Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Roots philosophy

I stumbled across an interesting blog the other day by Matt Mueller. I've already left one comment, but thought I'd follow up here, given the fairly expansive nature of this reply.

Matt kicks things off with his definition of consciousness. While it's an interesting approach, I'm not sure I entirely understand, or agree, with his definition of consciousness.

First off, he defines consciousness as:

a subjective self-awareness of one’s actions and experiences.

It seems reasonable enough to me to define consciousness as self awareness, but I'm not entirely sure this is an exhaustive definition. It really depends on what you mean by self-awareness, and whether it's an active 'being aware'-state of having a self, or a more passive acknowledgement that, if asked, you'd reply 'that action is my own' - thus being more dispositional.

There are also pitfalls in defining consciousness in terms of a 'self', as the concept of self itself is a bit vague, at best (a la Hume, Parfit and the Buddha).

Still, defining consciousness as some kind of awareness - I can live with that for now.

However, Mueller then goes on to state that this awareness is dependent on the ability to conceive of other possible actions. I'm not really sure why this step is necessary (pardon the modal pun). I can't see it being logically impossible to have a consciousness that is self aware, but doesn't actively conjure up possible actions, but just responds to the environment passively. It could still be conscious in the sense that it acknowledges it's actions are it's own, and its experiences as its own.

The next step is the distinction of two consciousness within our consciousness - an animalistic consciousness, and an 'other' consciousness. Again, I can't see why this is necessary, although I can see this as possibly tracing the dangerous path of the homunculus.

Because we seem to have a fairly compelling sensation of 'looking out' on the world, and it could feel like there is something of a pilot for our bodies, thus was born the idea (really an expanded assumption) of the homunculus. However, if there is a homunculus, what is looking out of it's eyes?

I think Dennett thoroughly disintegrates this position, as well as its more contemporary counterpart - what he calls the Cartesian Theatre - in his cheekily named book Consciousness Explained (a top read).

Mueller then moves on to the necessity of language for consciousness to exist. While I have no doubt that language is a very important part of consciousness, I wouldn't go so far as to say that without language there is no consciousness.

Mueller seems to hold language in this esteem for a couple of reasons. First is that even if we are to contemplate things that were before, or outside, language, we end up using language to do so. Secondly is that language provides the framework within which we can think.

I suspect that the first reason suffers from a very common assumption in analytical philosophy - that propositional knowledge is all knowledge simpliciter. That propositional facts are all facts. I've written about this before, including in my honours thesis, and proposed that we take abilities and non-experiential knowledge (knowledge-how, rather than knowledge-that) more seriously.

In this sense, I'd suggest that one can be conscious (and self-aware) of riding a bike, without any language being used in the process. They can even say they know how to ride a bike without needing to put that knowledge in propositional form ("depress the pedals sequentially" "apply pressure to the handlebars asymetrically to redirect the wheel" etc).

Certainly, once you describe your actions, you drop into propositional mode, and collapse the concrete experience into abstract words and concepts, but I can't see that as being a necessary condition of consciousness.

And I'm not so sure that Mueller wouldn't actually agree with me on this. He also states that by using language, we're imposing a kind of presupposed ontology, or framework, on our experience and consciousness. That's exactly the danger I was talking about when I said we give propositional knowledge too much priority.

Language gives us the gift of easy abstraction, and I think this is a critical part of developing our consciousness from basic levels to being able to manipulate concepts and communicate. However, we also hem in our understanding of the world through a necessary process of abstraction, generalisation and pigeon holing of concepts in the process.

A part of (some) Buddhist philosophy is to escape from language in some ways, and go back to the raw experience, without any limiting framework of ontology imposed upon it. You can't get terribly far in life doing only this, which is why the next step in Buddhist philosophy is to just get on with your work, but also trying not to forget the bigger picture that our language and abstract concepts are useful, but ultimately limiting factors on our raw consciousness.

Mueller does seem to acknowledge the limitations of language, and it's assumed framework, when he says:

So yes, we would need an ontology independent of consciousness but I would argue that this is a moot point, as it is impossible. As soon as we try to define it we lose exactly what we were trying to gain.

However, I think we only lose track if we are forced to hold on to language without acknowledging the non-language-based parts of consciousness.

I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect that it's through a combination of structured consciousness, with abstractions, propositions, language and factual knowledge, in league with 'raw' consciousness, with experience, qualia, abilities and free from language, that we can get a better grasp on reality - and build up a more complete ontology.

And yeah, I am somewhat of a realist, but not in a Platonic sense. I would suggest that there is a concrete world that exists independent on consciousness, perception and language. In this world, there are no 'chairs', but there is stuff that, if looked upon by a conscious mind with the concept and parameters of 'chair' in mind, would be called such. But this 'chair' thing is a vague
notion, at best. A useful generalisation, but impossible to pin down to some fundamental, realist, essence.

In ontology, I'd lean more on the discovery side, up to the point where out limited senses and subjective nature mean there's no more we can discover, and we have to create the rest. That means there is an unknowable perfect ontology, but whether it's knowable or not, well, we'll never know.

I'd also be reluctant to draw a hard distinction between ourselves and the world. We're in the world, and a part of it, after all. That, in itself, is part of my defence against skepticism. It's not all of a defence - because I don't think there is a water proof defence against skepticism. But skepticism is primarily an attack on propositional knowledge, and I think there might be a way to sneak some non-propositional knowledge (like how to ride a bike) under the skeptical radar.

Anyway, I've enjoyed reading Mueller's blog, and it's dredged up a whole lot of metaphysics that I haven't thunk on for a few years.

I also hope at least some of this post makes sense, and I'd be happy to clarify or elucidate any muggy points. I'm also always happy to hear criticism. I reckon there's a truth out there somewhere, and if I'm wrong about something, I'd sure love to be set straight!


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