Missives from a fly bottle
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Last revised 31 August 2017
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.
13. Being as potential seeing

We started out trying to understand the everyday phenomenon of seeing; to discern “its place” in the world that we inhabit.

Our result has been the following pair of claims:
Seeing is (precipitated) partial being;
Being is potential seeing.
The first claim effectively answers our original query, but – as I have argued – it cannot fully be understood in isolation from the second claim, which is a “sister” claim, as it were. (The concepts of seeing and being “feed off” each other and must be grasped together.)

This second “sister” claim is essentially the phenomenalist claim that matter is potential sensation, provided we agree to restrict ‘sensation’ to ‘visual sensation’ or ‘seeing’ temporarily for simplicity. I am not exactly a phenomenalist, however, because a phenomenalist would typically treat visual sensation or seeing as a primitive notion, incapable of further analysis, whereas I think that the notion bears elucidation as per the first claim in the pair above. Nevertheless, an element of phenomenalism is present, or half-present, in my position, and I should clarify the sense in which this is so.

The main difference is perhaps one of “ontology.” For a phenomenalist (or an idealist), the physical is a logical construct out of the mental, and so reality is “fundamentally mental” – assuming that this means something. On my view, in contrast, both the mental and the physical are (mutually-supporting) logical constructs out of a neutral phenomenon that is neither mental nor physical. I have called this neutral phenomenon a “precipitation” and I will say more about this in the final section, since questions obviously arise here about what sort of a thing a “precipitation” is, how it “arises,” and so on.


In this section, I would like simply to be clear on the relation of the “neutral monism” being proposed to the familiar doctrine of phenomenalism (or idealism).

The essential point here can be put quite simply – many traditional objections to phenomenalism (or idealism) apply with equal force to the neutral monism being proposed. I think that this is what really matters and I should concede the point at once because I cannot really discuss these traditional objections in detail in this essay. I guess I believe that none of them has any great force but this may not be the right place to discuss this.

For example, consider this objection to phenomenalism by Isaiah Berlin:
[No] direct translation from categoricals into hypotheticals is ... a correct analysis of, or substitute for them. And this seems to me to destroy one of the indispensable foundations of phenomenalism. For it is this sense of the illicit substitution of hypotheticals for categoricals which is responsible for the obscure feeling on the part of common sense that something – an ersatz entity – is being palmed off upon it by phenomenalists. Such a categorical existential material object sentence as, “The table is next door,” or “There is a table next door,” is used at the very least to describe something which is occurring or being characterised at the time of speaking ... not intermittently but continuously, and in any case not ‘hypothetically.’ For to say that something is occurring hypothetically is a very artificial and misleading way of saying that it is not, in the ordinary sense, occurring at all, but might or would occur if conditions were realised which in their turn may or may not be realised. Consequently, whatever common sense may mean by the sentence, “There is a table next door,” it cannot accept as fully equivalent in meaning any sentence not asserting that something is now, or has been, or will be, occurring or being characterised. (‘Empirical Propositions and Hypothetical Statements,’ pp. 378–9.)
An objection of this sort was fairly common in the middle of the last century but is less often heard these days. Regardless, it applies to my position with equal force since I agree with the phenomenalist that being is just the “potential” for seeing.

Or take this objection by Laurence BonJour:
Why, according to the phenomenalist, are the orderly sense-data in question obtainable or “permanently possible”? What is the explanation for the quite complicated pattern of actual and obtainable sense experiences that, according to phenomenalism, constitutes the existence of a material object or of the material world as a whole, if this is not to be explained by appeal to genuinely external objects? The only possible phenomenalist response to this question is to say that the fact that sensory experience reflects this sort of order is simply the most fundamental fact about reality, not further explainable in terms of anything else. For any attempted further explanation, since it would obviously have to appeal to something outside of that experience, would be (for the reasons already discussed) unjustified and unknowable. (The phenomenalist will add that it is obvious anyway that not everything can be explained, since each explanation just introduces some further fact for which an explanation might be demanded.)(‘Epistemological Problems of Perception,’ section 2.1.)
This objection applies to my account too, substituting ‘precipitations’ for ‘sense data.’ According to BonJour, the phenomenalist must regard the “sensory order” in question as inexplicable. I don’t think that this can be the right way to go, but this is all I am able to say here. And so on – there are many similar objections to choose from.

A third concern, not often expressed in the literature, is how the phenomenalist proposes to accommodate the “scientific datum” that brain activity causes conscious experiences. For example, how does he explain the fact that drinking alcohol makes us woozy? On his view, physical events are logical constructs out of mental events, which makes it hard to see how they can then be supposed to cause mental events. On my view, the physical and the mental are logical constructs out of a neutral phenomenon, but it remains hard to see in what sense the physical can then have a causal influence over the mental. A possible response might be that there is no real causation going on here, merely correlation. Drinking alcohol doesn’t actually make us woozy, but is merely correlated with our feeling woozy. But then what explains the correlation? I will say something about this in the final section because I think that this is an important objection.

I cannot explore these difficulties any further here so let me just concede that my position inherits many of the “weaknesses” of phenomenalism (or idealism). As such, one might wonder whether it is all that different from these traditional doctrines. To this, my response is that I do not believe that a concept like “seeing” – or “visual experience” – is a primitive concept, incapable of further elucidation, as phenomenalists and idealists tend to do. (This strikes me as being “too easy.”) I do not know if it is a defining feature of these doctrines that such a concept must be treated as primitive, but it is certainly a defining feature of my position that the concepts of seeing and being – mind and matter – are logically entwined
and cannot be grasped in isolation from each other. No traditional idealist or phenomenalist would have intended anything like this, so far as I know.

In other words, the second claim in this pair would mean very little to me without the first one:
Seeing is (precipitated) partial being;
Being is potential seeing.
That the first claim has some force, and does not merely “adorn” the second one, may be appreciated by noticing that it is theoretically possible to endorse it alone, while dropping the second “phenomenalist” claim altogether. The plan here would be to treat the concept of being as primitive – as many philosophers tend to do anyway – and claim to have found a new way to “reduce” seeing to being, or mind to matter. Contemporary materialists typically try to effect this reduction by identifying seeing with some physical state of the brain. The new proposal would instead try to identify seeing with a cross-section of the physical world at large, i.e., “outside the head.” This proposal is virtually unheard of in the history of philosophy – it is something like the converse of idealism, as mentioned previously – but the English philosopher Ted Honderich has recently propounded a position that bears some resemblance to it, and I think it is worth examining this briefly.