Monday, February 20, 2006

Defining “Experience” As Prerequisite To Explaining “Conscious Experience”

By Anthony Sebastian

Abstract accepted for presentation at the “Toward a Science of Consciousness” international meeting in Tucson, April 2006.

See meeting website.


Lack of a precise definition of the word “experience” acts as an obstacle to formulating a fruitful explanation of “conscious experience” at the most general level of narrative explanation. The practice of synonymizing “experience” and “conscious experience” occasions a missed opportunity to understand “conscious” as a quality of “experience”, which can have qualities other than “conscious”.

After Leslie Dewart, I suggest a physiological definition of “experiencing” applicable to all sentient creatures. Organisms must perform a physiological activity in experiencing events of reality, first by receiving information about the event, then processing that information so as to generate a response (physical, mental) that serves the organism’s biological and/or cultural imperatives, directed ultimately to the production of biological and/or cultural progeny: genes and/or memes. The experience-initiating events may reside/originate in either the world outside the organism (external reality) or the world inside the organism (internal reality).

In performing the physiological activity of experiencing events of reality in the elemental sense as defined above, the organism lacks what generally goes by the term “conscious awareness”, either of the event experienced or of the ongoing activity of its experiencing the event. Elementally then, organisms perform the physiological activity of experiencing objects/events of reality “non-consciously”.

I emphasize that organisms perform the physiological activity of experiencing, just as they perform other physiological activities, such as regulating arterial blood pressure, walking, etc. As with any performance, performance of physiological activities admit of qualities of performance, for example, efficient or faulty regulation of arterial blood pressure, slow or brisk walking, articulate or stuttering speech. In that context, we can take the view that an organism’s performance of the physiological activity of experiencing may admit of different qualities of performance.

Humans can perform the physiological activity of experiencing events of reality “consciously”, a quality of performance that I next show admits of physiological definition. It does not stretch to recognize that performance of the very activity of non-consciously experiencing an event in, say, the external world, itself qualifies as an event of reality (i.e., an event of internal reality). As such it therefore potentially could initiate, within the organism, the performance of the activity of experiencing it as an event of reality, given the organism’s ability to experience events of reality, as I have defined “experiencing” as performed elementally. A cognitively advanced organism might have the ability to receive information about that mental (physiologically-based) activity of its non-conscious experiencing of an event of external reality, leading it to generate an adjustive response.

Performance of the physiological activity of an experiencing-complex consisting concurrently of experiencing the activity of a non-conscious experiencing has the quality we may define as “conscious”, as it speaks appositely to our intuitive conception of “conscious” and our intimate acquaintance with conscious experience. This formulation provides a physiological explanation of “conscious experience” at the most general level of narrative explanation.

A more proximate explanation requires understanding how we perform the physiological activity of receiving and processing the information about our receiving and processing information about objects/events of reality.

See: Dewart L. (Evolution and Consciousness: The Role of Speech in the Origin and Development of Human Nature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989.


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