Monday, April 25, 2005

Feeling feelings - Or not?

In previous posts in this blog there has been a tension between two interpretations of the way in which we may experience the world. The tension is between whether in our conscious experience we directly experience the feelings and emotional form of our body parts and the external world, or whether the brain is responsible for constructing these feelings. By ‘directly’ I do not mean without mediation, but that conscious feelings are the result of feeling other feelings.

This dichotomy has some corollary with the dispute between representationalist and direct realist theories of perception, except that 1) I am primarily concerned only with whether feelings and emotions are perceived directly and 2) the issue is not so much whether conscious feelings are represented by the brain so much as whether they are generated by the brain.

This issue has a major impact on many aspects of panexperientialism and this post outlines my current views on the matter. The two different views on the nature of our perceptual feelings I will call Direct Realist Panexperientialism (‘DRP’) and Construcitvist Panexperientialism (‘CP’).

Based on my understanding of current neurophysiological knowledge, I think that there is more support for CP than DRP. Some of the reasons that I have come around to this position are:

- The affective tone and feeling of our perceptions largely depend on where the neurons from out sensory receptors go in the brain, rather than on what happens to the sense organs. E.g. the crushing of a touch receptor cell will give rise to the sensation of touch, not pain. This is a consequence of the region of the brain that the neurons connected to the receptor cells go to.
- Stimulation of different areas of the brain produces different affects and sensations. E.g. stimulation of different areas of the amygdala produces emotions of fear, rage or a ‘warm,floaty feeling’ in the subject.
- Dreaming, hallucination and the experience of ‘phantom limbs’ in amputees indicate that the brain is capable of independently constructing representations of the body and external world and the affective accompaniments to these representations.

In short, there does not seem to be a need to postulate that in our conscious perceptions feeling is transmitted from the sense organs and the external world - the brain is capable of generating feelings by itself. Of course, in normal perception this generation of feelings by the brain occurs in response to information transmitted from the sense organs.

Some of the consequences of adopting CP are:

- Firstly, adopting a constructivist position on feelings does not mean there is any need to abandon panexperientialism per se.

Although some of the arguments for a panexperientialist view may be slightly modified under CP, in my view the strength of the panexperientialist position remains. Although all our conscious feelings may be generated by the brain, the brain is composed of the same matter as the rest of the world, so I think positing experience as a fundamental aspect of the natural world remains the most viable explanation of the relation between the mind and the body (though with CP it is more accurate to refer to the mind-brain problem rather that the mind-body problem). Refer to the links on the main page of this blog for detailed arguments for the panexperientialist position.

As an example of the compatibility of Constructivism and Panexperientialism, Steven Lehar is a strong advocate of a representationalist theory of perception and is also sympathetic to a panexperientialist metaphysics (as per this excerpt from his representationalism website).

- Secondly, adopting CP means there is less reason for postulating the basic panexperiential material or process as being affective or emotional in nature.

Following a basically Whiteheadian position, I have previously contended that the fundamental panexperiential properties of the world are emotional in nature. This is based largely on generalising, from our own first hand experience, that the emotional and affective aspects of subjectivity are the most elemental and basic.

However, if CP is adopted it means that conscious emotional experience is constructed by the brain rather than being transmitted from the world. Therefore, the generalisation argument for extrapolating affective experience to all natural processes does not hold (although there may be other reasons for adopting panexperientialism with an affective basis).

-Thirdly and as a consequence of the previous point, under CP panexperientialism develops similarities to Neutral Monism, under which the experiential and physical are aspects of an underlying neutral entity. If the fundamental experiential features of the world are not directly accessible, perhaps they should be ascribed to some neutral, underlying stuff.

It is possible under CP that the fundamental experiential nature of the world may always remain elusive and that we can only become truly knowledgeable about the experiences generated by our own brains. This also underscores the importance of neuroscience to CP - in learning about the brain we learn not only about ourselves but also about the fundamental features of nature, in so far as these features are knowable.

- Fourthly, under CP the authority of Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne as the foremost panexperientialists of our time is diminished.

If our experiences are not comprised of the ‘feelings of feelings’, then substantial parts of Whiteheads metaphysics and cosmology may need modification. Other forms of panexperientialism (such as that of Skrbina, Rosenberg, William James and Spinozistic theories) may require consideration on an equal footing with the panexperientialism of process philosophy.

However, there are still many aspects where the genius of Whitehead can be applied to CP. For instance, the rationale for emergent levels of causation explicated by Whitehead (‘the many become one and are increased by one’) is as relevant to CP as it is to DRP.

- Finally, if a naturalistic, evolutionary perspective is maintained then CP cannot be absolute throughout nature.

The brain evolved form simpler organisations of matter and simpler forms of perception preceded the ability of the brain to construct representations and generate emotions. Elements of direct perception of feelings may remain in human conscious experience.

Those are my thoughts on the matter for the moment. Whilst CP may be a little less poetic and a little more alienating than DRP, I think the evidence from neuroscience indicates that CP is currently the more sustainable viewpoint.

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Steve said...

I agree with your thrust here. The way I thought about it is that the amplified experience generated by the brain/nervous system is just exceedingly more robust than the experiential aspect of other systems. Using human experience as a guide to infer what more primitive experience is like is therefore difficult.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think it's difficult, if not impossible, to arrive at a conception of how basic, nonervous experience might 'feel' by reasoning alone.
Outside the philosophical domain though, I am open to the possibility that meditative, mystical or other states may provide direct intuitions into the 'feelings of things'.


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