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Qualia and Attention (Sense and Motive)

Color, Qualia, and Attention: A Non-standard Interpretation

Austen Clark, University of Connecticut.

Abstract. A standard view in philosophy of mind is that qualia and phenomenal character require consciousness. This paper argues that various experimental and clinical phenomena can be better explained if we reject this assumption. States found in early visual processing can possess qualitative character even though they are not in any sense conscious mental states. This non-standard interpretation bears the burden of explaining what must be added to states that have qualitative character in order to yield states of sensory awareness or sensory experience. I argue that the study of selective attention reveals resources that can be useful in that project. Two traditional objects are briefly considered.

An interesting line of thought on the role of selective awareness or paying attention in defining what we mean by qualia. The author brings up blindsight and describes the difference between the Standard Interpretation (quoting David Chalmers “‘To be conscious’ in this sense is roughly synonymous with ‘to have qualia’…”) and his Non-Standard interpretation which allows for a measure of ‘liquidity’ in sensation as modulated by attention. In this way, Clark explains how phenomena like blindsight can give us functional sight capacities without the phenomenological experience of seeing.

I suggest another Non-Standard interpretation, different from both mentioned views, in which it is not a question of whether it is qualia or not but whose qualia it is. In blindsight, I would say that the subject is not consciously aware of the optical stimuli at all, so there is no qualia for them, but that doesn’t mean that there are not experiences at the sub-conscious, or sub-personal level which have qualia.

What has been damaged is the connection between one area of the brain and another, but rather than a monolithic model of consciousness that sees a short-circuit preventing all access to identifying signals, I suggest a model of human consciousness that uses many overlapping channels of perception and meta-perception. Just as we may know something but have difficulty recalling it into conscious awareness, we feel the connection tantalizingly ‘on the tip of our tongue’. A quick Googling or mention by someone else can yield an instant positive match. There is a continuum of possible extents to which we are aware of what we are aware or not aware of. What falls outside of our direct awareness in one sense modality can manifest in other sense channels or even cached in general intuitive potential sense which does not present itself unless prompted.

Where Clark gets into attending to or directing focus, he says “to ‘pay attention to’ x is to alter the configuration of gates and channels inside one’s head so that representations of x, and not of other things, receive the benefit of further central processing.”. I like the direction he is going with pointing out the inhibitory function of attention and compare it with my own ideas about subtractive mechanics. I would model paying attention as a manipulation of your own ‘tolerance aperture’. The more you pay attention to something, the more tolerant you become to changes outside of your focus so that intense changes can still get your attention but the threshold for it is directly proportional to the intensity of your focus.

In addition to a higher threshold for distraction, I would say that there is a contraction of proprietary investment. We can sit on our leg in a funny way for a long time, vaguely aware of our discomfort, but for that time when we are otherwise mentally occupied, the discomfort is somewhat disowned. We may in fact be passively dissociating our entire leg on a temporary basis.

Besides the nuanced tug of war between personal level or executive processing level of awareness and the subconscious levels, I would have to say that even our top level awareness is part of a larger schema of consciousness than we can empirically test. Just as we may sense that a word is on the tip of our tongue, we may feel that something feels off about the whole day but we don’t know what. We may not even be aware that we feel that way until something happens that crystallizes the foreshadowed event.

These kinds of passive constellations of unfelt feelings or unknown intuitions I include in the concept of inertial frames of perception. Rather than redrawing our life anew every moment, I think that we retain our experiences like a tapestry, we are the embodiment of it in fact, so that when something changes us the part which is changed feels it directly. The memory of who we were and are is addressed directly, as if pulling on the thread that runs through many areas of the weave.

Tying these concepts of selective attention and perception, I turn to my concept of sense-motive dynamics. Clark says “In the guard caught unawares the channels between the receipt of sensory information and the engagement of selective attention, are, unfortunately, closed, or at least attenuated”. The receipt of sensory information corresponds to afferent (incoming) sensation or ‘sense’ while the outbound ‘engagement of selective attention’ is what I call ‘motive’. The transition from passive receipt to active engagement can be understood when we see that the notion of mere receipt of sense data is not adequate. That kind of description only accounts for ‘information’ and not who it is that is being informed. It presumes a modular-fragmented information processing model rather than an integral-gestalt significance model. Experience is not generic ‘input’, it is participatory theater on many levels of simultaneous interpretation.

Where he talks about perceptual representations having a figurative liquidity, I say let it be concrete. What we pay attention to are not representations but presentations in their own right – human scale presentations with anthropological caliber significance. What is increased through the intensity, exclusivity, and proprietary investment of our attention is the motive power of those presentations. This is the interior correlate to energy. I have referred to energy as ‘the show’ – how the vast latent potential of all events is actualized as a ‘here and now’ live show. We do the same thing with our awareness, converting one form of attention to another, concentrating our oceanic sense passivity into a narrow motive sequence.

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  1. May 1, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    I basically agree that qualia are not in themselves conscious. My argument can be seen in the collection I have edited (‘The Case for Qualia’, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008) in both my introduction to the book and in my own contribution to it (pages 8 to 22, and 345-50). Consciousness is established by attention, and attention is driven by motivation — our desires and fears. A mutation born without any neural connection between the qualia and motivation modules could have vivid qualia fields but no consciousness.

    • May 16, 2012 at 8:04 pm

      I wasn’t sure how to respond to this, I had to think about it and then I forgot to get back to it. I think I get what you are saying and agree. It makes sense too as far as my thinking on the symbol grounding problem (Chinese Room, Leibniz windmill, etc.). The meaning of the world is generated by the drive and motivation of the thing, *not* by its behavior. Something that changes a person’s behavior from the outside in may end up changing their motivation and therefore their understanding (ie, learning from our mistakes), but if it isn’t a person, there is no reason to believe that we can turn it into a person by making it behave like one.

      In a complex organism like a human, I agree that you could have a mind with qualia but no consciousness. On a simpler scale, I’m not so sure. If human consciousness is an awareness of awareness of awareness (say to the ninth power) then we can lose the top level meta-awareness and still have the story of our lives continue on without ‘us’. For simpler organisms, that may not be the case. Qualia may be either experienced directly or it doesn’t exist.

  2. May 16, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    I took two courses with Austin Clark at Uconn, Philosophy of Consciousness and Philosophy of Perception. He is a realist in the mode of Patricia Churchland. He is very good at talking like a philosopher, but has no clue about consciousness.

    I note that I have read everything there is to read about blindsight. I agree with your conclusion that there was physical damage at the cellular level. That damage has blocked the transfer of information between the body and the mind. Hence, only body consciousness is aware of any movements. The mind is unaware of those. The experiments relating to blindsight are easily understood within that framework. Prof. Clark has his own form of blindsight with respect to consciousness. Only his body is conscious. He is oblivious of even the possibility of a non-physical mind.

    By the way, if you want to understand the basis of physical perception, consider reading Timaeus 45c., Plato’s theory of emanations.

    • May 16, 2012 at 8:12 pm

      Thanks I probably should read Plato at some point, since I seem to be circling around some of his ideas. Yes, there are a lot of people who seem to be incapable of conceiving of psyche outside of the nuts and bolts of matter. It’s so common that I have begun to think of it like gender or handedness – it’s just not in the cards for them to understand things that way. That’s ok, I have my limits too. Throw in some symbolic notation and explanations without any concrete examples and I get lost right away. I seem to be only interested in theories that fit reality but I think the norm is for people to try to make reality fit a theory.

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