[FoRK] The State of Consciousness Studies

Elias Sinderson <elias at soe.ucsc.edu> on Mon Jul 16 19:08:25 PDT 2007

Lion Kimbro wrote:
> How can you measure an experience externally? 

I will assume that by 'experience' you mean 'conscious experience' and, 
by that, you mean 'an experience that one is /aware/ of'. Please correct 
me if I am somehow mistaken in that assumption.

I will further assume that ones' own 'experience' may be related to 
another person to some degree of fidelity. The details of this relation 
aside (specifically, the fidelity which one may achieve), I think we can 
all take it as a given that, but for the grossest edge cases involving 
horrible accidents and deformities, a conscious being will be able to 
relate their experience to another conscious being. Whether it be 
verbally, pictorally, or even with the twitch of a finger or batting of 
an eye, it is possible to let someone else know that one is having or 
has had an 'experience'. Again, please correct me on this point if I am 
somehow mistaken.

That said, there are a wide variety of methods that may be applied to 
discern or measure an experience, both subjectively and objectively. One 
may ask a subject to relate their experience in prose or on an arbitrary 
scale (e.g. of intensity). Once gathered, this data may be subject to a 
variety of analytical methods that yield the relative presence of 
certain words within the context or locality of other words, or provide 
insight as to the general scale of experience across a population. These 
are, of course, subjective approaches, in that the subject under 
measurement is providing a narrative or subjective account of their 
perceived experience.

Objectively, one may measure onset of awareness to various physical 
stimuli by collecting reaction times; occultation of sensory stimuli 
(e.g. masking effects) through memory and other sensory-awareness 
related experiments; attention during task-related procedures while 
introducing alternate tasks and stimuli. Additionally, the use of 
flourescing dyes that bind to various resources utilized by the brain 
(e.g. oxygen, sugar, etc.) allows one to view and record actual brain 
states, to an increasingly high degree of detail, while a subject is 
having an 'experience'. This last bit has been an incredible boon in 
understanding cognition, and the data collected thereby agrees 
remarkably well with anecdotal and clinical data collected over the 
course of hundreds of years of case study involving victims of 
accidents, localized strokes, seizures, etc.

The result of the above methods, collectively, has provided a stunningly 
broad understanding of the demonstrable correlation between arbitrary 
physical processes and subjective 'experience'. In truth, however, this 
science is in its' infancy and the fields are far from a grand unifying 
theory; there is much work to do and many dissertations to be written. 
Some will most certainly feel inclined to assert that none of the above 
really captures the totality of what an 'experience' is like and this is 
trivially true in the same sense that quantum theory prevents one from 
simultaneously measuring the speed and mass of an electron. To this I 
would say that you are probably best served not by the science but by 
the poetic, and look to the vast range of human expression that attempts 
to convey it thus. Some will go on to say that the poetic is 
insufficient in conveying experience, and to them I would say that I 
pity the cold, dark and lonely place where they choose to reside.

I cannot, however, abide by rhetorical ploys to introduce a metaphysical 
entity (whether named 'soul', 'mind' or 'qualia') that is free from 
measure, relation or, for that matter, definition -- our time is better 
spent considering other, more pressing matters.


Regards,
Elias

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