Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Phenomenal Promise

I have argued in my book that focusing on experience is a more fruitful way to think about the domains of science and human spiritual endeavor. You can find the line of that argument here but one might ask what is the big deal about experience? Why focus on it? The answer, I think, comes by flipping the question on its head and asking instead what have we been missing by not focusing on experience?

I take this question to cut broadly - the reason experience is a fertile starting point to think about science and religion is the same reason its a good place to focus our thinking about how we understand ourselves, the world and our attempts to make sense of them both. The unfortunate fact is that in much of modern scientific and philosophical thinking, experience has been forgotten as a question at all. Which brings me to Francisco Varela and phenomenology

Varela was a Chilean biologist of Harvard training who had a distinguished career thinking on a broad range of topics from insect vision to the nature of consciousness. Many people are familiar with his work which has been quite influential (he was one of the founders of the Mind and Life institute) so its a bit embarrassing for me to only encounter him now. Lately I have been reading an article by Varela in "Explaining Consciousness: The Hard Problem". This is a collection of pieces in response to David Chalmers' concept of the Hard Problem in the study of consciousness.

The Hard Problem that Chalmers pointed to was none other than experience - that elusive but inclusive totality that makes consciousness so different than other external phenomena science wishes to address. The text is great because it has so many perspectives in it but for now I want to simply touch on Varela's main focus in his article Neurophenomenology: A Methodological Remedy for the Hard Problem.

In confronting the hard problem Varela reaches back about 100 years in the history of philosophy to the the school of Phenomenology. This was a European movement advanced by writers like Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. The emphasis in Phenomenology is to take take experience and its investigation seriously rather than just dismiss it as unimportant or not really a worthy subject. As Husserl claimed "back to the things themselves" or as Merleu-Ponty wrote

"To return to the things themselves is to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks and in relation to which every scientific stigmatization is an abstract and derivative sign language, as the discipline of geography would be in relation to a river, a forest a prairie we knew beforehand."
Taking the phenomenological perspective Varela claims that experience is irreducible. He then goes on to outline how a phenomenology when combined with cognitive science and neuro-science could provide constraints on each other to develop a true scientific study of consciousness.

Varela's perspective is an important one for thinking about consciousness and science in general. Experience is irreducible. It is always were we start and where we must return. The inability to recognize this has led to the objectification of objectification in science. We imagine the detailed nature of an objective world because it is so fruitful for our scientific world-view (and it is) but then we forget that no one ever experiences it. Objectification is a useful tool but it is not a thing in itself. It is a powerful story that helps us make sense of things.

Clearly there is a world out there. No one doubts that unless they have gone loco. The world is there and it kicks back. But what access we get to it, and what role we play in shaping what we see is very much an open question. We always begin from "behind our eyes" so to speak. What makes Varela's perspective in this paper (and his book the Embodied Mind) so valuable is it takes that recognition and then attempts to do something concrete with it in the service of investigation.

Varela takes our experience seriously and that is an attitude we could fruitfully apply many places.


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  2. Ah - this is a topic close to my heart. The Mind and Life Institute is doing some wonderful and important work, and I am so glad to see you delving deeper into the phenomenological perspective with regard to consciousness (especially after watching that bloggingheads piece!). I like what Varela says about the fact that lived experience is personal, but not necessarily private - in the sense that human interaction involves intersubjectivity. And just as our interactions affect one another on an individual level, they also affect the environment as a whole. This 'shared experience' we are all having involves multi-faceted aspects of self, mind, society, environment, and consciousness itself. Very juicy stuff(!) with tons of potential for developing a true scientific study of consciousness, as you note.

  3. I have been doing an independent study with a student on theories of consciousness and he is the one who started me reading the Varela article. I became enamored with phenomenology back in college. I always felt there was a real research program that could be developed there and so I was really excited to see Varela make those connections.

    I agree with what you say about all of those facets of society and environment being intergral to an understanding of consciousness. The Embodied Mind indeed!

  4. Whenever I hear/read the word "Phenomenology" I think of Edith Stein. I am a big fan of Carmelite mysticism and so was she obviously. I find her story fascinating not to mention she was quite brilliant, I guess one would have to be in order to study under Edmund Husserl.

    Adam, I like how you phrased the predicament that science (and in my opinion religion itself) often finds itself in, "The inability to recognize this (that experience is irreducible) has led to the objectification of objectification in science.... Objectification is a useful tool but it is not a thing in itself. It is a powerful story that helps us make sense of things."

    I would just like to make the following point. As facinating as the study of consciousness is, (and I am certainly fascinated by it) I worry that it is not accessible enough to the average man/woman. Now that may sound a bit haughty implying that those who can and do ponder consciousness are somehow above average and/or superior to others who do not, (i.e., those who merely find paying their mortgage and finding ways to feed their kids all they can contemplate at any given moment). I don't wish to imply class at all, it is just that to be frank (no pun intended) many times there is a vast disconnect between the language of a scientist/professor/philosopher/etc., and the average Joe Smith from the Bronx or Miltilda Brown from Alabama. It seems to me that at this critical juncture where we the human species find ourselves today it is going to be necessary to further all understanding and change the collective perspective of our role in the cosmos. We seem to be the only species that does not understand its role. I believe it has to begin with education of our young and re-education of our old, where possible...but that is a really tall order.

  5. Now this is a difficult subject. So simple on the outside but when I start parsing it I am confounded by its iterative complexity. The concepts are so nimble that they escape any attempt to nail them down on my cognitive whiteboard.

    I started by asking the question - so what is the big deal, our experiences are transitory, illusory and incommunicable while our symbolic world of science, writing, philosophy has been so productive. Surely that is what matters, a 'real' abstract world of symbols where we can all communicate and agree. And whats more it works, just look at technology and medicine!

    And then an odd memory came into to my mind. I was back in the army in a drill squad. We were practising endlessly for the annual army drill competition (and which we won for our regiment) As we marched I wondered about the effortless ease with which we coordinated our movement in perfect precision and harmony. It seemed like absolute magic, how was it possible that we were all simultaneously aware of each other's movement, position, tempo and intentions? And yet there I was doing it and could not understand how I was doing it! That is until the drill Sergeant gave me a bollocking and I knew I had taken introspection too far.

    The clue came to me from the article by Varela that you mentioned:
    "...discoveries of the phenomenological movement to have quickly realized that an investigation of the structure of human experience inevitably induces a shift to considering the several levels on which my consciousness is inextricably linked to those of others and the phenomenal world in an empathetic mesh"

    "Thus from our early evolutionary roots the sense of self is more adequately seen as a holographic point which cannot be separated from the distributed, multiple others which are our inescapable human ecology"

    Our drill squad had become powerfully linked in an 'empathetic mesh'. Something had happened that, if asked, we could not name or describe, it just carried us along.

    I know I am taking a very simple view here, but is this why phenomenology is important? Because it links the human experience in an empathetic mesh and understanding this helps to make sense of our behaviour and condition?

  6. @connie I understand what you are saying and you make a vital point. Finding a different perspective on science and religion is of more than academic interest because our rather delicate moment in history demands a change in values.

    Technical debates about theology and physics do not go very far towards creating a language the culture can use to understand how to value science and which science to value (as in implement). At the same time some of the work of creating that language will have to happen in the realms of theory/research (like neuro-phenomenology) because we have to figure out to maintain the integrity of scientific investigation while broadening the view of what it includes and what it speaks to.

    It is, as they say, like walking a razors edge. There is the work of speaking to the culture as a whole and the work of finding bedrock on which to stand to have that discussion.

  7. @The occasional reporter.

    I like your army drill story. Creating music with others yields a similar experience. I think the insight of phenomenology is that it offers a program, "a way of speaking of", experience that would allow us to find structures that don't change from person to person. As jayne said above Varela draws from the tradition when he says experience is personal but not private and that means we get constraints on our description. People often blow off experience because they argue there is nothing to talk about, nothing to investigate.

  8. Adam, thanks you have made it much clearer. In your reply to Connie I think you may have missed the obvious. Popular writers of science articles (like yourself in your other incarnation) do the job of interpreting and making intelligible the work of academia to a broader audience. Each of us in our own work need the parsimony and power of our specialised vocabularies. We could not discard/simplify this vocabulary without compromising our work. For example I greatly enjoyed your article about Tegmark and I am sure that I would never have understood any of Tegmark's papers. But Tegmark could hardly have done his work without his specialised vocabulary.

  9. This idea of what language is spoken with regard to bringing certain concepts to the broader culture is fascinating in itself - especially in the context of this topic of phenomenology and consciousness.

    In the larger scheme of human experience, it never ceases to amaze me how many different 'languages' we as a species are capable of speaking - not just in the literal sense, but including the language of metaphor, the language of art, of music, mathematics... etc.

    Part of my job as a therapist is to learn the 'language' of my clients. If I cannot connect with them on their own turf, so to speak, we won't get very far together. The "empathic mesh" of which Varela speaks, regarding human experience and interaction, is mediated in so many ways by language. And the more 'dialects' we are capable of understanding, the more we are able to move through this mesh with insight, and compassion. None of these languages need be judged as 'superior' or 'inferior' - but they are each necessary for expressing a certain facet of experience in a distinct way. And we often need 'interpreters' - such as those who write for popular science magazines :) - to provide us with an understanding of these various expressions. (I for one, never did become fluent in the language of mathematics, and would be lost without adequate translation!).

  10. Thanks for the comments guys. I agree with all of you, and all of you seem to understand what I was trying to say.

    Adam, I know you are right when you say, "There is the work of speaking to the culture as a whole and the work of finding bedrock on which to stand to have that discussion." I just don't want the former lost in the latter whereas something like phenomenology/consciousness becomes nothing more than a talking heads round table experiment/discussion or another elitist Age of Enlightment part deux and never reaches the "masses" so to speak. The ideas, the theories that are being hashed around now in science and philosophy are too important, I believe.

    I don't need to tell anyone this but it bears remembering that the majority of the human species has limited resources to day to day necessities let alone to education and insight. Yet if we all wish to move forward we cannot leave them behind.

  11. This quote sums up my thoughts on the matter...

    “There is profound knowledge and wisdom existing everywhere. What is lacking is the universal language which universal people can understand scientifically, logically. One subject contains the essence of religion, of philosophy, of psychology,all contained in the whole. These all have to exist simultaneously without separation… Education should bring everything together, not separate them”

    Lama Yeshe

  12. Connie, I like your quote from Lama Yeshe. When one lives in the middle of a revolution it is hard to see its contours but I suspect the Internet is that 'universal language'. Now I know it is novel to think of the Internet as a language but remember that the point of language is to convey content and this is what the Internet does. The Internet brings together many facts, many interpretations of fact. many points of view and this provides a synthesis. Its structure also encourages an attitude of search and discover so that one is exposed to the many interpretations and points of view. Additionally there are innumerable forums where one can ask for help/information, not to mention the new and exciting field of social networking. With so many minds connecting together across our planet something truly profound is happening and I think we have only glimpsed a small part of its potential. It is not just the knowledge made available but the really important parts are that it encourages that attitude of search and discover and encourages participation and contribution. The implications for David Chalmer's 'extended mind' are just amazing.

  13. Being a global thinker's global thinker, I'm struggling to choose a comment section sized response to such invigorating writing- I want to respond to everything!

    One thing I am remarking at, is how my thinking quest which is rooted in 'non-material dimensions' (art, theology) has grown into the dimensions of the 'material', while those of you here that seem to have roots in the material, seem to be venturing into the 'non-material'. What's even more remarkable is that we are just now taking real notice of this interplay, even though we embody it....

    A couple of real life examples that flesh out some of this excellent discussion:

    I had a chance conversation with a with a man in his fifties, steeped in a christian world view and frustrated by his propensity toward anger and its public outbursts. In our dialogue together, I was able to explain to him the role of the amygdella(sp) and offer to him that perhaps he was really suffering from fear not anger. He found the idea fitting and our dialogue and his conceiving himself changed.

    Political thinker Joshua Cooper Ramo, in his new book, The Age of the Unthinkable, makes a case that to properly understand geo-political events, we have to begin conceiving our world in terms of the science of complexity (non-linear eventing) instead of the science of Newton (linear eventing). Ramo utilizes the work of physicist Per Bak and his work with dynamics encompassed by a sand pile: once a cone of sand reaches a critical stage, it is impossible to predict if the next added grain or the thousandth added grain of sand will trigger its avalanche. Ramo asks, 'why do our efforts to reduce terrorism only increase it? etc. He answers by arguing that political thinkers even into our day are still conceiving the world in a physics that pre-dates Einstein and are thus ill-conceiving our world.

    So the questions of language and elitist self-entertainment are central to our endeavor of re-visioning what we're all about: How we conceive ourselves gives birth to the life we live in- literally.

  14. The Occasional Reporter:
    I like what you are saying about the internet as a 'language' of sorts (or yes, a synthesis of languages) - makes me think of Marshall McLuhan... "the medium is the message".
    The power of this medium itself is phenomenal(!)