David Bohm is truly remarkable. A brilliant physicist, with a command of both relativity and quantum mechanics, and yet he somehow always managed to relate the business of physics to concerns of human experience. Here is a little clip of him talking about his views on perception. It is part of a more comprehensive offering hosted at this blog.
When bandying the word ‘causal’ in light-hearted conversation, most folk mean cause-and-effect, or efficient cause, in which one cause precedes a subsequent effect. They are distributed in time. Our best science does not provide this kind of account. It instead provides a formal causal account, as exemplified in the association of a vector field, or dynamic, over some set of observables. Feynman points this out nicely:
There is a clash at the moment: two ways of knowing about ourselves are on offer, and they are very incompatible. From where I’m standing, it looks as if both grew out of psychology, but in fact one *is* latter day cognitive psychology and much attendant baggage, while the other looks Eastern, almost Taoist at times. The latter emerges from a consideration of the combined insights of the enactive tradition (both Noë and Varela), Harry Heft’s synthesis of Gibsonian Ecological Psychology and Barker’s Ecobehavioral Psychology, Coordination Dynamics and similar Dynamical approaches, Radical Constructivism, and more besides, I’m sure. Full Story »
Look at this phrase. Look at this phrase. Try to see it as black marks on a screen or page. I doubt you will be seing it as white condensation trails in the sky, but if that is the case, try to see it as white condensation trails in the sky. Try not to read it. Try to see just the marks, and not the language, as if it were written in an unfamiliar script in a strange and inscrutible language. Look at this phrase.
Unless you are illiterate, or have some very specific kind of brain damage, you will not succeed. Seeing through the marks (vehicle?) to the words (content?) is obligatory.
Admit the words, but leave out the sentential meaning. If you can’t stop reading words, try to stop there, and do not let the words work together to form a meaningful phrase. Again, it fails. The words (now regarded as vehicles) can not be attended to without also admitting their content (the meaning?).
How far does this recursion go? Are there first, second, and higher order meanings, each acting as vehicles for further content, each at a greater remove from the physical and momentary reality of marks on a page?
We might claim that there is a basic reality, a fundamental vehicle, of marks on the page, but is that not itself a reified and abstract description, dividing the continuum of the world up, as it does, into a page, regarded as a surface, and marks thereon. Perhaps we can infer back to a more fundamental level, that of a flux upon your retina, induced by the reflectant properties of the surfaces and substances around you, and by the darting and fixations of your eyeball, located in a wobbling head. Perhaps this is the nearest we can come to identifying a basic level vehicle. This is the level chosen by Ecological Psychology. Cognitive Psychology would start with different primitives.
But when we talk of marks, pages, words and meanings, we are talking about things in the world (for the most part), things that we perceive, or believe we perceive. We do not perceive the changing flux on the retina.
There is no “hard problem”. The language used to set up the hard problem repeats all the known and fatal errors that arise when dealing with experience.
The supposed qualia are experiential, not observable. As used in standard discussion within the field of cognitive science and its philosophy, they are an attempt to take the domain of experience and treat it as a thing – as something to be found in the world. Worse, they partition experience, until all that is left is the poverty of the notion of “redness” or “sweetness”. Experience does not reduce in this fashion. This is the persistent problem: treating of mind, or consciousness, or qualia, as something to be found in the world.
My preferred term, because it helps to get things straight, is experience. Mind, consciousness and qualia are all just confused ways of acknowledging the reality of experience in the first person. And experience is not to be found in the world. Experience is what gives us a world in the first place.
Let us digress, before this becomes bitter, and go back to a fictional Isaac Newton, sitting under an apple tree in rural England, looking at apples, perhaps picking one or two up, feeling them, hefting them, throwing one up in the air and catching it, then biting into one.