Tagged: david chalmers

How We Experience The World

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An interesting corollary subject within the discussion surrounding our subjective experience of consciousness is the way in which all of our previous lifelong subjective experiences provide the foundation for our comprehension and apprehension of our current experience in this very moment. Naturally, without having any previous relevant life or learning experiences to draw upon for comparison, any subsequent experience would, by definition, be viewed as a “new experience.” While new experiences are inherent in any circumstance in which we have not been previously familiar in a specific way, as when we travel to a foreign country for the first time, or when we take our first trip on an airplane, even as the specifics of those circumstances provide a degree of subjective experience that could not have been part of our previous existence, there are other foundational experiences that we use to compare against those which are specifically new. Depending on the extent and variety of prior experiences, the assimilation of those which are “new,” may require a great deal more effort to come to terms with them.

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The real issue, though, is in the accumulation of subjective knowledge of our existence in the first place. As all human adults are aware, each of us arrives in the world as newborn babies, with only a very limited unconscious experience of life in the womb. Sensory data acquired during that time, while fairly universal in nature, depending on the health and lifestyle of the mother, have a clear but limited effect on our eventually conscious subjective experience. Our early life as an infant, also subject to the subtleties and specific conditions of the environment in which it takes place, are in large part unconscious for a number of years after birth. There are rare exceptions to the general flow of conscious memory accumulation, which generally begins in the third or fourth year of childhood, but for most of us, our early childhood memories most often transmit only a vague sense of those experiences, and are often characterized by episodic “bits and pieces” or “snippets” of conscious recollection.

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Once a child achieves a rudimentary functional level of conscious subjective awareness, somewhere around five to seven years along, more lasting and significant memories begin to accumulate, and a broader range of foundational subjective experiences allow the young child to begin to interpret the world with a degree of perspective commensurate with whatever experiences were available during their early development. An experience of deprivation or limited nurturing during the early years can profoundly and adversely affect the development of the child, and providing a richer and more stimulating environment can produce a commensurate increase in the quality and character of their development, along with a substantially increased range of productive subjective experiences with which to interpret and understand the world around them.

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In combination with our inherited genetic makeup and a host of other mitigating factors in our specific familial and human lineage, as well as whatever degree of cultural orientation or psychological conditioning that may take place, we often navigate through later childhood and adolescence as much unconsciously as consciously, eventually acquiring a more independently achieved view of the world, based many times on which opportunities are either present and utilized, withheld, or unavailable. While there are no guarantees of a specifically positive or negative outcome in spite of any and all of these mitigating factors, the contributions which they potentially represent can affect our ability to assimilate new experiences significantly.

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It is not unusual for individuals with a robust and stimulating early environment to excel in adolescence and through the teen years, and upon entering the second decade of life, many times these individuals are already working toward specific goals and pursuing specific interests as they enter the college level challenges of their early twenties. Deliberately focusing their energies and attentions on specific tasks related to a well-defined goal requires a foundation of relevant previous experience to draw upon and to compare results in a progressively more complex effort to achieve an ability to deal with each new experience. Since every single moment of conscious awareness constitutes some variety and degree of experience, regardless of how often we may have one of a particular variety, examining the nature and characteristics of our subjective awareness become central to our understanding generally.

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David Chalmers, the philosopher of consciousness from New York University expressed his view this way….”There is this beautiful scientific picture…the great chain of explanation…physics explains chemistry, and chemistry explains biology, and biology at least explains aspects of psychology, aspects of sociology, and so on, but although there is a whole lot there that we haven’t worked out, we at least have a sense of the picture and how the pieces fit together, and what’s interesting about consciousness, is that it just doesn’t seem to fit easily into that picture at all…because this is a picture of the world in terms of objective mechanisms described from the objective point of view…and consciousness is the quintessentially subjective phenomenon. It’s how things feel from the inside, it’s how we experience the world from a subjective point of view, and nothing in this objective picture of the world seems, on the face of it, to tell you why there’s going to be subjectivity.”

…more to come…

Coming To Grips With Consciousness

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“Brightly colored brain scans are a media favorite as they are both attractive to the eye and apparently easy to understand, but in reality they represent some of the most complex scientific information we have. They are not maps of activity, but maps of the outcome of complex statistical comparisons of blood flow that unevenly relate to actual brain function. This is a problem that scientists are painfully aware of, but it is often glossed over when the results get into the press.”

Quoted from “Our brains, and how they’re not as simple as we think,” by Vaughan Bell, “a neuropsychologist who researches the brain and treats people with neurological difficulties.” The Observer, Saturday 2 March 2013 – http://observer.guardian.co.uk/

“It’s worth noting that philosophers…(generally) do not conclude that there is no sense in which an experience is physical. Seeing red, for example, involves photons striking the retina, followed by a whole string of physical events that process the retinal information before we actually have a subjective sense of color. There’s a purely physical sense in which this is “seeing.” This is why we can say that a surveillance camera “sees” someone entering a room. But the “seeing” camera has no subjective experience; it has no phenomenal awareness of what it’s like to see something. That happens only when we look at what the camera recorded. The claim that experience is not physical applies only to this sense of experience. But, of course, it is experience in this sense that makes up the rich inner experience that matters so much to us.”

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David Chalmers,(*) remain(s) one of many “philosophical naturalists,” who maintain(s) that there is no world beyond the natural one in which we live. The “philosophical naturalist’s” claim is rather that this world contains a natural reality (consciousness) that escapes the scope of physical explanation. Chalmers, in particular, supports a “naturalistic dualism” that proposes to supplement physical science by postulating entities with irreducibly subjective (phenomenal) properties that would allow us to give a natural explanation of consciousness. Not surprisingly, however, some philosophers (view) Chalmers’s arguments as supporting a traditional dualism of a natural body and a supernatural soul. — Quoted from the New York Times “Opinionator – A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web” – The Stone March 12, 2013 by Gary Gutting (who) is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

 

For years now, I have been researching the human subjective experience of consciousness, studying the many resources surrounding the nature of the mind, investigating as much as I can about the developments in neuroscience, and reading as widely as possible in the many related subjects like psychology, philosophy, and in a variety of spiritual traditions, all in the service of a greater understanding of my own subjective experience of life. I know there are elements coalescing within me, at times bursting to come out, but I am impeded often by both temporal distractions and my own mental exhaustion from a variety of urgent matters. Every once in a while, I like to review my own writing about particular subjects and resources in hopes of stimulating my thought processes, and recently in my current workbook, I came across a review I wrote of Chalmers’ book, “The Conscious Mind,” and it prompted me to give it another look.

One of the main reasons I have admired David’s work over the years is due to the many instances where he has shown a willingness to periodically engage in unconventional thinking as a means of expanding on conventional ideas. Even though there aren’t many others who even go as far as he goes, I can’t help but feel that it still isn’t quite far enough. Even as broad in scope as his book seems to be, it still stays carefully away from anything too potentially controversial. After all, he has a professional reputation to consider, and a vested interest in maintaining academic integrity, but even so, his courage in pursuing his ideas is admirable. The environment in which academics generally must function, often requires that they pay attention to such considerations, and by doing so, hopefully lead them to conduct research that is productive and publishable.

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Much has been made of our perception of the natural world through our senses and how little of its true nature is evident through our cognitive functionality. Indeed, as the image above demonstrates, our common sense notions of how an image printed with ink on a piece of paper could not be in motion are immediately called into question. We can explain how it is that our brain translates this image into one that appears to be moving on the page, but the EXPERIENCE of its motion takes place within us subjectively, and that requires more explaining.

Experience is a subjective mental state, according to Chalmers, one that we can know only as we have it. Consciousness can best be characterized, he says, as “the subjective quality of experience.” He enumerates the various types of “conscious experiences,” from the most subtle to the most pronounced, all of which “have a distinct experienced quality.” He goes on to say that “if it were not for our direct evidence in the first-person…the hypothesis (of the existence of conscious experience) would seem unwarranted.” “Consciousness is part of the natural world,” he insists, and suggests two major areas that cry out for explanation: 1) The very existence of consciousness, and 2) the specific character of conscious experiences. Chalmers would like for the theory of consciousness to “enable us to see (it) as in integral part of the natural world,” and frames the problem of consciousness as something that “arises from physical systems.”

I do not believe necessarily that “physical processes give rise to consciousness,” nor that “…the emergence of consciousness needs to be explained in terms that seem intelligible,” if by “intelligible” he means “empirical.” Our experience of our individual existence is clearly dependent upon our temporal capacity for cognition, and is made manifest in the physical world through our central nervous system and our natural cognitive endowment as human beings, but it is my personal view that consciousness itself, this foundational and ineffable vehicle of experience may not originate in our physical systems at all, although there may be, as Chalmers describes it, “a lawful relationship between physical processes and conscious experience.” For some, there isn’t much difference between those two phrases, but being related and simply being are quite different.

What we perceive as experience owes a great deal to the physical nervous system and cognitive functions of the brain, but it seems more likely to me, particularly as one who HAS these experiences, that they are far too rich, deeply personal, and occasionally so profoundly beyond the machinations of the natural world for them to be solely dependent on them for their existence. Just because we rely on our intact and functional physical cognitive system in order that experience may “register,” or for us to be aware of them, does not, in my view, indicate that consciousness “arises” from those physical processes.

We may eventually come to understand why we have these experiences, and David’s reasoning regarding the character and nature of consciousness being possible to explain in terms of his “naturalistic dualism” is perfectly alright with me. The inner workings of every phenomenal process we examine do not easily reveal themselves always through current scientific methodology, but it is certain that our understanding is increasing and expanding due to the efforts of people like David Chalmers, and I am grateful that such individuals exist who ponder these issues. Those who insist on a more tangible, empirical explanation for consciousness may not find much satisfaction in my own ideas and inclinations, but my respect and admiration for David far exceeds any amount of disparity in our views generally. We have corresponded occasionally over the years, and his gracious encouragement and probing questions in response to mine have had the effect of pressing me to dig deeper. In the last chapter of David’s book, he even allows himself to speculate a bit, and warns the reader that such speculation “…falls well into the realm of speculative metaphysics, but speculative metaphysics is probably unavoidable in coming to terms with the ontology of consciousness.”

I couldn’t agree more.

(*)”David Chalmers is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Consciousness at the Australian National University and also Visiting Professor of Philosophy at New York University. He is the author of “The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory,” and numerous other books and articles in philosophy and cognitive science. His 2010 John Locke Lectures at Oxford will shortly be published as “Constructing the World.” – from the website psychoontology.org