On Philosophy

August 28, 2007

Mass Manipulation

Filed under: Essays,Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

Is it ethically permitted to manipulate the public? Are we allowed to subtly influence them so that the majority of people develop the attitudes and beliefs we want them to have? The question is often made more complicated than it needs to be by our tendency to focus on cases of mass manipulation used for evil ends, and from them drawing the conclusion that all manipulation is bad. That is much like focusing on car accidents and coming to the conclusion that driving is bad. To reason in such a way is too erroneously reach the conclusion that driving is intrinsically bad because it can be used in a way we would disapprove of. To properly consider the issue of mass manipulation we must address these concerns separately. Is it intrinsically bad regardless of its consequences? And can it be reliably used to achieve good results?

If someone was to argue that mass manipulation is intrinsically bad it would have to be because takes away the freedom of people to have attitudes and beliefs independently of outside influences. In one sense it is hard to argue against this claim from first principles, because whether such freedom is good tends to be an assumption, or at least close to one. Fortunately there is a way around pondering that question; it is easy to show that regardless of whether we are being manipulated or not people have the same amount of such freedom, because the people who can be manipulated never had that freedom to begin with. To demonstrate why this is the case I must use an analogy. People are like a flock of birds, a flock not in physical space, but in the space of ideas. People naturally imitate other people, and so tend to have the same attitudes and the same beliefs. Of course not everyone is part of one flock, some are naturally independent and ignore the flock to a great degree, and depending on how you look at it there may very well be more than one flock (people are most likely to be influenced those that they are already similar to, thus allowing distinct groups to exist). The details are largely irrelevant. Mass manipulation works by using this flocking behavior to the manipulator’s advantage. People instinctively try to stick to the flock, so manipulators try to convince people that certain attitudes or beliefs are in the majority. And so, wishing to stick close to the flock, people begin to pick up those attitudes and beliefs until they really are the majority. The flock not equally sensitive to all of its members at all times; depending on the current state of the flock a change in some members may result in a large influence on the flock as a whole. The manipulator thus works by identifying these key members and influencing them, which in turn influences everyone. And by now I hope it is relatively obvious why no one is really “free” from manipulation, even in the absence of manipulator. Even if someone isn’t trying to control the flock it will still be influenced more by some members than by others. In the absence of external guidance they will tend to change their “trajectory” in the “space of ideas” in essentially a random fashion. This does not result in the members of the flock being free of external influences when they choose their attitudes and beliefs. Rather, their attitudes and beliefs are as subject to the flock as ever, only now the flock as a whole is guided essentially randomly instead of purposefully (subject to emergent manipulation, to coin a phrase). And I can’t see any intrinsic advantage in that.

So mass manipulation is obviously not intrinsically undesirable. Which brings us to our second question: can mass manipulation be used reliably to achieve good results? The answer would seem to depend only on whether the manipulator is able to do a better job then the essentially random influences that would govern the behavior of the flock in their absence. Let us give the flock in its natural state the best possible advantage, and assume that the random influences (the emergent manipulation) reflects the average intellectual capacity of the members (although in reality it is probably worse than that; the emergent manipulation tends to reflect the intellectual capacity of the most well-connected members of the flock). This means that the manipulator can achieve better results assuming they are in a position to make a better decision than the average person. And thus that when it comes to manipulating the flock in large ways they probably do worse, as the individual is unable to take everything into account, while the average person, reflecting all the members of the flock, is influenced by everything, from foreign politics to the current price of eggs (the same reason that even a person intelligently trying to set prices does worse than the free market). But the manipulator probably can do better than the average person when it comes to specific issues. A professional is much better at making judgments about, for example, how many nuclear power plants we should have in proportion to solar wind and hydroelectric sources than the average person is (because of their irrational fear of nuclear power). Thus a manipulator who was a professional, or listened to professional advice, could conceivably direct the flock in a better direction, as long as they restricted their manipulation to a single issue (rather than trying to affect people’s opinions on a wide range of topics).

Thus I am inclined to give mass manipulation, used wisely, the thumbs up. Of course that doesn’t say whether people who are currently engaged in mass manipulation are using it wisely. I suspect that the people inclined to try to manipulate the public aren’t restricting their influence to just a few issues, and thus aren’t using it wisely. But then we should condemn them for using their power to manipulate us poorly, not just because they were manipulating us, as we would condemn a driver who causes an accident for driving poorly, not just because they were driving.

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May 26, 2007

Spinoza And Self-Destruction

Filed under: Essays,Metaphysics — Peter @ 12:00 am

Spinoza claims that nothing can be destroyed except by an external cause, a claim that he describes as self-evident. However to me it seems anything but. Plenty of things seem to destroy themselves, a fact that Spinoza was surely aware of. Clearly then Spinoza must have had something different in mind when made that claim. And thus to evaluate whether this claim can withstand serious scrutiny we must first attempt to understand it as Spinoza did.

The most charitable way of understanding this proposition is as claiming that there is nothing in the nature of a thing that can lead particular things of that kind to their own destruction, and thus that if particular things do seem to destroy themselves it must be because of outside causes, or at least causes that aren’t part of their essence. This is a reading that follows in part from the demonstration, where Spinoza says that if follows from the fact that “the definition of each thing affirms, but does not deny, the essence” (170). Now this might seem to imply just that the essence of each thing cannot contain facts that prevent its existence. However, the derivation of proposition 6 in the same section motivates treating not just contradictory facts as excluded from the nature of each thing, but any self-destructive tendency. There Spinoza argues that everything must strive to preserve its existence because it can’t contain any drive to end its existence, which he claims follows from the proposition in question. Obviously this claim does not follow from simply the absence of properties that would prevent the thing from existing in the first place, and so we must conclude that Spinoza intended something like the charitable reading presented here, otherwise many of the propositions following it would have false derivations.

Although this proposition in this form doesn’t appear necessarily false it still seems open to counter-examples. Many physical objects seem liable to self-destruct by nature, for example time bombs and isotopes with short half-lives. However Spinoza might be able to argue that in such cases these things have been put into a self-destructive state by external forces, and thus that it is not because of their essential properties that they are destroyed. Whether this response succeeds in a addressing the problem is hard to tell. It depends on what is and isn’t part of the essence of the object. Now earlier in the Ethics Spinoza seems to claim that only attributes constitute essence (Part 1 Definition 4) and that thought and extension are the only attributes we know of (Part 2 Propositions 1 and 2). This would imply in the case of a non-thinking thing, like the time bomb, that its essence is extension. But if that is what Spinoza means by essence here then his claim that nothing can be destroyed, except by an external cause, is vacuous. I can’t think of any way in which the essence of extension could be negated, most destruction simply spreads a thing out (making it, if anything, more extended). Thus bombs are free to blow themselves up, and things to fall apart by their nature, because none of these activities negate their essence, and hence none of them would be destruction.

This isn’t what Spinoza seems to mean here. By destruction he seems to mean what we ordinarily think of as destruction, which includes blowing up and falling apart. Thus it seems charitable to interpret Spinoza’s use of essence here in the more traditional sense, as the properties that are necessary to make a thing the kind of thing that it is. But then we are back to the previous problem, namely that we don’t have a definitive way of saying what does and doesn’t count as an essential property. For example, a time bomb that doesn’t detonate itself may be defective and thus fail to be a time bomb proper. And so we might be inclined to argue that self-destruction is an essential part of being a working time bomb. However, it is hard to get traction against Spinoza using this line of argument, since Spinoza hasn’t taken a stance on how to determine what is and isn’t an essential property of most objects, assuming that we give Spinoza the benefit of the doubt, and assume he would include in the essence of a thing more than extension and thought . This leaves him free to hold fast to proposition 4, and on the basis of it reject the idea that properties such as self-detonation can possibly belong to the essence of time bombs.

Thus to really press Spinoza on this issue it seems necessary to argue that attributes Spinoza himself admits are part of the essence of some thing can lead to its self-destruction. People then serve as a good example, since Spinoza has taken a position about what is in the nature of people and it seems clear that people do on occasion seek their own destruction. Of course Spinoza doesn’t deny that people do occasionally kill themselves. But he explains such choices by claiming that these situations arise when a person “is overcome by causes which are external to him and contrary to his nature.” (241) Thus such a person may be forced by external causes to destroy themselves, such as when threatened with some greater harm if they don’t, or because they are overcome by passions which are external to their essential nature of being rational beings. Certainly this covers most of the ordinary cases of self-destruction. However, there are rare situations in which people seem to rationally choose their own destruction in order to achieve some result that they value more highly than continued existence. Most frequently this occurs in cultures that place a high value on individual honor. Because of this emphasis on honor individuals may choose to kill themselves, usually in a ritual fashion, to avoid dishonor or to regain their honor. Such an act seems like a rational choice, and not a case in which the individual is overcome by something external.

One possible response to such a situation is to claim that it is external causes that force this choice on the individual, either the situation that takes away their honor or the society that values honor so highly. Although this might be one way out I do not think that it would be to Spinoza’s liking. To accept this resolution would be to make external forces the cause of every action, and thus to deny that people ever have the possibility to be self-determined, or, in Spinoza’s terms, free. This is because every choice we make is in some sense presented to us by the situations in which we find ourselves. I can only choose to type these sentences because of certain external factors, namely my computer being on and in working condition. Spinoza of course avoids this possibility by arguing that people are the adequate causes of their choices, if they are rational, because that choice can be completely understood through their psychological state. This means that I am the cause of my writing, and not the state of my environment, because the fact that these sentences will be written follows from my current ideas and my rationality. And the same can be said about the individuals who kills themselves over personal honor; given their ideas about honor we can see that their self-destruction is the choice that they will make in order to do what they think is best.

A better response, and one available to Spinoza, is to claim that such individuals are indeed motivated by inadequate ideas, but in a form other than passions. Specifically it could be claimed that they have inadequate ideas about the value of honor. Since these ideas are inadequate they are not part of their essence, but rather something external to it. And so if these inadequate ideas move someone to destroy themselves it does not contradict the charitable understanding of the proposition presented here, which claimed only that things were not moved to self-destruction by their essential properties. Assuming that their ideas about honor really are inadequate this seems sound.

This response works only because we can claim that the value they placed on certain situations, namely being honorable, was caused by an inadequate idea of honor. But if any individual values anything other than their own survival then we can set up a similar situation, where they will be willing to risk a small chance of destruction in order to gain something of perceived value. And such risk taking would be a failure of endeavoring to preserve ones own being, which Spinoza says can only come about as a result of external causes. But Spinoza himself seems to highlight at least three things that seem rational to value: joy, pleasure, and freedom. And if we do value these things, based on an adequate ideas about them, it would seem that we might rationally accept an additional small risk of destruction, such as crossing the street a few more times than is absolutely necessary, in order to secure them. But this is perhaps a misconstrual of Spinoza. Although he talks as if joy and pleasure and freedom were valuable in and of themselves his arguments for their value rest on their being beneficial to survival. Thus properly speaking we should value them only inasmuch as they promote our survival, and so it is impossible for situations to arise where we might rationally prioritize them over our survival to any extent. Whether such a life, living in a one floor house in the suburbs and avoiding leaving it by telecommuting and having everything delivered (one that prioritizes survival above all else), is actually satisfying I shall leave alone.

Thus Spinoza seems to have the resources with which to deal with possible counter-examples involving human self-destruction. But Spinoza has these resources because we have charitably assumed that if something is destroyed by something is not in its essence then it is destroyed by an external cause and because we have granted him the freedom to determine which properties are essential by fiat. However, the actual demonstration says that is the “definition of each thing” which “posits but does not deny the essence of the thing”. However, consider the definition of suicides, namely “those who kill themselves”. Clearly to be a suicide is to destroy yourself, so in the case of suicides, so defined, it would indeed seem that self-destruction is an essential property. And yet this definition does not deny their essence. And so it would seem that the definition of a thing can indeed contain elements that lead to the destruction of particular such things, and thus that these things are the cause of their own destruction. Now Spinoza might object to introducing suicides as a kind, such that the properties that suicides are defined as having aren’t essential to them, and hence aren’t internal causes of destruction, possibly because they are a sub-kind of people in general. However there are plenty of unstable subatomic elements that do seem unquestionably to be a kind, and which are defined by having a particular half-life (a particular average time to decay). Of course this doesn’t reveal a contradiction within Spinoza, he is free to deny that they are in fact kinds. But it leaves us with a choice between accepting the doctrine that nothing can be destroyed by an external cause or between accepting an understandable and practically useful division of the world into kinds of things. Given that choice I think we have good grounds for rejecting Spinoza’s position.

May 4, 2007

Power And Omnipotence, Spinoza And The Scholastics

Filed under: Essays — Peter @ 12:00 am

Spinoza thinks that much of the traditional conception of God is flawed, especially when it is informed by Scholastic philosophy. Thus Spinoza divides his time in part one of the Ethics between developing his own distinct conception of God and attacking the traditional conception. We might wonder why Spinoza doesn’t spend all his time developing his own philosophy. After all, if he is right about God then surely the other conceptions are wrong, so why does he need to spend time arguing against misconceptions of God? The reason is Spinoza’s distinctive method. He can show that from his initial definitions and axioms certain consequences about the nature of God can be deduced. However, he can offer no compelling reason to accept those definitions and axioms, especially since few of them seem intuitively obvious. Instead he must motivate us to reject our existing thoughts about God, on their own grounds, and thus drive us to accept some alternate theory, presumably Spinoza’s. One of the ways in which Spinoza tries to overturn the traditional conception of God is by revealing a hidden contradiction within our conception of God’s omnipotence. But, at least in this instance, Spinoza is unsuccessful, or so I claim.

To understand what Spinoza dislikes about the Scholastic conception of the omnipotence of God we must first understand what that conception is. Obviously there is no one Scholastic conception, different writers understood the matter differently. Instead of trying to uncover a genuine Scholastic position on this issue it is probably best to try and reconstruct the position that Spinoza sees himself as responding to. Thus, as Spinoza portrays them, it would seem that the Scholastics define the power of God in terms of God’s potential for action, since Spinoza sees them as denying God the ability to do everything because “if he were to create everything he understands, he would (according to them) exhaust his omnipotence” (92). But why identify power with only potentiality, why not identify power with both the potential and the actual effects brought about by something? Well, consider how we analyze the power of an ordinary person. Certainly it seems natural to say that anything I might choose to do in the future is within my power. And this is why the Scholastics say that my potential for action, and God’s potential for action, is our power. The choices that have already been actualized are those that are in the past. And clearly I don’t, now, have any power over them; by being actualized they are thus fixed and out of my control. Which makes sense of the idea that the power of a being is to be identified with its potentiality and not its actuality, because, by being out of its control, it seems natural to say that it lacks power over what is actual. Of course this might still leave us wondering how to treat actions that are currently occurring, as they seem to be in a state of transition between the potential and the actual, but that we needn’t worry about that here.

This description of power seems relatively unproblematic when it comes to beings like, us, who live in time, but some complications arise when applying this doctrine to God. Consider the fact that we have many opportunities to perform the same action. At the moment I have the power to keep writing or to stop and go to the kitchen. Now, let’s say that I make the choice to keep writing. Even so, I still have the power to keep writing or to stop writing, because now I am presented with those same choices again. So for us it doesn’t seem like there is a direct connection between our power and the choices we make actual; often it seems that we can take some action actual without diminishing our power. But careful consideration reveals that this is an illusion. We need to realize that, even though it may seem like we have the option to perform the same action at different times, it really isn’t the case. We can think of our actions as being relativized to the time. Thus the action of continuing to write at time t1 is not the same as the action of continuing to write at time t2. They are similar, but not exactly identical. When we look at the matter in this way it becomes clear that turning a potentiality into an actuality, making a choice, does diminish our power. Continuing to write at t1 negates my power of going to the kitchen at t1. The reason this doesn’t seem obvious is because, since we exist in time, choices are continuously forced on us. Each moment, no matter what we do, we make some potentiality actual and a host of other possibilities are removed from our power, by a process that is completely outside of our control.

But for God things are different, since God is outside of time. Let’s say that God “decides” to have some effect on the created world at the moment we think of as t1. This doesn’t prevent him from “later” choosing to have and additional effect on the world, also at the moment we think of as t1. Of course talk of “deciding” and what God decides to do “later” is metaphorical, since God, being outside of time, is portrayed as changeless and eternal. So, let us assume that God’s power is unbounded, meaning that every possible effect on the created world is a potentiality for him. We then need to explain why some of these potentialities are actualities, and why only some and not all are. To explain this the Scholastics attribute to God an intellect or will that governs which parts of his power are actualized and which remain potential for all eternity. As Spinoza says, “they have preferred to set up a God … who creates only that which he has decided to create by an absolute will” (91). And of course this too is only analogous to our intellect and will, since God’s intellect and will have existed along with him in a changeless way from all eternity, which means that which parts of God’s power are actualized and which are potential remain that way for all eternity as well.

With this rough understanding of the Scholastic’s framework in mind we can set up Spinoza’s critique of God’s omnipotence. Spinoza argues that, under their framework, God is prevented from making all of his power actual, because if he was to make all of his power actual then he would have no power, since power is identified with potentiality by the Scholastics. But this, he claims, is to contradict God’s omnipotence, because we have thus argued that God can’t, in fact, do everything. And to Spinoza there is nothing “more absurd, or more inconsistent with the omnipotence of God” (92).

But this critique is flawed because it turns on an equivocation between two understandings of “the power to do everything”. More specifically, it turns on the seeming contradiction between granting that God can do every particular thing while denying that God can do everything. But this only seems like a contradiction. The power to do every particular thing is not negated by an inability to do all of those things at once. For example, if I had the power to buy any one of four expensive books it is consistent with my power to buy each of those particular books that I lack the power to buy all of those books, because I may have enough money only to buy one, and not all, of them. Now obviously God’s power isn’t limited by a lack of resources. However God’s power is, according to the Scholastics, limited by contradiction. Specifically the Scholastic’s admit that God can’t do anything contradictory; he can’t make a triangle with four sides. But, they say, this is a lack of power only in name; because impossibilities aren’t potential by their nature, and thus to deny them to God is not to limit his power to only some of the potentialities. If it is in the nature of God to be omnipotent, meaning that God’s omnipotence is a necessary truth, which the Scholastics grant, then God’s making every potentiality an actuality would be a contradiction, an impossibility. And thus denying that power to God is limit his power only in name, not in reality.

Now Spinoza might respond to this by arguing that combinations of powers are themselves distinct powers, meaning that the power to do A and B is a third power in addition to the power to do A and the power to do B. And thus he might be able to claim that the Scholastics are denying the power that is the combination of the power to do every particular thing. But there is no reason for the Scholastics to concede that every combinations of powers is itself a power. And even if they did, they could claim that the power that is the combination of all particular powers is an impossible power, because to have that power would be to have the ability to be powerless, which contradicts God’s omnipotence, which contradicts having that very power; and thus that denying that God has it does not contradict his omnipotence. Or Spinoza might claim that even to hold the idea that God’s power could be exhausted in some way is to deny that his power is infinite. But there is nothing contradictory about the possibility of an infinite set being exhausted. For example, the set containing zero and closed under the successor function exhausts the natural numbers, but this does not contradict the idea that the natural numbers are infinite in number. Again, the Scholastics’ conception of God can be defended through careful analysis in which certain false assumptions (that every combination of powers is itself a possible power) or mistakes (that something infinite cannot be exhausted) are corrected.

But let us assume, for a moment, that Spinoza’s criticism was successful. Even so it wouldn’t necessarily push the Scholastics in the way he wanted. Spinoza was trying to show that the way the Scholastics understood God’s freedom, and God’s power, contradicted their conception of God’s omnipotence. But nothing stops the Scholastics from instead giving up their conception of God’s omnipotence, and replacing it with Spinoza’s; to understand claiming that God is omnipotent as claiming that he is the cause of all things. If they made that adjustment instead then they could keep their conception of God’s power, and what it means for God to be free. Spinoza certainly can’t object to their radical redefinition of omnipotence, since he himself redefines omnipotence in exactly that way. Nor can he object to them rejecting God’s omnipotence instead of his freedom, because in many ways that is how Spinoza himself proceeds, following the argument wherever it leads, no matter how counterintuitive that may be.

The point I am making is this: Spinoza’s method may make him immune to most criticism. As long as he hasn’t made a mistake and inadvertently included a contradiction then there is nothing we can say against his philosophy on its own terms. However, because of his method, Spinoza has limited resources with which to argue against opposing views. He can’t complain that they diverge too far from common sense, because he does not bind himself to common sense. And even if he uncovers a contradiction, which may or may not be possible, his opponents can always replace one of their premises or definitions, and there is no way to force them to replace it with something more in line with Spinoza’s own thinking. If the Scholastics were still around this is how I think they might criticize Spinoza, by arguing that while his philosophy can’t be refuted on its own grounds neither can he move other people to accept it.

March 21, 2007

Self-Representation And Representation Of The Self

Filed under: Essays,Mind — Peter @ 12:00 am

It seems undeniable that we are aware of ourselves, meaning that the self is part of experience, and if everything in experience is there because it is being represented then experience is self-representational. But this is not what is claimed by the self-representational thesis about consciousness. The self-representational thesis claims that experiences represent themselves (or, more loosely, are directed at themselves). Are these two positions, that we are conscious of ourselves and that our experiences are directed at themselves, similar only in name, or does a consistent exploration of the phenomenology of the consciousness of self necessarily entail that that experience is self-representational?

Let us begin with Drummond’s account of the self. Drummond argues that the self cannot be an object of awareness in the way a tree or a book is, assuming that self-awareness is present in every experience, which is a reasonable assumption. If it was then there would be an experience of that awareness of self. And if that experience was conscious then it too would have contain an awareness of the self, leading to an infinite regress. But, on the other hand, if it was unconscious then we would be accepting a kind of higher order theory about consciousness, and higher order theories are generally accepted to be unsatisfying, since they fail to explain how this unconscious awareness of self makes the associated object directed experience conscious.

Given that we recognize that the awareness of self is unlike the awareness of objects we need a new way to talk about it that doesn’t mislead us into thinking of it as an object of awareness. Drummond proposes thinking of it as similar to the genitive case, meaning that the awareness of self is a modification of our awareness of objects, not a separate awareness. For example, when I see my arm I don’t experience “that arm in front of me” I experience “my arm”. And this can be said about any object of experience, although for many cases it does not translate well into a grammatical analogy. In Drummond’s model when I see a tree I see more than just the tree, I “see” certain properties of myself at the same time, for example my spatial relation to the tree. But to characterize this content as “my seeing the tree” is still slightly misleading, since it would seem to indicate that I am reflecting on my experience and, on reflection, am experiencing it as mine, which was not what was meant to be conveyed at all.

This is, I think, Drummond’s primary complaint with the description of the awareness of self put forward by Smith, namely that it is misleading. Obviously Drummond and Smith agree on some of the basic facts; that the subject, the I, is part of the experience itself. But Drummond thinks that the description Smith provides of this phenomena reflects the structure of experience as reported and not the structure of experience as experienced, or, in other words, that it is only something you might say truly about your experience. For example, when I say “the boy catches the ball” the boy is the subject and the ball is the object. But if I say this sentence as a report of what I am experiencing then it implies that both the boy and the ball are objects of my experience. Thus Drummond sees Smith’s formulation “Phenomenally in this very experience I see the green frog” to imply that the I is an object of experience, along with the green frog.

And there are other reasons to believe that Smith’s account reflects the structure of reports about experience more than it does the structure of pre-reflective experience as experienced. For example, in Smith’s description of experience “phenomenally, in this very experience” are part of the content of every experience as experienced. But even if they are there in every experience they are unlikely to appear to us except in reflection, because by being always present we would naturally stop paying attention to them, except possibly in reflection. But if they only appear in reflection we aren’t justified in assuming that they are part of the content of pre-reflective experience. A second reason to doubt the structure of experience as presented by Smith is that it seems to reflect a structure that comes about as a result of trying to communicate our experience to others. To communicate facts about experience I must tell them that it was my experience, instead of the experience of someone else, I must tell them that it was an experience in order to talk about the experience and not about its content, and I must tell them that it was phenomenal, instead of something that I came to know unconsciously. Thus to talk about my experience to other people in a completely unambiguous fashion I must begin descriptions of its content with “Phenomenally in this very experience I …”. But these seem to be features that are only necessary when talking about my experience, and not when I reflect silently upon it. To think about my experience of a jumping frog all I need to think about is “that seen jumping frog”. Although I might add those other descriptions when thinking at a more abstract level they aren’t necessary, and thus the fact that we use them when talking about our experience doesn’t guarantee that they reflect the structure of experience.

But Smith’s account does explain a feature of experience that Drummond’s does not, namely that we experience our selves as existing continuously. In Drummond’s account each experience reveals a self, but there is no necessary reason for these revealed selves to be experienced as a unified self. As far as the account developed above is concerned the subject could be revealed in experience as person A in one moment, B in the next, ect. To provide the needed consistency Drummond appeals to time consciousness. Drummond’s account of time consciousness involves three distinct levels of time, and thus, in my opinion, it “explains too much”. Whatever the merits of that structure is it is simply more than is needed to explain how time consciousness results in the self being experienced as temporally unified. Thus let me instead present a simpler account inspired by that provided by Zahavi. In our time consciousness our retentions and protentions are presented as ours. Just as an experience of a tree presents us by presenting us as in a certain relation to the tree our experience of retentions and protentions presents us by presenting us as in a certain relation to them, namely that we were the ones who experienced, or will experience, them. As it stands then there are still two selves in the picture. One is the self1 who is presented as in a certain relation to the current objects of experience, and as the experiencer of those protentions and retentions, and the other is the self2 that the past experience presented as in a certain relation to the objects of that experience. These collapse into a single self if we accept an additional fact, that in each experience the self is presented as the experiencer of that experience. If that is the case then in the past experience self2 is presented as the experiencer of the experience, and, as we have already established self1 is presented as the experiencer of that past experience in our current experience. Since we think of a given experience as having only a single experiencer then we can conclude that self1 is necessarily the same as self2. And thus from these facts we can see why we experience ourselves as a single, continuously existing, self.

With this consistent phenomenological analysis of the awareness of self in hand we can now return to the original question: does this account of self-awareness imply that experience necessarily represents, or is directed at, itself? Surprisingly we might seem to be forced to accept that conclusion, because in our discussion of how time consciousness gave rise to the sense of a unified self we had to invoke the fact that the self was presented in experience as the experiencer of that experience. If this fact is fundamental to experience, meaning that it is revealed to us pre-reflectively, then it would seem to be the case that our experience was self-reflexive, because each experience would be presenting fact about itself, namely that it was experienced by us.

However, I do not think that there is good reason to believe that the self is presented as the experiencer of experience pre-reflectively, or, at the very least, that we don’t have to accept that conclusion on the basis of the phenomenological account above. Under that phenomenal thesis we have accepted that the self is only presented in relation to the objects of experience. For example, the self was presented as in a certain location because the objects of experience had a location, and that location was in reference to the implied self. If experience was the object of experience it would blur the distinction between reflective experiences, where one does ponder the nature of experience themselves, either thorough memory or through introspection, from non-reflective experiences, since both would contain various experience as their object. Of course it is possible that this difference is a matter of attention, but I don’t think that such an analysis properly conveys the difference between pre-reflective and reflective experiences. Reflective experiences don’t feel like a paying attention to a different part of a pre-reflective experience, they feel like we are turning our attention to a new object. Thus it is natural to say that it is only in reflection that experience becomes an object of experience (almost by definition, since what is reflection except making experience an object of our experience). This also might seem to make retentions and protentions problematic, since they are experiences that have become part of our current experience pre-reflectively. However, I think it is perfectly consistent to treat retentions and protentions much like the self, as modifying our current experience rather than being explicit objects of it. Of course none of this proves conclusively that experience is not a pre-reflective object of experience, but it does show that we don’t have to treat it as such on the basis of our phenomenological thesis about the self. And if this is indeed the case then the self is presented as the experiencer of an experience only in reflection, which means that the self is presented as unified and temporally extended only in reflection. Hopefully this doesn’t seem like a leap of faith; it certainly seems natural to say that such abstract properties of the self appear only in reflection. And this implies that the self is not presented as the experiencer pre-reflectively, and thus that experience is not usually about, or directed at, itself.

Admittedly this proves only a limited conclusion, that there are consistent phenomenological theories about our awareness of self that don’t imply that experience is directed at itself. Although I have argued against both Smith’s account and accounts that would have the self presented as experiencer pre-reflectively I have not refuted these accounts, I have only shown that we don’t have to accept one of them, that there are other plausible accounts that seem to describe our experience. But, even so, there is, as far as I can tell, no a priori way to determine which of these phenomenological accounts is right; when we reflect on our experience we will approach what we find with different expectations, and hence may disagree as to which account is the best characterization of it (although we all will agree that certain accounts fail to reflect experience, or are impossible by being contradictory). And at such a point the matter becomes outside the domain of phenomenology. Certainly there is some fact of the matter about whether experience is directed at itself, but it can’t be settled definitively by studying how experience appears to us.

February 16, 2007

Two Readings Of The Self-Representational Thesis

Filed under: Essays,Mind — Peter @ 12:02 am

There are two ways of understanding the self-representational thesis about consciousness. The first is as an explanatory thesis, which attempts to explain why some systems are conscious by appealing to some of the facts about those systems, in this case their self-representational nature. The second is to understand the thesis as a phenomenal one, as an attempt to analyze and better understand the structure of experience as experienced (which may or may not move us closer to an understanding of consciousness in objective terms). However, the self-representational thesis has problems under both of these readings.

Certainly the first reading, that self-representation explains why a system is conscious in objective terms, seems to be favored by the self-representationalists themselves, as well as their opponents. For example R. Van Gulick says “transforming a nonconscious state into a conscious one is a process of recruiting it into a globally integrated complex whose organization [embodies] reflexive self awareness” (K&R 24), while Levine criticizes the thesis by arguing that it can’t explain the phenomenal, qualia, in non-phenomenal terms (thus implying that this was what the thesis was trying to do in the first place).

Let me begin then by posing a problem for the self-representational thesis that is an adaptation of Levine’s. Even given a self-representational system can’t we still meaningfully ask if that system is conscious? Specifically it still seems as if there is a gap between being consciousness, the subject of experience, and being self-representational. This is not to say that consciousness cannot simply be the property of being self-representational, but it does point out that we need to explain why self-representation should make a system conscious when being represented by another state, or representing something else, doesn’t. One way to argue that closing this gap can’t be done, and thus that there is more to consciousness than self-representation, is to provide examples of systems that are self-representational but not conscious, thus demonstrating that self-representation alone isn’t a complete explanation. One notable example of just such a system is the Gödel sentence, a sentence that states that it itself is not provable. And the Gödel sentence doesn’t achieve this self-representational quality through the use of a pronoun as we have here, which might be seen as only representing itself via our understanding of it, and not intrinsically; instead it contains a complete representation of itself (with the representation itself containing a representation of itself, ad infinitum). And certainly the Gödel sentence isn’t conscious. Thus if the self-representational thesis is to be understood as an explanation of consciousness it must be refined, in at least one of two possible ways, in order to exclude the Gödel sentence, and hopefully close the gap. The possibilities are either to claim that self-representation makes only certain kinds of things conscious, and the Gödel sentence isn’t one of them, or to define representation in a way that excludes the kind of self-representation that is contained in the Gödel sentence.

Let’s start with the first possibility, which in its most natural form would be to claim that it is only self-representational mental states that are conscious, instead of simply any self-representational system. But this seems to simply move the problem to a different situation, not eliminate it; if I hold the Gödel sentence in my mind it would seem that there is some mental state that represents the Gödel sentence, by virtue of the fact that I am holding it in my mind. And this mental state would be self-representational by virtue of the fact that the Gödel sentence is self-representational. But this mental state is not itself conscious to the best of my knowledge, since that would imply that while we were thinking of the Gödel sentence there are two consciousnesses present, one from my experiential mental state representing itself, and another from the sub-state that is my conception of the Gödel sentence representing itself. But maybe there is some way to avoid this, that somehow the mental state that contains my conception of the Gödel sentence isn’t of the right kind, or maybe it is only the complete mental state that has the potential to be conscious. But even if we can legitimately make this move there is another problem, which is that we now need to define what a mental state is. What separates a mental state from a non-mental one? Well clearly it can’t be self-representation, since we showed that some self-representing systems aren’t minds. The other obvious possibility is to define mental states as parts of systems that are conscious. But to endorse that definition would be to enter a vicious circle. In any case, limiting what self-representation can make conscious leaves a gap in the theory, an explanation is required as to why self-representation makes these things conscious and not others. Perhaps this gap can be filled, but the self-representational thesis as it stands is thus shown to be lacking as an explanation of consciousness.

The other possibility, to define representation in a way that excludes things such as the Gödel sentence, may therefore seem more attractive, since it doesn’t introduce a new gap into the theory. One popular definition of representation is as a certain kind of causal relation, and that would certainly exclude the Gödel sentence. However, it excludes the possibility of self-representation as well, assuming we accept that causation is unidirectional, and that we are working with one of the SOMT variations described by Kriegel. This follows because if M* was to represent M, M must have existed before M*, in order to be a cause of it. And thus M* cannot become a part of M, as if this were the case the resulting state of M* + M would be some new state, say M’, or if they were to become part of a complex with each other in more than name M and M* must change as a result of being put together. But M* is not causally connected to M’, nor with the changed M that results from being joined with M* in a complex, it is only causally connected to the earlier M, and thus it can represent only that M. So while the causal definition of representation is compatible with a higher order theory, where M remains distinct from M*, it is not compatible with a same order theory, where they become a single state. So defining representation as causation simply doesn’t seem to allow for self-representation at all. The other popular definition of representation is as intentionality. But this would introduce a gap into the theory, because we would then need a non-causal definition of intentionality in objective terms that permits self-directed intentional states, which the self-representational thesis doesn’t provide.

So as an explanation of consciousness the self-representational thesis falls short. Essentially it suffers from the same problems as higher order theories and the representational theory of consciousness; both of these theories explain consciousness in terms of representation, and both fail to exclude many cases that seem obviously non-conscious. Which doesn’t mean that the self-representational thesis is necessarily invalid, just that details remain to be filled in before it can either be endorsed or rejected. So let me turn then to the phenomenal reading of the self-representational thesis, which seems more promising. Under this reading the thesis is simply that every conscious state is experienced as self-representational, with different authors putting forward different theories about how this self-representation is possible. For example Williford’s treatment of the thesis is, in his own words, “largely descriptive” of conscious experience.

It is assumed by many that we are simply conscious of our experience, in fact Williford calls the thesis ubiquity. But are we really conscious of our experience in basically the same way as we are conscious of our sensations, or is it just a customary way of talking about something we find hard to understand? I think it is the latter. When I introspect on my own phenomenology it doesn’t feel like I am conscious of my experience, rather it feels like my experience is conscious, that my current consciousness and my current experience are identical. As I live through the experience I am conscious of past moments (retentions) and of my expectations about future moments (protentions). In both these cases I can bring them before “my mind’s eye” and reflect upon them, be conscious of them, explicitly, although I suppose they are always there somewhere. However, I am not able to bring my current experience before myself in this way. The closest I can get is to hold on to an experience as it passes and then have the experience of being conscious of what I have just experienced. Another way to put this would be to say that the content of the experience is not “this frog” but rather “I see this frog”, illustrating that the experiencer is part of the experience itself. However, some might be tempted to extend this content to “In this very experience …”, which I would agree is a valid way of talking, but not a reflection of the structure of my experience. To me these considerations imply that conscious mental states are not directed at themselves in any way, at most they contain, or are directed at, a conception of the self. And since I am conscious, to the best of my knowledge, I feel justified in concluding that our experience of being conscious is not necessarily self-representational.

Why do I think that self-referential talk about consciousness is just talk, and not a reflection of the structure of experience? Well, consider the property of being wet. We might define wetness in objects as being covered by some amount of water, which certainly agrees with our experience. But how then would we define the wetness of water itself? If it is wet only because it is covered by some amount of water then that water too must be wet because it is covered in water, ect. The way to avoid this regress is simply to accept that water is fundamentally wet, for reasons that aren’t revealed to us directly by our experience of it. I hope the analogy with consciousness is obvious. We are used to things being conscious because they are part of our current experience, making us conscious of them. But when it comes to our current experience itself it is possible that our usual way of defining what is conscious is misleading. Although it is normal to say that we have an experience of things, or that we are conscious of things, I think that it is a mistake to talk this way about experience itself, and that if we do talk about experience in this way it is not because we experience it as self-representational, but because we are simply used to talking about everything else in experience in this way.

Again, I can’t speak for the structure of your experience, but I feel safe in thinking about my own experience as representing my self, but not itself. Admittedly these phenomenological considerations don’t rule out the possibility that my experience is self-representational “under the hood” in an unconscious way. But the only way that claim could be motivated would be either to have a theory about the neural correlates of consciousness that implies that it is self-representational on an unconscious level, or to be working with a theory that required self-representation in systems that were conscious. The second of course would be the explanatory reading of the self-representational thesis. Of course I can’t rule out the first, since we don’t have a full theory about the neural correlates of consciousness, but the absence of this theory doesn’t justify positing unconscious self-representation either. So, with these considerations in mind, I conclude that the explanatory reading of the self-representational thesis is at best incomplete, while the phenomenal reading is misleading, at least in describing the conscious experience I have access to.

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