Friday, December 1, 2017

A Speculative Phenomenology of Non-human Consciousness (Why Crabs and Lobsters Deserve Protection from Being Cooked Alive)

William James' "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings" remains an untimely text in its call for human beings to relinquish the anthropocentric standpoint of phenomenology and adopt, rather, a speculative phenomenological approach to non-human forms of consciousness. Thus, not only was James ahead of his time, he is, today, ahead of ours. 

If ontology, the science of being, catalogs the "furniture of the universe," as it were, all too often I am asked why we should not consider "objects" per se in an attempt to engage the science of being in its most universal sense. I typically respond that we must examine what is at stake exactly, and that even from a deanthropocentric point of view, ecologically but also methodologically human beings are forced into a position of "transcendence," where transcendence means first and foremost stepping outside of the human - this so that we might accomplish a thoroughgoing, substantial, but most of all accurate picture as to what is and in what way it is. In other words, so that we might achieve not only a speculative phenomenology, but a speculative naturalism.

Phenomenology, as I have incessantly argued over the years, need not be the strictly Husserlian observor-dependent, descriptive-reportage affair we are told that it is (here I am thinking about Tom Sparrow The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism and its self-refuting thesis regarding the "non-existence" or death of phenomenology and the supposed existence and healthy life of philosophy's Loch Ness monster, Speculative Realism). Indeed, others, whether Alfred North Whitehead or Charles Hartshorne, or C.S. Peirce (incidentally phenomenology was actually a branch of mathematics for Peirce, i.e. category theory), are thinkers unlike Husserl in that their phenomenology is necessarily a speculative non-human, or better, trans-conscious enterprise whose transcendental engagements are logical-mathematical.  Phenomenology understood as mathematical-ontology.

For as abstract as this sounds, we know that in Peirce or Whitehead or Hartshorne value is independent of human valuers. We know that consciousness is a qualitative affair, yet quality need not be limited to consciousness (in fact, in Peirce it isn't - c.f. "Firstness"). What this means, then, is that the stakes of ontology are perhaps even higher than supposed. While consciousness is not a central principle or the category of "life" vitalistically made ultimate in terms of what is  fundamental to this speculative phenomenological enterprise, this is not to say that consciousness or life is not entirely unconducive to the sorts of generic descriptions that make for ontology as a science of being. On the other hand, we should not be considering "objects" or what is like to be the inside of a watermelon or doorknob when forms of consciousness other than our own are being abused, are suffering, are forced into extinction. Categorial logical-mathematical description and operation, when knitted with an axiological perspective that is at once realist and speculative enough to secure metaphysical transcendence, is enough to anchor an ethics wide enough to accommodate the living and non-living alike. Thus it is not just about description but activity and function.

From a post of mine some time back, then a link to an Aeon article with a very, very interesting excerpt which, to me, leads me to continue to think that pain can be said to be the sovereign common denominator. Quoting myself, I wrote:
In the tradition of Jakob von Uexkull or even to some degree William James and Alfred North Whitehead, it isn't about multiplying different world pictures nor even rendering them common to ours, even though the diversity of world pictures has its place.  I think it is about speculatively and phenomenologically allowing non-human worlds to exhibitively self-display their experiential features where these features are attended to for what they are.    Ordinal phenomenology is one method, speculative naturalism another; there is also semiotic phenomenology or more broadly bio and ecosemiotics.  For several years now I've commented on how it isn't anthropocentric/anthropormorphic at all to find that pain, for example, is part of a constituting domain which is extra-human (or non-human).  It's one thing to read a human face across nature by imposing human emotive qualities upon other things within the world, but another to realize the broader intensive aesthetic character of the natural world of which human beings are but a small part.  Equally alien (distinct with our own modes of perception, as are all organisms) we are nevertheless deeply natural - deeply "part" of nature.   
I realize the trend is to de-humanize nature as much as possible, but really, human beings are part and parcel of nature, and so we can expect that what we experience is continuous from the outside in rather than assuming it is always the case we project our experience (onto others) from the inside out...
Even removing human beings from nature and stating, "Ok, the experience of others may not be like our subjective experience" doesn't mean that others aren't capable of experiencing emotion, pain, etc. etc.  The fact is, it isn't our experience to begin with.  If human beings didn't exist, elephants would still grieve the loss of a matriarch, dolphins would still express joy,crabs would still feel pain, and so on.  Further still, all things - taking a panexperiential viewpoint - would struggle to persist and would undergo self-relations.  We don't need to appeal to analogies involving human-centered experience to make that case.  No one is saying the world is like us.  I (for one) am simply saying that we are part of the world, naturally, like everything else.  If that is true then there is continuity as much as there is difference.  Neither is absolute in reality although it is possible to take either epistemologically true and absolute. 
Schopenhauer stated that empathy, given the reality of suffering. could be a basis for ethics; and no one wants to suffer afterall, Yet it seems that the conclusion ontologically precedes what things are.  Which is to say, yes, all things do suffer in their basic and most essential persistence, ontologically. The ethical judgment regarding that ontological fact is a "second," as Peirce would say.  Not a "first."
Aeon has a nice article up HERE. I've touched on the subject HERE and HERE. From the Aeon article I found the following particularly interesting:
In another experiment, Elwood and colleagues found that shore crabs rapidly learn to avoid locations they associate with harmful experiences. The crabs were offered a choice of two dark shelters: in one, they received shocks; in the other, they did not. In general, crabs prefer to return to shelters that they have previously occupied. But after repeatedly receiving a shock in one of the shelters, the crabs were much less likely to return to it – a phenomenon known as conditioned place avoidance. 
Motivational trade-offs and conditioned place avoidance are what I call credible indicators of pain – credible because they cannot be explained away as mere reflexes, and because they tie in with a reasonable theory about the function of pain for animals that feel it. The idea in the background here is that pain is a guide to decision-making. To make flexible decisions, animals need to be able to weigh the seriousness of an injury against other things they need. Sometimes fleeing is the right thing to do; sometimes carrying on as normal is the right thing to do; sometimes tending the injury is the right thing to do – it depends on the situation. Pain is the currency in which the need to stop, or the need to flee, is measured. When we find an animal making flexible decisions by integrating information about past or present injury with information about its other needs, that is a credible indicator of pain.