Thursday, December 22, 2005

Disassembling "you" (or "I")

(This is another post in a series, starting with this and continuing with this, on the so-called "explanatory gap" in any current, or perhaps any possible, theory of consciousness and the reality of conscious experience.)

In the first post in this series, I used the phrase "the view you get" in referring to a particular perspective on the phenomenon of experience, namely that from within the phenomenon. This has the less than fortunate effect, however, of appearing, yet again, to support that old homunculus image of a little person inside your head monitoring a bunch of screens. So perhaps it's time to tackle that image head-on -- and ask, where exactly is this "you" (or "I")? We seem to be inside our own heads at least, correct? After all, we can see, if indistinctly, the edges of some facial features. But then, too, when we touch something it's clearly we who do the touching, so in that sense it seems as though we extend throughout our bodies as well. But we don't exactly think of ourselves as some kind of mental fluid nor do we think that if we lose a part of our body we really lose a part of our selves -- rather, it's more like spatial location, while limited to our bodies, is somehow just not a pertinent or appropriate consideration for our selves beyond that. If we have an implicit intuition about the nature of our self, it's more likely something without spatial dimension, like a point of view, or a point-source of agency. In fact, I think, this intuition is itself the source of much of the intuitive power of that notion of an "explanatory gap" -- a point-source of agency seems something inherently at odds with the very basis of mechanistic (aka "reductive") explanation of any sort.

But what if "you" were not such a point-source at all? What if in reality this "you" and "I" were an intricate assemblage of parts, components, and functions? Few people doubt that such mechanisms play a role in the self, of course, but even fewer, I think, believe that that role exhausts the self -- even most philosophers, it seems to me, cling at least implicitly to the notion of a core of selfhood, or "you"- and "I"-ness, that lurks like a ghost or homunculus in the heart of the machine. But look at what happens to the "you" if you suffer some brain damage or impairment -- unlike with bodily impairment, the "you" itself is degraded in some degree, in ways that the "you" may or may not be aware of. As illustrated in the writings of Oliver Sachs, for example, some of these damaged versions of "you" exhibit strange or bizarre impairments, and certain kinds of damage can alter the personality, character, and essence of "you". Beyond some point, "you" not only lose cognitive function, but the sense of self as subject is gone as well, and after that point consciousness itself is gone. (It's interesting, in this context, to think of the scene in 2001 in which HAL's component parts are, one by one, deactivated.) So it would seem that there really is no core or essence of "you" that is distinct from the machinery that makes up the "you".

In ordinary speech, of course, we use such pronouns casually, as simple indexicals, and can safely ignore these complications. But we should be cautious of such language habits when we come to talk about experience, where casual intuitions can become an obstacle to understanding. Taking "you" to mean a functional assemblage of component parts, for example, will change significantly the meaning of the phrase that initiated this post: "the view you get" as a part of the phenomenon of experience -- we're no longer speaking of a dimensionless agent secreted in the heart of the phenomenon, then, but rather of a complex piece of machinery in its own right, specialized to detect signals of a particular kind (e.g., qualia), and that is itself a component of a larger mechanism. For that sort of mechanism, it evidently makes sense to speak not only of the "point of view" of a machine, but of its feelings as well.

UPDATE: Here's the conclusion to this series.


At 1:26 PM, January 03, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

I wouldn't disagree with most points here: the psychological self of everyday discourse is a complex, composite, fragile construct. I disagree in that I maintain this has little or nothing to do with the hard problem, however.

At 3:51 AM, January 05, 2006, Blogger Ellis Seagh said...

Well, if you accept the idea that a mechanism can have a "point of view", then I would have thought that would bridge at least a portion of any explanatory gap (as opposed to situational gap -- see following post), and hence would soften the problem to some degree. Wouldn't it?


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