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Varela 1996 Neurophenomenology

Varela, Francisco. (1996) Neurophenomenology : A Methodological Remedy for the Hard Problem in Journal of Consciousness Studies, "Special Issues on the Hard Problems", J.Shear (Ed.) June 1996


Neurophenomenology : A Methodological Remedy for the Hard Problem

This paper responds to the issues raised by D.Chalmers by offering a research direction which is quite radical because of the way in which methodological principles are linked to scientific studies of consciousness. Neuro-phenomenology is the name I use here to designate a quest to marry modern cognitive science and a disciplined approach to human experience, thereby placing myself in the lineage of the continental tradition of Phenomenology. My claim is that the so-called hard problem that animates these Special Issues can only be addressed productively by gathering a research community armed with new pragmatic tools for the development of a science of consciousness. I will claim that no piecemeal empirical correlates, nor purely theoretical principles, will really help us at this stage. We need to turn to a systematic exploration of the only link between mind and consciousness that seems both obvious and natural: the structure of human experience itself.In what follows I motivate my choice by briefly examining the current debate about consciousness at the light of Chalmer's hard problem. Next, I outline the (neuro)phenomenological strategy. Finally I conclude by discussing some of the main difficulties and consequences of this strategy.

 I. A Cartography of Approaches

 I.1 The riddle of experience.

Chalmers opens up the discussion of the "hard problems" by focusing on the problem that seems central: the experience associated with cognitive or mental events. "Sometimes terms such as 'phenomenal consciousness' and 'qualia' are also used here, but I find it more natural to speak of 'conscious experience' or simple 'experience'" (Chalmers, 1995, p.201). After describing case studies of some popular functionalist explanations, Chalmers moves to qualify the remaining challenge as if it were a necessary "extra ingredient". The choice of the term is already revealing, for Chalmers seems to assume from the outset that the only avenue is to find theoretical principles that will bridge the gap between cognition and experience. As I will detail below, it seems that another fundamental alternative is to change the entire framework within which the issue is framed. In any case "[t]he moral of all this is that you can't explain conscious experience on the cheap" (ibid., p.208; his italics). I entirely agree but hasten to add that the price to pay is heavier than most people are willing to concede. Again the central difficulty is that experience is "not an explanatory posit, but an explanandum in its own right, and so it is not candidate for [reductive] elimination" (ibid., p.209). What is needed, he concludes, is a form of non-reductive explanation. Here again, I concur with Chalmers, but one of my tasks will be to detail how different our options are from this point onwards.

Let me begin my re-focusing the question of experience in the current boom concerning the scientific study of consciousness. As we all know, the number of books, articles and meeting on the subject has increased exponentially over the last few years. Why this current outburst after all the years of silence, when consciousness was an impolite topic even within cognitive science?

To be sure, after the peak of dominance of behaviorism there had to be a conservative phase before cognitive science felt that it had some ground under its feet. More important perhaps was the style of the dominant philosophy of mind in the USA (with numerous followers in Europe), which is intrinsically suspicious of subjective experience. Within this framework, significant developments in cognitive science have been accomplished almost exclusively within a cognitivist-computationalist or a connectionist perspective.

Connectionism in particular made possible a revolutionary idea of transitions and bridges between levels of explanation, better understood as a philosophy of emergence: how local rules can give rise to global properties or objects in a reciprocal causality. This gave new meaning to the traditional mind/body interface proving important advances in the explanation of an array of specific cognitive phenomena (vision, motion and associative memory are prime examples). These developments, created the background for the "hard problem", since they made consciousness appear as devoid of any causal relevance. This is well illustrated in Roy Jackendorff's pioneering book, in which the "phenomenological mind" (i.e. consciousness qua experience) is seen as a projection from a "computational mind" (i.e. cognitive mechanisms) where all causality takes place. Thus the only conclusion he can come to is that consciousness "is not good for anything" (1987, p.26).

Further, in parallel developments, new techniques for large-scale analysis of brain activity and neuropsychology have for the first time allowed us to ask direct experimental questions concerning complex cognition correlates in action, such as mental imagery and emotions (see for example Posner and Raichle, 1992; Mazoyer, Roland and Fox, 1995). The experiments involving such non-invasive on-line measurements are particularly interesting since they have led researchers to confront such questions as: Can a subject's report be taken at face value? What are verbal reports expressions of? These are basically experiential questions that already imply a significant revision of the manner in which accounts of human experience have to be approached in empirical research.

One day the intellectual history of the peculiar twists and turn of this problem -space will be thoroughly done . But it has a déjà-vu aura to it, reminding us of many swings of the pendulum between rejection and total fascination within scientific discussions about conscious experience. This can hardly be otherwise, since any science of cognition and mind must, sooner or later, come to grips with the basic condition that we have no idea what the mental or the cognitive could possibly be apart from our own experience of it. As John Searle has aptly remarked in his own contribution to the boom, if there is research phase favoring strictly materialist theories of mind:

" [the philosopher] encounters difficulties. It always seems that he is leaving something out.... [and] underlying the technical objections is a much deeper objection ... [that] can be put quite simply: The theory in question has left out the mind; it has left out some essential feature of the mind, such as "consciousness" or "qualia" or semantic content....[Thus] if we were to think of the philosophy of mind as a single individual we would say of that person that he is compulsive neurotic, and his neurosis takes the form of repeating the same pattern of behavior over and over." (Searle, 1992, p.30-31).

I agree with the diagnosis as much as I disagree with Searle's proposed cure (more on that later). Clearly we need some radical measures to compensate for this compulsive behavior. That is precisely what I intend to do here, with a proposal that will probably seem radical for some; but nothing short of it will break the vicious circle and bypass the attempts to fix it with yet another abstract, theoretical model.

 I.2 A four-way sketch

In order to motivate my position the reader should now turn to the sketch in Fig.1 outlining four axes that seem to capture the essential orientations in the current boom of discussion on consciousness It is not intended to be an all -encompassing chart of the various viewpoints, but an occasion to place myself in context with modern authors that have published extensive arguments (generally in book form) over the last few years.

A warning: this is a chart of naturalistic approaches, that is, positions that each in their own way provide a workable link to current research on cognitive science . This excludes at least two streams of popular discussion. On the one hand views that take a traditional dualistic stance (à la J.C. Eccles); on the other hand calls for new foundations from the quantum mechanics proponents. I find both these views extreme and unnecessary, and concentrate on those that are based on current neuroscience and cognitive science in some explicit manner.

In the far right orientation, I have put the very vocal trend best represented by P. Churchland (1992), but including F. Crick, and Ch.Koch, and close to the spontaneous philosophy of many other of my colleagues in neuroscience, and appropriately labeled as neuro-reductionism or eliminitivism. As is well-known, this view seeks to solve the hard problem by eliminating the pole of experience in favor of some form of neurobiological account which will do the job of generating it (Churchland and Sejnowski, 1992). Or as Crick puts it with characteristic bluntness: "You are nothing but a pack of neurons" (1994, p.2).

At the center north I have collected a variety of positions that can be labeled as functionalistic, and identified by Chalmers as being the most popular ecology of ideas active today (ibid., p.204-209). Functionalism has been drastically preferred in cognitive science over the last 20 years, followed by the strategy to replace the link between cognition and consciousness (the most immediate one in western philosophical tradition) by the link between cognition and its corresponding functional or intentional states. In the best of cases the problem of consciousness is assimilated with that of "qualia" for some particular features of mental states. Thus the notion of experience becomes forcefully assimilated with that of cognitive behavior, propositional attitude, or functional role.

These views include a number of well-developed proposals including, R. Jackendorff's (1987) "projective mechanism", B. Baars' (1992) "global workspace" , D. Dennett's (1991) "multiple drafts", W. Calvin "darwinian machines" (1990), or G. Edelman's (1989) "neural darwinism". The basic move in these proposals is quite similar. First start from the modular items of cognitive capacities, (i.e. the "soft" problems). Second, construct a theoretical framework to put them together so that their unity amounts to an account of experience. The strategy to bridge this emergent unity and experience itself varies, but typically it is left vague since the entire approach relies almost entirely on a third-person or externalistic approach to obtain data and to validate the theory. This position seems the most popular one in the current boom literature, and it represents the work of an important segment of researchers in cognitive science. This popularity rests on the acceptance of the reality of experience and mental life while keeping the methods and ideas within the known framework of empirical science .

At the center south we have the mirror image of functionalism. Mysterianists such as T. Nagel (1984), C. McGinn (1991) seek to conclude by principled arguments that the hard problem is unsolvable, based on intrinsic limitation of the means through which our knowledge of the mental is acquired.

Finally, to the left, I have put the sector that interest me the most, and which can be roughly described as giving an explicit and central role to first-person accounts and to the irreducible nature of experience, while at the same time refusing either a dualistic concession or a pessimistic surrender to the question, as is the case for the mysterianists. This is in line with Chalmer's identification of where the hard problem lies. As are the other orientations in my sketch, the group gathered here is a motley one, with odd bedfellows such as G.Lakoff and M. Johnson's (1987) approach to cognitive semantics, J. Searle's (1994) ideas on ontological irreducibility, G. Globus (1995) "post-modern" brain, and at the edge, O. Flannagan's (1992) "reflective equilibrium", and Chalmers's (1996) own proposal as fully developed in his recent book.

What is interesting about this diverse group, within which I place myself, is that even though we share a concern for first-hand experience as basic fact to incorporate in the future of the discipline, the differences are patent in the manner in which this experience is taken into account. The phenomenological approach is grounded in a the exploration of experience which is at the center of my proposal. This sufficiently clarifies, I hope , the context for my ideas within the current scene. Now we may move to the heart of the matter, the nature of the circulation between a first person and an external account of human experience, which describes the phenomenological position in fertile dialogue with cognitive science.

 II. A Phenomenological approach

 II.1. Irreducibility: the basic ground

The phenomenological approach starts from the irreducible nature of conscious experience. Lived experience is where we start from. Most modern authors are disinclined to focus on the distinction between mental life in some general sense and experience, or manifest some suspicion about its status.

From a phenomenological standpoint conscious experience is quite at variance with that of a mental content as it figures in the anglo-american philosophy of mind. The tension between these two orientations appears in a rather dramatic fashion in Dennett's book where he concludes with little effort (15 lines in a 550-page book) that Phenomenology has failed. He remarks:

"Like other attempts to strip away interpretation and reveal the basic facts of consciousness to rigorous observation, such as the Impressionistic movements in the arts [sic] and the Introspectionist psychologists of Wundt, Titchener and others, Phenomenology has failed to find a single settled method that everyone could agree upon" (ibid., p.44).

This passage is revealing: Dennett mixes apples and oranges by putting Impressionism and Introspectionism in the same bag; he confuses Introspectionism with Phenomenology which is most definitely not (vide infra); and he finally draws his conclusion from the absence of some idyllic universal agreement that would validate the whole. We surely would not demand "that everyone could agree" upon, say, Darwinism, to make it a remarkably useful research program. And certainly some people do agree on the established possibility of disciplined examination of human experience. In a book that is in many other respects so savant and insightful, this display of ignorance concerning Phenomenology is a symptom that says a lot about what's amiss in this field.

The main point that must be brought to the fore is clearly made by Searle:
"..much of the bankruptcy of most work in the philosophy of mind ...over the past fifty years...has come from a persistent failure to recognize and come to terms with the fact that the ontology of the mental is an irreducibly first-person ontology...There is, in short, no way for us to picture subjectivity as part of our world view because, so to speak, the subjectivity in question is the picturing" (Searle, 1991, p.95, 98).

But in Searle's defense of the irreducibility of consciousness there is an inability to come to any conclusion about how to solve the epistemological issue concerning the study of consciousness. Searle wants us to accept that "the irreducibility of consciousness is merely a consequence of the pragmatics of our definitional practices" (p.122), and that the irreducibility of consciousness is a "straightforward argument" (p.118). In fact,
"The very fact of subjectivity, which we were trying to observe, makes such an observation impossible. Why? Because where conscious subjectivity is concerned, there is no distinction between the observed and the thing observed...Any introspection I have of my own conscious state is itself that conscious state" (ibid., p.97).

The mental does not have any obvious manner to investigate itself, and we are left with a clear logical conclusion, but in a pragmatic and methodological limbo.
This is not unlike the limbo for Jackendorff who, in his own way also claims the irreducibility of consciousness but is tellingly silent when it comes to method. He does claim that insights into experience act as constraints for a computational theory of mind, but follows with no methodological recommendations except " the hope that the disagreements about phenomenology can be settled in an atmosphere of mutual trust " (Jackendorff, 1987, p. 275). Mutual trust indeed! What s needed is needed is a strict method and that is where both the difficulty and the revolutionary potential of the topic lie.

 II. 2. Method: moving ahead

We need to examine, beyond the spook of subjectivity, into the concrete possibilities of a disciplined examination of experience that is at the very core of the Phenomenological inspiration. To repeat: it is the re-discovery of the primacy of human experience and its direct, lived quality that is Phenomenology's foundational project. This is the sense within which Edmund Husserl inaugurated this thinking in the West, and established a long tradition that is well and alive today not only in Europe but world-wide. In fact, between 1910-1912 while Husserl was at the peak of his creative formulation of Phenomenology, in the United States William James was following very parallel lines in his pragmatic approach to cognitive life. And to complete the planetary "sychronicity" of this turn, a very innovative philosophical renewal appeared in Japan, the so-called Kyoto School, initiated by Nishida Kitaro and then followed by Nishitani Keiji and others. Husserl and James knew and read each other, and the members of the Kyoto school read widely in western phenomenology and spent extensive periods of training in Germany. Thus I believe we should consider these anni mirabili for phenomenology as the years 1848-52 were for the birth of modern evolutionary biology.

It is fair to say that Phenomenology is, more than anything else, a style of thinking started in the West by Husserl started in the West, but it not exhaust in his personal options and style (Lyotard, 1954). I do not want to engage in an account of the diversity and complexity of western Phenomenology (see e.g. Spiegelberg, 1962). The contributions of individuals such as Eugen Fink, Edith Stein, Roman Ingarten, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to cite only a few, attests to a continuing development of phenomenology. More recently various links with modern cognitive science have been explored (see for instance Dreyfus, 1982; Varela et al., 1991; Klein and Wescott, 1994; Petitot, 1995; Petitot et al., 1996; Thompson and Varela, 1996). I mention this explicitly because it has been my observation that most people unfamiliar with the phenomenological movement automatically assume that phenomenology is some sort of Husserlian scholasticism, a trade better left to dusty continental philosophers who can read German.

At best cognitive scientists might have read the collection edited by Dreyfus (1982), which presents Husserl as some sort of proto-computationalist, and assume that this is all there is to know about Phenomenology. This has become an oft-quoted interpretation, but critics have made clear that Dreyfus' reading of Husserl and the phenomenological enterprise is seriously flawed. This is not the occasion to expand on this issue, but it is essential to flag a caveat here lest the reader with a scientific background thinks this issue has been settled once and for all .My position cannot be ascribed to any particular school or sub-lineage but represents my own synthesis of Phenomenology in the light of modern cognitive science and other traditions focusing on human experience. Phenomenology can also be described as a special type of reflection or attitude about our capacity for being conscious. All reflection reveals a variety of mental contents (mental acts) and their correlated orientation or intended contents. Natural or naive attitude takes for granted a number of received claims about both the nature of the experiencer and its intended objects. The Archimedean point of Phenomenology is to suspend such habitual claims and to catalyze a fresh examination. Whence Husserl's famous dictum : " Back to the things themselves!" , which for him meant the opposite of a third-person objectification, but a return to the world as it is experienced in its felt immediacy. It was Husserl's hope as well as the basic inspiration behind phenomenological research that a true science of experience would gradually be established that could not only stand on equal footing with the natural sciences, but that could give them a needed ground, since knowledge necessarily emerges from our lived experience. On the one hand experience is suffused with spontaneous pre-understanding, so that it might seem that any "theory" about it is quite superfluous. But on the other hand this pre-understanding itself must be examined since it is unclear what kind of knowledge it represents. Experience demands specific examination in order to free it from its status as habitual belief. As Merleau-Ponty puts it:"To return to the things themselves is to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speak s and in relation to which every scientific schematization is an abstract and derivative sign language, as the discipline of geography would be in relation to a forest, a prairie, a river in the countryside we knew beforehand"
(M. Merleau-Ponty, 1945, p.ix)

I insist on bringing to the fore this basic principle of the phenomenological approach since it is often quickly translated into an empirical quest for mental correlates. We need to return repeatedly to this issue since it is only by appreciating the depth of this distinction that phenomenological bridges can claim to keep a meaningful link to lived experience and to be a remedy to the hard problem.

Phenomenology founds its movement towards a fresh look at experience in a specific gesture of reflection or phenomenological reduction (PhR).

I need now to unfold the bare bones of this attitude or gesture through which the habitual way we have to relate to our lived-world changes. This does not mean to consider a different world but rather to consider the present one otherwise. As we said before, this gesture transforms a naive or unexamined experience into a reflexive or second-order one. Phenomenology correctly insists on this shift from the natural to the phenomenological attitude, since it is only then that the world and my experience appear as open and in need of exploration. The meaning and pragmatics of PhR have taken several variants from this common trunk. It is not my intention to recapitulate them here. The conscious gesture that at the base of PhR can be decomposed into four intertwined moments or aspects:

• Attitude: reductionThe attitude of reduction is the necessary starting point. It can also be defined by its similarities to doubt: a sudden, transient suspension of beliefs about what is being examined, a putting in abeyance of our habitual discourse about something, a bracketing of the pre-set structuring that constitutes the ubiquitous background of everyday life. Reduction is self-induced (it is an active gesture), and it does seek to be resolved, (dissipating our doubts) since it is here as a source of experience. It is a common mistake to assume that suspending our habitual thinking means stopping our stream of thoughts, which is not possible. The point is to turn the direction of the movement of thinking from its habitual content-oriented direction backwards toward the arising of thoughts themselves. This is no more nor less than the very human capacity for reflexivity, and the life-blood of reduction. To engage in reduction is to cultivate a systematic capacity for reflexiveness thus opening up new possibilities within our habitual mind stream. For instance, right now the reader is very likely making some internal remarks concerning what reduction is, what it reminds her of, and so on. To mobilize an attitude of reduction would begin by noticing those automatic thought-patterns, take a reflexive distance from them, and focus reflection towards their source.

• Intimacy: IntuitionThe result of reduction is that a field of experience appears both less encumbered and more vividly present, as if the habitual distance separating experiencer and world were dispelled. As William James saw, the immediacy of experience thus appears surrounded by a diversity of horizons to which we can turn our interest. This gain in intimacy with the phenomenon is crucial, for it is the basis of the criteria of truth in phenomenological analysis, the nature of its evidence. If intimacy or immediacy is the beginning of this process, it continues by a cultivation of imaginary variations, considering in the virtual space of mind multiple possibilities of the phenomenon as it appears. These ideal variations are familiar to us from mathematics, but here they are put into the service of whatever becomes the focus of our analysis: perception of three-dimensional form, the structure of nowness, the manifestations of empathy, and so on. It is through these multiple variations that a new stage of understanding arises, an 'Aha!' experience which adds a new evidence that carries a force of conviction. This moving intimacy with our experience corresponds well to the what is traditionally referred to as intuition, and represents, along with reflection, the two main human capacities that are mobilized and cultivated in PhR.

 • Description: InvariantsTo stop at reduction followed by imaginary variations would be to condemn this method to private ascertainment. The next component is as crucial as the preceding ones: the gain in intuitive evidence must be inscribed of translated into communicable items, usually through language or other symbolic inscriptions (think of sketches or formulae). The materialities of these descriptions however are also a constitutive part of the PhR and shape our experience as much as the intuition that shapes them. In other words we are not merely talking about an 'encoding' into a public record, but rather of an 'embodiment' that incarnates and shapes what we experience. I like to refer to these public descriptions as invariants, since it is through "variations" that one finds broad conditions under which an observation can be communicable. This is not so different from what mathematicians have done for centuries: the novelty is to apply it to the contents of consciousness

.• Training: stability: As with any discipline, sustained training and steady learning are key. A casual inspection of consciousness is a far cry from the disciplined cultivation of PhR. This point is particularly relevant here, for the attitude of reduction is notoriously fragile. If one does not cultivate the skill to stabilize and deepen one's capacity for attentive bracketing and intuition, as well as skill for illuminating descriptions, no systematic study can mature. This last aspect of the PhR is perhaps the greatest obstacle for the constitution of a research program since it implies a disciplined commitment from a community of researchers (more on this below).

Phenomenological reduction
aspects of method characteristics of resulting examination

bracketing, suspending beliefs
intimacy, immediate evidence
inscriptions, intersubjectivity
stability, pragmatics

 II.3 Avoiding some standard traps.

In previous presentations of these ideas I have found a number of important traps and misleading conclusions that come up recurrently. Let me address a few of them in a preventive move.

• Phenomenological analysis is not just Introspectionism.

As many have remarked, introspection presupposes that we have access to our experience in the same manner that we have access to an "inner" visual field, as the etymology of the word suggests, by inspection. Such an internal examination is a normal cognitive ability of reflective doubling, a gesture in which we engage regularly. It assumes a certain referential 'I' who does the self-observation, a narrative network that shapes what we identify as a subject.

In pre-phenomenology days (i.e. without reduction) introspection elicited a wave of interest in psychology starting with the work of W.Wundt, followed by others such as E.Titchener in USA and the Würzburg school. Despite an initial enthusiasm the research program advanced by introspectionism did not take root. Among other problems reports from different laboratories could not reach a common ground of validation. A classic case was the issue whether visual imagery played a role in problem solving or not. The method applied started from reflection but gave explicit direction as what to look for or what kind of distinction to perform, much like what we are used to see done in modern experimental psychology. Necessarily the reports became more and more influenced by the theoretical underpinnings of the studies, and in fact, rapidly fell into arguments of authority. The historical account of Lyons (1986) is written as an obituary for intropsection. But this would be a hasty conclusion, as Howe (1991) reminds us.

This manner of mobilizing reflexive capacities still falls into the natural attitude for a phenomenologist, for it rides on the wave of previous elaborations and assumptions. Phenomenology does share with Introspectionism an interest in the reflexive doubling as a key move of its approach to phenomena. But then the two attitudes part company. In PhR the skill to be mobilized is called bracketing for good reasons, since it seeks precisely the opposite effect of an uncritical introspection: it cuts short our quick and fast elaborations and beliefs, in particular location and putting in abeyance what we consider we think we 'should' find, or some 'expected' description. Thus PhR is not a 'seeing inside', but a tolerance concerning the suspension of conclusions that allows a new aspect or insight into the phenomenon to unfold. In consequence, this move does not sustain the basic subject-object duality but opens up into a field of phenomena where it becomes less and less obvious how to distinguish between subject and object (this is the 'fundamental correlation' as Husserl called).

It is important to re-open up the debate concerning the key differences between introspectionism, (which did not lead to a fruitful succession), and phenomenology (its history is uninterrupted). Searle, for instance, who claims first-person experiences as irreducible, concludes without a reference to this complex intellectual and historical issue, and rapidly concludes that introspection is merely another mental state. Hence it cannot claim to have a privileged access to experience, and the irreducibility of experience "has no deep consequences" (p.118). This dismissal of introspectionism and of phenomenology (by omission) does not take Searle very far. Despite his disclaimer about introspection, that is precisely what he does in the chapter called "The structure of consciousness: An introduction", containing twelve attributes that appear to him as fundamental. On what basis? By doing a suddenly valid introspection? How does he validate these observations? Why not an alternative list of attributes?

• Intuition is not some fluffy stuff.

Many people react to the mention of intuition with suspicion. In this context, intuitive capacity does not refer here to some elusive, will-o' -wisp inspiration. It is, on the contrary a basic human ability which operates constantly in daily life, and that has been widely discussed in studies of creativity. Think about mathematics: ultimately the weight of a proof is its convincing nature, the immediacy of the evidence which is imposed on us, beyond the logical chains of symbolic reasoning. This is the nature of intuitive evidence: born not of argument but from the establishment of a clarity that is fully convincing. We take this capacity for granted but do little to cultivate it in a systematic manner. Obviously there is no contradiction here with reasoning and inference: intuition without reasoning is blind, but ideas without intuition are empty.

• There is life beyond the objective/subjective duality

One of the originalities of the Phenomenological attitude is that it does not seek to oppose the subjective to the objective, but to move beyond the split into their fundamental correlation. PhR takes us quickly into the evidence that consciousness is inseparably linked to what goes beyond itself (it is "transcendental" in the Husserlian language). Consciousness is not some private, internal event having, in the end, an existence of the same kind as the external, non-conscious world.

To begin with, phenomenological investigation is not my "private trip" since is destined for others through intersubjective validation. In this sense what one is up to in phenomenological attitude is not radically different from other modes of inquiry. As Piet and Shepard point out in their contribution here:

"An analogy with Euclidean geometry may be helpful: once we specify the lengths of the two sides of the triangle, and the magnitude of the enclosed angle, the lengths of the third side is fixed and so are the magnitudes of the remaining two angles. Why is this? Wherein reside the magical power of space? How can space enforce the 'laws' of geometry, laws that physical objects obey as well, to a very high accuracy" (Piet and Sheparp, 1996, p.9)
We are similarly assuming that human experience (mine as well as yours), follows fundamental structural principles which, like space, enforces the nature of what is given to us as contents of experience.

Through PhR, consciousness appears as a foundation which sheds light onto how derived notions such as objective and subjective can arise in the first place. Hence consciousness in this style of examination is drastically different from that of anglo-american empiricism. We are not concerned with a private inspection but with a realm of phenomena where subjective and objective, as well as subject and others emerge from the method applied and its context. This is a point that reductionists and functionalist often miss. Experience is clearly a personal event, but that does not mean it is private, in the sense of some kind of isolated subject that is parachuted down onto a pre-given objective world. It is one of the most impressive discoveries of the phenomenological movement to have quickly realized that an investigation of the structure of human experience inevitably induces a shift towards considering several levels of my consciousness as inextricably linked to those of others and to the phenomenal world in an empathic mesh.Consequently, the usual opposition of first-person vs. third-person accounts is misleading. It makes us forget that so-called third-person, objective accounts are done by a community of concrete people who are embodied in their social and natural worlds as much as first-person accounts. As B. Smith aptly asks: "Who is on third?" (Smith, 1996). The line of separation between rigor and lack of it, is not to be drawn between first and third accounts, but rather on whether a description is based or not on a clear methodological ground leading to a communal validation and shared knowledge.

 II.4. Better pragmatics are needed.

On the whole, my claim is that neurophenomenology is a natural solution that can allow us to move beyond the hard problem in the study of consciousness. It has little to do with some theoretical or conceptual 'extra ingredient' to use Chalmers formula. Instead, it acknowledges a realm of practical ignorance that can be remedied. It is also clear that, like all solutions in science which radically reframe an open problem instead of trying to solve it within its original setting, it has a revolutionary potential, a point to which I shall turn at the end of this article. In other words, instead of finding 'extra ingredients' to account for how consciousness emerges from matter and brain, my proposal reframes the question to that of finding meaningful bridges between two irreducible phenomenal domains. In this specific sense neurophenomenology is a potential solution to the hard problem by framing in an entirely different light what hard means.

I am painfully aware that what I have said here and what is available in published form about reduction is limited. This is both a symptom and a cause for the relative paucity of recent work bearing on Phenomenological approaches to mind. The reader cannot be blamed for not having had more than a passing whiff of what I mean by emphasizing the gesture of reduction, the core of the methodological remedy I am offering here. It is remarkable that this capacity for becoming aware has been paid so little attention as a human pragmatics. It is as if the emphasis for rhythmic movement had led to no development of dance training. A phenomenologicallly-inspired reflection requires strategies for its development as cognitive practicians have known for some time (Vermersch, 1994), and as attested in the mindfulness tradition of various Buddhist schools (Varela et al., 1991). My only comment concerning this relative poverty of pragmatical elaboration is that it represents an urgent call for research to fill this gaping need. My own contribution concerning the practice of reduction and its training will be presented in a forthcoming joint work (Depraz, Varela, and Vermersch , 1996).In the West we have not had in a rich Pantheon of individuals gifted for phenomenological expertise (with notable exceptions, such as Husserl or James), rendering their investigations public to an attentive community. In consequence this avenue of inquiry may appear foreign to many readers. But my contention is precisely that this absence is at the root of consciousness' opacity for science today. What is needed are precisely the connecting structures provided by PhR since they are both immediately pertinent for experience by their very nature and at the same time sufficiently intersubjective to serve as constructive counterparts for external analysis.

 III. A neurophenomenological circulation

 III.1 Case Studies

In this Section I wish to sketch a few domains of experience and mental life in order to illustrate more concretely what a neurophenomenological circulation might mean in practice. Needless to say, these case studies do not constitute proof of what I am proposing, nor do they preclude the detailed examination of other examples more interesting to the reader. Moreover, in recent years there has been a number of different studies in which, while remaining well-grounded in the scientific tradition of cognitive neuroscience, the part played by lived experience is progressively more important to the extent that it begins to enter inescapably into the picture apart from any interest in first-person accounts (Picton and Stuss, 1994). Clearly, as more sophisticated methods of brain imaging are becoming available, we shall need subjects whose competence in making phenomenological discriminations and descriptions is accrued. This is an important philosophical issue but it is also a pragmatic, empirical need. The following are illustrative cases touching both on large and more local issues.

Large Issues

• Attention can be understood as one of the basic mechanism for consciousness (Posner, 1994). In recent years studies of electrical recordings and more specifically of functional brain imaging have led to the identification of networks and pathways that provide a useful background for distinguishing conscious from non-conscious cognitive events. Three such attentional networks can be distinguished involving orienting to sensory stimulation, activating patterns from memory, and maintaining an alert state. These results indicate that attentional mechanisms are a distinct set of processes in the brain which are neither located in a few neurons, nor solely in the ensemble of the brain in operation. At the same time it is clear that the experiential distinctions between these forms of attention require detailed structural investigation of the varieties of ways in which attention manifests itself in experience. A systematic study of the structures and strategies of attention is still a largely an undone task. But how is one to make the neural mechanisms relevant to consciousness unless such experiential counterparts can be sufficiently discriminated, recognized and trained?

• Present-Time consciousness. Temporality is inseparable from all experience, and at various horizons of duration from present nowness to an entire life-span. One level of study is precisely the experience of immediate time, the structure of nowness as such or in James' happy phrase "the specious present". This has been a traditional theme in phenomenological studies, describing a basic three part structure of the present with its constitutive threads into past and future horizons, the so-called protentions and retentions (Husserl, 1966; MacInerny, 1991). In fact, these structural invariants are not compatible with the point-continuum representation of linear time we have inherited from physics. But they do link naturally to a body of conclusions in cognitive neuroscience that there is a minimal time required for the emergence of neural events that correlate to a cognitive event (Dennett and Kinsbourne, 1992). This non-compressible time framework can be analyzed as a manifestation of the long-range neuronal integration in the brain linked to a widespread synchrony (Singer, 1993; Varela, 1996). This link illuminates both the nature of phenomenological invariants via a dynamical reconstruction which underlies them, as well as giving to the process of synchrony a tangible experiential content. I have developed this case of neuro-phenomenological circulation more in detail elsewhere (Varela, 1996).

• Body Image and Voluntary motion. The nature of will as expressed in the initiation of a voluntary action is inseparable from consciousness and its examination. Recent studies give an important role to neural correlates which precede and prepare voluntary action, and the role of imagination in the constitution of a voluntary act (Libet, 1985; Jeannerod, 1994). Yet voluntary action is preeminently a lived experience which has been thoroughly discussed in the phenomenology literature, most specifically in the role of embodiment as lived body (corps propre, Merleau-Ponty, 1945), and the interdependence between lived body and its world (Leibhaftigkeit). Pain, for instance, is an interesting "qualia" which reveals this dimensions of embodiment most vividly, and its phenomenological study yields surprising insights both in body-image and its relation to neurophysiological correlates (Leder, 1991). Here again, a phenomenological analysis of voluntary action and embodiment is essential, but only partially developed so far.

Local Issues

• Perceptual filling-in as is used in visual science involves the spontaneous completing of a percept so that the appearance (i.e. a visual contour) is distinct from the physical correlate (i.e. discontinuous borders, as in the case of the popular illusory contours). These questions can be studied even at the cellular level, and raise more questions concerning experiential distinction of appearances. In fact the neuronal data on filling-in seem to correlate well with what PhR had concluded some time ago: there is an important difference between "seeing as", visual appearance, and "seeing what", a visual judgment (Pessoa and Thompson, 1996). This is the opposite conclusion from Dennett's (1991) for whom consciousness is "all tell and no show" . These are issues that can only be solved with the concerted convergence of external and first hand account.

• Fringe and center. Interestingly for us here, a number of studies have gone back to consider some traditional phenomenological issues such as the two-part structure of the field of consciousness between a center and a fringe. This mostly has come from the influence of William James , but carried into modern laboratory protocols. In these studies the crucial experience to explore and target for refinement is the feeling of "rightness", here standing for as a summary of cognitive integration representing the degree of harmony between conscious content and its parallel unconscious background (Mangan, 1993) .

• Emotion. These past years have seen significant advances in the understanding of the brain correlates of emotions; the separation between reasoning and emotions is rapidly disappearing (Damasio, 1995; Davidson and Sutton, 1994). Evidence points to the importance of specific structure such as the amygdala, the lateralization of the process, and on the role of arousal in emotional memory. Yet these studies are entirely based on verbal protocols, and the questions of the competence for emotional distinction and the patterns of relations between mood, emotion and reasons need to be addressed explicitly at this stage of research.

The evocation of these study cases tries to provide a concrete background to discuss further the central concern of the neurophenomenological program I am presenting here. On the one hand we have a process of emergence with well defined neurobiological attributes. On the other, a phenomenological description which links directly to our lived experience. To make further progress we need cutting edge techniques and analyses from the scientific side, and very consistent development of phenomenological investigation for the purposes of the research itself.

Do I expect the list of structural invariants relevant to human experience to grow ad infinitum? Certainly not. I surmise that the horizon of fundamental topics can be expected to converge towards a corpus of well-integrated knowledge. When and how fast this happens will of course depend on the pace at which a community of researchers committed to this mode of inquiry is constituted and creates further standards of evidence.

 III.2 The Working Hypothesis

This brings me back to my initial point: only a balanced and disciplined account of both the external and experiential side of an issue can make us move one step closer to bridging the biological mind- experiential mind gap. Let me now be more explicit about my basic working hypothesis for a "circulation" between external and phenomenological analysis:

The Working Hypothesis of Neurophenomenology

Phenomenological accounts of the structure of experience and their counter parts in cognitive science relate to each through reciprocal constraints.

The key point here is that by emphasizing a co-determination of both accounts one can explore the bridges, challenges, insights and contradictions between them. This means that both domains of phenomena have equal status in demanding a full attention and respect for their specificity. It is quite easy to see how scientific accounts illuminate mental experience, but the reciprocal direction, from experience towards science, is what is typically ignored. What do phenomenological accounts provide? At least two main aspects of the larger picture. First, without them the first-hand quality of experience vanishes, or it becomes a myterious riddle. Second, structural account provide constraints on empirical observations.

The study of experience is not a convenient stop on our way to a real explanation, but an active participant in its own right. Clearly in this research program, as in all others worthy of their name, a certain body of evidence is slowly accumulated, while other aspects are more obscure and difficult to seize. The study cases mentioned above clearly need substantially more development, but I hope it is clear how they begin to provide a "stereoscopic" perspective on the various large and local issues where experience and cognitive science become active partners.

This demand for a disciplined circulation is both a more precise and a more demanding standard than the "reflective equilibrium" proposed by Flannagan (1992) or the "conscious projection" put forth by Velmans (1996). Although there is a similarity in intention to what I am proposing here, they propose no explicit or new methodological grounds for carrying it out these intentions. It is surely an improvement on Searle, who insists on the fact that he takes a naturalistic attitude and that "obviously" consciousness is an emergence. And yet this naturalism does no work in his book: there is not a single line about explicit mechanisms, and thus his naturalism remains barren. At the very least, the hypothesis presented here provides an explicit avenue to conduct research in cognitive science as if both brain physiology and mental experience mattered. Thus, for example, a large-scale integration mechanism in the brain such as neural synchrony in the gamma band should be validated also on the basis of its ability to provide insight into first-person accounts of mental contents such as duration. The empirical questions must be guided by first-person evidence. This double constraint would not apply to descriptions that are not directly relevant to the level of experience, for instance for cellular responses or neurotransmitter diffusion. But these are important scientific bridges for the experience of nowness.

The claim about appropriate levels of description between brain events and behavior is, of course, not new and rather uncontroversial except for those who are extreme reductionists. The novelty of my proposal is that disciplined first-person accounts should be an integral element of the validation of a neurobiological proposal, and not merely coincidental or heuristic information. This is why I choose to describe the situation by the hypothesis that both accounts be mutual constraints to each other.

Still, is this not just a fleshed-up version of the well-known identity theory (or at least a homomorphism) between experience and cognitive neuroscienctific accounts? Not really, since I am claiming that the correlates are to be established, not just as a matter of philosophical commitment or physicalist assumption, but from a methodologically sound examination of experiential invariants. Again, this is a question of pragmatics and learning of a method, not of a priori argumentation or theoretical completeness.

In contrast, a more conventional psycho-identity thesis works on the form of a reasoning that Pessoa and Thompson (1996) call linking propositions (following D.Teller). These are propositions of the form:
( A looks like B ) implies (A explains B)

where 'A' are neural-psychological terms and 'B' are phenomenal terms, and the implication operator has a conditional sense: if the empirical events "look like" the phenomenal events, then these are explained. An excellent example is Crick's enthusiasm for single neuron correlates associated with the sudden shift in experience in binocular rivalrous visual figures (in his comment to Logothetis, 1996), which he assimilates with an explanation of that form of visual consciousness. These kinds of bridges are unsatisfactory because they leave the problem untouched. We still have to contend with the nature of the arrow: how are these neural units related to the rest of the brain's activity, how do they acquire their sense, and specially what in them makes them into an experiential event. We are back to square one with the hard problem intact. What is different in the research strategy proposed by neurophenomenology is that these bridges are not of the "looks like" kind but they are built by mutual constraint and validated from both phenomenal domains where the phenomenal terms stands as explicit terms directly linked to experience by a rigorous examination (e.g. reduction, inavariance and intersubjective communication).

This working hypothesis does has some points of similarity with the notion of 'structural coherence' as put forth by Chalmers, amongst his three basic principles for the structure of consciousness. Indeed "precisely because the structural properties of experience are accessible and reportable, those properties will be directly represented in the structure of awareness" (p.213). This is quite correct from my viewpoint but it is fatally incomplete as stated at least in regards to two key issues raised here. First, this structure of experience needs a method for exploration and validation, and it is not enough to simply claim that we can work with the structure of awareness. Second, there is no ontological value in Chalmers' principle since he assumes consciousness is an added ontological term. In our case, phenomenal experience does represent an irreducible ontological level, but it retains its quality of immediacy because it plays a role in structural coherence via its intuitive contents, and thus keeps alive its direct connection to human experience, rather than pushing it into abstraction.

This makes the whole difference: one obtains an intellectually coherent account of mind and consciousness where the experiential pole enters directly into the formulation of the complete account making direct reference to the nature of our lived experience. The 'hardness' and riddle becomes a research program open for its exploration in an open-ended manner with the structure of human experience playing a central role in our scientific explanation. In all functionalistic accounts what is missing is not the coherent nature of the explanation but its alienation from human life. Only putting human life back will erase that absence, not some 'extra' ingredient or profound 'theoretical fix'. By the same token it would be missing the point to expect ask some purely new insights into empirical mechanisms from the neurophenomenological approach. ("So what do you add to cognitive science with your method that we don't know already?"). Surely, the PhR does provide interesting idea concerning the structure of mental life (cf. the cases of temporality or filling in), but its main force is it does so in a way that makes our experience recognizable. I am quite sure that this second order twist will be the most difficult for those researchers of a persistent functionalist inclination to appreciate.

 IV. In Conclusion

 IV.1 Consciousness: Hard problems or time bombs?

Practically since its inception cognitive science has been committed to a very explicit set of key ideas and metaphors which can be called representationalism, for which the inside-outside distinction is the centerpiece: an outside (a features-full world) represented inside through the action of complex perceptual devices. In recent years there has been a slow but sure change towards an alternative orientation, one that I have contributed and defended for many years (see Varela, 1979; Varela et al., 1991). This orientation deviates from representationalism to study mind and world as mutually imbricated, hence the qualifiers of embodied, situated or enactive cognitive science.

I cannot elaborate further concerning the current state of embodied cognitive science, but my present proposal concerning the study of consciousness aligns itself with those larger concerns. It seems inescapable to take the trend towards embodiment one step further in the direction of a principled consideration of embodiment as lived experience. In our book we first highlighted the intrinsic circularity in cognitive science wherein the study of mental phenomena is always that of an experiencing person. We claimed that cognitive science cannot escape this circulation, and must cultivate it instead (Varela et al., 1991). We explicitly draw from Asian traditions, Buddhism in particular, as living manifestation of an active, disciplined phenomenology. It was not the intention of that book to dwell on Asian traditions per se but to use them as a distant mirror of what we needed to cultivate in our science and the western tradition.

The present proposal takes what was started in that book one step further by concentrating on the key issue of methodology. I hope I have seduced the reader to consider that we have in front of us the possibility of an open-ended quest for resonant passages between human experience and cognitive science. The price however is to take first-person accounts seriously as valid domain of phenomena. And beyond that, to build a sustained tradition of phenomenological examination that is almost entirely nonexistent today in our western science and culture at large.

One must take seriously the double challenge my proposal represents. First, it demands a re-learning and a mastery of the skill of phenomenological description. There is no reason why this should be any different from the acquisition of any know-how, like learning to play an instrument or to speak a new language. Anyone who engages in learning, be it in music, language or thinking, will be bringing forth a change in everyday life. This is what is listed as the fourth item in PhR: sustained, disciplined learning does entail transformation, and so does anything else we do in a sustained mode. This is fine if we reject the assumption (as I do) that there is some kind of well-defined standard for what should count as real or normal experience: experience appears to be inherently open-ended and pliable, and hence there is no contradiction in saying that sustained training in a method can make available aspects of experience that were not available before. The point of PhR is to overcome the habit of automatic introspection (among others); we need not a mourn for what may be lost, but turn our interest to what can be learned. The second challenge that my proposal represents is that of a call for transforming the style and values of the research community itself. Unless we accept that at this point in intellectual and scientific history that some radical re-learning is necessary, we cannot hope to move forward in the compulsive history of the ambivalent rejection-fascination with consciousness in philosophy of mind and cognitive science. My proposal implies that every good student of cognitive science who is also interested in issues at the level of mental experience, must inescapably attain a level of mastery in phenomenological examination in order to work seriously with first-person accounts. But this can only happen when the entire community adjusts itself to the corresponding acceptance of arguments, refereeing standards and editorial policies in major scientific journals, that can make this added competence an important dimension of a young researcher. To the long-standing tradition of objectivist science this sounds like anathema, and it is. But this is not a betrayal of science: it is a necessary extension and complement. Science and experience constrain and modify each other as in a dance. This is where the potential for transformation lies. It is also the key for the difficulties this position has found within the scientific community. It requires us to leave behind a certain image of how science is done, and to question a style of training in science which is part of the very fabric of our cultural identity.

 IV.2. In brief: What's the Story?

So in brief, let me conclude by summarizing the main points I have raised in this reaction to the 'hard' problems of consciousness based on an explicit proposal for its remedy:

The argument:
• In line with Chalmer's basic point, I take lived, first-hand experience as a proper field of phenomena, irreducible to anything else. My claim there is no theoretical fix or 'extra' ingredient in nature can possibly bridge this gap.

• Instead, this field of phenomena requires a proper, rigorous method and pragmatics for its exploration and analysis.

• The orientation for such method is inspired from the style of inquiry of phenomenology in order to constitute a widening research community and a research program.

• This research program seeks articulations by mutual constraints between field of phenomena revealed by experience and the correlative field of phenomena established by the cognitive sciences. I have called this point of view neurophenomenology.

The consequences:

• With no radical expansion of the style of work in the scientific tradition and the establishment of a research program roughly along these lines, the riddle of the place of experience in science and world will continually come back, either to be explained away or to be re-claimed as too hard given what we know.

• The nature of 'hard' becomes reframed in two senses: (1) it is hard work to train and stabilize a new methods to explore experience, (2) it is hard to change the habits of science in order for it to accept that new tools are needed for the transformation of what it means to conduct research on mind and for the training of the next generations.

My thanks to all my phenomenological seekers-partners in Paris, distributed over two very different seminars "Cognition, Morphodynamics, Phenomenology", and "Psychology and Phenomenology", specially Jean Petitot and Wioleta Miskiewicz. Amy Cohen provided clarifying remarks and corrections to the text. Very special acknowledgments are due to Natalie Depraz, Evan Thompson and Pierre Vermersch for their essential teaching and intellectual partnership through our ongoing work.

Some of these ideas were presented at the "Tucson II Conference on the Scientific Study of Consciousness" (Tucson, AZ, April 13-17, 1996) where various participants provided useful feedback which has been incorporated in this final form.


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Francisco Varela
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