Thursday, January 05, 2006

Is experience a paradox?

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

It might seem so, going by at least some of the statements made in Chalmers' paper "Facing up to the problem of consciousness" "Why," he asks, "should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does." And later: "We know that conscious experience does arise when these functions [such as visual discrimination] are performed, but the very fact that it arises is the central mystery." Similarly, Thomas Nagel, in "What is it like to be a bat?", his famous earlier paper that focused attention on the problem of phenomenal experience, frames the issue more sharply:
We appear to be faced with a general difficulty about psychophysical reduction. In other areas the process of reduction is a move in the direction of greater objectivity, toward a more accurate view of the real nature of things. This is accomplished by reducing our dependence on individual or species-specific points
of view toward the object of investigation....

Experience itself however, does not seem to fit the pattern. The idea of moving from appearance to reality seems to make no sense here. What is the analogue in this case to pursuing a more objective understanding of the same phenomena by abandoning the initial subjective viewpoint toward them in favor of another that is more objective but concerns the same thing? Certainly it appears unlikely that we will get closer to the real nature of human experience by leaving behind the particularity of our human point of view and striving for a description in terms accessible to beings that could not imagine what it was like to be us. If the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity—that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint—does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.
So the paradox seems clear and stark (though practical rather than logical): on the one hand, "subjectivity" is an inherent source of error while "objectivity" is the path to reality; but on the other hand, subjectivity is here the reality to be explained -- how could it ever be possible to be "objective" about the phenomenon of the subjective? As soon as we try to grasp such an illusive phenomenon in objective terms, in other words, we seem to lose the very quality that defines it.

Now, when you come up against a paradox in an explanatory project, you have a number of options (not counting the one of just moving on to another project): you can paste a big label "Mystery" over the whole thing and store it away (perhaps bringing it out occasionally to inspire awe); you can invent new entities and/or ontologies and endow those with just the right features or qualities that you hope will make the paradox go away; or you can take the appearance of the paradox as an indication that there's a flaw or problem buried somewhere in your assumptions. The first option might have its uses, but is clearly an expression of explanatory failure. The second might work, but has an ad hoc or arbitrary aspect to it that rubs off on the concocted entities/ontologies. The third option is the one I'd say has the most promise (and may help clear up some other quandaries as well).

In this case, for example, the assumptions I would question are those lurking behind the quasi-realist epistemology that seems implicit in these approaches. Among the most basic of those assumptions, as we can see from the Nagel quote above, are two: first, that "appearance" is to be distinguished from reality, and second, that explanations can and should approximate that reality (in the process, necessarily shunning appearance). Which obviously leads directly into dilemma and paradox when trying to cope with "appearance" itself. So, first, it might help to look again at that "epistemological inversion" suggested previously, in which appearance isn't a veil but is bedrock, and in which explanations don't aim at approximating a non-phenomenal reality (an impossibility), but rather at constructing more effective and comprehensive structures built out of appearance. Such "efficacious myths", as Quine called them, would still be characterized by ever greater abstraction, in which concrete experiential content is increasingly reduced, but they could no longer be seen as structures inherently alien to appearance or what we've been calling experience.

And that in turn might open the way to a more efficacious understanding of experience within a framework of two distinct perspectives or orientations. Earlier in this series, I'd distinguished those two perspectives as the view from within the phenomenon, as it were, and the view from without (in which experience as such appears only presumptively, based largely on observed behavior). As I said in the previous post, however, this doesn't quite capture the situation, and might even suggest that there is the possibility of a view (of anything) from outside of experience itself, when of course such a notion doesn't even make sense. It might help to expand a little on these different perspectives by pointing out that, on the one hand, experience is all that we are aware of, and is the ground and building material for all concepts, abstractions, and explanations of anything -- this is the first perspective. And, on the other hand, (presumptive) experience (as when we encounter other conscious entities) is but one phenomenon among others within the world that is built out of experience -- this is the second perspective. The second perspective, in other words, is contained within the first -- the situation suggests an Escher-like painting, in which the world is wrapped around and condensed into a localized object within itself. Any explanation -- any attempt at explanation -- of such an object will always be contained within our experiential situation, and can never contain that situation. And that, I think, is a sufficient explanation of the wrongly-named "explanatory gap" -- it would be better to think of it as a situational gap. By its nature, that gap is ineradicable and unbridgeable, since it simply refers to two distinct perspectives (and lies, I believe, at the origin of the many forms and varieties of dualism that have haunted cultures since long before Descartes). But, once we abandon the realist assumption that there must be a single, "true" perspective on the phenomenon, and once we disentangle the two perspectives, it presents no obstacle in itself to the provision of a coherent, effective, and physical explanation of experience as a phenomenon within experience.

UPDATE: Here's the conclusion to this series.

7 Comments:

At 7:45 AM, January 11, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

Your analysis is right on. Experience is prior to and is assumed in everything else, including our "third-person" investigations. Your concluding sentence doesn't satisfy me, however. The physical description of experience within experience will not tell me what it is about the world that accounts for the fact that first person experience exists and accompanies certain causal relations. It seems you are saying it's a brute fact and let's be content with understanding its physical correlates.

 
At 9:59 PM, January 11, 2006, Blogger Ellis Seagh said...

Hi Steve. You say: It seems you are saying it["first person experience"]'s a brute fact and let's be content with understanding its physical correlates.

Well, no. I can't say everything in one post, though, and here the point I wanted to make was simply that:
(a) we necessarily have a different perspective on our own experience than we do on others'; but
(b) that difference, by itself, doesn't mean that a physical explanation of the phenomenon of experience as such can't be provided.

Elsewhere (see, e.g., the Q-and-A at the end of the concluding post in the series), I've tried to make some suggestions toward providing such an explanation. In that I've also tried to be as clear as possible that:
(a) "first person experience" (which is actually redundant, no?) doesn't "accompany" "certain causal relations" -- it actually IS a certain causal relation; and
(b) there are no "physical correlates" to conscious experience, since it itself IS a physical phenomenon occurring within a physical mechanism, albeit one seen from a particular point of view.

I do understand that we differ on this, though, and it may well be that no explanation along these lines will be able to satisfy you. My general theme, for what it's worth, is that dualism of any sort (other than "situational" I guess, if there is such) has an understandable but mistaken tendency to give a special metaphysical or ontological status to what is, after all, just our particular situation in the midst of the phenomenon. But just as physical explanations have de-throned us from the center of creation with respect to other phenomena, I think we'll find that such explanation will also undermine the special status that we've given to that last bastion of our self-regard, the mind.

 
At 11:22 PM, January 11, 2006, Blogger bradford said...

The paradox is the friction, conflict generator, using two poles create powers of distinction. Criticism seems to project disproval when approval needs attention. This alchemestry lets myth angled stories build the structure for science evolution. Human nature is an oxymoron when mannerisms try to prethink experience!

 
At 7:33 AM, January 12, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

I do think we will de-throne the mind. I think we'll do this my showing that experience is a part of causal relations throughout nature. That is because the functional role experience plays in us (and I have been reading and trying to understand your ideas on this) cannot have emerged from non-experiential predecessors. I think a reduction of human consciousness to physical description then must fail, if by physical one means what it normally means: a system which can be explained by reducing to a mechanism of component parts without reference to experience.

 
At 6:45 PM, January 12, 2006, Blogger Ellis Seagh said...

My apologies, Steve, for not being clearer about this. What I want to say is that, unlike so-called "eliminative materialists" (e.g. Dennett, as far I understand him), I think conscious experience is quite real, but unlike dualists of any sort (other than, as I said, "situational"), I also think it's entirely physical, and so more mundane than it appears (illusorily). I can understand, and even feel, the sense that experience is special, or is something outside of the physical world -- but my view is that this is something akin to an illusion, generated by the simple fact that we're seeing it (so to speak) from the very heart of the phenomenon itself. I do think there's a crude but useful analogy to the once prevalent illusion that the earth had a special place at the center of the cosmos, generated simply by the fact that that's where we happen to be.

 
At 4:51 PM, June 13, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well.. One thing thing Don't think you can call it illusionary . Your studying something that in it heart is experienced subjectively . Looking for an objective point view ,but within a construction called science and in a Cultural Cosmology "called Westerns "Can't call something an illusions essentially when there no way you can step outside of that illusions . You can say it is my belief it has no special place ,but your not arriving to a more objective plateau by any stretch of the imagination . At most science in in self provide limited -abstract and simplified models of the world . Not complete explanations of reality. If the premise I am providing a complete explanation for everything was the whole and thesis then you can call something an illusions because it doesn't fit within that that vision of the world.

If you kept that line of thought then you'd fall into a reductionist trap of explaining away phenomena as illusions since it doesn't fit an External view that takes premise in there native cultures . Which is fine that an Existentialist belief and that a choice .But it still constructed .

 
At 5:00 PM, June 13, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't want to sound pretentious is just seem that it was coated with a realist assumptions which is entirely culture bound to a European-Western culture history and historical experience. Essentially where every paradox will be found a truer realist description of reality ,but still entirely within the constructs of observations ,culture and scientific philosophies and European culture .

 

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