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. 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?

Conclusions

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.

14 comments:

Tom Clark said...

Thanks Jim, covers a lot of interesting ground. A few comments:

"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."

So you're saying (and I agree) that there are irreducible, hence indescribable, qualitative elements of experience, e.g., scarlet. That we can't describe scarlet doesn't mean, however, that it has no distinctive qualitative character (what you object to in Chalmers's account), only that its character isn't describable.

It would seem that dreaming about something scarlet involves the same, albeit indescribable, qualitative character, so just as we can experience terror or elation in a dream, we can have experiences involving sensory qualities. When dreaming, one is asleep but conscious, if being conscious means having experiences (so I think Malcolm is wrong on this).

"If someone spent their life in a room looking at photographs of animals they would gain no experience in looking at animals."

I think there are two senses of experience in play in your account. Looking at a photograph, I have an experience of that photograph. Looking at a live animal, I have an experience of that animal. These are sensory experiences involving various qualities, e.g., of scarlet, black and white, the sounds and smells produced by animals, etc. On the other hand, to "gain experience" in looking at things refers to having actual encounters with those things (whether photographs or animals) so that we become familiar with them; it doesn't refer to one's experience in the first (sensory) sense. So I agree, photographs are not experiences, but rather things we can 1) experience, and 2) gain experience of.

Lastly, I agree that "experiences are not objects" that, in either of these senses, we could be in a perceptual or observational relation to.

Jim Hamlyn said...

\\That we can't describe scarlet doesn't mean, however, that it has no distinctive qualitative character (what you object to in Chalmers's account), only that its character isn't describable.//

You first agreed that there is something irreducible about experiences and immediately afterwards you shift the goalposts because you are no longer talking about the experience but the colour. We can describe the colour until the cows come home. What we cannot do is give a blind person the experience of the colour by trying to describe the experience.

\\It would seem that dreaming about something scarlet involves the same, albeit indescribable, qualitative character//

Even if we discover that many of the same brain processes are involved (which seems inevitable), it wouldn’t follow that there is a “qualitative character”. All it would show is what we already expect, namely that unique response mechanisms are necessary for discrimination, recognition (and dreaming too no doubt). Any putative qualitative character is irrelevant.

\\so just as we can experience terror or elation in a dream, we can have experiences involving sensory qualities.//

That isn’t even wrong, Tom. We don’t have experiences “involving” sensory qualities. We have experiences of things and events.

\\When dreaming, one is asleep but conscious//

At best we might argue that some dreaming is semi conscious or not entirely unconscious. Only the affective dimension of dreams is arguably experiential.

\\if being conscious means having experiences (so I think Malcolm is wrong on this).//

Having experiences means being awake in Malcolm’s view. I think his view has a lot to commend it. I just find it too strict regarding affective states.

Tom Clark said...

Jim, "Only the affective dimension of dreams is arguably experiential."

Since feelings like terror or elation have qualitative character by virtue of which we recognize and report them as experiences, I'm not sure why you deny that other bodily sensory states such as of color, taste, sound, etc., lack qualitative character and thus fail to qualify as experiences, whether one is dreaming or awake.

"We don’t have experiences “involving” sensory qualities. We have experiences of things and events."

On your account, the terror we have in a dream is thus an experience of an event, but since there is no event happening in a dream (except for brain processes), I don't see how this could be the case. In a dream we feel the sensory quality of terror absent any actual encounter with the world. Your concept of conscious experience requires that there must always be an object or event of which we are conscious in order for a bodily state to count as an experience, but this seems too restrictive.

Jim Hamlyn said...

“Since feelings like terror or elation have qualitative character by virtue of which we recognize and report them as experiences, I'm not sure why you deny that other bodily sensory states such as of color, taste, sound, etc., lack qualitative character”

Now you are conflating affective states with sensory states. When people ask what your dinner was like, they aren’t looking for a description of its putative qualitative character. They usually want to know how you feel about it in affective terms: was it good, delicious, bland, disgusting etc. You can’t ask someone what bland or disgusting are like. Only a certain sort of philosopher would ask such questions.

Terror and elation etc. are not “bodily sensory states”. Nor are colour and sound. I suppose you meant “vision, taste and hearing” but by categorising these as “sensory states” you obscure an important distinction between emotional states (like terror and elation) and perceptual modes (like vision, taste and hearing). We have already agreed elsewhere that dreams involve no perception.

Although you are correct that we report our emotional states, we can neither “recognise” nor misrecognise them.

Terror and elation etc. are responses we have to events, illusions of events, representations and dreams. Malcolm and Hacker seem to take the view that we only ever dream that we are terrified. I can see why some people would argue that their position is more coherent than mine. I’m just raising the possibility that there is no difference between being terrified and dreaming that you are terrified, not because they have the same qualitative character, but because they involve the same behavioural dispositions.

“On your account, the terror we have in a dream is thus an experience of an event”

My mistake. I should have included feelings too. So when someone asks “What was your dream like?” and you reply “It was awful” you are reporting the only genuinely experiential dimension of the dream. In other words, if they asked you “Was it genuinely awful though” you wouldn’t revise your response and say “No, it wasn’t really awful. It was just a dream.”

“In a dream we feel the sensory quality of terror”

No, we feel the terror. Once again, there is no such thing as the sensory quality of terror because terror isn’t a sensory state, it’s an emotional state.

“Your concept of conscious experience requires that there must always be an object or event of which we are conscious in order for a bodily state to count as an experience, but this seems too restrictive.”

Actually it is Malcolm and Hacker who restrict things in that way. I’m entertaining the possibility that dreams may sometimes involve real emotions.

Tom Clark said...

Jim, seems to me that experiential sensory states (e.g., pain, red, sweet) and affective states (terror) are individuated by having distinct qualitative characters (what they feel like), and such states can be present both in dreams and in waking experience. There needn't be perception going on to have experiences, since after all we can dream of a scarlet tanager, and its scarlet hue is similar to what we experience looking at the actual bird. But for some reason you don't think the scarlet we report as part of a dream counts as part of an experience even though you say terror does count, even though both have distinct qualitative characters. Knowing that it was just a dream doesn't change my judgment that I had an experience involving scarlet, a real sensory state, just as you don't change your judgment your experience involved a real affective state. Seems like we're destined to disagree about this.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Why would anybody want to agree that a colour is a "real sensory state" as opposed to a property of things? What possible light does this shed?

And why would anybody agree that it makes sense to speak of individuating irritation or elation? From what exactly would we want to individuate them? Are they like voices at a party? Can we compare them side by side? Could we mistake one for the other? You haven't even scratched the surface of how these characters themselves are individuated. Surely the logic of common sense reason is just a little compelling. No?

Tom Clark said...

"Why would anybody want to agree that a colour is a "real sensory state" as opposed to a property of things?"

Because we can have experiences of color without there being any things present.

"And why would anybody agree that it makes sense to speak of individuating irritation or elation?"

Because we individuate them when judging, on the basis of how they feel, that we're elated or irritated.

Jim Hamlyn said...

We don’t privilege what people say, aver, believe or allegedly individuate when determining what they experience. We privilege whatever it is that they actually experience and this supersedes everything and anything that they might wish to report or contend. In other words, it doesn’t matter what you solemnly swear or earnestly believe or truthfully report regarding your dream of Santa or your encounter with God or of your hallucination of the Virgin Mary. If it wasn’t real, you didn’t experience it. Simpliciter.

Tom Clark said...

When I hallucinate something red, or have a red afterimage, there's red involved in my experience, but not a red object that I experience.

Jim Hamlyn said...

As we all know from experience, there can be no properties where there are no things.

Tom Clark said...

According to Hacker, experiences have qualities (a kind of property), but only hedonic qualities. Why not sensory qualities such as red, sweet, pain, etc.? If we acknowledge that experiences have sensory qualities (corresponding in lawlike ways to the properties of objects that we perceive) that way we can include hallucinations, dreams, and afterimages as full blown experiences, which they manifestly are, albeit without objects to which they correspond. On Hacker's view, the sensory qualities of experiences don't exist: there is, he would say, nothing it is like to see red in a dream, hallucination, afterimage, etc. since (he claims) there is nothing it is like to see red when awake; there is nothing to report except one's hedonic response ("What’s it like to see red? For the most part, nothing at all"). If so, Hacker would say we are mistaken in reporting such qualities when describing our non-veridical experiences - those not involving objects (hallucinations, dreams, afterimages). Are we really mistaken in such reports?

Jim Hamlyn said...

Hacker wouldn’t say that qualities are “a kind of property” because they aren’t. A coin’s quality of manufacture is not a property of the coin. Nor is its value, it’s utility or its aesthetic features.

“If we acknowledge that experiences have sensory qualities…”

We don’t make any such acknowledgement in ordinary language and nor should we. “Sensory qualities” is a philosophical chimera. Experiences involve sensorial responsiveness. Sometimes responses and response systems can be triggered in the absence of the usual causal determinants and eventuate in anomalies like dreams, hallucinations and after images. These all fall short of experiences, but this doesn’t mean that they cannot be reported. Our language games allow for this.

“Hacker would say we are mistaken in reporting such qualities…”

No, he would say that it makes perfect sense to report a dream, hallucination etc. What he denies is the suggestion that we are reporting “sensory qualities” in these instances.

Tom Clark said...

Thanks Jim for this exchange, good to get the scoop from a bonafide OLP (ordinary language philosopher). I'm not sure why ordinary language games and concepts should dictate metaphysics in the philosophy of mind, but it certainly simplifies things by ruling out what seem to me genuine puzzles concerning consciousness, e.g., that we can have full blown conscious experiences in the absence of perceived objects. OLPs say there are no such experiences, so that nicely eliminates that puzzle. Experiences for the OLP seem to necessarily involve objects, but I don't see why we should accept that dictum. Anyway, I appreciate your patient explications even if they leave me unsatisfied.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks Tom,

There are no dictums as such in OLP. There are only various observations about our conceptual scheme that rule out contradictory and nonsensical theories and formulations. Psychologism is one of these theories.

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