Friday, July 11, 2008

Skepticism About Phenomenology

One often finds, in certain M&E circles, a distrust of phenomenology. Or, perhaps, one might say it is a distrust of phenomenology as a study of “how things feel to us” and, by extension, a distrust of the philosophical field called phenomenology. The distrust goes something like this: It is important, when talking about the mind, to get the phenomenology right. But the phenomenology need not influence our view of the mind very much: if we come to a theory independently, and the theory turns out to be out of touch with experience, all that is needed is an added error theory, or debunking strategy, to explain why we systematically make mistakes.

One finds such a strategy, for example, in attacks on free will and, especially, in attacks on conscious will, such as that developed by Daniel Wegner. Very roughly, on this account our decisions are not conscious processes at all: they are sub-personal processes. The same processes that produce our decisions also produce our consciousness of making those decisions. So we rank our desires and motives without conscious input, and then take responsibility for doing all the work consciously, but this is an illusion, a little trick of biology. The phenomenology is important only insofar as we need to get it right in order to explain it away. A good deal of criticism of Wegner, in fact, strikes me as geared primarily not toward arguing against his view that conscious will is an illusion, but rather toward showing that he gets the phenomenology wrong. For those who make such arguments, then, the real problem isn’t that Wegner doesn’t take phenomenology seriously enough; it’s that he hasn’t gotten it right enough to eliminate it. The phenomenology is not important in itself.

And this approach seems reasonable. After all, experience is highly misleading. People often misremember things, for example, and such misrememberings may arise as a result of distorting psychological features of which the agent is not aware. We do not seem to be the best judges of our own, first-personal mental states; our friends, observing us from outside, can often understand why we act in certain ways much better than we can. And, certainly, it is possible to simply be wrong because our neuro-psychological structures are not designed to get things right. Wegner, for example, points to experiments that show structural tendencies to take responsibility for certain events over which, in fact, the subject had no control. So, the argument might go, if we cannot trust our experience to track our true responsibility conditions, we should recognize that the experience of will and responsibility is a sham. The distrust leads to the following premise: we can engage in the scientific study of consciousness without taking phenomenology into account.

This kind of distrust, however, misses the point of phenomenology, which is to study the essences and meanings of mental acts. To see phenomenology as competing with neuroscience or cognitive science is an elementary mistake: phenomenology simply isn’t the sort of method that can provide factual information about physical events. What phenomenology does, rather, is clarify what it is that neuroscience and cognitive science are talking about when they talk about our mental states. Case in point: No phenomenological analysis of memory can help me figure out whether I am currently remembering, misremembering, or simply imagining a past event. And a phenomenological analysis of responsibility, or the phenomena involved in willing, is unlikely to establish whether or not I was the agent of a movement I experienced as mine. Indeed, clever experimental set-ups can throw the mechanisms by which we normally make such determinations out of whack, and phenomenological analysis cannot prevent that from happening.

But how, without phenomenology, would we know what it is we are throwing out of whack? What cognitive system is malfunctioning? In order to be able to determine, third-personally, whether a person is remembering, misremembering, or imagining, we must already know what remembering, misremembering, and imagining are. In order to know that, in a particular instance, a person is mistakenly attributing conscious will to herself, we must know what it is to consciously will something. No scientific approach can tell us what mechanisms are involved in memory, or in willing, or in imagination without appealing to what we already know about remembering, willing, or imagining. The point of phenomenology is precisely to pin down what this appeal is an appeal to. Without that initial knowledge, we could have no means of studying mental processes; we could, at best, study physical occurrences that would explain nothing about our psychology: no amount of tinkering with the brain can tell us what neural processes are involved in remembering if we do not already have some grasp on what remembering is. A scientific study of consciousness, thus, cannot dispose with phenomenology, or leave discussion of how its findings fit (or don’t fit) with phenomenology for last. The phenomenology—explicitly or implicitly—has to come first.


  1. Roman, here is a way how to relativize your plea for the importance of phenomenology. True, we need some pre-scientific conception of what it actually is that we are investigating when we study memory or consciousness in a scientific way. But why should we accord any special epistemic or methodological status to our initial conceptions of the objects of scientific study? For, its seems, every singly piece of these conceptions is revisable in light of further and more sophisticated scientific theories that go way beyond our initial conceptions. So, unless you want to claim some substantial immunity from revision for the results of phenomenology, it is not clear to me why it should occupy any special or important role in the study of mind - it is just one source of evidence among many others.
    Analogously, we also need some initial conception of water if we want to study water in a scientific way. But should we really conclude from this that the phenomenology of water (and other substances) plays a prominent role in chemistry? No, it merely plays a preliminary or propaedeutic role, just like the phenomenology of mind in the science of the mind - or so the objection goes.

  2. I think people make decisions unconsciously for the most part, and then claim they came to them more rationally, or like to believe they have a rational defense for them at least.
    Especially important decisions.
    Not sure where that fits into all that complicated sounding stuff though.

  3. Joachim, could your point be replied to thus?: there is a big difference between water and mental states, such that water is not itself essentially phenomenological, whereas mental states are (ex hypothesi). The idea is that, in contrast to water, to shear away or go beyond or to do away with the phenomenological features of a mental state is to do away with whatever it is that is responsible for that state being mental in the first place. Once I have a good scientific theory of water up and running, I ignore the pre-scientific phenomenological features (like wetness, coolness, quenchity) that drew my attention to the substance in the first place in favor of its chemical and physical characteristics, and yet still be all the time studying water. I couldn't--so the hypothesis runs--do the same vis-a-vis phenomenology with mental states.

    So, I think the issue comes down to, is this hypothesis right? Does it make sense to conceive of a mental state's phenomenology as somehow incidental to whatever essential and defining features of that state, or not? I believe that it does not, but I'm not sure that there are any knock-down arguments that would persuade anyone who doesn't share this intuition. Any ideas? (I do know that Peirce, for instance, argues that an unnoticed cognition is no cognition at all--a similar argument from one who wouldn't have a whole lot of interest in phenomenology per se.)

  4. I am tempted to add: the phenomenological features of a mental state, especially its intentionality, are essential to it. If you drop those, you've also dropped the description of it as a mental state. You can, of course, study brain states. But then you're doing something else.

    As for Michael's point about convincing people who do not share the intuition: I doubt that there are such people. My suspicion is this: there is a "hard problem" about connecting consciousness to its material substrate. I'm not entirely sure that there is a hard problem, rather than a very implausible formulation of what "material" means, such that a very hard problem arises from it. But that's a digression. A lot of philosophers think that either this hard problem can't be solved, or that we can talk about the mind as if there were nothing but the material substrate, such that the problem is bypassed. These people, having talked themselves into a philosophical corner, can now deny that intentionality is central to mentality. I take it that this is much like denying that one has an intuition in the hopes that it will go away.

    One more point about the difference between mentality and water: you don't have any access to water, scientific or pre-scientific, without intentionality. Phenomenology plays no role in chemistry. But phenomenology does bring out the conditions of possibility of doing chemistry. Of course, one can perfectly well do chemistry without giving a flying fig about those conditions. And one can correctly use terms like "meaning" and "mental" without doing phenomenology. But at least in the latter case, some uses of the terms will be phenomenologically flawed, and doing the phenomenology is a way of trying to get past the confusion.

    I am now sitting in Bristol, surrounded by some computers that look like they're from the '80s. Supposedly I am meeting Michael Bratman and Lynne Rudder Baker in a few hours. And tomorrow I'm going to make them listen to a very strange account of how the difference between the mental and the physical allows for retroactive causation with regard to the former. I have a feeling this will all be much more exciting for me than for them.