[FoRK] The State of Consciousness Studies

Lion Kimbro <lionkimbro at gmail.com> on Mon Jul 16 20:20:51 PDT 2007

  Thank you, Elias, for your beautifully written reply.
  Here is my response.

  The poetic subjectivity that you have described, is the
  on the order of favorite colors, political opinions, complex
  moods or feelings, and responses to favorite songs.

  I agree with your criticism of poetic subjectivity as a
  grounds for a metaphysical soul.  While a good story
  or play might seductively lead up to believe in such a thing,
  it doesn't really stand up to reason.

  However, when I (and other consciousness philosophers,
  such as David Chalmers,) say, "subjective experience,"
  they don't mean "You can never step into the same river

  Rather, they mean, "I can't tell if you're conscious or not,
  from the outside."

  I'll take the first part of your email, where we really start
  to divide, and then we can go from there.

> 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'm uncertain what you mean when you say, "an experience that one is
  aware of."

  1.  I've never experienced not experiencing.
    (Along the lines of:  We can't imagine what it's like to be dead.)
  2.  I've had experiences, where I was not thinking about my experience.
    (For example:  I'm deep in thought, writing a program.
     I'm experiencing, but it's not the subject of my attention.)

  But I have no problems with, "conscious experience."

> 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.

  We are only in partial agreement here, and this leads to problems down
  the line.

  Where I agree:
  You can communicate the objects of experience to me.
  You can say, "I see a red stop sign," and I know what you're talking about.
  You could move a couple feet over, and I could stand in your place,
  and say, "I see the red stop sign," and trust that I saw the same thing
  you saw.

  Here is where I disagree:

  I can't tell if you are having an experience or not.

  I take it for granted that other people, children, dogs and cats,
  even future highly intelligent computers -- I take it for granted
  that these things are conscious.

  But that's an **assumption** on my part.

  I can't really know that.  And there's no amount of signals and
  signs that they can make for me, that could convince me of that.

  And I could look at their brain with future nanotechnology, and
  I could look at my own brain with future nanotechnology, and see
  the similarity, and thus say, "I *think* that they probably have
  an experience, like I do," but it's an assumption.

  I think that the step we have to take, for a science of Consciousness,
  is to make an assumption:  "Where there is stuff happening in the
  world, like what happens in a brain, then there is Consciousness."
  If you're cool with that, then I'm cool with you.

  But we have to call it an assumption-- we can't call it a certainty.

  It should be okay, because we've assumed things before-- things like,
  "The laws of physics will be the same tomorrow, as they were yesterday."

  (What I am not cool with:
   "Consciousness doesn't exist,"
   "We can measure experience,"
   "There's nothing to be explained,"
   We'll talk about, "we can measure
   experience," in a moment.)

> 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.

  Well, wait-- we're running into problems already.

  By "subjective," you're not talking about the same "subjective" I'm
  talking about.

  When you say "subjective," you're talking about, "Something where
  people will give you different answers, because they think about the
  world differently."  So like, my favorite color is yellow, and that's

  But when I say, "subjective," I'm not talking about that;
  Rather, I'm pointing to, "The experience that people can't really
  know if you're having or not."

  Search back in this email to, "I can't tell if you are having an
  experience or not," and then continue from there-- that's the
  "subjective" thing I'm pointing to.

  I'm not talking about differences of opinion and such.
  These are totally different things.


  I hope that you can agree that:

  * Consciousness is real.
    - That is, that there's something that it is like, to be Elias.
    - That your experience is not an illusion, of some sort.
      -- that you're actually experiencing.

  * That a conscious experience, the experiencing of a
    conscious experience, is a different thing than a brain.

  To build faith in me, I'll tell you that I think:

  * There is a neural correlate, for every conscious experience.
    - That is, if I'm experiencing the color red,
      then there's some brain configuration that represents
      that seeing of red.

  * That wherever there is an awake brain,  (a living brain, with blood
    and oxygen and so on,)  there is an experience.

  Is this fair?

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