Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Problems of Conciousness, part 1

Conciousness. Probably the most intimate and direct thing that we can know of, yet still somewhat strange and elusive.

I've started some background reading from the Blackwell Companion to Conciousness, and I'm having an interesting time reading Michael Tye's 'Philosophical Problems of Conciousness'. I'm not quite getting some of the problems, and I'm not sure whether this is due to a failure to fully appreciate the problems or if I'm a hardline materialist/physicalist.

What follows will be a very brief synopsis of some of the problems, and my initial thoughts in response. The subject of this blog entry is:

Tye, M. (2007) 'Philosophical Problems of Conciousness'. In Velmans, M., and Schneider, S. (eds.) The Blackwell Companion to Conciousness. Blackwell Publishing.

The Problem of Ownership

The problem of ownership is explaining how the mental objects of conciousness (feelings etc.) can be physical "given they are necessarily owned and necessarily private to their owners" (Tye 2007). The idea here seems to be that the mental objects and experiences are private in the sense that nobody else can have them, and nobody else can have access to them. I own my pen, and I can give it away to someone else so that they can own it.

I'm not sure the concept of ownership contained in this idea is correct. I own my pen, yes. I wouldn't own my child, nor would I own my favourite colour, or my boss. Do I own my arm? Yes. Not in the sense that I own my pen, but I still sorta own my arm. I could say my arm is part of me, but I think it would be more accurate to say it was part of my body.

Do I own my mental objects and experiences? I don't think it would be right for people to have unfettered access to these things without my consent. So perhaps I am asserting some sort of ownership over them. I can go further and say that I think that these mental objects are me. They might not be the whole of me, I have a store of memories for example, but they are a key component of me. Feelings and experiences as they occur are me being me. Without that I (as a mental entity) am not there. I don't own me, I am me. Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" taken a step or two further.

Are my thoughts and feelings private? Well, yes. In one sense I don't think they necessarily are so. In the future could we rig up some sort of machine to record feelings and play them back in someone else's head? Maybe. This doesn't quite work because fully fledged persons may not have the exact same experience or thought even though they undergo the same 'Playback'. Thoughts and feelings surely don't exist in isolation, they will draw on past thoughts and emotions. That pang of loss will have shades of different sorrows for each of us. But, what are we saying here? If we ran a bit of software, or set of data, in a bunch of different computers we'd expect to get the same result. But only if we ran it in computers that were functionally the same, and shared the same relevant state. If we ran our data on multiple computers, which had other software running, or other data in memory accessible and relevant to our data, then we'd expect different outcomes or at least different machine states. Why expect something different from human brains?

I don't think we own our mental objects in the sense of owning property, and I'm not sure that they're private in the sense intended by Tye.

The Problem of Perspectival Subjectivity

This problem is that there is something that physicalism doesn't account for in conciousness. It is possible to understand something, but for that understanding to be incomplete until you have experienced it. "Phenomenally concious states are perspectival in that fully comprehending them requires adopting a certain experiential point of view. But physical states are not perspectival in this way" (Tye 2007).

Tye gives the following example:
"A man who is blind and deaf cannot experience lightning by sight or hearing at all, but he can understand fully just what it is, namely a certain sort of electrical discharge between clouds".
This man understands lightning, but cannot experience it. There is some sort of gap. I agree. I'm not sure quite what the problem for physicalism is though. (I should probably make a quick aside to say that I really do get that there seems to be some sort of fantastical jump that is hard to grasp or accept arises from the machinery of the brain...).

The brain process things. Our concious experience is the result of a number of sub-systems processing various inputs, such as sense data and memory retrieval. Imagine there is a little black box labelled 'Experience Machine' in our brains. Various inputs going into the black box, and out pops our concious experience. Understanding all that there is to know about lightning is not the same thing as experiencing it. In considering it, different inputs are going into the little black box. The inputs are thought objects about lightning. They are not going to be stored and represented in the brain the same as a direct past or current experience of being in the vicinity of lighting, and they will not be accompanied by visual and auditory sense data. What is going into the little black box when thinking about lightning is not the same as when experiencing it externally. So we should expect different things to arrive in our conciousness.

On this account, we would only expect a full understanding to be like actually experiencing it if we were able to simulate the little black box in our heads and were able to marshal appropriate inputs. If we could feed into the little black box all of the inputs that would go in when directly experiencing lightning, then we would expect to have the concious experience of it.

I have not given an account for the little black box labelled conciousness, but I think I have sketched out why we should expect a complete 'understanding' to be lacking the sense gained from having a concious experience of it.

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