Consciousness in the World
This post is partly a response to Sartaj’s post from a few days ago. He starts his post with a rather remarkable quote: “Colors are an artefact of perception.” This one line captures four hundred years of western investigations of the mind. One line of inquiry summarized in this quote goes as follows:
If experiential states are indeed artifacts of our minds’ activities, then colour, shape, thoughts are all fundamentally subjective and not real, or at least not really real. In other words, ordinary experiences are no different from a fantasies or hallucinations.
Our consciousness is inaccessible to others even in principle. Since there is nothing real “out there” about our experiences, we have no way of sharing the same experience. We can only infer the mental states of others. I can’t feel your pain; I can only infer what you feel from seeing you grimace.
An alternate line of investigation, which starts with the same assumptions about the artifactual nature of consciousness but ends up with the opposite conclusion goes as:
I don’t have access to the world, only to my own experience. However, unlike 1&2 above, the accessibility of consciousness and the inaccessibility of the world leads me to conclude that experience is primary and the world secondary. In other words, “cogito ergo sum,” i.e., consciousness is the truest mark of existence.
In these schema, experience and consciousness keep shifting from one pole (consciousness is not real) to another (consciousness is the only real). I would like to contest the basic assumption though; is it possible for an entity to be truly real and also a product of the minds’ interaction with the world? Take colour: isn’t it possible that colour is real and a product of perception? The organism dependence of certain entities don’t make them less real. In terms of Gibsonian affordances, a smooth rock about two feet high and a foot in diameter is objectively sittable as far as human beings go. It is real and dependent on the potential presence of organisms like us.
Like probabilities, we can postulate both absolute and conditional existents. An absolute existent is an entity that exists independent of other entities. A conditional existent is an entity whose existence depends on the mutual existence of some other entity. Chairs and table are no less real for being conditional existences. If we take the Buddhist’s seriously, all entities are really conditional existents. A rock is no more or no less an artifact than a colour. Underlying my argument is a desire to recover a fully-fleshed world, a world that hasn’t yet been divided into primary and secondary qualities. Galileo might have had a good reason to divide qualities into primary and secondary ones for his physics. However, we are not doing Galilean physics here. The world of organisms is needlessly divided into dualisms: primary and secondary, mind and body, consciousness and matter. While we need to understand why these dualisms came to dominate out ideas about the mind, we need not take them for granted.