Phenomena from Inside and Out

I use the word “phenomenon” to mean appearance. This is the sense assigned to it by the philosophical discipline known as phenomenology.

In this note I consider three standpoints, moving from an attitude in which the world is taken as directly present to the mind, next to theorizing the existence of an external world which differs from appearance, through to a stance in which mind and world are both present as topics of contemplation. By considering these standpoints one by one, a picture emerges of how the world of phenomena and the world of physical objects might fit together. The last part of the note concerns how the phenomenon that arises from the above image differs in structure from the image itself, with consequences for consciousness.

Phenomena from the inside

The natural attitude, as Husserl called it, is the mental state in which the world seems to present itself directly to the mind. Consider a person (Alfred, say) looking at a coffee cup, as pictured, who holds the natural attitude. From our external point of view we see that the content of his mind includes, not the ceramic coffee cup itself surely, but the appearance (phenomenon) of the cup. Alfred in his natural attitude does not look at things this way. For him, the cup is simply present to him, and he has no thought of appearance vs reality. Alfred sees the cup, not the phenomenon of the cup. The phenomenon, which is not in any way a topic of Alfred’s awareness, is the mechanism by which the cup becomes present to him. Alfred, as it were, experiences the phenomenon from the inside.

Husserl describes a way to make phenomena as such visible to the inward eye, called “bracketing” or “epoché”, but that lies outside of the scope of this note.

Objects

By “object” in this context, I mean a physical object.

We all know that appearances can deceive. What looks like a stick could be a snake. More generally, science holds that the things we see are vast collections of particles, which in turn emanate from fields. Thus there arises a wide gap between any phenomenon, and the theorized entity in the external world which gives rise to it. The phenomenon of a coffee cup has its particular shape, color, degree to which it is full, and so on. But no elementary particles appear in the phenomenon. On the other hand, color is a property of the phenomenon, but not of the physical object (color is related to many physical attributes, but cannot be identified with any of them).

Science provides a theory of the world which is in its essence mathematical. Fields and the particles to which they give rise are understood by physicists via mathematical abstractions, and the mainstream scientific view is that all things are collections of these constituents. However, the physical world, even if it is made up of fields and particles, admits multiple levels of description which exhibit their own basic constituents and laws. Among these are the levels entertained by the various scientific disciplines: (1) particle physics (2) chemistry (3) biology (4) psychology. Particular varieties of physical things have levels of description which are appropriate to their kind. Consider computers. In this case the relevant levels are: (1) particle physics (2) circuit-level description (gates, voltages, currents) (3) software, where the computer is described as a device executing a program (4) application level — the program usually implements an activity that can be described in its own terms.

Within the sciences, all these descriptions deal with their subject matters as mathematical structures — as sets of basic entities with relations among them and laws governing their behavior. The question of what, for example, an electron “really is”, can only be answered by the physicist by specifying how it fits into the mathematical structures given by the standard model and quantum field theory. Science as it has been practiced since Galileo “tells us only about the form or structure of the unobservable world and not about its nature” (see structural realism).

Here we see a stark contrast between objects as understood by science and phenomena. For example, the color of a coffee cup as it appears to us (i.e. the color of the cup as phenomenon), constitutes a wholly individual sensation. It is not possible to talk about what this sensation is using mathematical or scientific language — at least within the Galilean paradigm. The sensation has an intrinsic nature, unlike any mathematical object posited by the sciences. And we only know of the sensation from the inside — only we ourselves experience it. Another person’s sensation cannot become an object of perception for us.

Elementary sensations such as color or pain are called “qualia” by philosophers.

More complex experiences, however, such as the experience of shape, entail structure, and that structure in turn is often describable in mathematical terms. That is, some phenomena do have their mathematical aspects.

Phenomena from the outside

In what follows, I take naturalism (of the non-reductive kind) as a starting point : the position that the physical world is governed by natural laws, and that the brain, considered as a physical object obeys those laws. I do not claim that this position is the only rational one to take, only that the observations that I make are consistent with it.

From this naturalistic standpoint, an obvious question is “what are phenomena?” We know they exist, but how might they arise?

One possible answer involves the sorts of levels of description that I cited earlier. For the brain, the levels might be something like: (1) particle physics (2) chemistry (3) biology of neurons (4) neural circuits … (P) the level of representation of phenomena. This is the proposal: consciousness is a word for what it is like to be the brain from the inside, and that consciousness emanates from the particular level of description of the brain designated as (P), where the shapes, colors, patterns, that we experience find direct representation (this position is spelled out in more detail in an earlier article, and is a form of emergentism). Consciousness is not an additional thing pasted onto the natural world, but the view from the inside of a particular sort of natural thing (a human or animal brain).

Phenomena exist in two ways. First, in the internal way: they are appearances of things for us, denizens of our internal landscape, the representational underpinnings of the objects that we experience . Second, from the external point of view — from the standpoint of thinking about the mind as a thing in the world — phenomena are entities in the brain viewed from the proper level of description (which I have called level P, the level of phenomena). We don’t know much of anything yet about level P, but can postulate its existence. Someday, it might be accessible to brain science. Phenomena are sequences of neural events in the same reductionist and useless sense that a coffee cup is a bunch of quarks, bosons, and so on. What phenomena really are, viewed from the outside, are structures at the postulated level P.

So, from the external standpoint, phenomena are essentially mathematical structures. As such, they cannot possess qualia, and thus exhibit a profound and mysterious gap with how they are experienced from the inside. If we ever achieve a good understanding of level P, perhaps we will be able to observe correlates of qualia in the structures at that level, but never the qualia themselves. However, we can expect to see the mathematical aspects of phenomena, such as shape, represented in the structures at level P.

The Presence of objects vs the Presence of phenomena

Consider the image at the top of this note. As an object it is an array of pixels on your screen. Can the phenomenon which arises in your mind when you gaze upon it be described as a copy of that array, using neurons rather than pixels as substrate? No!

We can say something like “it is a patterned image, and the pattern takes the form a grid whose elements are roughly circular in the center, but which become more diamond-shaped and faint as one goes out from that center”. Many other such observations are possible. The pattern is present to us in two ways. First there is the inward sense that we apprehend it just as it is. Second, this sense is backed up by our ability to talk or write about the pattern. What does this say about the phenomenon, the inward thing in our mind that arises when we see the image? Well, it is far from a passive mirror of the pixels of the image, because it comes with all sorts of determinations about the pattern, as exemplified by the quoted description above. The determinations have causal force, since they are involved in the production of speech or writing. This in turn involves the firing of scads of neurons. That is, the phenomenon contains, as a mental object, and in its neural encoding, representations of pattern in causally effective form. For example, one determination in the phenomenon is “this is grid-like”, and this determination is directly available to awareness. However, there is no such determination to be found in the array of pixels.

The determinations such as those illustrated above are present in the phenomenon even if they are not put into spoken or written form. For example, we are aware of the grid structure even if there is no occasion to talk about it (the usual case). The phenomenon contains a structured multitude of determinations about the pattern. We can choose to attend, or not, to any of these determinations, but they are present to our awareness in any case. It is the same as a scene with extensive detail. Only part of it is attended to at any given moment (perhaps none of it). But the internal feeling is that it is all present to us, backed up by the knowledge that we can shift our attention at any moment to any part of it.

There is nothing that corresponds to these determinations/representations in the physical image — no causal force is possessed by the pattern. Even though the pattern exists physically, no effects result, except for the effects on entities that observe it as we do. Thus, the physical image and the phenomenon have essentially different structures.

There is a connection to George Berkeley’s famous unobserved tree, which he took to be non-existent, as a consequence of his idealistic position:

The objects of sense exist only when they are perceived; the trees therefore are in the garden […] no longer than while there is somebody by to perceive them”.

The pattern presents a different variant of the question, meaningful even for a realist such as myself. For the realist, a tree would certainly be taken to exist regardless of observers. The difference to our pattern is this: the tree is part of a forest, in which its existence will have many effects, mingling with the overall system of the forest. In the unobserved pattern, however, we have something with no effects. It is a sort of singleton entity in the universe, altogether isolated from everything else. Maybe we should call it existent, but if so it must have the lowest possible grade of existence. Only our eyes and minds can bring it up into another grade. Again, the main point is that the phenomenon arising from the pattern is altogether unlike its sterile origin.

The notion of a pattern applies to sound as well a sight. Unheard music has the same isolation of its pattern from the rest of the world, the same low grade of existence, as any unseen visual pattern.

I can ask another question. I know what it is like (in Thomas Nagel’s phrase) to be the physical object that is me, but not what it is like to be other things. Also, I know, from the inside, what the phenomenon arising from a pattern is like, but not what the pattern is like in itself, whatever that means. But if we are on the right track here, the phenomenon, viewed from the outside, is a mathematical object too, just as the pattern is, but with different characteristics (including the causal characteristics noted above). Something endows me and my phenomena with that ingredient of a “what it is like”-ness, which one might call Presence. What is the range of this something? Hard to know, very hard! If the range extends everywhere, as the panpsychists would have it, we can at least conclude that phenomena for us and the objects from which they arise are radically different.

Yet another question is this: phenomena need to be phenomena for some subject. In other words, to be like something is to have that quality for some entity (as far as we know). What are the minimal conditions on the entity to host a phenomenon in such a way that it is Present? To begin with, the entity must be an object whose physical structure supports phenomena from the outward view. It must have a level P, that is, a level of description in which reside mathematical objects with the attributes that we expect of phenomena, such as shape, motion, pattern and so forth. Of course, at the current stage of knowledge, it is not possible to specify the details of this requirement. Attributes of phenomena that we happen to know of from our own case cannot be expected to be universal.

The panpsychists would say, I think, that no phenomena and no host are even needed for Presence; all objects have it to begin with. But for whom? The mind of God?

Without embracing panpsychism, it is possible to imagine from our own experience that quite minimal hosting is adequate. Consider the moment of being confronted with the pattern at the head of this note. That would seem to be a case of Presence of the pattern, even if it is not involved in the complexities of your other mental processes. You might attend to it only for a second, and it might play no role in your plans, memories, or anything else beyond that one moment when your gaze turned to it. So it would seem that awareness does not need much from its host beyond bare existence.

It might seem that way at first anyway. But from the inside this would be a matter of being the phenomenon, not apprehending it. For Presence that is anything like our own, a minimal structure of self-awareness is needed: the entity needs to possess the idea that there is a self and a world, and that the phenomenon constitutes the appearance of an external object to the self. In the minimal self-model only these bare concepts would appear, without elaboration. So, Presence would require the idea of Presence. By “idea” I don’t mean an idea formulated in language. Perhaps “model” would be a better term. In any case, the idea or model needs to be endowed with Presence, too, in the sense that it must be felt to be true from within the entity. But without the idea, the phenomenon would stand alone without being Present to any entity, or pointing outward to any world — hence a very different thing than our own phenomena.

Note that I have been trying to determine the requirements for consciousness (i.e. possessing “what it is like” — ness) starting from the phenomena and working my way out. I’ll note that the requirement posited just above corresponds well to Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of the essence of consciousness as expressed near the beginning of “Transcendence of the Ego”:

The existence of consciousness, indeed, is an absolute, because consciousness is consciousness of itself; in other words, the type of existence that consciousness has is that it is consciousness of itself. And it becomes consciousness of itself insofar as it is consciousness of a transcendent object. Everything in consciousness is thus pure and lucid: the object lies opposite of it, in its characteristic opacity, but consciousness, for its part, is purely and simply the consciousness of being consciousness of this object: this is the law of its existence.