Friday, May 19, 2006

Can a State Be "Half-Conscious"?

I'm no fan of sharp lines. I'm deeply committed to the idea that the world -- especially the most complex parts of it, like the mind -- is thoroughly vague, blurry, splintered, dissociative, in-betweenish. (See for example my essays here and here and here.) But one thing I can't get my head around is an in-between state of consciousness -- a state of mind that is somewhere between being an experience and not being an experience. I see no theoretical reason to suppose such states can't exist; and given gradualism in the development and phylogeny of brains, there seems to be excellent reason to suppose there'd be a vague zone between conscious and nonconscious. But that idea, despite its appeal in the abstract, eludes my understanding when I try to reflect on it more deeply.

Of course there could be peripheral experiences, such as the experience of feeling your feet in your shoes when you're thinking about other things. (Maybe there aren't such experiences in fact, but that's a different question; at least they're conceivable.) Such states may in some sense be "less conscious" than experiences in focal attention, as it were. But, it seems to me, if you experience your feet in your shoes, no matter how peripherally, inarticulately, fuzzily, inattentively, then you genuinely experience them in that peripheral, inarticulate, fuzzy, inattentive way. If frogs (or ants or slugs or whatever) have the hazy beginnings of conscious experience -- say visual and tactile conscious experiences -- then it seems to me that they are genuinely conscious, in that hazy way. Either their stream of conscious is a total blank (i.e., there is no stream of conscious experience, for them) or it has some limited range of components. If the former, they have no conscious states; if they latter then they are conscious. I cannot envision a "between" state here.

Thus, it seems to me that "being conscious" is more like "having money" than "being red". (Does Searle say this somewhere?) Having money comes in degrees -- some people have more and some have less. But even one cent is money. Either you have money or you don't (setting aside issues like debt and illiquid goods). Being red also comes in degrees -- one thing can be redder than another -- but there are "in-between" states -- shades along the spectrum from red to purple, say, or red to orange, where it makes sense to say "Well, it's a vague matter whether this shade counts as red or not -- it depends on how one draws one's lines -- it's kind of between red and purple." What I don't see is how that could be the case for consciousness. Can we say of a state -- a peripheral conscious state in a human being, or a state in a frog, that whether it's a state that is experienced, whether it has "phenomenal character", is a vague issue, that it depends on how one draws one's lines, that it's kind of between having a phenomenal character and not having one?

Surely there are those who will say yes. And I'd like to say yes. But I can't quite figure out how this could be so (without adding something to "conscious" to change the meaning from that intended here -- like changing it to mean "self-conscious" or "acutely aware"). So I'm rather stuck. Is this just a failure of imagination?


Brendan Ritchie said...

Hi Eric,

Perhaps there is an epistemological sharp line, even if there is not an ontological one. Just as gradualism is the norm in development etc. it is also the norm for our brains to force things into groups, ignore other things and so forth. Take the fact that our sensory systems seem to be nacissitic. We certainly don't experience them as being that way, despite the fact that they are. Perhaps genuine inbetween states are forced into the categories of non-conscious, or conscious, by how we conceptualize things, even though they aren't really either.

A second point, it seems you might be asking for a "clear case of" half-consciousness. But if you really buy into an ontologically blurry area between consciousness and a lack thereof, then it seems you aren't going to find a clear case of inbetween. Take the colours between red and purple. No of these colours look completely non-red or non-purple, but some kind of mix. If your criteria for in-betweeness is not like red or purple, then you will be disappointed. So too for consciousness: genuine inbetween states might be nonidentifiable, precisely because of the vagueness of their nature.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Those are interesting suggestions, Brendan. I suppose I'm probably inclined to agree with you that it's something about our conceptual system rather than something about the world that makes half-consciousness hard to imagine (though I'm on the fence). But what?

I don't think it can be -- as you seem to be suggesting in your second paragraph -- that it's hard to conceive of "clear" vague cases in general. I don't have any trouble conceiving of cases where it seems it would be a matter of convention or decision whether to call someone "bald". And I've argued in many places that there are cases of belief that seem to be "in-between" in the relevant sense as well. So is if it's a conceptual difficulty rather than a matter of how things are in the world, it must be a difficulty particular to the case of consciousness. Hmmm....

Brendan Ritchie said...

Hey Eric,

Thanks for the reply. Yeah, I think you are right about the second point I made. I wasn't really convinced of it, but tried it on for size.

I was thinking about what you said about background experiences (the blurry, vague kind) like the feeling of my back while I focus on what I am typing. You said that if there is an experience at all, then it is full blown conscious. This seems right. But perhaps our inbetween case could be in the area.
Suppose you are sitting in the library thinking deeply about some parallel between Mencius and Rousseau. There is an especially attractive woman sitting across from you. The more deep your thoughts, the less you are aware of what is happening in your visual field: you "zone out".
When you come to again (so to speak) you realize that she is gone, and must have left during your deep thinking.
Now here is the question: did you have a conscious experience of her leaving? On the one hand, I think there is a case that can be made that you did: You were looking right ahead, and might have a vague memory of her leaving. On the other hand, this might just be a false memory, and you have just inferred that you did. My own intuition is that if the activity in my visual cortext is low enough it is not clear if either (1) I had a background experience, or (2) I perceived her, but not consciously. If this is right, then perhaps the perceptual state I am in when she is in front of me is not quite clearly non conscious, or conscious. Perhaps, then, it is inbetween.

I am not totally convinced by this case, but I am interested in what your own intuitions are.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...
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Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That's a cool case. I have no problem with the idea that we sometimes utterly lack visual experience even when our eyes are open (though I'm inclined to think it's relatively rare). And the idea of slowly getting more absorbed in what one is thinking so that the visual "fades out", as it were, is interesting.

What I'd say is this: This seems like another case like the ontogeny and phylogeny cases, where it's plausible to suppose there "must" be in-between cases; but it's similarly dissatisfying in that I still can't imagine very well what such a case would be like -- given that even very vague, hazy visual experience still is full and genuine visual experience (of a vague and hazy sort). (I'm not completely sure you *should* give me the latter, though.)

Brad C said...

Half baked thoughts:

Maybe the explantion here has to do with the constraints on what we can imagine. When I imagine a mental state I imagine having/being in the mental state and, by virtue of the nature of imagination, I imagine myself being fully conscious of the mental state I have/am in. Why might imagining entail this? It is hard to say - maybe it results from the fact that we are setting ourselves to imagine being in the state and we have to consiously attend to the state in order to try to imagine it.

In trying to drum up an example, the drowsy state between wakefulness and sleep came to mind. It is hard to imagine this state. If you try to you automatically import an undue sense of wakefullness - if the suggestion above is right that is because imagining being in P involves imagining being conscious of being in P (by default as it were).

Interestingly it is hard to imagine a picture that represents that almost sleeping state, but that might be becasue that state does not usually involve having your eyes open.

I read somewhere that Chopin's noctures were meant to evoke that in-between state. But if listening to that music can evoke that semi-conscious state, does that mean it allows me to imagine it? I am tempted to say no. This makes me wonder: is imagination in some sense essentially visual?

Bespelled said...

Hi Eric,

I believe that experiences are not inherently conscious, although consciousness modifies experiences qualitatively.

First the reason for the distinction between conscious and unconscious experience. I am taking an introductory course in neuro-science and I think the first chapter in our book should make it to philosophical manuals as well. It turns out that it is not always appropriate to consider the brain a unitary structure with the penetrating capacity of being conscious. Many experiences are appropriated through a number of neural "loops", some of which reach the seat of consciousness (speech and verbal areas, frontal lobes) some not.

There is a very striking example in this respect--the phenomenon of blind vision. A man had lost his sight because of neural damage to high-level (implying conscious processes) neural circuitry. He claimed not to see anything. In an experiment he was asked to grab an umbrella held by the doctor in front of him by the handle. After many protests that he could not see it, the man tried to grab it and he did (to his own astonishment). The doctor changed the position of the umbrella and the patient managed to grab it again (other experiments were also performed).

It turned out that some neural circuitry implied in vision that people share with reptilians was still intact in the man. This circuitry did not connect to Brocca, the frontal lobes etc. however. So the man saw (had an experience) without being conscious of it.

In respect to "the difficulty particular to the case of consciousness" that makes it incapable of fully assimilating experience and leaves space for shady areas, I think we could get our cues from Nietzsche (philological essays), Wittgenstein (phil. investigations) and de Saussure (course in general linguistics). I am quite convinced by those guys that concepts and structures thereof can never exhaust experience (in the case of Wittgenstein practice) in the sense of containing it in its entirety.

my guess is that conscious cognitive structures are rather a necessary integral component of certain experiences/practices, together with things that are epistemologically different from them *in the sense of being experienced otherwise, although many times at the same moment and even in related processes* (bodily, "non-conscious" experiences [blind vision] and that to which we are related intentionally as to external entities [things basically]). Concepts are, in my opinion, negative entities in the sense of refering to stuff unavailable to the consciousness at the moment, but effective entities in the sense of doing work just by dividing this stuff in "things".

N.B.: Because of restricted space I am expressing myself not quite as fully and carefully as I should, so I ask for indulgence and a benevolent reading. For example I avoided the lengthy discussion of what it means to cognitively make a distinction between cognitive and non-cognitive states (the only way to make a statement is using cognition. what does it mean for a statement to posit something which is outside itself?...Berkeley's ghost ).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Bespelled. I agree that concepts necessarily simplify and ignore distinctions and so are inherently limited -- and maybe, indeed, this is exactly the problem with (my) conceiving of a state as half-conscious!

The blindsight studies are cool -- but I'm not sure that they show that there are experiences that are not conscious. Maybe we're just using the terms "experience" and "conscious" differently? I hear them as basically synonymous....