Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Camera of Consciousness

Perhaps my favourite of the mind-boggling Big Questions is the one that asks, "Why am I me and not someone else?"

Note that this is not really a question about ontological identity. It's not like asking why this chair is not instead a table, or anything silly like that. I'm not asking why the physical object denoted by 'Richard Chappell' is not instead some other object. That would be silly. Rather, it is a question about the location of my consciousness. I am asking why I (the Cartesian 'pure ego') happen to have my 'camera of consciousness' located in Richard Chappell. Why isn't my camera located somewhere else? Why don't I instead see the world from some other perspective?

Nor is it a question about access consciousness per se. Richard Chappell can only access the information that is stored in his brain. He doesn't have direct access to the brains of other people. He isn't surprised by this (and nor am I). What is surprisingly is the locative fact that I = Richard Chappell. Again, why am I - the disembodied metaphysical subject of experience that I am - not somebody else instead?

It seems that the only sensible answer is that I am not a disembodied metaphysical subject of experience! There does not exist any 'pure ego' above and beyond the physical object that is Richard Chappell. I am reducible to him. No doubt Dennett would dismiss my 'camera of consciousness' metaphor as every bit as pernicious and misleading as the Cartesian Theatre (you know, that place where consciousness 'happens'). But it's so difficult not to think of consciousness and selfhood in terms of these 'pictures', misleading though they may be. It's especially difficult to reject them when we lack sufficiently clear and developed alternative pictures to replace them with. *sigh*


  1. Why do we assume we have direct access to the contents of our brain? I don't think that obvious at all. Indeed I think we have only indirect access.

    Further if main thought emerges out of my brain, in what we is an external sign different? That is, why should we assume a clear divide between what is my brain and what isn't my brain in terms of function. We certainly can do so in terms of kinds of nerves and so forth. But at a certain point, when considering content, it seems somewhat artificial.

    Further assume for the moment you have identical twins (and thus identical DNA) and we construct a bridge out of manufactured nerves using stem cells. This nerve connection would be cellularly identical to the brain composition. Now we link up the two twins brains. We could do this simply, say redirecting some visual signals, or more deeply.

    Now are they two brains or one? Two minds or one? If such a thing is possible (and I don't see any biological reason why it isn't at this stage of science) then the very notion of limiting "self" to brain starts to seem quaint. After all does it really make sense if, instead of using stem cells, we construct the communication network out of copper wires?

    At what point must we assume communication is no longer direct?

    I bring this up simply because we say it is direct if it occurs as signals in brain tissue and indirect if it uses light outside of my body, air waves, or touch, to discern the information. While that is nice and typically helpful in the normal kinds of dialogues we have. I don't think we ought assume it to entail a real distinction.

  2. Yeah, I think you're right. (This reminds me of the old thread about "public minds".)

    I think what I meant to say, in that sloppy comment about "direct access", is that it isn't surprising that I do not experience other people's thoughts first-hand in that same way as I experience my own consciousness. Some (not all) of the information in my head is accessible to me. The situation is different with respect to other people's heads. Their neural processes are not so intimately connected with my own.

    You might want to argue that even this is not a strict or principled difference-in-kind, due to communication. Fair enough. At that stage I was mainly just wanting to spell out the standard 'picture' of mind that comes naturally to me. As later noted, this picture is misleading in many respects -- and I guess you've highlighted another way in which this is so.


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