In this ingenious paper, Michael Kirchhoff and Daniel Hutto argue that the metaphysical commitments of the hard problem require a firmer foundation that denies the metaphysical distinction between the physical and the phenomenal that stimulate the neurophenomenological method of first- and third-person distinctive and complementary phenomena.
The hard problem results from a fusion between the continental tradition of phenomenology and the sciences of mind and brain. It constitutes the attempt to show how one can coherently imagine phenomenal and physical coming apart, since physical descriptions neither adequately characterize nor capture everything that can apply to phenomenal consciousness (Nagel, 1974; Jackson, 1982; Chalmers, 1996).
Kirchhoff and Hutto start of the paper by explaining in which sense neurophenomenology, as classically formulated by Varela, endorses a form of non-reductionism that assumes, rather than dissolves the hard problem, and, consonantly, cannot close the gap. Building on the radical enactive and embodied approaches to cognitive science (Hutto and Myin, 2012), they intend to make clear how the only way to deal with the hard problem is by denying of the metaphysical distinction between the physical and the phenomenal, generally endorsed by non-reductionists that include neurophenomenologists.
In Varela’s perspective (1996), the problem of consciousness cannot be articulated in a purely third-person cognitive scientific model of theory. Varela’s central problem, in agreement with traditional analytic non-reductionism, emphasizes the irreducible nature of first-person phenomenal experience, which is not exhausted by physical, third-personal description. Therefore, his enactive project endeavours to expand neuroscience to include original phenomenological investigations of experience (Thompson, 2004, p. 383). For non-reductionists, thus, the solution to the hard problem resides in the relation between phenomenal and physical, without the former collapsing into the latter. The neurophenomenological method suggests, in this direction, the promotion of a practical method that combines neuroscientific data and first-personal data, pertaining to subjects’ own conscious experience, as complementary partners in the joint pursuit of a science of consciousness. Drawing on the structure of human experience itself (Varela, 1996), it is hence possible to show how the physical and the phenomenal are integrated.
REC shares a number of theoretical commitments with neurophenomenologists alike emphasize the relational nature of consciousness, rejecting representationalism and neurocentricism. Also, both take a dynamical system theoretical approach to the study of cognitive activity as naturally fit with anti-representationalism.
What Kirchhoff and Hutto disagree with is the fact that “neurophenomenology’s non-reductionism, as reflected in formulations that fortify a schism between first- and third-person phenomena, tacitly accept the terms of the hard problem in a way that makes it impossible to close the epistemic and metaphysical gaps in the way neurophenomenology hopes to” (2016, p. 3). Thus they accentuate that even if neurophenomenology,
- Retrieves first-person data from phenomenological analysis of first-person experience;
- Explores phenomenal experience through the lens of embodied and enactive approaches to cognitive science, using the tools of dynamics systems theory;
- Produces data of brain activity based on large-scale, functional integration of neurodynamics;
- And provides evidence that experiential and neuroscientific phenomena are mutually constraining in practice,
- Evidence of self-organizing, synchronous neurodynamics does not, by itself, add up to evidence that neurodynamics and the phenomenal consciousness stand in a relation of reciprocal causation. Bringing us back to the concern that correlations between two relata do noting to how one relatum explains the other, or vice versa.
- Even if neurophenomenology could get us beyond mere correlation to causation, this would not help their cause, after all noting the dualistic traffic between mind and matter does not suffice to close the explanatory gap.
The method: psychophysical identity theory
Kirchhoff and Hutto hence argue for a strict identity thesis, one that acknowledges that differences in description are in fact different ways of describing one and the same physical-phenomenal activity. That is to say, phenomenal and physical data are different ways of getting at features of one and the same phenomenon.
Phenomenal experience, on an REC view is a kind of organismic activity, and as such, it can be given a physical description. They introduce the example of someone holding a book between both hands, and asked, “how are you engaging with the book?”, to which a mechanical description will suffice as a reply. However, when asked “what are you experiencing in the process?”, here the reply certainty includes expectations involved in a certain motor intentionality of active engagement. Thus, Kirchhoff and Hutto tend to agree with the psychophysical identity theory that rejects “the absolute binary distinctions that carve nature at the joints: mind/matter, inner/outer, self/world, subjective/objective, etc.” (Silberstein and Chemero, 2015, p. 186). Setting against a reductive physicalism of the sort that assumes that everything that exists can be fully and adequately described in the vocabulary of physics. The “phenomenal might just be the physical described differently ¾ under a different guise or mode of presentation” (p. 7). To sum up, REC refuses to allow the hard problem to get up running. The main arguments for that being,
- clear rejection of the metaphysical distinction between the phenomenal and the physical, there are not two relata (the physical and the phenomenal, qualia and brain activity);
- the acknowledgment of phenomenal experience as just dynamic activity grounded in agent-environment interactions;
- that phenomenally charged embodied activity can be differently described or encountered,
- REC advances a strict identity thesis grounded in dynamic, embodied activity.
The paper concludes that phenomenality should not be thought of as denoting qualitative properties of our experiences, but should be understood as the character of engaging with the world in different ways.
 For a full account of motor intentionality through the predictive engagemnt model, see Bizzari and Hipólito (forthcoming/2017); and also Predictive Brain, special issue by Synthese.
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