Different, But Indistinguishable Experiences

Richard over at Philosophy Sucks!, posted a PowerPoint presentation of his paper Consciousness, Higher-Order Thoughts and What It’s Like. The great thing is that he has integrated his reading of the paper, so that the whole experience is much better (at least it was for me) than reading a paper.

Anyway in discussion of that post Richard gave few objections to the view of perception that I’m playing with on this blog in few previous posts (for example the posts on illusions, “appears” vs. “is”hallucinations and dreams, and also few follow up notes).

I don’t want to clutter comments on his blog with those issues, so I will quote Richard’s objections here, and try to answer them.
Richard says…

I just don’t see how this kind of view doesn’t fly in the face of all of brain science…for instance you say that you can have a pain in your finger and yet not feel it, but we know that there are no pains in fingers, pain is in the brain (as evidenced by phantom limb pain) so to have a pain in the finger is to be in a mental state that represents the pain as being somewhere. How do you avoid this conclusion?

I don’t think that it is problematic to say that the pain we feel is in the finger just because there is possibility of illusion. We don’t say that the rabbit we see is in the brain, just because there is a possibility of illusion. Both cases seem analogous to me, and as one can accept that the objects we see are not in the brain, one can accept that the pain we feel is also not in the brain. I had more detailed analysis of this, in the post about cyborgs sharing the pain.

The other objection Richard gives is the following…

Also there is the obvious problem of dreams and hallucinations. I know you have addressed this issue, arguing that it is the imagination that has something to do with it, but this answer is no good because we know from brain imaging studies that when you dream about things the actual visual cortex is active but this is not the case for imagining. We also know that we can stimulate the visual cortex directly and generate visual experiences in the absence of objects, so how can objects themselves be the constituents of experiences if we can have experiences in the absence of objects?

I want to thank Richard for pointing to the issue with connecting imagination and dreams. Adding imagination there was wild speculation on my part (as it turns out – wrong), but I don’t think it was essential to the argument. The general idea was that some kind of *seeing affector* can be used to explain the possibility of hallucinations and dreams, and still leave open the possibility that when we see real things it is the things themselves that are constituents of the experience.

The idea is that the word “experience”  should be read in an externalist manner, and not as something private and internal to the subject. I don’t think this is problematic, and that even aligns better with the everyday usage of the word “experience”. I guess I will argue this in separate post. So, “experience” being read in this way, we can say that while two experiences are different (say seeing a box and pyramid from certain side), they might be indistinguishable by the subject. Same can be said about two different experiences, e.g. seeing a rabbit and hallucinating one – that those are different experiences, but they might be indistinguishable by the subject. In this way, we can say that the possibility of illusions doesn’t implicate that the objects themselves can’t be constituents of the experience. The same reading can be used for the cases of stimulation of visual cortex.

Of course lot of things in this view depends on issue of how to read “experience”, and what this thing philosophers call “experience” is supposed to be. That’s why I asked few posts ago for some clarification of what representational theories mean by that word. (The only ‘official’ answer I got was Pete Mandik’s – who said that experience is supposed to be a theoretical concept, and not something of which we are directly aware).