Monday, October 19, 2009

The Neurological Problem

The Following is a comment that I intended to put on James Knight’s bog here but for some reason I was denied the paste option, so I’ll have to post it here instead:

I think this is what they call the “hard problem” – that is, just how does the subjective first person perspective of “qualia” marry with the (putatively) objective third person perspective? The latter perspective only recognizes first person mental processes as neuronal activity. In fact when the third person gets up close to the first person he only ever sees neuronal activity.

This issue, especially amongst materialists, is often cast in a mold which assumes the third person perspective is somehow more fundamental and “real” than the seemingly private world of first person qualia. This position is apt to overlook the fact that third person perspectives also necessarily involve a sentient agent, an agent that does the observing and reports in third person language; it’s a position that vaguely resembles the N-1 test for egocentricity or those fly on the wall documentaries where the necessary presence of the camera man is all too easily forgotten. In the final analysis the third person perspective entails an unacknowledged first person perspective. This failure to count the third person encourages the construction of a materialist ontology that uncritcially by passes the implicit assumption of sentience entailed by the observations needed to construct a third person narrative.

As both first and third person perspectives necessarily involve persons, the “hard problem” in actual fact seems to amount to this: Just how do the qualia of the first person register themselves in the qualia of the third person? That is, what does the third person observe (i.e. experience) when he attempts to investigate the first person's qualia? The answer to that is that the third person, when he takes a close look, only ever observes these qualia as neurological activity. How then do the first person qualia map to this activity?

Regardless of the question of just whether or not the third person perspective reveals a fundamental and primary materialist ontology behind qualia, it seems to me that the human perspective is forever trapped in the dichotomy of two stories; the “I-story” of first person qualia and the “It-story” of third person observations of other people; this latter story is told in terms of human biology.

I like the proposal that there is point by point conformity between these two stories; that is, for every first person experience of “qualia” there is a corresponding event in the third person world of “materials”. (However, I wouldn’t want oversell this idea, or be too committed to it)

With reference to the latter proposal it is worth recalling that neurologically speaking the mind probably has a chaotic dynamic, and thus is sensitive to the butterfly effect. Therefore even though we may eventually come to tell and understand the principles of the "I-story" in terms of neurogical activity (as we might fancy we understand the principles of weather) it looks as though under any circumstance minds, like the weather, will forever generate effects of which we will have no clue from whence they came.

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