How to understand consciousness: The strength of the phenomenological method
Armezzani M. (2009) How to understand consciousness: The strength of the phenomenological method. World Futures 65(2): 101–110. Available at http://cepa.info/3968
Table of Contents
Shuffling the cards
New forms for an old question
The phenomenological method
The co-(n)-fusion of the lived experience
Analyzing the outline of the endless literature on consciousness, the separation between science and philosophy rather than being overcome, seems to come back in different shapes. According to this point of view, the hard problem seems to be how to study consciousness while avoiding a slip back to the old dualism. This article outlines the advantages of the phenomenological method. This method, more than getting over the mind-body separation, anticipates it through an open gaze, able to bring back the human presence as something structurally “ambiguous.” Reintroducing Husserl’s scientific project in a complete way, Francisco Varela opened up a research area yet to be explored, which promises to be fertile for neuroscience, provided that we accept that radicalism essential to phenomenology.
Key words: Ambiguity, consciousness, dualism, Husserl, phenomenological method, Varela.
Shuffling the cards
Nowadays, the most palpable news about consciousness studies is that these studies are not only led by professional philosophers, but even by the main representatives of hard sciences. The other news is that, in the current debate, it’s becoming more and more difficult to tell the difference between philosophers and scientists. We might suppose that a “third culture” – able to overcome this separation – is happening. Or that, maybe, the consciousness question has the power to recall the primary inquiring attitude, the unconditional gaze at the center of the Greek and Renaissance thought, preceding the separation between science and philosophy. In fact, as Pinker (2007, 1) remarks, “Questions once confined to theological speculations and late-night dorm-room bull sessions are now at the forefront of cognitive neuroscience.”
This epoch-making event, this gathering of knowledge on the meaning of being human, accounts for the enthusiasm and the expectations of significant results. Still, analyzing the outline of the endless literature on the subject, the separation between science and philosophy rather than being overcome, seems to come back in different shapes. Many philosophers talk as scientists, many scientists talk as philosophers, but in the end, shuffling the cards will only restore two opposite packs. Even in the intricacy of tangles, extremely sharp discussions, and theoretical nuances, the dualism between material and immaterial arises again ineluctably, as a hallmark of the Western culture.
New forms for an old question
These days, the question Democritus and Plato were really committed to, is coming up again in different shapes.
The old materialism is now called eliminativism, well represented by Paul Churchland and all those people addressed as “consciousness-neglectful theoreticians” by Siewert (2001). Following this line of thought, mental phenomena are simply eliminated: they are mere illusions, useless issues resulting from a mistaken tradition of thought. The extraordinary discriminative abilities of neurons, now accessible by knowledge, should convince ourselves that consciousness is nothing more than a brain state or function.
This tough line has found many opponents, with Nagel becoming the founding father of the resistance to reductionism. The bat argument (Nagel 1974), obsessively recurring in literature, is strong enough to show that naturalistic explanations are not sufficient in order to elucidate the subjective character of experience. Nagel (1998), giving a new way to his thesis, sets out a future where people will be able to observe the operation of the brain and say “That’s what the experience of tasting chocolate looks like from the outside.” Despite Crick’s (1994) firm belief that “taste” is the result of our habits when reacting to a certain drive, nothing can “eliminate” the flavor we taste while eating chocolate. In other words, it’s impossible to account for the subjective character of experience by the means of objective studies. In the wake of what has been said, a number of contributions on the essential idea of irreducibility of consciousness have been developed. The basic idea is that consciousness will always, at the end of the day, remain a mystery (Flanagan 1992; McGinn 1999).
The perspectives we consider “in-between” the neuron/consciousness opposition, assume that “something” similar to consciousness does exist and interfaces with the brain, but because this “thing” has no location or extension, we can only study the neurophysiological correlates of experience. The epiphenomenal- ism states a linear causality (from neurons to consciousness), the interactionist dualism points out a two-way causal interaction, the emergent interactionism considers that consciousness emerges from brain activity and then supervenes over the activity from which it emerges.
This brief summary of the situation[Note 1] is meant to draw attention to something obvious, which is worthy to be examined. Despite the expectations, during the present philosophical and scientific debate, the issue regarding consciousness is still unsolved. Why is it difficult to deal with this subject, which involves everybody?
A first answer could be that the principles of traditional scientific method are forced to disregard consciousness in research, therefore scientists are used to leaving it out of consideration. Dealing with consciousness becomes a new experience they were not ready for.
The second point is that this question cannot be avoided any longer. Even the physicalistic monism – which appeared to solve the problem by eliminating consciousness – cannot do nothing but keep expressing itself through denials, with no escape from the “intuition dissonance as is provoked by reflecting on the physical basis of the mental” (Churchland and Sejnowski 1992, 13). The dualistic pole persists, as a question or a threat, revealing this position as the “halved dualism.” The evidence is that even in this theoretical field, research turns to neuronal correlate of consciousness (NCC): without correlating the neuronal behavior to consciousness, research would not make sense.
The third aspect is that the renewal of the methodological equipment, in reply to the new object of search, has taken place only to a limited extent. The trouble consists in grasping an evasive and awkward subject such as consciousness, and making it fit in those research procedures planned and built on the basis of leaving consciousness out of consideration. Yet, it is even more difficult to change our accustomed forma mentis in order to examine the consciousness experience. Its structure complexity makes us behave as if we are in front of the reversible figures in gestalt experiments: these figures upset our perceptive structure, therefore we steady ourselves choosing only one of the two opposite poles. Ambiguity is not easily bearable, so we try to eliminate it and go back to order, deleting what exceeds. Thus, in consciousness studies, the former antireductionists wish not to see the challenges posed by the progress of neuroscience, and the former materialists wish not to hear the self-intuition call. As in Gödel’s theorem, we all must yield to the recursiveness of demonstrations and regard the various axiomatic systems as incomplete Each system of thought has to defend its own truth, excluding another one equally evident; it must save its own consistency at the cost of its incompleteness.
This way we can understand Prinz’s regretful remark (2005, 381): “The literature on the hard problem give the impression that we have made little progress. Consciousness is just an excuse to work and rework familiar position on the mind-body problem.” Dualism, despite the converse will of many contemporary philosophers and scientists, has not been defeated yet. Descartes’s error was to ascribe dualism to reality, while it seems to belong more to the theoretical and methodological assumptions we use when we deal with it.
The fact that we keep talking about a gap between physical and consciousness worlds, and that we identify this gap with the neuroscience hard problem (Chalmers 1996), constitutes the most evident proof that we are facing two parallel rivers, thus making us plead for bridges and links In spite of everything, we are still here, looking for a connection between body and mind.
After all, the dualism emerging from consciousness studies simply reflects, at a higher level, what we all think about the question. All of us are dualist: we all think in terms of physical and mental, outside and inside, material and immaterial, and we all have an idea on what stand to take. However, the fact that we use so often the word “mystery” for what is within reach, such as our own experience, our presence in the world, our “feeling of existence,” and never for the neuron’s potentials, does make you think. Precisely, this paradox reveals that there’s something wrong in this area of studies, something that is unsuited to deal with consciousness.
The hard problem is how to study consciousness.
Essentially, the current alternative is the one suggested by Velmans (2006, 1), that is “experiences are really in the brain” or “experiences have neither location nor extension.” If we remain followers of the age-old principles regulating our concept of science, Koch (2004, 316) is right beyond all doubt when he says “There is no credible alternative to understanding consciousness by searching for the NCC.”
The phenomenological method
Di Francesco (2004, 522), after conducting a deep analysis on the different positions gathered around the consciousness theme, has come to the following conclusions: “But if no kind of physicalism is possible and we don’t want to be doomed to die dualists, what else can we do? Let’s think about it.”
Somebody, in the current debate, has “thought about it” and has tackled a tough path rich of promises. I am talking about Varela and his rediscovery of the phenomenological method. It seems that his attempt to turn it into an operating method for neuroscience is finding more and more supporters, and not only inside his own research group. On the following pages I will try to synthesize the strong reasons behind this rediscovery and the implicit potentials belonging to this path. Not having the chance to discuss Varela’s results in this article,[Note 2] my aim is to reveal how his work achieves the Husserlian proposal of a radical transformation of the scientific view.
Phenomenology is tough, it’s a strong thought, a revolutionary way of conceiving consciousness and dealing with it. A thought that can be really understood only if you are already inclined by nature to this attitude. That’s why it runs the risk of being always misunderstood. The most serious misunderstanding has been confining phenomenology to a philosophical literature for a long time, far from the empirical ground Husserl assigned it to. Already from the way he defined his own phenomenology, the words “science” and “philosophy” appeared to be playing together. Phenomenology is at the same time Strenge Wissenschaft, rigorous science, and Erste Philosophie, first philosophy (Husserl 1911).[Note 3] We could not get close to this field without taking seriously this chance, therefore suspending, from the very beginning, our preconceptions on what is philosophical and what is scientific, and then sticking to the suggestion that in the phenomenological attitude “each meaning changes compared to sciences we’re already familiar with” (Husserl 1912-29, 7).
The drive toward a radical reconsideration of knowledge arises from being disappointed by traditional sciences, because they “exclude on principle what we are most interested in” (Husserl 1936, 35). “Being interested” is, on the contrary, what defines the new area of reality given by phenomenology. According to Husserl (1936, 35), knowledge cannot keep working in “abstraction from every subject,” under the prejudice of objectiveness, the “data of nature,” because the price to pay will be losing touch with the world of life, the real experience, and ending up falling victim to the paradox of the “naturalization of consciousness” (Husserl 1911, 14). This shocking anticipation seems to echo in Ricoeur words (Changeux and Ricoeur 1998, 103), when he asked the neurobiologist Changeux, during their famous debate: “Do you believe that you understand the faces of others in the street, in your family, because you know something about what happens in their brain?”
For this reason, Husserl asked for going back to the origin of knowledge, in order to find that open gaze allowing us to “neutralize our set of predominant mental habits” (1912-29, 8). The phenomenological reduction, the suspension of judgment, is not a mystical enlightenment, nor an intellectual artifice, but a proper “methodical operation” (1912-29, 71), an “exercise” often described by Husserl as “exhausting.”
What do we gain from this exercise? Evidence. The evidence of the primacy of experience over the concept of world, the evidence that each reality cannot exist if not as a presence in consciousness. Once you gain this evidence, it makes no more sense to distinguish between mental and physical phenomena: “From our point of view” said Husserl (1900-01, 162), “all lived experiences are equivalent,” because when we claim the existence of an “external” object, we do it only by virtue of the intentional structure of our consciousness, while on the opposite way round, we cannot claim consciousness from the real existence of the world.
This evidence, stated Husserl, “has never aroused any philosophical astonishment (… ), has never become a central theme of particular scientificity. Everybody got entangled in the obviousness that every single thing appears in a different way to each subject” (1936, 192-193). Yet this obviousness is not just a fact: “Quite the contrary, its factuality announced a fundamental need that, thanks to an appropriate method, can be translated into essential generalities, into a massive system of a priori truths of a new kind, and certainly amazing.”
You need to be a philosopher to sense this evidence hidden under all the obvious layers we buried it in, but the plan is to build new scientific truths from this discovery, from the way the consciousness contents are actually given. The Husserlian proposal to found scientificity on the “essence intuition” principle has played a crucial role on keeping at distance the scientific minds. Husserl himself noticed it; that’s why he often reminded that even mathematics and geometry are eidetic disciplines. What the variation of examples method – aiming for structural invariants of experience – has in common with these disciplines, is the requirement of not having as a subject the “things of nature,” but the meanings and rules of their relations. Equality between cube angles, proportions among sides and diagonals of a triangle, Pythagoras’s theorem, are all “systems of essential relations,” which exceed the possible “multiple realizations,” but can be caught only by the mean of factual examples.
A methodical and rigorous research on structural invariants of mental phenomena and on their connection’s “rules” has not yet been carried out, at least in the scientific area. The project of a science of experience, what Husserl (1912-29, 45) claimed to be called a “real empiricist,” has never been realized. Yet phenomenology has left in heritage at least this nostalgia for evidence and a challenge that no scientist can accept lightly: the essence of consciousness lies in its impossibility of being eliminated.
The co-(n)-fusion of the lived experience
The Husserlian cogito, as remarked by Merleau-Ponty (1945, 21), “reveals me in situation” and does not look at all like the one belonging to idealistic conceptions. It is not Descartes’s pure consciousness, which reveals itself in a complete transparency, but a person’s real presence to its own world. The practice of reduction uncovers the presence as an “ambiguous” structure, as a “lived duality” between mental and physical being. When I bracket everything I have learned about my consciousness and my body, “the paradox of human subjectivity, that is being a subject for the world and, at the same time, being an object in the world”[Note 4] comes out.
The body, said Husserl, is “something constituted in an oddly unfinished way” (1912-29, 553). “On the one hand it’s something physical, material, and has its own extension, including its real qualities, such as colour, weight, heat and other similar material qualities. On the other hand I feel sensations ‘on’ it and ‘in’ it: I feel the pain bell when it rings, I feel the heat, I stretch myself towards the environment space, I place myself under a certain perspective” (1912-29, 540).
This experience of the ambiguity of the body is called by Husserl (1931) “alien belonging” and “immanent transcendence.” In order to realize Husserl is not talking about abstractions, we can think about our own experience when we are looking at medical exam results: we know that the organ we see is “ours,” but we cannot recognize it. I am not that “thing” and, at the same time, I am. If not, we could think about the amazement we feel when, suddenly, a mirror reflects our image, while we are engaged in some activities, and it forces us to see “something” that is in that place and that, as well, we recognize as “ourselves.” This is the “alien belonging” of the body.
The same ambiguity lies inside the mutable domain of the time horizon: everything I have been, what I can remember, anticipate, or imagine to be, constitutes a transcendence compared to what I am now; it’s other than me when I remember or anticipate, yet it’s an “alterity of my own.” Ascribing again Husserl’s words to our most common experience, we can think of when a child asks us “Who is this?” while showing an old picture (it’s me, but it is not anymore), or when we imagine ourselves in a desired or feared situation (it could be me, but is not). This means “immanent transcendence.”
This ambiguity, well stressed by Merleau-Ponty (1945, 431), “is not an imperfection of consciousness or existence, but its own definition.” The structural co-(n)-fusion I find in lived experiences is primordinal as regards the constitution of a physical thing; the “lived dualism” is the matrix of all the dualisms of thought.
Any theory on mind-body connections loses its power when faced with the evidence of our “being the way we are,” and this suggests that the path to follow in order to apprehend ourselves is not studying each pole separately and building a bridge in a second moment, but studying this ambiguity. When Damasio (1999) proved that ventromedial prefrontal cortex lesions compromise both reasoning and emotionality, this did not amaze us because reason and emotions “are crossed” in our own experience; in this way, when Gallese (2006, 315), presented his study results on mirror neurons, he said that the “embodied simulation” is “unavoidably connected to the way we are and we work in the world.”
The challenge is not connecting neurons to consciousness, but understanding how we managed to separate them.
The challenge carried out by phenomenology is ambitious, but not impossible. Varela (1987) proved it: when he proposed to make phenomenology working in neuroscience, he ventured on a path yet to be discovered. In his last writing, we can reach the deepest meaning of this venture, being his scientific ideas tested by a crucial personal life experience. “Intimate distance” is the meaningful title of this writing, subtitled as “Fragments for a phenomenology of organ transplantation.” Something that does concern him in a personal and radical way.
In this moment of his life, he wrote:
We can start with the embodied sentience of the organism, the ‘natural’ basis for the study of lived events. Sentience, in this sense, has a double value or valence: natural and phenomenal. Natural because sentience stands for the organism and its structural coupling with the environment, manifest in a detailed and empirical sense. It thus includes, without remainder, the biological details of the constitution and explanation of function, an inescapable narrative. Phenomenal, because sentience has as its flip side the immanence of the world of experience and experiencing; it has an inescapably lived dimension that the word organism connotes already. Moreover, that the organism is a sentient and cognitive agent is possible only because we are already conscious, and have an intrinsic intuition of life and its manifestations. (… ) Given that the scientific tradition has construed the natural as the objective, and thus has made it impossible to see the seamless unity between the natural and the phenomenal by making sure they are kept apart, no ‘bridging’ or ‘putting together’ would do the work. The only way is to mobilize here a re-examination of the very basis of modern science. (Varela 2001, 261)
The experience verification, the only one possible in the world of life, constituted the basis permitting Varela to open up a research area which is widening up, [Note 5] and that has already proved its efficacy both in giving new themes to neurological research and in addressing it beyond the usual correlation strategy (Thompson, Lutz, and Cosmelli 2005; Thompson and Zahavi 2007).
But this area of phenomenology, accessible to everyone, is not easily reachable. We must hold, as Varela does, the faculty of being astonished by evidence, of going past paths already crossed, the enthusiasm and patience in talking with somebody who has already given directions, the strength to test ourselves coping with the ambiguity of lived experiences and, sometimes, the vertigo of mind – a tough equipment. Last, but not least, the courage to follow until the end the path we discovered.[Note 6]
In a letter to Dorian Cairns, in 1930 (in Tilliette 1983, 133), Husserl wrote “Nearly all of my former students got stuck halfway through their work. They were afraid of radicalism, essential requirement for phenomenology.” While introducing his neurophenomenology, Varela (1996), in the end, appeared to sense the same fear. There’s nothing rhetorical about his appeal on modifying “style and values of the research community” if you truly live following phenomenological directions. It’s quite a transformation, not only of the kind of methods we apply, but of the attitude we assume “in first person” (p. 349):
Science and experience constrain and modify each other as in a dance. This is where the potential for transformation lies. It is also the key for the difficulties this position has found within the scientific community. It requires us to leave behind a certain image of how science is done, and to question a style of training in science which is part of the very fabric of our cultural identity.
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You can find a review on the different theoretical positions on consciousness in: Flanagan, Block, and Güzeldere (1999); Brook and Akins (2005); Zelazo, Moscovitchand, and Thompson (2007), and David Chalmers’s bibliography: http: //consc.net/biblio/l.html. For a debate on the connection between consciousness and neurons, see Metzinger (2000).
A previous discussion of this issue is in Armezzani (2002, 2003).
The page numbers indicated for Husserl’s and Merleu-Ponty’s works refer to Italian editions.
It’s the title of the famous paragraph 53, from Husserl’s (1936) Crisis of the European Sciences.
The main contributions to this research area are collected in the journal Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences.
What strikes us in Varela’s project is his radicalness in embracing all the steps of the Husserlian method: from reduction to variation of examples to intersubjective implications Something that is rare even in areas of less difficult application, such as psychiatry and psychology (see Petitot et al., 1999; Varela and Shear 1999; Depraz, Varela, and Vermersch 2000, 2003).
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