On Philosophy

August 31, 2006

About-ness (a.k.a. Representation, Intentionality)

Filed under: Intentionality,Language — Peter @ 1:01 am

When considering what it means for something to be about / representational / or directed at something else there are three distinct cases that need to be considered. One is representation as encountered in perception, capturing the sense of what I mean when we say that perception is about objects in the external world. Second is representation in thoughts or ideas, capturing the sense of talking about my ideas, thoughts, and concepts being about something non-mental. Finally we have the case of words, pictures, and other inanimate objects, which we can talk about being about other things.

1. About-ness in Perception

Perception is certainly the easiest case to deal with. For our perception to be about something in the world it must inform us that the world is a certain way. For example if we perceive that there is a dog in front of us our perception is about a dog being in front of us. Of course perception can be about things that don’t actually exist. For example we may misperceive or hallucinate, and in this case perception is misinforming us about the world. Still, what such a perception is about is what it was informing us about, even if such information was wrong. So, even if we perceive that there is a dog in front of us where there actually is none, our perception is still about the dog.

It might seem at first glance that this treatment of about-ness in perception is too vague, since we have defined what perception is about in terms of what it informs a subject about, and what it informs a subject about may vary depending on the subject. This is easily remedied however, simply by defining the content of perception more precisely. We should agree that being exposed to some perception the subject’s internal state is transformed from S-1 into some new state, S-2. We define the content of the perception then as the most likely state of affairs that could have caused a perception that would cause the S-1 to S-2 transition. This is why a hallucination is not about an illusionary dog, because the most likely cause of that perception would have been a real dog. (The exact sense of “most likely” might seem a little vague, but I won’t get into it here.)

Conveniently this more formal definition can also be extended to objects without minds as we commonly understand them. For example, we could use this definition to argue that the spinning of a compass’ needle is about magnetic fields. Such a description fits well with Fred Dretske’s paper “A Recipe for Thought”, in which he argues that the primitive intentionality found in simple objects is the kind of thing that our more complicated intentionality is built out of.

2. About-ness in Thoughts / Ideas

A slightly more difficult case to address is what a thought, idea, or mental image is about. Since we can’t tie such occurrences directly to events in the external world we can’t approach the problem in the same way we did with perception. Simple cases, however, can be built upon the treatment of perception, assuming that you accept, as most do, that our perception comes pre-conceptualized (i.e. when we see a tree we don’t see only a particular image, we see it as a tree). Given that, we can say a particular concept or mental image is about whatever state of affairs in the world is the most likely cause for a perception that would invoke that concept. The concept of “dog” then is about all those things that when perceived we would identify as dogs (but not about illusionary dogs, or other cases of misperception, since remember that given the analysis previously about perception can’t be about an illusion, except possibly in very unusual cases).

Obviously though the content of more complex ideas, such as “the war of 1812” can’t be defined in this way. In these cases I think that the content of such ideas must be defined in terms of the simpler concepts, which the more complex one can be broken up into. For example “the war of 1812” is about a “war” that happened in “1812”, and these concepts in turn must be broken up into simper ones, until we arrive at concepts simple enough to be defined in terms of perceptions, at which point the content of the more complex concept can be pinned down by them. At first glance it may not seem possible to define the content of mathematics in this way, but ultimately I think we can pin down numbers in terms of the cardinality of groups of physical objects. A full exploration of this possibility will have to wait until another time, however.

One response that people may have to this account is that “it doesn’t feel that way”. I agree that when we use a complex concept it doesn’t feel as though there are a number of simpler concepts associated with it that are responsible for the meaning, it simply seems to have a meaning. However I contend that these simpler concepts are there, unconsciously in many cases. After all it is through them that we come to understand more complex concepts initially, so I don’t see it as unreasonable that they should remain there in the background, fixing the meaning.

3. About-ness in Words / Pictures

Finally, we come to the case of words, pictures, and other inanimate representations or depictions. In these cases I would say that what they are about depends on the subject that perceives them, and that any universal or objective intentionality that they are said to possess is only an average we talk about for convenience, much like we talk about “the average man”, and not as something that exists on its own. I have detailed this argument elsewhere though, so I won’t go into more detail here. Given then that we are dealing with only a single subject defining the content it easy, it is identical to the concept (or concepts) that perceiving it invokes in the subject. For example the word “dog” is about dogs because it happens to invoke dog-the-concept in me when I hear it. Words, serving as a way to communicate accurately, usually invoke only a single concept, but paintings and sculptures may invoke more.

It may seem then that I am defending a very radical interpretation of art, such that what it is about depends solely on the viewer, and not on the artist’s intent. It is not my intention to step into the world of art criticism here, and to defend myself I should mention again that when we describe a word or painting as about something we often really mean the “average about-ness”. Thus one could rescue the world of art criticism by defining what art is about to be “average about-ness” or “about-ness to the artist”.

4. Conclusion

How we actually define what it means for one thing to be about another is an interesting project, but there are two lessons here that are of greater relevance for other philosophical endeavors, especially in the philosophy of mind. One is that what about-ness or intentionality is varies depending on the domain we are studying, there isn’t going to be a single definition that fits, for example, perception and language equally well. Secondly, the about-ness of a particular object of study always depends on factors external to that object, which should prompt us to conclude that, properly speaking, its about-ness or intentionality is not part of that object but rather a useful way of describing it that we can engage in from an outside perspective. (for more on this idea see here)


August 30, 2006

Experience is Not Self-Presenting

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:31 am

Many authors have suggested that experience presents itself to us, or comes bundled with the information “this is an experience I am having”, where this contains all the information contained within the experience itself. I contend that this is not so.

The idea that experience is self-presenting sometimes may arise from a phenomenal study of the mind, so by reflecting on our own experiences we are supposed to realize that they are indeed self-representing. This is not the conclusion my own reflections lead me to. Certainly experiences can present other experiences; it is required for me to be able to reflect on my experiences at all. However, as for experiences when they happen, well I just have them, I have no idea where they come from, they simply do, and I continue to have them until I am rendered unconscious. As far as I can tell my experience is normally not of an experience, it is about the external worlds and internal thoughts. Additionally, you can conduct the following thought experiment, which indicates that experience is at least not consciously self-presenting: If experience is consciously self-presenting then we should be able to have thoughts in the form: at this very moment I am experiencing [content of experience]. But, as far as I can tell, such thoughts are impossible. I can form thoughts about parts of the current experience, such as my visual experience, and thoughts about the experience that has just happened moments before. A thought that contained a reference to me thinking that thought, ad infinitum, is still something that escapes me, and thus I conclude that if experience is self-presenting it is not doing so in a way that is consciously accessible.

Perhaps then there are logical reasons to believe experiences are self-presenting, if there aren’t phenomenal ones. It is possible that one might believe that experiences were self-presenting because it is possible to reflect upon a whole experience after the fact, and thus one might assume that there must be some conscious unit that contains the complete experience. However I don’t see any reason to believe that experience doesn’t happen as a whole to being with, or even if it does happen in parts that we can’t simply combine the parts when we reflect upon it. A second reason then to believe that experience is self-presenting might be as follows: Everything we are conscious of is presented in experience, and we believe them to be conscious because they are presented by experience. Thus, if experience itself is to be conscious it must be self-presenting. This is faulty reasoning for two reasons. First, we are being misled by the way we sometimes talk about experience. I think that it would be better to say that we are conscious of the things in experience, but that experience itself is simply conscious, and if we talk about it this way there is no reason to think that the reason we are conscious of some visual perception is the same reason that the whole experience is conscious. Secondly, if we really reasoned in this way we might conclude that, since things become wet only when placed in water, water is wet because it is somehow placed within itself. Clearly this isn’t true, so why should similar reasoning about consciousness sway us?

Of course reason to doubt that experience is self-presenting is not reason to abandon it. I am motivated abandon it because is its possible to create a coherent account of consciousness without it, and thus maintaining that experience must be self-presenting may prevent us from finding an explanation for consciousness, if consciousness doesn’t require it. It also has the additional disadvantage of telling us nothing new about consciousness. Even if experiences really are self-presenting why should that make them conscious? Thus I conclude that it is better to reason about consciousness without being burdened by constraint of self-presenting experiences.

August 29, 2006

Consciousness, a Different Approach

Filed under: Mind,Self — Peter @ 12:02 am

There are many competing theories that attempt to explain what special features of some mental states make them conscious. There are higher order theories, global sates theories, and self-referential theories. In these theories various ways of structuring mental states are considered, with the idea that the proposed structure explains the essential features of conscious experience. What such theories don’t address, however, is why such organizational features result in consciousness. Many of the proposed theories are simple enough that we could implement them in a computer, for example higher order theory is as simple as one mental state being directed at another. But even if we did the computer wouldn’t be conscious. So then, what really causes consciousness?

I will begin my investigation here by pointing out that no state in isolation could be considered conscious. If we took a snapshot of your brain that snapshot wouldn’t be conscious, even though all the information about that particular moment has been captured. In other words it only makes sense to talk about a conscious state when the state in question is part of a conscious system. Thus I think that we should investigate consciousness by first examining what features a system, one that exists for an extended period of time, must have to be considered conscious. A conscious state then would simply be one state of this system; we call it conscious only in virtue of being part of this larger system, not because of any intrinsic features.

So then, what are the defining features of a conscious system? There are three key elements. One is that it must to have a “self”, a store of information about the system itself, and this information must be modified over time to reflect the experiences of the system. Secondly it must have experiences, experiences that contain information about the external world (perception), information generated by mental processes (thoughts, decisions, memories, imaginings, ect), and information about the self. Finally, the current “self” and “experience” must be causally connected to future “self” and “experience” states in the correct way. Future “self” states must be dominated by the previous “self” state (the continuity of identity over time), but experience should be able to modify the self in predictable ways, though the acquisition of new concepts, memories, desires, and goals (the thought portion of experience is obviously key to this). Future “experience” states are dominated by previous experience states, for example the content of a thought (and perception at the moment) strongly influences the content of subsequent thoughts. Obviously I am not attempting to give a complete description of conscious systems, but I would like to point out four particular contributors to the experience state. First the decision of what to pay attention to in pervious experience states controls what information (i.e. external experiences, internal thoughts, ect) dominates the experience (which only has finite capacity), although unconscious processes due influence attention, occasionally yanking it in unexpected directions. Secondly each experience state contains “echos” or “remnants” of previous experience states, which accounts for our perception of time. Thirdly the information contained in each experience state is “formatted” or structures by the information contained in the self, for example our perception is pre-fitted into conceptual categories without conscious effort. Fourth the “self” state contributes some information, accounting for self-awareness. These three factors, the self, experience, and their causal connections, are sufficient for a system to be conscious.

Obviously though consciousness is not the only part of the mind, there is also the unconscious, which is certainly an important contributor to the way we think and make decisions. I won’t go into too much detail about the unconscious, but I will say that the role it plays in this account is in controlling the way in which one “conscious” mental state becomes another over time. For example a thought may be based on previous thoughts, but what exactly determines its content is an unconscious process. The same thing can be said about decisions, concept formation, ect. See also my account of beliefs as unconscious here.

Another feature of the mind to consider is introspection, which us is handled in two ways by this account. One type of introspection is attempting to reflect upon one’s self-awareness. In this case I would say that our attention becomes focused on the self-information that is part of every experience, causing that information to dominate the experience. There is another kind of introspection, where we attempt to reflect upon our real reasons for acting, or our real beliefs, which are unconscious. Experiments have shown that such introspection is unreliable, and I would say this is because the content of experience in this case is a fictional account, which is based on our past experiences and not on the actual workings of the unconscious.

To conclude allow me to show why such a system should be considered conscious. Note that it is the system, allowed to exist for some extent of time that is to be considered conscious, not the “self” state or the experience state, or even a combination of both. Such a system, if run, would come to have thoughts about itself and its experiences, since the relevant information contributes to the thought formation process. Those thoughts in turn would have an influence on a more persistent record of information (the “self” state), which then in turn colors future experiences (it can learn, and it can learn about itself). If asked to describe its experience it could, since it is able to make a decision (a kind of thought) to speak, and the words it decides to speak can indeed describe its own experience and self, since that information lies in the causal past of the decision. I would call such a system conscious; if we were to doubt that such as system is conscious it would seem tantamount to doubting that we ourselves were conscious, since we can’t differentiate our own experience, or the reports of other people about their experience, from the experience and reports of such a system.

August 28, 2006

Two Problems Facing Self-Representational Approaches to Consciousness

Filed under: Mind,Self — Peter @ 12:13 am

A recently popular* approach to consciousness is to define a conscious state as a mental state that is directed at, or represents, itself. This, according to the theory, explains the self-awareness that is essential to conscious states, and, in addition, distinguishes them from unconscious mental states. The idea that something can be self-representing may seem contradictory, but as shown by Kenneth Williford in his paper “The Self-Representational Structure of Consciousness” there are solutions to this apparent difficulty, and so I will not count it among the problems.

As attractive as it may sound philosophers such as John Drummond and Rocco Gennaro have shown that there are serious difficulties facing such an account of consciousness. One is that our experience of self-awareness doesn’t seem representational, except in the special case of purposeful introspection. In an experience of looking at an object it feels as though the object is being presented to me. However, my self-awareness doesn’t feel presented, it is simply there, an ever-present part of experience. The second problem is that it seems difficult to handle the case of purposeful introspection under such a theory. Surely introspection is different from our normal mode of experience, but if introspection is consciousness being directed at itself, a common understanding of introspection, what separates it from our normal self-directed representation?

An unmodified understanding of self-representation can solve both these problems. We could argue that our self-representation doesn’t feel like our representation of external features of the world because the representation we are talking about is part of the unconscious structure of experience. The self-representation then may not be consciously experienced as representation even though it is fundamentally structured as such. We could also argue that in the case of introspection more of the state is directed at itself, specifically the parts that we feel as presentational, in line with the previous answer. Or, alternatively, we could argue that introspection doesn’t really direct the currently conscious state at itself, but at a remembered state or some fabricated state, thus explaining the unreliability of introspection in certain cases.

While such answers may suitably address the objections, they may seem unmotivated by experience and theory. Fortunately, there is a better answer. The following version of self-representational consciousness is borrowed in large part from Uriah Kriegel: We break each conscious state into two parts, which I will call the monitoring aspect and the content aspect. The monitoring aspect is directed at, or about, the content aspect. Additionally, the monitoring aspect and the content aspect together form a “complex”, and thus a state that we can call conscious. The nature of being a complex is key to this account. In a complex both parts are influenced by each other, such that neither part would be the same if the other was missing. One way to understand this is that they each contain information about each other, information that is generated by the other part, but not necessarily representational information. For example two parts of a broken plate with matching edges could be considered a complex, because with each edge we could deduce information about the other piece, and neither would have had the edge that it does without the other piece having its edge.

Now, allow me to make some original modifications to this account. I would argue that the content aspect forms a complex by being colored by information from the monitoring aspect about the self. This then is the feeling of self-awareness that infuses all of our experiences; it is what allows that experience to “fit” into the conscious “complex”. The monitoring aspect then could be identified with our “self”, besides representing the content aspect it contains information about who we are. We could even use this description to explain the continuity of the self over time, specifically that the monitoring aspect and the content aspect of consciousness aren’t transient, being created simply for a moment of experience, but that they develop over time together. As our experience of the external world changes the content aspect changes to reflect this, and the monitoring aspect of course changes its representation of the content aspect as well. Likewise as the monitoring aspect (the “self”) changes the information about it in the content aspect changes.

This account has the added benefit (like most self-representational approaches) of explaining why our self-awareness can’t be mistaken, because if the monitoring aspect represented the content aspect incorrectly, or the content aspect contained incorrect information about the monitoring aspect, then together they wouldn’t form the appropriate complex, and thus wouldn’t be conscious.

This account answers the first objection, that self-awareness doesn’t feel like representation, by identifying our feelings of self-awareness that are part of each experience with the information about the monitoring aspect contained within the content aspect. Since this information isn’t representational by nature it is no surprise that it doesn’t feel like self-representation. Handling introspection is a trickier case. I would divide introspection into two categories, good and bad introspection. “Good” introspection is deducing information about the self from the information that is part of the self-awareness of a current experience or a remembered experience, and surely this doesn’t pose any problems for the account, since have the content aspect be directed at a memory or its own self-awareness is different from the usual self-representation. As for “bad” introspection, reflection upon normally unconscious aspects of the mind, I would say that it is a case of the content aspect being directed at a fictional account, which explains why such introspection can be so unreliable.

* I say recently popular because there are examples of philosophers from as far back as the 1920s who have put forward ideas similar to these (specifically Brentano).

August 27, 2006

An Explanation of Immediacy

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 1:42 am

Consider for a moment blind sight, a situation where a person has lost the ability to consciously perceive part of their visual field but can still use their “intuition” to deduce information about what is happening in the area they are “blind” to. Let us assume further that a patient with blind sight has honed their sensitivity to intuition to such an extent that they can construct the same representation of the world that a person with vision would (although this may not be possible in practice). What is the difference between the “visual” experience of a patient with blind sight who constructs their representation of the world based on intuition and that of a typical person? The answer is immediacy; the visual experience is an immediate part of the typical person’s experience, while the constructed version of the blind sight patient is not. Immediacy can differentiate other kinds of representations / presentations as well, for example consciously knowing your reasons for acting as compared to being able to deduce your unconscious reasons using knowledge of psychology, but I will stick to the blind sight example here.

One explanation of the phenomena of immediacy, as described by Uriah Kriegel in his paper “The Same-Order Monitoring Theory of Consciousness”, is that an immediate aspect of consciousness is presented to us as unmediated, i.e. we have no conscious knowledge as to how we have come to have it, while the parts of conscious that aren’t immediate are presented to us as mediated, i.e. we have conscious knowledge of where they come from. This certainly captures the immediacy distinction as we find it in our every day experience, and it certainly seems to captures the meaning of the word immediate (not mediated), but unfortunately it has a slight flaw. Imagine then that our fictional blind sight patient has become so in tune with their intuitions that they construct their representation of the world reflexively, but that the process is still conscious. This patient then suffers from an acute case of amnesia, but because they have practiced their ability to “see” through intuitions they still construct an accurate representation of the world. Would this representation now be immediate, since they don’t know that they are constructing it? Nothing seems to have changed about the experience itself, so it seems to me that there must be something more to immediacy, since it should depend only on the experience itself.

One way to solve this problem is to accept that a representation can carry more information than simply facts about what it represents. For example consider paintings. There may be several paintings of the same object, but they will seem substantially different to us if they are painted in different styles. The painting represents certain facts about its subject, but paintings convey additional information depending on how exactly they are representing those features. We can conceive of immediacy in a similar way, such that experiences that are immediate present themselves to us in one “style” while the rest do so in another way. It seems plausible actually that each distinct way we may come to represent some idea or fact has its own style. Vision has one style, hearing another, unconscious inferences a third, ect. Likewise, a representation that is formed by conscious inference will have its own style, a style that makes it seem not immediate to us, even if memory of how that representation was formed is lost to us.

This theory may not seem sufficiently motivated by the immediacy problem, but it does have another use as well, it partly explains qualia. What makes a tactile representation of an object and a visual one experientially different? Possibly the answer is that they each have their own distinct style. This is of course only the beginning of a solution, and is something I plan to explore further in the future.

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