On Philosophy

February 9, 2007

Talking About Consciousness And Experience

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:03 am

It is natural to talk about the things we are aware of by saying that we are conscious of them. For example I am aware that I am typing, so I am conscious of my typing. And if we are conscious of two things at the same time then it is natural to say that we are conscious of both of them. If I am conscious of my typing and I am conscious of my monitor then I am conscious of the combination of typing and monitor. The grouping of things can be extended further and further until we speak of ourselves as being conscious of the entirety of what we are experiencing, or in other words that we are conscious of our experience. (Another route to this point is to say that if something is conscious then we, the subject, are conscious of it. Obviously this principle can be applied to experience to reveal that we are conscious of our experience as well.) And this way of talking about consciousness leads naturally to two further kinds of thinking about consciousness. First, that there is a separate subject who is conscious of the experience (the “I”). And secondly that experience is self-referential, since if we are conscious of our experience we must be experiencing that consciousness of our experience. If we think of being conscious of something as a kind of representation then we are naturally led to conclude that every conscious experience contains a representation of that very experience. I hold that both of these claims are wrong, and that they stem from the fact that our talk of being conscious of things is not well founded. Although it is an adequate way to talk about some kinds of consciousness it can’t be extended to cover experience itself.

Well, why not? Let me proceed by analogy. Consider the property of being wet. If something is wet it is natural to say that it is coated in water. But is water wet then because it too is coated in water? I hope not, because this would lead to an infinite regress, with each coating of water itself being coated by another layer of water in order to be wet. Which isn’t very helpful in understanding what wetness is either. Instead, it makes more sense to say that water is fundamentally wet (as far as our ordinary senses can inform us about it); that the wetness of water can’t be explained in terms of one thing coating another. Likewise, instead of saying that we are conscious of experience we should simply say that experience is conscious, fundamentally; that being contained in experience is what makes us conscious of something, but that experience does not have to be contained in anything in order to be our consciousness.

This means that there is no need for a separate subject who has experiences. Instead we would say that the experiences create the subject, or are the subject. This might not seem like a big improvement, but consider its impact on the argument that various theories about consciousness fail because they are unable to explain “what it is like” to be something. But if experience is the subject then giving that experience to another subject (basically what is being demanded) is impossible. To let you know what it is like to be a bat you would have to become the bat, and cease being you. And mere words cannot do that. And the reason for the failure is not because experience is some non-physical thing, it is simply because the subject of experience and the experience itself are one and the same, so asking for the experience without the subject is simply ill-conceived.

And by identifying experience with consciousness we also eliminate the need to claim that either the experience is self-referential (same order theory) or that it is being monitored by something else (higher order theory). Same order theory of course had problems because it was hard to see how an ever-changing experience could be self-representational, and because we simply didn’t experience an infinite depth of self-representation (we would have been aware of the experience representing an experience that represents an experience, and so on). And of course higher order theory had always been problematic because it raised more questions than it solved (why did this one kind of representing or monitoring make things conscious when no other kind did?).

A second moral to take away from this discussion is that natural language philosophy isn’t the best approach to many problems. Sometimes the way we talk about things is inconsistent or doesn’t reflect what is really going on; sometimes all it reflects is our conventions about things that we don’t really know how to talk about.

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