On Thursdays at noon Yhouse holds a lunch meeting at the Institute of Advanced Study, in Princeton. The usual format is a 15-minute informal talk by a speaker followed by a longer open-ended discussion among the participants, triggered by, but not necessarily confined to, the topic of the talk. In order to share, I am posting a synopsis of the weekly meetings.

Synopsis of YHouse Luncheon 2/15/18

Presenter: Hayden Kee (Ph.D. Candidate in Philosophy at Fordham University)

Title: Phenomenological Naturalism and the Metaphysics of Consciousness

Editor's Note: At the start, Hayden said that he had made substantial changes to his presentation since submitting the abstract, so his focus will be different. 

Abstract: To what extent do we require a phenomenological level of description to adequately grasp the behavior of non-human organisms? At one extreme, some versions of autopoietic enactivism endorse a strong phenomenological life-mind continuity thesis, maintaining that wherever we find life, we find also a mind exhibiting the same basic phenomenal interiority as human experience. In this talk, I will argue that this broad application of phenomenological concepts to all living beings, including ones believed to lack sentience, introduces a fateful equivocation into the phenomenological idiom, which is designed to describe sentient experience. This terminological clarification serves to bring into focus an underlying ontological and methodological issue: autopoietic enactivism (along with other approaches to naturalized phenomenology) but it is radically incomplete in the absence of a foundational metaphysics of consciousness.

Participants: Piet Hut, Yuko Ishihara, Olaf Witkowski, Will Storer, Ephriam Isaac, Michael Solomon, Susan Schneider, and Hayden Kee

Location: White/Levy Room

The revised question that Hayden chose to discuss is: “What does consciousness 'do' in nature?” He is trained in Phenomenology. In Phenomenology you are told not to ask what consciousness does as a natural phenomenon. That is because that puts consciousness in the material world, a thing among other things. That can restrict exploring the thing itself as a natural phenomenon. ^1

Husserl thought consciousness does not insert itself into the world but makes the experience of the world possible. ^2 Husserl has been said to avoid describing consciousness in nature. Paraphrasing the poet Auden, who was referring to poetry, Hayden said, “Consciousness makes No Thing happen.” For phenomenology to add to our understanding, we must consider consciousness not as “a tag on the end.” ^3

Hayden quoted Jerry Fodor, who died two months ago and who was Susan’s advisor at Rutgers, as saying in 1987, “I suppose that sooner or later the physicists will complete the catalogue they’ve been compiling of the ultimate and irreducible properties of things. When they do, the likes of spin, charm, and charge will perhaps appear upon their list. But "aboutness" surely won’t; intentionality simply doesn’t go that deep. It’s hard to see, in face of this consideration, how one can be a Realist about intentionality [or about consciousness – HK] without also being, to some extent or other, a Reductionist. If the semantic and the intentional are real properties of things, it must be in virtue of their identity with […] properties that are themselves. [not intentional]. If aboutness is real, it must really be something else.^4  

While Fodor was speaking of intentionality, the quote applies to consciousness. Intentionality and consciousness are deeply entwined. ^5 The question is what will be “Real” once the physicist’s data is in? Hayden believes consciousness will be on that list.

Michael asked if Hayden could explain some of the philosophical concepts so that they don’t sound like double talk. Piet interpreted this as asking what "about" is about. "Is consciousness epiphenomenal? Why would we need to be conscious?" 

Consciousness may confer a selective advantage. The brain’s activity is costly in terms of resource utilization and energy requirements. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose work Hayden has been studying, reacted against behaviorist psychologists and said that animals actively structure their world. He gave examples of chimps discovering ways to use a branch as a tool by thinking about the problem of reaching food. This involves the embodied theory of cognition.

Then he raised an issue that intrigues contemporary analytic philosophers of mind.  Is it possible that everyone else is a zombie? Do they act as conscious beings, but not have any conscious experience? Further, can machines be conscious?

He suspects this also involves the question of causality. Do we have a notion of causality that says what consciousness does? Hayden thinks not. Historically, Aristotle had views of causality as helping to understand the why of things and events. The fourth of Aristotle’s famous four types of causes was final causality – moving towards a goal or an ideal. Galileo and Descartes subsequently said there is no goal, but a billiard ball model of efficient causality. In quantum physics that is all challenged. Currently it seems crude to think of consciousness as causally efficacious in the sense of efficient causality.

Hayden closed by saying it is too soon to answer the question, but the role of consciousness as it relates to fundamental reality remains a worthwhile question.

Q & A: 

Ephriam: Is consciousness a spiritual phenomenon? Certainly, that was true in ancient times. The idea was that if you were ill a spirit made you sick persists in Africa and elsewhere today. That was why Europeans in the 19th century considered Africans too primitive. 

Hayden:  You can believe that consciousness is widely distributed in the universe, including trees and inanimate objects, but also is individual. And individuals can share a consensus of conscious experience.

Piet: Is PanPsychism layered on PanMaterialism? The premise is that Matter and Energy exist fundamentally. Modern philosophers put psyche on the world. But phenomenologists would require a circular relation of the world and the spirit. Husserl was ingenious and had insight into the questions of science vs transcendentalism.

Susan: String theory may currently say that Space/Time is emergent and what is fundamental is the mathematics. If there is no time, how do you get consciousness? 

Piet:  To reconcile Natural science with Phenomenology was Husserl’s insight. If you have a proto-consciousness, that could be entwined with proto-science. They have a subject/object relation. However, in that relation, you are seeing Plato’s shadows on the cave wall and don’t see what is fundamental. A unified theory is likely to require radically different views.

Ephriam:  Consciousness is a form of energy. Psyche is the Greek word for Spirit.  He would like to be able to discuss this with Baruch Spinoza.

Piet:  Spinoza and Husserl are his favorite philosophers. Spinoza lived in Holland, but was a Portugese Jew in Calvinist Holland.  Spinoza talked about the direct and indirect (experience) in his last book, but never completed the work. 

Michael:  In Mexican Yaquii Indian tradition, as described by Carlos Casteneda, there are fundamentally different means of cognition and they apply to different realities.  For the ancient shamans, energy was of two types, animate and inanimate. Inanimate energy has no awareness. The shamans “see” or perceive energy as filaments of light. These light filaments enter the body at a point near the umbilicus and proceed to a spot behind the body called the assemblage point, and connect the shaman to the “dark sea of awareness” that exists in the infinite. It is the interpretation of the assembled filaments from the infinite sea that results in our reality. Using intent, a shaman can move his assemblage point and enter alternative realities. This is done using psychotropic plants. This seems to be a very sympathetic world view. I particularly like the emphasis on light filaments as there must be some fundamental reason that light-speed is a constant in the universe.

Piet: Ancient cultures all have descriptions of a life force – prana in India, Chi in China, breath in Judeo Christian traditions. The Greek muses whispering in your ear are not causal but phenomenological. How do you reconcile sensations, motivational descriptions with the transcendental? We are now in a time of unprecedented advances in neuroscience and in machine intelligence.  But we should still focus on ancient cultures for paths to understanding. Chemistry would be different without prior alchemy. Ancient cultures involved years of meditation and generations of cultural discoveries. These discoveries are not shrouded in mist. Medieval mystics were very methodical. Whatever the unifying reality turns out to be, phenomenology will be the lingua franca that reconciles reality with direct experience.

Susan: Could machines have a “richer” consciousness? What is it to be More Conscious than another? Would More Consciousness be a larger number of states or would it be higher quality?

Michael: Greater consciousness could be a wider range of perception and of awareness and at the same time increased focus of attention. Having a laser like focus of awareness would be an improvement in performance but having a blurry awareness might improve creativity.

Peit: Would More Consciousness be Rapture?

Will: Rapture in another context refers not to ecstasy, but in the New Testament to Revelations when the Elect go to heaven while the rest of humanity remains on earth awaiting the last judgement.

Yuko: If we take the phenomenological insight seriously, namely that consciousness is not merely an object in the world but a subject for the world, then we should try to understand how consciousness serves as the condition of possibility for all our experience of reality. “What does consciousness do?” then translates to “How does consciousness constitute our experience of reality in such a way that we are always already relating to a meaningful world?” Consciousness then doesn’t cause the world to exist, but it does constitute our world into a meaningful place for us to reside.

We ended our discussion at this time and continued in smaller groups.

One subsequent helpful discussion was Piet’s saying to Yuko, Hayden, and Michael at tea that the German word Sachen is translated as Thing, but the word actually does not mean that.  The difference between the Japanese words “mono” and “koto” is similar to that between “thing” and “Sachen”. While “mono” stands for individual objects, “koto” and similarly “Sachen” stands for things or state of affairs within a given context. This is helpful as it is problematic to see how you could completely remove an experience from its context in the process of Epoché and Reduction.^6

Michael J. Solomon, MD

     I have attempted to add what I hope are clarifying comments for those like myself who lack the vocabulary for many of these philosophical ideas. I have put them here since they are not a part of Hayden’s presentation.

    ^1 For those who, like myself, lack a strong foundation in phenomenology, let me try to clarify that phenomenology is a method, not a doctrine or a fixed body of knowledge. I am told that Martin Heidegger quoting Edmund Husserl describes the method as pertaining “To the things themselves” “Zu den Sachen Selbst!” One attempt at explanation of this phrase is “to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself.” 
    ^2 Reality consists of objects and events (phenomena) as they are perceived or understood in the human consciousness, and not of anything independent of human consciousness.” https://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_phenomenology.html
    ^3 Husserl distinguished the ego, the I of Descarte’s cogito, as what has abstained from acknowledging the reality of the perceived world. 
    ^4 (Fodor 1987, 97) (Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987 P. 87.} 
    ^5 Intentionality is a term of art that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes as “the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for things, properties and states of affairs.” The term refers to the ability of the mind to form representations and should not be confused with intention as planning to act in some way. 
    ^6 Epoché is the process of Abstention. Not a disbelief or doubt, but an abstention of belief in an element. This is Bracketing an element of the experience so that one can see the experience in itself. Reduction is a Going Back, a Returning. This is not a making less or a removing an element, but is returning to the experience after the epoché to allow a clearer impression of the thing itself, den Sachen Selbst. Noesis is an act of perceiving, imagining, remembering. Noema is the object as meant, or experienced, or given.