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.
DRG is a philosophically sophisticated theologian but this kind of thinking is only necessary if one feels the need to get into a kind of quasi-creationist apologetics, for those of a more darwinian bent here is Dennett on the evolution of purposes:
ps sorry if I got us off-topic by raising Whitehead it just didn’t seem to add much to Pirsig to read him thru W. James whereas Whitehead seems to have fleshed these kinds of ideas out in a more systematic and coherent (even if ultimately flawed) way .
David Buchanan says
The problem is, dmf, that James and Pirsig don’t want to be systematized and I’m fairly certain that Pirsig, especially, would be bummed out by any attempts to convert his thought into some kind of theology. Even James was too religious for Pirsig, or so he once thought anyway. He’d dismissed James as a Victorian theist who was trying to sneak god in through the back door but after ZAMM was published, an article in the Harvard Educational Review made a case for his similarity to James. So, after the fact, Pirsig looked into it and, as he explains in Lila, he found many fits and matches. By the end of chapter 29, Pirsig has explicitly identified with James in particular and mainstream pragmatism in general. I mean, we really don’t have to guess about his affinity with James. (I took a good look at this claim and it’s really quite astonishing how many parallel quotes there are; certainly more than a hundred.) And what’s most remarkable is that Pirsig had arrived at lots of very Jamesian positions independently of James. Like I said, he learned about his sympatico with James from a reviewer after ZAMM was published. Other reviewers made different comparisons but that’s the one that Pirsig didn’t reject.
But it’s also true that Prisig and James both end up flirting with a kind of panexperientialism or panpsychism – and Pirsig does quote two or three lines from Whitehead in Lila.
If a long, detailed comparison of Whitehead and Pirsig is the object of desire, what’s wrong with Andrew Sneddon’s thesis? It’s titled “A Process Analysis of Quality” and “the third chapter is an examination of points of fundamental agreement and difference between the two systems.” How can that fail to be exactly what the doctored ordered? One can read it for free at http://robertpirsig.org/SneddonThesis.htm
propositions have implications whether or not one is interested in pursuing them, practicing philosophy isn’t for everyone but it’s the game at hand here as I understand it.
David Buchanan says
It’s interesting that you should bring up free will and the mind-body problem, Mark, while also asking about the advantages of talking like a pan-experientialist. Those are two of the whoppers that Pirsig claims to dissolve with that kind of talk. In the case of free will, for example, causality is just another very persistent patterns of preference and the ability to express preferences increases with each step up the evolutionary scale. The capacity to respond co-evolves along with everything else, so there is always some degree of determinism and some degree of freedom. As Pirsig paint it, the tension between stability and novelty is central to the evolutionary process. This sort of emergentism is also part of his answer to the mind-body problem. On this view, the body and mind are not two ontological categories (which create all kind of fake problems about how they relate and connect), they have a matter-of-fact evolutionary relationship. First you have organism with complex brains, then you get culture and language, then you get minds in the usual sense of full blown self-consciousness, the kind capable of skilled and deliberate manipulation of abstract symbols and concepts.
The various modules in the brain can be seen as a kind of evolutionary record, with layers going all the way back to our reptilian ancestors. It seems quite easy and natural to image that all those previous forms of awareness are still operating within us and so self-consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg. Or, if you prefer a sweeter analogy, it’s a thin layer of frosting on a tall, multilayered evolutionary cake. While we can crawl inside the mind of a bat or know what it’s like to be a wolf, we still have instincts and they play a role in our overall thought process. We know what it’s like to be an animal from first hand experience, especially in high school.
Mark (and David), based on my conduct, I think I would be better characterized as a PITA than as a crank (or a bully). It is the finger-wagging school-marm in me to pester others if I sense they are avoiding something that is in their benefit to attend to. I can apologize, but I’ll probably never break free of this temperament.
From your post it is clear you are skeptical of James’s radical empiricism and Whitehead’s carrying it to all aspects of reality as panexperientialism. Let me see if I can add something.
W says plain ole’ experience is affect – feeling. Experience is awareness of what is, whereas conscious experience (which he says is very rare, even in human experience) ‘shines a light on immediate/present experience’ for those experients capable of formulating an affirmation/negation proposition which sets up an awareness of more than what something is, but also what it is not. This contrast is felt – like when a piece of rope suddenly strikes at you in the woods – you get conscious quickly! This is just an example of a multifaceted feeling involving a ‘knowing’ contrast, but what W claims is that consciousness is – not the feeling itself – but the affective tone (subjective form, like waveform of specific electromagnetic energy). In this sense, Sartre is correct to say consciousness is nothing, and maybe P would say it is the intellectual pattern, and Deluze would call it ‘Difference’.
You say there is likely little to be gained, here, but consider just one point Griffin makes relative to correcting what Whitehead sees as Hume/Kant’s error in excessive skepticism: Our conscious experience of entertainment of sense data in the immediate moment tells us nothing of the ‘ding en sein,’ but that is because consciousness only enlightens the present duration of time. The feelings our environment fed our bodies through our skin, nose, ear canal, retinas, proprioceptive nerves, etc…all these feelings experienced by lower organizational units of our bodies are transmissions that do carry (vaguely, dimly) causal info about those ‘dang signs’ out there.
We are experients of all 4 of P’s Quality levels, and the important point of W is that it’s all experience/affect thru-and-thru. This is why I think the field of affective-neuroscience is where we will really come to understand the ‘how come’ (as Dennett would say) of our humanity.
I absolutely loved the Dennett lecture, dmf, thanks.
You cake icing is spot on with W’s take on consciousness, and I cannot disagree with a word you’ve posted here.
BTW, I took the liberty to seek out Dr. Sneddon’s comments on our comments via this email (No untoward intentions on my part Mark, just trying to stimulate further insights for us)
I have read and enjoyed your Master’s thesis on Whitehead and Pirsig many many times. I see from your CV that you have pursued other interests since that work, but wonder if you would bother to take some time and weigh in on the discussion at our PEL forum.
Dr. Burl Dishonge
Professor of Civil Engineering, Retired”