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).

 

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?).