Unfortunately when we study consciousness, especially when we consider what experiences are conscious, we have only our own first person experience to rely on. This approach has a unique set of problems associated with it, especially when dealing with time, which are swept under the rug when we consider consciousness as a temporally extended whole, perhaps inappropriately. Consider, for example, a memory suddenly recovered of an event that one never had a memory of before (perhaps not a condition that occurs in real life, but definitely something that is possible). After such a recovery we would have memories of a time that we didn’t before, and of course by the nature of memory such events would be remembered as being experienced by us from a first person point of view. Was this period of time conscious all along, then, and simply hidden from us, or did it become conscious upon our ability to remember it?
Accepting either interpretation of events seems to lead to unacceptable consequences. If we accept that it became conscious when we were able to remember it we seem to be accepting that an experience being conscious to a subject is something that can be decided years after the subject actually experienced it. On the other hand, arguing that the remembered experience was conscious all along would seem to undermine our first person authority about consciousness, which is equally strange since consciousness is often approached as the aspect of the mind that we have first person access to. Even stranger, if we accept that a recovered memory was conscious all along then how are we to handle false memories or “borrowed” memories (the possibility of one person’s memories being given to another person)? It would seem strange to say that since they can be remembered as conscious they must have been conscious all along, since in the case of a false memory it never really happened, and in the case of borrowed memories it happened to someone else, not the person who it is now conscious for. (Of course there is also the option to deny that remembered events are necessarily conscious in any way, but this would lead to a strange position where one could rationally doubt that they were conscious before the present moment, and clearly this is a ridiculous doubt.)
The underlying problem is not how we approach remembered events, but how we deal with the conscious subject. Because we naively assume that during a lifetime there is one conscious subject we assume that every experience must be conscious for that same subject, leading us to the problems above. However, it is well known that considering people as some single entity that exists for a lifetime (the person at one time is the same person at some later time) is paradoxical (because of branching and transitivity). As I briefly touched upon here one solution to this problem is to consider each instant to be a single person, who is very similar to the people in that body at subsequent and preceding instants, and less and less like the people at instants further away in time. In other words, we could call James now James(A), James five seconds later James(B), and James five minutes later James(C). James(A) is very similar to both James(B) and James(C), but he is more similar to James(B) than to James(C). The degree of similarity itself is determined by how many psychological (or mental) properties the person-instants have in common. Under this view the idea that there is a single person at all times who lives in the same body is simply a rough abstraction that arises because a person at any two moments in their life is generally more similar to “themselves” than to other people.
If we accept this analysis of personhood then we should modify how we study consciousness as well. Instead of working under the assumption that there is one subject who has conscious experiences at different times we should work under the idea that there are many subjects, who are simply very much alike each other when they are close together in time. Considering what experiences are conscious with respect to these instantaneous subjects is a much easier task. Obviously the experience the instantaneous subject is having should be considered conscious, but to define conscious experience as that alone would be too limited. Instead I define a conscious experience as an experience that could be deduced to have happened from the mind of the instantaneous subject. In this context I am using deducible to mean that if we could examine the parts of the mind that contribute to consciousness in the instantaneous subject we would be able to deduce that they had a given experience (either by the possibility to remember it, or by other factors). This means that certain experiences had by the past “subject” and forgotten, to the extent that the subject’s mind contains no evidence of ever having had that experience, would not be considered conscious for that subject, even if they were conscious when the experiences were had. Similarly, false memories would be considered conscious.
These conclusions may seem strange, but when we remind ourselves that we are considering as our subject that mind at only a particular instant it should seem less so. And just as with personhood we can recover much of our ordinary talk about consciousness if we define our conscious “subject” as the sum of very similar momentary subjects. In fact, considering our normal concept of consciousness as just this kind of sum reveals where our confusion about recovered memories comes from, since the momentary subjects disagree about whether that experience was conscious. Additionally, approaching consciousness as a sum of momentarily conscious subjects allows us to study cases such as branching (for example, a person who has some part of their experienced life removed from their mind, perhaps by amnesia), but I will leave such investigations for a future post.