Unity of Consciousness, Ontology and Reference

Few posts ago I wrote about what is usually called “unity of consciousness”, and two different approaches one might take towards this issue – 1)reductionist approach which is primarily motivated by sciecnes , and 2) holistic approach, where things (including the sciences) are analyzed in context of the being-in-the-world as starting (and unavoidable) whole.
I strongly believe that the second approach is the right one, but in this post I want to ponder over the first of those approaches and how they might relate to the theories of reference.

By unity of consciousness I refer to those phenomena:

  1. In any moment I’m conscious of a lot of things at once. My daughter there watching cartoons, and the TV set with the cartoons and the sounds it produces, and the screen before me, and lot of other things of which I’m only vaguely aware (e.g. the touch of my back to the seat of the chair), are there in one consciousness. Let’s call this atemporal unity of consciousness.
  2. The experiences create a whole not just in “a moment of time”, but also through time – we have experiences of things and systems undergoing changes, or of agents acting, etc… This is the phenomenon of temporal unity of consciousness. (If there wasn’t this kind of phenomenon, even being aware of such thing as a simple movement would be impossible)

If we start from the picture of the world informed from the sciences, we get roughly this:

  • There is multiplicity of events in which our sensory organs are affected. The set of those events is unconnected multiplicity – separated in time and space. Let’s mark this multiplicity with the shorthand BSE (bag of sensory events).
  • Unity of consciousness is a mental phenomenon which is due to the brain integrating the information taken from the BSE. The information from the past is also retained, so that allows for temporal unity of consciousness.

So the story (call it ST1) would go like this: If we are looking at a baby, what happens is that our eye cells are being affected time and time again by photons which “bounce off” the surface of the baby and come our way, and result with a BSE. The integration of the BSE is (or results) with the unity of consciousness, where the baby in our phenomenal experience is experienced as one, and also as existing throughout time.

There is a problem here however with the assumption within ST1 phrased as- “If we are looking at a baby”. I tend to imagine that assumption either from first person perspective where I imagine looking at the baby as a whole existing through time. Or from third person perspective – I can imagine some person and the baby in front of him. In both cases my possibility to imagine the baby is connected to the unity of consciousness, as it is in that unity that I’m aware of the baby as one thing existing through time in its identity.

But surely the world as it is, shouldn’t be dependent on existence of this mental phenomenon. We can’t take the baby to be really one and the same thing existing through time just because it is such in our unity of consciousness.

Cleaning up the ontology

So, in order to clean up our ontology from the unity-of-consciousness grounded talk (which is seen as a contingent mental phenomenon), and tell ST1 properly we can either:

  1. Admit that the notion of baby is grounded, and only have sense in the unity of consciousness, and say that we can’t talk about any such thing as a baby in the world itself, or
  2. Give (unity-of-consciousness free) account for the baby as being one and the same thing existing through time.

The Reasoning Behind Option 1:
We know from sciences that what we call “the baby” consist of organs, which in turn consist of cells, which in turn consist of lot more or less complex molecules, which in turn consist of atoms and so on. On any level of these whole/part relations, what we take as self-subsistent and existing are the parts – you can have parts without a whole, but can’t have whole without parts. It is the parts that exist and are self-subsistent, and the wholes are seen having only dependent existence. So, in our ontology where we are not concerned with how things appear in our consciousness (namely as wholes existing through time), we don’t have a reason for not eliminating those wholes from ontology. The baby is eliminated with cells dynamics talk, cells are eliminated with molecules dynamics talk, molecules are eliminated with atoms dynamics talk, and so on. In the story, then, we rephrase the assumption of ST1, so it is not “if we are looking at a baby”, but as a general talk about a set of micro-physical processes going on in the world, which result with the BSE in question.

The Reasoning Behind Option 2:
Even it is true that the parts are self-subsistent, there are patterns of behavior which are extended in time which are not limited to specific parts, and which patterns can be put in unity-of-consciousness free terms.
We then can talk about the particular instantiation of this pattern in the world, and say that it is this pattern that causes the BSE in question. The BSE are in turn integrated in the brain, which because it was evolutionary advantageous presents those patterns as wholes existing through time.
Dennett in his paper Real Patterns, talking about Conway’s Game of Life and its denizens, says:

“Note that there has been a distinct ontological shift as we move between levels; whereas at the physical level there is no motion, and the only individuals , cells, are defined by their fixed spatial location, at this design level we have the motion of persisting objects; it is one and the same glider that has moved southeast in figure 5.2, changing shape as it moves, and there is one less glider in the world after the eater has eaten it in figure 5.3.” (my italics)

But I’m skeptical that this is valid move. Is it because of the ontological existence of the patterns, and the evolutionary advantage of recognizing and tracking them, that we are experiencing them as persistent wholes in our unity of consciousness, or… is it because we experience them as persistent wholes, that we are able to abstract a pattern from that whole, and speak of a pattern for pragmatic reasons? Remove our unity of consciousness, and there is no reason to speak of patterns, whatever is in the world is the state in which it is in given time, and the behavior of the universe is fully determined by the laws which are on the micro-level. So, it seems to me that in the unity-of-consciousness free ontology only option 1 is valid.

What about theories of reference?

What happens with the theories of reference in this unity-of-consciousness free ontology?

Let’s say that the baby of which we speak of is called Jamie.

According to the causal theory of reference the word “Jamie” means Jamie, because the person who uses the name is in specific causal relation with the baby. But, we have removed Jamie from our ontology, so this can’t work. We might try to equate Jamie with a specific configuration at a time as in option 1, but that configuration changes, and through time constituent elements change too. If we equate Jamie with a specific configuration at time t, we have no choice but to say that when the baby grows up is not Jamie any more. We can’t even talk about baby growing up, as this requires Jamie to have persistence through time, so that it can have different predicates at different time.  But, we don’t have any such thing in our ontology.

And the situation is not much better with the description theory of reference. If there is no thing to which we can give the predicates, how can we refer to that thing?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s