On Philosophy

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).


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