Monday, May 23, 2011

My unique place as a self-conscious subject in the world

To: Alan M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: My unique place as a self-conscious subject in the world
Date: 31 July 2002 08:57

Dear Alan,

Thank you for your e-mail of 23 July, with your fifth essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, on the question, 'How successful, in your view, is the theory of subjective and objective worlds in accounting for *my* unique place as a self-conscious subject in the world?'

Well done for completing this program! A certificate and report will be on their way.

You describe the dualism of subjective and objective worlds as 'on the one hand, I, my self-conscious awareness, now at this instant and at this place, and on the other hand the whole objective universe, everything that is not I'.

There is, however, a powerful objection to describing the duality in this way. On this account, the momentary something named by 'I' seems utterly ineffable and indescribable. In what sense can it be said to 'exist', if everything that can be said about my thoughts, feelings and sensations is a statement about the objective, and not the subjective world?

There is some truth in the comparison with this idea of an indescribably momentary I-ness, and the nugget of subjectivity which survives the critique of Descartes' notion of an immaterial soul. However, it should be remembered that Descartes, in declaring that 'I exist' must be true whenever it is uttered or thought saw himself as making a general statement about kinds of stuff or entity. There is the physical kind and there is also the mental kind. If the mental kind lacks the capacity to form enduring substances as Descartes' critics have argued, still one can speak meaningfully of a plurality of such non-physical, momentary 'I's.

But this is not what the theory of subjective and objective worlds claims, and in fact it is inconsistent with that theory.

The two-world view is a theory about indexicality, or what differentiates *this* 'I' from all other 'I's, whereas Descartes' theory, whether we take the 'fat' or the 'thin' version, is a theory about the quality of subjectivity which all 'I's (or momentary 'I's) have in common.

About any form of Cartesian dualism, the proponent of the two-world theory can still ask, 'What kind of fact is it that one of these 'I's is *I*? What is the difference between a world which contains *I* and a world, just like the actual world in its physical and mental aspects which contains an entity (or momentary entity) exactly like I?

This is an extremely weird question, I agree. It doesn't matter whether you are a materialist, a dualist or an idealist, the question is the same: namely, what kind of fact is it in virtue of which I am *this* I and not some other 'I'. (A similar question can be raised about the indexical term 'now' - what kind of fact is it in virtue of which now is *this* now and not some other 'now'.)

For this reason, the radical view of eliminative materialism, which you describe, is no more of a challenge to the two-world theory than any 'ism'. In fact, the two-world theorist is happy to receive confirmation that there is no problem of 'consciousness' as such. The problem we perceive as the problem of consciousness is in fact the problem of indexicality.

Going back to your characterization of the subjective pole of the two-world theory, if this is just intended as an expression of the recognition of the irreducible metaphysical fact of indexicality, then the subjective world includes everything from the objective world, just as the universe existing 'now' is a universe with a history stretching back billions of years. The Andromeda galaxy is *my* Andromeda galaxy, just as this hand is *my* hand.

You mention solipsism, where 'my Cartesian soul is expanded to include the whole universe'. What the solipsist fails to see is how there can be an Andromeda galaxy which is *not* 'my' Andromeda galaxy,. In other words, the solipsist claims that the subjective world is the only reality. What refutes this is not the argument against the privacy of experience as such - because the solipsist is happy to accept that the only concepts one can use are concepts which relate to an external world - but rather (what I take to be the real import of the private language argument) that the very notion of judgement implies a distinction between how things are for a given subject, and how things are from a point of view outside that subject. So, for example, we understand what it means to say that someone is suffering from a systematic paranoid delusion. The solipsist can only reduce this idea to the possibility that I might discover that I have been suffering from such a delusion. But that is not the same thing.

- I should say that I can't remember the last time someone tackled this essay question. It is hard for me to write about this because the two-world theory seems to me - as it seemed when I wrote 'Naive Metaphysics' - a theory which it is impossible to reject, and yet also impossible to accept. My suspicion is that the problem here is the traditional language of ontology which has been used to express the two-world theory. What the theory is really about is not a 'dualism' of any variety, but rather the rejection of the 'totalising' project of ontology within which the notion of a 'dualism' alone makes sense. (This is as much as I have gleaned from the works of Emmanuel Levinas, see his 'Totality and Infinity'.)

All the best,

Geoffrey