Missives from a fly bottle
barang dot sg
Last revised 18 October 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.
6. Mind and world

Our challenge is to elucidate the plain man’s concept of knowing. This task is hard because we are so close to such fundamental concepts as “knowing” and “believing” that it is difficult to attain sufficient distance from them.

In everyday life, we think of our bodies as located in space and time, along with various other things like rocks and trees, tables and chairs. We also think of ourselves as knowing and feeling beings, observing and reacting to our surroundings. We are so used to this conceptual apparatus that we overlook that we almost certainly had to acquire it. If we could somehow “unlearn” these familiar ways of thinking, we might obtain a clearer view of this apparatus and make more headway with our problem.

It helps to remind ourselves of various surprising ways in which children “think” about the world. As children mature, they begin to think like adults, but, at various prior stages, they seem to “think” in ways that are quite alien to adult minds.

A well-known claim of Jean Piaget’s was that young infants lack the concept of “object permanence,” often advertised as the claim that, to a young infant, an object does not exist unless it is seen, or otherwise perceived. This claim has not gone unchallenged, but it is not so strange as to be absurd. We can easily imagine that it might be true, in line with the thought that our normal ways of thinking likely had to be acquired. Adults take for granted that objects continue to exist even when they are out of sight (or out of “mind”), but this idea is probably more sophisticated than we tend to realize.

Another of Piaget’s claims was that young children do not grasp that people may have false beliefs, which suggests that they have not quite mastered the concept of “believing” something. And, below a certain age, children also seem to be unaware that others cannot “hear” their thoughts, and act as if other people always know what they are thinking. Such claims are mildly astonishing but, again, not so outrageous as to be beyond comprehension. They also serve to jolt us out of the complacency of taking our day-to-day conceptual apparatus for granted.

And we have already seen this unusual discovery, reported by Nicholas Humphrey:
Three-year-old children sometimes really do not seem to know by what sensory route they have come by their beliefs about the properties, including the color, of objects in their environment. Put a green squishy ball in a three year-old child’s hand and ask her what color it is, and she will look at it and say green; ask her whether it is hard or soft, and she will squeeze it and say soft. But now put it in a bag and ask her what she would have to do either to find out what its color is or to find out whether it is hard or soft — would she have to put her hand in and feel it or would she have to take a look? — and she will likely say she does not know the answer. (Seeing Red, p. 24.)
Any adult knows that we see with our eyes, and hear with our ears, but it bears considering that these sorts of facts may not be obvious to a child.

Indeed, adults are so used to distinguishing mind from world that they never ordinarily reflect upon the distinction, except perhaps when raising children. Not that reflection would reveal very much, because we acquired the distinction (as children ourselves) in “practice,” through appropriate prodding by our elders. So most people simply have an “operational grasp” of the distinction without necessarily being able to articulate it.

Our problem was with the concept of knowing, which lies on the “mind” side of this divide. Indeed, it is a paradigm of an item on that side of the divide, as much as seeing may be claimed to be a paradigm instance of knowing. The question was what we take ourselves to mean when we speak of knowing something, as when we know that the blue train is arriving, or when we see (know) that a tree is before us. What do we mean, we know that the tree in question is there?

We are unlikely to get far with this question if we do not reflect upon the general distinction between mind and world. In any case of seeing (or knowing), the mind is somehow “directed upon,” or “engaged with” the world, but rather than focus intently on this “directedness” or “engagement,” we might more profitably ask why we distinguish mind and world to begin with. For example, why would a child, in learning the ways of the world, be compelled to make the distinction?

It may help to make our question a little more specific. For this purpose, let us treat seeing as a paradigm of knowing, so that we can usefully treat both notions in a single breath. Consider then a case where someone is looking at something, whatever it may be, and thus knows (sees) that it is there.

Why would this person need to distinguish the thing’s being there (before his eyes) from his seeing that it is there? What is the point of observing the distinction? Why should “seeing” talk need to come into it, over and above “being” talk?

To ask this question is to broach the concept of seeing indirectly. We clearly do distinguish seeing and being – mind and world – and the hope is that both concepts will be illuminated if we can grasp why we do so. The meaning of this question, however, may not be completely clear, so let us approach the matter slowly from the first-person point of view.

Imagine that you are looking around an unfamiliar room, taking in its contents. Here is a nice portrait on the wall and over there a locked door. Turning around, you see some items on a large writing desk, including a green lamp, and so on.

Suppose, at some point, that you face the portrait directly. You doubtless know that the portrait is before you, as well as that you see that it is. Both thoughts may even cross your mind.

But what does the thought that you see the portrait before you “add” to the thought that the portrait is before you?

We previously noticed that, in attempting to focus on the fact that one sees something, it is difficult to find anything to focus on except the thing that one sees. So, as you stand before the portrait, one might wonder what differentiates the thought that you see it before you, from the bare thought that it is before you?

Indeed, what is the point of having the seeing thought at all? Why would you ever need to think, “I see this before me”? Why couldn’t you always manage with the being thought, “This is before me”?

One might answer that a thing could easily be before me without my seeing that it is, and so I need a way of marking the difference. Now, this is doubtless true, but the answer does not help because it takes the distinction between seeing and being for granted, whereas the point of observing the distinction was precisely what we were trying to get clear on.

Some people claim that animals like cats and dogs never have seeing thoughts at all. For example, Fred Dretske writes:
Consider my dog, Fido. When Fido sees food in his bowl in what (I am assuming) is a fully conscious way, he may know there is food in his bowl. He may even be trained to “report” (by barking, say) to this effect, but unless the conceptual prowess of animals is vastly underestimated, Fido doesn’t think (judge, know) that he sees, doesn’t think he is conscious of, doesn’t believe he experiences, food in his bowl. That is what I think. I believe this as a result of Fido’s behavior (wagging his tail, eating from the bowl, barking), but that isn’t what Fido thinks. All Fido thinks, if he thinks anything at all, is that there is food in his bowl. That doesn’t mean he’s not aware of food in his bowl. Fido’s impoverished intellectual life doesn’t mean he is perceptually deficient. It doesn’t mean he isn’t aware of his food. He just doesn’t know he is aware of it. (‘Perception without Awareness,’ p. 155.)
If Dretske is right, then dogs can navigate the world perfectly well while managing with being thoughts alone. So why can’t we? – why do we need to introduce seeing thoughts at all?

One might think that the phenomenon of seeing exists whether we like it or not, and that “seeing” talk is introduced precisely because we want to speak about this phenomenon. Dogs may have no interest in the phenomenon, and may even not recognize that it exists, but we certainly do, and moreover are keen to talk about it. But this answer misses the point as well, because we were trying to get a handle on the phenomenon of seeing precisely by asking why we indulge in talk of seeing. So it defeats the point again to take the phenomenon for granted like that.

In fact, I think that Dretske must be wrong about his dog, and that dogs do distinguish seeing from being – more generally, mind from world – in pretty much the way that we do, and moreover for the same reason. We can begin to see what that reason is by considering the instructive, hypothetical case of the man who sees everything.