The following is a re-posting of an archived discussion from our old forum:



Science as if situation mattered[1]


Michel Bitbol

CREA/CNRS, 1, rue Descartes, 75005 Paris FRANCE

                Phenomenology and the Cognitive Science, 1, 181-224, 2002 
Abstract: When he formulated the program of Neurophenomenology, Francisco Varela suggested a balanced methodological dissolution of the “ hard problem ” of the philosophy of mind. I show that his dissolution is a paradigm which imposes itself onto seemingly opposite views, including materialist approaches. I also point out that Varela’s revolutionary epistemological ideas are gaining wider acceptance as a side effect of a recent controversy between hermeneutists and eliminativists. Finally, I emphasize a structural parallel between the science of consciousness and the distinctive features of quantum mechanics. This parallel, together with the former convergences, point towards the common origin of the main puzzles of both quantum mechanics and the philosophy of mind: neglect of the constitutive blindspot of objective knowledge. 

A few years ago, Francisco Varela published a ground-breaking paper entitled “A science of consciousness as if experience mattered” (Varela, 1998), which provided a striking abstract of the new discipline he had called “Neurophenomenology” (Varela, 1996, 1997). There, he advocated an original (dis)solution of the “hard problem” of consciousness which involved a consistently methodological approach rather than one more theoretical view.
The basis of his approach was the remark according to which any third person, objective, description, arises as an invariant focus for a community of embodied, situated, subjects endowed with conscious experience in the first place. This remark is usually either overlooked (by those philosophers who think invariance is only our way to discover a reality behind the “superficial” situated appearances), or overrated (by those philosophers who use it as a weapon against any claim of knowledge). The two former attitudes yield a systematical bias towards conscious experience. 
Overlooking the effective primacy of situatedness, which is a common trend in our culture, leads to downplaying the status of consciousness. If one accepts that conscious experience is but a parochial path (our path) towards an intrinsically objective reality of which we partake, then it is likely to be either completely dismissed (strong eliminativism), or reduced to a field of description which is easy to objectify (physicalist reductionism), or treated as an objective entity in its own right (substance or property dualism). Conversely, overrating the fact that third-person accounts are produced by (communities of) sentient subjects located in a network of natural and social links, usually means indulging in skepticism, relativism, or subjective idealism.
But Francisco Varela did not overlook or overrate the primacy of situatedness (embodiment) in some abstract theory of the mind-body relation. He took it as a natural starting point for defining an appropriate strategy of research.
His central idea was that in the science of consciousness, one should neither try to absorb the subjective into a previously defined objective domain, nor objectivize somehow the subjective, nor give the subjective any kind of supremacy over the objective. One should rather go back to the experiential realm from which the very dichotomy between subjectivity and objectivity arises, and then establish within it a system of mutual constraints. In actual fact, mutual constraints are enforced between first person statements of phenomenal contents, and third person descriptions of those phenomenal invariants that are established by the collectively elaborated neurosciences.
This strategic choice has two important consequences : a practical one and an epistemological one.
The practical consequence is that careful elaboration of first person statements is given exactly the same importance as the elaboration of third person statements. After all, a proper mutual constraint can only be set on a firm basis if both sides are equally mastered. On the first person side, this requires a phenomenological-like disciplined attention which has to be learned like any other skill. As a preliminary, one must become fluent with the process of phenomenological reduction. This avoids the usual pitfalls of introspection, by promoting intimacy rather than distance with experience.
The epistemological consequence is that, in order to encompass consciousness, science as a whole is no longer restricted to describing structures that are invariant across a more or less extended range of (spatio-temporal, personal, cultural etc.) situations. Its methodological ground is stretched so as to include: (i) regulated mutual relations between situated accounts, and (ii) relations between situated accounts on the one side and their own invariants on the other side. Intersubjectivity complements objectivity stricto sensu and is systematically related to it.
Now, one may wonder how this (dis)solves the “ hard problem ” of the philosophy of mind. In a nutshell, the “ hard problem ” consists in finding a place for conscious experience within nature as it is supposedly described by our best scientific theories. But as D. Chalmers (Chalmers, 1995, 1996, 1997), after many other authors (Nagel, 1986; Jackson, 1997; Searle, 1997), pointed out, scientific theories can only yield derivation of structures from structural axioms. They can do nothing to explain non-structural qualitative features of experience, let alone to justify the mere existence of experience. In other terms, they enable us to predict relations between phenomena[2], yet have nothing to say about the brute fact of phenomenality, which is more likely to be taken as “ absolute ” than anything else (Blackburn, 1993).
Varela defuses this dilemma by proposing nothing less than a radical redefinition of science, of nature, and of naturalization. As long as science is restricted to describing trans-situational invariants, as long as nature is construed as a collection of such invariants taken as objects and laws, and as long as naturalizing consciousness means either projecting it onto the plane of these natural objects or inventing for it a new class of objects, the “ hard problem ” remains stubbornly unfathomable. But if science is extended so as to include a “dance” of mutual definition taking place between first-person and third-person accounts (Varela, 1998, p. 42) ; if nature is made of views and situated experiences as well as of their manifold invariants[3] ; and if, accordingly, naturalizing consciousness means including its disciplined contents within a strongly interconnected network of objects and experiences, then any problem has disappeared.
In some sense the “hard problem” is solved by this approach because consciousness has been straightforwardly naturalized ; and in another, more plausible, sense, it is only dissolved because its motivation has been shown to be ill-founded from the outset. In agreement with the second interpretation, Varela insisted that in the usual formulation of the problem of consciousness, “(…) what is missing is not the coherent nature of the explanation but its alienation from human life” (Varela, 1998, p. 41). His attempt therefore amounted to a systematic reintegration of human life (namely embodied experience) in the framework of the discussion. 
The main difficulty at this point is that, like any other dissolution, this one is convincing only to those who accept to be “converted” to a proper reformulation of the problem and/or to the associated alternative philosophy of science. Many thinkers nowadays strongly resist this “conversion”. They still prefer to reassert a sense of mystery about the emergence of conscious experience from matter (Searle, 1997), or to declare that present science has already an explanation in store, e.g. in some exotic interpretation of quantum mechanics (Penrose 1994; Stapp, 1996), or to express their faith in some future, but unforeseeable, scientific advance that will dispel the riddle.
Facing this deep-lying collective resistance, Varela essentially adopted a scientist’s attitude. He wished to convince his peers by demonstrating that the research program of neurophenomenology is “progressive” in Lakatos’ acceptation (Lakatos, 1978); namely that it produces new and unexpected results which are empirically testable and which give rise to technical or medical applications. Some of his most recent work on the phenomenology of time perception (Varela, 1999), on epilepsy (Le Van Quyen et al., 1999), on large-scale integration in the brain (Varela et al., 2001), and on the two-way causal relations between conscious experience and bodily features (Varela, 2000; Thompson & Varela, 2001, 2002), was precisely aimed at that. 
As a philosopher, my task is rather to provide the readers of this paper with a sense of rational inevitability. Varela’s dissolution is not only one possible way out among many others; it is a paradigm which tends to creep into several other (apparently opposite) views in the philosophy of mind, and which is moreover in remarkable agreement with the present state of the debate in general philosophy of science and in philosophy of physics. To display this, I will proceed in three steps. Firstly, I will show that many of the most promising and/or popular conceptions in the philosophy of mind willy-nilly converge towards Varela’s dissolution of the “hard problem”. Secondly, I will point out that Varela’s far-reaching epistemological move is gaining wider and wider acceptance, as a side effect of the controversy between eliminativists and hermeneutists on the issue of folk-psychology. Thirdly, I will emphasize the fact that physics, which is usually considered the prototype of an exclusively objective science, actually involves a thoroughgoing dialectic between invariants and situations; between the objectified structures and a network of situated (actual or potential) subjects. Failure to acknowledge this triggered many of the so-called “paradoxes” of quantum mechanics. Conversely, full recognition of this dialectical mode of functioning will result in a comprehensive parallel (though by no means a mere identification) between the problems of quantum physics and the problems of the philosophy of mind. Such a convergence should enable us to set the basis for a generalized science in which situation matters, beyond Varela’s science of consciousness in which experience matters.
[Read the rest of the paper here.]

[1] This paper is in memory of Francisco Varela, who first came at the center of my thought, and then at the center of my friendship.


[2] One must be cautious about the term “ phenomenon ”. It can either be synonymous of “ isolated experience of perception ”, or point towards the more sophisticated concept of an experimental phenomenon. But since experimental phenomena may in turn be construed as low-level invariants of perceptions under well-defined technical conditions, one can skip temporarily the distinction for the sake of this argument.  


[3] These may include the experiential invariants of phenomenology, and the universal structural invariants which are typical of the natural sciences as well.

Views: 557

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

theurj said Jul 22, 2009, 8:18 AM:

The notion of embodied situatedness to (dis)solve the separation of 1st and 3rd person perspectives is the interactivity paradigms of the conscipragos. Hence Varela’s ideas are the focus here, with L&J as contemporaries stemming from the early American cogscipragos James, Dewey and Mead. One might even say that the 2nd person perspective (inter-subject/object, aka intersubjectivity) is the focus. Hence we get such statements from the article that conscious experience is not something one has, i.e., something that is inside one’s head. But rather it is something one dwells within, i.e., it’s part of the inside-outside, one-many relational field.

This is an entirely different way of looking at intersubjectivity than Wilber’s way of placing it in the lower left quadrant. Rather it is the dynamic interrelationships between all the levels, lines, states, stages, quadrants, etc. In other words, it is an “integral” paradigm.

Balder said Jul 22, 2009, 8:59 AM:

Well said, Edward.

I appreciate Michel Bitbol's work because of the several threads he weaves together in his work – Varela's enactivism, quantum physics, Madhyamika, neo-Kantian thought, etc. As you point out, his approach is consonant with that of other contemporary “cogscipragos,” like L & J; but I find his discussion of spirituality/contemplation to be richer and more satisfying that L & J's attempt at the back of Philosophy in the Flesh. Here's a blurb on him from Wikipedia.

“Michel Bitbol is a French researcher in philosophy of science.

He is “Directeur de recherche” at CNRS, in the Centre de Recherche en Epistémologie Appliquée (CREA) of École polytechnique (Paris, France).

His research interests are mainly focused on the influence of quantum physics on philosophy. He first worked on Erwin Schrödinger's metaphysics and philosophy of physics.

Using theorems demonstrated by Jean-Louis Destouches, Paulette Destouches-Février, and R.I.G. Hughes, he pointed out that the structure of quantum mechanics may be derived to a large extent from the assumption that microscopic phenomena cannot be dissociated from their experimental context.
His views on quantum mechanics converge with ideas developed by Julian Schwinger and Asher Peres, according to whom quantum mechanics is a “symbolism of atomic measurements”, rather than a description of atomic objects. He also defends ideas close to Anton Zeilinger's, by claiming that quantum laws do not express the nature of physical objects, but only the bounds of experimental information.

Along with this view, quantum mechanics is no longer considered as a physical theory in the ordinary sense, but rather as a background framework for physical theories, since it goes back to the most elementary conditions which allow us to formulate any physical theory whatsoever. Some reviewers suggested half-seriously to call this view of physics “Kantum physics”. Indeed, Michel Bitbol often refers to the philosophy of I. Kant, according to whom one can understand the contents of knowledge only by analyzing the (sensorial, instrumental, and rational) conditions of possibility of such knowledge.
He was granted an award by the French “Académie des sciences morales et politiques” in 1997, for his work in the philosophy of quantum mechanics.

Later on, he concentrated on the philosophy of mind and consciousness, defending a strongly anti-reductionist and neo-wittgensteinian view. He collaborated with Francisco Varela on this subject.

He participated in the 2002 conference of the Mind and Life Institute, whose aim is to promote a dialogue between science and buddhism.”
theurj said Jul 22, 2009, 9:47 AM:

I've only had time to read the first dozen of so pages of his linked article, so could you say a few words on how he describes contemplation and Madhyamika?

Balder said Jul 22, 2009, 12:30 PM:

The main source of my knowledge of his views is from the essay, “A Cure for Metaphysical Illusions: Kant, Quantum Mechanics, and Madhamaka,” which appears in Buddhism and Science, ed. by Alan Wallace. I've read a few other pieces by him on the web (and have shared links to essays here on IPS previously). When I get home, I'll see if I can pull up some quotes or more detailed info from the essay. But in general, he recognizes the contemplative and subjectively transformative potential of the Madhyamaka approach, and argues for an operational integration of philosophical, scientific, and contemplative approaches – as complementary co-informing enactive approaches. The potential for spiritual transformation or growth that he recognizes (as a profound reorientation in self-sense and perception, among other things) goes beyond the emotional/projective identification that L & J describe in their section on spirituality.

Here's a quote from the editorial introduction to Bitbol's essay (presumably by Wallace):

“Drawing on the philosophy of Kant and Nagarjuna, and the discoveries of quantum mechanics, [Michel Bitbol] presents here an alternative to the nihilism that is explicit in many versions of cultural relativism and implicit in scientific materialism. In comparing the Kantian notion of the noumenon with the Madhyamaka theory of emptiness, Bitbol, following Jacques May, rightly argues that emptiness can in no way be construed as an underlying ground of phenomena, for this would entail a reification of emptiness. And that move is systematically avoided in Madhyamaka writings. Another important difference is that, according to Kant, the noumenal ground of phenomena is forever unknowable, whereas the experiential realization of emptiness is a central goal of Mahayana Buddhist practice. Indeed, such contemplative insight is crucial for healing the mind of all its afflictions, such as craving, hostility, and delusion, which arise as the result of grasping onto the true, inherent existence of phenomena.”

Tom said Jul 22, 2009, 10:28 AM:

Bruce, I like what Wikipedia reports about Bitbol. The entire question of 'objects' is quite problematic in quantum physics, something that was acutely formulated by Bohr. The basic problem is that of contradiction: how can a wave also be a particle? Bohr time and again brought discussions of atomic 'particles' back to this fundamental dilemma which, in Bohr's mind, disallows mental representations of quantum 'objects.' Zeilinger, mentioned above, is probably the most recent expositor of this perspective.

The question of context thus became the question for quantum physics generally. And as I mentioned in a different thread, that context, because lacking objects in the way we normally conceive of objects, was itself treated as an irreducible whole, literally indivisible.

Quantum mechanics is thus often called a 'formalism,' that is, a mathematical model for describing, not quantum particles, but measurement results.

It might be useful to here bring in a few quotes from Bohr. Note in the following that Bohr's reference to “classical concepts” or “usual physical terminology” closely approximate what we have called representationist “thing” language.

Notwithstanding the power of quantum mechanics as a means of ordering an immense amount of evidence regarding atomic phenomena, its departure from accustomed demands of causal explanation has naturally given rise to the question whether we are here concerned with an exhaustive description of experience. The answer to this question evidently calls for a closer examination of the conditions for the unambiguous use of the concepts of classical physics in the analysis of quantum phenomena. The decisive point is to recognize that the description of the experimental arrangement and the recording of observations must be given in plain language [ie, Newtonian 'thing' language], suitably refined by the usual physical terminology. This is a simple logical demand, since by the word “experiment” we can only mean a procedure regarding which we are able to communicate to others what we have done and what we have learnt.

As regards all such points, the observation problem of quantum physics in no way differs from the classical physical approach. The essentially new feature in the analysis of quantum phenomena is, however, the introduction of a fundamental distinction between the measuring apparatus and the objects under investigation. This is a direct consequence of the necessity of accounting for the functions of the measuring instruments in purely classical terms, excluding in principle any regard to the quantum of action. On their side, the quantal features of the phenomenon are revealed in the information about the atomic objects derived from their observations. While, within the scope of classical physics, the interaction between object and apparatus can be neglected or, if necessary, compensated for, in quantum physics this interaction thus forms an inseparable part of the phenomenon. Accordingly, the unambiguous account of proper quantum phenomena must, in principle, include a description of all relevant features of the experimental arrangement.

Tom said Jul 22, 2009, 12:47 PM:

And one more quote from Bohr to bring out the 'contradiction' element, the absolute contradictory identity, if you will, defining quantum 'objects.' Bohr's term for 'contradiction' is complementarity. By that term, he meant approximately this: the wave and particle aspects of quantum objects (literally anything) together form a full description of quantum reality; but these aspects register in mutually exclusive experimental situations—they will not register together, they are experimentally contradictory, ie, complementary.

Within the scope of classical physics, all characteristic properties of a given object can in principle be ascertained by a single experimental arrangement, although in practice various arrangements are often convenient for the study of different aspects of the phenomena. In fact, data obtained in such a way simply supplement each other and can be combined into a consistent picture of the behaviour of the object under investigation. In quantum physics, however, evidence about atomic objects obtained by different experimental arrangements exhibit a novel kind of complementary relationship. Indeed, it must be recognized that such evidence which appears contradictory when combination into a single picture is attempted, exhausts all conceivable knowledge about the object [ie, both wave and particle specifications are necessary]. Far from restricting our efforts to put questions to nature in the form of experiments [here's the answer to Karl's question about context usefulness], the notion of complementarity simply characterizes the answers we can receive by such inquiry …

The last sentence can be dovetailed with Gibson's notion of affordances. What results are afforded depend on how you shape up the ur-stuff of the world through your experimental arrangement. Design for one experiment, and the ur-stuff affords wave phenomena; for another, particle phenomena.

And further to Karl's query re the usefulness of a context-based observation, here's Bohr again:

Such argumentation does of course not imply that, in atomic physics, we have no more to learn as regards experimental evidence and the mathematical tools appropriate to its comprehension. In fact, it seems likely that the introduction of still further abstractions into the formalism will be required to account for the novel features revealed by the exploration of atomic processes of very high energy. The decisive point, however, is that in this connection there is no question of reverting to a mode of description which fulfills to a higher degree the accustomed demands regarding pictorial representation of the relationship between cause and effect.

In the last sentence, Bohr is essentially saying there's no going back to Newtonian representationist, thing descriptions. From here on, we require new language.

theurj said Jul 22, 2009, 12:59 PM:

Bitbol talks about “pragmatic parallelism,” resonate with the above on complimentarity. Following is an excerpt from this referenced article. Of particular note is the last sentence:

The mark of this alternative conception of science in both areas is replacement of dualism with pragmatic parallelism (Bitbol, 1996b) rather than with monistic eliminativism or with reductionism.

To begin with, adopting parallelism is tantamount to accepting that one may give two distinct self-sufficient parallel accounts whenever one is immersed in some participatory process. Adding that this parallelism is only “ pragmatic ” means that one discards metaphysical versions of parallelism from the outset. Here, the two parallel accounts do not indicate two sets of properties or aspects of a single substance. As I mentioned previously, quoting K-O. Apel, they merely stand for:

-two different “ interests ” (sharing a situation and freeing oneself from situatedness);

-two distinct pragmatical attitudes (engagement and distance);

-two different focuses in research (participation and striving towards invariance);

-two different functions of discourse (expressive and descriptive).

Their unity is not due to their pointing towards a common transcendent object, but rather to their stemming (in two different directions) from a common immanent background that one may call “ Lebenswelt ” with due reference to Husserl. As for the circumstance that two of them are required nevertheless, it does not reveal a duality of aspects of some putative transcendent object; it rather points towards the limits of objectivity, namely towards the negative fact that standing back and striving for invariance cannot exhaust all the aspects of life within an immanent stream.

Seen from that perspective, the riddles of dualism appear to arise from: (i) the common habit of mixing up the two types of accounts in a single series, and (ii) the temptation to reify each one of them. Alternating the accounts does no harm by itself, and may have sound practical justifications. But as soon as substances or properties replace stances or functions within the mixed account, one is at pain to set up causal relations between the two fake entities. The question one feels bound to raise is: “ When, where, and how do the two entities interact? ”. But no answer to that question is available (26-7).
Tom said Jul 22, 2009, 1:31 PM:

Hi Edward, that quote quite nicely parallels Bohr's perspective. It's evident Bitbol has done his work to deeply consider the quantum paradigm. According to Hans-Peter Durr, a modern physicist of the Heisenberg/Bohr school, our culture has yet to assimilate the change in thinking pattern that occurred in the shift to quantum physics. Durr has an excellent lecture series here on that subject. Well worth purchasing. With a face like that, and with his having worked 18 years or so with Heisenberg, how could you lose?

Balder said Jul 24, 2009, 8:34 AM:

The following is an excerpt from Bitbol's chapter in Buddhism & Science, which I am posting in response to Kelamuni's recent post. (Like Edward, I do not find Bitbol to say what Wallace suggests he does.) This excerpt is from Section 4 of his essay.


“At this point one can see that part of the difficulties that hinder these
comparisons [between modern physics, transcendental philosophy, and
Madhyamaka] arises from a static and reified conception of discourses and
doctrines. No serious use of the evolution of doctrines can be made if,
from the outset, they are considered to be immutable claims of truth.
Further, analogies between two closed systems of thought fail to be
convincing if one does not display extensive elements of isomorphism bearing
on their contents, presuppositions, and scope. No other relation than
similarity and dissimilarity is conceivable between them.

Another part of the difficulties comes from a dominant representational
conception of knowledge. It was implicitly accepted in some of the previous
analogies that comparing two theories means showing that they provide the
same picture of the world. It therefore proved easy to criticize these
analogies by showing that the pictures (i.e., that of modern physics and
that of the Madhyamaka) are only superficially similar and that they are
based on very different bodies of evidence.

But giving up the static and representational outlook is likely to allow a
thorough renewal of our conception of the threefold relation between modern
physics, transcendental philosophy, and the Madhyamaka. Let us consider a
scientific theory or a system of thought as an operator within an open
network of practices, rather than as a closed set of truths or as a (more or
less) faithful representation of a pregiven reality. Let us construe
scientific theories as operators of structuring our actions within the world
and of anticipating outcomes. Let us construe philosophical doctrines as
operators of mutual adjustment between our possibilities of action (stated
by scientific theories) and the set of values, scopes, and representations
that define our culture. And let us construe the Madhyamaka dialectic: (i)
as a patient reminder of the pervasive impermanence and emptiness of
appearances and, accordingly, (ii) as a universal operator of

In this case establishing a relation between modern physics, Kant's
philosophy, and the Madhyamaka does not amount to displaying their strict
isomorphism; it means showing that, as operators, they fit well enough to be
articulated into a higher-order, broad-range operator. Here, the analogies
have no value by themselves; they are only signs indicating the most
appropriate locus of articulation between the operators. Moreover, insofar
as they are nothing but tools (operators) the three terms to be related must
be taken as plastic and evolutive; each term has to be seen in the context
of its history, of its potential developments, and of the dynamics of its
possible coadaptation to the other terms rather than treated as a closed
doctrinal system….

Overcoming the failure and moving beyond nihilism is possible only if we
identify a new higher-order operator articulating modern science, an
alternative philosophy of science, and a nondogmatic soteriology, thus
fitting globally with essential aspects of contemporary human life. The
multiple analogies that have been discussed previously can be seen as a few
partial steps toward such a higher-order operator. But, as I have already
pointed out, most of them are definitely clumsy because they rely on the
very (static and representationalist) assumptions about doctrines and
knowledge they purport to challenge. So our task now is to show in some
detail how the many-leveled articulation can be secured: (i) by relying on
the dynamic potentialities of doctrines and theories rather than on
canonical text, (ii) by fully recognizing their functional-operational
status, and (iii) by disentangling, in the available unself-conscious
presentations of scientific theories and philosophical doctrines, components
coming from various layers of a half-forgotten but still efficient past
higher-order operator.

The difficulties that hindered the attempts at establishing relations
between modern physics, Kant's philosophy, and the Madhyamaka can thus be

First, the obvious discrepancy between Kant's original a priori forms and
some prominent aspects of modern physics does not mean that the very idea of
a transcendental reading of science has failed. To see this one has only to
come down to the central idea of the transcendental philosophy (below the
particular shape that was given to it by Kant) and take into account its
aptitudes to development as they have been displayed by the neo-Kantian
philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth century.

What is then the central idea of the transcendental philosophy? It is to
construe each object of science as the focus of a synthesis of phenomena
rather than as a thing in itself. And it is to accept accordingly that the
very possibility of such objects depends on the connecting structures
provided in advance by the procedures used in our research activities. Thus
something is objective if it results from a universal and necessary mode of
connection of phenomena. In other terms, something is objective if it holds
true for any (human) active subject, not if it concerns intrinsic properties
of autonomous entities.

Here science is not supposed to reveal anything of a preexistent underlying
absolute reality, nor is it more or less a random aggregate of efficient
recipes. Science is rather the stabilized byproduct of a dynamic reciprocal
relation between reality as a whole and a special fraction of it. Defining
this special reality qua subject is the reverse side of its actively
extracting objectlike invariant clusters of phenomena.

Somebody who shares this philosophical attitude is metaphysically as
agnostic as empiricists, but as convinced as realists that the structure of
scientific theories is highly significant. For, from a transcendental
standpoint, the structure of a scientific theory is nothing less than the
frame of procedural rationalities that underpin current research practice
(and that, conversely, were constrained by the resistances arising from the
enaction of this practice).

A conception of science based on this central idea is perfectly capable of
developing nowadays, provided it drops the residual static and
foundationalist aspects of Kant's system. Instead of accepting Kant's
uniqueness and invariability claim about his forms of intuition and thought,
one should acknowledge…the possibility of change of the so-called a priori
forms and their plurality as well. Recent flexible and pluralist
conceptions of transcendental philosophy include Putnam's and Hintikka's
transcendental pragmatism. According to Hillary Putnam, for instance, each
a priori form has to be considered as purely functional (he also calls it a
quasi a priori). Each quasi a priori is relative to a certain mode of
activity, it consists of the basic presuppositions of this mode of activity,
and it has therefore to be changed as soon as the activity is abandoned or
redefined. As for Jaako Hintikka, he characterizes the transcendental
philosophy, in neopragmatist style, as a process of redirecting attention
from the objects to our game of seeking and finding. We shall see in
section 8 that a neotranscendental philosophy of science developed along
these lines is able to account for quantum mechanics to a much larger extent
than either scientific realism or empiricism…

Second, the gap that separates science and the Madhyamaka, due to obvious
differences of method and scope, could be filled in only by a third
intermediate term. This is the bridging function I ascribe to a
neotranscendental philosophy of science…

But even before any precise assessment of this threefold articulation is
attempted one should identify the level at which an articulation, be it
indirect, between a scientific theory and a dialectical-soteriological
system is acceptable at all. To begin with, one must avoid the temptation
of drawing from modern science a sort of monolithic official mythology, in
order to display its superficial analogies with a popular Eastern mythology.
Instead, one should insist on the manifest underdetermination of scientific
theories and models by experiment, and on the fact that, in the history of
science, this underdetermination was de facto removed by additional,
extra-empirical, constraints. These additional constraints were provided by
a demand of coherence between the new theories and an older philosophical
background whose roots are profoundly embedded in the (partly religious)
Western forms of life.

The problem is that these traditional (philosophical) constraints, which
have been so easy to cope with in classical physics, have begun to introduce
tensions, difficulties, and paradoxes in modern (relativistic and quantum)

The quicker solution to eliminate these difficulties and lack of conceptual
unity (without resorting to a nonempirical world of hidden processes) would
be to jettison both the mechanistic conception of the world and the
dualistic epistemology. Unfortunately, there are deep-seated resistances to
this seemingly extreme solution. Even our cultural familiarity with the
most recent and radical varieties of transcendental philosophy of science
(which, as we have seen, are pragmatic, dynamical, relationist, and
nondualist) is not strong enough to make us take this step collectively.

But aren't these resistances related to our elementary creeds and forms of
life? Are they due to our distress about losing ground, if we are left
without belief in a pregiven and prestructured reality? Would we not be
deprived of our strongest motivation for making science if we did not have
the regulative aim of disclosing preexistent reality lying, so to speak, in
front of us? At this point the Madhyamaka comes in. The Madhyamaka
construed not as the purveyor of one more mythology, one more representation
of the world, or one more philosophical doctrine but (i) as a patient
dialectical deconstruction of the class of substantialist views and dualist
epistemologies that we find so difficult to abandon and (ii) as a
soteriology, namely, an introduction to a form of life in which losing
ground is not a tragedy (and can even be enlightening) and in which an alternative (say, pragmatic, integrative, and altruist) strong motivation can be given to science.

To summarize, the meeting point of science and the Madhyamaka is not a common view of the world. It is rather a tension between traditional views of the world and the recent advances of science, which can be formally avoided by transcendental philosophy and deeply relaxed by the Madhyamaka dialectic and soteriology.” (Bitbol, A Cure for Metaphysical Illusions: Kant, Quantum Mechanics, and Madhamaka.)

theurj said Jul 23, 2009, 8:49 AM:

Complexity Digest has a number of audio talks at this link, including one by Bitbol on downward causation in the Consciousness and Practice section. I haven’t had time to listen to it yet.

theurj said Jul 23, 2009, 10:52 AM:

Thanks for the excerpt Balder. I admit that I too was disconcerted by Wallace's intro to Bitbol's chapter as to contemplation providing direct access to the ground of being. That's why I asked about how he describes contemplation, and it seems from this excerpt that it is a practice whereby we realize dependent arising, i.e., lack of a foundational, pre-given ground, or “losing ground.”

Another thing I found interesting is the Wilber-like differentation of the value spheres of science, religioin and philosophy into what Bitbol calls “operators,” each with their own methodological enactments. But also like Wilber Bitbol suggests a “higher-order operator” that would seem to integrate what was only previoulsy differentiated. Bitbol seems to suggest that Madhyamaka is, or at least is a predessor to, this higher-order operator. Perhaps you could elaborate on this aspect of the article? How does losing ground integrate the other value spheres?

Balder said Jul 23, 2009, 3:03 PM:

Bitbol argues that just as Kant offered a transcendental deduction of Newtonian mechanics, we can today offer a (neo-)transcendental deduction of quantum mechanics. However, although this neo-transcendental approach is parsimonious and theoretically sound, it has not been widely accepted. (Earlier in the essay, he remarks that although a Bohrian holistic-relational approach can be shown to be more economic and to have more explanatory power than the prevalent non-Boolean realist approach, the latter approach appears to be preferred because it still involves realist, foundationalist presuppositions). Bitbol argues that, for neo-transcendental/pragmatic and quantum views to be find wider acceptance, we require a compelling non-foundationalist value system, which he says something like Madhyamaka can provide. In this context, he describes the Madhyamaka as an “existential and axiological [ethical and aesthetic] operator,” which can facilitate the functional articulation of these three approaches into a “new coherent participatory conception of the world.”

kelamuni said Jul 23, 2009, 3:12 PM:

Ok, that clairfies matters: Madhyamika helps with the purging of foundationalism from Kantianism.

theurj said Jul 23, 2009, 4:33 PM:

So going back to the first excerpt that opened the thread, in order to have a mutual relationship of constraint between 1st and 3rd person perspective requires that we value and investigate 1st person experience, which “requires a phenomenological-like disciplined attention which has to be learned like any other skill.” This is where contemplation comes in, as it’s not just a re-framing of the 3rd person, Madhyamaka description-model. Hence “losing ground” also involves conscious experience of the fleeting, contingent, dependently originated “self” via disciplined observing the observer over time.

Nickeson said Jul 23, 2009, 8:10 PM:

I might be taking too tight of a reading, i.e. too literal, on Bitbol's sentiment here but I think he is talking about gathering the fullest amount of data possible in an experimental situation. In other words, 3rd person scientists need to accommodate intelligent 1st person phenomenalism. And this means a new methodology and finding new veins through which to offer up new blood. Old stuff. Back in 1991 Strassman of the famous DMT experiments, of which we have written before, was blending 1st and 3rd person accounts of singular psychological events as a matter of course. It is only good science. I cannot find the link but months ago I posted that even Daniel Dennett was giving weight to the 1st person accounts in studies of the mind. Look at it this way, the more variables one can plug into the potential statistical base, the larger the research grant…

I would have thought y'all had been in the business long enough to know that it is not the purity of the hypothesis that leads to the truth, but the adage: follow the money.

Balder said Jul 24, 2009, 7:48 AM:

That's a bit too cynical (not kynical) of a perspective for my taste.

Balder said Jul 24, 2009, 8:21 AM:

Yes, well put, Edward.

Tom said Jul 24, 2009, 5:19 PM:

Here's another example of the pragmatics of doing contextual science. Back in the 1920s, a Russian scientist named Alexander Gurwitsch performed experiments that showed that cellular division responds to photonic excitation. In one experiment, he placed the end of an onion root near the stem of another in a carefully light-controlled setup. The experiment demonstrated that light emission from the 'end' root triggered cell divisions in the 'stem.' It was with these observations that Gurwitsch speculated about a morphogenetic field (well pre-Sheldrake, of course).

His work was forgotton, then picked up by a few Russian scientists post-WWII, then the entire endeavour was consigned to the backest burner while accepted science chased the highly unintuitive notion that cell regulation, including division, differentiation, growth and death, is governed in the main by DNA.

In recent years, Gurwitsch's work has been revived by certain physicists, led by Fritz-Albert Popp of Germany. What Popp and others have discovered is that all cells radiate light at low levels. This observation might receive a deserved “so what?” except for the fact that cellular photonic emission is correlated, at least within an organism, and almost certainly further into species, and perhaps on down through decreasing degrees of correlation the further away one moves from the individual.

Correlated light goes by other names: entangled light, connected light, etc. Basically, cellular light emission is a quantum phenomenon whereby all light emitted by cells within an organism interact nonlocally. Nonlocal interaction creates …. drum roll ….. interference effects.

One's entire body thus looks to create what might be considered a correlated-light blueprint (a morphogenetic field; Sheldrake is probably right) comprising the interference pattern—a holographic template—of all information carried by the sequencing, timing and frequencies of biophotonic emissions. This field very probably interacts with fields of others in one's species regulating such things as speciation, differentiation, etc. Here's Popp on this subject:

Actually, this biocommunication by means of mutual interference of the biophoton field provides necessary information about the equality or difference of species, since similar animals have similar wave patterns. The signal-to-noise ratio becomes optimized as soon as the wave patterns interfere … This rather ingenious means of biocommunication provides the basis for orientation, swarming, formation, growth, differentiation, and 'Gestaltbildung' in every biological system.

If that isn't a mouthful for tired chemists of the DNA cult to ingest, it goes without saying, and further, that coherent fields quite possibly regulate cellular differentiation, growth and death.

Nonlocal quantum effects involve context-based methods and thinking. One can thus say that the emerging field of biophotonics, which holds tremendous explanatory potential, is yet another child of a shift away from Newtonian thing thinking. Incredible stuff.
This web page contains a good sampling of Michel Bitbol's papers (on quantum mechanics, consciousness, introspection, epistemology, ontology, etc).

I am just returning from the Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages in Berkeley, CA, where I introduced my upcoming TSK/Integral mini-course, and was happy to learn that Michel Bitbol will be visiting the US next month and will be giving a talk at the center on October 11.  The subject of the talk seems rather timely for the conversations we've been having here recently:  "Quantum Entanglement and the Buddhist Doctrine of Dependent Origination."


Here's the summary:


"The analogy between crucial features of quantum physics and the Buddhist concept of pratityasamutpada (dependent origination, or interdependence) has often been noted and discussed.  In this talk, Professor Bitbol goes beyond the formal similarities to discus the precise ways in which the analogy holds, and why this should be so.  The real issue, he suggests, is not about similarities in world views, nor is it about different methodologies for probing reality that arrive at similar results.  Rather, the truly meaningful link between these two disciplines is their extensive critique of all metaphysics and claims to essentialism."

Are you going? Please do. I'd appreciate a report on that one. If I still lived up that way I would go.
Yes, I just checked my schedule to make sure I would be free that night.  I am, so I will be going.
What does Varela say about panpsychism?  Do we have to study the 1st and 3rd-person perspectives of and on, say, a molecule of water?

Last night, I attended Michel Bitbol's talk on emptiness and quantum entanglement, which I quite enjoyed.  The facilitators mentioned after the talk that they were going to post a recording of it online, so once they do, I'll post a link to it here for anyone interested.  In his talk, as the title suggests, he explored certain parallels between Buddhist and quantum scientific traditions -- not, as he said, in the interest of comparing two worldviews, but primarily to reflect on how each approach has arrived at a radical critique of metaphysics.  In relation to this, he explored an interesting parallel in the development of these traditions' perspectives on causality -- tracing a development from a largely substantialist conception, to a focus on productive causality, to a renouncing of productive causality and a more refined focus on lawlike regularities, to the embrace of a more radically relational view (co-arising), finally to a critique of the tendency to reify co-arising itself.

More soon, once the talk is posted.

...finally to a critique of the tendency to reify co-arising itself.

And it is here I think the SR and OOO crowd might be on to something in their critique of founding causality on 'relations,' subjective or otherwise.

Yes, good point.  At the least, I welcome exposure to OOO for the possible critique(s) it can offer.  Though I'm not sure that its solution -- an ontology of only secondarily related, monadic objects -- would escape the criticism Bitbol was discussing.  But perhaps I shouldn't say anything about that at this point, one way or the other, since I'm still just getting to know what OOO is about.

Reply to Discussion


What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

This group is for anyone interested in exploring these questions and tracing out the horizons of an integral post-metaphysical spirituality.

Notice to Visitors

At the moment, this site is at full membership capacity and we are not admitting new members.  We are still getting new membership applications, however, so I am considering upgrading to the next level, which will allow for more members to join.  In the meantime, all discussions are open for viewing and we hope you will read and enjoy the content here.

© 2020   Created by Balder.   Powered by

Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service