Monday, 4 June 2018

Atoms of Experience and Beetles in Boxes

In one sense we can regard our whole life as an experience and we can also regard specific events within our lives as experiences. But does it make sense to regard experiences as being divisible into ever more finely dissected particles? For example, are the individual colours, flavours, temperatures, sizes, shapes, positions, orientations and numerous other properties of the things we experience, experiences in their own right? Or are these just the ordinary properties of the things that populate our experiences?

Dictionaries explain that "Experience" can be used as either a verb or as a noun. But what dictionaries do not suggest is that it makes sense to describe objects or their properties as experiences. We have experiences in virtue of things, but the things we experience are not experiences. This observation will be useful to us later.

Some philosophers are inclined to discuss experience by reference to its “phenomenal feel” or “phenomenal character". They talk of such things as “the experience of redness” or “what it feels like to see the colour red”. In a panel discussion on the subject of experience, David Chalmers claims that: “There is a distinctive character to seeing the colour red.” He remarks that it is notoriously difficult to describe this character to a colour-blind person because “they don’t know that particular subjective character of redness.” Another member of the same discussion, Peter Hacker, identifies several confusions in Chalmers’ view. Whilst Chalmers acknowledges one or two of Hacker’s observations, he seems to be so beholden to his account that no amount of careful analysis and clarification will sway him.

Although we can usually differentiate between many thousands of colours, it doesn’t follow that a rainbow is an abundance of distinctive feelings. To look at Barnett Newman’s painting “Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV” (1969-70), is not to have three experiences, but one. And consider the proposal that the distinctive feeling of wool has its own distinctive feeling.

It might be argued that Chalmers doesn’t appeal to distinctive feelings as such, but only to the “particular subjective character of seeing the colour red.” This is no less circular. Even a distinctive subjective character, could be regarded as having its own distinctive subjective character. And even if there were a distinctive character of salty, or a way that salty things uniquely “feel”, it couldn’t itself be an experience, for if it were, it would fail to answer the very question it is supposed to illuminate. Most people would rightly say that we experience things and events, not unique feels or the distinctive subjective character of things.

Is Chalmers’ point unsalvageable though? Surely there is something about scarlet that makes it distinctively scarlet and not crimson, round, big or soft. And surely this unique quality is what we find so difficult to describe to someone with colour-blindness? It turns out though that the difficulty we find in describing such experiences isn’t because we are “inarticulate”, as Chalmers suggests, but because there is something irreducible about them, beyond which it is silly to venture. Wittgenstein made a very similar point with his famous “beetle in a box” analogy:
Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a ‘beetle’. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. — Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. — But suppose the word ‘beetle’ had a use in these people’s language? — If so it would not be used as the name of a thing? The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. — No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is. (Wittgenstein, 1958, §293)
Whether or not there is something in our experiential beetle box, it makes no sense to try to characterise it, and any attempt to do so will only lead to nonsense and confusion.

In an important sense, experiences are events that we participate in, witness or observe and they are the basis of empirical knowledge. Some philosophers regard dreams as experiences because—or so they claim—dreams have distinctive phenomenal character. If dreams are experiences, then they must be a very unusual category of experience, because we do not participate in, witness or observe our dreams, nor are they a source of empirical knowledge.  To dream is to gain experience of dreaming, not to gain experience of the things that one dreams of. If, after someone recounted a dream, we were to ask if they had actually experienced the things they described, they couldn't easily say "Yes" and mean it. And, if they did say "Yes", we would think that they didn't understand the difference between dreams and experiences (at least not experiences of the ordinary sort).
If a man had certain thoughts and feelings in a dream it no more follows that he had those thoughts and feelings while asleep, than it follows from his having climbed a mountain in a dream that he climbed a mountain while asleep. (Norman Malcolm 1959/1962: 51–52)
Norman Malcolm is well known for his denial that dreams are experiences. He writes: “if a person is in any state of consciousness it logically follows that he is not sound asleep” (p.21). Thus, according to Malcolm, we cannot do anything or have any experiences whilst dreaming. Hacker takes a similarly uncompromising position on the subject of lucid dreams: “…a lucid dream is a dream in which the sleeper dreams that he is dreaming, not a dream in which he is conscious that he is” (2013 p. 58). I agree with Malcolm that we do not encounter anything in our sleep, but are Malcolm and Hacker right to suggest that a dreamer could never think, but only ever dream that they are thinking? What about those times when we say “The idea came to me in my sleep”? It seems perfectly right to say that we cannot reason while we are unconscious, but can nothing even occur to us in our dreams? And when Malcolm’s climber dreams that he is falling from the mountain, must we deny the terror that shocks him into wakefulness? Are parents wrong in believing that their children are frightened when they have nightmares?

When someone says that they had a terrifying dream, it wouldn’t be odd if they acknowledged that the dreamed events didn’t really happen, but it would be distinctly odd if they were to say that the dream wasn’t really terrifying or that they hadn’t really been terrified. I’m not claiming that these sorts of examples show that Malcolm in particular was wrong to deny that dreams are experiences, but I’m not sure that ordinary language is as strict in this instance as both Malcolm and Hacker suggest. People can be semi-conscious for instance and the concept of experience seems to accommodate this. When I had my wisdom teeth removed several years ago, even though I was heavily sedated, I distinctly remember the crunching noise and the strain as the dentist tore the most stubborn tooth from my jaw. In every other respect I was oblivious to the world. Did I experience the removal of one of my wisdom teeth? Evidently I did to some extent. Was I unconscious at the time? Only if we conclude that there is such a thing as unconscious experience and I agree with Malcolm and Hacker that there is no such thing. Was I conscious then? Yes, partially.

Many advocates of the phenomenal character of experiences claim that dreams and experiences stand on the same phenomenal footing. So for example, they will say that an actual colour and its dream equivalent are the same in respect of their distinctive phenomenal character. What these philosophers fail to realise is that the phenomenal is not a footing. You cannot kick a phenomenal character of solidity or measure a distinctive subjective character of long, heavy or hot. These are not perceptible entities upon which any public agreement can be reached. Whatever phenomenal characters you have dancing around the stage of your private Cartesian theatre is of concern only to you, if at all.

Most experiences involve all of our senses operating as a unified system. Obviously we often focus our attention on certain aspects of an experience, but this doesn’t mean that the rest of our senses are inoperative and make no contribution to the experience overall. References to “visual experiences” or “auditory experiences” etc. usually indicate attention to a single mode of interest, nonetheless philosophers are not always clear in their use of these terms. In her 2010 book, “The Contents of Visual Experience”, Harvard Professor of Philosophy, Susanna Siegel writes: “A visual experience is one of the states (among many others) that you are in when you see things.” One can be in a state of anxiety, confusion, terror, vexation or boredom etc. but it makes little sense to say that we can be in “a state of visual experience”? If Siegel is correct, then a sporting experience is one of the states (among many others) that you are in when you are in a marathon. I see nothing to commend this view.

Several other contemporary philosophers believe that it makes sense to describe pictures as experiences. Robert Hopkins (2012), claims that photographs are “factive pictorial experiences”, Mikael Pettersson (2011) argues that pictorial experience involves “pictorial perceptual presence” and Dominic McIver Lopes asserts that “when people look at a picture, they typically have a visual experience of its subject.” These claims deserve much closer scrutiny and analysis than is appropriate here, but I will make a general point. We do not gain any experience from looking at photographs, reading books or watching films. Or at least the experience we do gain is merely of looking at photographs, reading books or watching films. We often gain knowledge in these ways of course, but the distinction between experience and knowledge is not a trivial one that philosophers can simply ignore or override. If someone spent their life in a room looking at photographs of animals they would gain no experience of looking at animals. The knowledge they gain might be encyclopaedic, but someone else with the briefest visit to a zoo would gain more experience.

It is helpful to be aware of how strict we can be about the application of the concept of experience. If you experience a representation of thing X, then you cannot be having an experience thing X, even if the representation is a perfect replica. So the claim that photographs are experiences threatens to obliterate a vitally important distinction. Yes, of course photographs, films and books trigger many of the same responses, thoughts and feelings as the things they represent. This is not at issue. What is at issue is the integrity of our conceptual scheme. Is it unreasonable to expect philosophers to be a little more careful with the concepts that we all know and love?


The tendency to reduce experiences to their component parts and then to regard these as experiences can be a significant source of confusion.

It makes no sense to try to characterise any irreducible component of our experience.

The phenomenal is not a footing upon which anything can stand or from which anything can be established.

Norman Malcolm may have been wrong to deny that we have certain feelings in our dreams.

“Visual experience” is not a state that you can be in.

Experiences are not objects and photographs are not experiences of the things they depict.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Naturalism or Preternaturalism?

"Dream Vision" by Albrecht Dürer, 1525.*

Naturalism in philosophy is (roughly) the view that the structure and behaviour of the universe is governed by natural—not supernatural—laws. Many naturalist philosophers also hold the view that science is the best means for investigating the nature of reality, including the reality of consciousness. Others would point out that many contemporary perplexities are not due to a lack of scientific evidence or insight but are instead the result of various conceptual errors over which science has no jurisdiction. After all, we don’t look to science to adjudicate on questions of logic. Sense is not science.

I’m a member of a Facebook discussion group on the subject of naturalism. The group is managed by Tom Clark, who also runs a website by the same name ( In an article about lucid dreaming, Clark writes: “As people learn about lucid dreaming, an interesting fact about the brain will become known: it is a virtual reality generator. But an even more remarkable fact is waiting in the wings: waking experience is virtual reality too.”

Like Clark, I sometimes have lucid dreams, but unlike him, I don’t regard these as evidence that “the brain constructs a conscious phenomenal world”. Clark’s view is very similar to what is known as “mind-body dualism”, since it seeks to explain the relation between mind and matter by way of supernatural, or in Clark’s case preternatural, powers. I hope it is clear that even a preternatural explanation conflicts significantly with the aims and commitments of naturalism. This post is a very brief attempt to bring this conflict into relief.

Across the natural world, many organisms have developed deceptive strategies that aid their survival. Camouflage is just one example of this evolutionary achievement. Dissimulation is another. It might not be obvious, but all forms of deception exploit various weaknesses, whether these be perceptual weaknesses or weaknesses of knowledge or understanding. This raises a very serious problem for Clark, because in order to generate any form of virtual reality, the brain would have to exploit some form of weakness, constraint or limitation on the part of the consumer/victim/user. In the competitive context of organismic life, there is something to be gained from deceiving potential predators or prey. But in the case of the internal organs like the brain, the advantages are obscure. Organs obviously don’t prey on other parts of an organism and nor can they exploit anything or be exploited in any way that isn’t to the advantage or detriment of the organism as a whole. So from this evolutionary perspective, Clark’s dualistic claims simply do not stack up.

Clark repeatedly uses terms like “generates”, “constructs”, “builds”, “models” and “represents” to characterise the alleged creative abilities of the brain. When we speak of a gust of wind creating a mess or a tsunami creating destruction we do not suppose that the wind or sea are creators. Clark’s use of these terms, on the other hand, invokes a very different sense of “creation”; a sense that is little different from the supernatural explanations that naturalism ordinarily seeks to avoid.

What is true of terms like generation, construction, creation etc. is also true of action in general: 

When we describe a wheel as rotating, a ball as rolling downhill, water as flowing, a pendulum as swinging back and forth, a ship as steaming ahead, we are not describing them either as acting or as acting on anything. We are merely describing what they are doing. (Hacker 2010, p.144. Original emphasis)
Brains certainly do things in the same way that other inanimate objects do things, but any actions brains are involved in are actions of the organism as a whole. No organ, not even a brain, can take action on its own behalf. This is why we rightly regard brains as integral to the organisms of which they are parts. It makes no sense to treat brains as autonomous agents with their own generative powers.

Naturalism usually takes the view that explanations should seek to make as few assumptions as possible. But the virtual reality hypothesis requires an order of complexity, coherence, organization and generative action far beyond anything found in the natural world. In fact it is far beyond anything found in the cultural world either. The assumption that brains are devious creators is almost as extravagant and implausible as it is possible to get. Only an omniscient deity would be a more unlikely neural puppet master.

*Dürer's text reads: "In 1525, during the night between Wednesday and Thursday after Whitsuntide, I had this vision in my sleep, and saw how many great waters fell from heaven. The first struck the ground about four miles away from me with such a terrible force, enormous noise and splashing that it drowned the entire countryside. I was so greatly shocked at this that I awoke before the cloudburst. And the ensuing downpour was huge. Some of the waters fell some distance away and some close by. And they came from such a height that they seemed to fall at an equally slow pace. But the very first water that hit the ground so suddenly had fallen at such velocity, and was accompanied by wind and roaring so frightening, that when I awoke my whole body trembled and I could not recover for a long time. When I arose in the morning, I painted the above as I had seen it. May the Lord turn all things to the best."

Long before making this image, Dürer wrote: "How often do I see great art in my sleep, but on waking cannot recall it; as soon as I awake, my memory forgets it."