By crankular demand, I’m putting aside by irritation at hearing the name “Whitehead” to read this article on Whitehead’s theory of consciousness–Consciousness as a Subjective Form: Whitehead’s Nonreductionist Naturalism by David Ray Griffin–and see if it helps fill in the gaps in Pirsig’s account of experience. Griffin’s CV describes him as a “Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Theology, Emeritus, Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University.”
Griffin sets Whitehead’s theory up as an apparent paradox that he’s going to unravel in the eassay. Whitehead describes consciousness as “an entity… distinct from the brain” and yet “rejects any dualism between two kinds of actualities.” It’s “a function of something more fundamental” yet he’s not a functionalist: consciousness is not just something the brain does. Consciousness is “the subjective form of an intellectual feeling,” which sounds tautological: consciousness is subjectivity, which of course therefore can’t be simply reducible (epistemologically) to the brain: we don’t know consciousness (which, if it’s subjectivity, we know directly, though Sartre will call this knowledge totally empty) in the same way we know that grey matter in our head (i.e. via an axe and a mirror, if that). This was the point of much of our mind/body discussion, and doesn’t in itself entail any particular ontological position. Searle, for instance, acknowledges the epistemic difference but insists that ontologically, mind and brain are one and the same thing (I’m elaborating this because I agree with Searle).
Griffin attributes to Whitehead the pragmatist point that there are certain beliefs (e.g. in my existence, the existence of the external world, that everything has a cause) that we by practical necessity believe, and that this is sufficient for us calling them, by definition, true. “With regard to conscious experience, four of these overpowering notions are that conscious experience exists, that it exerts influence upon the body, that it has a degree of self-determining freedom, and that it can act in accord with various norms.” Granting this (controversial) pragmatist claim, there’s still the problem of how to interpret these words, and the subsequent section of the article goes through the traditional problems: freedom understood as independence from the material causal chain contradicts the idea that consciousness and the body and consciousness are causally linked. This drives one to the sort of compatibilism which will say that the terms “mind” and “body” (or “brain”) belong to different explanatory schemes or levels of explanation or something like that: they can’t be just two objects in the same ontology.
Whitehead’s solution (represented most closely, it seems, among modern big-time philosophy of mind guys by David Chalmers, who tentatively agreed to come on PEL after his new book comes out, whenever that may be) is “panexperientialism, according to which all actualities have experience.” What constitutes an “actuality” here?
Genuine individuals are of two types. There are simple individuals, which are the most elementary units of nature (whether these be thought to be quarks or even simpler units). And there are what Charles Harts-horne, in developing Whitehead’s panexperientialism more fully, called “compound individuals,” which are compounded out of simpler individuals, as when atoms are compounded out of subatomic particles, molecules out of atoms, living cells out of macro-molecules, and animals out of cells. These compound individuals are true individuals because the experience of their members give birth to a highest-level experience, which is the “dominant” member of the organism as a whole. This dominant member gives the compound individual a unity of experience and a unity of action, so that it can act purposively with a degree of freedom. These compound individuals hence differ in kind from mere aggregations of individuals, such as rocks and telephones, in which the experiences of the individual molecules do not give rise to a higher-level, inclusive experience.
The definition seems a bit circular to me–all real individuals have experience, where “real individuals” is defined as those which are constituted so as to have experience–but we’ll let that pass. The point is that it’s not just us that have experience, but smaller units as well: certainly anything we’d call an organism.
Why is this not an obviously absurd position? That, say, paramecia have experiences, where even on Nagel’s conception there’s likely nothing that “it’s like to be” a paramecium. Whitehead distinguishes “experience” from “consciousness.” He’s not saying that paramecia have conscious experience, just experience. Now, the only way I can make sense of this is to say that by “conscious experience” here he must mean “accompanied by self-consciousness” (whether thetic or non-thetic, to use Sartre’s distinction): the paramecium can be aware of some piece of food, say, but isn’t going to have any awareness that it is an organism aware of this food.
Clearly, then, this idea of “experience” has no correlate in our own “experience,” which does have this (non-thetic) self-awareness (maybe), and is (definitely) shot through with concepts, associations, qualitative feel, and all sorts of other things that paramecia doesn’t have. So why call this dumbed-down phenomenon “experience” at all? Why insist that by definition, “apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing?” Griffin insists that this is where the scientific evidence lies, that “there is now a wide range of evidence suggestive of the idea that single-cell organisms, such as amoebae and paramecia, have a primitive type of experience.” (He cites Stuart Hameroff here; I’m not at all familiar with his work.) He says, “as physicist David Bohm and philosopher William Seager have said, quantum theory implies that the behavior of the elementary units of nature can be explained only by attributing to them something analogous to our own mentality.”
Whitehead, of course, couldn’t rely on that argument. Here’s Griffin giving some Whitehead-speak:
To say that every unit-event [i.e. something that happens to these supposedly experiencing entities]… has a mental aspect means that it has a degree—however slight in the most elementary events—of spontaneity or self-determination. Although the event’s physical pole is given to it, its mentality is its capacity to decide precisely what to make of its given foundation. Its physicality is its relation to past actuality; its mentality involves its prehension of ideality or possibility, through which it escapes total determination by the past.
This, I think, is one way to reasonably define “freedom” as a materialist: Yes, the chain of causality is closed, but since we can’t see all the causes of human, or animal, or even smaller-system behavior, let’s call it “free” to the extent that we can’t figure out what it’s going to do. Of course, it’s not really free: even my own complex decisions ultimately involve one causal factor overcoming the others, but it’s a complex enough system that it’s sufficient for some social purposes to call it free, though clearly we’re no longer talking in a sense of an absolutely freely choosing soul that then acquires moral worth based on its choice in the manner of Christianity.
However, the apparent “choice” here is a matter of being able to represent alternate possibilities–prehension, in Whitehead’s terminology. What evidence could we possibly have that simple organisms represent things to themselves in any way? Are we just talking analogically, poetically? If so, again, what’s the point? Why blur the distinction between conscious and unconscious life? Whitehead’s position seems only one that you come to if you’re already attracted to the Gaia hypothesis of the whole world being conscious, or like Chalmers, you can’t otherwise figure out any way for consciousness to arise evoluationarily in an unconscious world. I think Dennett, for one, provides an alternate solution to this. For Dennett (see his book Kinds Of Minds),we start with something like information transfer between primitive organisms, and at a certain level of complexity, from an external, explanatory point of view, it becomes easier to attribute decision-making and purposefulness to the organism. That doesn’t involve any ontological claim; you needn’t say that nature even at its simplest levels is in any sense “experiencing;” the only reason we claim that for people is because we’re self-conscious, i.e. because the feedback loop and representational system is complex enough that we’re aware of us being aware of these choices. That’s the only thing that unambiguously is choice; every further use of the term is to some extent poetic.
There are more pieces to Whitehead’s world view here to explain why he might see the point of such language, e.g. calling this activity “creative” rather than “causal,” but this should be enough to see the connection with Pirsig. Whitehead offers some additional vocabulary, at the very least, for talking about these different levels of life, which Pirsig is sorely in need of, because his four-level system seems extremely impoverished to me at least. Is there any advantage to this kind of talk over the vitalism trendy in Schopenhauer’s day that we quickly dismissed during that episode? I’m not prepared to say at this point. Am I convinced that it has any advantage in addressing the mind/body problem over, say, Searle’s solution of simply insisting that mind and brain are one and the same ontological thing observed from fundamentally different viewpoints? No.