Can science account for lived experience?

A wide-ranging group of speakers gathered at the Royal Institute of Philosophy 2011 Conference in Bristol from 31 August to 2 September. Human Experience and Nature addressed what is undoubtedly one of the most fundamental conceptual issues at the heart of psychology and the social sciences: Can science provide an account of our 'lived' conscious experience? 

Most of the talks focused on this key issue and, refreshingly, sought to bridge the great divide between the analytic and continental camps of contemporary philosophical thought. But significant time was also devoted to expounding the giants of the phenomenological tradition, such as Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Rudolf Bernet (Leuven), Dermot Moran (UCD) and Thomas Baldwin (York) provided detailed accounts of these thinkers' work. And there were also forays into the work of related historical figures like Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger.

More traditionally analytic approaches were displayed in Michelle Montague's (Bristol) discussion of mental content and James Lenman's (Sheffield) critique of naturalism as manifested in experimental ethics.

But the key issue for much of the three days was to get to the heart of this conflict between naturalism and phenomenology. Clearly certain terminological issues need to be settled in order to anchor this debate. Galen Strawson (Reading) quipped that having read fellow speaker David Papineau's (KCL) entry on naturalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he learned that naturalism had been used in so many ways throughout history that it had come to mean almost anything.

There is a broad methodological definition that construes naturalism as the view that philosophical thinking is continuous with natural science; however, when cast against the phenomenological tradition under discussion here, naturalism can be understood as the more specific claim that the scientific method has the resources to account for our 'lived' conscious experience - a commitment that underpins contemporary experimental psychology.

Controversies over this claim resonate particularly throughout the social sciences - a point highlighted by conference organiser Havi Carel (UWE). As a consequence, issues in the philosophy of medicine and health were a recurring theme, from Fredrik Svenaeus' (Södertörn) discussion of naturalistic and phenomenological theories of health to Matthew Ratcliffe's (Durham) account of the 'sense of unreality' in cases of serious mental illness.

The key question here is whether there can actually be such a thing as a scientific explanation of one's lived experience of illness. As Svenaeus pointed out, the tough question for a naturalist is to say what diseases really are - in terms of how they impact on people's lives. Construed here as a polar opposite to naturalism, the view would then be that only the phenomenological tradition gets to the heart of what health and illness really are. As Moran explained, real science will then need to recognise how it must coexist with the real world of human beings.

And yet many contributors sought to carve out a path that could be occupied by both phenomenologists and naturalists. Re-evaluating naturalism, Strawson argued that 'false naturalists' seek to deny 'the most natural fact': conscious experience. He pointed out that not even Quine denied the existence of conscious experience. As Strawson and Papineau debated these issues in the ensuing discussion it emerged that very few recent thinkers - Dennett aside - actually want to deny this phenomenology.

The key question then is whether the sciences can account for it. The crux of this issue seemed to arise in Papineau's challenge to Dan Zahavi (Copenhagen) to provide an account of the phenomenology in question that could not be accounted for by his naturalist position. This unresolved issue continues to make this a fascinating debate.

This report was written by Simon Riches, a researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry.