What is experience?
ANIL MITRA © April 21, 2013. REVISED August 05, 2014
What are Experience, consciousness, and awareness?
The terms experience, consciousness and awareness have overlap and divergence in their sense. The core idea is important to understanding the world. Understanding the core idea is enhanced by taking to consideration the differences and shades of sense. ‘Consciousness’ is an important topic in current thought. I have used the term experience in the title of this essay because it is important to my ‘Journey in Being’ site, http://www.horizons-2000.org.
The first goal of this text is to understand consciousness (experience). The endeavor to understand consciousness (experience) is important. There are thinkers who argue, as do I, that consciousness is of fundamental importance. Others argue that its importance to human life and understanding the world is at most marginal. The concept of consciousness is important enough that regardless of the outcome of the dilemma, resolution is important to an understanding of the universe.
The second aim of the piece is to show the importance of consciousness.
A third goal arises as follows.
In discussing concepts whose nature we do not fully understand we sometimes make the error of thinking that the concept is definite and adequate and it is only what it points to that is in question. Therefore it is also important to ask questions such as ‘What is the meaning of the term ‘consciousness’? The two questions ‘What is X?’ and ‘What is the meaning of ‘X’?’ must both be addressed. Perhaps it is too difficult to answer them simultaneously and in that case we may attempt to answer them iteratively—first tackling one then the other and so on until we are satisfied that both questions are answered adequately.
The third goal of goal of this essay is to show that an examination of the approaches to answering the question ‘What is consciousness?’ is particularly important in understanding consciousness. The development shows that this approach is particularly useful for consciousness. It is likely, however, however that it will also be important for other topics. The discussion of matter confirms this.
A first approach to clarifying the nature of consciousness will be to give examples of it: this will give us—at least—a grasp of the topic before us. A second approach is to consider related concepts for that will enable us to be more inclusive and to see subtle differences that the examples did not show us.
Experience, consciousness and awareness are related.
In this piece word ‘experience’ is used the common sense of ‘I like the experience of the warmth of the sun’ and not in another common though related sense of ‘She is a woman of much experience in teaching mathematics’.
The sentence ‘I like the experience of the warmth of the sun’ is an example of experience and—we will see shortly—also of consciousness and awareness. The form of the sentence is a clue to the sense of experience in this use. It shows that ‘feeling’ is associated with experience (it would be incorrect however to infer that experience is not about quantity or what happens in cognition). The phrase ‘I like the experience’ is particularly telling for its sense is that ‘I have experience of experience’.
Consciousness has almost the same meaning as this sense of experience. Experience, however, is perhaps more inclusive in not distinguishing cases in which I am aware of having an experience from cases in which I am having an experience without being (particularly) aware of it. Experience tends to emphasize awareness of something in the world. Consciousness is not essentially different but we do perhaps tend to emphasize when talking of consciousness that there is also awareness of being conscious. The differences are not insignificant but I have pointed them out first in order to ignore them. We approach experience and consciousness as the same thing.
I used the terms ‘aware’ and ‘awareness’ in the previous paragraph. We know from use that awareness is related in its meaning to consciousness and experience. However ‘awareness’ has another sense—in this sense there is behavioral or mechanical awareness without consciousness or experience. Is such a thing possible? It seems that a robot that had photo-sensors that triggered an action when the intensity of light exceeded a pre-defined value would be ‘aware’ but not ‘conscious’. There are experiments in which a brain damaged individual (severed corpus callosum) when presented with an object in the visual field will respond to the stimulus but report having no consciousness of the stimulus. These examples show that surely the sense of the term ‘awareness’ is broader than that of ‘experience’. However it does not follow that awareness is more inclusive; it is possible that the robot and the brain damaged individual have experience—in the case of the robot it would be extremely primitive—but do not have experience of the experience. Now of course there would be various objections that I cannot claim that there is experience in these cases; however I have not claimed it—I have claimed only the possibility; and now the objector might say that I am claiming pan-psychism or that I am imbuing material objects with consciousness etc. and my response would be that perhaps I am doing that but that we should level the playing field—i.e. if we are to object from pan-psychism then the question of pan-psychism must become one of the variables—and let the arguments play out on their merit rather than from preconceptions however hallowed they may be.
For if, when we enter into fundamental considerations we allow pre-conception to enter—no matter how time honored and hallowed—then the considerations are not fundamental.
What is experience? How do I first approach this question? I can begin by giving examples. I have an experience of the fragrance of a rose, of the feeling of the warm sun on my back, of recollecting my father’s voice, of thinking through a puzzle. These all have an aspect that is experience but the examples do not tell me what experience is. I am left with a feeling that I have some idea of what it is but not what it is. I can say for example that ‘force is that which tends to cause motion’ but cannot give a word definition of consciousness.
Some writers, after talking around the topic a little more, leave it at that with the remark that while an analytic definition has not been given, enough has been said to show what experience and consciousness are. For many purposes that is enough. However the present purpose is see what may be learned from trying to define experience.
I can try for example to explain the fragrance of a rose in terms of something else. However, I cannot. I can define ten square feet as the area of a ten individual square feet and one square foot as the area of a one foot square. I cannot do this for the fragrance of a rose or experience generally. Why? It is perhaps because experience is so fundamental that there is nothing else in terms of which to define it. Perhaps it is for this reason that some writers are willing to ‘define’ experience by showing what it is rather than by defining it in the traditional ways of definition.
I look to experience but I do not see it ‘out there’; it is something I have!
I mean that there is a sense in which experience is looking at the world. It is different from a material object. I have experience of a material object but an experience itself does not appear to be such an object.
In this experience is like a material object: I know experience and material objects in the first place by having experience of them.
In this, however, there is also dissimilarity. I experience matter but I do not matter experience (the latter phrase seems to lack all meaning); I have experience of experience but ‘I have matter of matter’ has no meaning.
One difference is that experience is of something while matter simply is. This is an immense clue. Experience is of something and therefore (perhaps) a relationship; matter is in and of itself (but may have relationships).
Therefore (1) if I try to formulate a material explanation of experience and consciousness I should not expect to explain them in terms—for example—of material particles but in terms of relationships among particles. However (2) when I examine my own experience or consciousness I tend to look my consciousness in isolation and this tends to show up consciousness as pure consciousness but not as consciousness of something. Perhaps there is no ‘atom’ of consciousness as in pure consciousness or as in stream of consciousness but only consciousness as relation between a perceiver and a perceived. What then of the idea of pure consciousness? Perhaps it is not pure but some internal relation of the mind of the ‘subject’ and its seeming isolation from matter seems to make it seem pure.
(1) Experience is sufficiently fundamental as to not be properly definable in terms of something else. However, upon reflection we may conclude that it is so immediate as to not require anything more than ‘showing’.
(2) There is no such thing as pure experience—in general there are experiences associated with afference and experience associated with efference and seeming pure experience is an internal relation.
(3) The material correlate of experience is not the ‘particle’ but the relation between particles. If so the experience at the level of particles is the inner effect (that we normally call affect) on a particle due to interaction. Notice that having a material correlate is not at all the same thing as a definition.
(4) Our experiences and consciousness are obviously cases of awareness. We can now see that material interaction is not necessarily different in kind but, if so, its differences are of degree and of (degree of) self-reference. This too is a tentative conclusion.
A tentative thesis of this piece has been that ‘meta-questions’ are important in answering questions. The specific claim was that trying to answer the question ‘How may we understand consciousness?’ will shed light on understanding of consciousness not only because it may sharpen the approach but also and specifically in that asking the question makes tacit reference to consciousness.
We tend to think of there being a conceptual gulf between matter and mind—between particles and experience. However we have found that the gulf is perhaps only in our primitive understanding and that careful examination shows that there is a root at which the difference between matter and mind—in our normal way of talking—is one of whether we are talking about things or interactions among things. ‘How may we understand matter?’ may lead us to a better understanding if cast a sufficiently wide net in which we admit into consideration other notions that include preconceptions that affect our conclusions.
The reasoning leading up to the conclusions is tentative. It would be a good thing if we could firm up the conclusions as part of a comprehensive theory of experience. More can be done—such a ‘theory’ can be the foundation of a metaphysics. Narratives linked from http://www.horizons-2000.org do this. In fact what they do is more—the metaphysics of the narratives is shown to be a perfect, unique, and ultimate universal metaphysics.
A central issue in metaphysics is that of method. If metaphysics is to be ultimate it cannot allow preconception to enter—even preconceptions of method. How then can progress be made at all? First all that I think I know must be cast aside—but of course only tentatively for one of the things that I think I know is that there is absolute doubt regarding the things that I know. Second, I must begin to build up from givens (if I can find any). Where can I go from here? The universal metaphysics cited above shows certain directions of thought that may be forever resolved and others that must remain forever open; and it shows these open directions to be without limit (in a sense defined in the development of the metaphysics). It is in these senses that the metaphysics is ultimate.
The development of the metaphysics starts from experience. The analysis of experience presages the method of development of the metaphysics. Thus we achieved some success in realizing the goals set out in the introduction. An understanding of experience has been achieved; we have seen it to be of fundamental importance; and analysis of the approach to understanding shed light on experience and significantly more.