Consciousness and the Verbal Bias

I have been privileged lately to be part of a little informal group that meets (twice now, I think) in a Chinese restaurant on the West Side and (more often but more diffusely) in email, and talks about the mysteries (or otherwise) of consciousness (whatever that is).

There is me, and Steve who used to have a weblog a million years ago, and some smart folks from Columbia University. We are all amateurs (although Steve threatens to lure in a professional philosopher in some capacity), but that may be a Good Thing.

(Extremely long-time readers of this weblog in its various incarnations, if there are any, may recall the ancient Problems of Consciousness pages that Steve and I did. Highly related!)


Here is a pile of books.

As we’ve talked about these things, I have for some reason found myself increasingly attracted to the “we are just passengers” approach to consciousness. Not so much as something to believe, but as something to think about.

The idea behind this approach (which may or may not be the same thing as “epiphenominalism”) is that while subjective experience reflects what happens in the objective (or “physical” or “natural” or whathaveyou) world, it does not influence it in any way.

Subjective experience (and therefore “us”, if we identify with our subjective experiences) is just a passenger, an observer, and to the extent that we feel like we are making decisions and carrying them out, we are just mistaken. Either we are so constituted that we always (or almost always) decide to do that thing that our bodies were going to do anyway, or (perhaps more likely) we actually “decide” what to do a few milliseconds after our bodies do it; we make up stories quickly and retroactively to explain why we “decided” to do that.

What if this were true? We’d no longer have to worry about how the subjective realm has effects on the objective (it doesn’t). We may still have to worry about how subjective experience finds out what is happening in the objective world, but that’s always been the easier part; we can probably even say that well it just does, which is roughly what we say to someone who worries about why masses experience gravitational attraction.

We don’t really have to worry about Other Minds any more, either!  Or rather, we will be nicely justified in giving up on that entirely!  No way I’m going to be able to determine anything like objectively whether you, or any other physical system, has subjective experience, since subjective experience causes no discernible (or indiscernible) effects in the objective world; so I don’t need to feel guilty about not actually knowing, but just being content with whatever working hypothesis seems to result in the best parties and so on.

One puzzle that seems to remain in the We Are Just Passengers (perhaps better called the I Am Just A Passenger) theory, is why it should be the case that some of the things that my body says seem to reflect so accurately what I subjectively experience. If I have no effect on the objective world, why should this part of the objective world (the things my body says, writes in weblogs, etc) in fact correspond so well to how it feels to be me?

I started out thinking that it would be really interesting to see a theory about that: that would explain why objective biological bodies would tend to commit speech-acts that describe subjective experience, without that explanation including actual subjective experience anywhere in the causal chain.

Then like yesterday or something I had what may or may not be an insight: if a version of the Passenger theory can hold that I make my “decisions” by quickly rationalizing to myself the things that I (“subconsciously”) observe my body doing, why can’t it also hold that some significant part of what I “experience” is similarly made up just after the fact, as I retroactively experience (or remember experiencing) things corresponding to what I perceive my body saying (where “saying” here includes whatever unvoiced but subvocalized inner narration-acts occur).

That is, how certain are we (am I) that we (where each “we” identifies with our individual subjective experience) actually cause the speech-acts that our bodies carry out? I don’t see any reason we should be particularly infallible about that, at least any more than we should be infallible about causing our bodies to do other things, like buying chicken instead of turkey, or going to the opera.

We have a bias toward verbal behaviors, I will suggest, and tend to assume (without, I will suggest, any really very good reason) that verbal behaviors reflect the contents of subjective experience more or better than other kinds of behaviors do.

Of the various studies that have been done suggesting that our bodies start to do things before “we” have actually “decided” to do them, I recall (without actually going back and looking, because yolo) that the experimenters more or less assumed that verbal behaviors reflected the activity of subjective consciousness, whereas other body behaviors (and neural firings and so on) reflected mere physical stuff.  But why assume that?

In the extremely surreal and fascinating phenomenon of blindsight, a person will (for instance) claim verbally not to be able to see anything to the right, but will pretty reliably catch (or avoid) a ball tossed from the right side.

This is pretty much universally described as a case where our bodies can react to something (the ball from the right) that we don’t have conscious awareness of.

But why is this the right description? One thing the body does (the catching or avoiding) indicates awareness of the ball, and another thing the body does (the saying “no, I can’t see anything on that side”) indicates a lack of awareness.

Why do we assume that the verbal act reflects the contents of subjective awareness, and the other behavior doesn’t?

If someone couldn’t speak, but could catch a ball, we would generally not hesitate to say that they had subjective awareness of the ball.

But if the person does speak, and says things about their subjective awareness, we take that saying as overriding the non-verbal behaviors.

Could we be wrong?

The two main other kinds of things that might be happening are: that the person has subjective awareness of the ball, but for some reason the speech parts of his body insist on denying the fact; or that there are two subjective consciousnesses here, and one (associated with the speech behaviors) is not aware of the ball, but the other (associated with the catching or avoiding) is.

The first of these seems weird because we aren’t used to thinking about verbal behaviors (at least from people) happening without consciousness. The second seems weird because we aren’t used to thinking (outside of split-brain cases) of two consciousnesses associated with the same person.

(Would it be terribly frustrating to be the non-verbal consciousness in the second case? Aware of the ball, catching the ball, experiencing those things, but unable to speak when asked about it, and unable to stop the bizarrely traitorous speech organs from denying it. Or maybe that consciousness is more deeply non-verbal, and doesn’t understand and/or doesn’t have any particular desire to respond to, the questions being asked.)

Hm, where did all of that get us? I think I’ve written down pretty much what I wanted to capture: the idea that even our own speech acts might be, not things uniquely caused by our subjective consciousnesses, but simply more things that happen in the world that might or might not have any particular causal connection to subjectivity.  And that, perhaps consequent to that, that when we are developing theories about what other consciousnesses there might be out there in the world, we should watch ourselves for unwarranted bias toward speech acts over other behaviors.

Perhaps we can develop some good theory about why speech acts are in fact special in these ways, but I don’t have one at the moment, and I don’t know if anyone else has seen a need for one and written down any words in that direction.  (If you do, please let me know!)

And in the meantime, perhaps not assuming that speech-acts are special can help us reach some interesting places we would not otherwise have reached, or avoid some puzzles that would otherwise have puzzled us.



2 Comments to “Consciousness and the Verbal Bias”

  1. So this is the epiphenomenal experience of the Chinese Room?

    Anyhow, it suggests some experiments. Speech acts aren’t the only way to communicate, and psychologists have asked people to respond to stimuli (and conscious experience) in a variety of ways. Push a button when you see the light. Point at the bunny. Pick up the red block.

    We express our internal experience in a variety of non-verbal ways. Art. Music. Dance. Bunnies. (Well, maybe not bunnies.) Split-brain experiments note the difference between verbal response (mediated primarily by one half of the brain) and motor response. So why does “expression” make verbal acts special?

    Also, I wonder if being “consciously aware” of something is not a single, simple thing, but rather a variety of modes of awareness, perhaps woven together into a unitary experience typically, but not always. So blindsight is one aspect of awareness, just not the one we usually think of when we talk about conscious awareness. As I understand it, subliminal awareness has the same character.

    • Haha, yes: not only does this room understand Chinese, but it can cook!

      On experiments: part of the point of my post is that those experiments don’t necessarily tell us anything directly about the causal relationship between subjectivity and action (or speech). But one thing I can imagine is that, if they suggested for instance that the system that speaks answers, and the system that answers by pointing, and the system that starts the muscles moving *all* have different timelines, then it would imply either that (at least) one of those two “expressive” systems (the speaking one and the pointing one) isn’t conscious (so we’d have a non-conscious expressive system, which would be weird), or that both are conscious, but are different consciousnesses (different subjectivities), which would also be notable.

      I’m not sure I care too much about the notion of being “consciously aware” of anything in particular. Certainly I’m more conscious OF some things at some times, and less so at other times. But the fact that I have consciousness, that I have subjectivity, that there is something that it is like to be me, seems to me like a single true fact, not really something that admits of degrees. fwiw…


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