Monday, June 14, 2021

The unity of consciousness

I am now simultaneously aware of the motion of my fingers and of the text on the screen. Call this co-awareness. Co-awareness is not the same thing as awareness by the same subject. For if I type with my eyes closed and then stop typing and open my eyes, the tactile and visual experiences still have the same subject, but there is no co-awareness. Perhaps co-awareness is awareness by the same subject at the same time. But experiments on split-brain patients suggest that it is possible to have one subject with two simultaneous awarenesses that are not co-awarenesses.

Consider this very simple theory of co-awareness: it is not possible to have co-awareness between two distinct awarenesses. The case I started this post with was poorly described. Strictly speaking I had a single awareness of the conjunctive state of affairs of my fingers moving and there being text on the screen. I did not have an awareness of my fingers moving, nor did I have an awareness of text on the screen, but only of the conjunction.

On this view, rather than my co-hosting a quale of moving fingers and a quale of black markings on a white background, I am hosting a conjunctive quale of moving-fingers-and-black-markings.

All this, however, seems implausible. It certainly doesn’t fit with how we talk: everyone would say that I was aware of my fingers moving.

Similarly, I note, if Alice were to tell me that Bob was lazy and stupid, I would be correct to report that Alice told me that Bob was lazy, even though Alice did not in fact express the proposition that Bob was lazy, but only the conjunctive proposition that he is lazy and stupid. It is good use of ordinary language to attribute the statement of a conjunct to someone who stated a conjunction containing that conjunct. The same is true of awareness: we can attribute the awareness of a conjunct to someone who is aware of a conjunction. Maybe the right way to talk about this is to distinguish non-derivative and derivative, or focal and non-focal, senses of assertion and awareness. Alice non-derivatively asserts that Bob was lazy and stupid, and derivatively that Bob was lazy. I am non-derivatively aware of the conjunctive state of affairs of motion of my fingers, the text on the screen and a variety of other things, and derivatively of each conjunct.

With this distinction, we can build on the simple theory of co-awareness:

  1. It is not possible to have co-awareness between two distinct non-derivative awarenesses.

  2. Co-awareness occurs between two derivative awarenesses A and B provided that there is a non-derivative awareness C such that I count as having A and B in virtue of C being an awareness of a conjunction that includes the object of A as well as the object of B as a conjunct.

In a way, this simply shifts the difficulty of figuring what makes it be the case that an awareness is an awareness of a conjunctive state to the difficulty of figuring out what makes a non-derivative awareness of a conjunction be an awareness of a conjunction. That is, indeed, a tough problem. But it is a problem that is just a special case of a general problem that we would need to solve even if we had solved our original co-awareness problem in some other way: the problem of the logical structure of the objects of perception. If I see a shape in the distance that looks like a dog or fox, what is it that makes me have an awareness of a disjunction between a dog or a fox? If I see something that looks like it’s not a dog, what is it that makes me have a negative awareness of a dog?

It may seem puzzling how there can be a logical structure to qualia. I don’t see why not. But then I am strongly inclined to a representationalism that holds that the differences in the qualitative properties between conscious states are determined by the differences between the states’ representative properties. And representative properties have a logical structure.


Unknown said...

Dr. Pruss I have a unrelated question and I am sorry for its inappropriateness. I searched and didn't find on your blog much comments and conclusions about Islam. May I know why is that or better to ask, do you have any intentions to speak about that topic? Thank you in advance. God bless you sir.

Alexander R Pruss said...

No, not directly. But I reject occasionalism, I accept a libertarian free will, and I incline towards theistic incompatibilism...

IanS said...

I have never been sure where qualia end and interpretation begins. Can there even be a ‘raw’ quale? I might be conscious of seeing: ‘a vague shape’; ‘a vague shape moving on the ground’; ‘an animal’; ‘a dog or fox’; ‘the fox I remember seeing here last week’.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think the qualia shift as the interpretation shifts. We're constantly seeing different things as our attention moves about.