Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Self-Consciousness

{UPDATE 24 March 2008: fixed some links, but unfortunately the Desert Landscape blog referenced below is defunct and the archives unavailable}

I had been thinking that self-consciousness was a subset of all consciousness. This means that one could have an experience without it being reflected on and brought to self-consciousness.

Uriah Kriegel is a philosopher at the University of Arizona and is associate director of the Center for Consciousness Studies there. He is also the lead contributor to the Desert Landscapes group philosophy blog at Arizona. He argues that all consciousness depends on self-consciousness (defined a certain way). Having read the arguments, I believe he is right to say that phenomenal conscious experiences necessarily have what he calls a subjective character, that is, they exist for a particular subject. While this isn’t necessarily an earth-shaking conclusion, I think it is important to the project of identifying the role consciousness plays in us (and potentially elsewhere in nature).

To do full justice to Kriegel’s arguments, one must read his papers and attend to his careful definition of terms (see this one, which presents the thesis, then this one, which compares the conclusions to those of Ned Block and presents the implications for consciousness studies). Nevertheless, I’ll go ahead and paraphrase the core of the argument here and then discuss some implications.

While we can easily distinguish between experiences which are the focus of our attention or reflection, and others in the background which are not in focus, it would be incorrect to say we aren’t self-consciously experiencing the latter as well. This is meant in the sense that we are at least implicitly or peripherally aware that the experience belongs to us. It has the property of being a first-person experience. If self-consciousness is defined in this limited sense, then it can be argued that all (normal) forms of consciousness depend on self-consciousness.

The idea is that we shouldn’t let our intimate acquaintance with the human ability to introspect and become highly reflective to lead us to conceptually divorce consciousness from self-consciousness. Let me now discuss some implications for the ideas I’ve been exploring in this blog.

Having concluded from analysis of the mind/body problem that subjective experience is a fundamental component of the natural world, a central problem is to then explain how it ends up manifesting itself as human phenomenal consciousness. Here I would usually say that the human organism, through its functional organization, somehow leverages the experiential quality inherent in nature to produce our human experience. Despite the fact that the building blocks of experience are ubiquitous in nature, we shouldn’t expect everything to have a human-like mind: the full-bore version depends (somehow) on the complex organization of our bodies and brains.

In this account, the experiential quality is still kind of a passive free rider. It depends on functional organization, but no particular functional or causal role is given to it. More recently I have been focusing on the question of what work subjective experience performs in nature. This is because I’ve come to view the idea that subjective experience is epiphenomenal to be nearly as absurd as the idea that it doesn’t exist at all (explicitly or implicitly defended by some philosophers).

The discussion of self-consciousness above is helpful because it points back to the kinds of role experience might play in a system like the human brain. This role probably involves binding, integration, and/or coordination of subsidiary interactions. The idea to explore in the brain and more generally, is this: complex dynamic systems resist reductionist explanations; a binding or coordinating function over and above the effective causes of the component parts is necessary to explain them. This additional quality is what manifests itself in the first person as experience.

4 comments:

Peter said...

You don't mean, then, that sensations get somehow labelled as 'mine', but that they have the property of seeming to be mine by virtue of their place in an overall structure (if I'm making sense). That sort of explains how my sensations get pulled together - if they weren't pulled together they wouldn't present themselves as my sensations at all. There's a further question about how the right ones get bound in the right way to form a coherent picture of reality, I think. Interesting.

Steve said...

Right. I'm not sure how much of a problem for this approach is posed by considering abnormal states such as schizoprenia.

two na said...

There is a terrible problem with objective and subjective views. They both pose only speakings on articles of artifacts--man made things. I propose a new way of being. two-na.blogspot.com
remember that eventhough two-na uses the word "I" it holds no bearing of meaning, it has taken on the roll of being a language tool and references the ego now. do not be fooled, do not speak, see effects.

Steve said...

(I)thank (you, two na).