Friday, September 29, 2006

Subjectivity Research

Dan Zahavi

The other day I was checking out job ads at the web sites of Scandinavian universities, when I happened upon something that intrigued me. The University of Copenhagen is looking for a doctoral student in subjectivity research.
Center for Subjectivity Research invites applications for a Ph.D fellowship for 3 years in the area of subjectivity research with special focus on the relation between core self and extended (narrative) self. [...]

The Center for Subjectivity Research is an interdisciplinary research center under the directorship of Professor Dan Zahavi. The fellowship is open to applicants coming from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. Projects involving both theoretical and empirical perspectives will, other things being equal, be preferred.

It is recommended that those interested in applying should orient themselves concerning the research program and the activities of the Center by consulting its website:
Neither my core self nor my extended (narrative) self understood any of this. But I had a very bad feeling about it. To someone with my scientific ideals, "subjectivity research" sounds about as good as "contaminated samples studies", "heavily biased sociology" or "studies in sub-atomic physics performed while tripping on acid". So I tried to learn more.

The Center's web site explains that they place particular focus on the question whether subjectivity can be explained on the basis of principles and models that the natural sciences use and accept.
Is it ultimately possible to account adequately for the first-person perspective and the experiential dimension from a third-person perspective? ... The research of the Center is divided into three parts-the first focusing on phenomenology and philosophy of mind, the second on hermeneutics and philosophy of religion, the third on psychopathology. ... An investigation comprising philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, and psychopathology is unorthodox. But the complex problem of subjectivity demands an unorthodox approach, one that integrates a diversity of complementary theoretical and empirical investigations.
This, Dear Reader, is seriously spacy stuff. This is Timothy Leary's and Robert Anton Wilson's old turf.

And the Center isn't just a guy with a desk, either. Fifteen people appear to work on the Center's premises, and it's got nine affiliated scholars at departments for Bible exegesis, systematic theology, philosophy, medical anatomy, psychology, neuroscience and mental health, one even being the lit-crit editor of the main Danish newspaper, Berlingske Tidende! Starting 2002, the state of Denmark (pop. 5.4 million) has been pumping some serious money into this effort. And I don't even understand what it is they seek to achieve. But I like the empirical bit. My fears are pretty much assuaged. This is not likely to be all verbiage.

The Center's director, Dan Zahavi, is only 39, but clearly a hard-working, talented and ambitious man. He's a philosopher of the Continental persuasion, specialising in phenomenology, consciousness studies and the works of Husserl. This suggests that if the Center realises its goal, then it will have a very hard time explaining to people like me exactly what they found out. We just don't speak their language. And it makes me wonder if even the Center's various staff members and affiliates understand each other.

As for "whether subjectivity can be explained on the basis of principles and models that the natural sciences use and accept", well, that's a yes/no question. I should be able to understand the answer to that. Though to my mind it appears implicit in rationalist science that the answer is yes. Because otherwise we would have to believe in discredited old superstitions about an immaterial soul.

I wonder when the Center's answer is due.

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Anonymous Arkeologen said...

I've red a small article in Helsingborgs Dagblad (aka NST) that Danmark are having problems to enploy enough archaeologyists coming the next years = when I am done :) Maybe it will be Danmark that is my future in this profession :)

29 September, 2006 19:23  
Blogger Martin said...

Or you could become a doctoral student in subjectivity studies!

29 September, 2006 19:29  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This hardly looks any worse than any other continental philosophy.

But if we disregard the silly methodology they seem to use, there are several interesting points in there. One part looks like baseline philosophy of mind and intentionality.

The connection between neurology and religious experiences is also a very interesting subject - it would seem that it's possible to generate spiritual experiences using electrical stimulation of the proper places in the brain, and genetics seem to play a considerable role in deciding whether a person is susceptible to religion or not.

Trying to clobber a theory together from these various fields seems like a perfectly reasonable line of work in cognitive sciences... as long as you have a scientific mindset to start with, which seems to be seriously lacking here.

29 September, 2006 21:32  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(That post was mine, by the way / AkhĂ´rahil)

29 September, 2006 21:33  
Blogger Martin said...

The God Helmet research has sadly been debunked. I was thrilled at first when I read that spiritual experiences could be provoked simply by flicking a switch on a machine.

29 September, 2006 22:03  
Blogger mugabe said...

This is Hunter S. Thompson ground. Whereas facts are objective, the truth is always subjective. I know this is a tad incompatible with your positivist views, though.

30 September, 2006 03:56  
Blogger Martin said...

Maybe we can agree to put what you just said in the following terms: scientific truth about the underlying facts is always provisional and open to re-investigation with new methods and/or data. And in practice this rarely leads to any dramatic changes in such views as has long been held to be true.

30 September, 2006 09:23  
Blogger mugabe said...

Well put. However, there might be different kinds of truths; if we compare the truth about neutrino collisions and the truth about the war in Iraq, I believe that subjectivity has its place in the latter.

30 September, 2006 15:29  
Anonymous Henrik said...

Uppers and downwers, screamers and laughers... I don't get it either.
But then again, I'm an archaeologist.

30 September, 2006 17:18  
Blogger Martin said...

Mugabe, I don't think there's more than one type of truth. Regarding the Iraq war, two people may have different opinions whether it was a good ida for the US to invade or not. But those are value judgements that have nothing to do with truth. It would, however, be possible to make a truthful estimate of how many people have been killed in the war.

01 October, 2006 12:41  

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