Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Mystery of the Chiming Bell

We've all had this experience: The clock tower starts chiming. At first, you're paying no attention, but about three or four chimes in, you suddenly notice. In memory, you can count back those first few chimes.

Here's the question: Did you have auditory experience of those chimes before you started thinking about them? Were they part of your stream of conscious experience, part of your phenomenology, part of "what it was like to be you", during those first few inattentive seconds? Or, until you started attending to the matter, were the chimes no part at all of your conscious experience, not even a secondary and peripheral part? Were they, that is, only part of an at-the-time nonconscious but after-the-fact recoverable "sensory store"?

Similarly: Suppose you suddenly notice, for the first time, that you have a mild headache. Was the pain a small, background part of your stream of experience before you first noticed it? Or did you not really experience the pain until you actually directed attention to the state of your head? Is having an enduring pain a matter of constantly experiencing painfulness, in the background or foreground depending on your state of attention; or is it more a matter of having occasional spurts of felt pain, arising from an enduring nonconscious disposition for such spurts to shoot annoyingly and against your will into consciousness?

Philosophers, psychologists, and ordinary folks seem to have different opinions about these questions. One group may be wrong and the other right; or everyone may be right about their own experiences, wrong to the extent they generalize to others. Is there a good way to determine where the truth lies? I'm inclined to think not -- at least not in the short term. Introspection can only reveal consciousness as attended at the moment, not whatever experience there is, or is not, without attention. Immediate memory is corrupted both by our typical quick forgetting of things outside attention and the potential confusion of actual experiences with the recovery, from the sensory store, of previously unexperienced traces (if such a thing is possible; and we can't assume it's not possible without begging the question). Third-person methods like brain imaging require, to be interpretable as revealing facts about consciousness, a prior commitment to the very issue at hand and thus are inescapably circular.

You may or you may not think you experienced that chiming bell before you attended to it. I can't see, though, how you could have any secure ground for that opinion.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Is it possible that no one actually "experiences" anything? Perhaps all "experience" is really a memory of sensations recorded in the brain. Most of the time, we "remember" the sensations nearly simultaneously with their occurrence, but in other cases, such as the chimes, there is a gap between the sensation and the remembrance. Consider dreams. If we don't wake up while having a dream, we don't "experience" it because we don't have a conscious memory of it. Yet if we do wake up during the dream, we have the impression of having experienced the dream over a period of time.

Matt Brown said...

You may or you may not think you experienced that chiming bell before you attended to it. I can't see, though, how you could have any secure ground for that opinion.

Surely you exaggerate a little, here. If one had a theory about experience and consciousness which implied an answer to this question, which had lots of direct evidence in its favor in other cases and various other theoretical virtues, and which was consistent with whatever we can discern about this case (e.g., it didn't imply that you would be unable to count back those first chimes), then surely that would count as fairly secure grounding for the answer implied by that theory.

Now, we couldn't use this case as a crucial test between theories which gave different answers. So your point might be qualified in terms of direct grounds (rather than the indirect sort I've pointed at here).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thought, Anon. Given the second sentence, the first sentence seems overstated. Here's a modest claim: Sense experience happen some time after the stimuli that cause them. Here's a more radical claim: We only experience things via remembering them. To make sense of the latter, I need a better sense of what counts as "remembering". Is it enough simply to have a persisting recurrent loop of neural activity? If so, then your thesis would fit with several mainstream theories of consciousness....

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Matt. Here's the problem: I don't think any theory of consciousness currently on offer is a secure ground for any substantive claims of this sort. Do you? Maybe there will be such a theory in the future (though I'm not sure there will be), but I meant the claim about "you" not having a secure ground only in a temporally circumscribed sense.

Anonymous said...

It seems that the event that decides whether we remember some facts in the past actually apends a certain set of activities in our brain onto our conciousness.

In the most extreme case I might have two personalities in my brain each from a different hemisphere. And a doctor might reconnet them. I presume I would all of a sudden have the memories of both.

Ie it is "what am I" that is the variable here more than did I experience or not.

GNZ

Matt Brown said...

Sorry, Eric, I guess I over-attributed the counterfactual range of your claim. I am inclined towards theories of experience which include not only the focus of attention but the wide contextual/situational background as part of the experience as well. I don't have enough of a stake in the issue to have a strong argument in favor of such a view, but it seems fairly compelling to me that such a background is crucial to filling out the content of experience (especially given the relative poverty of momentary focused attention). I take it that such a view more-or-less implies that you experience the chiming bell prior to attending to it. So I'm happy to say that I've got a grounded answer to the question, though I suppose the security of that ground only goes so far as the (fairly limited) theoretical commitment to background experience.

Michael Metzler said...

Same seems to go for moods. Only after throwing something and yelling do I realize how agitated I 'had been' by the Chiming Bell in my ear - all day long!

(What was it like to be Mary upon seeing red for the first time, just after getting dumped by her monochrome boyfriend? Dennett: Ho hum. There it is.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting spin on the issue, GNZ. Maybe I'll go pluralist here and suggest that there may be both kinds of after-the-fact reincorporations of events into the stream of selfhood (if that phrase makes sense).

Matt: Only slightly overattributing! Elsewhere I despair of ever converging on a theory that decides such cases. Although my first inclination is to share your sense of an abundant phenomenology of unattended things, many people -- philosophers, psychologists, and ordinary folks -- appear to sincerely deny the existence of such a phenomenology. So I'm not sure how confident you and I should be of our judgments about the phenomenology....

Michael: Yes, let's toss in moods too -- or if "mood" is too purely dispositional, something like background emotional state. The same question about whether it is continuously or only sporadically felt can arise.

kurt said...

Why should a delay between stimulus and attention cause us to deny that that the cognition of an extramental object counts as an "experience"?

Medieval thinkers after Scotus distinguished between *intuitive* and *abstractive* modes of cognition. Intuitive cognition was of something as *present* or *immediate* to mind; abstractive cognition was of an object indifferently to whether it is present or has extra-mental existence. Why isn't an intuitive cognition an "experience"? Does an experience need to be *true*, that correspond to something actually present extramentally? Isn't it sufficient for the cognitive act to the result of a normal response (as understood physiologically) to a stimulus, whether or not the initial action upon the sense organs has ceased?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi, Kurt! That's an interesting distinction, between the intuitive and the abstractive. That might be useful, too, in thinking about the difference between perceptual and introspective attention on the one hand (intuitive) and intellectual attention on the other (abstractive).

I don't think an experience has to accurately reflect how things stand in the world to be an experience or that a delay between stimulus and attention *necessarily* undermines claims to have experienced the stimulus. The key question is whether we have experiences of events to which we do not attend. The bell chime case is just a particularly vivid illustration of the issue, I think. If we *never* attended, then odds are we would forget the stimulus entirely, so it's useful to consider cases in which we do attend, but only after the fact. At least, that's what I was thinking in stressing that particular example!