mineFollowing on somewhat from the idea of there being a quale of being me, the latest JCS includes a paper by Marc Slors and Fleur Jongepier about Mineness without Minimal Selves.

‘Mineness’ here is the quality of our experiences that makes them feel like ours, their first-person givenness. Slors and Jongepier say that the majority of theories explain this in terms of how the experience relates to a minimal self; although different terminology is used all these theories have in common that they rely on ‘internal’ structure, whereas Slors and Jongepier want instead to advocate  a view based on external structure.

What does that all mean? The typical theory – they use Dan Zahavi as a representative case – says that there are three elements; the object experienced, the experiencing, and the subject who experiences. Some have argued that there can’t be experience without an experiencer, but we have to remember that a figure as august as Hume held that there was no subject apart from the stream of experience, no core ‘me’, or at least not one that he could perceive in himself. Now although the subject is indeed not part of the experience per se, it is experientially linked with it in this structure, and that’s why it has the feel of belonging to me. In a way this comes down to the commonsensical claim that experiences feel like mine because they relate to me; not surprising that that should be a popular point of view.

That structure, however, takes no account of time: it is, as it were, an instant view: Slors and Jongepier don’t think this will do. They quote Metzinger saying that he experiences his leg as having always been part of him, and his experiences as part of a stream of consciousness. They hold that this diachronic aspect of experience cannot be left out. Moreover, while they grant that some version of the internal structure described above could be bodged up to allow for continuous experience, it could not easily take account of more distant memories, which they hold to be equally important.

I’m not sure I see this. We’ve talked about unfortunate patients who have no ability to form new long or medium term memories: they exist in a kind of small temporal island, never able to remember how they got where they are and hypothesising that they regained consciousness only a few minutes ago. These people are nevertheless perfectly lucid and articulate and apart form the absence of memory seem to be having unimparied experiences which seem to be thier own just as much as anyone else’s do. Slors and Jongepier would probably point  out that they retain memories from their earlier lives, before their brains were damaged: but if we hypothesise a person with no memories would we also deny them any sense of owning their experiences? I don’t really see why.

Anyway, Slors and Jongepier propose a coherentist theory which does not merely say that experience has to fit into a larger ‘psychobiography’ and dispense with the minimal self. The final, curious element in the theory is the claim that this essential coherence of experience with a background biography is not itself an object of experience. Indeed, it’s the fact that the coherence is not experienced that makes the experience feel like mine.

This seems odd at first sight: how can the absence of an experience of coherence make an experience feel like my own? Putting it informally I think the gist is that it is, as it were, the absence of surprise that lets us know things are familiar. Experiences seem like mine because they slide into the stream of consciousness without a splash.

It is an ingenious theory which seems to capture some aspects of phenomenology rather well; but in the end I don’t feel motivated to adopt it: it isn’t really solving any problems for me. I’m inclined to think that all direct experience seems like mine just because it is direct; my experiences are, as it were, right there, while the external world (and even more so someone else’s experiences) are matters of conjecture and inference. I suppose that means I’m hanging on to my minimal self for the moment.

10 Comments

  1. 1. TonyK says:

    Jongepier/Jongpier/Jongepier/Jongpier: Nobody likes having their name misspelt, even if you can’t help feeling that they have nobody to blame but themselves.

    [It’s my sausage fingers on a tiny IPad mini keyboard that are really to blame. Corrected. Peter.]

  2. 2. micha says:

    I hear echos of the unity of the Knower, the Known and the Knowledge. I am sure it comes up in Qalam and Scholasticism as well, but given my own background, my exposure is from Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed, book I, ch. 68. (Fraedlander’s 1904 [Public Domain] translation is available here.)

    Teaser:
    “There is no doubt that he who has not studied any works on mental philosophy, who has not comprehended the nature of the mind, who has no knowledge of its essence, and considers it in no other way than he would consider the nature of whiteness and of blackness, will find this subject extremely difficult, and to him our principle that the intellectus, the intelligens, and the intelligibile, are in God one and the same thing, will appear as unintelligible as if we said that the whiteness, the whitening substance, and the material which is whitened are one and the same thing. …

    “On the other hand, the power of comprehension, and the object capable of comprehension are two things; but that which is only potential cannot be imagined otherwise than in connexion with an object possessing that capacity, as, e.g., man, and thus we have three things: the man who possesses the power, and is capable of comprehending; that power itself, namely, the power of comprehension, and the object which presents itself as an object of comprehension, and is capable of being comprehended; to use the foregoing example, the man, the hylic intellect, and the abstract form of the tree, are three different things. They become one and the same thing when the intellect is in action…”

  3. 3. Scott Bakker says:

    “I’m inclined to think that all direct experience seems like mine just because it is direct; my experiences are, as it were, right there, while the external world (and even more so someone else’s experiences) are matters of conjecture and inference. I suppose that means I’m hanging on to my minimal self for the moment.”

    What requires more cognitive labour, though? The apparently immediate nature of your experience as metacognized or the apparently mediate/inferential nature of your environment as cognized? The latter seems to be the obvious case. So what should you be more inclined to trust, the informationally rich cognitive environment replete with error-signalling capacity, or the incredibly thin one possessing no real error-signalling capacity at all? The apparent ‘right thereness’ of experience is far more likely a symptom of brain blindness than mental perspicuity, I fear. How could the lack of error-signalling capacity be anything but?

  4. 4. Peter says:

    Scott – a subversive attack! I take refuge (at the risk of evading the real issue) in the fact that we are, after all, only talking about an impression of mineness. It might be that the impression is systematically deceptive and non-veridical, but it’s still an impression. The seeming still seems, however illegitimately.

  5. 5. Scott Bakker says:

    Peter – But aren’t you’re simply repeating the same mistake you made when you trusted metacognition initially? Why should you possess anything remotely approaching the capacity to metacognize the ontological status of experience. Once again, given the vast amounts of machinery required to accurately cognize a stone at the seashore, what type of evolutionary pressure could account for the machinery required to accurately cognize the *experience* of a stone at the seashore, or worse yet, the ontological status of the *seeming* of a stone experience at the seashore. If you ask me, philosophy of mind and consciousness research fairly scream that we don’t possess anything remotely approaching the machinery required! What they do resemble, on the contrary, are institutions bedevilled not simply by the lack of such metacognitive machinery, but the lack of any intuition of this incapacity as well.

    Didn’t mean to kick down the door or anything! 😉 Just trying to nudge you back toward the fence…

  6. 6. Callan S. says:

    Do they look into ideas of experience that are at a finer gradient than one experiences? Like you could be experiencing something, but are you actually experiencing it as the highest fidelity possible? Or are you possibly having an experience that misses finer grades of that experience? Certainly if you read a book while very drunk then read it again some time latter while sober, you will likely see more in it. Same for many experiences. What if, when sober, there are levels of experience which are at a finer resolution that are missed?

    Think of it like it was square light sensor, 2 inches by 2 inches. It can only really sense things that are 2 inches square in size (or larger). But say the sensor is actually made of many smaller components in order to function, each of them recording a finer resolution than 2×2. But they are collated to 2×2.

    To the sensor, it will report there is no greater experience than it has. It can’t see any finer.

    However, clearly such an experience is essentially ‘virtual’. It’s not at the highest resolution.

    But if you can’t see any finer experience, then experience would become a ‘thing’ that ‘exists’, because you would have no comparative to determine it’s merely one resolution of many.

  7. 7. Peter says:

    Do they look into ideas of experience that are at a finer gradient than one experience?

    No, but you make an interesting point there. At the risk of seeming frivolous, if you get drunk again you might judge your ebriate reading unsatisfactory. There is research (I can’t find it) which suggests that you learn well while drunk but can only fully recall what you learnt when drunk again. Unfortunately there’s no research that suggests your drafting ability remains good while drunk.

  8. 8. Peter says:

    Why should you possess anything remotely approaching the capacity to metacognize the ontological status of experience

    Fair enough: I suppose I was saying I don’t know much about metacognising, but I know what I (feel) like.

    Attacks are welcome – i didn’t mean that as a complaint!

  9. 9. Callan S. says:

    if you get drunk again you might judge your ebriate reading unsatisfactory.

    I hadn’t thought of that. That’s kind of a disturbing possibility!

  10. 10. dimasok says:

    The fact is that each brain and body are instantiated as a unique organism regardless of how seemingly uniform the experience of the external and internal world of qualia seem to each of us subjectively.

    It is not merely the “mineness” that’s the problem nor is it solipsism or the problem of other minds: its the fact that each one of us possesses a unique body/mind that is situated at a particular point in space and time at a given moment and that means that all experiences are by their very nature private and cannot be accessed by anyone but the individual in question.

    I am not sure if something like this can ever be resolved even through technological means, and if it can, what conjoining two subjectivities would result in for each unique “mineness”.

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