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Philosophy of Mind

On the Temporal Boundaries of Simple Experiences

Michael V. Antony
University of Haifa

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ABSTRACT: I argue that the temporal boundaries of certain experiences — those I call ‘simple experiential events’ (SEEs) — have a different character than the temporal boundaries of the events most frequently associated with experience: neural events. In particular, I argue that the temporal boundaries of SEEs are more sharply defined than those of neural events. Indeed, they are sharper than the boundaries of all physical events at levels of complexity higher than that of elementary particle physics. If correct, it follows that the most common forms of identity theory-functionalism and dualism (according to which neurophysiological (or other complex) events play key roles through identification or correlation) — are mistaken. More positively, the conclusion supports recent approaches that attempt to explain conciousness by appeal to quantum physics.

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I. Introduction

A methodology that I believe has some chance of providing us with a better understanding of the nature of consciousness – or of how it could be that consciousness does not exist, if the eliminativists are right – is one in which we study our conception or picture of consciousness. Specifically, I am referring to our conception or picture of phenomenal consciousness – what one has in mind who, e.g., "gets" the mind-body problem, understands the inverted spectrum or absent qualia examples, or Nagel’s phrase that it is like something to be conscious, and so on. Such individuals, arguably, are thinking about consciousness in a more or less similar way, exploiting a similar conception or picture, similar conceptual structures. Studying such a conception should be, to a reasonable degree at least, just like studying any other conception in cognitive science. And, as with other conceptions, the effort can be a multidisciplinary one, one to which philosophers can contribute. As I said, I think following this route might lead to progress in our understanding of consciousness itself; but even if it does not, characterizing our conception of phenomenal consciousness has importance at least as a piece of psychology. In any event, it is how I am inclined to pursue the study of consciousness these days. This talk describes a small study within that broader project.

In another paper (1) I have argued that our conception of phenomenal consciousness commits us to the idea that there are simple components or elements that in some sense make up our complex phenomenal experience. Actually, it commits us to holding that either there are simples or that our complex phenomenal experience is such that – roughly put – analysis will always continue ad infinitum, no matter how a complex phenomenal experience gets carved up. The view that there are simples has enough problems – as any scan of the history of thought about the mind will reveal – but the alternative is worse: it is not the least bit plausible, even prima facie, that analysis of phenomenal experience would always continue ad infinitum into ever finer-grained phenomenal elements; and there is not the slightest reason for thinking that the thesis is true. On the other hand, the idea that there are simples has various points in its favor, mainly based on evidence from introspection. So, in short, simples come out the winner. (To repeat, I have argued for this elsewhere, and will not be going over the arguments here.)

So I think our picture of phenomenal consciousness commits us to there being simple phenomenal elements, or simple phenomenal experiences. What I would like to do in this talk is, first, provide a bit more of a sense of what I mean by "simple phenomenal experiences"; and then argue (superficially, I am afraid, given the time constraints) that the temporal boundaries of such simples must be conceived as instantaneous (or at least "maximally sharp", depending on what gets said about the microstructure of time, e.g., about whether there are instants or not; but I shall be ignoring those issues in what follows). Now to the extent that these conclusions about our conception or picture of phenomenal consciousness are taken to correspond to the way consciousness really is, a number of interesting metaphysical conclusions about consciousness follow. In particular, it will follow that any accounts that identify or even temporally correlate phenomenal experiences with neurophysiological events will be mistaken, because the temporal boundaries of neurophysiological events do not appear to be instantaneous. Identity theorists, or dualists who want to temporally correlate, will thus have to seek physical events with sharper temporal boundaries, perhaps at the level of elementary physics. I shall not consider these possible metaphysical conclusions in any detail, but instead will just try to show how our conception of phenomenal consciousness, on the assumption that it is committed to simples, must also be committed to such simples having maximally sharp temporal boundaries.

II. Conceiving Simple Phenomenal Experiences

So what do I mean by a ‘simple phenomenal experience’? Let us start with James’s image of a stream of consciousness. The total contents of an individual’s stream of consciousness at a time t we can take to be "what it is like to be the individual" at t. That could include phenomenal features from the various sensory modalities, phenomenal distinctions within such modalities, as well as whatever other phenomenal kinds there may be (e.g., corresponding to different types of intentional states, if such states have characteristic phenomenal features, or of Jamesian "fringe" experiences, and so on.).

Now the contents of streams of consciousness change and develop through time: at t the phenomenal contents will be one way, and at times later that t the contents will have changed to something else. I think the best way to think about simple phenomenal experiences is to first focus on the contents of a stream of consciousness at a particular point in time – the contents of a time-slice of the stream, if you like. The various phenomenally distinct elements in an individual’s stream of consciousness at a time t I shall speak of as phenomenal contents, or phenomenal distinctions, in the slice, at t. (I realize this way of talking might "trouble" some of you, but I ask you to please bear with me.) What we need to do is get some idea of what a simple phenomenal content in a time-slice of a stream of consciousness would be, and then imagine that simple phenomenal content temporally extended through some interval. That, in essence, will be what I mean by a simple phenomenal experience.

Suppose we are omniscient beings discussing the phenomenal contents in a time-slice of someone else’s stream of consciousness. If phenomenal experience is continuous through at least some temporal intervals, if it ever fills time – which intuitively it seems to – then during such intervals – again, intuitively – there will be facts about what phenomenal contents are realized at points in time within such intervals. Since we are omniscient, we know what those facts are, and can discuss them. (That does not mean – it is important to point out – that the individual whose experiential time-slice we are discussing could access, through introspection say, the contents of time-slices of his or her own stream of consciousness. And, granted, that appears to leave open the bizarre possibility of there being features of an individual’s experience of which that very individual is in some sense not aware. However, I happen to think that is also something that our conception of phenomenal consciousness commits us to – another point I will not be able to discuss further here.)

So back to our discussion of the contents of the time-slice of the individual’s stream of consciousness. Suppose the individual’s experience at the point in time in question (t, let us say) is phenomenally complex; at t there was, suppose, both visual and auditory experiences going on. We could decide to select one of those phenomenal components for discussion – say the visual contents – and exclude the auditory contents from consideration. Now suppose the visual experience at t was itself phenomenally complex, containing contents corresponding to different colors, shapes, etc. On the basis of such phenomenal distinctions, we could select certain of those components for consideration – say bluish qualia that were present in parts in the visual field, and exclude all other elements from consideration. If there are phenomenal distinctions within the bluish elements – say different shades of blue – then the process of selection and exclusion could be continued. If eventually an element were selected that contained no phenomenal distinctions – was phenomenally uniform – a phenomenal simple (in the time-slice, remember) will have been reached. So suppose we reach such an element – say a color quale of some uniform shade of blue. The content of that simple phenomenal element in the slice at t entered the individual’s stream of consciousness either at t, or earlier. And we can assume that at some time after t it disappears, or exits, from the stream. A simple phenomenal experience of that uniform blue quale I understand as the quale’s presence in the individual’s stream of consciousness from the time it enters the stream to the time of its leaving. Simple phenomenal experiences based on other phenomenal contents can be conceived in a similar fashion.

III. Conceiving the Temporal Boundaries of Simple Phenomenal Experiences

Well, I hope you now have a rough idea at least of what I mean by a simple phenomenal experience. So: What must the temporal boundaries of such simples be like, according to our conception of the matter? My basic claim will be that the temporal boundaries of simple phenomenal experiences cannot be conceived as fuzzy, or vague, or indeterminate. And since greater or lesser degrees of fuzziness for temporal boundaries correspond to greater or lesser durations or temporal extents for such boundaries (think of the beginning of an ice age which is fuzzier and of greater temporal extent than the beginning of an economic recession, which is in turn fuzzier and of greater duration than the beginning of a dinner party, and so on); so again: since greater degrees of fuzziness for temporal boundaries corresponds to greater durations for such boundaries (indeed, arguably the one simply amounts to the other), it follows that if you have boundaries that cannot be conceived as fuzzy to any degree at all, then they also cannot be conceived as having any duration. So they must be conceived as instantaneous.

So what is the argument that the temporal boundaries of simple phenomenal experiences cannot be conceived as fuzzy? The basic idea is simple – which is good, since that is all I have time to present. The basic idea is this: For one to conceive of a temporal boundary of an event E as fuzzy, one must conceive of a lower level of subevents, some of which clearly are part the higher-level event E, some of which clearly are not, and some of which are such that such that it is unclear whether or not they are part of E.

To illustrate, consider the beginning of a dinner party. To conceive of it as fuzzy, I claim, a lower level of subevents must be conceived, such as: buying groceries in the afternoon, preparing the food, having the first guests knock at the door, taking their coats, having a few more people arrive, mingling, talking, sitting down for dinner, and so on. To conceive of the beginning of the dinner party as fuzzy, it must be that some of these subevents are conceived as clearly occurring before the party, some as clearly being part of the party, and some in such a way that it is unclear whether they are before the party or part of it. If you like, there must be subevents that are borderline cases for the concept part of the dinner party. (An analogous point holds for conceiving fuzzy spatial boundaries.)

Well, that is all there is, I maintain, to conceiving fuzzy temporal boundaries. An immediate consequence is that if you have an event E such that there is no level of subevents with respect to some of which it is unclear whether they are part of E, then E cannot be conceived as having fuzzy boundaries. But that is precisely the situation with simple phenomenal experiences.

To see that, consider first a complex phenomenal experience which one can conceive as having fuzzy temporal boundaries – say, a pain from a paper cut on you fingertip. Here there is a level of phenomenally distinct subevents, such as the sensation of the paper slicing the skin (painless at that point, let us assume), the feelings in the location of the wound that begin very faintly, gradually building in intensity and spreading to larger regions of the fingertip, changing in phenomenal quality as they do, becoming more unpleasant over time, etc. Some of these phenomenally distinct subevents are clearly not part of the pain, some clearly are, and some are such that there is no saying whether or not they are. So the start the pain can be conceived as fuzzy.

But now consider the beginning of a simple phenomenal experience, say a uniform blue quale entering and persisting for some time in someone’s stream of consciousness. Since the event is phenomenally simple, there is no level of phenomenally distinct subevents from which a conceiver can construct borderline cases. So the start of the experience cannot be conceived as fuzzy. Putting the point in a nutshell: to conceive of a fuzzy temporal boundary, you need fuzz! With phenomenal experiences, it is lower-level, phenomenally distinct subevents that make up the fuzz. So no phenomenally distinct subevents, no fuzz. And that is how it is with simple phenomenal experiences. Now if, as was suggested earlier, the degree of fuzziness for temporal boundaries just is the degree of temporal extent of such boundaries, then the temporal boundaries of simple phenomenal experiences, since they cannot be conceived as fuzzy to any degree, also cannot be conceived as temporally extended to any degree – which is to say, they must be conceived as instantaneous.

Now some of you may think that you can conceive of a fuzzy temporal boundary for a simple phenomenal experience. However I would submit that anyone who thinks that they can is really conceiving a phenomenally complex experience, e.g., one that "gradually emerges" into awareness. But to conceive of such gradual emergence is already to conceive of phenomenal complexity, of phenomenal changes over time (e.g., in intensity), that provide borderline cases for being part of the higher-level experience.

So what is the upshot of all this? If I am right that our conception of phenomenal consciousness commits us to simples; and if I am right that the temporal boundaries of such simples must be conceived as instantaneous; then someone inclined toward eliminativism about phenomenal consciousness or qualia might take all this as just providing further reason for rejecting the picture. If one is unwilling or unable to reject it, however, and ones assumes that it corresponds to some significant degree to how consciousness really is, then pressure can be applied on metaphysical views of consciousness, materialist or dualist, that give neurophysiology a key role. Suffice it to say that the temporal boundaries of neural events, unlike those of simple phenomenal experiences, are conceivable as fuzzy – less fuzzy than those of a dinner party, to be sure, but fuzzy nonetheless. (Subevents at the level of elementary physics would provide all the borderline cases for being part of a neural firing, of an action potential, that one could want.) So neurophysiological identity theories for simple phenomenal experiences, and dualisms that assume temporal correspondence with neurophysiological events, will fail. (I should add that what exactly gets said here depends in no small part on what one says about vagueness or fuzziness in the world; but in no case, so far as I can tell, can instantaneous boundaries for simple experiences be avoided.) A further conclusion is that there are features of our conscious experience of which we are in some sense unaware, since we are intuitively quite unaware of instantaneous temporal boundaries within our experience. These are a few points to which greater attention will need to be devoted, it seems to me, so long as we continue to employ our conception or picture of phenomenal consciousness in guiding our attempts to better understand the nature of consciousness.

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(1) ‘Conceiving Simple Experiences’, unpublished manuscript.

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