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?).


Old White Guys Ventriloquising Nature

“Scientists, animated by the purpose of proving they are purposeless, constitute an interesting subject for study.” – A. N. Whitehead

This is a round table discussion called “Moving Naturalism Forward.” So far it is somewhat infuriating. There is no one there to problematize who should speak for nature. All of these dudes have signed the Modern Constitution (Latour) bifurcating culture (which is illusion) from nature (which is real). Couldn’t they have invited one thinker who wasn’t there just to preach to the scientific materialist choir? At the table are big names like Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Owen Flanagan, Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Steven Weinberg, and Terrence Deacon. Have a look…

And then there is part 2, lead by Alex Rosenberg, where the basic constituents of reality are laid out. When the ontology of mathematics begins to be discussed, suddenly all the hardcore physical reductionists start sounding like mystics! Then there is the lack of teleology in physics and biology, which most of those present deny or radically qualify in some way. In regard to natural purposes, I think their is much these guys could learn from Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. Teleology, as I have learned to think about it, concerns what Whitehead called potentiality (and Deleuze called virtuality). Its not a matter of pre-conceived ideas waiting in the sky to be actualized as poor copies by earthly creatures. Its a matter of the actualization of relevant possibilities, where relevance depends entirely on contingent historical facts. Whitehead’s reaction to 20th century (quantum and relativistic) physics was to see the so-called “laws of nature” as evolved habits still in the process of generating themselves.  By getting rid of purpose outright, as many on the panel want to do, these guys end up undermining their own epistemic position as scientists in pursuit of the truth, or at least probability or approximate knowledge of it.

Part 3 was introduced by Terrence Deacon, who I found myself appreciating even more than I had before because I got to see him in his natural habitat (=”mad dog” greedy physical reductionists). His idea of irreducibly complex hierarchical constraints is not as cosmological and organic and realist as I’d like to see, but in the intellectual community of atheistic scientists that he interacts with on a daily basis, standing up for the intrinsic values of life irreducible to functions of physics can often be met with the same degree of incredulity as intelligent design. He used one of Whitehead’s terms, “causal efficacy,” in his defense of the physical effects of meaning. I doubt he’d ever be willing to talk about the cosmic constraints termed by Whitehead “God/Cosmos” and “Creativity.” Too metaphysical for these positivists. These guys deny the possibility of speculative knowledge right before going on to affirm their own speculative dualism between an inescapable manifest image and a verifiably true scientific reality (that only they the physical scientists have access to). I found the logical v. causal discussion around 1h:15m interesting. And then Dennett’s question about whether alien life emerging through alternative chemical pathways would nonetheless entail sociological, psychological, and economic behaviors obeying the same general laws of our carbon-based path. Its the historical, or causal dimension v. the logical, or mathematical dimension. What is necessary and what is contingent? Deacon nails it when he connects emergence to irreversible historical development. Accident, or Novelty (he used Whitehead the panentheistic metaphysician’s category!) as part of the fundamental dimension of reality.

This section of my essay on Whitehead’s relevance to 20th and 21st century physics clarifies (I hope!) my position on teleology and emergence in nature.

Skipping ahead to day 3 on philosophy and science, Owen Flanagan (@35mins) has some interesting things to say about the history of the reflection upon the nature of time from physical and from psychological and phenomenological perspectives (he mentions Bergson).

(@38mins) The (philosophical) point about the Hard Problem is precisely that naturalistic/physical explanation of consciousness is impossible, that “explaining” consciousness would require changing what scientists think they mean when they explain physics/nature.