I've learned a new word: heterophenomenology. Was immediately attracted to it, even before I knew what it meant. Had an exotic sensuous ring.
"Hey, hot thing, I'd really like to do some heterophenomenology with you. Are you up for it?"
Turns out, though, that what Daniel Dennet is talking about in his new book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, isn't a sex act, but a means of investigating subjective consciousness.
Or at least, what people usually think of as subjective consciousness. Dennett has an interesting take on how it is possible to investigate experiences that are usually regarded as utterly personal.
Like a mystical experience. Like an experience of God's presence. Like an experience of feeling one with the cosmos. Dennett writes:
Heterophenomenology is the study of first-person phenomena from the third person point of view of objective science.
Obviously the key difference between experiments with rocks, roses, and rats on the one hand, and experiments with awake, cooperative human subjects on the other, is that the latter can communicate in language and hence can collaborate with experimenters, by making suggestions, interacting verbally, and telling them what it is like under various controlled conditions.
That is the core of heterophenomenology: it exploits our capacity to perform and interpret speech acts, yielding a catalogue of what the subject believes to be true about his or her conscious experience. This catalogue of beliefs fleshes out the subject's heterophenomenological world, the world according to S, the subjective world of one subject.
I think Dennett is on to something here. He has systematized a way of thinking about issues that come up all the time on this blog.
Meaning, someone makes a claim about something they have experienced. "I have seen the light and sound of God, so I know God exists." I always think, OK, I accept that you believe you have had that experience. However, this is different from actually having the sort of experience you are claiming to have had.
Dennett lists four kinds of evidence, or interpretations of experience:
(a) Conscious experiences themselves
(b) Beliefs about these conscious experiences
(c) Verbal judgments people make about conscious experiences
(d) Utterances that express those verbal judgments.
I'm not sure what the difference between (c) and (d) is. Doesn't matter. The most interesting thing is the difference between (a) and (b).
First, if (a) outruns (b) -- if you have conscious experiences you don't believe you have, then those extra conscious experiences are jiust as inaccessible to you as to the external observers.
Second, if (b) outruns (a) -- if you believe you have conscious experiences that you don't in fact have, then it is your beliefs that we need to explain, not the nonexistent experiences.
...Mermaid sightings are real events, however misdescribed, whereas mermaids don't exist. Similarly, a catalogue of beliefs about experience is not the same as a catalogue of experiences themselves.
Well, after reading this I still didn't understand how it is possible to tell whether a conscious experience actually exists, or whether only a belief about a conscious experience exists.
Wikipedia helped me out. I'm sure many philosophers and neuroscientists consider heterophenomenology to be a meaningless approach to consciousness research, but it seems on the right track to me.
Heterophenomenology ("phenomenology of another not oneself") is a term coined by Daniel Dennett to describe an explicitly third-person, scientific approach to the study of consciousness and other mental phenomena. It consists of applying the scientific method with an anthropological bent, combining the subject's self-reports with all other available evidence to determine their mental state. The goal is to discover how the subject sees the world him- or herself, without taking the accuracy of the subject's view for granted.
Heterophenomenology is put forth as the alternative to traditional Cartesian phenomenology, which Dennett calls "lone-wolf autophenomenology" to emphasize the fact that it accepts the subject's self-reports as being authoritative. In contrast, heterophenomenology considers the subjects authoritative only about how things seem to them. It does not dismiss the Cartesian first-person perspective, but rather brackets it so that it can be intersubjectively verified by empirical means, allowing it to be submitted as scientific evidence.
The method requires a researcher to listen to the subjects and take what they say seriously, but to also look at everything else available to them, including the subject's bodily responses and environment, evidence provided by relevant neurological or psychological studies, the researcher's memories of their own experiences, and any other scientific data that might help to interpret what the subject has reported.
Dennett notes this method is actually the normal way that anyone will choose to investigate aspects of the mind. He writes: "heterophenomenology is nothing new; it is nothing other than the method that has been used by psychophysicists, cognitive psychologists, clinical neuropsychologists, and just about everybody who has ever purported to study human consciousness in a serious, scientific way."
The key role of heterophenomenology in Dennett's philosophy of consciousness is that it defines all that can or needs to be known about the mind. For any phenomenological question "why do I experience X", there is a corresponding heterophenomenological question "why does the subject say 'I experience X'". To quote Dennett, "The total set of details of heterophenomenology, plus all the data we can gather about concurrent events in the brains of subjects and in the surrounding environment, comprise the total data set for a theory of human consciousness. It leaves out no objective phenomena and no subjective phenomena of consciousness."