What is experience? [Excerpts Only]
Tonini and Koch claim that their theory successfully answers questions about nonhuman animals, people in coma, digital computers, etc.; for example, they ascribe consciousness to nonhuman animals, even ‘some very simple ones,’ but not to digital computers […] Block also contends that ‘mice or even lower animals might have phenomenal consciousness.’ It appears that, independently of whether they adopt functionalist or biological theories of consciousness, researchers agree on the application of the concept of consciousness to nonhuman animals, perhaps going down to ‘lower’ and ‘simple’ life-forms.
On the face of it, such a large agreement on lower animals having phenomenal consciousness—along with humans—carries much physiological basis. Phenomenal consciousness seems to be a property of organisms that marshal some or other sensory system. As some stimulus triggers the sensory system under appropriate ‘non-anesthetic’ conditions, the organism attains a state of phenomenal consciousness as it undergoes the stimulus-experience. So, if the organism is endowed with receptors that detect specific colours such as orange, the organism will undergo an orange sensation, just as David Chalmers did […]
Let us grant, therefore, that most organisms, by virtue of being an organism, have or undergo experiences; when they do so, they are in a state of phenomenal consciousness. Needless to say, all the accompanying problems of the first person and explanatory gap continue as before. We will never know introspectively what it feels like to be a bat even if, incredibly, we have fully charted out that unique state of the bat’s brain. But then, as noted, if we do have a unique chart, it is unclear what else there is to know.
As far as I know, the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes was well acquainted with whatever was then known about the anatomy and physiology of brains. Yet, according to standard interpretations, Descartes insisted that only humans are conscious; all other organisms are mere automata, machines that push and pull but don’t feel anything […] But what did Descartes in fact say and mean? In his famous letter to Henry More, dated 5 February 1649 (Cottingham et al. 1991, 366), Descartes categorically asserted that ‘I do not deny life to animals […] and I do not even deny sensation, in so far as it depends on a bodily organ.’[…] Thus, Descartes kept cognition (=thoughts) and consciousness (=sensations) strictly separate for animals, as recommended by Block and others. However, Descartes did not keep cognition and consciousness separate for humans; earlier in the same letter, Descartes stated that ‘thought is included in our mode of sensation’ (365) […]
Do animals, to whom Descartes cheerfully assigned the property of undergoing sensations, also find themselves absorbed in those sensations? Descartes would have answered in the negative since, for him, animal mode of sensation does not include thought, the thought that I am having orange sensation. We know that humans do because humans say so […] Several centuries later, Donald Davidson (1975) reached the same conclusion with more sophisticated arguments: animals don’t have thoughts because they don’t talk. It could be that both Descartes and Davidson are using unnecessarily narrow conception of talk and speech to exclude the animals. May be there are gentler notions of (structured) thought that might favourably apply to some animals of sufficient neural complexity […]
The basic issue is not whether the notions of experience and phenomenal consciousness legitimately apply to nonhuman animals. The Cartesian point is that these notions legitimately apply to thoughtful modes of sensation. Since a sensation, by definition, pertains to individual organisms, a thought of that sensation can only be a first-person thought marked by the use of the pronoun I or its equivalent. This roundabout way of bringing out the Cartesian point basically means that an organism needs to have the concept of sensation, experience, consciousness, and the like to find that something is going on; otherwise, something just goes on. Strictly speaking, undergoing an orange sensation is not an experience, finding oneself so undergoing is. Obviously, what one finds is not the heightened state of the brain, but the resulting feel […]
Is the feel entirely a fiction? I am unsure what the answer is. I just said that the subject does not have introspective access to the state of the biological system while undergoing a specific orange sensation. That seems to be the typical case. But it does not rule out the possibility that, on occasion, subjects may even have introspective access to the brain itself. We do have introspective access to states of other organs such as heart and stomach, not to mention the obvious case of genitals. Anecdotally, I can report that, on several occasions during particular phases of high fever, it appears as if the brain itself is the object of experience. While one is still fully awake, one is unable to focus on any specific object of thought through standard perceptual means due to high fever; in fact it is difficult to keep one’s eyes open. Yet there seems to be the experience of a dark void pulsating in the head; it is very different from even crushing headaches felt in localised areas. […]
The shift of talk, as above, from visual experience to painful experience could be an indicator of how the fiction arises. We genuinely report feels when in pain because we have at least partial introspective access to the state of the body. In those cases, the conception of the feel could be viewed as a response of the body itself to some (injured) state of the body. That is why when we are in (physical) pain, we visit the doctor, not the psychologist, without taking a stand on dualism. However, talk of feel when looking at my computer screen sounds a bit odd, unless the screen is glowing or something such that it hurts […]
To sum up, the concept of phenomenal consciousness seems to have a variety of conflicting pulls. In some form or other, phenomenal consciousness is inevitable for organisms with developed sensory systems. The first problem is with its inherently first-person character. It arises because the occurrences of experiences are subjective in the sense outlined. When we try to overcome this problem with, say, a (third person) biological story that correlates a unique state of the brain with occasions for subjective experiencial states, an explanatory gap shows up. Since the problem sounds more empirical than conceptual, suppose the gap is somehow bridged in some future science, perhaps in the form of a complete description of the underlying biological system.
Even then it appears that the purported biological explanation will have the wrong grain because the first-person states are the states of a subject as a person, rather than the states of the subject’s brain. Keeping exclusively to subject’s reports, it is also extremely unclear what the report of experiences are about once we have de-linked those reports from the unique brain-states correlated with those experiences. In fact, in some cases, it would seem that the reports are about nothing, the ‘feel’ involved in experiences could be fictions. Yet, and this is the near-fatal point, the talk of experiences just cannot be given up or eliminated because the talk simply reflects the structured thought that is included in subjective experiences, at least in the human case. […]
(To be continued)