The Myth of ‘Phenomenal/Conscious Experience’
Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on November 30, 2007
As I was saying in other posts, I’m skeptical that the phrase “phenomenal experience” refers to anything. That would go also for “conscious experience” as long this is taken to play similar role that the phenomenal experience is supposed to play.
In this post I will try to summarize the arguments (though probably I will miss some).
Firstly, I pointed in one post that the in the traditional use of the word ‘experience’ it refers either to events in the world in which we take part and which affect us somehow (e.g. an “frightful experience of meeting a bear”), or to knowledge gained from such events (“From my experience, the boat can carry that much load”).
Secondly, if we buy into transparency of the ‘phenomenal experience’ (the claim that when we have experience of something, we are merely aware of what the experience is experience of), it seems that it is implied that we are not aware of the experience itself. I’m not sure how this can be made compatible with usual view of this “phenomenal experience” as something of which we are aware in some direct way – something about which we can’t be even skeptical about. I wrote about this being a possible consequence of misuse of the word “experience” here.
Thirdly there is particular work that “phenomenal experience” is supposed to do – a)explaining the what-it-is-likeness which we never found in the ‘gray-goo’ of the world, and b) the cases of illusions, hallucinations, dreams and alike.
I argued that both those things can be explained without assuming phenomenal experience – a) the world doesn’t have to be merely a gray-goo, the gray-goo can be seen as just one aspect of the world that we approach by science. The colors, sounds, emotions, awareness and so on, can be seen as other aspect that we see, hear, or in general become aware of through some kind of access. And b) instead of talking about some phenomenal experience being veridical or not, we can talk about mistaking one experience (or aspect of that experience) for another, because of the limits of our perception (or limits of our awareness in general).
Fourtly, if we think just in terms of information, there is the question of economy also. Why assume that there is a phenomenal experience playing a role of a representation which provides information for other mental capacities, when such role (of providing information) can be played by the world itself? So to say, if the world is there “at hand”, why would there be additional representation of it? Related to how this representation is supposed to work, I also pointed to some problems if we try to relate it to our everyday notion of representation.
Fifthly, if we have this phenomenal experience which is representation and which is characterized by what-it-is-like to have it, there appear issues of our knowledge of it (which is sometimes called introspection). For knowledge we need phacts (facts about the phenomenal experience) and access to those. But if we put attention on the words through which we are supposed to describe the phacts, we speak of lines, lengths of lines, colors, things – all external objects. And what kind of verb do we use for the access? We can see that something is the case in the world, but can we see that something is the case in the phenomenal experience? Sometimes we can speak about the properties of the visual field, and that really seems as talking about properties of the phenomenal experience? But when we are saying that the visual field is blurry on the periphery, are we pointing to anything but the fact (and not phact), that we can’t clearly see things which we don’t look directly at?
And in the end little explanation. It might seem that denying “phenomenal experience” or “conscious experience” is really absurd. After all we all have those things, right?
The answer would be that assumption of the “phenomenal/conscious experience” with the role it is supposed to serve is a theoretical account of what is happening; and that one can as well provide different story in which we do have experiences, and we are conscious, but in which we don’t have “conscious/phenomenal experiences”. The answer would be along those lines – We do take part in the events in the world, and we are aware of those events and their aspects (we see things, hear other things, etc.. .when participating in those events.). Further there are facts about our access to the things in those events. There are facts of us seeing something clearly, of hearing something in distance, and so on. And when we, participating in those events, are aware of them, we are also affected and/or learn from them.
This story, it seems to me doesn’t leave anything important of which we are aware of, and doesn’t have the problems of “phenomenal experience”. Though of course it has other problems.