On Philosophy

August 20, 2006

In Defense of Indirect Realism

Filed under: Idealism,Perception — Peter @ 12:21 am

Indirect realism is an easy position to argue for. Simply consider the actual mechanics of perception (say visual perception). First there is the fact that objects never directly present themselves to our eyes, only photons reach us, and many things could have generated those photons, not just the object we think that we see. Even the information generated by photons striking the eye is not directly incorporated into consciousness. Our unconscious preprocesses this information, which we can deduce from the existence of optical illusions and the fact that concepts are present as part of visual experience (when you see a tree you don’t just have a certain visual sensation, you see a tree). Thus it is only information about the external world, transformed several times, that becomes part of consciousness, and what better word for it could there be than sense data?

But wait! Didn’t I give a defense of direct realism earlier? Which one is right? Well they both are. Yes both direct and indirect realism are correct, what seems like real differences between them are simply different ways of talking about the same phenomena. When you ask an indirect realist what experience is about he or she is likely to say that it really about the sense data that is part of consciousness. On the other hand when you ask a direct realist what experience is about they will say it is really about objects in the external world that cause our experiences. What we have here is not a real disagreement, but a disagreement as to what about-ness in perceptual experience is. In theory neutral terms an indirect realist uses “about” to designate the part of consciousness that is responsible for the perceptual experience, and the direct realist uses “about” to designate the causes of the experience.

So, given that direct realism and indirect realism are compatible with each other, and that their apparent incompatibility is a result of using the same word in different ways, where does that leave us? One concern that must be addressed is whether indirect realism naturally leads to idealism (or solipsism), because if it does, and if direct realism is not an alternative position but a complementary position, then it seems we might be forced to be idealists. The argument goes as follows: if our experiences of two people, or the experiences of a single person at different times, aren’t really about the same thing, (in indirect realist terms) then what is to prevent us from concluding that the entire world we know is simply a construction by our minds, and that there is nothing real behind it all?

What we need then is an argument against idealism that doesn’t rely on direct realism. That argument is as follows: We notice a constancy in our sensory experience; when we look at things from different angles, when we examine them with different senses, and when we observe them at different times, in all of these cases our senses give basically consistent information about the object that we are supposedly perceiving. The most likely explanation is that there is something causing this consistency, something that is not part of our conscious minds. We simply call that something “physical reality” (although it really could be anything, even a computer simulation). Additionally our experiences of “physical reality” seem to correlate with the reported experiences of other people, and once again this implies it is likely that “physical reality” is the same for all people. From this we can conclude that the most likely explanation (by far) for our experience is that there is something external to us that is responsible for the consistency of experience, something that we call reality, for lack of a better word.

Thus, with the threat of collapsing into idealism put aside for the moment, direct and indirect realism can coexist without problems. Of course the disagreement as to how exactly we should use the word “about” in philosophy hasn’t been resolved, but “about-ness” is complicated in its own way, more than the direct/indirect realism debate reveals, and thus its exact nature will have to be left for another day.

June 19, 2006

Two Kinds of Self Consciousness

Filed under: Mind,Perception,Self — Peter @ 12:02 am

Is self-consciousness an integral part of consciousness? Do animals posses a self-consciousness? To answer these kinds of questions we need to understand the phenomena of self-consciousness first.

What is commonly called self-consciousness (even in philosophy occasionally) is really two distinct phenomena. On one hand we have what I call the self-model. Basically the self-model is how we mentally represent our selves, it contains information about what motivates us, as well as information such as how we might look to an outside observer. The other phenomena that is sometimes called self-consciousness is self-awareness. Self-awareness is much less abstract than the self-model. In the simplest possible terms self-awareness is the process by which perceptions and knowledge are felt as being part of us. When you are hungry you feel the need to get some food for yourself; it is self-awareness that is responsible for the knowledge that this feeling of hunger is our feeling and that we need to do something in order to satisfy it.

Let me describe a bit more thoroughly the self-model. I have described mental models in some depth earlier (see here), and the self-model is one of them. The self-model then is the model that represents how we think, feel, and reason in general, as well as containing some information about how we appear to other people. For example our conceptions of our self, such as “I am a rational person”, or “I like coffee”, are part of our self-model. You might say that these are simply facts, and thus not necessarily part of the self-model. While it might be the case that some of the information that makes up our self-model are facts it is easy to see that this is not always the case. For example someone may think “I am a rational person” but then act in irrational ways. Rationality is part of their self-model, but it is not something that seems to motivate them, and thus the statement “I am a rational person”, although part of their self-model, is not a fact. Generally however I would assume that the descriptions of ourselves that our self-model contains are fairly accurate. The self-model for the most part seems to contain descriptions of our selves that we either consider ideal or have been formed from experience of our own actions, and thus it is likely that it reflects how we actually act in most cases. Besides these self-conceptions our self-model also contains expectations of how others view us. Some of these expectations are purely physical, for example my self-model contains information that says other people will see me as sitting down in a certain place. Other expectations may be more abstract, for example my self-model also contains the information that other people who read my work will see me as someone who is interested in the philosophy of mind. In general the self-model is complex, abstract, and created over a long period of time.

Now let us turn to self-awareness. As I mentioned above self-awareness is closely tied to our perception of the external world and of our own internal mental states. It is not simply perception though; it contains the knowledge that these perceptions are mine, and not someone else’s. Although I can’t provide you with an objective explanation for the cause of self-awareness it is quite easy to demonstrate that it exists. Consider a man who has been for a long time without water. Let us allow that he has the perception of his thirst but no self-awareness of this perception. If we presented this man with a glass of water then he has no special reason to drink it. Yes, he perceives thirst, but if he doesn’t realize that it is his thirst, so why should he be motivated to drink? Because situations such as this never actually arise we can be reasonably sure that we all possess self-awareness. Let me use an example to help distinguish this self-awareness from our self-model. My perception that I am sitting down is a good example of self-awareness. It is true that the more abstract information about this event, such as what it might look like to someone else is part of the self-model. However the direct perception of the feeling of sitting, and the knowledge that I am the one doing the sitting, is self-awareness. Thus, in contrast to the self-model, self-awareness is immediate and tied to perception.

Before we answer the bigger question about the relationship between consciousness and self-consciousness let’s look at the possibility of animals being self-conscious. It seems pretty clear to me that most animals lack a self-model or possess only a rudimentary one at best. For example a parakeet can be fooled by a mirror into thinking that it has a friend with it, so clearly it lacks a self-model that contains expectations of how the parakeet looks to an observer. Self-awareness however seems much more likely. If you think that animals are conscious in any way then it seems obvious that they must be self-aware, since they are motivated by their desires as much as we are. So are animals self-conscious? Yes and no.

So then is self-consciousness necessary for consciousness? If we accept the idea that animals may be conscious but not intelligent (see here) then it is obvious that the self-model is not required for consciousness. Self-awareness is much trickier however. It is my intuition that self-awareness is found wherever consciousness is. For example consider cases where self-awareness is lacking (alien limb syndrome, unilateral neglect, ect). In these cases, as far as I know, the person is no longer conscious of the perceptions that they have lost awareness of. The patient suffering from alien limb is not able to feel sensation from the limb that they are claiming is someone else’s. They lack self-awareness of their limb, and perhaps because of this they have lost all conscious perception of it. Perhaps then self-awareness and conscious perception go hand in hand, such that to consciously perceive is to know that the perception is yours. Under this view without self-awareness all perception would be unconscious, and thus there would be nothing to be conscious of. However I must admit the possibility of finding evidence to the contrary that would disprove this assumption, so at this point the role of self-consciousness in consciousness is not completely settled.

June 18, 2006

The Philosophy of Commander Data

Filed under: Mind,Perception,The Philosophy of — Peter @ 12:08 am

As you probably already know Data is a character from the Star Trek TV series. Data is an android (an artificially intelligent robot that looks like a person), who talks and acts much in the way a biological person might. There are some important differences between Data and the rest of us however, he is faster, smarter, and more interestingly unable to experience emotion (at least most of the time). Data is an interesting subject for philosophical discussions of all sorts, but here I will focus on emotion.

Although Data doesn’t experience emotion (or at least so he says) we might think that he has them anyways. For example Data often acts in ways that seem motivated by his friendship and compassion towards other people. Data’s actions don’t seem explainable as results of pure reason; only human emotion seems sufficient. Yet, even when this is pointed out to him, Data says that he does not feel emotion. Is it possible then for Data, or anyone, to have emotions without feeling them?

To answer this we have to define what an emotion is. Instead of trying to quantify our subjective feeling of emotion I will define it first by examining its effects on us and its structure. We might define an emotion then as a disposition towards certain action or actions. For example if you are sad then you are disposed to act in ways that are associated with sadness, for example tears, lethargy, ect. Of course it is not just our actions that emotions effect, but our mental states as well, yielding the improved definition that emotion is a disposition towards certain actions and mental states not based on reason. I have added the phrase “not based on reason”, to distinguish emotion from our normal thoughts and mental states. This phrase may sound slightly vague, so to be more specific I would say that the emotion itself is motivational and that the emotion’s existence is not necessarily contingent on reasons for it existing, although obviously there are causes of emotion. The directly motivating part seems obvious, when we jump for joy we are not jumping because something good happened, we are jumping because we feel joyful. Emotion’s independence of reasons may seem less obvious. Clearly there are reasons that a person enters into an emotional state, whether they be unconscious or conscious, but I would maintain that the continuation of an emotion is not dependant on the reasons that caused it to exist in the first place. For example let us say that you feel sad upon hearing of the death of your friend. Fortunately, for you and your friend, some time later another source informs you that it was all a mistake, and that your friend is fine. Even though you have no reason to feel sad anymore the emotion may remain for some time, thus demonstrating that the emotion is not dependant on the reason that caused it, namely the belief that your friend is dead.

Is this all there is to emotion? What about how emotion feels to us? How do we account for that? I would argue that our feeling of emotional states is part of the perception of emotion. Just as our perception of visual information feels visual so our perception of emotion feels emotional. If this is true then we should expect that is possible for emotion to occur without perception, resulting in unconscious emotions. And indeed unconscious emotions do exist. For example on a day where you feel perfectly normal someone might inform you that you have been acting grumpy. You don’t feel grumpy, but when you think about it more closely you realize that you have indeed been acting grumpy, and in fact, now that you are looking for it, you realize that you do feel grumpy after all. Thus an unconscious emotion that has been affecting your behavior has been made conscious (and now “feels” like emotion), all because you now perceive it directly where previously you were unaware of it.

From this analysis then I would conclude that Data does have at least some emotions, they are just unconscious. Although they may motivate his actions he has no perception of them, and thus has no “feeling” of emotion. In later episodes Data acquires an “emotion chip” which allows him to experience emotion. I would consider it possible that the chip doesn’t give him emotions, but simply allows him to perceive his preexisting emotions that are unconscious without the aid of the chip.

If you are curious about consciousness in general, and whether an artificial creation like Data could be conscious, I suggest you visit the category in this blog with the same name.

June 17, 2006

In Defense of Direct Realism

Filed under: Perception — Peter @ 1:51 am

The problems of perception are often overlooked, perhaps because the other problems of the mind, for example consciousness and intentionality seem more pressing. Usually we just assume perception works, and leave it at that. We are all realists, we suppose (the position that an external world exists independently of our perceptions), so what more is there to think about? Here is one question then to motivate some interest in perceptions: are we direct realists or indirect realists?

Here I will define perception as the channel by which information enters the conscious mind. In the indirect theory the objects of our perception (where the information is most immediately coming from) are sense data. Sense data is generated by an unconscious process, depending on both the external world and on unconscious states (this is how hallucinations are explained under this theory). On the other hand the direct realist argues that the objects of our perception are the real objects, and sense data is not part of this picture. Below is a diagram to illustrate this difference.

From looking at the diagram it might seem that direct realism makes more sense. After all it is the simpler solution, and what evidence could we possibly have for the existence of sense data anyways? However an indirect realist would argue that we should reject direct realism because there are serious explanatory problems with it, which only indirect realism can overcome.

Specifically the argument from illusion is often considered a good reason to abandon direct realism. The argument from illusion runs as follows: the direct realist argues that the objects of our perceptions are the real contents of the world, however it is a well known fact that our perceptions can be inaccurate or completely illusory, for example a straight stick may appear bent when placed in water, or we may suffer from hallucinations that have no basis in reality whatsoever. Since the object of these perceptions is clearly not part of the objectively real world direct realism contradicts our experience and should be discarded.

Of course other people have attempted to answer this objection before me, but here is my take on it. First let us deal with “physical” illusions, such as a stick appearing bent when in water or the color of an object appearing to be different under different lighting conditions. I would argue that a denial of these phenomena as real is to misuse the word real. The properties that are being perceived here are not simply the object but the object and properties of its surroundings. For example when I perceive a stick that looks bent in water I am not perceiving an illusion but a real fact about the optic properties of water combined with real information about the stick. Likewise when an object looks different colored under different lighting conditions I am perceiving the real fact that the light reflected from an object depends both on the surface conditions of the object and the light striking it.

The serious problem for direct realism is the case of hallucinations, because when we have a hallucination we can’t say that somehow the hallucination had a basis in the objectively real properties of the world. But does this make the hallucination unreal? I would argue that clearly there is some real component to the hallucination, as it has had an effect on you mental states, perhaps even causing you to say something like “that dancing midget sure is green”. Clearly then the hallucination is a real result of some activity in the unconscious. It seems foolish though to deny the existence of the unconscious mind. Thus your perception of the hallucination was about something real after all, a real activity of your unconscious mind. This line of argument can be also used to defend direct realism against similar attacks, for example when you see a color surrounded by a darker color it seems lighter than that same color surrounded by a light color. Once again the difference you perceive is a real property of how you process vision.

In brief then my defense of direct realism runs like this: the objects of perception are always real, however some of them are real features of the mind (which you may not be otherwise conscious of). Some may object to this, claiming that I simply have re-defined what real is. In a way this is true, and if you wish to argue that the only things which are real are those that can be observed by multiple people (objectively real) then I would have to say that the objects of perception do not all fit this definition of real. However, such a definition also denies that the experience of being conscious is real, and given this I would argue that it is a poor definition. Thus I would argue that the definition of what is real proposed here, namely something that can have a casual effect on the world, is preferable, and given this definition direct realism seems to be an acceptable way of describing perception.

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