Non-Duality, Neuroscience, and the Enactive Approach: Outlines of a philosophical research project


I. The Onto-Logic of Non-Duality[1]((This section is an abridged version of “The Onto-Logic of Non-Duality: Why experience finds itself mirrored in neural processes”. For a more detailed discussion, please consult the full text.

II. The Flesh of Neuroscience

III. Endo-Ontology and the Enactive Approach

Concluding Reflections


Ever since the so-called “embodied turn” in the cognitive sciences and in philosophy of mind (De Bruin et al., 2018; Thompson, 2007; Varela et al., 1991), there has been a surge of interest in the entangled dynamics of brain, body, and world. The question of how experience is related to this complex tripartite system has also received some renewed attention (e.g., Clark & Chalmers, 1998; O’Regan & Noë, 2001). In accordance with the predominant ontology of physicalism, such investigations typically assume that experience is secondary to an underlying physical basis (Pollard, 2014; Vörös, 2020). Debates revolve around the breadth of this physical basis, and not so much around the metaphysical problem of reconciling a physical reality with subjective experience. Because of this physicalist bias, the embodied paradigm, despite its efforts to cultivate a holistic understanding of the body, remains haunted by the “hard problem of consciousness” (Chalmers, 1995; Ratcliffe, 2007). That is, the leap from the physical to the experiential remains essentially unintelligible.

This text outlines a philosophical research project which contends that to understand the present situation and to plot a way forward, we must undertake a rigorous investigation of the ontological roots of our worldview. The philosopher M. Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), widely recognized as one of the pioneers of the embodied paradigm, has extensively addressed this task. The deep intuition animating Merleau-Ponty’s ontology is that “the perceived world is the always presupposed foundation of all rationality, all value and all existence” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962/1964). Philosophy has traditionally sought to ground the perceived world either in the immanence of the mind (subjectivity) or in the transcendence of the world (objectivity), sprouting the antithetical schools of idealism and realism. From Merleau-Ponty’s point of view, however, this opposition is only apparent, since both idealism and realism presuppose the validity of the separation of a being-in-itself (matter) and a being-for-itself (mind), differing only in which of the two can be taken as primary. These opposing notions abstractly express the ambiguous nature of perception, where the subject is in the world and the world is in the subject. Unable to be at ease with this ambiguity, philosophy has torn reality asunder, plunging us into a host of paradoxes which revolve around the impossible yet necessary relationship between the two poles: the relationship between activity and passivity, between self and other, between mind and body, etc. For Merleau-Ponty, the remedy to this situation lies in returning to the perceived world and understanding it on its own terms, and this is what he endeavors to accomplish in his late work (e.g., Merleau-Ponty, 1964/1968, 1995/2003, 2003/2010, 2001/2020). Instead of speaking in terms of mind and matter, he develops a novel vocabulary which lets the being of the perceived speak for itself. He rediscovers what he terms the flesh of the body and the flesh of the world, the actual body and world which we inhabit in daily life, and where the inner and the outer are perpetually entangled. The “ontology of the flesh” resolves the unstable dialectic of realism and idealism, and shows the way forward for philosophy.

The objective of this research project is to articulate the solution to the problem of the relationship between mind and brain through the lens of the ontology of the flesh. This is not a solution in the scientific sense: it does not provide any causal, mechanistic, or reductive explanation. Rather, it presents a circular logic which demonstrates why mind and body co-arise. Indeed, if reality is structured according to some kind of circularity, then it is the task of the philosopher to make this evident; it must be shown that this circularity is not vicious. Specifically, the thesis is that mind and brain are a co-dependent or entangled structuration, manifested through the dialectic of perception. This conception resonates with and clarifies the view expressed by F. Varela (1996), a pioneer of the embodied approach, and further develops the conceptual clarification already provided by M. Bitbol (2021). To accomplish its task, the project is structured around three central “pillars”: (i) the ontology of the flesh must be rendered comprehensible; (ii) the field of neuroscience must be understood in terms of this ontology; (iii) a dialogue must be fostered between the proposed mind-brain relation and the emerging “embodied paradigm” to support it and rectify it where necessary. In the following sections, I will sketch out these three pillars, giving a general impression of the direction of the research.

I. The Onto-Logic of Non-Duality

When lost in daydreams, reality appears as an ethereal stream of imagined scenarios, reverberating memories, pulsating ideas. But as soon as I reawaken, I find myself inhabiting the solid mass of a body, inserted into a massive world. This world and this body are woven of colors, shapes, surfaces, smells, which organize themselves into differentiated phenomena. The traditional approach has been to posit, beyond the sensible appearance of things for us, the objective presence of their being in itself. And surely, this move is not wholly misguided, because my perception does not exhaust the perceived, it only extracts one perspective after another, and it can be deceived in this process. Evidently, there is a separation between the perceptual appearance of things and their own existence. But this separation is not absolute, or else I would never even suspect there to be an objective world beyond my viewpoint. The separation between perception and the world must at once be the medium for their connection. The world transcends my perception, but perception is a process of taking up and incorporating the transcendence of the world, which enters into the circuit of my sensing body, forming a system with it. Their contact implies distance, a distance which is not a divide, but the space for an intimate dance. Perception is an openness upon the world, and the world is ready to be perceived, i.e., it is what answers to that perception (Merleau-Ponty, 1964/1968, p. 124).

The beings which materialize in the perceptual field are neither “within us” nor “outside us”, but are suspended upon the ongoing entanglement of perception with the world. Perceptual experience precedes the intellectual abstraction which purifies subject and object from their encroachment upon each other. If we now turn to the body, we see that it leads a sort of double life, occupying both of these domains: on the one hand, my body is lived from within as a manifold of sensory fields, motor projects, thoughts, affect; on the other hand, it is perceived from without as a remarkable organization of matter. These two modes of being are not neatly separated, but overlap: the objective presence of my material body refers to its concretion as an object in the perceptual field; reciprocally, the perceptual experience of my lived body would not be what it is if it were not nucleated by my visible, tangible body at the center of its field. What could bring about this dizzying coalescence of the inner and the outer? In a nutshell, it is the situated nature of perception. The perceiver belongs to the world upon which perception opens. Because of this, the process of perception loops back onto its own source, revealing the perceptual system itself. The argument can summarily be stated as follows: (1) it is the body which perceives the world; (2) the body is itself a part of the world; (3) thus perception in principle affords the possibility of a self-perception (given that the perceptual system can accommodate for this kind of reflexivity). In other words, the perceiver perceives from the midst of the world, and so belongs to the same world that is revealed by perception. Therefore, it belongs to the nature of vision that the seer is also visible (VI, p. 113); it belongs to the nature of touch that the toucher is also tangible. The situatedness of the perceiving body within the world perceived entails that the body can turn back upon itself and render itself visible through the channels of its own perception.

This brings us to nervous activity, the physical phenomenon par excellence upon which experience depends. Taking the above into account, we may say that experience indeed depends upon nervous activity, but this nervous activity itself appears within the field of perceptual experience. The experience-brain dependence is a sort of internal anchorage of experience within its own field. The body perceives the world to which it belongs, thereby having perceptual access to the processes which realize its own experience. Thus, the brain is indeed the generative center of experience, but only insofar as the brain constitutes the point where experience turns back upon itself through its own perceptual powers. The brain therefore does not take metaphysical precedence over experience, but emerges together with it in the tissue of perception. In other words, perception opens onto the stage of the world as a field which is, at the zero-point of its axes, anchored in a brain – a brain which is no less anchored in that field. The correlations which neuroscience has uncovered between experience and brain activity are not evidence for the production of the mental from the physical. Rather, the experience-brain dependence is naturally brought forth by the circularity of perception. This circularity renders the body visible for itself and allows it to uncover the processes of its own life.

II. The Flesh of Neuroscience

As an openness upon the world, the perceiving body intertwines itself with whatever it explores and thereby incarnates their transcendent being in the field of its inner life. Through the same movement, perception makes the body itself appear at the center of the perceptual field. With my gaze and my touch, I can explore the contours of my skin, the hills and valleys formed by my bones and muscles, and the vulnerable organs lodged into my flesh. Hidden inside my skull lies my brain, eminently responsible for realizing my experience itself, and in principle accessible to all perceivers. By understanding that experience is anchored in neural flesh, and not – as is commonly thought – produced by underlying physical processes, we recognize the ontological primacy of experience, and identify the source of the mind-brain correlation in the circularity of perception: as a situated openness, perception recoils upon the perceptual system itself and renders it visible. Thus, each perceptual field is deployed by biological activity that unfolds at the heart of that field, and between the experience and the biological activity, there is an intimate relationship of mutual dependence. This dependence is instantiated in silence, in the manner in which the mute structure of embodied experience “hangs together”, for example, in the fact that an injury to the back of the head can damage one’s vision. When we begin to study this dependence and articulate the relations that hold between experience and the nervous system, we are raising this mute structure to the level of language, giving birth to a new field of knowledge. A philosophical understanding of neuroscience demands that we become perceptive toward the being of this field.

As I gaze upon a crowd of people, I feel the subtle provocation of questions about the biological origins of their behavior, the activity of their nervous systems, the complexity of their bodies. These questions do not feel new, but rather like picking up a thread that was never fully dropped, like how each morning my eyes open up to resume an ongoing life.

Whereas the perceptual field inserts us into an environment, the field of neuroscience immerses us into a world of ideas about the nervous system. These ideas are borne by symbols, in the form of words and images, for example the word “neuron” and the corresponding image of a tree-like cell. The sensible appearance of these symbols (the sounds composing the word, the lines composing the image), like the appearance of the perceived world, is the surface of a depth. The word “neuron” does not congeal my thoughts into a determinate essence, but opens them onto an expanse of meaning where the idea ambiguously links up with other ideas, such that the word arouses an entire bush of significations. These neuroscientific significations have been deposited in me by my contact with the fruits of the labor of scientists who have studied the nervous system. They have expressed their findings into the media of our culture (books, articles, lectures, etc.), sedimenting a new cultural horizon, and all who have come into contact with this horizon have become inaugurated to the domain of neuroscientific knowledge. Neuroscience is a dimension of our lived experience, enacted by human beings, unravelling in the course of embodied life. But this does not turn it into a subjective construction, because neuroscientific knowledge refers back to the neural flesh which scientists investigate. The secrets of this flesh, including its interrelations with experience, are revealed by scientific research. This empirical reference to the brain is what gives neuroscience its validity, its truth, and distinguishes it from fiction. But it does not turn neuroscience into a pure objectivity, because our interrogation of the brain unravels in experience, transforming our relationship with ourselves, others, and the world. The flesh of neuroscience is this thick vegetation of ideas, embodied in language and other cultural artefacts, pulsating in the depths of our experience, bestowing a new sense upon our lives, and propagating the study of the nervous system.

III. Endo-Ontology and the Enactive Approach

The cognitive sciences are undergoing a significant transformation. The brain is no longer regarded as the sole epicenter of sentient behavior. Today, we recognize that intelligence permeates the entire body, of which the brain is just one integral organ. Moreover, the body itself is an organ of the world, intricately enmeshed in its environment. If we strip the body of its world or the brain of its body, the cognitive system loses its functionality entirely. The brain is essential, but it cannot fulfill its role in isolation. The brain is so thoroughly coupled to the body, and the body so thoroughly coupled to the world, that decomposing the system into these parts is merely an artificial exercise. In reality, behavior unfolds as an integrated brain-body-world unity, where the dynamics of each part are inextricably linked to the others. This integrated view is central to the enactive approach, which posits that cognition arises through a dynamic interaction between the brain, body, and environment. It challenges the traditional cognitive science paradigm that treats the brain as the central processor of all cognitive activity. Instead, the enactive approach asserts that cognition is distributed across the entire body and its interactions with the environment. The body and brain form a seamless, interactive system with the world, leading to a richer understanding of how we perceive and engage with our surroundings.

While the enactive approach makes great strides towards a deeper understanding of living beings, it faces latent tensions in its metaphysical underpinnings. Despite advocating for an equal appraisal of mind and body, it lacks philosophical clarity on the nature of their relationship. Consequently, the approach has splintered into several sub-schools, with many reverting to materialism (Vörös et al., 2016). To overcome this confusion, we need a clear grasp of why mind and body are bound to one another. This clarity can be provided by the onto-logic of non-duality, as articulated in the endo-ontology of the flesh. Endo-ontology (or “the ontology from within”) offers a non-dual perspective that avoids the pitfalls of both dualism and reductionist materialism. It posits that the body is not merely a physical system that instantiates experience as a derivative process. Instead, the physical refers back to the perceived, highlighting that the body itself is an experiencing being. Endowed with the power of perception, the body is open to the world and, as part of the world, is open to itself. This reflexive structure of perception, where the perceiving body becomes a perceived body, gives rise to the concept of the non-dual flesh that simultaneously sees and is visible, touches and is tangible. This self-entanglement of the perceiving and perceived body is a special case of a more general principle: the perceiving body intertwines itself with whatever it explores. This intertwining is operative in our experience, weaving the world as an extension of our own flesh. The aim of a non-dual ontology is to make us aware of this intertwining in our own experience. Since the seer is also visible, this intertwining can be studied both from within, through phenomenological reflection, and from the outside, by examining the perceived body. Science, particularly the cognitive sciences, plays a crucial role in this exploration. It has taught us that the nervous system mediates perceptual interactions, and the enactive approach has emphasized that neural dynamics are structurally coupled to the body and the environment. This notion of structural coupling characterizes, in a formal manner, what we live in the perceptual faith as the experiential entanglement with body and world.

The transformation in cognitive sciences towards an enactive approach thus complements the insights from endo-ontology, providing a tenable framework for understanding the holistic nature of perception and cognition. Reality is not a black box of unconscious processes nor a spectacle unraveling in the pure light of consciousness. Instead, it consists of these dynamic structures and relational nexuses which are channeled through the body, configuring the world we live, and which Merleau-Ponty aptly describes as flesh. The enactive approach may help us to understand how these structures are instantiated through coupled processes that span brain, body, and world, while endo-ontology rehabilitates the science into our experience, keeping our feet on the ground of the lifeworld.

Concluding Reflections

This integrative perspective has profound implications for future research in biology and cognitive science. It directs us towards a conception of behavior that inherently acknowledges meaning, intentionality, and the qualitative aspects of experience. Life and cognition cannot be fully understood without considering these dimensions. Embracing this holistic approach encourages us to investigate how biological processes are interwoven with the intentional activities of living beings. It calls for methodologies that bridge subjective experience and objective analysis. This shift promises to deepen our understanding of the mind-body-world nexus.

Moreover, the scope of this research project extends beyond the purely academic to the societal and ethical domain. In the post-modern climate where meta-narratives are rejected and the search for meaning is destitute, the ontology of the flesh revives the meaning of being, not by upholding any transcendental absolute, but by making us acutely aware of the nascent meaning which we live. Neuroscience, and science in general, has engendered the belief that the reality most intimately known to us – the reality of experience – is the product of underlying natural processes, where the latter are considered to be devoid of the meaning and value characterizing the former. A crisis of meaning and value naturally ensues from this situation. As a step toward navigating this existential turmoil, the ontology of the flesh helps us understand that science itself is an institution of meaning that has engulfed the lifeworld – without reducing science to a mere social construct. Scientific truth has to be seen as dialectically entangled with perceptual experience. This perspective provides an ontological clarification of Varela’s (1999) circular conception of the relationship between science and experience, where perceptual experience presents the field upon which science operates, and reciprocally science produces a field of ideas which invest experience with new meanings, allowing previously hidden phenomena to come to light and opening avenues for new research. This project thus outlines a worldview where mind, brain, body, and world form an inextricable system, urging a more conscious engagement with our existence.


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1 ((This section is an abridged version of “The Onto-Logic of Non-Duality: Why experience finds itself mirrored in neural processes”. For a more detailed discussion, please consult the full text.