Consciousness 2: Phenomena

by Neil Rickert

Philosophers often use the word “phenomena” to refer to appearances.  Here is some text quoted from Wikipedia:

In modern philosophical use, the term ‘phenomena’ has come to mean what is experienced as given. In Immanuel Kant’s Inaugural Dissertation, On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World (1770), Kant theorizes that the human mind is restricted to the logical world and thus can only interpret and understand occurrences according to their physical appearances. He wrote that humans could infer only as much as their senses allowed, but not experience the actual object itself. Thus, the term phenomenon refers to any incident deserving of inquiry and investigation, especially events that are particularly unusual or of distinctive importance.  According to The Columbia Encyclopedia, “Modern philosophers have used ‘phenomenon’ to designate what is apprehended before judgment is applied.”

Kant’s point of view appears to have been that our investigation of the world begins with appearances, or phenomena.  What Kant saw as noumena, or the world in itself, was not accessible to us.  We would have to make do with phenomena.

This way of looking at how we relate to the world might have made sense at the time Kant came up with those idea.  However, we know a lot more now.  So, to me, that way of looking at it seems quite odd.  Yet that “quite odd” view persists.  Here’s what Nagel wrote about it:

Galileo and Descartes made the crucial conceptual division by proposing that physical science should provide a mathematically precise quantitative description of an external reality extended in space and time, a description limited to spatiotemporal primary qualities such as shape, size, and motion, and to laws governing the relations among them. Subjective appearances, on the other hand–how this physical world appears to human perception–were assigned to the mind, and the secondary qualities like color, sound, and smell were to be analyzed relationally, in terms of the power of physical things, acting on the senses, to produce those appearances in the minds of observers. (pp. 35-36, “Mind and Cosmos”)

Notice the distinction that Nagel suggests.  With science, we go out and systematically get information about the world.  But, in ordinary life, Nagel sees the world as writing appearances into our minds.  And presumably, the “hard problem” is to understand how the mind can have this mysterious ability to have appearances written to it.

That viewpoint seems pervasive, and not only within philosophy.  I see the same viewpoint showing up in discussions of AI.  It is the view that perception is passive, that our starting point is what perception delivers to us.  The AI folk tend to see us as passive recipients of sensory information, which they see as the input to a computational problem.

How I see it

I look at this very differently.  An evolved biological organism needs information about its environment, so as to be able to navigate that environment and to be able to find ways of sustaining itself.  Getting information about the environment cannot be easy, so cannot be passive.  The significance of a sensory stimulus depends on the orientation of the organism to its world.  As passively received, stimuli would look like noise.  Getting useful information requires that the organism find systematic ways of adjusting its orientation while using its sensory receptors.  It must actively pursue information if that information is to be useful.

Information, as we ordinarily understand it, is abstract.  It can only exist by means of some kind of physical representation.  And the only way that an organism can make use of information, is be representing it as internal states.  These would need be the internal states of which the organism is reactively aware, as discussed in my previous post in this series.  That is to say, I would expect an organism to be actively writing information about the world into its “experience”.

Nagel, in the quote given, distinguishes between science actively seeking information about the world, and the mind passively receiving “subjective appearances.”  However, to me, there is not a lot of difference between what a group of cooperating scientists needs to do, and what a group of cooperating neurons need to do.  The problem of getting perceptual information about the world is very similar to the problem of getting scientific information about the world.  The idea of phenomena, or of subjective appearances, as being a starting point seems badly mistaken.  It is far closer to an ending point with our perceptual systems having done a lot of work an analysis to actively acquire that perceptual information.

Take that last sentence that I quoted from Wikipedia:

According to The Columbia Encyclopedia, “Modern philosophers have used ‘phenomenon’ to designate what is apprehended before judgment is applied.”

We can illustrate that by thinking in terms of the rover robots that our space scientists have sent to Mars.  When we receive data from those Martian rovers, we do indeed apply judgment to help us understand what is happening on Mars.  But far more judgment was involved in sending those rovers to Mars in the first place.  The judgment does not begin with the information received.  The judgment begins with the planning to acquire the information.

We may compare the two viewpoints, as follows:

  • Phenomena (or appearances or qualia) are the starting point for our investigation of the world.  What needs to be explained (the hard problem) is how we happen to have these phenomena.
  • We actively seek useful information about our world.  Phenomena are simply our experiencing the world, as mediated by the information that we have actively acquired.  What remains to be explained, are the procedures needed for us to acquire that useful information.
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