How we confuse ourselves with words

by Neil Rickert

Quoting from a recent Yahoo groups post:

There is some phenom, X, that gets called “consciousness.”

Is there such a phenomenon?

A rainbow is a phenomenon.  The aurora borealis is a phenomenon.  A waterfall is a phenomenon.  But is consciousness a phenomenon?

Typically, we use the word “phenomenon” for something that we can observe.  A doctor observes his patient, and reports that the patient is conscious.  So, yes, there’s something that can be observed.  And if that’s what we mean by “consciousness”, then it is fair to call that a phenomenon.

But that is usually not what people mean when they talk of consciousness.  Part of our being conscious is in our ability to experience the world, or our immediate environment as part of that world.  And it seems that these days, people want the word “consciousness” to mean the content of that experience (whatever that might mean).  And it is far from clear that this fits what we normally mean by “phenomenon.”

Qualia

Since Chalmers coined the term “hard problem” many people have discussed consciousness in terms of qualia.  The word “qualia” is supposed to mean something like “qualities of experience,”  with “quale” as the singular form of “qualia”.  According to the qualiaphiles (proponents of qualia), when I look at a red tomato I experience a red quale.  To me, that way of talking seems strange, and I have no idea what “red quale” could mean.  I guess that makes me a qualiaphobe.

When I look at a red tomato, I certainly am consciously experiencing that tomato and I am consciously experiencing its redness.  But when we introduce words such a “qualia” and “quale” we tend to objectify that experience.  We talk of qualia, or of a red quale, as if they were objects to be examined and studied.  And that leads to the idea that we should be able to give an objective account of qualia.

The same thing happens with the word “consciousness”.  By using a noun form, we tend to objectify it, to think that there is some thing, some object, something that we can talk about, that is called “consciousness.”  And, therefore, we come to the idea that there should be an objective account of this thing that is consciousness.

To me, the essence of being conscious is that I consciously experience the world.  But I don’t experience my consciousness.  What I experience is the same world that you experience.  The manner in which I experience the world is unavoidably subjective.

It seems to me that if we were able to come up with a completely objective account of qualia and of consciousness, we would have denied that there is anything subjective about the manner in which I experience the world.  Solving the hard problem would seem to show that we are not actually conscious.

And that is an example of how we confuse ourselves.

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8 Comments to “How we confuse ourselves with words”

  1. How about this:

    1. What scientists observe are phenomena (appearances). Another way of stating this: scientists observe forms in “awareness” (“awareness” here refers, I think, to what you mean by “unavoidably subjective”). The field of awareness “in which” (not a good term but not sure how to avoid it) phenomena appear can be said to be both unified and differentiated. And perhaps a better way of saying it still – “Scientists observe differentiations in the unified field of awareness.
    2. Scientists then develop a conceptual structure to explain those differentiations. This conceptual structure is based largely on quantitative analysis of those differentiations.

    At this point in the process of scientific investigation, as I understand it (and as analyzed by cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman of Cal Tech) there is no basis for asserting that science – as currently practiced – supports a materialist view. I have no basic objection to the conceptual superstructure, even when things like “matter” and “energy” devoid of intelligence or consciousness are used to describe or “explain” (though Weismann acknowledges that at the most fundamental level, science doesn’t explain anything) the phenomena.

    where the problem comes in, is in the next step. Some (not all) scientists (Dawkins, Crick, Sagan, etc) confuse the human-created conceptual structure with reality. So a simple concept like matter or energy, which was simply used to explain the behavior of certain phenomena, becomes reified, and is thought of as an inherently existing Reality.

    Does this make sense?

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    • What scientists observe are phenomena (appearances).

      No, I would not say that.

      I did say that a rainbow is a phenomenon. But it is not an appearance, at least in the way that I view things. The term “appearance” seems to refer to how it appears to me. I do not observe how the rainbow appears to me. I observe the rainbow. “How it appears to me” is perhaps a reference to my subjective experience, but it is not a reference to the phenomenon that I am observing.

      I’ll grant that there’s a difference between how scientists (for example physicists) use “phenomena” and how philosophers use “phenomena”. My usage is closer to that of the scientists.

      At this point in the process of scientific investigation, as I understand it (and as analyzed by cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman of Cal Tech) there is no basis for asserting that science – as currently practiced – supports a materialist view.

      I don’t have a problem with that. I have a post on why I am not a materialist. It sometimes seems to me that the critics of materialism are more materialist than I am.

      where the problem comes in, is in the next step. Some (not all) scientists (Dawkins, Crick, Sagan, etc) confuse the human-created conceptual structure with reality.

      I would not limit that to scientists. It seems to also be a problem for ordinary folk and for philosophers (academic philosophers).

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      • The rainbow as a phenomenon or appearance?

        My gut is telling me this is going to be impossible, that we’re getting tied up in knots with quibbles about words. But I’ll try anyway, even though I have a feeling it will just be frustrating. I’m really interested in communicating, but it seems like it may be very difficult.

        ok, long sigh…

        can we leave aside the question of philosophers or scientists?

        Just you and me. Neil…. and Don.

        When you look at a rainbow, the colors you experience (I won’t use the word qualia since I know you don’t’ like it), require an awareness, a perceiving consciousness of some kind? No matter what the physicist says about reflected light waves, or what the physiologist says about energy conducted down the optical nerve and interpreted by various parts of the brain, the experience is absent from the scientific description of it, isn’t it?

        But the scientist must begin with the experience otherwise they would not know that the colored phenomenon even existed (they might detect, with their instruments, wave lengths that correspond to certain colors we experience but they wouldn’t know those wave lengths correspond to our experience unless, well, they had experienced it before.

        I see this is getting impossible. I give up. There has to be a scintilla of good will to get past the words which seem to veil something that is so extraordinarily simple – like an “amla fruit in the palm of your hand”, as Ramana Maharshi used to say (I’m not sure I’m spelling that right – “amla”?).
        If there’s an interest, I’d be happy to try in another way, but I don’t think at present it’s possible to say it any simpler. At least not for me.

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        • can we leave aside the question of philosophers or scientists?

          Just you and me. Neil…. and Don.

          Sure, fair enough. My point was just that the two groups don’t mean the same thing, and communication requires some acknowledgement of that.

          When you look at a rainbow, the colors you experience (I won’t use the word qualia since I know you don’t’ like it), require an awareness, a perceiving consciousness of some kind? No matter what the physicist says about reflected light waves, or what the physiologist says about energy conducted down the optical nerve and interpreted by various parts of the brain, the experience is absent from the scientific description of it, isn’t it?

          Fair enough, except for the last bit. If the scientific description is in terms of wavelength, we could say that the experience is absent from that. However, if the scientific description uses our ordinary color words, then the scientist learned those words with experience, so the experience is not totally absent from the description.

          But the scientist must begin with the experience otherwise they would not know that the colored phenomenon even existed …

          I’d be a bit careful about that. Sometimes scientists know that a phenomenon exists from the equations, and only later is an observation made. But for the case of color, I’d agree with your point.

          The difficulty with this, is that people don’t agree. Some people say that the red color of the tomato inheres in the tomato, and others say that it inheres in our perceptual experience. This isn’t something that can be settled by science, because it is a difference in meaning.

          I guess I am not sure what point you are trying to make. If you are trying to say that experience is important, and that we could not do without it, then of course I agree.

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          • Hey Neil, Happy Easter.

            I guess the simplest way to express the point, the ultimate point, anyway, is that I’m exploring the limitations of the current methods of science (I’m a clinical psychologist, with some background in cognitive science as well). My interest in the limitations of science is specifically in regard to the question of whether one can speak of the source of matter and energy as conscious or not. The route from the current topic to that point is somewhat circuitous, and I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t make it explicit yet. the most immediate point is simply an elaboration on Heisenberg’s “It is not Nature itself that scientists explore, but Nature’s response to our questioning.

            I find that the distinction between those aspects of our experience that scientific methods currently address, and those that these methods can’t address, to be a powerful way to explore Heisenberg’s statement.

            Getting to the current point, the question for me boils down to, what aspect of the rainbow is addressed by the physicist and physiologist, and what aspect is left out?

            I don’t know if all that makes it fuzzier or clearer. I apologize if I’m not doing well at this.

            Leaving all that aside, your comment about the color of the tomato intrigued me. Perhaps I don’t understand what you’re saying. Are you referring to some philosophers? To the best of my knowledge, there is almost complete unanimity (an extraordinarily rare thing in my field of psychology) that the qualia “red” (I’m sorry, I don’t know how to talk about this without bringing in that word) is an interaction, not something that is inherently in the object.

            To go briefly into the history of this. I think even Helmholtz, more than 150 years ago, agreed that we can’t speak of the “red” that we experience in an object (let’s stick with the tomato for now) until that light waves that are reflected off of “it” (the “X” that Heisenberg was referring to; the unknown which stimulates our sense organs and we perceive as a red tomato) until our brain processes it.

            I think this was commonly accepted until James Gibson, in the 1970s, developed his theory of direct contact. For the next 30 years or so, there were many arguments between the representationists – more or less following Helmholtz – who said we had no direct contact with the “object” (the tomato in this case) and the Gibsonian’s who said we had direct contact.

            I had thought for a long time that Gibson was contradicting Heisenberg (and Kant, for that matter) until I had a long series of discussions with a psychologist who did a post doc with Gibson at Cornell. Bill (the guy who did the post doc) said that Gibson, Heisenberg and Helmholtz were all in agreement that the “red” that we experience (there, I did it without your dreaded Q word:>)) does not exist solely in the object. Where Gibson and Helmholtz still disagreed, as far as I understood it, is the extent to which our awareness is in direct contact with the “X” that we call “the world”, But I don’t think that’s relevant – yet – to the current point.

            So to bring all this back to the rainbow – no perceiving, no red, blue, yellow, in the rainbow. There are wave lengths of light reflected off the water vapor, and translated by means of the optic nerve, thalamus, and various parts of the cortex, but no experience of color.

            If you know of any theories in cognitive science that contradict this, I’d love to hear it, but I think this is just about unanimous. Which I have to say again, is rather astonishing. I think it was harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan who said, in 1999, that apart from a few trivial facts about perception and learning, there is hardly anything you can get a group of psychologists to agree on. I think, 14 years later, this is still mostly true. Fortunately for our conversation, perception is one of those things agreed on.

            Owen Barfield, in his “Saving the Appearances”, drawing on the insights of Heisenberg, Eddington, and other early geniuses in the field of quantum physics, goes through a series of thought experiments with regard to the rainbow. If it is true that the “X” is unknown that stimulates our senses to construct the phenomenal image of the rainbow, this is true for all our sensory experience. he specifically takes apart a “tree” in the same manner – the brown, the solid feel of the bark, the sound of an axe cutting the tree – all are responses of our mind and senses to an unknown X.

            It seems to me, in an examination of what science does and does not tell us, this is almost the perfect place to start (in fact, this exploration of the rainbow and the tree is the opening of Barfield’s book).

            Heres’ another very similar presentation from Alan Wallace’s “Choosing Reality”

            “As we attend to cosmology’s description of the evolution of the universe from the Big Bang up tot eh emergence of life on our planet, a series of images of these events are brought to mind. We may imagine something like a cosmic firecracker at the beginning, red-hot gases expanding in space, the formation of radiant, bright stars; a molten, lifeless planet; and finally nucleotides that mysteriously transform into living, conscious creatures.

            “Upon reflection, it becomes obvious that none of these images existed in nature, for they are human constructs based upon our conscious, visual experience. While texts on cosmology may display vivid artist’s portrayals of the formation of stars and planets, such images may be profoundly misleading. They presumably depict these events as they would have appeared if humans had been on the scene to witness them. But cosmology denies that human consciousness was present, so they never looked like those illustrations. Indeed, in a cosmos devoid of consciousness, THEY NEVER LOOKED LIKE ANYTHING AT ALL [emphasis added]. No images are appropriate. Nevertheless, they do come to mind, and the tendency is to reify them, to assume they existed in a mindless universe all on their own.”

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          • My interest in the limitations of science is specifically in regard to the question of whether one can speak of the source of matter and energy as conscious or not.

            I not quite sure what that means. It seems to hint at something like panpsychism.

            the most immediate point is simply an elaboration on Heisenberg’s “It is not Nature itself that scientists explore, but Nature’s response to our questioning.

            I like that point. I’m a critic of the traditional view of a passive perception. There’s too much of a tendency to think in stimulus-response terms, where a person receives an input, and acts (or perhaps forms beliefs) in response. If we want to use stimulus-response terminology, we should look at a person as stimulating the environment, and being concerned about how the environment responds.

            Getting to the current point, the question for me boils down to, what aspect of the rainbow is addressed by the physicist and physiologist, and what aspect is left out?

            I’m inclined to say that it is mostly physics. Color photography works pretty well with rainbows, and nobody tweaked the camera design so that it could take pictures of rainbows.

            Leaving all that aside, your comment about the color of the tomato intrigued me.

            Perhaps I was too glib in that comment. For context, what I had said was “Some people say that the red color of the tomato inheres in the tomato, and others say that it inheres in our perceptual experience.” To me, that’s a point about semantics, not about science. As you say, I don’t think there is much disagreement about the science of color perception. But there is a disagreement on whether the meaning of “red” has to do with reflectivity properties of things like a tomato, or whether that meaning refers directly to the way that we consciously experience color.

            I don’t have a quarrel with your quotes from Barfield and Wallace, though perhaps many people would.

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          • I just realized I should add, neither Alan Wallace nor I agree with the contemporary psychologists’ account of perception, which is a muddle headed mix of monistic materialism and naive dualism. Just thought I should add that!

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  2. Hi Neil,

    I’ve just come across your blog. Lots of interesting stuff here.

    I think your view is similar to something that I’ve been saying recently.

    The “hard problem” is allegedly to explain “subjective consciousness” (or “subjective experience” or whatever else we are inclined to call it). But normally what we try to explain are our observations. And we do not observe subjective consciousness. How could we? What would be doing the observing? It seems to me that people are trying to treat subjective consciousness as an explanandum, when it can’t be one.

    It seems to me that what needs explaining are differences that we observe, such as the difference between things that we apparently have conscious awareness of and those that we don’t.

    BTW, on philosophical zombies. A supposed philosophical zombie would be just as inclined as a human to say that he has subjective consciousness. And because he is the same at the software or algorithmic level, the causes of his saying it would be the same as the human’s. Since the zombie’s claim to have subjective consciousness is motivated by something other than having subjective consciousness, then so is the human’s. So, if the concept of a zombie is meaningful, we have no reason to believe our own claims of subjective consciousness. But it was only those claims that motivated the concept of a zombie in the first place. The concepts of subjective consciousness and of philosophical zombies both seem rather incoherent, but highly seductive.

    Like

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