In response to an earlier post, the outstanding blog Attempts at Living writes:
Couldn’t I also say that no one ever experienced vision, though everyone has experienced seeing and not seeing, that no one has ever felt a punch to the guts but that they have felt pain. This is just absolutising the separation of experience of the thing and the thing itself, as if it could ever be possible to experience the source of experience except as an experience. Sure, when I experience tiredness and wakefulness I don’t experience every single part of metabolism, but in order to experience metabolism it isn’t necessary that I experience all of it, only part of it. After all, I have been to Ypres in Belgium, so I experienced Belgium…but it would be ludicrous of me to claim that I experienced all of Belgium in all its possible modes of being experienced. But if I say “I have been to Belgium” or “I enjoyed visiting Belgium” I’m not really making a claim of that order of intensity.
Here’s the problem. The claim is not that we don’t experience effects of our bodies or that consciousness isn’t embodied. That’s all taken for granted. The thesis is that consciousness gives us no reliable guide to causes of our lived states. Let’s recall that phenomenology is a foundationalist discourse that more or less argues that all claims need to be grounded in the evidences of consciousness and experience. If we find that consciousness is a pretty unreliable guide to its causes, this is a pretty serious problem for it as a methodology. Before getting to that, I’ll note a couple things:
- The value and importance of phenomenological descriptions is not here being contested. Phenomenology has contributed immeasurably to our understanding of ourselves, our own experience, and so on. None of that should be abandoned.
- Nor am I disputing the thesis that we can’t have good cognitive science or neurology without good phenomenology. A lot of cognitive science is nonsense on stilts because it has a thoroughly mistaken view of experience and mind arising out of a failure to engage in careful descriptive analysis.
- What is being disputed is the sovereign and foundationalist role that phenomenology tries to claim for itself. Phenomenology might give us insight into what needs to be explained, but it does not explain.
Now back to the issue. My thesis is that conscious states give no reliable insight into their causes and that therefore we risk completely misconstruing our mental life if we take phenomenological description at face value. Let’s take an example I discussed on facebook this morning: Heidegger’s discussion of anxiety. Heidegger argues that anxiety arises out of our “being-in-the-world”, meaning, being-towards-death, and authenticity. My state of anxiety, he argues, arises from awareness that only I can die my own death, that no one can die it for me, and leads to an awareness that all of our decisions are our own. Above all, Heidegger argues that anxiety is a special attunement or affect pertaining to meaning.