Consciousness and Digestion: Sartre and Neuroscience
Barnes, Hazel E., Sartre Studies International
While Sartre scholars cannot fairly be described as being opposed to science, they have, for the most part, stayed aloof. The field of psychology, of course, has been an exception. Sartre himself felt compelled to present his own existential psychoanalysis by marking the parallels and differences between his position and traditional approaches, particularly the Freudian. The same is true with respect to his concept of bad faith and of emotional behavior. Scholars have followed his lead with richly productive results. But we may note that the debate has centered on psychic and therapeutic issues, aspects of what Sartre called le vecu or lived experience, rather than on the findings of cognitive science or neuroscience. Although all existentialists and phenomenologists accept as a central tenet the fact that consciousness is embodied, there has been virtually no concern with the biological substratum. But the study of consciousness cannot be restricted within its own narrow confines--unlike, say, Greek grammar, which can be learned without reference to the rules of Arabic. At some point, there must be established an organic foundation for the behavior of the conscious organism.
Philosophers rarely, if ever, are trained in neuroscience. And though theoretically possible, it is unlikely that at any time soon an established scientist will invest sufficient time and interest in Sartre's work to inspire him/her to provide a biological theory designed to support the kind of consciousness Sartre portrays. Meanwhile, there is no reason why scholars should not seek to find relevance in existing theories. The reluctance of existentialist and phenomenologist philosophers to grant that scientific methods are appropriate for the investigation of consciousness is understandable. Old-style behaviorism attempts to blur the distinction between human and other animal species, and theories pushing the idea that the brain is or resembles a computer are all unacceptable to anyone who argues that each individual is free and self-making. It is true also that consciousness cannot properly be treated as the equivalent of any other object of scientific inquiry, for here the questioner is one with the questioned. Some scientists have actually embraced the notion that their conclusions and metaphysical claims are different but equally valid descriptions of reality. A few go so far as to hold that we live simultaneously in more than one world--physical, mental, perhaps also mathematical. This latest version of the old scholastic concept of twofold truth is not an option for a secular philosopher who rejects the dualism of body and soul and starts from the premise that consciousness is embodied. It will not do for most phenomenologists, and certainly not for Sartre.
What is needed is a neurobiological theory that can link the activities of a free, creative consciousness with its organic origins and underpinnings. A tenable view of consciousness must be situated with respect to some sort of scientific theory, as surely as every living consciousness is situated in a world that is not itself. I have been excited to discover a promising, positive connection between Sartre's philosophy and the work of the Nobel Prize winner Gerald M. Edelman, currently director of the Neurosciences Institute and chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at the Scripps Research Institute.
I was inspired to learn more about Edelman due to the discussions of one of his books by two reviewers, though neither one hinted at any possible connection with Sartre or phenomenology. One reviewer was John Searle, who declared "Of the neurobiological theories of consciousness I have seen, the most profound is that of Gerald Edelman." (1) Oliver Sachs called Edelman's theory: "The first truly global theory of mind and consciousness, the first biological theory of individuality and autonomy." (2) In Sachs's opinion, Edelman's comprehensive explanation of the origin and nature of consciousness stretches from the most primitive levels of organic existence to the rich complexity of the highest spheres of intellectual life. …