Thursday, November 05, 2009

Perplexities of Consciousness, submitted draft

I have just submitted my new book manuscript, Perplexities of Consciousness, to MIT Press. The whole thing is now viewable from my homepage.

Comments still welcome -- more than welcome! -- either on this post or by email.

Now that this manuscript is in, I can focus on catching up with all those other things I should have been doing and didn't!


D said...

I wanted to comment on chapter 2, "do things look flat?"
Two observations: as an artist, one of the tricks you can use is to let your eyes lose focus. When you do this, the penny ceases to be a penny; it simply becomes a blob of color. And that blob is definitely oblong. It's only when we know that the penny is round from other cues (that disappear when our eyes are blurred) that we are able to perceive its circularity.
Second observation: my son, at age five, looked out the window at passing telephone poles and remarked on how they looked like they were shrinking as they got farther away.
So I suspect neither of these is a cultural phenomenon brought on by too much looking at screens and pictures.

Michael Metzler said...


I did read Chapter 6. This is another example at complete artlessness. And while I am offering praise, I will say that your experiment with beepers is one of the best 'crummy' experiments I have read about. You create an elegant distinction between sparse and abundant views of consciousness; I have never seen the issue divided quite this way before, and this is very helpful. I also think your experiment was successful at illustrating your skepticism.

One alternative view I hope you explore from here is whether Chapter 6 is evidence that there really is not anything like an immediate stream of phenomenology, which would provide further reason to wrestle with Dennett (2001). This would seem to be a kind of fourth alternative, it seems, to the sparse, abundant, and in-between triad. Also, further discussion might be nice on how we can telescope in and out from a more abundant experience to a more sparse experience, as, for example, I go from enjoying a nice walk on a beautiful beach - slight breeze, crashing waves, water at my ankles, deep breathes of fresh air - to wondering if the sand dollar I just spotted is broken or not.

I like how you end the chapter with a non-dogmatic skeptical suggestion, leaving us only with the more certain fact that "the obstacles are formidable." However, I still do not find myself as skeptical as you. I think there is much to learn about structure just below conscious awareness that we can get whiffs of as we learn more about unconscious mechanisms underlying even our most basic introspections of our experience, such my story about observing the seagull. Conceptual metaphor is another area that seems to tie together observed language, gestures, and phenomenology in unexpected ways. And discovering neural correlates for conscious experience seems to me a very likely possibility in the near future, given the sort of data brain damage and unobtrusive impairment of surface locations of the brain provides. We have already seen how our experience - conscious and unconscious - can be dismantled piece by bizarre, unexpected piece, such as local failures in short term memory, long term memory, semantic ability, and pragmatic ability. The same might be true of different aspects of conscious experience that does not cut with the grain of traditional distinctions in modality. For example, what if I can observe a seagull as soft all over while not observing the seagull as a seagull? Or what if I can perceive the seagull's looking around through a particular form of emulation while unable to perceive the seagull as taking a survey perspective? Maybe my cognitive gear is all in order while missing just that survey perspective for my own perception. It seems we can tinker with different mechanisms and pull apart consciousness in different, helpful ways.

Finally, this last comment is not one I would have made 6 years ago. Consciousness was a given unity, a stream of phenomenology. But the mind sciences have changed my concept of consciousness, which I think must change at least with respect to the fact that the folk conception of consciousness is an abundant view. Pre-theoretically, there is an important sense in which we do not give any thought at all to the sophistication of the unconscious mind as related to our perception, decision, will, intentions, reasons for acting, etc. Mind science, I would argue, is moving us toward a more sparse view. I do not think that Chalmers' tentative view in 1996 is representative of this transition, which is the only scientifically related abundant view you mention. Thanks!

Michael Metzler said...

The UCSD library has a section for new incoming books and this week I picked up a copy of The Oxford Companion to Consciousness (2009). Wow! A lot of mind science. I even found an entry on Wine - my kind of interdisciplinary.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, D! I am inclined to agree with you that it's probably at least somewhat intercultural to say that distant things look smaller -- which I find in Xunzi and Sextus as well as in the contemporary tradition and which may at least partly relate to illusion. But of course a five-year-old in our culture has been abundantly exposed to flat, projective media -- so I'm inclined to think that that's not a great test.

I agree that you get something blobby and elliptical when you unfocus your eyes looking at the penny -- but the fact that some people have to do that to see the ellipse may support my point rather than undermine it. It's not very natural, perhaps, to see the ellipse. You need to engage in exercises to see how a scene would properly be projected onto a flat medium.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind words, Michael. I'm afraid I can't understand Dennett on this point, as I complain about in at 2007 paper on his view. I don't understand what this fourth option would be, and I find Dennett to be self-contradictory on the point; maybe I need someone else to really articulate that view in a clearer, self-consistent way before I can understand it. I've conceded, both in this blog and in a footnote to Chapter 6, that there must be some lacunae in my understanding of consciousness.

I like your seagull example.

Michael Metzler said...

Thanks Eric. Taking a look at your dialog with Dennett is on my todo list. I think there is something to his view and so I am eager to investigate the disagreement. I am sure you will hear from me again!

Paul Torek said...


I just finished chapter 6, after being directed to it by the "very simple argument" discussion. I come away wanting to agree both with Michael Metzler and with (in the other thread) Badda Being. That is, as the brain becomes more well-understood, I suspect that there will be considerably less room for puzzlement over the abundance or sparseness of experience, and likewise the extent of consciousness over various species. But also, that we may simply have to decide (or decide not to decide) to use this family of words in one way or another, and that will be a politically charged decision. (Alice in Wonderland's Caterpillar was onto something.)

To expand on Michael's point, I suspect that with greater understanding of the brain mechanisms of memory, attention, and semantic competence, some of the arguments for sparseness will fall apart. The very arguments you criticize as question-begging, that is. We will more-firmly reject them because we will see that the abundantist's objection - e.g., "maybe he just didn't remember" - is borne out: in fact there was a glitch in memory.

But in other cases, perhaps all such objections fail. Memory was working fine, semantic competence was available, etc. We may be left with no credible explanation of the failure to report an experience, other than the hypothesis that the experience simply didn't happen.

This is all extremely speculative, of course. But I don't see what, at this point, could rule it out.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Paul, for your thoughtful comment! You may be right, of course. But I do think it will be trickier than you suggest here, if it is possible at all. Take the memory case for example: I'm assuming that it is normal not to remember all the welter of unattended details -- so there should be no detectable "glitch" when we fail to remember. Straightforwardly, the welter will not be encoded for retrieval. Thus, knowing more about the mechanisms of memory will not, in that case, give us any further hint about whether that unattended, unrecallable welter was experienced or unexperienced.

Let's say on the other hand that it turns out that lots of it is somehow encoded in memory but just dumped out very quickly. That still doesn't help us progress on the issue, because now we've got a version of the chiming bell case.