Consciousness 1: How is experience possible?

by Neil Rickert

The Chalmers “hard problem” has to do with experience.  It seems that many people think of experience as something that requires explanation.  I never thought of it as a particular problem, perhaps because the way I am looking at consciousness is different from the way others look at it.

Chalmers was particularly concerned with explaining why experience has the particular form that it has.  Why do red things have the particular appearance that we experience.  I won’t be addressing that in this post, though I plan to revisit it in the future.  The concern, for today’s post, is why do we have any experience at all.  Or, in the terminology that Chalmers uses, why are we not zombies.

When we talk of experience, we normally expect that we are conscious of that experience.  It makes discussion difficult, if we have to start by requiring full consciousness before we can talk of experience.  So my target is something that need not be conscious.  Some people use the term proto-experience to discuss that.  I shall just use “experience” with the quotes to indicate that I might be talking of something that is less than conscious experience.  Strictly speaking, I should have used quotes around that word in the title of this post.


At least to some people, there is a mystery as to why we have experience at all.  They ask questions such as:

  • Can a chair have experience?
  • Why should anything made of atoms have experience?

To me, that’s the wrong way of looking at it.  Most of the atoms in my body will be gone within a few months, replaced by different atoms.  But the biochemical processes will continue.  I will still be me, and I will still be having experience, after all of the atoms have been replaced by different atoms.  But if those processes stop, then I shall stop having experiences and even though the atoms remain they will no longer be me.  They would just be the dead body.

My way of looking at that is to say that we are not made of atoms.  We are made of processes.  The processes involve atoms, but the processes can go on with replacement atoms.  It is the continuity of the processes that counts.  So we should think of ourselves as made of processes.  And it does seem plausible that processes could have “experiences”.

Reactive awareness

Within a process, I want to suggest that we use “experience” to mean that to which the process reacts.  That the process reacts shows that there is some kind of primitive awareness, as evidenced by the reaction.  We can describe that as reactive awareness.  And it is that reactive awareness that I suggest can be consider a kind of primitive “experience”.

Of particular interest, here, are homeostatic processes.  These are processes which are actively engaged in maintaining some sort of stability (or stasis).  These processes involve feedback, which means that the process is adjusting its behavior on the basis of its current state.  This use of feedback could perhaps be considered a precursor of full self-consciousness.  The adjustment of behavior, in order to maintain stasis, is already a kind of reactive awareness.

Biological organisms have many homeostatic processes.  There are small scale homestats, and there are larger scale homestatic processes with the small scale processes as components.  We could say that there is a complex hierarchy of nested homeostatic processes.

All organisms have “experience”

The conclusion from the above, is that all biological organisms have “experience” in the form of reactive awareness.  This should not be a surprising conclusion.  Whether a newborn infant is conscious is a question that is sometimes debated.  But parents of a newborn child will recognize the evidence that the baby appears to be experiencing pain or some other form of discomfort, and is reacting.  And when we look at ants or worms or fish, they do at times have the appearance of reacting to experience.

Those who pose the “hard problem” take it that the starting point, and want to explain experience in terms of matter.  But, to me, that seems backward.  The starting point, as I see it, is that “experience” that is common to all organisms.  And we learn about matter only through that experience.  The way to connect matter and experience is not by a reductive explanation of experience in terms of matter.  Rather, as I see it, the connection is by explaining how we come to know about matter with the use of our experience.  In short, it is the problem of knowledge that needs to be explained, rather than the problem of experience.

Is this panpsychism?

The “panpsychism” thesis is that everything has experience or some similar precursor to consciousness.  A number of people have suggested panpsychism as a way of “explaining” experience.

What I want to make clear, here, is that I am not a proponent of panpsychism.  I do not believe that chairs or rocks have experience in any useful sense of that word.  I do not know whether atoms can be said to have experience.  It is possible that an atom might turn out to be some kind of homestatic process, in which case perhaps it could be said to have “experience” in the form of reactive awareness.  But if an atom can have experience, that has no relevance to us.  For the atoms leave the body after a while, to be replaced by other atoms.  So it seems implausible that our experience reduces to that of atoms.  Rather, we should be looking for experience in the larger scale homestatic processes, as suggested above.

Where to from here?

I have left some loose ends.  Firstly, there is the question of the form of experience, or why is experience the way that we experience it.  I see this as part of the problem of knowledge.  That is, as we acquire knowledge, we find ways of shaping our primitive experience so that it can present the world to us, thereby making us conscious of the world.

And then there is the problem of what, specifically, makes us conscious of our “experience”.  There, I suggest, it has something to do with our ability to think.  For example, our regular breathing could be considered an example or reactive awareness.  But we are often not conscious of our breathing.  However, we can bring it to our consciousness by thinking about it.

Those are both topic that I tentatively plan to discuss in the future.




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