Naturalism and the misrepresentation of consciousness

The following is an essay I wrote for the course Problem of Consciousness at Umeå University, fall 2020.


In contemporary philosophy of mind, naturalism and functionalism are the dominant approaches and have been for the last fifty years or so. Naturalism is is often seen as the default position for which no argument is needed (Zahavi, 2010). For example, David Armstrong supports his claim that we could »give a complete account of man in purely physico-chemical terms« (Armstrong, 1970, p. 67, emphasis in original) simply by referring to the historical success of science – which perhaps is a little bit awkward since if science really were that successful, even history would, in the end, be described by physics. Naturalism is so firmly established that authors like David Papineau can get away with arguments like »it seems plausible« (see, for example, Papineau, 2002, Chapter 1, where that type of justification is used no less than seven times). As true as it may be, it can hardly count as a philosophically sound argument.

As a scholar of European phenomenology, I struggle with this North American tradition of philosophy of mind. The implicit naturalism narrows the field to confined system of concepts and arguments, effectively limiting the scope of valid questions and answers. The further the system is refined, the further I find myself removed from an intelligible philosophy of mind. From my point of view, there is something fundamentally flawed with the very concept of »consciousness« being entertained. However, showing in what way it is flawed in a short essay is a challenging task. Rather than engaging with any of the well-known arguments in philosophy of mind – like the causal argument for reductionism (Papineau, 2002) or the knowledge argument against reductionism (Gertler, 2005; Jackson, 1982) – I will try to engage with the basic assumption that underpins all of them, namely naturalism. I will attempt to show that the »hard problem« of consciousness (Chalmers, 1995) is a direct consequence of a specific approach to the question of world and mind, required by naturalism, and that an alternative approach, offered by phenomenology, potentially dissolves the »hard problem« into a much less pressing issue, while also retaining a intelligible notion of consciousness. First, however, the term naturalism needs to be clarified.


Naturalism is an ambiguous term used with various meanings. In a broad sense, naturalism is the view that reality is exhausted by »nature«, there is nothing »supernatural« out there, and hence the chief methods of gaining knowledge about this reality must be the methods of the natural sciences. Thus, naturalism entails both an ontological and an epistemological commitment (Papineau, 2020).

The ontological commitment is that of physicalism, namely that »everything is physical« (Stoljar, 2017) or, more precisely, »there is nothing more to the mental, biological and social realms than arrangements of physical entities« (Papineau, 2020, sec. 1.1). Physicalism in itself is not a problem here. However, combined with a commitment to metaphysical reductionism – clearly expressed in Armstrong’s claim that we can give a complete account of man in purely physical terms (Armstrong, 1970) – we run into problems, because some aspects of mental life are not so easily reduced to physics. Those aspects would be subjective experience, the fact that there is something it is like to have an experience, often referred to as the what’s-it-like of experience (Nagel, 1974). Much effort have been put into solving this problem, with proponents as well as opponents of reductionist solutions. All of the course literature revolves around this question: how to solve the problem of what’s-it-like within a physicalist and reductionist framework. This is the so-called »hard problem«: the problem of subjective experience (Chalmers, 1995).

However, my concern here is not physicalism, but naturalism. Naturalism is physicalism combined with the epistemological claim that »philosophy and science [are] engaged in essentially the same enterprise, pursuing similar ends and using similar methods« (Papineau, 2020, sec. 2.1). The methods of the natural sciences is assumed to be the chief method not only for investigating the natural world, but also the human mind and the world of experience, subjectivity and intersubjectivity. The epistemological claim of naturalism is perhaps more radical than reductive physicalism, since it attempts to conflate knowledge and the knowing subject. To put it differently, naturalism purports to collapse the knower into the known.

In a more general sense, the »hard problem« of subjective experience concerns the question of mind and matter, a question that have been debated and analysed for thousands of years, not only within the western philosophical tradition (see, for example, Adamson, 2014, 2015, 2016). An imperative of naturalism is that the analysis of the mind–matter divide must start on the side of matter, in the natural world.

This implicit assumption guides, for example, David Papineau’s argument for materialism. In short, Papineau argues that since some mental states (like thirst) have physical consequences (one less beer in the fridge), and all physical events have physical causes, the mental and the physical must be the same, because nobody wants dualism (Papineau, 2002, Chapter 1). Note that the implicit assumption here is that the natural world is given and that the mind, one way or another, belongs to the natural world. The materialism Papineau argues for is, at the same time, taken for granted. To put it differently, Papineau’s argument for materialism presupposes materialism. But that is chiefly a consequence of a commitment to naturalism rather than materialism. It is the commitment to naturalism that makes some kind of Cartesian substance dualism appear as the only alternative to materialism (Zahavi, 2010).

The naturalist starting point

So the problem here is not the explicit physicalism, but the implicit naturalism. And naturalism requires that the point of departure is a hypothesised non-experential, physico-causal, mind-independent world and the destination a presumably physico-causally dependant consciousness. This is what I shall call the naturalist starting point.

The strategy applied by pilgrims along this path is to ascribe as much as possible to natural world, including mental phenomena. This strategy makes sense from a naturalist point of view, because submitting phenomena to the laws of nature is exactly what science does. However, the consequence is that the realm of mental phenomena is dismantled, piece by piece, until only those puzzling pieces of subjective experience, of what’s-it-like, remains.

Four methodological devices are used during the process of dismantling the mental realm. The first is the notion of mental states. The basic idea of mental states is that anything mental corresponds to something material. Like the state of a computer at any point in time can be fully determined by the state of billions microscopic silicon components, mental phenomena are assumed to be fully determined by the state of the action potentials of billions neurons in the central nervous system. This presupposes a synchronic view on mental phenomena, that is, that it is possible to produce a freeze-frame of any mental phenomenon and study it as such.

The second is functionalism, that is, the doctrine that what actually makes up a mental state has nothing to do with the mental state itself, but »its function, or the role it plays, in the cognitive system of which it is a part« (Levin, 2018; see also Armstrong, 1970; Papineau, 2002). On a functionalist account, a mental state is nothing over and above the casual role it plays in relation to behaviour and sensory input. Pain is simply the mental state that is caused by bodily injury, and that which, in turn, causes the behaviour of wincing and moaning. By framing mental phenomena in terms of the organism’s functional relations to its environment, they are firmly rooted in the natural world without having to account for the exact relationship between workings of certain neurons and mental states.

The third methodological device is reductive explanations, that is, to account for complex phenomena »wholly in terms of simpler entities« (Chalmers, 1996, p. 42). According to David Chalmers, reductive explanations combined with a functional analysis, »works beautifully in most areas of cognitive science« (Chalmers, 1996, p. 46). It makes it possible to model behaviour and accompanying mental phenomena as cognitive, information processing systems. And it fits nicely with the fancy flow charts cognitive psychologists and scientists are so fond of. In the end, however, functionalism falls short of subjective experience, that there is something it it like to be in pain, to feel the warmth of the sun, to see the redness of the rose, to experience anything at all. Why would an otherwise perfectly functional cognitive system produce something like subjective experience? Although functionalism is effective in subsuming much of the mental into the natural, it is difficult to find a credible functional explanation of consciousness itself.

The fourth device is representationalism, that is, the doctrine that what we encounter in conscious experience is not the real world itself, but a mere representation of it. At first glance, this view might seem plausible and appealing. Science tells us that we have sensory organs that perceive certain aspects of the physical world that science also describes. Phenomenality[1] of experience is reduced to properties of the representational object, and thus nothing magic happens at all (Harman, 1990). However, representationalism introduces an insurmountable gap between the physical world and my representations of it. It is not at all clear how awareness of an internal representation enables awareness of an external thing (see, for example, Zahavi, 2018). At the end of the representationalist journey awaits the hell of scepticism: how can I be certain of anything beyond my own representations?

By now we have travelled quite a long way on the journey from the naturalist starting point to consciousness. Using the strategy of reduction, bit by bit of consciousness has been peeled off and fitted into a model governed by a functionalist agenda. Those tiny bits that remain hardly resemble consciousness as we intuitively know it. We are left with is a disassembled, fragmented, non-intuitive and therefore incomprehensible notion of consciousness. And that is my concern, because we do know consciousness, and we know it quite well. It is, as Galen Strawson puts it, »the most familiar thing there is« and »the only thing in the universe whose ultimate intrinsic nature we can claim to know« (Strawson, 2016). To put it differently, the problem here is that the hypothesised physico-causal world that is the naturalist starting point, albeit »plausible«, is something we cannot know for certain, while on the other hand, the destination is something that we do know for certain.

The phenomenological starting point

From a phenomenological point of view, this is all backwards. Literally. For Husserl and the other phenomenologists, the point of departure is not a hypothesised mind-independent world, but the world as it reveals itself to the conscious subject. If we tend to what appear to us as conscious beings, we experience things belonging to different ontological regions: we experience spatial objects as belonging to an external mind-independent world; we experience dreams and imaginations as belonging to an inner mind-dependent world; we experience mathematical theorems and the laws of logic as belonging to a kind of immaterial, ideal world; we experience other people as belonging to a particular social or intersubjective world; and so on. It is through a careful analysis of how things appear to us in different ontological regions we can lay an epistemic foundation for systematic research – including the natural sciences.

Phenomenology should not be mistaken for some kind of introspective psychology. Phenomenology is nothing less than a philosophical method to lay bare the conditions under which knowledge is possible in the first place. It is at odds with the objectivism of naturalism in that consciousness is considered a necessary condition for there to be a reality. Not a sufficient condition, though, that would be as extreme a position as Armstrong’s (Armstrong, 1970).

On a phenomenological account, it is nonsensical to claim that water actually is H₂O, as if water is a mere appearance, a veil behind which the reality of H₂O lies hidden. Rather, water and H₂O are two parallel ways in which the same thing can grasped, corresponding to two different attitudes towards the appearing world: the natural attitude and the scientific attitude (Luft, 1998). It might be that »H₂O« is more successful than »water« in pinning that phenomenon to a mind-independent non-experential (or pre-experential) world – it could be quite true, for all I know – but the strong metaphysical commitment to physicalism, explicitly expressed by Armstrong and Papineau and implicitly accepted by Chalmers, Harman and other authors, is unwarranted. Note the word strong here. It is not the commitment to physicalism per se that is the problem, but that strong version entailed by naturalism that requires all analysis to start with the hypothesised physico-causal world. However, phenomenology is not incompatible with a weak commitment to physicalism; in fact, it can be argued that phenomenology is compatible with virtually any metaphysical commitment (Yoshimi, 2015) – but it requires that the the point of departure is the world as it appears to the conscious subject (for a general introduction of phenomenology, see Smith, 2018; Beyer, 2020; for comprehensible introductions to Husserl’s phenomenology, see Zahavi, 2003).

This has far-reaching consequences for a philosophy of mind. First, it requires an analysis of consciousness itself. What such an analysis reveals is that consciousness is always intentional. In short, intentionality refers to the observation that consciousness is always consciousness of something, always directed towards an object: the tree in the field, the redness of the apple, the pain in my leg, the imagined pink elephant, the Pythagorean theorem, or chancellor Palpatine claiming he is the senate. As Brentano put it, »every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not all do so in the same way« (Brentano, 1874/1973, pp. 88–89). Seeing a tree, imagining a tree or judging that the tree is green are all intentional acts with the same intentional content, but the tree is not intended in the same way. Seeing a tree is the intentional act of seeing-a-tree with the intentional content of tree-as-seen, imagining a tree the act of imagining-a-tree with the content of tree-as-imagined, and so on (Colaizzi, 1978). Note the two-sidedness here. The subject and the world is an inseparable unity and none of them can be understood without the other. It is this unity of subject and world in consciousness that Heidegger captured in the notion of being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein, Heidegger, 1927) and Merleau-Ponty in being-for-the-world (Être-au-monde, Merleau-Ponty, 1945). As Sartre interpreted Husserl:

Consciousness and the world are given at one stroke: essentially external to consciousness, the world is nevertheless essentially relative to consciousness. Husserl sees consciousness as an irreducible fact which no physical image can account for. (Sartre, 1939/1970, p. 4; see also Zahavi, 2018)

Note that the phenomenological concept of intentionality is non-representational. The intentional object is not some mental construct, but simply the object of my intention. This is a form of direct perceptual realism that is at odds with the representational theory of perception (Beyer, 2020, sec. 6; Zahavi, 2003, p. 17). It is important to stress this since authors like Harman, Kind, Block and Montague use the term »intentional« in a completely different sense, namely as synonymous to »representational« (Block, 2002; Harman, 1990; Kind, 2010; Montague, 2015).

From a phenomenological viewpoint, the main problem with naturalism is that it fails to acknowledge that consciousness is not only an object in the world, it is also a subject for the world. Consciousness is the necessary condition for there to be an intelligible world at all, with the meaning that it has, whether that meaning is one of natural sciences or not (Zahavi, 2013).

The »problem« of consciousness from a phenomenological viewpoint

Equipped with the notion of consciousness as intentionality and with the unity of subject–world as the point of departure, the problems looks different along the way. Most important, the experiencing subject is never lost out of sight. This experiencing subject is strikingly absent in the functionalist philosophy of mind. It is as if mental »states« were accompanied by a kind anonymous phenomenality that belonged to the states themselves, not the subject having them. As Dan Zahavi points out, »what-it-is-like-ness is properly speaking what-it-is-like-for-me-ness« (Zahavi, 2015, p. 145). This »for-me-ness« is not part of the experential content, but of a first-personal presence of experience, a pre-reflective self-consciousness (Zahavi, 2020; Zahavi & Kriegel, 2015).

From a phenomenological viewpoint, it is difficult to see how mental phenomena can be »states« of any kind. If consciousness is more or less synonymous with intentionality, it is a constant flux from immediate future to recent past (from protention to retention in Husserl’s terminology). Consciousness is diachronic rather than synchronic and cannot be frozen in time. Every moment is experienced with past experience as a backdrop, which means that we can never have the exact same experience twice. Mary who grew up in the black-and-white world can never again experience the novelty of experiencing the colour red for the first time (Jackson, 1982). The only invariant is some part of the intentional object, namely the »core meaning« of things, so to speak. And that meaning must be ideal. Otherwise would you and me both thinking of the Pythagorean theorem would be two isolated events in the material world and we wouldn’t be thinking of the same Pythagorean theorem. Without the ideality of meaning, it would never be possible for two persons to mean the same thing, or for a person to mean the same thing twice (Husserl, 1900–1901; Zahavi, 2003, 2010).

In the representationalist framework (Block, 2002; Harman, 1990; Kind, 2010; Montague, 2015), considerable effort is put into aligning phenomenality with the object being represented without realising that a representation is not only a representation of something, but also a representation for someone. When Harman likens the mind representing something with a painting portraying something (Harman, 1990), he completely misses that this implies an observer. A painting can’t observe itself, neither can a representation. Representationalism falls foul of the homunculus fallacy, a miniature copy of the whole person sitting in the head looking at the representations (Kenny, 1971). Given that representationalism also fosters scepticism, as mentioned earlier, this is clearly seems like a dead end.

From a phenomenological viewpoint, there is no »hard problem« of consciousness, partly because the starting point is a subjective world-for-us rather than an objective world-in-itself. The »hard problem« is reframed into a much less pressing issue how something experential can arise out of something non-experential (Ó Conaill, 2017). On the contrary, it can be argued that it is matter that is the main mystery to be solved (Strawson, 2016).

Phenomenology does not solve the mystery of consciousness, but it reframes the question and provides a starting point that retains an intelligible notion of consciousness and subjectivity throughout the analysis. It is explicitly non-naturalist, but not at odds with a weak commitment to physicalism. Dualism is not the only viable alternative to physicalism; phenomenology constitutes a non-dualist alternative to the strong commitment to physicalism that naturalism entails.


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  1. Not to be confused with phenomenology. Phenomenality refers to the what-it’s-like-ness of experience, whereas phenomenology refers either to the study of structures of consciousness from the first-person perspective or the movement in history of philosophy that started with Husserl’s publication of Logische Untersuchungen in 1900. Mere phenomenality is as little -logia as facts are onto-logy or stones geo-logy. ↩︎


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