On Philosophy

October 10, 2006

The First Person Perspective

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:00 am

Many philosophers think that the existence of a first person perspective is necessary for something to be called conscious [1]. But what is the first person perspective? Often we talk about the first person perspective as though it were a viewpoint from which our conscious mind “looks out” on our experiences. As intuitive as this idea may seem it is also misguided. If we really thought about the first person perspective in this way we could still ask all the questions we normally ask about consciousness about the first person perspective (e.g. what makes it have a first person perspective), and thus would have made no progress. In addition such a conception of the first person perspective leads either to an infinite regress, in which the first person perspective itself must have a first person perspective, or a denial that the question can be answered. Neither response gets us anywhere [2].

Thus if we are to successfully understand the first person perspective (in terms of understanding why people have it and rocks don’t) we must define it without invoking a perspective. This might seem impossible, since having a perspective is essential to our conception of the first person perspective (the name gives it away I think). It would be like asking someone to draw a square without drawing something that was a square. Is this really impossible? Consider the picture below:
In this picture there is clearly a square, but at the same time there isn’t. The “square” in the picture is created by the features of other elements in the picture, and not by a separate element in the picture that has the property of being square. Attempting to explain a first person perspective in terms of an inner point of view is much like attempting to explain the square in the above picture by appealing to some elements of the picture as being square, you just can’t do it. But, just as the shape of the other elements in the picture define the square, perhaps we can define the first person perspective in terms of the properties of other aspects of the mind, which create a perspective without themselves having a perspective.

Since experiences and the first person perspective are tied so closely together it is natural to assume that the structure of experience somehow creates the first person perspective [3]. But, before we can adopt such a view, we must address two possible problems. One is that we define experiences as being had by some consciousness, which in turn requires a first person perspective. This might seem like it would make determining which systems have a first person perspective impossible, since to see if they had a point of view we would need to know that they had experiences, which in turn would require that we already know that they have a first person perspective. The other potential problem is that we haven’t specified how experiences give rise to this first person perspective, and a failure to do so may leave some suspecting that it is impossible.

Let me first tackle the “chicken and the egg” problem. Although it may seem intimidating there is really a simple solution, instead of saying that the first person perspective is created by the structure of experience we can say that it is created by the structure of proto-experiences. A proto-experience is something that fills all the requirements to be an experience but isn’t necessarily part of a conscious system. Of course if the proto-experiences do contain a first person perspective then they can be considered real experiences, and if they don’t obviously they remain as only proto-experiences. This neatly resolves the problem, since we can still claim that all experiences necessarily have a first person perspective, but we don’t have to stipulate that something is a full-blown experience before we go looking for a first person perspective. For the moment I will leave it as an open question what is necessary for something to be a proto-experience, since it is beyond the scope of the current discussion, but it would be needed if we wanted to completely explain why some systems are consciousness and others aren’t.

The second problem, explaining how experiences create or are responsible for a first person perspective, is a bit trickier. The first possibility to consider is that the first person perspective is created by some specialized part of experiences, but given how we are aware of the self this seems unlikely, since unlike vision or hearing there is no specific “mode of experience” that is associated with the first person perspective. It is reasonable then to assume that the first person perspective is something that all aspects of experience contribute to. Experiences, as we know them, are not simply information gathered from externally directed senses, even if we set aside the internal components of experience such as thought. Our experiences are filled with concepts and additional information by unconscious processes, for example when we see a tree we see it as a tree in addition to seeing it as specifically colored shape. My proposal, then, is that the first person perspective is created by information “added” to experiences that relates the contents of perception, thought, ect to a subject. Objects seen are seen as being in a certain position to the perceiver, feelings are construed as my feelings, thoughts as my thoughts, ect. The information about the perceiver, the me, the I, that is added to experiences is responsible for our observation that a first person perspective exists, since in any conscious mental act information that there is a subject, that the experience is from our point of view, is also presented to us. And because information about a subject is embedded in the experience itself, and it is this information alone that is responsible for the first person perspective in consciousness, there is nothing more to the first person perspective, just as there is nothing more to the square in our earlier picture besides the shape of the black areas.


1. And I agree. See here

2. For more details on why the existence of an inner mental viewpoint doesn’t give us answers to questions about why a first person perspective exists and what it is see Dennett’s Consciousness Explained.

3. Hume’s view of the mind is in some ways similar to this. Hume thought that there was no such thing as an independently existing “self”, and that the “self” really is a bundle of sense perceptions. He reasoned to this conclusion partly because when introspecting he could never find the self without perceptions. Of course the view presented here does differ significantly from that of Hume, in the reasons that support it, and in the description of how experiences create the first person perspective.


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