Context: The integration of data measured in first- and third-person frameworks is a challenge that becomes more prominent as we attempt to refine the ties between the dimensions we assume to be objective and our experience itself. As a result, cognitive science has been a target for criticism from the epistemological and methodological point of view, which has resulted in the emergence of new approaches. Neurophenomenology has been proposed as a means to address these limitations. The methodological application of this discipline, even in its mildest form, enriches the methodology typically used in cognitive sciences. Problem: Nowadays psychological studies are difficult to replicate. As a way to achieve replication of results published in a previous study in order to develop a methodological adaptation suitable for electroencephalographic (EEG) measurements in a subsequent experiment, first-person accounts from the participants in our pilot study were included in the experiment construction. This study’s objective is to show the benefit of including a mild-neurophenomenology-inspired approach in the adaptation from an original paradigm, which requires, foremost, the ability to replicate the original results. Method: Interviews with open and semi-structured questions were carried out at the end of an Approach-Avoidance Task (AAT. The first-person reports, together with the behavioral outcomes of each pilot, were taken into account for the development of the next piloting phase until replication of the original results was achieved, and the final experimental design was elaborated. Results: A sequence of four pilots, where the integration of third- and first-person information derived from subjects’ behavior and reported experiences while carrying them out rendered the behavioral replication we sought to achieve, providing support for a first-person enriched cognitive science paradigm. Implications: Including first-person accounts systematically during the development and performance of classic cognitive paradigms ensures that those paradigms are measuring what they claim to measure. This is the next logical step to improve replication rates, to refine the explanation of the results and avoid confounding third-person data interpretation. Constructivist content: Including first-person experiences and acknowledging the active role that participants’ experiences regarding the paradigm had in the modeling of its final version is in concordance with a constructivist standing.
Context: The enactivist tradition, out of which neurophenomenology arose, rejects various internalisms – including the representationalist and information-processing metaphors – but remains wedded to one further internalism: the claim that the structure of perceptual experience is directly, constitutively linked only to internal, brain-based dynamics. Problem: I aim to reject this internalism and defend an alternative analysis. Method: The paper presents a direct-realist, externalist, sensorimotor account of perceptual experience. It uses the concept of counterfactual meaningful action to defend this view against various objections. Results: This account of experience matches certain first-person features of experience better than an internalist account could. It is fully tractable as “normal science.” Implications: The neuroscientific conception of brain function should change from that of internal representation or modelling to that of enabling meaningful, embodied action in ways that constitutively involve the world. Neurophenomenology should aim to match the structure of first-person experience with the structure of meaningful agent-world interactions, not with that of brain dynamics. Constructivist content: The sensorimotor approach shows us what external objects are, such that we may enact them, and what experience is, such that it may present us with those enacted objects.
Open peer commentary on the article “Never Mind the Gap: Neurophenomenology, Radical Enactivism, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness” by Michael D. Kirchhoff & Daniel D. Hutto. Upshot: I strongly agree with Kirchhoff and Hutto that consciousness and embodied action are one and the same, but I disagree when they say this identity cannot be fully explained and must simply be posited. Here I attempt to sketch the outlines of just such an explanation.
Context: Seventeen years ago Francisco Varela introduced neurophenomenology. He proposed the integration of phenomenological approaches to first-person experience – in the tradition of Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty – with a neuro-dynamical, scientific approach to the study of the situated brain and body. Problem: It is time for a re-appraisal of this field. Has neurophenomenology already contributed to the sciences of the mind? If so, how? How should it best do so in future? Additionally, can neurophenomenology really help to resolve or dissolve the “hard problem” of the relation between mind and body, as Varela claimed? Method: The papers in this special issue arose out of a conference organised by the Consciousness and Experiential Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society in Bristol, UK, in September 2012. We have invited a representative sample of the speakers at that conference to present their work here. Results: Various papers argue that the first-person methods of phenomenology are distinct from, and more robust than, the failed “introspectionist” methods of early modern psychology. The “elicitation interview” emerges as a successful and widely adopted method to have emerged from this field. Phenomenological techniques are already being successfully applied to neuroscientific problems. Various specific proposals for new techniques and applications are made. Implications: It is time to take neurophenomenology seriously. It has proven its worth, and it is ripe with the potential for further immediate, successful applications. Constructivist content: Varela’s key aim was to develop a non-dualising approach to the science of consciousness. The papers in this special issue look at the philosophical and practical details of successfully putting such an approach into practice.
Open peer commentary on the article “Enaction as a Lived Experience: Towards a Radical Neurophenomenology” by Claire Petitmengin. Upshot: The neurophenomenological project is too ambitious technically, but highly appealing on the philosophical level, as can be learned from the extremely high ratio between theoretical and empirical work concerning neurophenomenology accumulated thus far. While “radical” neurophenomenology could possibly create, in highly unique projects, “mutual generative constraints,” will the hard problem be dissolved? I argue that although using micro phenomenology, as long as experimental designs inspired by front-loading phenomenological insights are reviewed by the regular scientific mind, the question of validating the phenomenology with objective measures remains, and will keep blocking the outbreak in this promising field. Since “we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them,” it is timely for the scientific community to practice an attitude shift.
Context: In his work on neurophenomenology, the late Francisco Varela overtly tackled the well-known “hard problem” of the (physical) origin of phenomenal consciousness. Problem: Did he have a theory for solving this problem? No, he declared, only a “remedy.” Yet this declaration has been overlooked: Varela has been considered (successively or simultaneously) as an idealist, a dualist, or an identity theorist. Results: These primarily theoretical characterizations of Varela’s position are first shown to be incorrect. Then it is argued that there exists a stance (let’s call it the Varelian stance) in which the problem of the physical origin of primary consciousness, or pure experience, does not even arise. Implications: The nature of the “hard problem” of consciousness is changed from an intellectual puzzle to an existential option. Constructivist content: The role of ontological prejudice about what the world is made of (a prejudice that determines the very form of the “hard problem” as the issue of the origin of consciousness out of a pre-existing material organization) is downplayed, and methodologies and attitudes are put to the fore.
Open peer commentary on the article “Never Mind the Gap: Neurophenomenology, Radical Enactivism, and the Hard Problem of Consciousness” by Michael D. Kirchhoff & Daniel D. Hutto. Upshot: We point out that the significance of the neurophenomenological approach to the “hard problem” of consciousness is underrated and misunderstood by the authors of the target article. In its original version, neurophenomenology implies nothing less than a change in our own being to dispel the mere sense that there is a problem to be theoretically solved or dissolved. Neurophenomenology thus turns out to be much more radical than the enactivist kind of dissolution promoted by the authors.
Neurophenomenological (NP) methods integrate objective and subjective data in ways that retain the statistical power of established disciplines (like cognitive science) while embracing the value of first-person reports of experience. The present paper positions neurophenomenology as an approach that pulls from traditions of cognitive science but includes techniques that are challenging for cognitive science in some ways. A baseline study is reviewed for “lessons learned,” that is, the potential methodological improvements that will support advancements in understanding consciousness and cognition using neurophenomenology. These improvements, we suggest, include (1) addressing issues of interdisciplinarity by purposefully and systematically creating and maintaining shared mental models among research team members; (2) making sure that NP experiments include high standards of experimental design and execution to achieve variable control, reliability, generalizability, and replication of results; and (3) conceiving of phenomenological interview techniques as placing the impetus on the interviewer in interaction with the experimental subject.
Upshot: Emergence and Embodiment is a highly worthwhile and well-crafted collection of essays on second-order cybernetics that draws together ideas related to self-organization, autopoiesis, organizational closure, self-reference, and neurophenomenology. Chapters include articles by Heinz von Foerster, Francesco Varela, Niklas Luhmann, George Spencer-Brown, and Evan Thompson and external commentaries on them that analyze the relevance of their ideas in the context of social and cultural theory. Despite some projective distortions to cybernetics that arise from the internal imperatives of culture criticism, the book contains many valuable insights and analyses of core ideas of cybernetics that significantly advance our understanding of them.