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Chapter 4: The Boundary Problem for Experiencing Subjects

  1. Feb 8, 2005 #1


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    Liberal Naturalism

    Having rejected physicalism as a viable ontological framework in which to house p-consciousness, Rosenberg now begins the task of exploring possible alternatives. He will not investigate substance dualism; rather, he will seek to develop a version of Liberal Naturalism, which holds that nature is composed of only one kind of ontological 'stuff,' and that not all aspects of this stuff are physical.

    As an opening remark, Rosenberg notes that, insofar as physicalist views introduce "anomolous standards of explanation" for p-consciousness (see chapter 3) in order to avoid rejecting the prevailing metaphysical paradigm, such views are ontologically conservative at the expense of being methodologically radical. In contrast, a Liberal Naturalist bears no strong prior commitments to a given metaphysic, and believes that our highest priority as theory makers should be to achieve a natural and rigorous account of p-consciousness and its place in nature. Thus, a Liberal Naturalist is methodologically conservative at the expense of being ontologically radical. As Rosenberg puts it, "One might suggest that Liberal Naturalism is metaphysics in the service of explanation, whereas physicalism is explanation in service to metaphysics" (pg. 78).

    Rosenberg's Liberal Naturalist framework will be a variant of views that have been put forth before, notably by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, and more recently endorsed by philosophers such as David Chalmers, Michael Lockwood, Galen Strawson, and Thomas Nagel. Nagel's depiction of this view as quoted in the text is eloquent enough to bear repeating in full:

    Although the view that physical phenomena have contents or inner aspects related to experience appears promising, Rosenberg argues that those who have endorsed it in the past have not gone far enough. They have treated the view more as an amendment to physicalism rather than a thorough revision, and as Rosenberg works to flesh out his Liberal Naturalist view more fully throughout the book, he makes the case that nothing less than a thorough revision of our theories on how nature works (in particular, how causation works) will be sufficient to find a home for subjective experience.

    To guide his investigation over the next few chapters, Rosenberg will draw out those issues and problems surrounding p-consciousness which pose fundamental challenges and paradoxes to our understanding of experience and its relationship to the greater world. In so doing, he aims to discover more precisely the ways in which our current understanding of the world is inadequate, which will in turn crucially inform the shape of his particular Liberal Naturalist theory. Properly constructed, the new theory's metaphysical outlook and explanitory power should then be able to address these paradoxes directly and dissolve them into tractable problems with satisfactory solutions. Rosenberg will meet this challenge in the second half of the book.

    Because Rosenberg is in search of a new fundamental understanding of nature, the sort of problems he will consider here will not be ones that challenge our high level notions of mind, or other cognitive phenomena of the sort that might be studied by cognitive science or neuroscience. (Such problems are important and will be addressed eventually in Rosenberg's framework, but will not be suitable for motivating the fundamental shape of his Liberal Naturalist theory.) Rather, the problems considered will be of a more fundamental sort, problems that strike at the very heart of how we view nature in general. The first such problem that Rosenberg considers is the boundary problem.

    The Boundary Problem

    We begin discussion of the boundary problem with some observations that Rosenberg takes to be uncontentious. These are:

    1) Experiencing subjects (such as you and I) come in discrete units. Each 'unit' of experience contains a dynamic field of phenomenal events that are somehow naturally unified to constitute the subject.

    2) The phenomenal field of an experiencing subject has boundaries. For instance, a boundary belongs to both your and my phenomenal fields, such that you do not experience my pains and I do not experience yours.

    2.5) Together, the boundedness and unity of the phenomenal field make for a sort of inherent, natural individuation for experiencing subjects. Without these twin aspects of boundedness and unity, nothing like a human experiencing subject could exist. (Rosenberg states this immediately following his second observation, but I think it's important enough in the context of the discussion to come to merit its own listing here.)

    3) Human consciousness is only a particular instance of the more general concept of an experiencing subject. Other kinds of subjects with experiences vastly different from humans might exist.

    4) Human consciousness is tied to the physical body and its cognitive processes, which exist at a middle level in nature. Individuation at this middle level tends to be highly context sensitive and interest relative in a way that individuation of the world's fundamental microphysical constituents, and the universe as a whole, are not.

    5) Various levels of cohesion and organization exist between microphysical phenomena and middle level human cognitive processes, and likewise between human cognition and the universe as a whole.

    The task before us is to pull these observations together to account for the boundedness of subjective experience and how it could exist in nature. Why is it that experience is bounded at all, and what aspects of nature support the fact that human p-consciousness is individuated at the middle level in the particular way that it is? If humans' phenomenal fields are tied to their physical bodies, and human p-conscious is individuated at a middle level of nature, then how are the relevant parts of the physical human body likewise individuated at the middle level? These questions form the boundary problem for experiencing subjects.

    Because we have no good answer to the boundary problem, our conception of where the boundaries that individuate experiening subjects find their expression in nature is extremely loose. We can draw a virtually arbitrary amount of imaginary boundaries in nature that might support experiencing subjects without fear of contradicting what we otherwise know about the world, and the results of our thought experiments can be surprising, absurd, or even (for the human case) outright false.

    For instance, Rosenberg cites various neuroscientific research that seems to indicate that global, synchronous neuronal activity in the cortex plays a role in establishing the boundedness and unity of a human's phenomenal experience. If this is right, might it not be the case that some subsets of this synchronous cortical activity themselves present sufficient conditions to support the existence of experiencing subjects (albeit ones less cognitively complex than, and perhaps of a phenomenal character alien to, the 'full blown' human consciousness with which we are acquainted)? Maybe, maybe not-- we don't appear to have the relevant concepts needed to decide the issue. Although such a situation might appear surprising if it were true, it seems as if we at least have to grant the possibility, given what knowledge and theory we have to work with. (Interestingly, Rosenberg suggests that we may already have empirical evidence from multiple personal disorder studies that a single human brain can support multiple experiencing subjects on the same upper level of cortical organization.)

    Rosenberg uses thought experiments in order to show the extent to which our loose concepts pertaining to the boundary problem can be stretched without breaking. For a given cognitive system, it seems coherent to suppose that various subsystems within it are experiencing subjects, but that the system as a whole is not. Likewise, it seems coherent to suppose that both the subsystems and the system as a whole are individual experiencing subjects. There is no ceiling that tells us at what point we should stop attributing subjecthood to larger portions of the system. Extending beyond biological systems, we cannot even rule out the idea that an entire economy might provide the proper kind of causal organization to support the existence of an experiencing subject, even if this strikes us as strange or outright absurd.

    If there is no immediate ceiling constraining how high we can potententially attribute experiential subjecthood, there is no immediate floor either. For a cognitive system, we can just as well suppose that the parts are not subjects of experience but that the whole is, e.g. because some (nebulously conceived but often alluded to) point of sufficient complexity has been achieved by the whole but not the parts. But if this were the case, what is to stop us from conceiving of a world where the point of sufficient complexity for experiential subjecthood has been modified? In conjunction with our previous conjectures, we might conceive of a world where the point of sufficient complexity is elevated above the level of complexity exhibited by human brains but below that of the economy. In such a world, humans would not be experiencing subjects, but the economy would.

    Rosenberg argues that we can shift the conceptual boundaries across nature so freely because of the way we characterize phenomena at its middle level. We carve up the world at this middle level according to some interest relative, abstract patterns that are extracted from the actual, underlying microphysical phenomena, and there are arbitrarily many of such patterns that are consistent with the same physical/causal circumstances. As a consequence, we wind up with arbitrarily many abstract patterns of organization that present themselves as candidates to support the individuation of experiencing subjects, with sometimes counterintuitive and even bewildering results. It is clear that such interest relative descriptions of the middle level of nature will not do. As Rosenberg says, "We need a natural criterion for individuation, one that illuminates the specialness of some patterns over others as supporters of experience" (pg. 87)-- we need boundaries and unities that are in some sense actually, objectively existent and recognized by nature, not ones created by observors and projected onto nature.

    The fundamental microphysical entities of the world, be they particles or strings or something else, appear to be good candidates to play the role of these naturally bounded, actually existent units. But this leaves us with a bootstrapping problem. If microphysical entities provide the boundaries for experiencing subjects, how is it that humans at the middle level of nature, towering far above the level of these microphysical individuals, could be experiencing subjects as well?

    Another good suggestion is that natural boundaries flow along the lines of causal interaction in the world, but this leaves us with the problem of halting a runaway process. In this case, it appears as if we cannot ultimately individuate any given phenomena in the visible universe from one another, and we are left with only the universe as a whole as an experiencing subject. Once again, we have not accomodated experiencing subjects at a middle level of nature.

    We are not without hope, however. The suggestion that causation grounds natural individuation remains a promising possibility, since if anything meets the criterion of being an inherent organizational feature of nature, it would seem to be causal interaction. But how do we prevent causal interaction from individuating anything smaller than the entire universe? Rosenberg takes Michael Lockwood's words to be suggestive: "quantum mechanics seems to be telling us that it is a classical prejudice to suppose that the world is not intrinsically structured at anything but the level of elementary particles, and their actions and interactions.2" Perhaps a closer analysis of causation in the spirit of Lockwood's observation could suggest ways in which causation actually might provide a basis for natural individuation at the middle level of nature. If so, we would seem to have the makings of a satisfactory response to the boundary problem.

    1. Nagel, Thomas. (1998) "Conceiving the Impossible and the Mind-Body Problem." Philosophy 73, no. 285:337-52.

    2. Lockwood, Michael. (1993) "The Grain Problem." In Objections to Physicalism, edited by Howard Robinson, 271-91. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2005
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 10, 2005 #2
    I'm afraid I do not understand this part of the book. Is GR saying that at present we have no basis on which to conclude that consciousness is (ontologically) individuated?

    Or is he assuming that it is individuated and proposing that causation might provide the mechanism by which this individuation occurs?

    Given that he suggests that everything reduces to one substance that is not wholly physical, is he suggesting that causation occurs both physically and non-physically, and/or that in the final analyis nothing is ontologically individuated? Sorry if I'm being dense.
  4. Feb 10, 2005 #3


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    He is saying that the first person evidence shows us that experience is an individuated phenomenon, and further that this individuation is not an arbitrary construct, but rather seems to be an inherent feature of nature.

    He doesn't assume experience is individuated, he concludes it based on first person evidence. If experience is inherently individuated (as demonstrated from the first person) and if experience is integrally tied to physical phenomena (as demonstrated from third person neuroscientific data), then we need to find some objective basis for the inherent individuation of the former in the inherent individuation of some phenomena in the latter. For instance, if certain synchronous neural activity is causally related with the boundedness of experience, we need to find what is special about that neural activity such that it provides the basis for an inherent individuation that is recognized by / makes a causal difference to nature.

    He will make the case in the second half of the book for some non-physical aspects of causation. Ultimately he will use the non-physical aspects of causation to provide the conditions for inherent individuation in nature.
  5. Feb 11, 2005 #4
    Hmm. Many people find that first-person experience leads them to conclude that consciousness is not individuated, or at least is only individuated at an everyday human level. Hence for instance Schroedinger's assertion that the apparent plurality of souls is an illusion. But I suppose this is an issue for later. Thanks for the explanation.
  6. Feb 11, 2005 #5


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    When Rosenberg says consciousness is individuated, he is referring to the unity and boundary conditions on subjective experience (see observations 1 and 2 in the original post). To argue that experience is not individuated in this way, one would have to argue that at least one of these conditions do not hold. But they seem like completely unobjectionable observations to me.

    For instance, as I am looking at my computer monitor,
    1) the various visual qualities of shape and color that I observe are in some sense integrated into a coherent, unitary experience, and
    2) I am certainly not experiencing your own visual experience of what your computer monitor looks like.
    In this sense, my visual experience of my computer monitor is individuated as an experiential unit that is distinct from your own unitary experience of your monitor. In what sense might this assertion be arguable?
  7. Feb 12, 2005 #6
    As far as it goes it is not arguable. However it might become arguable if GR takes this individuation as holding at a fundamental level. For me this is more or less the same problem that I had on the issue bare differences. I cannot be sure that I agree or disagree because there are loose ends.

    This is why I would like to understand more about the metaphysic that underlies these ideas. GR says that Liberal Naturalism does not entail any specific metaphysic, but it seems to me that what he proposes does imply a metaphysic, or at least restrict the choice of metaphysical systems to those that are consistent with LN. I would be much happier working through his detailed arguments, and understand them better, if I had some idea of where he's heading in this respect.

    But I can wait. For now I'll go along with him, but with reservations. I'd certainly agree that our consciousness normally appears to be individuated into distinct selves.
  8. Feb 12, 2005 #7
    I agree with Nagel (quoted on page 78) that our present conceptions may be radically inadequate to explain the reality of consciousness. I think that my view of consciousness, as the only fundamental entity in existence, is a radical departure from common present conceptions. But I think that hypothesis leads to fairly straightforward answers to all the hard questions.

    On page 89 Rosenberg expresses the same objection to Shannon's definition of 'information' as I hold. What is missing is the identification of the entity to whom the difference makes a difference.
  9. Feb 15, 2005 #8


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    That last sentence is a little ambiguous for me to know exactly what you're getting at. He does hold that the individuation of experiencing subjects is not an arbitrary distinction, but an inherent feature of nature, and that our theories of nature will have to account for this inherent individuation somehow.

    It would be interesting to see a counterargument or objection to the inherentness of this individuation that does not deny the boundedness and unity of experience, but prima facie, it seems that the boundedness and unity of experience already secure the case for inherent individuation of experiencing subjects.

    What loose ends do you have in mind?

    Obviously Liberal Naturalism is not consistent with, say, physicalism. But there are really a wide range of ontologies that are consistent with the basic tenets that nature is composed of only one kind of 'stuff,' and that physicalism is not a satisfactory or complete description of this 'stuff.' For instance, even in this chapter we see reference to ontologies by eg Lockwood that reject physicalism, complementing its extrinsic structures with some kind of intrinsic aspects. Rosenberg rejects such proposals because he does not think they satisfactorily address the boundary problem. But both Lockwood's proposal and the one Rosenberg will develop in the book are forms of Liberal Naturalism.

    If you are interested in a more detailed, overarching view of where this is headed, there are several summaries in the "Forum Guidelines" thread. You may also want to read On the Intrinsic Nature of the Physical, which is essentially a broad overview of Rosenberg's thesis derived from a talk he gave at the 1998 Tucson conference.
  10. Feb 15, 2005 #9


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    I'd like to get more of a pulse on how all the participants view this chapter. Are the observations and arguments here more or less uncontroversial? Do we agree that the boundary problem is a serious problem that must be accounted for by any theory of consciousness, be it a physicalist one or not?
  11. Feb 15, 2005 #10


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    It seems, from the given data, that the physicalist explanation of the apparent boundedness of experience lies in the connectedness of different parts of the brain. We talk about having "selves" because, as of right now, every part of our brain can share information with the part responsible for making these reports. We run into different cases, however, when we consider persons that have undergone a hemispheric separation procedure, in which there now seems to be at least distinct experiencing subjects in the brain, one that forms verbal reports, and one that forms other kinds of reports. In principle, it seems possible to further break down the brain into even more distinct subjects of experience by further separation, although at some point the brain will cease to function, as there is a certain threshold connectedness necessary for any information-processing to take place at all. So if the question is why do we normal humans with intact connected brains seem to be distinct subjects of experience? Then physicalism answers tentatively by saying it is because that is the highest level at which the individual information-processing parts of the brain can communicate with one another neuronally. Wire together two separate brains and perhaps it would be possible to merge two subjects of experience into one.
  12. Feb 16, 2005 #11
    People who research into consciousness directly tend to conclude that the individuation of human consciousness is in a sense an illusion. That is, they conclude that ordinary human consciousness is epiphenomenal on something that is not individuated but is (roughly speaking) an undifferentiated continuum. After all, GR himself argues that there is only one substance. If so then it cannot be differentiated for reasons that Leibnitz gives. (Something that is one thing cannot have physical extension etc)

    Here are some brief counterarguments, or counter-opinions anyway . I've posted a number of them to show that the argument can be made from various different perspectives. Sorry if it's too much. (I don't wish to argue about this here, just point out that the ontological individuation of consciousness is an assumption, one which many people would not accept, and certainly not a known fact.)

    "The implied Unicity, the totality of undivided mind, is itself a concept of its own division or duality, for relatively – relativity being relative to what itself is – it cannot be conceived or known at all.

    All that could ever be known about it is simply that, being Absolute, it must necessarily be devoid of any kind of objective existence whatsoever, other than that of the totality of all possible phenomena which constitute its relative appearance."

    Wu Wu Wei
    In Ramesh Balsekar
    The Ultimate Understanding

    "The world may not only be more singular than we think, it may be more singular than we can think. "

    Robert Kaplan
    The Nothing That Is -
    A Natural History of Zero
    Penguin, London (1999) (p 160)

    "[t]he attributes "subject" and "object," "represented" and "representative," "thing" and "thought" mean then a practical distinction of the utmost importance, but a distinction which is of a FUNCTIONAL order only, and not at all ontological as understood by classical dualism."

    William James
    "The Notion of Consciousness."
    In The Writings of William James, ed. John J. McDermott.
    University of Chicago Press (1905/1977) (p193)

    "For the ‘reductionist’ view can be sustained only if it is realised that both the resulting parts, physical and mental, are of our own making. Faced with a dynamic and ongoing continuum of awareness which it is not equipped to comprehend in its entirety, our intellect seeks to reduce this continuum to apprehensible pieces, selecting certain aspects on which to focus and arranging these according to formats of its own. Just as a seascape artist finds difficulty in capturing their fluid subject and is obliged to frame and arrest that which they seek to portray, so our intellect seeks to apprehend piecemeal that which is essentially whole and continuous. But a continuum cannot be so fragmented."

    George Dupenois
    ‘Mind, Matter and Reality’
    The Philosopher, Vol. LXXXVIII No. 1

    "It is, I suspect, only in a nineteenth-century social science that the abstraction of the dialectics of opposites could have been established. This also applies to the observer’s properties.…There is mutual reflection between describer and description. But here again we have been used to taking these terms as opposites: observer/observed, subject/object as Hegelian pairs. From my point of view, these poles are not effectively opposed, but moments of a larger unity that sits on a metalevel with respect to both terms."

    F. J. Varela
    ‘Principles of Biological Autonomy’ (1979 p. 101).
    In Some-Thing from No-Thing: G. Spencer-Brown’s Laws of Form http://www.angelfire.com/super/magicrobin/lof.htm

    "Emptiness should be understood in the context of dependent arising and it should evoke a sense of fullness, of things created by causes and conditions. We should not think that the self is something that was originally there and can be eliminated through meditation. In fact, the self is something that never existed in the first place."

    Tenzin Gyatso
    The Dalai Lama
    The Little Book of Buddhism
    Compiled and edited Renuka Singh
    Rider, London 2000 (p138)

    "How does the idea of plurality (so emphatically opposed by the Upanishad writers) arise at all? Consciousness finds itself intimately connected with, and dependent on, the physical state of a limited region of matter, the body… Now, there is a great plurality of similar bodies. Hence the pluralisation of consciousness or minds seems a very suggestive hypothesis. Probably all simple ingenious people, as well as the great majority of western philosophers, have accepted it.

    It leads almost immediately to the invention of souls, as many as there are bodies, and to the question whether they are mortal as the body is or whether they are immortal and capable of existing by themselves. The former alternative is distasteful, while the latter frankly forgets, ignores, or disowns the facts upon which the plurality hypothesis rests. Much sillier questions have been asked: Do animals also have souls? It has even been questioned whether women, or only men, have souls.

    Such consequences, even if only tentative, must make us suspicious of the plurality hypothesis, which is common to all official western creeds. Are we not inclining to much greater nonsense if in discarding their gross superstitions, we retain their naïve idea of pluraity of souls, but "remedy" it be declaring the souls to be perishable, to be annihilated with the respective bodies?

    The only possible alternative is simply to keep the immediate experience that consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown; that there is only one thing and that, what seems to be a plurality, is merely a series of different aspects of this one thing, produced by a deception (the Indian MAYA); the same illusion is produced in a gallery of mirrors, and in the same way Gaurisankar and Mt. Everest turned out to be the same peak, seen from different valleys...

    ...Yet each of us has the undisputable impression that the sum total of his own experience and memeory forms a unit, quite distinct from that of any other person. He refers to it as "I". What is this "I"?

    If you analyse it closely, you will, I think, find that it is just a little bit more than a collection of single data (experiences and memories), namely, the canvas upon which they are collected. And you will, on close introspection, find that what you really mean by "I," is that ground-stuff on which they are collected. You may come to a distant country, lose sight of all your friends, may all but forget them; you acquire new friends, you share life with them as intensely as you ever did with your old ones. Less and less important will become the fact that, while living your new life, you still recollect the old one. "The youth that I was," you may come to speak of him in the third person; indeed, the protagonist of the novel you are reading is probably nearer to your heart, certainly more intensely alive and better known to you. Yet there has been no intermediate braak, no death. And even if a skilled hypnotist succeeded in blotting out entirely all your earlier reminiscences, you would not find that he had killed you. In no case is there a loss of personal existence to deplore. Nor will there ever be."

    Erwin Scrödinger
    The I That Is God
    In Ken Wilbur
    Quantum Questions
    (p 93)

    A common metaphor for the relation between individuated consciousness and the continuum is that of the waves on the surface of the ocean. In a sense they are differentiated and in a sense not. (Oddly enough I heard actor Richard Gere give this explanation of consciousness in a recent interview).

    Those relating to bare differences already mentioned, (i.e. a quibble about how he distinguishes between quantative and qualitative differences) and those relating to the assumed ontological individuation of consciousness.

    On the issue of what metaphysical system GR is heading for I read the link you posted but all he seemed to say there was that LN is inconsistent with physicalism and materialism. My impression, admittedly from only skimming through the book and not understanding all of it, is that he says no more than this. This doesn't matter, my comment was simply that it would have helped me if he had presented his ideas in the context of an overarching metaphysical system.
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2005
  13. Feb 16, 2005 #12


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    The neuroscientific data you mention here (also acknowledged by Rosenberg in the text) is surely relevant to the boundary problem, and any theory of consciousness-- physicalist or not-- will need to take it into account. It looks like this data gives us important clues as to what conditions need to be met to constitute an individuated, experiencing subject.

    But as far as it goes, such data is only suggestive of what may account for individuation in the specific case of human brains. A theory that comprehensively answers to the boundary problem will provide general principles that account for the individuation of experiencing subjects in any context, and should be able to predict what systems are likely to be experiencing subjects on the basis of these principles.

    The fuzzy nature of terms such as 'connectedness' and 'information processing' must be addressed, then, to give a satisfactory answer to the boundary problem. Clearly there is a sense in which the brain is an information processing system that exhibits a high degree of connectedness, but how can we validly extend these terms to other systems? What constitutes the connectedness of the brain, and what (if any) special features of this connectedness are necessary to support an experiencing subject? Are there constraints that must be satisfied, such as the proper kind of physical constitution of the connected parts, or operation over proper kinds of time frames, or constraints on the type of connections, that count as constituting the relevant kind of 'connectedness' exhibited by the brain?

    This is where Rosenberg's concerns about observer relative, context sensitive characterizations come in. Suppose, for instance, that we can perfectly model the activity of the brain on a computer. If this is true, we can also perfectly model the activity of the brain on a suitably large abacus over a suitably large time frame. Will the shuffling of abacus beads over centuries eventually add up to a subjective experience of, say, hiking through a forest? What about the observer relative characterization of this system? Perhaps the abacus models a pattern of brain activity of Sam as he hikes through a forest, if we take each bead to represent a particular atom in the brain; but what if we take each bead to represent a quark, or even an entire neuron? Is there any sense in which the abacus system itself will somehow 'recognize' that a certain level of abstract representation of its computing elements is appropriate for modeling a brain, and thereby become an experiencing subject as if its beads really were inherently modeling the appropriate level of abstraction? If so, by what means does this phenomena occur? How does nature 'know' that under certain interpretations of the system, it exhibits behavior isomorphic to a functioning human brain?

    It's too early to demand that physicalism, or any theory for that matter, comprehensively answer these questions pertaining to the boundary problem. For now, I am just interested in asserting that these really are problems that need to be contended with. Would you agree that any theory of consciousness, be it couched in physicalism or not, would eventually need to address these questions and come to satisfactory answers?
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  14. Feb 16, 2005 #13


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    Yes, of course. Any theory of how experience arises must be able to predict exactly what the threshold conditions are for a given system to be an experiencing system. Physicalist hypotheses do exist to some extent, for example the hypothesis that action potentials sychronized at 40Hz result in an experience of the neuronal arrays in synch. I suspect that whatever turns out to be the most compelling hypothesis will probably prove to be such a parameter of downward causation on a non-linear complex system (again with the fuzzy terminology - they are defined mathematically, but I'm not familiar with the mathematics). This, however, as you point out, is not a theory until it can (1) be confirmed to be the case for neuronal systems and (2) be extended to non-neuronal systems. I don't want to speculate too wildly, but I suspect a large abacus would not suffice. Certainly this particular hypothesis would not posit an abacus as an experiencing system, as an abacus displays no synchronized electrical signals over parts of its bead array.

    One good question that could be asked of this hypothesis right now is how it would account for the apparent split of indivuation in the hemispheric separation cases. It isn't my hypothesis and I'm not a professional neuroscientist, so I won't pretend to know the answer, but I suspect this very problem is part of the reason that the 40Hz hypothesis has encountered a good deal of opposition from many in the scientific community.
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  15. Feb 16, 2005 #14


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    Seems to me that a computer is made up of transistors which operate in their linear modes of operations. We'll never model the highly non-linear behavior of a human brain on devices which resemble modern-day computers.

    I think it would, expecting the abacus brain to exhibit a marvelously complex array of dynamics which I believe would resemble qualities which if interpreted "broadly" would meet the criteria of a conscious "experience".
  16. Feb 17, 2005 #15


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    Canute, some of those quotations you provided that mention subject/object distinctions (or lack thereof) seem more pertinent to the relationship between phenomenal properties and the experiencing subject than to the boundedness and unity of experiencing subjects. As we've discussed previously, Rosenberg indeed acknowledges that a relationship obtains between phenomenal properties and the experiencing subject such that the existence of one already presupposes the existence of the other.

    Also, I must again contest your use of the word 'assumption.' An assumption is a claim that is taken for granted to be true, without the benefit of logical or empirical support. Rosenberg very clearly provides reasons for believing that his claims about the individuation of experiencing subject are true. Whether one finds them to be contentious or not, one cannot write them off as assumptions.

    In any case, the relevant point about the boundedness and unity of experiencing subjects to take away from this chapter is that these conditions are not arbitrary, but in some sense are actually existent conditions in nature. Recall Rosenberg's discussion of the manner in which we individuate physical phenomena at the middle level of nature:

    Note that there does not seem to be any strong sense in which nature privileges a cell's status as an individual in itself, or as merely part of a larger individual. We, as observers, are the ones who draw the conceptual boundaries that determine whether a cell is to be considered as an individual or not.

    Contrast this with the manner in which we find ourselves as experiencing subjects to be individuated. We do not decide how to draw the relevant boundaries; in a very real sense, these boundaries are enforced upon us by nature. As a consequence, there must be some sense in which these boundaries are actually existent in and 'recognized by' nature; if they did not enjoy some kind of privileged existence in nature, there would be no mechanism by which they could force themselves upon us.

    To accept the inherent boundedness and unity of experience, we need go no further than this. It seems to me that one can believe that experience is inherently individuated in this way and also believe that there is a still more basic, underlying sense in which experience is not individuated (call this belief U). To the extent that I understand your viewpoint and Rosenberg's, I would have to say that the specific framework Rosenberg will go on to develop does not seem to be particularly amenable to U. However, the observations and arguments in this particular chapter do not seem completely incompatible with U, and if one were so inclined, one could probably construct a kind of Liberal Naturalism similar to Rosenberg's that accomodates the 'individuated at one level but unindividuated at another' view.

    Having said that, I'm not sure that belief in U rests on very firm footing. The individuation of experience discussed by Rosenberg is a very straightforward observation about the character of our conscious lives, and one is hard pressed to find fault with it. It may be that there are certain meditative practices that lead one to experience a certain all-encompassing unity about nature that seems to transcend the boundaries of normal experience, but it's not clear to me at all that such experiences really dissolve the conditions of boundedness and unity pointed out by Rosenberg. They could very well just be a novel type of phenomenal quality (or a conglomerate thereof) that is nonetheless housed in the same general kind of bounded, unified experiential field that is shared by everyone; for me, this seems like the most likely scenario.
    Last edited: Feb 17, 2005
  17. Feb 17, 2005 #16
    Although I know it's bad form to use examples or analogies to talk about abstract concepts, I still need to resort to them, because of my own limitations, so please forgive me. I think it was Plato who used the analogy of music : lyre :: consciousness : human. I would like to update that analogy to a more modern instrument and use it to propose an analog to U, call it U'..

    Let's consider this analogy, music : a radio :: consciousness : a living brain.

    When the radio is tuned to a station playing, say, a sonata, then in the vicinity of the radio, a performance of the sonata can be heard for some specific duration of time. Thus there is an inherent boundedness to that instance of the performance in space and time. There is also an inherent unity to the performance, as an entity conceived and created by the composer of the sonata. Yet, we in the 21st century know, as Plato or even Newton could not have known, that there is a theory, U', (involving electromagnetism, EM wave propagation, tuned resonant electronic circuits, etc., together with musical instruments played by an orchestra, a tape recording of the orchestra's performance, and a transmitter at a radio station receiving information from a tape player), which adequately explains the phenomenon of that music in the vicinity of the radio at that time.

    According to U', there is a deeper unity which is represented by the EM field. This field is much more complex and pervasive than the sound of that sonata in that it extends to regions far beyond where that sonata was heard, and it contains the signals from many more radio stations with their own separate but inherently unified programs.

    In my view, an explanation for consciousness analogous to radio would be consistent with Liberal Naturalism and could accommodate "the 'individuated at one level but unindividuated at another' view. "

    Such a view would also suggest that we should consider the approaches of neurophysiology to be the equivalent of dissecting and examining a radio in order to discover how the sonata sound was produced. Of course, simply by knowing what is going on in the radio, even in complete detail down to the electrons and even the quarks, the cause of the production of the sonata sound could not be discovered. It is my hunch that, just as in the case of the radio, there is vastly more in reality that is involved in the "production" of consciousness than we have access to with our scientific instruments.
  18. Feb 17, 2005 #17

    Thank you for not throwing up you hands in horror at those quotes. Your response is extremely reasonable, and I half agree with it. However I feel it doesn't quite let GR off the hook for not dealing properly with the individuation issue. Excuse me for chopping up your post but I find it easier to respond that way.

    Perhaps you're right. I can see that some of them could be given that more limited meaning. To me they are all saying the same thing, by implication if not explicitly, but that could be my misinterpretation. This doesn't really matter however. I could post a hundred times that number of quotes expressing the same view by intelligent people from a vast range of disciplines. This would prove nothing about consciousness of course, but it would at least show clearly that virtually everybody who explores consciousness in the first rather than the third person ends up reaching the same conclusion about it. It is up to GR to show that they are wrong, and I do not see where he does this. Rather, it's as if he has never come across this view.

    Yes I realise that. But it seems to me he sees this as an epistemilogical issue rather than an ontological one. That is, he does not say that that the existence of one depends on the existence of the other, just that our knowledge of one depends on the knowledge of the other, which is a lesser and uncontentious claim.

    In my view if one holds a view for which there is no proof then it is an assumption. If one has half a proof it is still an assumption. I do not see where he shows that consciousness is individuated so to me he seeems to assume it. What he writes suggests that he has taken a quick introspective glance and made his mind up. But a quick glance shows that the sun orbits the earth. It appears to me that he has undertaken no research at all into this issue. If he'd even mentioned that there is an alternative view it would have helped.

    This is why I keep finding myself unsure what he is saying. If he is saying that consciousness appears to be individuated at a particular level, that of ordinary day to day human experience for instance, then I wouldn't have objected, for this is clearly correct. Is this what he is saying? My impression is that his 'middle level of nature' extends across all the other levels on this issue.

    This is my very point. The individuation of consciousness is, or at the least may be, conceptual and not fundamental. This is why, to risk another foray into 'mysticism', all 'mystics' advise that the truth about reality cannot be fully understood except non-conceptually. This is closely related to what Wu Wu Wei says in the first of those quotes. All people who say that consciousness is not ultimately individuated also say this.

    Are you quite sure about this? I agree that as we grow up we develop a clear sense that our consciousness has a boundary, on one side of which is 'me' and on the other 'them'. But does this bit of folk-psychology prove anything? It is a view that Schroedinger politely but repeatedly criticised for most of his life and which I and many others would flatly deny. Spencer-Brown, for instance, states that the boundary between 'me' (or you) and the rest of the universe is ultimately illusory, an act of self-reference.

    I don't disagree that humans feel the presence of these boundaries. But I think Sartre would have argued that we enforce them on ourselves, albeit unwittingly, and so would Buddhists and all like minded people. This relates to the issue of bare differences. It is argued by many that the difference between me and you is a bare one, a conceptual distinction, an illusion that can be seen through if one troubles to investigate it.

    Again I must stress that I'm not trying to convince you on this, just suggesting that this issue is not dealt with adequately by GR. Before ploughing ahead as if it were a fact that consciousness is ontologically or fundamentally individuated into 'selfs' he needs to show that all those who do not agree are wrong.

    Here you've expressed the problem clearly. What GR writes is ambiguous, and this is why I am unclear as to his position. It seems to be inconsistent with U, but maybe he intends to say only that C is individuated at a 'middle level' and not at all levels. I cannot decide which, and therefore have to put my reservations on hold until later. When I read the book the first time they were still on hold when I finished it, which is why I'm here.

    There is no way of demonstrating that U is the case nor of demonstrating that it is not the case. (Note that this does not mean that the truth about it cannot be known). In my view this means that there is no justification for someone who is writing a book on consciousness to ignore the possibility of U as if its falsity was a foregone conclusion. GR expores consciousness in the third-person, so he has no right to comment, even by ommission, on the findings of people who explore it in the first-person, especially since consciousness is a first and not a third person phenomena.

    I suppose what I'm expressing here, besides pointing out some ambiguities in GR's argument, is a general annoyance at people who write books on consciousness without ever doing any research into what it actually is while blithely ignoring the extensively documented findings of people who do. If this other view (U - and all its scientific and philosophical implications) is wrong then sooner or later someone is going to have to prove it, otherwise this view must be considered along with all the others, and not just ignored.

    If it were a view held by half a dozen crackpots then fair enough, but we're talking about thousands and thousands of apparently intelligent and sane people and an extensive body of self-consistent explanatory literature. One does not have to become a solitary mystic, practice meditation or even abandon reason in order to examine the scientific and philosophical plausibility of this other view through this literature.
    Last edited: Feb 17, 2005
  19. Feb 18, 2005 #18


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    The analogy he uses for explaining the relationship between phenomenal properties and the experiencing subject is the relationship between the front and back of a wall. The front and back of a wall are distinct things, but the existence of one presupposes the other. Clearly this is more of an ontological necessitation rather than an epistemological one. When Rosenberg develops his theory in the second half of the book, the manner in which he treats phenomenal and experiential properties makes it quite explicit that he considers them as ontologically necessitating eachother. In his framework, one literally cannot be actually existent without the other.

    The proof is in the first person observation. In order to disagree, you would have to introspect your own experience and find that conditions 1) and 2) listed in the original post of this thread do not properly describe it.

    Yes, that is essentially what he is saying. In this chapter, he is concerned with
    1) making the observation that human consciousness is individuated at a middle level of nature, in the sense of the word 'individuated' described in the original post;
    2) establishing that this individuation is different in important respects from the kind of individuation we impose on physical phenomena at the middle level;
    3) analyzing how 1) and 2) come to bear on the problem of reconciling our understanding of consciousness with our understanding of nature.

    I don't know where you might get that impression. If the term 'middle level of nature' applied to all levels of nature, what would be the point of qualifying it by saying 'middle'?

    If the individuation of experiencing subjects were conceptual, then it should be just as fluid and interest relative as the manner in which we individuate, say, a cell. But this is clearly not the case. No amount of reconceptualizing on my part will allow me to subjectively experience what you subjectively experience, for example.

    I don't think it's folk-psychology at all. Are you suggesting that it's just a naive, misguided belief on my part that I cannot directly experience the phenomenal qualities of your own subjective experience? Are you suggesting that if you were brought up another way, you could peer inside my mind and literally experience what I experience?

    I highly doubt that this is an illusion that can be seen through with the proper investigation, since (again) that would imply that through the proper investigation, you could come to gain access to my subjective experiences.

    I think you may be operating under a conception different from Rosenberg's as to what is meant by the individuation of consciousness. What do you take this phrase to mean, and is it consistent with the manner in which Rosenberg defines it?

    On page 80, in the section entitled "Overview of the Boundary Problem," Rosenberg says:

    In other words, Rosenberg wishes to start with straightforward, uncontentious claims and see what follows from them. Even if there exists some basis for believing in U, it seems to me that it is not of the straightforward, uncontentious variety.

    For instance, even if certain meditative experiences have something valuable to tell us about consciousness, it is rather rare for one to experience such a state for one's self, and consideration of the problems surrounding consciousness should tell us that we cannot rely on verbal reports to convey the full sense of any given experience to others. Even disregarding this problem, we can still come to the conclusion that it is highly unlikely that such experiences are really violations of the boundary conditions Rosenberg establishes in this chapter. In order to qualify as such, the relevant meditative experiences would have to give the meditator access to the subjective experiences of another, or give another direct access to the meditator's own subjective experiences. I do not contest that meditative experiences have what might be described as a certain boundless or unusually unified quality to them, but these senses of the word do not seem to agree with the way in which Rosenberg defines and uses them.

    I have to admit that I really am dumbfounded by this assertion. In what sense does Rosenberg explore consciousness from the 3rd person? The whole point of the book is to come up with a theory that simultaneously respects the first person evidence of experience and finds a way to place it seemlessly in nature, without winding up at conceptual tensions or paradoxes. If Rosenberg were exploring consciousness from the 3rd person, this book would just be a sequel to Consciousness Explained, which it most clearly isn't.
  20. Feb 18, 2005 #19
    I appreciate that you're taking Rosenberg's part in this discussion, but are you aware that you're making just the same assumption as he does? Why do you say that a fundamental distinction between observed properties and experiencing subject is an ontological necessity?

    I understand this. I'm suggesting that there is another view which the author needs to discount before he can assume that (ontologically-speaking) these are two different things .

    The disproof is in first-person observation according to the counter-view. We cannot just toss a coin to decide who is right, it requires consideration of the arguments and the evidence.

    You yourself have just said above that the distinction in question obtains at a fundamental level, not just a middle level. In fact you suggested that it is an ontological necessitation. Which of these two views is the one that GR is proposing?

    I don't know why you say these two things. We know very well that things that are not ontologically individuated can be individuated as epiphenomena, kitchen tables and pianos for instance, or waves on the ocean surface. Your second sentence is true, but the common experience we are discussing here is one of non-conceptualising rather than re-conceptualising, so this is not relevant as an objection.

    I called it folk-psychology a bit tongue-in-cheek because Dennett and his ilk would call it that. He argues that experiences are not incorrigible. But no, of course I cannot experience what you experience as an individual being. Pianos and kitchen tables must occupy different spaces if they are to exist. However at the simplest level they are made of the same substance as everything else is made out of, as GR himself argues. By separating them ontologically you're making the assumption that Schroedinger complains about in the extract I quoted.

    This is an oversimplification of 'U', one which robs it of its subtlety. As an objection it is based on the very premise that U holds to be false, namely the ontologically distinct existence of separate selfs. In order to break down this distinction it is necessary, by the logic of the situation, to cease having experiences as a separate self, thus to cease being a separate self. It follows that as separate selves we cannot have each others experiences.

    I take 'individuation of consciousness' to mean that there is no fundamental connection between individual consciousnesses. As Rosenberg proposes monism I assume this implies that individual consciousnesses reduce ultimately to some single fundamental substance which is not consciousness.

    It is not an uncontentious claim. I'm contending it. :smile: I cannot show that it is a false claim, and I wouldn't expect you to believe it is one without some evidence, but it's perfectly easy to show that it's contentious. What he means by 'uncontentious' seems to be - less contentious than other claims that he happens to think are more contentious. As consciousness is proving so hard to explain do you not think it might be some fundamental and apparently innocent and uncontentious assumption just like this one that might causing all the trouble?

    This is odd. I find you normally so even-handed. Meditative experiences are just experiences. They can be 'non-ordinary', but only to someone who doesn't ordinarily have them. The are mystical only in that they cannot be reported. Meditation, contemplation, the 'Jesus prayer' that Les Sleeth talks about, in the end they are all about introspection, but with the application of a methodology. Without introspection we wouldn't know we were here let alone conscious.

    Certainly we cannot rely on verbal reports. How could I report to you what experiencing hearing my piano sounds like? How is GR is able to conclude that consciousness is experienced as individuated if he has not introspected and has not relied on verbal reports? How we ever going to understand consciousness if introspection and verbal reports are both disallowed?

    Also, it seems a little unfair, under the circumstances, to blame proponents of U for the fact that experiences cannot be verbally reported more than very sketchily, or for the fact that such reports cannot be objectively verified. This is just the way things are.

    I hope I've addressed this point above.

    This is not quite what I meant, although at the moment I do see this book as a sequel to Consciousness Explained. In my opinion it's a far better book than Dennett's, full of ideas that make Dennett's look naive, and likely to be much closer to the truth. But like Dennett Rosenberg explores consciousness as a concept, as an abstract entity, not by exploring his own first-person consciousness, the only one to which he has experimental access. (Heidegger would have said that he is exploring 'beings' rather then 'Being', a method he identifies as the most common and persistent error made in western metaphysics. He's another who would have found GR's 'uncontentious assumption' contentious.)

    It is true that GR acknowledges the first-person nature of consciousness. But having acknowledged it he then explores it as if it were a third-person phenomenon. This is his choice, and there's no reason not to explore it in this way. But it seems to me unrigorous to assume that the findings of people who explore it also the other way, subjectively, as if those findings, which are extensively documented, were not worth mentioning.

    PS. I'm happy to keep debating this point but I'm also happy to move on. I'm still very interested in his ideas on causation and so forth, and am not trying to prove that his theory/hypothesis is wrong (not yet anyway), especially since I don't yet understand it fully. I'm just pointing out that he made an crucial assumption that many would contest.
  21. Feb 18, 2005 #20


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    I haven't had many chances to sit down with the book, and I've been trying to work through chapter 3, but I finally finshed chapter 4 today, and I had a couple of comments.

    First, I agree with loseyourname's first post here. We know the exact boudnary conditions of our own consciousness: that which is available for global control. For example, if there is a red spot in the corner of my field of vision, it has access to global control in that I can choose to talk about it, stomp my foot or hold my breath in response to it. This is true of anything we deem an experience, from a fleeting thought to a sharp pain. And anything that isn't available for global control is not an experience. It is a necessary and sufficient condition. Not causation, not information, it is precisely global access that defines what is part of our experience.

    But Rosenberg works from the outside in, assuming anything could be conscious and then reasoning his way down to a set that's both more manageable (eg, not every possbile subset of the universe), unarbitrary, and includes human consciousness. But it seems more appropriate to work from the inside out. We know global access is precisely the boundary of our own experience, so we should look for other systems where many different properties all have access to eachother (this would look like a complete graph, for anyone who knows graph theory), or to some global center. Maybe he comes to this conclusion later, but it seems that he should have started here rather than with the completely unjustified assumption that anything can be conscious.

    Second, as for the debate about a unified consciousness. Are these people claiming to have felt other people's (or thing's) experiences? Were they able to, for example, feel a distant person's pain, and then find out later that person was actually injured? Because if not, all they are having is a self-contatined experience that feels unifying, and they are still completely bounded within their subjective realm.
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