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This is an important book that I recommend wholeheartedly for reading by psychologists and philosophers alike. This in spite of the fact that, philosophically, it is not at all sophisticated. I will first explain what I mean by the latter criticism and then proceed to explain why, in my view, the philosophical lacunae does not detract much from the value of the book.
There are some standard philosophical issues that one expects being treated in depth in a book that wants to integrate "experiential" or "phenomenological" methods with neuroscientific ones. First, the ontology and epistemology of consciousness and experience, as such and in relation to wider concepts of mind and the mental. For example: intentional states – "meanings" in the terminology of the authors – are surely mental, but are they experiential in the same sense as pains and emotional feelings? And can they be accessed by the subject in the same way? This issue is not explicitly raised (at least not in a systematic way) by the authors, but my general impression is that they want to answer both questions with Yes (see for example Section 1.1.4–1.1.5). Another example: in what sense is consciousness and conscious phenomena something "inner"? Of course the larger philosophical community has not reached anything like a consensus about this, but the authors seem not to question the "inner-outer" metaphor at all (compare also the title of the book).
Another set of standard philosophical issues that is not treated satisfactorily in this book concerns the classical body-mind problem, i.e. the possibility and nature of mind-body causation, and specifically the age-old challenge posed by the (possible) completeness of physics, How can there be any mind-body causation if all bodily processes have sufficient bodily causes? The authors do discuss this problem (Sections 11.1.5–11.1.6) but the discussion remains very inconclusive. On this very point I think that there is a standard philosophical answer that the authors could have used to legitimate their endeavor better. They could have adopted a double-aspect theory and added that since the state of neuroscience will not in a foreseeable future allow us to access the neurological aspect of most conscious processes, we will for long need to frame many explanations in terms of the mental aspect. One thing to be said in the favour of the authors is that here, and elsewhere, they refer to Max Velmans as their philosophical authority. This is a good choice of authority, and may indicate that the authors do have deeper insights in the philosophical issues than what becomes explicit in the text.
Well, why then is this book important and recommendable? For two reasons: it reviews a number of "experiential" methods already in use and many basic results achieved with them. These reviews should be valuable for all students of consciousness including philosophers. The methods include "old" and "new" psychophysics (where "new" denotes the development lead by Marks and Stevens in the 1970's) but also the so-called Descriptive Experiential Sampling (DES) method developed by Hurlburt and others. DES involves taking "snapshots" of a person's experience by asking her to report the experience that immediately preceeded a random beep. Second, the authors attempt to formulate a new experimental paradigm called the "Experiential-Phenomenological Method", report a large number of interesting results from it, and outline future research using it. In this paradigm (see especially Section 4.2.3), the group of investigators are themselves the first experimental subjects. They start with studying an agreed theme, for example anger at someone, with a method similar to DES but using longer "snapshots". The members of the group then analyze the descriptions in order to reach a consensus about the common elements and dimensions in them, a procedure that bears some similarities with the phenomenologist's search for essences. After that, the found dimensions can be used in quantitative research, using methods borrowed and adapted from psychophysics, and integrated with neuroscientific results. Among other things, the authors (and other authors) have used this method to study the role of desire and expectation in different emotions, the phenomenology of choice, the nature of pain and suffering, hypnotic states and the experiental aspect of placebo treatment.
For a philosopher, there is a wealth of interesting facts to pick up here. And when reading these sections of the book my philosophical doubts retreated in the background. After all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and if a method of studying (e.g.) the experience of pain gives plausible, reliable and intersubjectively verifiable results it is probably sound even if its architects have not given a philosophically satisfying description of it. The authors have also convinced me that a close and systematic encounter with the phenomenon is a prerequisite not only for fruitful empirical research but also for a successful conceptual analysis. (You may think that you know what pain is, and you probably do, in the sense that you recognize it when it occurs, but did you know that a sense of intrusion or threat is essential to the perception of pain?)
One main point that the authors make is that too many advanced neuroscientific studies have been performed during the last decades where the experiental aspect has not been given enough attention. This is of course true (and only one aspect of the bizarre neglect of consciousness by science at large during the last 100 years). The other side of the coin is, as the authors convincingly show, that if we start using careful experiental measures instead of (or in addition to) simple behavioural signs as the correlates of the neuroscientific data, our understanding of the neural basis of mental phenomena will advance much more rapidly than hitherto. The authors have made many contributions to this new way of doing neuroscience and their book is a good introduction to it. Let us only hope that some philosopher will take up the challenge to integrate their concepts and methods better with the mainstream philosophical tradition.
© 2013 Helge Malmgren
Helge Malmgren, Ph.D., M.D., Department of Philosophy, Göteborg University, Sweden