Missives from a fly bottle
barang dot sg
Last revised 20 January 2018
Seeing and being

An essay on the “hard problem of consciousness,” using visual consciousness as a model case. For many, this would be the problem of explaining how the everyday phenomenon we call seeing “arises” from the brain.
But I have never liked this way of phrasing the problem because it seems to me that we have a very poor grasp (to begin with) of the everyday phenomenon of seeing itself. What is this thing we call seeing?
So the essay explores instead the prior question of what we suppose the everyday phenomenon of seeing even to be – a question just as hard, but considerably more tractable.
And the only decent answer I can come up with suggests that a certain form of “neutral monism” may be the true relation between mind and body.
Written in 2014.
1. The phenomenon of seeing

When I open my eyes and look around me, I see many things. Here is my table and the things upon it. There is my bed and the window. I see my hands and my arms and the walls around me.

We are so used to seeing what’s around us that we tend to overlook how peculiar the whole phenomenon is – that such a thing as “seeing” occurs at all.

Indeed the phenomenon is so familiar that we barely give it a second thought. Whenever it occurs, we automatically assume that we know what’s going on – we are seeing what’s around us. But what do we take this “seeing” business to be, really? What do we imagine is “going on” when we see?

Suppose I see a tree before me. I notice its size and distance from me, the colour of its bark and leaves, and so on. I also grasp how my body stands relative to the tree, even if I don’t see my body at all. This is partly due to proprioception – one’s sense of one’s own body – but also because I know that I see with my eyes, out of my face. So I know that I stand squarely facing the tree, as it may be, and that the thing isn’t behind my back.

Facts of these sorts are clearly a part of what I take to be “going on” when I see the tree. Seeing lets me know what is transpiring around me – so whenever I see, a part of what I take to be going on is whatever I am thus apprised of, e.g., that a certain tree is swaying in the breeze a short distance from me.

Apart from this, I obviously know that something else is “going on” as well, namely, that I see all of the above activity.
Although we normally overlook the fact that we see, being typically focused on what we see, we certainly know that we see, and our attention could easily be drawn to this fact. But what do we take this “fact” of seeing to be? In this sense, what do we take to be “going on” when we see?

A scientist might say that what goes on when you see is that photons bounce off various objects in your environment and strike your retina, sending signals to your visual cortex, and so on. This is undeniably a part of what goes on, but it is not the sort of answer we are looking for, because someone – a plain man – may know nothing of photons or the visual cortex and yet be fully aware that he can see. What does he suppose to be “going on” when he sees? He certainly supposes something to be going on, which he would ordinarily register by saying that he sees. So he obviously has a conception of seeing that has nothing to do with photons or the visual cortex. The question is, what is that conception? – what is the plain man’s conception of seeing? It’s not easy to pin down an answer but I’m going to try in what follows.

Why should we care about the plain man’s concept of seeing? The short answer is because it’s puzzling. If you try – in plain terms – to explain what it means to see something, you won’t find it easy. (I consider some attempts below.) You know what it means in practice, but it’s not easy to spell out what it is that you know. In a sense, we are all plain men, so anyone can appreciate this difficulty.

The longer answer is that it guards us against a certain complacency that is often found in discussions of the mind-body problem. This is the complacency of thinking that we know “well enough” what seeing is and can move on to the more interesting question of how it “arises” from activity in the brain. As everyone knows, this latter question is more than 500 years old and has proven to be one of the most baffling conundrums of all time. Every major philosopher since the early modern period has had a crack at it and it has generated an especial buzz recently, given the growth of the neurosciences. So it is understandable why someone would want to “move on” to it. At the same time, however, a lot of this activity strikes me as being something of a wild goose chase. The results so far – i.e., over the past 500 years – have been elegantly summed up by Jerry Fodor:
[Nobody knows], even to a first glimmer, how a brain (or anything else that is physical) could manage to be a locus of conscious experience. This is, surely, among the ultimate metaphysical mysteries; don’t bet on anybody ever solving it. (‘Review of Paul Churchland,’ opening paragraph.)
The difficulty here is that, although scientists know a great deal about what happens in your brain once light from the environment strikes your retina, they are utterly unable to explain how all this brain activity – no matter how furious – manages to produce the experience you know first-hand as “seeing.” As Fodor puts it, nobody knows even to a first glimmer. (This is the “hard problem of consciousness.”)

One reason for this, I believe, is that the question of how seeing – or conscious experience more generally – “arises” from brain activity is premature. It is premature because we don’t quite know what we’re talking about when we talk about the phenomenon of seeing. The same is true of conscious experience, more generally, but I’ll stick mainly to seeing (i.e., visual experience) for simplicity. We just don’t have a firm enough grip on the notion.

The Swedish philosopher Pär Sundström has made a similar observation:
I find [the sense of mystery that consciousness tends to occasion] slightly misarticulated by philosophers like Nagel and Levine. On their accounts, consciousness is mysterious when considered in the light of reductionism specifically. But we should recognise that consciousness is mysterious independently of the issue of reductionism. Consciousness is utterly familiar to all of us. In some sense, it seems to be more intimately known to us than anything else. At the same time, we don’t have any informative and uncontroversial ways of characterising it. That is something of a mystery, independently of any commitment we may have to reductionism. (‘Colour and Consciousness,’ p. 149.)
There is an old joke about putting Descartes before the horse. This would actually be a good place to tell it.

In what follows, I will reinstate the horse before the cart and focus on spelling out the plain man’s concept of seeing. Otherwise put, I’ll attempt to explain what our ordinary, everyday concept of seeing amounts to. Once we have something on the table, we can reconsider the question of how the phenomenon of seeing – in this ordinary, everyday sense – “arises” from activity in the brain and decide if that is really the right question to ask.