 714).

Wilber is here arguing that Varela’s approach remains focused only on the upper right, objective quadrant. Autopoietic organization represents the inside of the exterior of organisms, but according to Wilber, fails to fully appreciate the subjective, phenomenological experience of organisms.

I don’t disagree with Wilber’s analysis here, as I think Varela’s work could certainly benefit from a more in depth exploration of subjective development. Nonetheless, I think Varela is very much aware of the lifeworld of organisms, which is evidenced by his exploration of Buddhist meditation in The Embodied Mind, as well this statement which directly acknowledges the role of agency in organisms: “[an organism] isn’t related to its environment ‘objectively,’ that is, independently of the system’s location, heading, attitudes and history. Instead, it relates to it in relation to the perspective established by the constantly emerging properties of the agent itself and in terms of the role such running redefinition plays in the system’s entire coherence” (Varela, 1991, Autopoiesis and a Biology of Intentionality, pg. 11). Granted, this description is still a third person account of a lived reality, which can only be directly accessed with “I” language. “The habits of intimate touching of prehensive unification tend to be reduced to the mechanics of structural coupling and exterior-cognitive enactment,” as Wilber says (

Wilber accuses enactivism of being “heavily grounded in a biologistic bias” (Wilber, 1995, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, p. 712). To the extent that Varela et al. were aiming to remain scientific, this is true. But I wonder if Wilber has fully appreciated the scientific realities brought forth by a thorough investigation of the biological world…? As Julian discussed in one of his blogs earlier this year, Wilber seems to look to theorists associated with the intelligent design movement when asked about what an integral biology might look like. In one of his books, he makes the following specious argument: “It takes perhaps a hundred mutations to produce a functional wing from a leg–a half-wing will not do. A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing–you can’t run and you can’t fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever. In other words, with a half-wing you are dinner. The wing will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once, in one animal–also these same mutations must occur simultaneously in another animal of the opposite sex, and they have to somehow find each other, have dinner, a few drinks, mate, and have offspring with real functional wings” (Wilber, 2000, A Brief History of Everything, p.20). If you showed this passage to a biologist, after they finished laughing, they’d explain that wings most certainly could evolve gradually.

It’s not that I don’t share Wilber’s distaste for the neo-Darwinist paradigm in evolutionary biology. I just think he would be more respected in scientific circles if he did not make outrageous claims without any supporting evidence whatsoever. There are plenty of other approaches to understanding evolution in a non-reductionist way that are entirely scientific and don’t require any such exaggeration, among them Varela’s co-determining theory, which Wilber seems to know well but so often neglects to mention when asked about evolutionary biology. If anything like intelligent design is true, science would become impossible, as positing a demiurge as the designer of nature makes any human attempt to know reality akin to a cartoon character suddenly realizing they are an artist’s drawing. It ain’t gunna happen.

To sum up this section, we can say that Varela’s ideas would definitely benefit from a greater appreciation for the depth and developmental scope of subjective experience, as Wilber has rightly argued. But Wilber, on the other hand, could equally benefit from a more realistic engagement with the findings of objective biological science. Varela is no longer with us, and so we will never know how he may have appropriated Wilber’s criticisms; but hopefully Wilber will reevaluate his seeming support for intelligent design by fully embracing the truths brought forth by an empirical, systems-oriented approach to biological evolution.

Part 3- Embodied Spirituality

I’d like to begin this section with a few words from Varela himself. This video was shot just before his death in 2001 as part of a documentary entitled “Monte Grande” released in 2005.

It pretty well speaks for itself, reiterating several points I hope were adequately made in the first two sections of this essay about the co-emergence of subject and object. What struck me as significant, though, was what Varela said towards the end about abiding in the questions that strike us as especially mysterious, rather than rushing to pass judgment for or against them. Maybe it is just a reflection of my and Varela’s Buddhist frame of reference, but it has always seemed to me that being spiritual essentially means being unattached. This doesn’t mean we should not love deeply those we share our lives with, quite the contrary. Letting go of our attachments allows us to relate to others more genuinely than when we have specific ends in mind. What non-attachment suggests is that we be constantly on the lookout for the various manifestations of certainty that tend to crop up in our thoughts about the world. Almost always, an unyielding conviction about this, that, or the other is the result of some kind of repression or psychological wound we have yet to fully face and allow to heal.

In The Embodied Mind, Varela repeatedly emphasizes the groundless nature of existence. Even that most universal of spiritual values, love, so often eludes all our attempts to possess or comprehend it. Whether it is our own personal experience of being conscious, or our sense of the world around us, a penetrating investigation reveals no firm foundation upon which to rest our tirelessly seeking minds. The path seems endless, not necessarily because it is long and filled with difficult challenges, but because it is constantly swallowing itself like an Ouroburos.

Holding this image in mind, what are we to make of the many New Age belief systems offering “secrets” (for a fee) that supposedly give us anything we desire? I see in these systems only clever advertising and predation upon those with weak minds. There is not even the hint of anything genuinely spiritual, in the sense that spirituality means letting go of our own wants and desires to focus instead upon compassion and loving kindness. Seeking great spiritual insights from something like the “law of attraction” tarnishes the meaning of the word “insight.” To genuinely see into our condition, we have to forgo the “Cartesian anxiety” that compels us to chase after various forms of security and stability, be they a grandiose sense of self, a youthful appearance, a six-figure salary, or transcendental knowledge of and control over reality itself. When we turn our attention inward, we discover that the self we think we are, with all its desires and wishes and ideas, is rather fragile and impermanent.

Realizing this can lead in one of two directions:

Either we avert our introspective gaze and distract ourselves with kitschy offers of instant enlightenment for 3 easy payments of $19.95, or we go deeper and realize that our lack of an essential self is an opportunity to engage reality on a level more rewarding than anything we could have dreamed of before.

I quote Varela at length:

“The more the fragile self-subject deploys itself, the more compassion deploys itself because that’s what it is. The more there is the opening into space to accommodate or to take care of the other, there is kind of an intrinsic decenteredness, and therefore the other appears closer. Solidarity, compassion, care, love –all of the different modes of being together– appear when the self is decentered. Now that, to me, is a great gift of the universe. Since we are not solid and private and centered, the more we get close to all our reality, the more we are who we are. That is, both you and I. Not just me, but the ‘us-ness’ in us. Which is another way of saying that my mind is not my mind. It is a mind that requires that interbeing. There is naturally that kind of concern and care and solidarity. But it is not just how nice I am, or how good a guy I am. It has nothing to do with this. It has to do with how real things are, in reality, that non-distinction between the intersubjective network of things” (

Varela is here suggesting that our true nature is to be compassionate, not because we are “nice guys,” but because our very identity as individuals arises out of our transactions with others. This, and not the possibility of magical powers, is what an integral and embodied spirituality offers.

To even believe for a moment that our thoughts will bring us whatever we want, we have to already be completely encased and blinded by a lonely solipsistic shell, not recognizing that every other person around us is also hoping and wishing for their own fantasies to be fulfilled. Who is going to end up on top in this struggle for personal happiness? There can only be so many lottery winners… Again, maybe it is just my Buddhist bias, but who can deny that life is suffering? We are made through an act of carnal love in the pursuit of fleeting bliss, grown in the womb at the behest of the crystalline death records of untold generations prior, and born as naked, delicately woven bodies, our intricate dynamics hardly noticed until something goes wrong. And when it does, we’re faced with that ultimate uncertainty– with the completely unknowable, unfathomable reunion with that from which we came.

But could it be any other way? Could our bodies be so capable of deep feeling and intimate contact without also being so prone to disease and decomposition? Life is suffering, but so is suffering bliss. It is our perpetual lack that moves us to love, that guides us into the future where unending forms of life will result from the creative spark that is our being-towards-death. We cannot overcome the circle of becoming, of continual rebirth, but we can embrace it, celebrating the opportunity we so easily forget we have.

I’ll close with one of my favorite Zen koans entitled, “Hyakujo’s Fox,” with a comment at the end by Zen master Mumon. Zen is great for cutting through spiritual excess and getting right to the point:

Once when Hyakujo delivered some Zen lectures an old man attended them, unseen by the monks. At the end of each talk when the monks left so did he. But one day he remained after the had gone, and Hyakujo asked him: `Who are you?’

The old man replied: `I am not a human being, but I was a human being when the Kashapa Buddha preached in this world. I was a Zen master and lived on this mountain. At that time one of my students asked me whether the enlightened man is subject to the law of causation. I answered him: “The enlightened man is not subject to the law of causation.” For this answer evidencing a clinging to absoluteness I became a fox for five hundred rebirths, and I am still a fox. Will you save me from this condition with your Zen words and let me get out of a fox’s body? Now may I ask you: Is the enlightened man subject to the law of causation?’

Hyakujo said: `The enlightened man is one with the law of causation.’

At the words of Hyakujo the old man was enlightened. `I am emancipated,’ he said, paying homage with a deep bow. `I am no more a fox, but I have to leave my body in my dwelling place behind this mountain. Please perform my funeral as a monk.’ The he disappeared.

The next day Hyakujo gave an order through the chief monk to prepare to attend the funeral of a monk. `No one was sick in the infirmary,’ wondered the monks. `What does our teacher mean?’

After dinner Hyakujo led the monks out and around the mountain. In a cave, with his staff he poked out the corpse of an old fox and then performed the ceremony of cremation.

That evening Hyakujo gave a talk to the monks and told this story about the law of causation.

Obaku, upon hearing this story, asked Hyakujo: `I understand that a long time ago because a certain person gave a wrong Zen answer he became a fox for five hundred rebirths. Now I was to ask: If some modern master is asked many questions, and he always gives the right answer, what will become of him?’

Hyakujo said: `You come here near me and I will tell you.’

Obaku went near Hyakujo and slapped the teacher’s face with this hand, for he knew this was the answer his teacher intended to give him.

Hyakujo clapped his hands and laughed at the discernment. `I thought a Persian had a red beard,’ he said, `and now I know a Persian who has a red beard.’

Mumon’s comment: `The enlightened man is not subject.’ How can this answer make the monk a fox?

`The enlightened man is at one with the law of causation.’ How can this answer make the fox emancipated?

To understand clearly one has to have just one eye.

Controlled or not controlled?

The same dice shows two faces.

Not controlled or controlled,

Both are a grievous error.