For all of my students

If you insist on not paying attention in lecture, and staring at your laptops the whole time, only to email me later once you realize you need the information, then perhaps you will stumble upon this page while you are surfing the internet so diligently, thus allowing you to maintain your I-get-all-my-knowledge-about-the-world-from-a-computer paradigm and still learn what is being said in your very (and merely physical) presence.

The mind is not like a video camera. In lecture, when I look up and 10 minutes has gone by and I find Prof. talking about Alpha Centaurian aliens opening up brains in the same way that we study the atmosphere of Venus, and I have no idea how he got there, I may actually be experiencing first hand one of the salient features of consciousness that Prof. has been blathering about all the while. I realize (by inferring) that he is int he middle of a lengthy explanation; but if you were to ask me to reproduce what he has said, I would be at a total loss. How can this be? I have been sitting here the entire time. My eyes have been affected by the same light, my ears affected by the same air vibrations, as someone who could reproduce his words. Yet I have no consciousness of the past 10 minutes. Have I been unconscious this whole time? Of course not. I was rehearsing the same line of a Pearl Jam song over and over as I re-imagined my strange dream from last night about an amazing new iphone. Clearly I have been conscious this whole time, I have even been paying close attention to something- just not what is presently going on before me. But how have I been paying attention to something that is not present? Can a billiard ball be caused to move by a force or object that is not present? By something which in no way comes into contact with it? Clearly my ability to pay attention to things does not function according to the same laws as the billiard ball's motion. When describing how my conscious attention works we must adopt a new set of terms to describe this new set of properties.

This is the driving idea behind Searle's refutation of computer functionalism and his own "biological naturalism." (But doesn't this just make Searle a property dualist, you ask? He insists not. Property pluralist? Apparently he has admitted as much...)


The Peripheral Self and Video Chat

One of Sartre's great insights was that the self that we can observe in reflection is not the true self. The true self eludes its own gaze, remaining visible only on the periphery of whatever experience one is absorbed in. Self-consciousness is the pre-reflective sense of peripheral awareness granted us by this peculiar structure. This does not preclude the ability to 'step back' and regard our own experiences. I may be absorbed in the activity of looking at a painting, but I also have the ability to think of that entire experience. Whether in recollection or by freely imagining, by observing my own experiences I perceive their subject-object structure, and in this way I 'reflectively' know myself. But this is not myself, for if it were myself, then who is the subject of this very act of recollection, or imagination? We quickly see that the pre-reflective self that is constantly absorbed in its own activity can never be adequately grasped. We can understand its structure by experiencing its elusive character, but we cannot clearly and distinctly perceive it in the same manner that we perceive the objects of our everyday experiences.

Do you not find that you experience this very same structure, in a surprisingly concrete fashion, when speaking with someone on Skype, or any video-chat program? Of course, this is a metaphor, but hear me out and see if you see Sartre's structure reiterated in this seemingly mundane experience. When chatting with a friend using some standard program, a window pops up with his image. I see him there on my screen, the window containing him appearing as a window into his environs. Clicking the 'full screen' option here only makes the experience I am describing more vivid. Now, after full-screening, my laptop is less a computer than a post-modern telephone- a sleek version of the ones we saw in all of the movies, audio-visual in nature. The camera trained on me is embedded directly in hardware that presently frames my friend's face. Looking directly at his face on my screen, I look (nearly) directly into the camera, thus presenting my face on his screen in a like profile. But here is the peculiarity: included in my image of my friend is a small inset- usually in the lower left corner- which shows how I appear on his screen, to me. That is, as I look at my friend in the center of my screen, always there, in the periphery of my view, is me. This mirrors Sartre's story, for this peripheral image is me only if I do not look at it. So long as I am absorbed in the conversation, looking at the center of the screen where my friend resides, allowing his surrogate electronic eye to capture my face head-on, the image in my periphery is in fact faithful to how I appear on his screen- how I appear to others. But the moment I turn my eye from his face and look over at my own, the moment I 'step back' and regard the entire experience, the self that I identify as 'me' in the image has been fundamentally altered. It no longer appears as it does to others, for it cannot look me in the eye. I look over at myself looking over. I turn to catch a glimpse of the self which I know is mine, only to find that it has already turned away.

This structural similarity to the Sartrean self makes video chat a strangely alienating experience, but this is easily remedied. Go to the options menu and disable the peripheral self. Now, might we extend the remedy?

Descriptive, not Explanatory

I think the essence of Husserl's phenomenology can be gleaned from the following passage, which is worth quoting at length:

We may now note that to every positing name a possible judgment self-evidently corresponds, or that to every attribution a possible predication corresponds and vice versa. After we have rejected the essential sameness of these acts, we can assume only that we have here a case of law-governed connection, and of connection governed by ideal law. Ideal connections do not point to the causal genesis or the empirical concomitance of the acts they coordinate, but to a certain ideally governed, operative belongingness of the ideatively graspable act-essences in question, which have their 'being' and law-governed ontological order, in the realm of phenomenological ideality, just as pure numbers and pure specifications of geometric patterns have their respectively in the realms of arithmetical and geometric ideality. If we enter the a priori reaches of pure Ideas, we can likewise say that 'one' (in pure, i.e. unconditional universality) could not perform the one set of acts without being able to perform those coordinated with them, and this on account of the specific semantic essence of the acts concerned. (Logical Investigations, V.35)

This has a Kantian flavor to it. We are here attempting to establish the conditions under which knowledge is possible, and thus these conditions will not assume a genetic role, but rather a descriptive one. My question could generally be stated as: how can descriptive endeavors enrich genetic ones and vice versa?

[added several days later]:
It was true to say that our considerations could not be scientific ones...And we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, entry 109- as quoted in Avrum Stroll's Sketches of Landscapes, 1998).

Wittgenstein and Husserl, do not, of course, have very similar philosophical projects- especially not the later Wittgenstein. But here, what does Wittgenstein mean by 'explanation' and 'description'? Could this not be likened to Husserl's phenomenological method, which uses terms like 'motivation' to express how parts of an experience are related without explaning that relation in terms of causality? Husserl's project is one of description rather than explanation, and perhaps is more similar to Wittgenstein's than most think.


Philosophy as Engineering

In another interesting conversation with a colleague, philosophy was likened to engineering. He said something along the lines of, "In philosophy, as in engineering, we focus on a specific problem in light of a certain array of tools, or methods, to go about solving the problem." So when a philosopher approaches a problem like "what makes a mental state conscious"? he does not begin in isolation. He examines the array of higher order and same order theories, how they have been developed and critiqued, where trends have emerged, where features have been deemed trivial. Similarly, an engineer designing a new bridge does not need to go out and discover the load-bearing properties of concrete. Both already work within a specific domain of tools and methods that have been devised by others to work on the problem. Both may find these tools and methods inadequate, just as they may find previous constructions inadequate. Nothing rules out the possibility of devising radically new tools and methods, or radically new constructions. And yet, both will construct their solution to a problem knowing that better tools and methods will gradually evolve that allow for newer, more stable constructions. The hope is that one's own temporally bounded technique and construction might be deemed a contribution rather than a misstep, or even worse, a perversion.