ENSO Seminar Series

Consciousness, Conceptual Agency, and the Unbinding Problem

Joel Parthemore

University of Skövde
April 7, 2016, 1 p.m. UTC // April 7, 2016, 1 p.m. in UTC

Much discussion in consciousness studies continues to focus on how inputs from the various sensory modalities combine with internal brain processes to give rise to unified consciousness: the so-called Binding Problem.

For a number of phenomenologists and enactive philosophers, such an approach raises a number of concerns. First, it preoccupies itself with an outdated input/output-based model of cognition which may be useful for certain narrow applications but should, in the main, be rejected in favour of a fundamentally interactive model whose causal flow is not linear (“sense-motivate-plan-act”) but circular -- reflecting certain underlying patterns in the nature of life itself. Second, in line with the first concern, it assumes a problematic distinction between “internal” experience and “external” reality, where these researchers prefer to see an underlying continuity between agent and environment. Finally, by implicitly endorsing a reductive approach to consciousness – whereby, at least in principle, consciousness is fully reducible to simpler physical processes – it focuses on “bottom up” processes where these researchers would rather see a complex interplay between “bottom up” and “top down”. In particular, they would like to distinguish between the coming together of consciousness in terms of its underlying mechanics, and the seemingly unavoidable reality that, phenomenologically speaking, all of us (including, arguably, those who are suffering from various mental health disorders) experience a consciousness that is, from the onset, unified. What begins as unified experience then gets progressively broken down into more and more fine-grained conceptual categories of e.g. sensory modalities, motor actions, “inputs”, “outputs”, thoughts, etc. This “Unbinding” Problem is arguably just as important to understanding subjective experience – and, by extension, individual and collective phenomenology – as the Binding Problem is to understanding the underlying mechanics. Most importantly, perhaps, neither problem can be taken to be more basic, more true to underlying reality than the other.

My most immediate inspiration comes from Marek McGann, who has raised a suggestion along these lines in a couple of conference presentations, along with Shaun Gallagher, with his articulation of the phenomenologists' critical distinction between pre-reflective and fully reflective self consciousness: the difference between "bare" conscious awareness and conscious awareness of conscious awareness. I find support in the writings of Aron Gurwitsch. My most immediate target is someone like Barry Dainton, who just sees more of the Binding Problem where I see the Unbinding Problem instead. The arguments of (in their different ways) Jerry Fodor or Colwyn Trevarthen aside, human beings do not – on most accounts – start life as conceptual agents, even as they are predisposed to understand the world in certain ways and not in others. Likewise, logically at some point in the species’ past, human beings did not have the conceptual agency they do today. One can either make the move certain conceptualists do and claim that experience just is experience to the extent that it is conceptually structured; in which case there is a point, both as individuals and as species, where human beings lack experience and function more or less as Descartes' automata. Or one can make the move that I prefer, that experience (with its seemingly inviolable unity) comes first – even as, for the mature conceptual agent, experience is an inextricable mix of the conceptual and the non-conceptual.

This talk is based on an invited paper for an upcoming special issue of Language and Communication. I do not have a draft of that paper ready for circulation yet but hope to soon after the presentation.

Link to join/watch the seminar: https://plus.google.com/u/0/b/107046608557849026523/events/c5gqib9dkbfnvjasn1324l8u7ao