Towards a Neurophenomenology of Consciousness

In David Chalmers’ seminal paper “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness,” Chalmers’ laid out his binary model of the hard and easy problems. The easy problems of consciousness are those which can be explained by computational or neural mechanisms, whereas the hard problem relates principally to experience and qualia. Reframed as a question, how can individuals have subjective mental experiences that arise from “soggy grey matter?” (McGinn). Moreover, why are these experiences different, and capable of producing a rich inner life? Chalmers showed that functional explanations simply failed to give a satisfactory account of phenomenal consciousness, and he moved to suggest that what was needed was an “extra ingredient” to bridge the explanatory gap in the science of the mind (Chalmers).

Responding to Chalmers’ non-reductive conclusion in 1996, the Chilean biologist, philosopher and neuroscientist Francisco Varela offered an alternative conception to the hard problem. Eschewing characteristic arguments associated with functionalism, reductionism, and mysterianism, Varela made the case for a first-person study of consciousness combined with cognitive scientific methods. Borrowing from the tradition of continental phenomenology, he maintained that consciousness is irreducible and “[l]ived experience is where we start from and where all must link back to, like a guiding thread” (Neurophenomenology 334). In other words, to arrive at any genuine knowledge of the world (and our place in it) presupposes a first-person view of phenomenality. Many philosophers of mind privilege the first-person view (Varela noted John Searle and Ray Jackendoff as examples), agreeing that consciousness is irreducible. However, they claim that such a position suffers from self-referential problems, and is therefore impossible to quantify or explain empirically. Varela attempted to move beyond this mere pessimistic surrender to the question. He proposed a first-person starting point, reinforced by a disciplined examination of experience, using both past and present methodologies. Ultimately, I feel that Varela’s neurophenomenology is an intellectually honest approach to the science of the mind. Cognitive science has so compartmentalized the brain that some philosophers are given to abstract analogy, comparing brains to robots or computers. These types of assertions are ontologically destitute, retaining little semblance of an originary, lived experience that, I believe, is necessary for understanding consciousness. Although the school of phenomenology has historically been neutral with regards to ontology, a co-determination of both external and phenomenological analysis offers a promising way ahead for studying consciousness.

Privileging a first-person view of consciousness invariably implies a phenomenological inspiration. Varela focused on the “anni mirabiles” for phenomenology: Edmund Husserl in the West, William James in the United States, and the Kyoto School in Japan (Neurophenomenology 335). Most fundamental to Varela’s project was Husserl. It was Husserl who inaugurated the method of phenomenological reduction, which consists of “bracketing” all our “folk or scientific opinions, beliefs, and theories about consciousness” (Gallagher 686). To this end, consciousness and the phenomenal field are stripped of any theoretical conclusions made by science or psychology. In other words, experience and qualia are returned to their essences for renewed study. Husserl advocated this return “to the things themselves,” precisely because lived experience is pretheoretical (Neurophenomenology 336). It would seem, then, that phenomenology is antithetical to the whole enterprise of science, since science seeks to understand reality. However, Husserl sought a firm grounding for epistemology (a necessary prerequisite for any scientific endeavor), which was to be without naïve allegiance to objectivism or scientism (Gallagher 686).

Enter Husserl’s concept of intentionality, borrowed from his preceptor, Franz Brentano. Husserl maintained that consciousness has an intentional character, meaning that one is always conscious of something. In other words, consciousness is object-related, which entails that experience is influenced by phenomena. However, an object can also be intended without it actually existing. For example, one can imagine a unicorn and relate to that object abstractly, rather than perceptually. Indeed, whether generated inwardly or outwardly, for Husserl, “[a]ll that is needed for intentionality to occur is the existence of an experience with the appropriate internal structure of object-directness” (Zahavi 21). Varela used this schema to defend the attitude of reduction, which he saw as necessary to “turn the direction of the movement of thinking from its habitual content-oriented direction backwards towards the arising of thoughts themselves” (Neurophenomenology 337). The phenomenological reduction, then, construed in this fashion, would affect a genuine approach to the study of the mind.

By following the premises of phenomenological reduction and intentionality, Varela maintained that the immediacy of experience gained a more vivid, intimate character. Varela noted that “[t]his 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” (Neurophenomenology 337). What one intuits, then, is of exceeding importance. However, intuitive evidence still requires symbolic inscription, such as “an ‘embodiment’ that incarnates and shapes what we experience” (Neurophenomenology 337). Here, I believe, Varela was suggesting a radical change in Western epistemology. Based on his readings of Buddhist mindfulness/awareness, meditation, phenomenology, and cognitive science, Varela was pushing for a reflection of experience that necessarily includes the animate, breathing body. Moreover, for a proper reflection, the mind must be coordinated with the aforementioned body. Given the mind’s tendency to get distracted, it can be difficult to attune the mind-body relation. This is why Varela rounded off his discussion on the aspects of a phenomenological-reduced conscious by emphasizing the importance of skill-training in attentive bracketing, intuition, and illuminative description (Neurophenomenology 338).

The mind-body problem was explicated by Varela to show how abstract, disembodied reflection has traditionally dominated Western thought. For Varela, the Cartesian problematic was not simply a theoretical speculation separate from the body, but a speculation that originates in “a practical, lived experience. . . involving the mustering of one’s whole mind and body” (The Embodied Mind 30). Here, Varela drew parallels between his mission and the pragmatism of philosophers like William James. Varela was interested in what the mind-body relation was capable of doing in a very real, pragmatic sense. James had been unequivocal about pragmatism, concluding his lecture on “What Pragmatism Means” by stating that “[p]ragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses and to count the humblest and most personal experiences” (James 36). Pragmatism, then, is a method that stands firm against rationalism and abstract, scientific dogmatism. Varela upheld this idea, and in keeping with classical phenomenology, he claimed that science was a “theoretical activity after the fact,” incapable of recapturing or explaining the richness of experience (The Embodied Mind 19). Maurice Merleau-Ponty developed this idea further in his book Phenomenology of Perception, and these insights largely paved the way for Varela’s phenomenological reduction.

Before the phenomenological reduction of Husserl, the dominant field of psychology posited introspectionism as the fundamental course for quantifying human experience. The idea inherent in early experimental psychology was that mental phenomena were physical, and it was therefore up to psychology to investigate mental structures (Zahavi 13). Husserl rejected this notion, because he saw psychologism as suffering from several categorical errors. Namely, that psychology was in a position to claim the theoretical foundation for logical empiricism. In order to come to a closer understanding of experience, introspectionism suggested that subjects reflect on their experiences as if they were an unbiased, outside observer. For obvious reasons, this research program failed, because subjects’ reflections were influenced by their very own preconceptions of the mind. Indeed, this preconceptual analysis was what Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger referred to as “the abstract attitude of the scientist and the philosopher” (The Embodied Mind 30). Where phenomenology differs from mere introspectionism is in the technique of bracketing, or maintaining a critical distance from quick or easy descriptive processes. Other philosophers, such as Tim Bayne and Daniel Dennett, have been unable to draw this distinction between introspectionism and the method of phenomenological reduction. Here, it will be important to consider some typical objections to phenomenology before returning to Varela’s outline for neurophenomenology.

Tim Bayne has argued against the idea that phenomenology is a unique or privileged method for describing the first-person nature of consciousness. At the same time, however, Bayne admits that his knowledge of phenomenology is “limited.” He goes on to assert that phenomenological reduction and introspection are dubious methods which both attempt to do the same thing; that is, explain conscious experience (Bayne 351-352). Bayne’s only concession to phenomenology is that (à la Husserl’s concept of eidetic essences) phenomenology is more strictly involved than introspectionism in trying to discover the necessary structure of consciousness. Still, Bayne maintains that, while Varela may have been occupied with the noble goal of trying to understand the essential structure of consciousness, there is nothing in his research program that offers a promising way ahead in the science of the mind. Furthermore, Bayne takes issue with Varela’s use of James’ pragmatism. He notes that James was “a good old-fashioned introspectionist,” which somehow makes Varela’s high estimation of him suspect (Bayne 355). However, even if James was critical of phenomenology (a footnote in Andrew Bailey’s paper “Beyond the Fringe” suggests that he was), his pragmatism still lends considerable support to Varela’s attempt to guide a factual study of the mind. Indeed, pragmatism is not only compatible with first-person methodologies to science; pragmatism can be profitable for these methodologies as well. So, Bayne’s criticism is without merit.

The opposition between first-person and third-person accounts of consciousness has been debated ad nauseam by philosophers. Varela’s opinion was that “so-called third-person, objective accounts are done by a community of concrete people who are embodied in their social and natural world as much as first-person accounts” (Neurophenomenology 340). Varela was attempting to bridge the objective and subjective divide into a harmonious relation. However, other philosophers balk at harmony, and are adamant against a first-person approach. The most prominent philosopher among third-person advocates is probably Daniel Dennett. A radical eliminativist, Dennett has characterized phenomenologists as being “deeply into obscurantism” (Masís 71). In Consciousness Explained, he notes that Husserl’s philosophy is “a special technique of introspection” (Dennett 44). We have already seen that this is false, but Dennett is still comfortable with maligning the continental tradition and saying that phenomenology has “failed.” As a cognitive scientist, Dennett reasons that “[e]ven if mental events are not among the data of science, this does not mean we cannot study them scientifically. . . a theory [of mind] will have to be constructed from the third-person point of view, since all science is constructed from that perspective” (Dennett 71). Since traditional phenomenology is not objective enough for Dennett, he outlines his own techniques for explaining phenomenal experience by coining new terms like autophenomenology and heterophenomenology.

According to Dennett, heterophenomenology is a “neutral path leading from objective physical science and its insistence on the third-person point of view, to a method of phenomenological description that can (in principle) do justice to the most private and ineffable subjective experiences, while never abandoning the methodological scruples of science” (Dennett 72). Dennett claims that worldly experience (Husserl’s Lebenswelt or lifeworld) is a “theorist’s fiction,” and first-person experience is characterized by so-called autophenomenology, which is simply a naïve account of one’s phenomenal experience. Basically, what Dennett means is that our interpretations of our own subjective experiences are invariably false. He asserts that what we believe to be going on in our day-to-day mental lives is just part of a “grand illusion.” For example, anyone with a headache would authoritatively claim that their experience of that headache is a painful one. But Dennett warns us against making such authoritative claims. In his words, “[y]ou are not authoritative about what is happening in you, but only about what seems to be happening in you” (Dennett 96). For Dennett, these illusory seemings run the gamut of mental events, and he maintains that the structure of conscious experience is not accessible on a “personal level” (The Embodied Mind 48). As if there were a “homunculus” working behind the scenes of our conscious awareness, what we perceive to be real, for Dennett, is not real at all. Dennett’s computational theory of the mind, then, “reduces phenomenological experience and subjectivity to something merely private and ineffable” (Masís 76). But what philosophers like Dennett fail to comprehend is that the transcendental stance of phenomenology is not purposefully obscure. Phenomenology, as a philosophical endeavor, is characterized by rigorous attention to neutralizing a certain dogmatic attitude towards reality, thereby focusing on sense and meaningfulness in the world of lived experience (Masís 82). Therefore, phenomenology does not investigate private and ineffable seemings, but reality as such. Dennett’s heterophenomenology, then, has very little to do with classical phenomenology. He relies too heavily on verbal reports and a posteriori beliefs about experience, which place him in error precisely because phenomenology has shown that experience is pretheoretical. Indeed, this argument characterizes the dividing line of Chalmers’ binary approach described at the outset of this paper. Dennett, on the other hand, seems to be in favor of a dogmatic, theoretical attitude that is somehow equipped with the necessary scientific tools to explain consciousness. As Jethro Masís amusingly says, he is “bewitched by a certain species of scientism” (Masís 86).

Varela argued that experience was not private or ineffable; it was intersubjective. Experience is something that is shared between and among body-subjects that are in the world. Intersubjectivity, then, illuminates a second-person approach of cognition and allows for empathy within the framework of the mind. Recently, Natalie Depraz has elaborated on intersubjective validation in respect to Husserlian phenomenology. She contends that openness toward worldly-embedded body-subjects (persons) “enables [us] to deal with a second-person approach oriented toward the third-person one. . . without going into the heterophenomenological stance, which is counter-productive as far as a lived experiential intersubjectivity is concerned” (Depraz). In other words, being open to the world as a first-person cognizing subject allows for a relational mutuality of experience. Where physiological responses are observed to be similar across a broad sample size of isomorphic subjects experiencing the same external phenomena, it is unlikely that experience is either private or ineffable. Indeed, a neurobiological proposal is therefore necessary for any proper understanding of intersubjective validation, as well as Varela’s research program on the whole.

Thus far, the information presented here on Varela et al. has been largely conceptual. However, the reader looking for concrete scientific examples should realize that Varela did not shirk away from scientific inquiry. Indeed, as a biologist and neuroscientist, Varela’s approach to the mind was intimately bound up with empirical effort. Still, he believed that scientific research on consciousness was to be done from the safety-net of phenomenological reduction. For Varela, the neural correlates of consciousness were something “to be established, not just as a matter of philosophical commitment or physicalist assumption, but from a methodologically sound examination of experiential invariants” (Neurophenomenology 344). Therefore, a disciplined method of gathering first-person data is necessary in order to study consciousness in a scientific way. Following these desiderata, Varela’s neurophenomenology is just such a disciplined method of experience and cognitive science. In Varela’s words, “the hypothesis presented here provides an explicit avenue to conduct research in cognitive science as if both brain physiology and mental experience mattered” (Neurophenomenology 344). Clearly, brain physiology and mental experience do matter, as we have seen from the perspectives of first and second-person approaches. In this sense, Varela’s neurophenomenology builds productively on the work of Searle, Christof Koch, and Chalmers. For instance, neurophenomenology is naturalistically-oriented, it seeks out the neural correlates of consciousness, and it grants “structural coherence;” albeit with an added ontological value (Neurophenomenology 345). All things considered, Varela’s contribution, I believe, deserves a deep respect from individuals associated with the philosophy of mind.

First-person science, by way of Varela, still has numerous philosophically-stubborn minds to convert before it becomes the dominant approach to cognitive science. Fortunately, there are adept phenomenologists continuing the work of the late Francisco Varela, who regrettably passed away in 2001. Alva Noë and Evan Thompson are two such philosophers who endorse the marriage of classical phenomenology and cognitive science. Following Varela, Noë and Thompson advocate an embodied and enactive cognitive science, in which an organic philosophy based on the lifeworld and originary, lived experience is the starting point. Western science, as we have seen, has been characterized by disembodied and abstract modes of thought, incommensurate with ideas that suggest “mind and world are mutually overlapping.” But Varela maintained that “cognitive science cannot escape this circulation, and must cultivate it instead” (Neurophenomenology 346). For neurophenomenology, cultivation is feasible in practice. The goal of phenomenological description, as explained by Varela, is of no more difficulty than attaining a know-how skill, such as playing a musical instrument. Indeed, neuroplasticity suggests that the mind does entail transformation. For instance, Varela and Thompson have argued in favor of neural causation, indicating that consciousness can be a volitional act. This observation comes from their studies on meditation, which Thompson has since elaborated on in his work on contemplative neuroscience.

Contemplative neuroscience “views attention, awareness, and emotion regulation as flexible and trainable skills, and works with experimental participants who have undergone extensive training in contemplative practices designed to hone these skills” (Thompson 187). Thompson’s work remarkably demonstrates that conscious experience can be willfully controlled by individuals trained in mindfulness/awareness and meditation. If this is the case, we are not in need of that little homunculus which Dennett likes to place at the center of his Cartesian theater. Thompson, like Varela, invokes the psychology of James to describe how voluntary attention is ordinarily captive to the whims of a wandering meta-consciousness, spontaneously giving rise to transient thoughts and memories. Given the dilemma that cognitive scientists face with respect to introspected verbal reports, Thompson suggests that a neurophenomenology of volitional consciousness is a useful approach to understanding conscious experience. Thompson mentions Antoine Lutz et al., who studied advanced Tibetan Buddhist meditators and compared them to novice meditators. Ultimately, the researchers found that higher gamma waves accompanied practitioners self-reports of increasing meditative clarity (Thompson 193). These studies indicate that neural networks are complex systems which “arise spontaneously given the local couplings among the network’s components and the way those couplings are globally constrained and regulated” (Thompson 193) Therefore, consciousness is characterized by reciprocal causal relations. However, this new insight into the neurobiology of free will has been criticized by neurophenomenology’s detractors as well.

Thompson’s neurological evidence has been misconstrued by Bayne as being characterized by “some kind of (token) identity theory.” In a desperate rebuttal, Bayne claims that the acceptance of “global order parameters” goes against the neurophenomenological stance that the mind is necessarily embodied (Bayne 358-359). But this statement makes Bayne sound ignorant of the facts. These studies, after all, were performed on advanced meditators who were consciously regulating their bodies. Bayne’s strongest argument, however, comes immediately after this oversight. He says that, “merely establishing that there are causal relations does not suffice to close the explanatory gap” (Bayne 359). This is a disheartening conclusion for neurophenomenology, but it is certainly not off the mark. Without a doubt, Bayne’s conclusion is the strongest part of his paper. He maintains that, even if cognitive scientists were able to empirically verify an isomorphism between phenomenal states and neuronal states, the “explanatory itch would remain” (Bayne 360-361). Indeed, any formal mathematical model would only permit predictions of phenomenal states on the basis of neural data. Explaining why particular neural states have a particular phenomenology would still be the mysterious lacuna in every consciousness laboratory. It may seem reasonable, then, to throw in with Colin McGinn and other mysterians. We may never be able to answer the hard problem due to a certain “cognitive closure” (McGinn). Still, it is useful to maintain an optimistic attitude going forward. As long as there is work to be done in the field of neuroscience, the continental tradition of phenomenology offers, I think, the best philosophical position for orienting oneself with respect to the matter.

 Works Cited

Bailey, Andrew R. “Beyond the Fringe: William James on the Transitional Parts of the Stream of Consciousness.” The View From Within: First-person approaches to the study of consciousness. Ed. Francisco Varela and Jonathan Shear. Bowling Green, OH.: Imprint Academic, 1999. Print.

Bayne, Tim. “Closing the gap? Some questions for neurophenomenology.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 3 (2004): 349-64. Web.

Chalmers, David J. “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2.3 (1995): 200-19. Web.

Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. 10th ed. Boston, MA.: Little, Brown and Company, 1991. Print.

Depraz, Natalie. “Empathy and second-person methodology.” Continental Philosophy Review 45.3 (2012): 447-59. Print.

Gallagher, Shaun. “Phenomenological Approaches to Consciousness.” The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness. Ed. Susan Schneider and Max Velmans. 4th ed. Malden, MA.: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. 686-96. Print.

James, William. Pragmatism. 10th ed. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 1907. Print.

Masís, Jethro. “Phenomenological Skillful Coping: Another Counter-Argument to Daniel Dennett’s Heterophenomenology.” Journal of Philosophy of Life 2.1 (2012): 67-91. Web.

McGinn, Colin. “Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?.” Mind V, July 1989. Web.

Thompson, Evan. “Contemplative Neuroscience as an Approach to Volitional Consciousness.” Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will. Ed. George F. Ellis, Nancey Murphey, and Timothy O’Connor. N.p.: Springer, 2009. 187-97. Web. <>.

Varela, Francisco J. “Neurophenomenology: A Methodological Remedy for the Hard Problem.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 3.4 (1996): 330-49. Web.

Varela, Francisco J., Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. 20th ed. Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press, 1991. Print.

Zahavi, Dan. Husserl’s Phenomenology. Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 2003. Print.


3 thoughts on “Towards a Neurophenomenology of Consciousness

  1. Dan Dennett on Tools to Transform our Thinking | The Call of Troythulu

  2. Determinism and Indeterminism | Tracing Knowledge ... Στα ίχνη της Γνώσης

  3. Consciousness and the Social Brain: A review | SelfAwarePatterns

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