Experience isn’t subjective
This is the first post in a series deriving from a conversation with Frode on the 26th of April.
From Descartes to Nagel, there is an argument that consciousness is utterly subjective, that another person cannot feel my pain. A mild version of this argument is obviously true: you are not standing where I am standing, you do not see the coffee cup in front me in exactly the same way that I do. However, this mild argument for the exclusivity of consciousness isn’t particularly troubling. After all, I don’t see the world the same way as I did a minute ago as soon as I move from one location to another, or even turn my head. But there is a clear sense of continuity from one frame to another. Contrary to William James’ intuition, we do not experience the world as a blooming buzzing confusion. One of the key insights of modern perceptual science is the continuity, coherence and stability of perceptual experience despite the dynamic character of the input to our senses.
Why is the transition from one organism to another in space any bigger than the transition within an organism in time? Unless you assume that the self is an impermeable entity, there is just as must reason to believe that my experience is continuous with yours as there is to believe that my experience is continuous with my own past experience. Of course, one can never experience exactly what another person experiences, but that standard of exactness and certainty is too high a standard. As long as my experience is continuous with yours, your consciousness is accessible to me even if I don’t see the very same thing as you do.
Only if you believe, as Descartes probably did, that the self is impermeable and that the only form of valid knowledge is certain knowledge that we are stuck with the isolated subjectivity of consciousness. Knowledge of others’ experience that is continuous with their subjectivity rather than an exact replica of their experience is still enough for a science of experience.