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The Neurological Turn: Top-Down or Bottom-Up? (April 2023): Top-Down Neurophenomenology

By Heidi Storl

Top-Down Neurophenomenology

The common theme that unites many bottom-up strategies is perhaps not surprisingly akin to the Cartesian desire to find that “Archimedean point” on which to build a firm foundation for the fundamental questions that mark the human way of being. Although the indubitability that Descartes sought is widely regarded as implausible, the fundamental questions remain: Who are we? What are we? What is the relationship between self and other? Certainly great progress has been made regarding these core issues surrounding human nature, but the neural correlates of consciousness remain elusive. What David Chalmers, in The Conscious Mind, identified as the “hard questions” remain unanswered. The ongoing lack of a completed neuroscience may just be a matter of time; alternatively, the knowledge deficits that continue to linger may be indicative of a misguided framework. Perhaps Heidegger’s suggestion to remove the Cartesian lenses we have worn for so long is a suggestion worth pursuing.

An artful introduction to an alternative framework by which to capture the questions (and perhaps answers) that continue to escape the broadly Cartesian, bottom-up approach to being human is found in the novels of Virginia Woolf. Interestingly, Woolf wrote one of her most provocative novels, To the Lighthouse, in 1927, the same year that Heidegger released Being and Time. Both writers were unsatisfied by the tradition that had left key characteristics of being (of that which is) untouched. Heidegger struggled with describing just what has been omitted by previous attempts to capture being generally, and human being in particular. Woolf used literature as a means of wrestling with many of the same questions that haunted Heidegger. In To the Lighthouse, she initiates the concerns that highlight the top-down approach to being human. Repeatedly throughout this work she taunts the reader with teasing questions. With these teasing questions in place, Woolf offers a new lens by which to investigate self, other, and the nature of being. She figuratively views self and other as a “net” (or “hive”) composed of “gnats” (or “bees”) and in doing so shifts emphasis from the parts to the whole. Rather than focus on the component parts of human, self, and other, Woolf suggests a different approach—a focus on the being of human being, a focus on the being of other—understood both in terms of other humans and the environs in which they find themselves. This shift invites an alternative framework by which to study the hard questions of who and what we are. 

Woolf’s revolutionary provocations did not get a foothold in philosophical musings regarding the nature of humans until quite recently. Emma Simone’s Virginia Woolf and Being-in-the-World is a thoughtful introduction to both Woolf’s and Heidegger’s thoughts regarding, among other things, human nature, the relationship of self to world, and the human person as a normative agent. Commenting on another novel by Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, Simone writes in chapter 1 of her book that “contrary to the Cartesian understanding that [the character] Clarissa’s connection with the external world is based upon the objective and detached contemplation of a centered and autonomous subject, this character views herself as essentially decentered, integrated and diffused in relation to all that surrounds her.” Simone adds a clarification, writing that both Woolf’s and Heidegger’s conception of self “does not lead to an abandonment of his or her ‘inner space’ … does not result in a loss of self.” Rather, the self is placed in a “primordial” relationship with the world. The self is inseparable from being-in-the-world. The self is not an isolated, independent phenomenon, but is intimately connected with the phenomenologically understood space that it inhabits. Again, the self is not a bee or a gnat, but the hive and the net. Another work of note is Adam Noland’s Hermeneutic Ontology in Gadamer and Woolf: The Being of Art and the Art of Being. Though this work is broader in scope, it offers a glimpse into the alternative metaphysics and epistemology underlying Woolf’s approach to the nature of self and other. Like Simone, Noland highlights the significance of the reorientation that Woolf metaphorically captures in her writing—the move to an understanding of self where the subject in question is united—primordially—with the world in which it finds itself. This is the idea that humans and their world are inseparable, and to understand the nature of human being is to understand a phenomenon that extends beyond the confines of the physical body.

Before moving to the neuroscientific literature that reflects this top-down approach to the nature of who and what we are, it is important to note again that Heidegger’s thought is first formulated in Being and Time. Though the literature surrounding this influential work goes well beyond the scope of the present essay, it is directly or indirectly responsible for much of the most innovative thinking regarding the nature of self and other, subject and object. Those who wish to grapple with the challenging read that Being and Time provides will appreciate three “assists”: Daniel Dahlstrom’s The Heidegger Dictionary, Magda King’s A Guide to Heidegger’s Being and Time, and The Cambridge Heidegger Lexicon, edited by Mark Wrathall. These aides offer remarkable support in deciphering the often unbearable linguistic intricacies of Heidegger’s attempt to formulate a new approach to the ontology of humans. Finally, an additional text of note is Nancy Holland’s Heidegger and the Problem of Consciousness. Holland’s work may represent a turning point in linking Heidegger’s revisionary thought to neuroscientific studies of the self. At least in part Holland’s book is driven by the inability of the neurobiological sciences to capture consciousness. Throughout Holland makes the case that (as she writes in chapter 4) “a science of consciousness as consciousness is impossible, not because consciousness exists outside of nature or because it is an epiphenomenon of natural processes, but because once consciousness becomes an object of study, it is no longer consciousness.” And in the conclusion, she writes that “science is … barred in fact and in principle from taking Dasein—human questioning itself—as its object because the world that science studies is a manifestation of, and exists as such only for, consciousness.” This Dasein is Heidegger’s word for the being of human beings, and if Heidegger, Holland, and Woolf are correct, it is categorically barred from the reductive form of scientific investigation—a subject, the scientist, exploring itself. This is also reminiscent of Gilbert Ryle, discussed earlier in this essay, who famously claimed in The Concept of Mind that “in searching for the self, one cannot simultaneously be the hunter and the hunted.” In the end, Holland invites serious consideration of alternative frameworks for self-understanding.

A scientifically sensitive, yet nonreductive approach to human being can be found in Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi’s The Phenomenological Mind. This volume offers a top-down framework for addressing questions regarding mind, brain, and human experience, but also provides clear insight into the phenomenological methodology artfully sensed by Woolf and philosophically articulated by Heidegger. Gallagher has authored or coauthored several additional works that emphasize the inescapability of place and space in understanding such essential human abilities as intentionality, affect, perception, and higher-order thought. Among the most notable works in developing this more holistic sense of human nature and being are Gallagher’s How the Body Shapes the Mind and A Neurophenomenology of Awe and Wonder: Towards a Nonreductionist Cognitive Science, written by Gallagher and others. Similarly, Zahavi has a long line of texts devoted to phenomenological approaches to philosophy’s big questions. For present purposes, Phenomenology: The Basics and Self and Other: Exploring Subjectivity, Empathy, and Shame are of note. The former is an essential guide to key aspects of phenomenology generally considered; the latter makes a case for the necessity of a broader, nonreductive, intersubjective understanding of self and human social emotions. 

A deeper dive into the neurophilosophical roots of top-down orientations is found in lively debates involving the viability of some form of what is called externalism or enactivism. According to Alva Noë, a leading proponent of this more all-encompassing perspective, “experiences are neural processes to be sure; but they are not only neural processes.” According to Noë, it is “only in terms of non-neural features that we can explain how experience has the character that it does.” As a key representative of this position, Noë’s Action in Perception, Varieties of Presence, and Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness, are invaluable. The first two of these are deeply provocative and have resulted in a sustained philosophical response. Noë’s top-down friendly claim, in Action in Perception, that perception is “not a process in the brain, but a kind of skillful activity on the part of the animal as a whole” challenges “neuroscience to devise new ways of understanding the neural basis of perception and consciousness.” Out of Our Heads is a more accessible, yet equally provocative introduction to the top-down neurophenomenologically friendly perspective. In the preface Noë  claims that “currently, we lack even a back-of-the-envelope theory about what the behavior of individual cells contributes to consciousness…. The idea that the only genuinely scientific study of consciousness would be one that identifies consciousness with events in the nervous system is a bit of outdated reductionism.” In this “positive book” (as he terms it), Noë makes clear his sympathy for an empirically based study of human ways of being but notes, like Woolf and Heidegger before him, that we need a new lens by which to see ourselves more clearly. In Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature, Noë furthers some of the ideas he presented in Varieties of Presence, inviting consideration of the deficits of a narrowly reductionist approach to human behaviors—in this case, the creation of a work of art. 

Not surprisingly, the provocative nature of Noë’s thought has pushed the field forward. Daniel Hutto and Erik Myin’s Radicalizing Enactivism is at least in part a response to Noë̈’s thought. Hutto and Myin write in the preface that they aim “to change the world [or] at least to shake up the cognitive science establishment.” Their proposed Radical Enactive (Embodied) Cognition is firmly grounded in the sciences but invites far more than reductive, cognitive neuroscientific or neurocomputational considerations. Of particular note is Hutto and Myin’s view, articulated in chapter 4 of Radicalizing Enactivism, that “it is becoming clear to many in the field that purely biologically based accounts lack the right resources for naturalizing mental states with properly semantic properties, such as truth and reference.” For an updated account of Hutto and Myin’s position, their more recent Evolving Enactivism: Basic Mind Meets Content is a worthwhile read. In this work, the authors enhance understanding of their radical enactivism. Of equal interest is a newly revised edition of the 1991 old classic The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. Like the original, the revised edition endorses the necessity of an embodied experience that extends beyond the narrow confines of neuroreductionist perspectives. Finally, Ezequiel Di Paolo, Thomas Buhrmann, and Xabier Barandiaran’s Sensorimotor Life: An Enactive Proposal offers a robust discussion of the shortcomings of strictly neurocognitive and neuropsychological accounts of mind, brain, and self. If successful, the “enactive proposal” of the subtitle is one that “will make for a less partial view of the mind, a view better attuned to the experiences of people who live, work, live, struggle, and age.”

To conclude discussion of the more encompassing top-down approach to central questions of human being, Thomas Feldges offers a more cautious look at the neurophenomenological perspective in Neurophenomenology and Cognitive Science: Varela’s “New Science of Consciousness” at the System-Theoretical Crossroads. This frank, deeply theoretical work explores in detail the ramifications of two significant figures in the emergence of the neurophenomenologically informed approach: Heidegger’s predecessor Edmund Husserl and Francesco Varela, considered the father of neurophenomenology. Feldges’s lengthy treatise offers a cautious assessment of the pragmatic role that neurophenomenologically informed approaches to self-understanding may play. The reality check offered by Feldges does not derail the enthusiasm and accomplishments of this philosophical orientation to neuroscientific findings, but it does force serious consideration of some of its potential shortcomings and misapplications.

Works Cited