Toward an Any Person’s Account on Consciousness
4:30 p.m. 7 June 2007
Note that Martin Morse-Brown will also be presenting.
I wish to put forward an account on consciousness that is based on Max Velmans’ reflexive approach to consciousness (Velmans 1993, 2006). His approach is non-dualistic and non-reductive. It is non-dualistic in that it postulates an ontological (reflexive) monism. However, it does not reduce conscious experience to mere brain activities. In contrast, the reflexive approach puts the phenomenal, subjective experience at the heart of every scientific investigation of consciousness.
Unlike a reductionist view that leaves out the phenomenal realm and recommands a strict 3rd person method to proceed (heterophenomenology, for instance, as described by Dennett 1999, 2001), Velmans emphasises that every conscious experience, be it that of a dream, a bodily sensation or a cat perceived as being located “outside” is the private phenomenal experience of a subject. 3rd-person methods might provide us with information about the causes and possible correlates of consciousness, but in order to know what consciousness is, i.e. what the results of these causes are we have to ask the subject.
The gap between physical and psychological explanations of consciousness lies in the different perspectives and objects of investigation. A neuroscientist observes the brain of a subject confronted with a stimulus, whereas a subject experiences the neural representation of that stimulus. The neuroscientist might thus explain what happens in the brain whenever a subject experiences something but his observation will not reveal anything about the phenomenal consciousness of that subject. Whereas both physical and psychological explanations share an identical ontological basis, there certainly is an “epistemological pluralism”. Depending on the context, method, perspective and subject of investigation, descriptions of phenomena will clearly differ.
According to Velmans all phenomenal experiences are private. Even perceived events that are located as being outside of our brains appear to be public only in that the private experiences of these events can be shared. It follows that there is no objective observation of whatsoever. Every observation is subjective. Objectivity, according to Velmans, is actually intersubjectivity. Different subjects experience, report about their experiences and may mutally agree with other subjective reports.
In a similar vein Varela and other researchers (for instance Lutz, A.,2002, Thompson, E. and Lutz, A., 2003, Varela, F. and Shear, J., 1999, Varela, F.; Thompson, E and Rosch, E., 1991) emphasised the need for a 2nd person science of consciousness. Their claim is that the study of consciousness strongly requires the consideration of 1st person data. Where classical phenomenology (Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer) already acknowledges the shortcomings of 3rd person methods in explaining consciousness by putting forward a view that asks the researcher to go back to “the things themselves”, neurophenomenologists emphasise a practical dimension that has to naturally follow from this critique: Instead of a studying consciousness from a distant, and purely theoretical perspective, one has to “put hands on practice” and look at the phenomenal experience itself.
This implicates to give up a “just take a look attitude” (Varela and Shear 1999) for it is far from evident that subjects in every day life are actually aware of their phenomenal experiences. The consideration of 1st person data thus requires a method that involves a training of subjects in experience and the generation of intersubjectively shared catalogues of reported experiences. (Lutz 2002).
Combining Velmans’ reflexive approach with neurophenomenology might lead to an account of consciousness which provides an alternative to dualistic and reductionist approaches. This account is still naturalistic, as it puts forward an ontological monism, but it thereby does not deny phenomenal experience. Rather it redefines consciousness as being exactly that what happens when a subject has a conscious, subjective and phenomenal experience. The gap between 1st and 3rd person perspectives appears to be bridgeable as every 3rd person description necessarily depends on a 1st person experience. In the spirit of neurophenomenology, 1st person and 3rd person methods might put reciprocal constraints on the study of consciousness.
So far these reflections have mainly considered the 1st person perspective on consciousness. But they did not provide information about how consciousness is caused or constituted. This is a related but fundamentally different question that I also wish to tackle:
Velmans (in press) agrees with the enactive account on consciousness in that consciousness clearly depends on more than the brain. The interaction with the environment and even the mastery of sensory motor skills are similarly crucial to him. However, Velmans argues against enactivism in that he takes enactivism to only replace the physicalist’s and functionalist’s neural representations with sensory motor activities by still maintaining a reductive attitude in explaining consciousness from “the outside” by means of a third-person perspective.
Another difficulty Velmans sees in that enactivists do not only claim that sensory motor activities have causal relevance but that they also consider sensory motor interactions with the environment to be constitutive for consciousness. He argues that, in contrary, the causal relevance should not lead to a constitutive relevance. Sensory motor interactions remain preconscious. Consciousness itself happens in the brain and is only established by neural activities.
According to my view, Velmans is right in that simply replacing neural representations with sensory motor activities and then trying to explain consciousness from a 3rd person’s perspectives creates conceptual confusion and an explanatory gap. However, I am less convinced that his critique on the constitution of consciousness is similarly successful. My attempt is to save enactivism in that I consider sensory motor (?) interactions to be indeed not only causal, but constitutive for consciousness.
To put it in a (admittedly ambitious) nutshell I wish to combine Velmans reflexive approach with the benefits of neurophenomenological first person methods and enactivism. Some of the questions I have: what is the ontological status of phenomenal experience? Is there a difference between a- and p-consciousness? Is talk of consciousness necessarily a talk of phenomenal consciousness? How should one study consciousness from a neuroscientific perspective, given the fact that conscious experiences are private? How can we distinguish between the different cognitive processes (experiencing, conceptualising and verbalising) involved in (neuroscientific) experiments on consciousness? If we train subjects do we thereby alter the experience or only the capability to experience? What are the constituents of consciouness? Does it make any sense to look for neural correlates of consciousness, given the hypothesis that it might depend on interactions that transcend the brain and body? What empirical data is there to argue in favor of enactivism?
As you might notice, the state of my ideas is far from being focused and might appear to be a too general a starting point. I would be therefore very happy to get your feedback on this.