What kind of evidence is phenomenological evidence?

Recently there has been a lot of interesting work (including some by one of our own) done on the epistemic status of first-personal reports on conscious states. The usual target in this tradition is the assumption of a certain kind of first-person authority concerning what consciousness is like for someone – a topic concerning which, it seems, it’s possible for a person to be quite wrong.

In a paper that I’ve got forthcoming in Mind and Language, I ask whether it’s similarly possible to be wrong not just about how consciousness is, but also about how it has to be – which is actually the main focus of the discipline of phenomenology, traditionally construed. That is, I’m concerned to understand the value of arguments to the effect that it is not possible for us to have conscious experiences of such-and-such a sort, given that they are unimaginable. My position is that it’s possible for such arguments to have some value, even if they’re not altogether unimpeachable in the way the phenomenologists seem to have thought.

The title of the paper is “Does Visual Spatial Awareness Require the Visual Awareness of Space?”, and its target is the Kantian claim that yes, it does. Here is a link to the paper, and here is the abstract:

Many philosophers have held that it is not possible to experience a
spatial object, property, or relation except against the background of
an intact awareness of a space that is somehow ‘absolute’. This paper
challenges that claim, by analyzing in detail the case of a
brain-damaged subject whose visual experiences seem to have violated
this condition: spatial objects and properties were present in his
visual experience, but space itself was not. I go on to suggest that
phenomenological argumentation can give us a kind of evidence about the nature of the mind even if this evidence is not absolutely incorrigible.

Most of my focus in this paper is on the first-order issue raised by its title: I analyze the phenomenological arguments for the impossibility claim, and then work through the neurological case that I take to undermine them. The second-order issue of how we should think about the value of phenomenological evidence in general comes up at the very end, where I distinguish two extreme positions: minimalism, which says that we cannot have any substantive non-empirical knowledge about the mind, and conservatism, which says that it’s the business of the phenomenologist to reinterpret recalcitrant empirical data to fit our best philosophical theories. My own view lies in the middle:

… phenomenological exercises and other sorts of a priori philosophical investigation can provide a kind of evidence for claims about, say, what visual experience must be like even if that evidence is not, as conservatives like Kant and the classical phenomenologists would have had it, entirely incontrovertible and so immune to empirical scrutiny. What the case of RM [i.e., the subject I discuss in my paper] should teach us is not to give up altogether on the possibility of substantive non-empirical knowledge about the nature of the mind, but rather to treat the apparent fruits of our phenomenological inquiries just as Quine taught us to treat any other putative instances of a priori knowledge: they may well warrant a place somewhere near the center of our web of belief, but are not thereby immune to revision in the light of what we learn down the line. It is by being bold in articulating the empirical phenomena that their a priori conclusions require them to predict, and meticulous in seeking out and scrutinizing findings that can disconfirm them, that practitioners of non-empirical methodologies can make genuine contributions to the study of the mind.

Thoughts on this position, or on the argument of the paper more generally? I find this topic insanely interesting.

9 Comments

  1. Hi John,

    The title of your paper: “Does Visual Spatial Awareness Require the Visual Awareness of Space?”

    I’m not sure what you mean by *visual spatial awareness*. Do you equate this (1) with the phenomenal content induced by a visual stimulus, or (2) with an appropriate behavioral response to a visual stimulus (e.g., correct object identification)?

  2. John Schwenkler

    Arnold,

    My meaning is closer to (1) than (2). I take behavioral responses (e.g. judgments or sufficiently sophisticated movements) to be evidence for awareness, but not constitutive of awareness itself.

  3. Seems a quite reasonable approach.People want to treat it as special (either as especially reliable or especially unreliable). No reason it has to be either. It could be just another source of evidence, with all the Quine-Duhem type caveats that carries along.

  4. John,

    1. In the case of Julesz random-dot stereograms, the objects that are perceived as 3D forms cannot be perceived by either eye alone. Do you think the binocularly induced brain representation that seems, in the case of the random-dot stereogram, to be necessary for the phenomenal experience of an object in 3D space, requires some kind of *prior* brain structure/representation of a volumetric space that can be occupied by the phenomenal object?

    2. If the human brain did not have an innate representation of 3D space, how would you explain the expansion and contraction of the visual after-image as a function of distance from the observer? See “Size constancy” and Fig.6, pp. 318-320, here: https://people.umass.edu/trehub/YCCOG828%20copy.pdf

    3. If the human brain did not have an innate representation of 3D space, how would you explain the moon illusion?

    Are these questions relevant to your project?

  5. John Schwenkler

    Arnold,

    These are great questions! I would make two distinctions:

    • First, I want to distinguish between (1) the representation of 3D (or 2D) space in the brain and (2) the awareness of space, in the sense I’m concerned with in my paper. In fact this distinction is crucial to understanding the condition of the patient I discuss: it comes out that there’s reason to think that space was represented in his visual brain, but that he was unable to represent it explicitly in conscious visual awareness. But it seems to me that the representation of space in the brain is what likely underlies the phenomena you describe.
    • Second, I want to distinguish the question whether the (conscious) representation of space is innate from the question whether it’s necessary for experiences of certain sorts. It will only be when (1) the representation of space is necessary for experiences that (2) it’s possible to have right out of the womb that these two questions will run together.
  6. John,

    You wrote:

    “First, I want to distinguish between (1) the representation of 3D (or 2D) space in the brain and (2) the awareness of space, in the sense I’m concerned with in my paper”

    I take it that you assume there are two kinds of spatial representation in the brain: (1) a non-conscious representation of space, and (2) a conscious representation of space which you call *awareness* of space. What physical facts might distinguish the conscious representation of space from the non-conscious representation of space? My own view is that a conscious representation *must* be a perspectival representation of *something somewhere* with respect to a fixed coordinate of spatial origin which I call the *core self* (I!). I’ve proposed a theoretical model of the putative brain mechanisms that provide our awareness of space, and I argue that these mechanisms are necessarily innate. See *Evolution’s Gift: Subjectivity and the Phenomenal World*, here: https://journalofcosmology.com/Consciousness130.html

    Is this relevant to the distinctions you want to make?

  7. John Schwenkler

    Arnold,

    I agree that the conscious representation of space is perspectival, perhaps necessarily so. But I don’t want to say that the two kinds of spatial representations I identify correspond to two distinct representations in the brain: they might, but I’ve got no settled opinion on how neural representations relate to conscious awareness, and in any case the distinction in question doesn’t require one. All that matters is that we be able to distinguish the claim that space is somehow represented in someone’s brain (as it was in RM’s, or otherwise he wouldn’t have been sensitive to spatial properties in even the subtle ways he was) from the claim that that person is aware of space, in the sense of possessing conscious experiences with the relevant sorts of contents.

  8. John,

    You wrote:

    “All that matters is that we be able to distinguish the claim that space is somehow represented in someone’s brain (as it was in RM’s, or otherwise he wouldn’t have been sensitive to spatial properties in even the subtle ways he was) from the claim that that person is aware of space, in the sense of possessing conscious experiences with the relevant sorts of contents.”

    It seems to me that if you want to distinguish between the two claims you must have some explicit standard that enables you to identify *conscious contents*. What is your working definition of a conscious experience?

  9. John Schwenkler

    It seems to me that if you want to distinguish between the two claims
    you must have some explicit standard that enables you to identify
    *conscious contents*. What is your working definition of a conscious
    experience?

    Another difficult question that I don’t have an adequate answer to! My operational definition, for what it’s worth, would be something like: something that the subject is disposed to report as such an experience, and/or shows itself to be available for uptake into reasoning systems and the intentional control of behavior.

Comments are closed.