Ignacio Cea – Experiential subjectivity and living systems: narrowing the gap between nature and consciousness.

Experiential subjectivity and living systems: narrowing the gap between nature and consciousness – Ignacio Cea (Universidad Alberto Hurtado).


Finding the place for consciousness within the natural order, taking seriously both its inherently phenomenal nature, and what our best sciences tell us about the composition and structure of the world, has been an outstanding difficult matter (Chalmers 1996, Kim 2005, Goff 2017). One of the most salient features of consciousness, and at the same time, that makes it so difficult to reconcile it with our scientific worldview, is the subjectivity of experience, roughly, the fact that every conscious episode is someone’s experience, i.e. that for every experience there is something it is like to have it from the perspective of the organism or person who enjoys it (Nagel 1974, Searle 2000). This crucial aspect of consciousness has been further elaborated in the phenomenological literature as a pre-reflective bodily self-consciousness intrinsic to the very structure of experience, more basic than, an presupposed by, any explicit or cognitively demanding capacity for self-attribution, recognition or self-identification (Gallagher & Zahavi 2012, Zahavi 2005, 2011).

Ultimately seen as just machines governed by physical laws and forces, an account of how living creatures could enjoy an experiential perspective of the world and themselves seems to be an impossible task. Nevertheless, conscious creatures like horses, dogs, or us, besides being physically constituted, are also embodied living entities bearing biological properties. These in turn could potentially shed light on the subjectivity of consciousness, if we do not presuppose an ‘all-is-ultimately-physics’ reductive approach to biological phenomena which in this contribution will be taken to be unwarranted (De Caro & Macarthur 2004).

In this presentation we will discuss a variety of biological notions of selfhood in order to move forward in our understanding of how living creatures could also be sentient. We will explore first two concepts intimately linked to basic forms of subjectivity, the ‘core self’ (Damasio, 1999) and the ‘primal self’ (Panskeep, 1998). Then, our attention will be draw to the so-called autopoietic enactivist approach (Maturana & Varela 1980, Thompson 2007, 2015, Thompson & Varela 2001, Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1991, Varela & Thompson 2003). Here, we will discus key concepts like ‘bodily self’, ‘sensorimotor self’, and ‘self-specifying processes’ plus the essential use of the notion of emergence that this theory makes, in which the idea of reciprocal causation, viz. both parts and wholes affect and specify each other, plays a key role.

The upshot will be the narrowing of the gap between nature and consciousness, both through a phenomenological conception of basic subjectivity and a biologically informed understanding of  living organisms, in which these could be seen as systems endowed with a kind of world directed perspective and selfhood, with pre-reflective affective bodily processes and distributed emergent properties playing a crucial role.