Following 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.