Saturday, October 28, 2006

Experience and the subject

I’ve noticed on the net that recent work of Gregg Rosenberg and Galen Strawson on panexperientialist themes seems to be generating more responses to the topic from mainstream analytical philosophy, which on the whole I think has hitherto often regarded the subject as something the absurdity of which had already been established, or for which one’s intuitions that this were the case were sufficient.

Amy Kind in the first paper in this list addresses various objections against the panexperientialism proffered by Rosenberg and concludes that while some of these objections could probably be addressed, there is another objection which “proves fatal to the coherence of panexperientialism”.

The alleged fatal objection of Kind is that Rosenberg’s model entails experiences that lack any phenomenal consciousness: “Rosenberg wants to claim that there can be states of experience that are not even p-conscious” (section 4 of the paper). Kind argues that experience without phenomenal content is conceptually incoherent, something for which I am inclined to agree (as it would seem to amount to experiences without any content at all). However, whilst I haven’t studied Rosenberg’s work closely, this does not seem to be a claim that he makes. Although he says that the simplest experiences would be “ too simple to support anything worthy of the name consciousness”, I think the phenomenal character of such experiences in his model would nevertheless be integral to them.

For example, whilst acknowledging that the simplest experiences would not be conscious in the cognitive or functionalist sense of the term, Rosenberg states that “ the properties of proto-consciousness are experiential properties properly considered phenomenal”. Thus, it seems to me that Kind’s fatal objection falls wide of the mark and is not relevant to Rosenberg’s model.

Despite the apparent misdirectedness of Kind’s argument, I think there is some intuitive appeal to what she calls “the problem of the subject and the problem of experiential unity” in relation to panexperientialism. Our experiences are necessarily unified and belong to a subject, so how on earth can this be reconciled with talk of experiences at the molecular or subatomic level?

Some assistance in this matter can be found in this paper, another one by Galen Strawson, on the relation between an experience, the subject of the experience and the content of the experience. It’s been too long since I studied formal logic for me to follow the paper completely but I found a lot of resonances in it with what Whitehead had to say.

One of the premises that Strawson starts with is that it is a necessary truth that “there cannot be an experience without a subject”, because experience is necessarily for someone or something.

Strawson moves on to distinguish various conceptions of the subject. Roughly explained, these are the thick subject (human beings or animals considered as a whole), the traditional inner conception of the subject (the persisting self) and the thin subject.
According to the conception of the thin subject, which is Strawson’s focus, a subject of experience does not and cannot exist unless it is having experience at that time.
Strawson notes that thin subjects are not an assumption but a “terminological rule” that picks out whatever portion of reality constitutes the existence of an experiencing subject.

Whilst thin subjects are unitary wholes, longevity and sustained persistence in time are not essential to them. Strawson speculates that they last for a maximum of three seconds in the human case. He also contends that thin subjects could be conceived as objects, as long as objects themselves are thought of as dynamic processes and matter itself is thought of as “process-stuff”. Strawson suggests that our experience consists of “one transient subject-constituting (and equally experience-constituting) synergy of process-stuff after another”. Thus, on this view rather than a persisting inner self there is a constant succession of thins subjects/experiences of short duration which together gives rise to one’s “stream of consciousness”.

Strawson goes on, after arguing at length, to say that the relationship between the experience, the subject and the content of the experience is one of identity. The existence of the experience is the existence of the subject which is also the content of the experience. Although experiences are necessarily “for” a subject , the two are in fact the same (to my mind, the term “subject” could therefore be redundant but I think this a terminological issue which I needn’t address here).

I won’t attempt to simplify Strawson’s arguments any more, but I think the conclusion he reaches, like the conclusion of Whitehead and others, is one which can address the intuitive qualms which surface when one considers talk of subjects and unified experience at the level of subatomic particles or below.

At such level there is no need to contemplate a persisting self which is the subject of continuous experience. Rather, the conception of brief, discrete processes or occasions of experience in which there is no subject distinct from the experience seems to me to be intuitively acceptable.
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Steve said...

I didn't read this Strawson paper, but the argument sounds right in tune with Whitehead, as you say.

As for Kind's paper, it basically came down to a complaint that it is awfully hard to intuitively grasp how simple entities could be experiential. It wasn't a philosophical argument at all.

Gregg Rosenberg said...

Hi, this is Gregg Rosenberg. I've already written Amy to let her know that I don't hold the positions she's attributing to me in her paper. I devote the whole second half of my book to explaining a positive framework for understanding what subjects of experience are and what it means to have phenomenal experience without cognition.

I suspect that maybe -- as often happens with commentary on a book as long and difficult as mine -- Amy may have only read parts of it closely, and skipped or skimmed the more difficult second half where the original positive work on natural individuals is explained.

Subjects of experience in my framework are very much like what Strawson descrbes -- unified experiential events linked together into processes, and were inspired by Whitehead's views.

I add detail and analysis to the Whiteheadian view, fitting it into a different kind of framework than Whitehead's own, one closer to a Russellian concept of the inner nature of matter. By adding detailed analytical discussion of the mechanisms and natural purpose behind the existence of natural individuals, I build a framework from which we can make deductions of their properties from first principles and infer connections to scientific knowledge.

Justin said...

Thanks for the comments Gregg. I'm looking forward to reading your book closely soon.

Ronald S. Reynolds said...

EZPERIENCE: A modification of the word experience to amend its' meaning with the philosophic premise that it indicates the ground and substance of all our things, happenings and selves

Anonymous said...

Ezperiencing: A modification of the word experiencing to ammend its' meaning with the philosophic premise that it indicates the ground and substance of all our things, happenings and selves. -Bumbker (Ronald S. Reynolds)