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.

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Here's a video I recently came across featuring a talk by Michel Bitbol at a Buddhism and Science conference:  Interdependence: from classical causality to quantum entanglement.  (Some of the other talks in the series look interesting, as well; I'll be checking them out this weekend.)

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