On Philosophy

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.


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