On Philosophy

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 1, 2006

Materialism, Consciousness, and Descriptions of the Mind

Filed under: Essays,Free Will,Mind,Self — Peter @ 12:29 am

1: Goals
Materialism has been extraordinarily successful at explaining nearly every aspect of the world we observe. Every aspect except consciousness, that is. Even though we have first person experience of the existence and nature of consciousness, it is difficult to determine how the material world is responsible for this phenomena. Some have taken this difficulty to indicate that materialism should be rejected, while others think that it simply demonstrates that consciousness as we know it is simply an illusion. In this paper I will attempt show how consciousness and materialism can be reconciled, through a view I call levels of description, in a way that preserves the reality and casual power of consciousness without introducing any non-physical properties, entities, or causes.

2: Levels of Description
In the simplest possible terms, the levels of description theory claims the following: that the mental system is only one thing, which we describe in various ways, namely the physical, the computational, and the phenomenal. We can consider each of these descriptions equally valid depiction of reality, in the sense that each description has its basis in objective reality, and describes real causation. Even so our descriptions of the mental system do not exist independently of each other; changes in the mental system captured by one level are reflected in others as well. If we accept this explanation of the mental system, there is no need to posit the existence of non-material entities, nor is it necessary to abandon consciousness. A purely physical analogy to this claim might be as follows: the quark description and the neutron-proton-electron description of an atom are equally valid, but they do not exist independently of each other; there is only one atom, but it can be described in several ways. Just as the multiple descriptions of an atom can be considered equally real, and yet not force us to deny materialism, so can the levels of description account of the mind reconcile our experience of consciousness with a materialistic assumptions about reality. An important note to make here is that this theory does not rest on any particular ontological position concerning the structure of reality. It is possible that the descriptions presented here reflect different aspects of the underlying reality, but it is not required for the argument to be coherent. Even if reality was ultimately an undifferentiated Parmenidian oneness, it still makes sense to talk about different the descriptions with which we apply to the mental system. Even if they themselves are purely artificial mental constructs, they are useful mental constructs, and they do reflect both our first person and objective experience of the mental system.

2.1 The Phenomenal
As I mentioned above, I divide the mental system into three types of description, physical computational, and phenomenal. The phenomenal level is simply the description that captures the first person perspective we have concerning our own minds. Our concepts of intentionality, self, and will are parts of this description. The phenomenal description captures the conscious activity of our minds, because by definition conscious activity is something we are aware of, and thus part of the first person perspective we are describing. By its very nature then the phenomenal description is also subjective, since it contains a viewpoint with respect to which these thoughts and perceptions are described. In theory at least we should be able to give some objective criterion as to when a system has a phenomenal description and when it does not. It is because of the way in which the phenomenal is connected with the physical and computational descriptions of our minds, described below (see section 4.2), that it seems necessary that such a criterion must exist, but unfortunately we do not know exactly what it is. The discovery of a way to objectively analyze the phenomenal in this way would solve many of the problems facing philosophers, as well as neuroscientists and AI researchers. Even though we cannot construct the description from the objective descriptions at the moment there is still reason to believe that such a description exists, namely our everyday experience. To deny that such a description of the mental system is possible would be to deny your own conscious experience.

2.2 The Physical
The physical description is much less opaque to objective investigation than the phenomenal description, because it is simply a snapshot of the brain that contains all the information available to scientific inquiry, such as the position and velocity of atoms, the distribution of neurotransmitters, etc. The existence of a physical description of the brain seems to be indisputable. Some would argue however that such a physical description has little or nothing to do with the mental system. We might then provide evidence that changes in the physical description are reflected by changes in the phenomenal level. This paper though is not the place to defend the connection of the physical with the mental, since our goal is to show that materialism can be reconciled with our experience of consciousness and our intuitions as to its casual effectiveness. Since we have made the assumption that everything in existence is purely material, and thus has by a physical description, we must conclude that the mental system, being part of reality, has a physical description too. Secondly, our assumption of materialism forces us to assert that nothing that is part of the mental system is left out of the physical description; there are no extra properties or states of the mental system that are not reflected in some way within the physical description. It is this claim that distinguishes the levels of description theory from transcendental idealism, for in transcendental idealism we would believe that the ultimate reality of the mental system could not be captured by our descriptions, and thus some aspects of the mental system would be omitted from the physical description, but this is not the assumption we are making here. Finally, it is important to remember that while the physical description may capture all the information about the ultimate reality, it is not itself the ultimate reality. We observe reality to behave as though electrons existed, but the notion of an electron is part of our description, not of reality. For a thorough defense of this position see Carnap’s work on the Ramsey sentence and the philosophy of science, in which he shows how physical laws do not pin down exactly the contents of reality, only that there are certain objects in reality that have properties described by the laws.

2.3 The Computational
Finally, we come to the computational description, which is by far the most controversial. A computational description implies the following: that the operation of the system in question can be described as a set of functions that operate on information, and in turn generate information. The information processed by a function can come from other functions or be an external input into the system. Likewise the output of functions may be directed to other functions or become output from the system, or both. The operation of each function can be specified algorithmically, i.e. a finite set of operations and control structures, and likewise determining where information goes and comes from can be calculated in a finite amount of time. Functions may operate in sequence or in parallel, and may take different amounts of time to complete their operations. You might say that this doesn’t sound much like how a computer is supposed to operate; after all doesn’t a computer deal only with numbers, sequentially? This vision of a computer is on a much lower level of the operations than I have described. These operations can be implemented, or simulated, on any computer system and reflect how programs are structured. The next step of course is to demonstrate that we have evidence that such a description can be applied to the mental system. Although I will later demonstrate why the computational description is tightly tied to both the phenomenal and physical description, it will suffice here to show that a computational description can be applied to the physical make-up of the brain. One reason to believe that such a description exists is the behavior of a damaged brain, specifically that damage to certain areas can eliminate or affect only a single capability of the mind, implying in turn that the brain is divided into areas that each perform a specific function. On the other hand, we could start with a computational description of individual neurons, since we know for sure that neurons act in a relatively well behaved way, each being affected by numerous inputs to produce a single output. Then from this neuron-computational description, we could abstract into larger units of operation. In either case, the conclusion is the same, that the operation of the brain can be described computationally.

3: Some Objections
A possible objection to the view being presented here is that we don’t “feel” the physical level controlling our actions, which in turn leads us to “feel” that we have free will in the sense that our actions are not determined in any way by the atomic level. I would hold that this objection rests on the false assumption that somehow our physical minds and our phenomenal minds are two different things, and that they could somehow work in opposite directions. However, under the levels of description theory, they are really both descriptions of the same mental system, and thus the objection is, in a way, nonsensical. Your will to lift your arm can be identified with some physical process occurring in your brain. This is not to affirm some version of identity theory of course, but simply to state that our thoughts reflect the physics of our brain, and that the physics of our brain reflects our thoughts. This may or may not throw into doubt the existence of free will; it depends on how free will is defined, and if one thinks that free will is compatible with materialism, and that is a topic which is outside the scope of this paper.

We might also raise the objection that the levels of description I am claiming exist with respect to the mind are different from the levels of description that we accept exist with regards to non-conscious objects. In other words, it seems obvious how some of the objects in the world have multiple levels of description, but we can perceive easily how these levels can be seen as aspects of one object, while the levels of description that describe our minds are not obviously part of a single object. A classic example of levels of description is an application to the morning/evening star. One description is the “morning star”, which has one set of properties. Another is the “evening star” description, which has its own unique properties. Despite their differences however, we think these descriptions are of the same real object, Venus. However, my claim that the physical and phenomenal descriptions are descriptions of the same mental system may seem different than the claim that the morning and evening star are descriptions of the same physical planet.

The reason that these situations feel different is because we perceive the morning and evening star in the same way, but we do not perceive the phenomenal and physical level in the same way. If we had direct perceptions of our neural activity, I claim that we would not feel that the phenomenal description and physical description were irreconcilable, however since we do not in fact have direct perceptions of such activity, I must argue by analogy. Imagine the following situation: unbeknownst to you I have taken a picture of your arm. Later I present you with the picture. Unless you are unusually disfigured, you will probably not identify the picture as your arm. Normally you have direct phenomenal access to your arm, you feel that it is part of you, but you do not get that feeling from the picture. However when presented with other evidence, such as the testimony of witnesses that in fact the picture was taken of you, you may eventually come to accept that it is your arm and feel differently about it. Likewise when we see our own brains at work, say in an MRI image, it is much like the feeling we get when presented with a picture of our arm, because we almost never perceive our minds in this way (on the physical level). It is easy to deny that the physical activity in the brain is actually one way of viewing the mind. This may account for why the phenomenal description and the physical description seem to be different kinds of thing, and thus by itself this feeling is not sufficient to rule out levels of description as being a valid theory concerning the nature of our minds.

4: Causation and Dependence
Even if we accept that there are various levels of description that can be used to describe the mental system, that still does not tell us how they are related to each other or to the rest of the world.

The image above illustrates the view I will be defending here. This image depicts reality and real causation as well as the various descriptions of it. Just as causality is part of reality so a description of causation is part of each description of the mental system (see section 4.1). The red arrows, illustrating dependence (not causation), show how the descriptions are connected to each other, and the holes in each description illustrate how they fail to capture some of the information that is incorporated into lower levels (see section 4.2).

4.1 Causation
First let me explain how each of the levels can be seen to describe real causation with respect to the world. It is easy to see how the physical description can be seen to capture casual power, since experiments have shown that electrical stimulation applied to various areas of the brain will cause a person to move their limbs. We also know from first hand experience that the phenomenal level can describe the cause of events in the world, for example under normal conditions a desire to raise your arm results in your arm being raised. Finally, in the case of the computational level we have evidence that there is a system in your brain (probably located in the motor cortex) that responds to input, such as commands from other parts of the mental computational network, by sending signals that result in the arm being raised.

Before I move on to the nature of dependence, it is important to note that the casual power of the mental system is an “all or nothing” endeavor, meaning that if “higher” levels of description can be said to capture the cause of an event in the world than the “lower” ones must describe the cause of that event as well. For example, my desire to raise my arm implies that the computational description and the physical description both contain some other description of this same cause that ultimately results in my arm rising. It is impossible that I might desire for my arm to rise and somehow it rises without the physical description also describing the cause of it rising. This is because it is really the mental system that interacts casually with the rest of the world; when we describe the system of course that description includes casual effects, but the real casual power is in the system itself, not in our descriptions. When the mental system causes an event to occur, different descriptions naturally reflect that activity. The reason that I mentioned that a causation effect in a “higher” level of description implies that we will find such effects in “lower” levels is not because the higher level is causing the lower levels to act, but because all the activity of a higher level of description has its basis in a an aspect of the mental system that the a lower level of description also describes, but not all activity in the mental system that is captured by a lower level of description is also captured by a higher level of description; for example there are physical events in our brain that do not become part of the phenomenal description, such as the movement of blood within the brain.

This also answers the epiphenomenalism objection, which is the assertion that under this theory the higher levels (i.e. the phenomenal) no longer have real casual power. This is to say that since the physical level provides a cause for every action, there is no room for the phenomenal level to be the cause of anything. Such an objection is founded on a misunderstanding of what a level of description is. Cause and effect are properties of the world, but the levels of description are not part of the world, except in the sense that we are thinking about them. Thus it is a mistake to claim that any description of reality has casual power; like a painting, a description reflects what is in the world, and like a painting it has no effect on the reality that it depicts. Thus the mistake made by this objection is not to reject the phenomenal as having real causal power but to accept to physical description as having this power when it does not. It is best to view the situation with respect to causation in the following way: the mental system is a real cause of events in the world, and vice versa. Since the physical description is complete (from our assumption that materialism is correct), then it must contain a description of every effect the mental system has on the rest of the world. The phenomenal description, which does not necessarily contain all the information about the mental system may or may not contain a description of individual casual effects of the mental system, for example unconscious thoughts are part of the mental system, and thus sometimes they may be the cause of events in the external world, but they are not part of the phenomenal description. On the other hand, our will to do something is also part of the mental system, and in this case it is part of the phenomenal description, meaning that this case of mental causation is reflected by the phenomenal description. It is not our consciousness, which is part of the mental system, that is epiphenomenal then, but our descriptions, because they only can describe the real causation not be a source of it themselves; the descriptions are ways we view the mental system, not part of it. If this situation were really epiphenomenal we would expect to find cases where the phenomenal description indicated that there would be a causal effect on external world, but the physical description somehow lacked this cause and thus no action was taken. However since the physical description is complete with respect to the information that is part of the mental system, any possible causation initiated by the mental system must be reflected by the physical description, and thus a situation where the phenomenal indicates causation without the physical description also capturing that causation is impossible.

4.2 Dependence
Already I have indicated that the different levels of description are connected, and that their connection is not casual. For lack of a better word we can say that one level depends on another for its existence. The claim that description A depends on description B is simply shorthand for the following claim: the state and properties of description B give us (epistemic) reason to think that description A applies to the system. (1) It easy to see that phenomenal description depends on the physical (indirectly, through its dependence on the computational, as I will later argue). We know that head wounds, i.e. drastic changes to the physical description, are accompanied by changes in the phenomenal description of the system (through the testimony of those wounded). From this we can conclude that changes in the physical description of the system imply that we will find changes in the phenomenal description, i.e. the phenomenal depends on the physical.

From the division of the brain into various functions and channels of communication we can see that the computational description that depends on the physical description. The more pressing question we are now faced with is if the phenomenal depends on the computational or on the physical description alone. The way the brain responds to damage is a strong indication that the phenomenal description depends on the computational description and not directly on the physical description. Let us assume that there is a structure in the brain that controls conscious vision (in reality of course conscious vision is more complicated than this). Let us consider two cases of damage to this structure, in one case half the tissue in this structure is removed while in the other case of damage removed the other half, so that between these two patients there is no tissue in common. Despite this, because of the redundancy in the construction of the brain, the function of this structure is unimpaired (with respect to the entire computational description), and as a result both patients have conscious vision in phenomenally the same way they did before the damage. However patients with enough damage to impair the operation of the structure will not have conscious vision in the same way they used to. From this we can conclude that the phenomenal description depends solely on the computational description, because the correct functioning of the structures in the brain is the only requirement for normal phenomenal experience, the physical description is only related to the phenomenal indirectly though the computational description’s dependence on the physical. This does not however show that the computational description is independent of the physical description for the following reason: even though the overall computational description remained the same in both patients overall the description of computation with respect to the damaged structure has changed, for it now has less tolerance for future damage.

Now that I have convinced you that these various descriptions depend on each other, I need to mention that it is an incomplete dependence in the following sense: a given description does not depend on all the features of the “lower” description. Some of the physical activity within the brain does not contribute meaningfully to the computational description, for example the exact chemistry of a glial cell (a cell that holds a neuron in place) does not contribute meaningfully to computational activity. This is not to say that the non-contributing parts of the physical description could never influence the computational description, for example if the glial cell dies the neighboring neurons would be affected, simply that it does not contribute meaningfully to current computational description. This may sound a little vague, but when applied to the relation between the computational description and the phenomenal description we can easily see it in action. The unconscious is the most noticeable example of computation that the phenomenal description does not depend on. For example, consider the case of a hypnotic command. In such a situation, the phenomenal description of the subject does not include the command (otherwise they would be aware of it, by definition), but later, if the command is triggered it definitely has an influence on their phenomenal description, since they are aware of their own behavior and attempt to formulate explanations for it. This also answers the question “is there something that it is like to be in an unconscious state?” negatively, since there is only something it is “to be like” when there is a phenomenal description involved.

4.3 Multiple Realization and Mental Laws
This dependence does not rule out multiple realizations of the same description either. It is hard to give examples of multiple realizations of a phenomenal description, since this would imply that there was the same consciousness in two different places, but we encounter multiple realizations of computational levels of description constantly. Consider that there is a computational (information processing) description of the addition of two numbers. Any calculator we encounter is able to carry out this process, and thus has the same computational description (at least partly, since not all calculators support the same operations). In this way, a single description, the computational description of addition, is realized in many physical objects.

Although multiple realization of a complete phenomenal description is unlikely, simply the possibility of multiple realizations complicates any discussion concerning possible laws of mental activity. Let us say that we are given a complete phenomenal description, X. Ideally mental laws would tell us which phenomenal description X would evolve into over time. However changes in the mental system are not changes in one level of description, but changes in the system as a whole, so even though we can talk about changes in the phenomenal description, prediction of future states must be based on the complete mental system, not simply a partial description of it. Unlike other levels of description, the physical description contains all the information that is part of the mental system (once again this follows from our materialism assumption), and because in theory we can predict the behavior of physical systems over time we might suppose that given physical system x, which has a phenomenal description X we could predict that it would change into system y, which has the phenomenal description Y. Unfortunately we started off with a phenomenal description, not a complete mental system, and because of the possibility of multiple realizations of that phenomenal description we must accept that the system we have identified with X may really have any one of they physical descriptions x1, x2, … xn, which in turn we can predict will change into a system with physical description y1, y2, … yn. It is possible, even likely, that there will not be a single phenomenal description that will apply to all of these systems, and thus the best we will be able to say is that X will become Y1, Y2, … or Yk (k ≤ n). Thus we can conclude that with respect to the phenomenal description there are no laws of the kind we find in a deterministic physics. However the mental system as a whole does obey the kind of laws found in physics, because the physical description obeys them, and the other levels of description are dependant on the physical description.

I have made the claim that the phenomenal description at one point in time can be legitimately said to describe causes that will result in future phenomenal descriptions, so one thought can legitimately be said to be the cause of another thought. Note that we can’t claim that the phenomenal description contains real causes, given that earlier it was argued that causation only exists with respect to the mental system and not within a description. Still we want to claim that the phenomenal can legitimately be seen as the cause of the phenomenal, by showing that the phenomenal describes cause and effect within the mental system that determines which phenomenal description will exist in the future. Some might object to this however, stating that the phenomenal level can not describe “real” causation because casual relations between events must instantiate a casual law. A phenomenal event X might result in various phenomenal states, Y1, Y2, … Yk, as I have shown above, which may throw into question the existence of a casual law of the kind desired. However to make this objection implies that one must believe that the physical description can legitimately be said to describe the cause of future physical descriptions since the physical world obeys casual laws. Let us then consider two physical descriptions, p1 and p2, such that p1 is said to be the cause of p2. Given each of these physical descriptions there is also a computational description c1 and c2. Because whenever we have p1 we must (because of dependence) c1, and likewise for p2 and c2 we must conclude that there is a single computational description, c2, that will result from c1, and thus c1 is legitimately the cause of c2. In the same way, we can move from the computational description to the phenomenal description. Thus if we accept that the physical description of the world reflects casual relationships with respect to future physical descriptions so must we accept that the phenomenal description reflects these casual relationships with respect to future phenomenal descriptions. Of course a different account of causation may yield different conclusions, but I will leave that to the professionals.

5: Conclusion
Under this account then it has been demonstrated why we have reason to believe in the casual effectiveness of consciousness, both with respect to the world and with future states of consciousness. It has also been shown how we can reconcile the existence of consciousness with a purely material universe, in which consciousness itself is not a basic building block. With these problems solved, then it would seem that we no longer need to reject materialism because of an incompatibility with our experience of consciousness. Of course this doesn’t provide us a reason to believe materialism to be valid, but at least we don’t have reason to reject it out of hand.

1: Although it is possible that this dependence of descriptions reflects an ontological dependence of aspects, it is not necessary to agree with any ontological description of reality for the purposes of this argument, as mentioned earlier.

Carnap, Rudolf. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, 1966 (amazon)
Davidson, Donald. “Mental Events” in Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 2002 (amazon)
Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained, 1991 (amazon)
Edelman, Gerald M. and Tononi Giulio. A Universe of Consciousness, 2000 (amazon)
Fodor, Jerry A. “Special Sciences (or: The Disunity of Science as a Working Hypothesis)” in Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 2002
Kim, Jaegwon. “Multiple Realization and the Metaphysics of Reduction” in Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 2002
Kim, Jaegwon. “The Many Problems of Mental Causation” in Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 2002
Searle, John R. Mind: A Brief Introduction, 2004 (amazon)
Smith, David W. Mind World: Essays in Phenomenology and Ontology, 2004 (amazon)

May 9, 2006

Two Problems of Self

Filed under: Self — Peter @ 12:29 am

In philosophy there are (at least) two problems relating to the idea of the self. What is it, and how is it continuous?

You might think that the existence of a self is unquestionable. After all there is something unique about you that is the essence of your identity, right? The problem is pinning down exactly what that something could be. Maybe the self is a viewpoint within the inner world, but then what is that viewpoint itself made up of, if it is not a result of our inner world? Nor can the self be easily explained as a straightforward product of the operation of your brain, for I have yet to see a theory that correlated neural activity with a sense of self, such that when damaged the individuals acted in the same way, except for reporting no sense of self. Theories have been put forward that the self is “emergent” from the operation of the brain, but in a way this tells us little about what the self is, only a proposal of how it can come about.

The continuity of the self is no less confusing. How do I know that I am the same person that I was yesterday, or last year? The self does not seem to exist continuously (for example during unconsciousness), so how do we know that the self that exists after a period of unconsciousness is the same self as the one that existed before. Some might argue that our memories of our earlier sense of self is what creates the continuity, but what is so special about memories? Does the fact that I have forgotten the first years of my life imply that I am not the same person as I was then? What about someone who suffers from amnesia?

These kinds of problems with the idea of self have led some to argue that there is no self, that it is an illusion generated by the brain for the convenience of its operation. Evidence from psychology and cognitive science can be construed to support this view, for example the powers of hypnosis, alien hand syndrome, split brain syndrome, ect. In all of these cases it seems like parts of the mind outside of the conscious self have the ability to perform tasks and make decisions almost as capably as the self that we are aware of. This may lead us to wonder if the entire brain functions this way, and if the self is simply an unneeded artifact.

This is not necessarily the last word on the self, so don’t despair, you may really exist after all. Before we tackle the self and its continuity though let us consider the continuity of the simplest particles. It is impossible for a physicist to be continually observing a given particle, so why does he or she believe it to be the same particle when they observe it next? Since the fundamental constituents of matter are basically indistinguishable from each other how can the physicist be sure that the particle in question hasn’t been replaced by its indistinguishable copy? Physicists don’t worry about this however, because they know that the behavior of particles is governed by laws, and because they have sufficient information about the state of the system. Laws combined with knowledge of the system tell the physicist where the particle will be in the future, and when their observations do in fact place the particle where they expect it to be they conclude that it is the same particle. This principle, continuity through prediction, can be extended into the macroscopic realm, although with less precision. Consider a bike you have left in your garage. To the best of your knowledge the bike does not move itself, nor has anyone a reason to move the bike. Thus if, several years later, you find a very rusty bike in your garage you will conclude that it is your bike, slightly the worse for wear, not some other bike that has replaced yours. If on the other hand the bike is of a different construction, or in a different place within the garage you may be less sure that it is the same bike, since your predictions did not include these changes. However if you later found out that someone had moved your bike, or made alternations to it you would revise your predictions, and thus would again consider the bike you found to be the same as the one you had left.

We can apply this approach to solve the age old “ship of Theseus” problem if we wish. The problem is as follows: Theseus owns a ship, and as he sails around Greece he makes repairs to it. After a few years he has replaced every component of the ship with new ones. Can we consider this ship the same as the old one? Now consider a mischievous philosopher, who reassembles the original ship from the discarded original components. Which ship is really Theseus’ ship? If we want to use the same approach that we did with our bike we must first make some predictions about the behavior of ships, i.e. that they will move around, that they will maintain some of the same crew, that their contents, ownership, and parts will change only under certain circumstances. Now if you see Theseus’ ship return to port you may not be sure initially that it is the same ship, after all the repairs may have changed its appearance. However if you ask Theseus about it, and he explains how the ship was repaired you will revise your expectations about the ship’s appearance, and have every reason to believe that it is the same ship. If however the mischievous philosopher sails into port, and claims that he is sailing Theseus’ ship you will not believe his claim, since his story about how he came by the ship does not fit with any of your predictions about ship behavior. You have more reason to believe that it is a new ship that was constructed with cast-off parts, as this fits with your predictions about ships.

Now we can take our tool and apply it to the continuity of self. First we would have to creates some predictions about the changes that result in people in response to events that they have experienced, and I assume most readers can predict human behavior to some extent, and thus won’t need me to spell them out. If you examine your own life you can see how the experiences (that you remember) have shaped your older selves into your current self, in agreement with these kinds of predictions. If you ask other people who have known you they too will agree that your current self is the result of reasonable changes in response to experiences. Thus you have every reason to believe that your current self is continuous with any self that you can remember.

As to the problem of what exactly the self is, well I will leave that for another day.

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