First-Person Science of Consciousness

23rd – 25th May 2019 at Witten/Herdecke University

Keynote Speakers

This is a photo of Dr. Fergus Anderson.

Dr. Fergus Anderson

Describing the experience of conscious, occurrent thinking: A first and second-person approach


In this talk I will present a thesis about the nature of the experience of occurrent conscious thought. The traditional view in philosophy of mind has been that there is a strong separation between the phenomenal and intentional properties of mind. Since the 1990’s various theories have challenged this orthodoxy, and one of these is cognitive phenomenology (Bayne & Montague, 2011; Chudnoff, 2015). Cognitive phenomenologists typically hold that there is a distinct ‘what it’s like’ quality to occurrently entertaining a thought, and further, that this ‘cognitive phenomenology’ is in some way constitutive of what thought essentially is. However, although there is much in the cognitive phenomenology debate that explores the properties that cognitive phenomenology must have if it is to be what it is, there is very little in the way of attending to and describing the actual experience of occurrent thought. In other words, although cognitive phenomenology is a theory about the experience of thought, it lack a descriptive phenomenology of what it’s like to think.
The view I will present in this talk is that something important can be learned about the nature of thinking experiences by actually attending to the experience of thinking. Drawing on the microphenomenology literature for methodological support (Petitmengin, 2006; Bitbol & Petitmengin, 2013), I take what I call a ‘first-person approach’ to investigating the experience of conscious thought occurrences. My thesis – which I call the dynamic phenomenology of thought thesis, or DPT – is that thought occurrences are not static representational states but dynamic and integrated movements that have a distinct four-fold diachronic structure. Each of the four stages of this structure play a distinct role in making conscious thought what it is, and all of them are necessary in order for a genuine instance of thought to occur. I further argue that genuine instances of conscious thought are perhaps much more rare than it might seem.    
One of the interesting features of the DPT thesis is that it potentially offers a framework to integrate some of the competing perspectives on the nature of the experience of thinking that one finds in the literature. In the talk I will outlines this possibility and also explore some of the more detailed features and implications of the thesis.

Bayne, T., & Montague, M. (Eds.). (2011). Cognitive Phenomenology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bitbol, M., & Petitmengin, C. (2013). On the Possiblity and Reality of Introspection. Kairos (6), 173-198.
Chudnoff, E. (2015). Cognitive Phenoenology. Oxon: Routledge.
Petitmengin, C. (2006). Describing One's Subjective Experience in the Second Person: An Interview Method for the Science of Consciousness. Phenomenology and Cognitive Science , 5, 229-269.

Prof. Shaun Gallagher, PhD

Why there is no zero-point in the first-person: The phenomenological situation.


Husserl and a number of phenomenologists have often used the term ‘zero-point’ to signify the bodily origin of the first-person perspective; likewise one can think of this idea as implicit to discussions of egocentric spatial frame of reference. Studies of embodied cognition, however, suggest that there is no zero-point, that body-schematic processes are “thick” with varying perspectives relative to different part of the body. I will argue that we can flesh out this view by consider the notion of agentive situation, derived from John Dewey’s notion of a situation that includes the first-person agent.

This is a photo of Dr. Christopher Gutland.

Dr. Christopher Gutland

Some Peculiarities of the First Person Experience of Thinking, Or: How Can Husserl's Phenomenology Be Epistemology If There Is a 'Veritable Abyss' between Consciousness and Reality?


Husserl’s phenomenology is about discovering, experiencing, and describing the essential structures of consciousness based on the experience of them. He believed the world must appear to us within these structures and consequently considered phenomenology to be epistemology. However, although Husserl explicitly rejects Kant’s ‘things in themselves,’ he nonetheless claims a ‘veritable abyss’ between consciousness and reality. He not only methodologically brackets questions about empirical existence, but in his Cartesian Meditations he even claims that the ego, studying its inborn apriori by means of eidetic variation, ultimately frees itself from the ontology of this world, venturing on to discover other possible ontologies. Husserl consequently believed that the ontology of the world we experience must be one of the possible ontologies that phenomenology uncovers. How can we be sure of this, however, if there is a veritable abyss between consciousness and reality? For even a plethora of possible ontologies discoverable within the first-person perspective would not guarantee that the ontology of the actual world is among them. In line with phenomenology’s methodical requirement, mere logical arguments are insufficient to solve this dilemma. However, by delving into the experience of thinking, a way out of this dilemma unfolds. For within this experience, it soon becomes evident that there is no fixed apriori innate to subjectivity. Instead, there is a kind of thinking by which we find and then first establish apriori structures in our subjectivity. This kind of thinking is a process where we are, one the one hand, active in constituting the apriori form that is new to us, but on the other hand, passive, in that our subjectivity is affected and altered in this process. This experience thus goes beyond the seemingly incommensurable dichotomy between subjective apriori and objective ontology. It consequently also sheds light on one of the points where the distinction between first-person research and third-person research loses its grip.

This is a photo of Professor Russell Hurlburt.

Prof. Russell Hurlburt, PhD

Exploring pristine inner experience


By “inner experience” I mean directly apprehended (“before the footlights of consciousness”) phenomena such as inner seeing, inner speaking, an itch, a smell, and so on.  By “pristine inner experience” I mean naturally occurring inner experience, undisturbed by an experimenter’s manipulation or the participant’s explicit intention to introspect.  I have, for 40+ years, been using descriptive experience sampling (DES) in the attempt to apprehend pristine inner experience.  Of course that attempt falls short, because even a DES beeper-cued introspective attempt disturbs the pristineness of experience, but I would argue that much of interest can still be apprehended.  In this conversation I will respond to the interests of the participants.  I could discuss methodological issues (Why use a beep?  Is iteration essential?  Can presuppositions be bracketed? What is the role of language? What do participants mean by “I think”?  Etc.).  Or I could discuss some results (Is their unsymbolized thinking? What are characteristics of experience in adolescents?  In the elderly?  In schizophrenia?  In Asperger Syndrome? Is there perception without figure/ground phenomena? Etc.)  You choose.

This is a photo of Professor Michelle Montague.

Prof. Michelle Montague, PhD

The phenomenology and metaphysics of the attitudes


Ignoring first-person access to the phenomenological character of our conscious intentional mental states is apt to lead to certain errors regarding the metaphysics of the attitudes. It has long been standard practice in analytic philosophy to describe conscious intentional mental states in terms of three distinct metaphysical elements: a subject-element, an attitude-element, and a content-element. I call it ‘the Tripartite view’, because it posits three fundamental distinct elements. In this paper I argue that the Tripartite view is mistaken, and propose that it should be replaced by what I will call ‘the Dual view’. According to the Dual view, all there is to the metaphysics of our intentional states is (i) a content and (ii) a subject; there is no need to postulate distinct metaphysical relations and call them ‘the belief relation’, ‘the desire relation’, and so on. I will argue the metaphysics of the Dual view is harmonious with how we experience intentional mental states in the stream of consciousness, in a way that the Tripartite view is not.

This is a photo of Professor Stefan Schmidt.

Prof. Dr. Stefan Schmidt

Improving the Reliability of the Introspective Approach - Meditation Expertise as Research Method


One possibility to improve reliability of first-person approaches is to work with experienced meditators as participants. Experienced meditators have demonstrated to have more refined interoceptive abilities as well as enhanced capacities in attention regulation. Especially the latter one allows for a more continuous, stable and undistracted observation of internal cognitive processes. Thus, meditation expertise can be applied as research tool. This will be demonstrated by an example of a former Buddhist monk who participated in a set of neurophenomenological experiments on self-initiated action. We used the set-up of the so called Libet Experiment for this approach. In this experiment the simple process of moving a finger was described repeatedly in detail by him while maintaining an attitude of relaxed observation. In parallel EEG was recorded to align first and third person data. Based on the feedback of EEG data the meditator made slight changes to his behavior which in turn resulted in different EEG results. By this iterative approach we were able to give an introspective account of action initiation. Moreover, we could demonstrate that a trained meditator can willfully alter the timing and size of the Readiness Potential preceding self-initiated action in the EEG which has also an impact on the apparent paradox of the Libet experiment.

This is a photo of Professor Johannes Wagemann.

Prof. Dr. Johannes Wagemann

Exploring Mental Microgestures in Perceptual Reversals - Implications for the Mind-Brain-Problem


In view of the hard and, as yet, unresolved problem of mind and brain, new research strategies seem to be needed. Apart from obtaining increasingly accurate neurophysiological data or opening up new (meta) levels of philosophical debate, the constitutive phenomena of consciousness – as one side of the problem – should be explored with an adequate methodological rigour. This requires in particular the advance of experimental research in the field of pre-reflective mental states and actions, which are potentially supposed to play a central role in the constitution of everyday consciousness. In this talk, a structure-phenomenologically inspired first-person approach to mental micro gestures in perceptual reversals is demonstrated in respect of its method and results from an empirical study. From here, indications of a generalisable diachronic basic structure of mental action in perceptive processes emerge, the implications of which for a trans-categorical conception of the mind-brain relation will be outlined.