A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Concsiousness as Being and Binding Problems

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on February 7, 2008

What I said in the previous post was that the way for the physicalists to deal with subjectivity and qualitative features of consciousness, is to deny that those are anything else but the being of the system which additionally has abilities of perception and thought. So, when the physicalist gives the description of the system, and somebody asks her to point to the consciousness, she will just say that THAT is not in the description, as it is nothing else but being that system (And that is what distinguishes the actual being from the description, as the description is not a being but a predicate). (It is at this point, where I usually would part ways with physicalism, arguing that the physical description is only one of the possible predicates, that it is related to the specific nature of the physics as science, that the being has other predicates which are non-reducible to the physical description, that more abstract predicates are secondary (ontologically dependent) on less-abstract ones, but I will just shut down those my beliefs, and see where this thinking about ‘being as consciousness’ will get me).

This kind of equating consciousness with being, allows the physicalist to address one other problem – so called ‘Unity of Consciousness’ and ‘The Binding Problem’. That is, when we have experience, for example of a cow, we see the cow as a unity of all those properties that it has, also we see the cow in specific place in its environment. Also we are aware of ourselves being there, probably we are aware how we got there and so on. But all those things are represented in different locations in the brain. So the problem goes – how do all those things ‘come together’ in the consciousness, how are they united? The easy way out, when the physicalist equates the consciousness with the being, is saying there is no such thing as ‘binding’ or ‘coming together’, we *are* this whole system with all the representations which are in it. So, there is no need for additional binding. Or, said in somewhat more weird way – the unity of consciousness is about nothing but the fact that this system has one being. (I guess it is clear what I mean?)

Another ‘binding problem’ that is present is not related to the different things which we are aware of in ‘a moment’ of time, but to our awareness of changes. Namely, I am aware of the changes as they happen. It is *I* (conscious I, or this being) that enjoy the music, and the music is not in a moment, it is this I that watch the movie from the start to the end. I can’t be aware of changes (and of the very notion of change) if my being doesn’t ‘last’ at least through the time of that change. My awareness is kept through all kind of changes through the daily life, they never stop. There is no moment through my daily life in which I disappear (Now at nights, I don’t know, can it be that when every time my body wakes up in the body there is some other being which is there, under the illusion that it is the same being of yesterday? It surely intuitively doesn’t seem so. That would basically mean that we are dying (disappearing) as beings every day. [camera towards myself: I must stay awake! I must stay awake!]).  Back to the daily life -They say that consciousness can’t be an illusion, as it takes consciousness to be subject of illusion, and I think it is similar here, unless consciousness exists through time, it can’t be under the illusion that it lasts through time.

Anyway, what we got to now, in relating consciousness with being is that: a)we need a being of a complex system AND b)we need being of complex system which lasts through time.

In the last post, I discussed few others things, but I think they might be formulated better now. One is the issue of multiple consciousnesses: if we take that certain being a physical system *to be* consciousness, we can imagine taking its subsystem and it will be conscious too (take away one neuron for example, or even one electron, and we don’t expect that consciousness will be lost). But, if that is so, why shouldn’t we be able to talk about being of the whole system as consciousness, but also talk about being of any of the arbitrary subsystems (and take the super-system as a environment of some kind) as a consciousness too? But as said, this is hardly an option, because if any such subsystem has its own ‘being’ (and hence consciousness), the consciousness of the super-system should disappear when the neuron is lost or something, which on other hand means (as we don’t know which of those systems we are), there is a chance that this *I* will disappear any moment now. (Well, I don’t know…it certainly is logically possible, and the being that disappears will hardly be able to testify it’s disappearance, and me [which me writes this anyway?] being one of those that haven’t disappeared is nothing special, but this line of thought doesn’t strike me as plausible. Hence it is false :) ).

OK, so we need to find different kind of being then being which will be connected to certain parts which are in certain configuration. We need a being, which a) doesn’t disappear if it looses a part or it’s part is changed with another part and b) whose different parts don’t have the same kind of being (which being will be there if the super-system with loosing one neuron becomes equal with the sub-system? Maybe they will become one being? Two consciousnesses becoming one? *shrug*).

The problematic thing here is that we want to give being to the complex system, which is in certain way not equal with the beings of it’s constituent parts.  (Neither with the sum of it, as they leave the system, other things enter the system and so on…)

We can remind ourselves to the ship of Theseus issue.  The old planks of the ship of Theseus were changed little by little as they decayed while it was out at the sea, so at the end when the ship returned all the planks were changed. The question is, is it still the same ship? When we talk about ships it is easy for us to say that there is no such being as the ship which is more than the sum of it’s parts (or that there is no ontological identity which the ship kept), so that the identity of the ship is preserved only in our minds. But here, talking about the consciousness as being, we got to a situation, where we need to claim ontological identity of the thing, even all the parts are changed.

This post is getting too long, so let me just ask at the end…
Any ideas how physicalists can go (or do go) in addressing this?

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2 Responses to “Concsiousness as Being and Binding Problems”

  1. orestesmantra said

    You certainly bring up a lot of fascinating problems of issues with consciousness and being. I think to answer your question how it is that the entire complex system, instead of any one of its constituent parts, “has” ontological being, can possibly be answered using embodied cognition and ecological analysis.

    What I mean is that the whole system has the ontological identity because 1. it is the whole organism that interacts with the environment, and from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that the ontology is given to the entire organism as opposed to having a stomach ontology and a liver ontology, etc. and 2. the brain/body system is linked up in all sorts of tightly-coupled ways through proprioception and sensory modalities, so it makes sense(to me, at least) that there is only one ontology per body because there is only one brain hooked up with one body. On this point, you could get into fascinating discussions with people with unilateral neglect. Once those brain/body couplings are no longer functioning properly then the holistic ontology of the body breaks down.

    I am sort of rambling, and I don’t really know how to answer your questions. Heidegger, at least, thought that it was because humans were able to take a stance on their being through their entire holistic interaction with the environment and society. By acting in particular ways, the human Dasein becomes an ontological being precisely because it is capable of taking “issue” with its being i.e. the Dasein “copes” with the environment. The real question is to what extent non-human animals cope with their environments. I don’t think Heidegger ever really had an answer to that question.

    As for the binding problem, Treisman’s Feature Integration Theory, which emphasizes the role of attention for “binding” different features of an object together, has empirical support. For example, people with bilateral parietal damage are able to report the individual features of an object but aren’t able to name which features belong to the object. Check out the paper:

    Cohen & Rafal (1991) Attention and feature integration: Illusory conjunctions in a patient with a parietal lobe lesion “psychological science, 2 106-110”

  2. Hi Orestesmantra!

    I tend to agree that it is the whole organism that “has” being. That kind of goes with common sense, and intuition (how we think about us and other people), but of course it doesn’t have to mean anything. As for this ontological identity being ‘given’ it doesn’t strike me as plausible. Here is why. Evolution will select always between things *which are*. There is no non-beings to select vs. beings. So, I don’t think that we can ‘blame’ evolution for those things. They seem ‘more basic’ to me.

    Thank you very much for pointing to the pathological cases, and for pointing to that research! Those kind of cases are surely good way to approach this kind of question. (I have a friend which tells me to read Oliver Sacks and/or Paul Broks for months, and this is a good reason to listen to her!)
    It is very interesting, because one can relate ‘breaking’ of the unity of consciousness with breaking of the ‘being’, and then search there for some deeper metaphysically basic criteria for being. I must note, that there is something weird in the idea of searching empirically for a criteria for being. Or maybe not, I don’t know :)

    Thanks again!

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