Tag Archives: phenomenology

Some Comments on Edelman and Tononi’s book A Universe of Consciousness

I started reading Edelman and Tononi’s book A Universe of Consciousness and I wanted to offer some skeptical comments. I’m generally skeptical about any theorizing of consciousness these days, not because I’m against theorizing in science but because I have been leaning more Mysterian in my epistemology towards “consciousness”, where “consciousness” refers to subjective experience. I think any fundamental theory of consciousness is doomed to fail because it will run into vicious circularity as I will explain below. Take this seemingly innocuous statement offered at the beginning of chapter 1:

Everyone knows what consciousness is: It is what abandons you every evening when you fall asleep and reappears the next morning when you wake up.

Already E&T are helping themselves to some heavy duty theoretically loaded assumptions. E&T are talking about consciousness as subjectivity, so why assume subjectivity goes away completely during dreamless sleep? How do we know there isn’t something-it-is-like to be asleep and we just don’t remember what-it’s-like? If subjectivity is at 100% during wakefulness why not think it goes down to 1% or .05% while sleeping instead of 0%? Perhaps what-it-is-like for humans to be asleep is analogous in subjective intensity to what-it-is-like to be bee or lizard when awake.

By helping themselves to the assumption that consciousness goes away completely during asleep E&T allow themselves a “starting point” or “fixed point” from which to begin their theorizing. It becomes their rock-solid assumption against which they can begin doing experimental work. But from a fundamental point of view, it is an unargued for assumption. Where’s the evidence for it? Introspective evidence is not enough because introspection is turned off during asleep. And empirical evidence? How are you going to measure it? With a consciousness-meter? Well, how are you going to validate that it’s calibrated properly? Say you build one and point it at a sleeping brain at it registers “0”. How do you know the measurement is correct? What’s the calibration method?

They also assume that consciousness is an “relatively recent development” evolutionarily speaking. If we are talking about self-consciousness this makes sense but they are not. They are talking about subjectivity, the having of a “point-of-view”. But why not think a bee has a point of view on the world? Or why assume you need a brain or nervous system at all? For all we know there is something-it-is-like to be an amoeba. E&T want this to be another “fixed point” because if you assume that subjectivity requires a brain or nervous system it gives you a starting place scientifically. It tells you where to look. But again, it’s never argued for, simply assumed. But it’s not logically incoherent to think a creature without a nervous system has a dim phenomenology.

Suppose you assumed that only brained creatures have consciousness and you devise a theory accordingly. Having made your theory you devise a series of experimental techniques and measurements and then apply them to brained creatures. You “confirm” that yes indeed brained creatures are conscious all right. What happens when you apply the same technique to a non-brained creature like an amoeba, testing for whether the amoeba has consciousness? Surprise surprise, your technique fails to register any consciousness in the amoeba. But there is a blatant epistemic circularity here because you designed your measurement technique according to certain theoretical assumptions starting with the “fixed point” that consciousness requires a nervous system. But why make that assumption? Why not assume instead that subjectivity starts with life itself and is progressively modified as nervous systems are introduced? Moreover they assume that

Conscious experience is integrated (conscious states cannot be subdivided into independent components) and, at the same time, is highly differentiated (one can experience billions of different conscious states).

Why can’t conscious states be subdivided? Why assume that? What does that even mean? Divided from what into what? Take the sleeping at .01% consciousness example. Why not think wakeful “unified” consciousness at 100% is the result of 1000 tiny microconsciousness “singing” side-by-side such that the total choir of microconsciousness gives rise to an illusion of a single large singer? When E&T say “one” can experience billions of states, who is this “one”? Why one, and not many? Their assumption of conscious unity is another “fixed point” but it’s just an assumption. Granted, it’s an assumption that stems from introspective experience but why trust introspection here? Introspection also says consciousness completely goes away during asleep but as we’ve seen it might be wrong about that.


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Quote for the Day – What It’s Like to Be a Lion

If we were to interpret the lives of animals with a human eye, we would conclude that they are in flow most of the time because their perception of what has to be done generally coincides with that they are prepared to do. When a lion feels hungry, it will start grumbling and looking for prey until its hunger is satisfied; afterward it lies down to bask in the sun, dreaming the dreams lions dream. There is no reason to believe that it suffers from unfulfilled ambition, or that it is over-whelmed by pressing responsibilities. Animals’ skills are always matched to concrete demands because their minds, such as they are, only contain information about what is actually present in the environment in relation to their bodily states, as determined by instinct. So a hungry lion only perceives what will help it to find a gazelle, while a sated lion concentrates fully on the warmth of the sun. Its mind does not weigh possibilities unavailable at the moment; it neither imagines pleasant alternatives, nor is it disturbed by fears of failure.

~ Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Flow (1991), p. 227-228

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Steven Crowell defending phenomenology from the critique of Speculative Realism

From figure/ground interview

Let’s get technical. In one of his books, Guerrilla Metaphysics, Graham Harman, one of the co-founders of the philosophical movement known as Speculative Realism, makes a powerful critique of phenomenology. First, he identifies some inherent contradictions: “The cumulative lesson of this book so far is that phenomenology is caught at the midpoint of two intersections: (1) On the one hand, we deal only with objects, since sheer formless sense data are never encountered; on the other hand, an “objects-only” world could not be tangible or experienceable in any way, since objects always elude us. (2) On the one hand, phenomena are united with our consciousness in a single intentional act, while on the other hand they are clearly separate, since they fascinate us as end points of awareness rather then melting indistinguishably into us.” Second, he accuses phenomenology of remaining a “philosophy of access” and neglecting to recognize what his colleague Levi R. Bryant has called a “Democracy of Objects.” Harman writes: “Of any philosophy we encounter, it can be asked whether it has anything at all to tell us about the impact of inanimate objects upon one another, apart from any human awareness of this fact. If the answer is “yes,” then we have a philosophy of objects. This does not require a model of solid cinder blocks existing in a vacuum without context, but only a standpoint equally capable of treating human and inhuman entities on an equal footing. If the answer is “no,” then we have the philosophy of access, which for all practical purposes is idealism, even if no explicit denial is made of a world outside of human cognition.” What do you make of Harman’s critique of phenomenology and his new brand of realism?

Having not read this book (though a very good grad student in the English department who was taking my phenomenology seminar introduced me to some of its ideas), I don’t think I can comment responsibly on it, but the characterization of phenomenology seems insensitive to the crucial distinction between transcendental-phenomenological idealism and metaphysical or subjective idealism. In simplest terms: I reject the idea that phenomenology does not give us the world as it is. It is indeed a “philosophy of access,” but it is access to the world as it is. And I would also argue that it is a standpoint “equally capable of treating human and inhuman entities on an equal footing,” if by “equal footing” one means: attending to the things themselves, not setting up one entity as the measure of all the others, but letting entities show themselves as they are. However, I find the idea that one could do this without any concern for “access,” in a broad sense, very naive. For instance, it seems plausible to say that physics tells us about “the impact of inanimate objects upon one another, apart from any human awareness of this fact,” but presumably this is not what the author means. There are the standard examples from quantum mechanics about the influence of the observer, and the like. But beyond that, there is the fact that physics is a theory and a set of practices which provide normative conditions that allow for distinctions to be made between genuine interactions and mere “artefacts” of one’s standpoint, etc. Do these theories and practices count as a mode of “awareness”? If so, then physics must still be too idealistic. But I doubt that any scientific or philosophical position is conceivable that does not involve theories and practices that establish such normative conditions, and if that is so, then Speculative Realism will also involve some reference to conditions of our “awareness” of the objects it references. Transcendental phenomenology strives to do justice to this fact, and if that is a kind of “idealism,” it is one I can live with. As Husserl pointed out, the “transcendental subject” is not the “human being” as this is envisioned in the question, and I would argue that the same holds for Heidegger’s position. I am not impressed by positions that try to circumvent this point by appeal to primordial “events” or to a kind of post-humanism that most often merely borrows – very selectively – from biology and the like to answer philosophical questions. One does not need to make a fetish out of method to believe that certain questions need to be approached differently than others; in particular, philosophical questions have a reference to access built into them, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As for a “democracy of objects,” where does the “subject” fit in? If it is just another object, then we have lost our grip on the distinction.

I think Crowell presents a very nice reply to the critique Speculative realists usually bring to “philosophies of access”. Do yourself a favor and read the full interview (although I disagree with his critique of information processing, and some of the things he says about naturalism are a little disappointing).

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On the relevance of phenomenology to cognitive science

I just started reading Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi’s textbook The Phenomenological Mind and I thought this was a particularly clear paragraph on the relevance on phenomenology to cognitive science.

Compare two situations. In the first situation we, as scientists who are interested in explaining perception, have no phenomenological description of perceptual experience. How would we begin to develop our explanation? We would have to start somewhere. Perhaps we would startwith a pre-established theory of perception, and begin by testing the various predictions this theory makes. Quite frequently this is the way that science is done. We may ask where this pre-established theory comes from, and find that in part it may be based on certain observations or assumptions about perception. We may question these observations or assumptions, and based on how we think perception actually works, formulate counter-arguments or alternative hypotheses to be tested out. This seems somewhat hit or miss, although science often makesprogress in this way. In the second situation, we have a well-developed phenomenological description of perceptual experience as intentional, spatial, temporal, and phenomenal. We suggest that starting with this description, we already have a good idea of what we need to explain. If we know that perception is always perspectivally incomplete, and yet that we perceive objects as if they have volume, and other sides that we cannot see in the perceptual moment,then we know what we have to explain, and we may have good clues about how to design experiments to get to just this feature of perception. If the phenomenological description is systematic and detailed, then to start with this rich description seems a lot less hit or miss. So phenomenology and science may be aiming for different kinds of accounts, but it seems clear that phenomenology can be relevant and useful for scientific work.

~The Phenomenological Mind, Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi, p. 9-10

This general idea is echoed in Julian Jaynes’ quip that the attempt to find consciousness in the brain will inevitably fail unless you know what you are looking for in the first place.


Filed under Phenomenology, Psychology

Heidegger's Insight Into the Dynamics of Consciousness

Heidegger is usually seen as arguing against all forms of “psychical” theorizing and introspectionist psychology, denying that the human mind is fundamentally a matter of self-consciousness, of peering inwards on its own mental states. For centuries, self-consciousness was said to be the foundation upon which we build our mental world. Heidegger clearly had problems with the introspectionist psychologies of his time, most of which were Cartesian in nature. Instead of grounding our mental states in self-consciousness, Heidegger grounded them in moods.

Heidegger calls mood-mentality “Befindlichkeit”, literally translated as “the state in which one may be found”. Macquarrie and Robinson translate Befindlichkeit as “state-of-mind”. For many Heideggerian scholars, this translation leaves a sour taste in their mouths for its “cognitivist” flavor. I’m going to explain later why I think it is a good translation. But first, what does it mean to be in the “state in which one may be found”?  Right away Heidegger is insistent that this “finding of oneself” is not self-reflexive in nature. Rather, “In a state-of-mind Dasein is always brought before itself, and has always found itself, not in the sense of coming across itself by perceiving itself, but in the sense of finding itself in the mood that it has” (SZ 135).

Many scholars take passages like these as definitive evidence that Heidegger was an anti-cognitivist thinker. Hubert Dreyfus is famous for claiming that Heidegger wanted to kill the “myth of the mental”. Dreyfus’s Heidegger downplayed all forms of mentalistic theorizing, including talk about beliefs and desires, rationality, intellectual judgments, etc. For Dreyfus, what does most of the work is “mindless absorbed coping”. Sure, Dreyfus admits that we can “step back” and rationally deliberate once in awhile, but expert behavior is always a matter of “mindlessness”.

However, this “mindless” reading of Heidegger doesn’t make sense of passages like this one:

Factically, Dasein can, should, and must, through knowledge and will, become master of its moods; in certain possible ways of existing, this may signify a priority of volition and cognition. Only we must not be mislead into denying that ontologically mood is a primordial kind of being of Dasein, in which Dasein is disclosed to itself prior to all cognition and volition, and beyond their range of disclosure. (SZ 136)

This is a really interesting passage (in a really interesting section: 29). It isn’t often you hear Heidegger talk about “mastering” yourself through knowledge and will. Heideggerian scholars would normally say the most important thing in this passage is how moods are prior to cognition. They emphasize the part of the section which says “a state-of-mind is very remote from anything like coming across a psychical condition by the kind of apprehending which first turns round and then back” (SZ 136).

But this denial of primordiality is not to negate the higher-order reflective capacities of knowledge and will, volition and cognition. Let us call these capacities for higher-order reflection consciousness.  To say that moods are prior to consciousness is not to negate that consciousness occurs. It is only a matter of getting the phenomenology straight. For the most part, our decisions are not a matter of consciousness, but rather, of being swept up in the attractive-repulsive forces in the world. Moods are what make possible being directed towards something e.g., a goal, a person, an object, an event. Being directed towards the world is a matter of vital significance, of things mattering to us. “Existentially, a state-of-mind implies a disclosive submission to the world, out of which we can encounter something that matters to us” (SZ 137). Recognizing the phenomenological priority of moods, however, does not require the denial that we are conscious creatures capable of stepping back, reflecting, and rationally deliberating about our moods and experiences so as to arrive at a better decision or clearer understanding of the world. Personally, I think Heidegger’s discussion of “mastery” is almost certainly tied up with his conception of “authenticity”, but that is another post.

I’d like to come back to the concept of “encountering something that matters”. They actually have psychological models of decision-making that are based on the concept of “mattering”, although few of them would recognize their Heideggerian roots. A popular model of drug addiction is called the “incentive salience” model. Robinson and Berridge say, for example, that

(1) Potentially addictive drugs share the ability to produce long-lasting changes in brain organization.
(2) The brain systems that are changed include those normally involved in the process of incentive motivation and reward.
(3) The critical neuroadaptations for addiction render these brain reward systems hypersensitive (“sensitized”) to drugs and drug-associated stimuli.
(4) The brain systems that are sensitized do not mediate the pleasurable or euphoric effects of drugs (drug “liking”), but instead they mediate a subcomponent of reward we have termed incentive salience or “wanting”. We posit the psychological process of incentive salience to be specically responsible for instrumental drug-seeking and drug-taking behavior (drug “wanting”).

In other words, the drug addicts “world” is valenced in such a way that drug-related stimuli trigger “wanting” such that the addict engages in the various automatic subroutines of drug-usage. The addict is not wanting to shoot up at one minute, but then he walks into the room and sees a needle on the table. Because he is “hyper sensitized” to drug-stimuli, the sight of the needle easily triggers a neural wave to cross over the threshold which is inhibiting the drug-using behavior. Once the threshold is reached, the inhibition fails and the task of getting high is automatically carried out. “States-of-mind are so far from being reflected upon, that precisely what they do is to assail Dasein in its unreflecting devotion to the ‘world’ with which it is concerned and on which it expends itself” (SZ 136).

So I actually think “state-of-mind” is a good translation of Befindlichkeit. It captures the sense in which a drug-addict is in a “junkie” state-of-mind. His junkie-moods valence the whole world such that everything pushes or pulls him towards the task of getting high. He discloses the world in accordance with his state-of-mind, which isn’t static, but rather, constantly changing and modifying itself. These mood-mentalities are primordial insofar as they are the motivating force behind all most basic kinds of decision-making. Mood-based decision making isn’t a matter of intellectual deliberation. Rather, as John Protevi says,  “Decisions are precisely the brain’s falling into one pattern or another, a falling that is modeling as the settling into a basin of attraction that will constrain neural firing in a pattern.” Indeed, “Dasein has, in the first instance, fallen away from itself as an authentic being its Self, and has fallen into the ‘world’ (SZ 175).


Filed under Consciousness, Heidegger, Phenomenology

Ecological Realism and Affordance Ontology

Being and Time era Heidegger is often accused of holding to some kind of subjectivism because of his “being idealism” wherein the being of entities is interdependent with the event of perceptual disclosure. But since early Heidegger also clearly states in several places that entities are not dependent on Dasein for their material existence, we are left with a contradiction between being idealism and entity realism. Now, there are many ways to try and get out of this contradiction. People like William Blattner differentiate between an empirical and a transcendental level of analysis where on the empirical level it makes sense to talk about independent entities but it does not make sense to do so on the transcendental level. Others like Dreyfus and Carman take a different route and simply define being idealism in such a way as to be compatible with entity realism. This is the route I take.

The best way to make entity realism consistent with being idealism is through what I call “ecological realism”. This version of realism must be decisively distinguished from classic or “philosophical realism”. Understanding the difference between these two styles of realism will help bolster my case that Heidegger understood himself to be a realist but denied the validity of “classical” realism. The key difference between ecological and classical realism is that whereas both believe that the Earth exists independently of the mind, ecological realism takes this as the starting point and philosophical realism takes it as something to be proved.

Along with Dasein as being-in-the-world, entities within-the-world have in each case already been disclosed. This existential-ontological assertion seems to accord with the thesis of realism that the external world is really present-at-hand. In so far as this existential assertion does not deny that entities within-the-world are present-at-hand, it agrees – doxographically, as it were – with the thesis of realism in its result. But it differs in principle from every kind of realism; for realism holds that the Reality of the ‘world’ not only needs to be proved but also is capable of proof. (BT 251)

Philosophical realism starts with the assumption of a consciousness or subjectivity isolated from the external world by means of an internal subjective sphere. The question is then “How does the inside of the sphere correspond to the outside?” Here we can see how classic realism runs dangerously close to being a form of idealism because it seems possible that our subjective experience could be totally different from the actual physical world. Indeed, it seems impossible to put the subjective and subjective worlds back together once cleaved. This is nothing other than the classic subject-object model that has caused so many problems in philosophy. Heidegger rejects this position not because he disagrees that the Earth exists independently of us, but rather, because he rejects the starting point of a consciousness isolated from it.

Instead, it is assumed that the mind relates to reality by means of already “dwelling outside”. For Heidegger, there is never a problem of how the inside corresponds to the outside because the mind is always already “outside”. But this doesn’t mean that the mind is somehow floating outside the skull. It simply means that insofar as the mind is characterized by intentionality (directedness towards), the mind is always already directed towards the outside world. Accordingly, subjectivity is understood in terms of being a process of encountering or attending to what’s already there before you: the environment. Perception then becomes a matter of regulating our reaction to the environment rather than constructing a model of the environment. We move from models of representation as mirroring to models of representation as control. The mind becomes a way of regulating our internal behaviors and homeostasis. This regulation forms a “background” upon which higher-order thoughts and theoretical reflections can occur. And built into this background is a feeling of existential being-in-the-world. This is because we spend our whole lives inhabiting the environment. To start from the presupposition that our primordial consciousness is separated from the environment is merely Cartesian dogma. Our primary consciousness is always already “outside” of our heads, in-the-world. This primary consciousness is better seen as a kind of low-level perceptual reactivity than any kind of theoretical cognition operating on the basis of symbolization.

The statement that the comportments of the Dasein are intentional means that the mode of being of our own self, the Dasein, is essentially such that this being, so far as it is, is always already dwelling with the extant. The idea of a subject which has intentional experiences merely inside its own sphere and is not yet outside it but encapsulated within itself is an absurdity which misconstrues the basic ontological structure of the being that we ourselves are. (BP 64).

So that’s more or less entity realism in a nutshell. What about being idealism? We have already set out a realist ontology based on the assumption of a direct realist account of intentionality. But we must infuse ecological realism with an “affordance ontology” in order to avoid a naive realism. It would be naive to suppose that animals directly attend to reality itself as understood by the physical sciences. But any direct realism worth its salt will never claim that animals directly perceive the actual structure of reality. This would be putting the cart before the horse. Instead, direct realism claims that animals do not first learn to perceive the present-at-hand structure of the Earth, but rather, they learn to perceive affordances. Affordances are objective properties of the given environment that are related to what an animal can do (with passive observation being a derivative kind of activity). For example, a chair affords the possibility of sitting for those with the appropriate bodies and capacities. But the affordance property of the chair is completely objective and independent of the perceiver. Whether the chair is capable of supporting someone is based on the material dynamics of the chair itself independent of my mind. As Gibson says, “The affordance points both ways [subjective and objective]. What a thing is and what it means are not separate, the former being physical and the latter mental, as we are accustomed to believe”.

It is here we can develop an account of being idealism that does not contradict entity realism. Take the chair again. The chair as it materially exists is independent of my perception of it. But my perception of the chair as as something-for-sitting is dependent on me the subject. So we can say that whereas the chair independently exists on the ontic level, its ontological being is dependent on how I take it to be. And since I can take the chair in many different ways depending on the context of my interaction, its ontological mode of being is essentially “free” or “open” to an infinite number of involvements (chair can be used as a stool or as kindling, etc.). Accordingly, Big B Being becomes defined as the meaning or significance of entities in relation to prior interests. We can therefore have an idealism of meaning (being) without collapsing into a subjectivism because the affordance property of the entity is not something subjectively determined. The chair will support me whether or not I am around to actually sit on it.  In order to perceive the chair as a chair then, I need not construct a mental representation or subjectively “put a value” on a meaningless input. Rather, I need only to differentiate the affordance property from the given stimulus. In other words, I need only respond to the meaning of the stimulus, not its physical profile (wavelengths, etc.). Learning this capacity involves learning how to attend to the ecological level of reality, the level of the Umwelt.

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Quote of the Day – Matthew Ratcliffe

Whenever we experience an itch, a mild pain or a tightening of the chest, we already have a background sense of being in a world, regardless of whether the foreground feelings are perceptions of the body or of something else. This background also consists of feeling. The body, in so far as it sets up the world in which we find ourselves, is neither a medium or perception within an experienced world nor an object of perception within that world. It constitutes an aspect of experience that is presupposed by both.
The world-constituting role of the body is recognized by Merleau-Ponty, who contrasts the lived body with the body as an object of experience and thought. The lived body is what I have referred to as the “feeling body”. It is never experienced in its entirety as an object of experience, even though it can undergo differing degrees and kinds of objectification. This is because it is the possibility of experiencing anything at all and therefore something that always remains, at least in part, in the background:

In so far as it sees or touches the world, my body can […] be neither seen nor touched. What prevents its ever being an object, ever being ‘completely constituted’ is that it is that by which there are objects. It is neither tangible nor visible in so far as it is that which sees and touches. (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p. 92)

For Merleau-Ponty, the lived body is not only directed towards things in the world. It also opens up the world as a space of purposive, practical possibilities, and thus shapes all our experiences, activities and thoughts. Hence an aspect of bodily experience and a sense of belonging to the world are one and the same.

~Matthew Ratcliffe, feelings of being: phenomenology, psychiatry, and the sense of reality p. 107

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