Seminar #24: An analysis of reflexive monism
The next Life and Mind seminar is taking place Wed. the 22nd of Aug., at 16:30 in room Pev1 1A01.
Miriam will lead a discussion on: An analysis of Reflexive Monism – Towards an “any-person’s” account on consciousness
In a nutshell, I am going to briefly present Velmans’ reflexive approach to consciousness and discuss his notion of the thing-itself, which I take to create a problem for him. I will then show how I think Velmans connects to neurophenomenology and enactivism.
In order to see the extended abstract click .
“Until Descartes, every thing at hand for itself was a ‘subject’; but now the ‘I’ becomes the special subject, that with regard to which all the remaining things first determine themselves as such. Because – mathematically – they first receive their thingness only through the founding relation to the highest principle and its ‘subject’ (I), they are essentially such as stand as something else in relation to the ‘subject’, which lie over against it as objectum. The things themselves become ‘objects’.” Heidegger, Modern Science, Metaphysics and Mathematics
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 monism. Therein it is similar to physicalism. However, where physicalism takes the reality to be physical, in Velmans’ approach the physical is only the epistemologically complementary part of the mental, it is one perspective. Where physicalists explicitly or implicitly reduce the mental to the physical, in Velmans’ approach it becomes one other equally legitimate perspective. Conscious experiences are not reduced to mere brain activities, or characterised as macroproperties of the brain, but they are to be taken into consideration in their own (epistemological) right. For Velmans, the phenomenal, subjective experience has to be at the heart of every scientific investigation of consciousness.
Velmans’ approach is a type of dual aspect theory. Mental and physical perspectives are two ways of accessing knowledge of an underlying third, the ur-reality. In the light of consciousness, this tertium quid is the ur-mind. Reflexive monism is thus an approach that commits to an ontological monism and an epistemological dualism. But why is it reflexive?
In the reductionist account there is a separation of contents of consciousness and the material world, as well as of the subject and the perceived object. Velmans aims to reconcile this difference in that he 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. According to this, objects we perceive as being located in the outside world are not objectively given (in the sense of “observer-free”), rather “physical phenomena are part of what we experience rather than apart from it.” (Velmans 1993)
Velmans’ approach is called “reflexive” because we experience the things themselves reflexively. That is to say, that in contrast to an idealist account that takes the objects to be mere manifestations of the mind, in reflexive monism, there are really things in the world causing the perception of objects, i.e. experiences. Velmans’ term “perceptual projection” (Velmans 1993) expresses that these real things (the things-themselves) impinge our senses and cause the brain to project these as being either outside ourselves, inside our heads, or somewhere within our bodies.
It is the thing-itself that acts as a reference fixer for mental or physical representations, i.e. observed phenomena result from interaction with things themselves. However, Velmans’ notion of the thing-itself is different from Kant’s. Where Kant takes the thing-itself to be transcendent to our knowledge, in Velmans’ opinion, we do have knowledge of the thing-itself (“ur-mind”).
I suggest to examine this idea more carefully, for it seems to create a problem, if not a contradiction for Velmans’ approach. On the one hand, Velmans claims an epistemological dualism, i.e. the mental and the physical are experiences of the underlying things-themselves, and they must not be confused with them, for there is no identity between a phenomenal experience and its respective thing-itself. On the other hand then, Velmans claims that the thing itself can be known in that physical and mental descriptions reveal true aspects of it, and the reason for that is, that this real thing-itself, i.e. the ur-mind, is psychophysical in its nature.
It seems that introducing a thing-itself that is knowable, i.e. actually is what we think it is, is misleading: Velmans seems to subtly transfer the dualistic split he actually seeks to avoid back into the sphere of things-themselves, for the ur-reality seem to separated into elements that are (ur)mind and those that are not-(ur)mind.
I suggest that we keep the idea that physical and mental perspectives are describing the same underlying reality, but in contrast to Velmans, I take this reality to be one, a reality that is neither physical nor mental in itself. Human beings are part of the world, i.e. they are in the world. The difference between physical and psychological descriptions relies not on the fact that the world is psychophysical but rather on the fact that human beings “objectify” different parts of the world. In the case of physical descriptions these parts of the world are objects/ or events that are different from themselves, whereas in case of mental descriptions, human beings take themselves as the object of experience. It seems that Descartes’ inheritance still lives on, in that we turn ourselves from being part of the world into subjective centres that make sense of the objective world. (Heidegger, ibid.)
It is because I have an experience of my self (in the sense of an entity in the world) that I take this experience to be inside of my head, because it is my head, belonging to me. I thus situate myself and relate myself to other objects/events in the world, by drawing a systemic border. And accordingly, objects that are different from me are experienced as not belonging to me, and explained within another “observational arrangment”. (Velmans) However, as Velmans’ accurately points out, these experiences are all taking place within the phenomenal realm, i.e. they depend on a human-specific structural design.
I take a slightly modified (or clarified?) version of Velmans’ approach to be a reasonable alternative to reductive and non-reductive accounts on consciousness. Once we do not only acknowledge the crucial role of the phenomenology of consciousness, but also allow for the first-person perspective to be a reliable way of getting knowledge (about ourselves), the ground is set for a research methodology that will account for both, experiences of ourselves and descriptions of how other people experience our experiences of ourselves, an agenda that considers first-person and third-person explanations of consciousness: neurophenomenology.
This reciprocal approach on the study of consciousness has been suggested by 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) Their claim is that the study of consciousness strongly requires the consideration of 1st-person data. Although 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) However, “it would be futile to stay with first-person descriptions in isolation” (Varela and Shear 1999). This is why, in addition to a more refined 1st-person method that should provide subjects with sufficient training in experience and reporting it, 3rd-person methods will be used as well. This peaceful combination of 1st- and 3rd person science leads to a “2nd-person science”. Where Dennett’s method (heterophenomenology, Dennett 1999, 2001), restricts the experimenter to only observe the subject from an anthropologic intentional stance, in Varela’s method the experimenter has to adopt a full 2nd-person in that she is empathetic, i.e. that the experimenter herself already had the experience the subject is referring to.
Combining Velmans’ reflexive approach with neurophenomenology might lead to an account that is still naturalistic, as it puts forward an ontological monism that refers to one reality that human beings perceive according to their physiology. However, the phenomenal experience is not denied, but rather plays a crucial role if consciousness is taken to be as exactly that what happens when a subject has (any) conscious, subjective and phenomenal experience, be it of objects/events in the world that are not herself, or of herself. 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 the mastery of sensory motor skills are similarly crucial to him. However, Velmans argues against enactivism in that he takes it 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. He objects 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 replacing neural representations with sensory motor activities and then trying to explain consciousness solely from a 3rd-person’s perspective creates conceptual confusion and an explanatory gap. Velmans’ critique would hold if enactivists were ignorant about the phenomenology of consciousness. However, in my view, nothing speaks against an enactive approach that considers first-person data as well. The claim that consciousness is constituted by sensorimotor interactions with the world does not rule out that human beings have particular experiences of these interactions. I suggest to save enactivism in that sensory-motor interactions with the world are indeed not only causal, but constitutive for consciousness.