On Philosophy

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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