It would be able to be nice to have a definition of what exactly constitutes an experience, preferably without reference to consciousness. Now I admit that, properly speaking, experiences are only found in conscious systems. So what we really want to define is a proto-experience, something that when had by a conscious system we would call an experience. Initially we might simply think that input in general is what I am calling proto-experiences. Input into an unconscious system, like a thermostat, is simply data, while input into a conscious system is an experience. Unfortunately things aren’t so simple. Consider, for example, the phenomenon of blind sight. A patient with blind sight has lost the ability to have the experience of vision at least for part of their visual field. Consciously they are blind in that area, but the information is still reaching their mind; when guessing (randomly, or so they think) they demonstrate that they have, unconsciously, some information about what going on in that region, as they “guess” spectacularly well. Blind sight then is an example of input into a conscious system that is not part of an experience.
Obviously in blind sight the input is only goes to the unconscious mind. But this does not answer our question, about what experience is. We might be tempted to say that it is input into the conscious mind, but the unconscious is part of the same system as the conscious mind, so what makes one kind of input experience and the other not? The key, I think, is how the information contained in the input is made available to the mind, and, more importantly, future mental states.
Previously I have put forward the thesis that consciousness arises from a kind of circular or reflexive structure. In a conscious system the information that makes up the conscious mental state at one moment is incorporated into future conscious states (I won’t go into all the details again here). What is relevant to our discussion about experiences is that it is this circularity which allows the contents of the conscious mind at one moment to be reflected upon in later moments. Thus it is my contention that what differentiates an experience from mere input is that the contents of the experience are incorporated into future mental states in the right way, while mere input goes directly to behavior.
Reflexes are a good example of this. The input that causes us to, for example, pull back from something hot does not immediately become part of the conscious mind. We react before we are aware of why we are reacting. And thus the input that caused us to pull away is effectively unconscious and nor part of experience, as it immediately causes us to pull away, and is not incorporated into the mind in a way that allows it to be reflected upon. Of course that input does become part of an experience after the reflex has occurred, but until it does, while the reflex is occurring, it is unconscious, simply input.
Now I did mention that the input had to be incorporated into a reflexive structure in the “right way”, and that deserves some clarification. The “right way” for a particular kind of input, say sight, is that when that input is processed, it is treated as sight. For example, if a system has visual input from a tree, and if that visual input is to be part of experience, then any thoughts or responses that the system generates as part of the circular process that defines experience must be about it as visual, not as a hunch, or smell, ect. What the difference might be in simple creatures is hard to imagine, but for people it is clear, it must be thought about, in every way, as vision (it must feel like vision). This is why the visual input in patients with blind sight is not a visual experience, even when they are correctly guessing about the contents of the region they cannot consciously see; that information is incorporated into their experience as a random guess, and not as visual input. When they reflect upon it they don’t think of it as sight, they think of it as a guess. Thus they have the experience of guessing, but not the experience of seeing, even if their guess and the visual input contained the same information.
Below is a diagram that I hope clarifies things at least a little bit:
There are two things that I would like to mention about this diagram. One is that the region I have labeled as “working memory” really stands for the current content of our experiences, which are in some way incorporated into future experiences. I have labeled it “working memory” because it is possible that this information is stored in short-term memory, although this is not necessarily the case. I would also like to note that the last section, showing how an input can be part of a conscious system but not part of experience, is not the only way this could happen, it simply illustrates one of the possibilities. It could, for example, go through some route that incorporates it into the region I have labeled “working memory”, but not as an input (this would be the case with blind sight).
This post acts as a complement to this one, about the first person perspective, in which I left unanswered the question of what a proto-experience was. Together they lead to the conclusion that if a system can be said to have proto-experiences, and those proto-experiences support a first person perspective, then the system is conscious.