Self and Neurophenomenology: Gift and Responsibility
I here propose that “neurophenomenology” represents a key discipline for addressing the most urgent questions in consciousness studies today. The question, “what is the self?”, arises in different forms and receives different answers, in neurology, neuropsychiatry and neurophilosophy. I argue that neurophenomenology offers crucial insights into the nature of the emergent self and that so-called spiritual experiences augment narrowly empirical perspectives. To make this argument, I first define neurophenomenology and defend its strengths and usefulness in three stages. In the first stage, I consider some of the classical features of phenomenology, highlighting those that are especially relevant to this task. I then explore “boundaries issues” and unsolved questions in contemporary neuroscience, since it is here that neurophenomenologists must concentrate their attention if our field is to be worthy of its name.
In the final section I use as a test case the spiritual experiences that arise across the world’s religious traditions and outside of them as well. Here we consider reductive approaches such as those of V. S. Ramachandran (University of California, San Diego) on one side and the overly ambitious claims of the so-called neurotheologians on the other. The ideal solution, I propose, is to analyse such experiences in a phenomenological fashion—neither presupposing nor denying the real existence of their referent. The results help advance the neurosciences as well as the philosophy of religion, but they do not by themselves resolve all the tensions that remain between these two fields.
KeywordsConscious Experience Brain State Spiritual Experience Mystical Experience Phenomenal Experience
I gratefully acknowledge the professional research support of my doctoral student, Justin Heinzekehr. Soon-to-be Dr. Heinzekehr collected and documented many of the neurological examples, prepared the visual materials for the conference presentation and did extensive work on adapting the conference paper for publication in its present form. Warm thanks are due to him for his hard work and professional expertise.
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