(In the series The Philosophical Issues in Everyday Life. What “is” Consciousness? It is the most familiar “thing” and the strangest “thing” all at once! And is it wonderful? —– Thanks to my readers for their patience. I took some time off from this blog this summer to do some reading, some reflection and recharge my batteries. Also, I have some new ideas for the site that will be rolled out soon, I hope.)
A strange thing happened the other day. A particularly mysterious sensation did not come over me. Rather, I realized that any sensation is a strange kind of “Thing.” So I really came out on top of this, my feeling of mystery and amazement about sensation was now generalized to my life overall! I don’t know about you but I can use a little more positive spin in my life right now, too many things going wrong in this world of ours. Or is that just my take on things, just my individual sensation?
So what is so strange about having a sensation? Is not sensation and our experience of it the most normal, constant and automatic thing in our lives? Is there really some kind of philosophical issue here, something ‘deep’? I will let English psychologist and philosopher, Nicholas Humphrey, be our guide, using his books A History of the Mind (1992) and Soul Dust (2011).
What’s the Issue?
Well, we talk about sensations and feelings differently than we talk about any other kind of thing. Hell, after all, we all kind of know that sensations are not things that exist outside in the world, but “things” that exist or occur in our head or “mind.” Or so at least traditionally we have been told.
Humphrey points out that we often don’t even try to explain in words what we are experiencing, we simply suggest “Come here and look for yourself” or “Try this (food, for example) for yourself, see what you think.” And for many sensations, feelings and even evaluations, agreement between persons is not necessary at all. “Taste this steak; it is delicious.” “No thanks, I hate red meat.” But we then do not reply, “You are wrong, it is delicious!” It is as if each of us, the individual perceiver, “the person with the front row seat” (Humphrey), the “experiencer,” are the only one with access and authority about these peculiar kinds of ‘objects’ — “a sensation” of delicious or disgusting, “an evaluation” of good or bad, “a perception” of red or green. “It sure seems red to me,” you might say, and who can contradict how it seems to you? A sensation is a ‘thing’ that is a “pure seeming,” we might say.
Humphrey contends that some sensations and feelings are “just beyond words”, “ineffable.” We are rendered “awestruck,” for example, by the sun setting over the ocean. We may try to express this in words, but words fail us. “To stand in awe” is one of the original senses of this term, in other words, speechless. It takes a rare poet or artist to capture a sensation in words. Painter Wassily Kandinsky is quoted concerning our sensation of color: “Color is a power that directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes the hammers, soul is the piano with many strings.” And I will continue Wordsworth’s reflection upon that field of daffodils:
They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude: And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.
For most of us, we would just say, “you had to be there.”
So that is peculiar. A sensation and a feeling are only what they are to you, their sole observer. They are a private object of yours. And some sensations demonstrate the truth of this but only in degrees. The sensation of a far off object, barely seen, can be discussed by two observers. It “seems as if it is..,” they say to each other, but as they come nearer and nearer to the object in the world, they come closer to agreement not on how it seems, but on what it is. It is almost a necessity: “Yes, it is a hawk flying high,” they now agree. It no longer seems like anything; it now is. “How do sensations and feelings exist at all?” we might ask. They are a ghostly kind of thing!
Our philosopher and psychologist accentuates this distinction between these ‘inside objects’ and our less paradoxical ‘outside objects.’ With the physicist as the expert on the objectivity of the world around us, Humphrey says that “you perceive a physical object to be something more or other than what the physicist would say it is — a piece of paper as a dollar bill, a pattern in the clouds as the face of a cat.” Yes, a dollar bill as a monetary unit has a very human and social kind of existence, none of which Newton’s three laws can explain or describe. Or, how is your experience of the color red different from the color green? It is very hard to say, and we may be led awkwardly to say things like the quality “redness” is not the quality of green, but saying that red has a different electromagnetic frequency than green does not seem to help describe how they look to us at all.
We may start to get the feeling that there is more to our world than just objects in space. In fact, the Qualities that these internal objects convey to us are commonly held to exist in their own kind of place. We say, they exist “In Mind,” and we only vaguely, roughly and inconclusively associate that with our Brain.
Perceptions, sensations and feelings even exist in their own Time, we tend to think! Some of our experiences “last forever,” we say. “Time slowed down” and though on the clock the event only lasted five minutes, to us “it seemed much longer.” Other experiences seem to pass more quickly than the clock records as ‘true.’ “Time flies when you are having fun,” we say. Yet for many purposes, an exact and objective time is what we use and insist upon. Physicists like to think of the universe in instants. When you clock in and clock out at the factory, no matter how long the day seemed, you only get paid by our objectively agreed-upon standard of time. Is this standard time the only real time, the only true way to think of time?
Well, Humphrey goes so far as to contend that “inner objects” —sensations, feelings, even evaluations (“It is bad.”)— suggest to us the existence of a different world! He sites Plato, the granddaddy of all western abstract thinkers, and his Analogy of The Cave. The world that we humans sense and perceive is “as if” a projection on the wall of a cave —shadows of the real things that we cannot see. The world as it appears to us is an illusion, Humphrey says, by comparison to the world of physics and chemistry. And it is an illusion largely created by ourselves, “a self-illusion”! It is the world as it “is like” to us as conscious human beings. We have a term for this, it is the Phenomenal World.
Lets end this briefly by saying that this is exactly What Consciousness Is. Humphrey follows philosopher Thomas Nagel in his precedent-setting paper, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat,” and agrees that consciousness is just for things to be “like something to us” or for things to be like something to a “subject.” Consciousness, feelings, and ideas are ‘objects’ that do not exist in the space and time we often use for other purposes! They exist in the Mind and for a subject; they have their own necessary duration and place. That is a very different kind of objectivity! Sensations, feelings, evaluations are created by us as a “commentary” on the real things of the physical world that impinge upon us, concludes our psychologist.
What Can We Make of This?
Well, Humphrey makes the best of it! The shadow world of Plato, this illusion, becomes “an enchanted world,” he tries to convince us! “Things are singing your song,” Humphrey writes (his emphasis) and he quotes many a poet, artist and mystic as witness. It may be “a philosophical error” to attribute “phenomenal qualities to impersonal objects,” but “what matters is psychological impact, not philosophical rectitude.” The illusion of color, taste, and joy; even pain, disgust, and evil, tend strongly to attach to the things in the world. It is what they seem to be, in themselves, to us. And this illusion sticks, even as we have a growing awareness of our own role in it. “It is indeed you who are the enchanter, you who are, as it were, coloring things with the fairy dust of your own consciousness.”
The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars; and all the World was mine, and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it.Thomas Traherne, 17th century English poet, Anglican minister, and mystic; quoted by Humphrey
“Interiority”: The World from The Inside of It!
This talk of “inner” objects and “a subject’s unique access and authority” to them leads Humphrey to introduce the idea of “interiority.” It is a cumbersome term but one trying to express a situation we are all very familiar with. My “self,” this GregWW, and your self, who ever you may be, are a sole and only strange kind of thing.
Granted, this subjectivity is tightly associated to a particular living physical body and certainly its brain activity. We are a particular “somebody,” says our psychologist and philosopher; we say and know we are not just “anybody.” But in spite of that, our particular body and our psychological self are not strictly ‘the same.’ Consciousness and subjectivity are More Than and Other Than any physical description of a body or a brain! I am sure that you anticipated this contention in my argument, and Humphrey’s, long ago.
“Interiority” is “the insider’s view” of life that we also seek to describe more objectively, sometimes. This post itself, and Humphrey’s theory in general, are an attempt to square the circle, we might say, to as objectively as possible describe and communicate something that is almost indescribable and so very basic as to be the presupposition of our lives and not a direct topic of it. Nagel is quoted: when we try to eliminate “the content” of experience, “what remains when these are set aside is not merely neutral: it is emphatically positive...The additional positive weight is supplied by experience itself, rather than by any of its content.” Lord Byron writing in the 18th century is quoted: “The great object of life is sensation—to feel that we exist,” and this being the case even with pain as one of our most noted experiences.
So, you are and I am, at first and primarily, what Humphrey calls “a core self.” This self is not a thinking self nor one that is self-aware, but a self that is only starting in that direction. There are several significant characteristics of this rudimentary self.
“Ownership” is one of them. To the core self, many things are considered a part of “itself.” An infant slowly develops a vague sense that “‘these’ (feet or hands) are ‘mine.'” That “‘this’ (pain in the stomach) is ‘mine.'” “Control” is another feature, as the infant’s arms begin to reach out for things, its sensation of Self develops as an awareness of its control of some things but not of others. And finally, there is the state of simply “being there,” which Humphrey describes as “an in-your-face mystery.” The core self is simply “the subjectivity for which the sensation appears.” “I see; I feel.” It is, for us, “a human way of being,“ he explains, and importantly that is how we refer to ourselves; we are “a Human Being.“ For a bat, maybe there is a Bat Being. It is the way things are to them; it is how things seem to them!
And this core self —as already contended— is unique and isolated, a “sole and only.” Our core self is just that direct access to sensation, to which there is no other access but through our attempts at communication. And even with this communication — sensation, feeling and even some evaluations retain their absolute privacy. As a self-aware consciousness you are “a closed individuality.” In all of history, in all that has gone before us and all that will come after, there has been and will never be Another You, it seems acceptable to believe. Humphrey says that each of us is “an inescapable singularity.” Contrary to poet John Donne, at the core of our self, we must acknowledge and understand the implications of our isolation: each man, woman and child “is an island entire of himself.”
Now, we do have very good reasons to believe that my sensation of red, for example, is the same or very similar to that of yours, but still we face the psychological and metaphysical reality of the element of absolute individuality. We have faced up to it in many ways, including our great fear and respect for the reality of death. In other ways we do not face it so well, as when we currently and historically speculate about super humans and immortals — gods, ghosts, demons and other scientifically implausible kinds of supposed external objects. With these kind of beliefs, some of us attempt to evade the end that death surely is.
But this is where Humphrey, himself, introduces the possibility of using the term “Soul.” There are other similar terms, like “self” and “person;” each are, like a sensation, an inner object — but Humphrey likes “soul” in spite of its baggage because of its connection to spirituality. For him, Spirituality predates Religion, and the latter is “parasitic” on the former. Our sense of the spiritual is our social recognition and Natural Selection’s recognition of the Value and Importance of “the Insider’s point of view,” of Consciousness, of our sense of an enchanted world.”
A Soul Land?
We started with the simple idea of a sensation or a feeling —“I see red,” “I feel pain”— and end up with “a society of souls” and “a soul land,” argues Humphrey. We will Eventually explore these ideas further, but they are based in an analysis of our current set of beliefs. Many of us do believe in, and live lives that recognize, the irreplaceable and invaluable quality of each individual consciousness and the natural and social apparatuses that support that way of life. This is the “enchanted world,” says Humphrey; but we should ask, is it true? In this realm of “Seemings,” if you can believe it and live according to it, and if other conscious beings do too, then it is true, a truly enchanted world — Our Way Being! That is the answer!