The Nature of Conscious Experience


A General Metaphysic

A working summary and some implications for language

The following is an attempt to give a concise summary of a contemporary version of a metaphysical approach first clearly formulated by Gottfried Leibniz and significantly developed by Alfred North Whitehead. Because the approach reverses several intuitive assumptions about the world any concise formulation tends to be hard to read - both Leibniz's and Whitehead's accounts are notoriously difficult. The summary given here assumes familiarity with a number of issues in both philosophy and physics. The background to these issues and the detailed arguments justifying the claims made are explored in the essay Reality, Meaning and Knowledge

The universe is constituted by occasions of experience, which might also be called histories of simple dynamic modes. ‘Experience’ can be construed purely operationally, as a dynamic relation between mode and universe. However, there are two reasons to invoke a subjective aspect. Firstly, this places human subjective experience in a unified metaphysic. Secondly, physics provides no other ‘actual’ aspect, only an abstract mathematical structure of potential relations. Actuality for a mode is the only actuality we have reason to think exists.

Neither modes nor occasions are parts because they do not sum to the universe. Each mode is a dynamic asymmetry of the entire universe. (In loose metaphor, if the universe is a stretched sheet of Lycra, an occasion might be the whole sheet pulled at a point.) Modes can be at any scale. Modes have no bearers but might themselves be considered substances in the Cartesian sense of individuals dependent only on the universe and its laws.

Each occasion is the history of a simple dynamic mode or unit of change. The entire nature of this mode is its entering into an occasion that is the co-operation of the dynamic disposition, or entelechy, of the mode and the disposition of the rest of the universe, as manifest to the mode as a field of potentials, to inform the mode’s actual dynamic history. This co-operation of dispositions cannot be broken down into components. Since the mode has no other nature, it is for this reason that it is simple. Even the dynamic entelechy of the mode, as described free of context, as in ‘negative charge’, and any account of the dispositional manifestation of the universe to the mode, may be considered abstractions from a single event with one-to-all asymmetry.

The modes of occasions correspond to dynamic quantised modes of modern physics. These modes may be occupied by one or more quanta (in the sense of 'packets' rather than just energy steps) that are not in themselves separate modes. A mode equates to an episode of superposition of a particular dynamic pattern. There are no real persistent individuals that are ‘bearers’ of such modes, such as ‘this electron’, since there is often no fact of the matter ‘which quantum is which’. Thus, ‘an electron’ is a sequence of many occasions. There are no particles in a traditional sense, just local causal connections; a mode is purely a dynamic unit of change distributed in a domain of spacetime. Once this change is manifest (locally) the mode ceases to exist.

The occasion of a mode yields manifest ‘outcomes’ that form the real basis of ‘information’ or ‘determinate values’ in quantum theory. However, although traditionally described as ‘position of a particle’ etc. these outcomes only ever exist as features (in general, potentials) of a single indivisible universal field, domains of which are variably manifest to other modes in further occasions. Thus, there are no ‘objects’ in the sense of individuals manifest to something, the only individuals other than the universe are subjects, to which a domain of the universal field is manifest. (An critical distinction is made here between mode and field. A mode is a dynamic individual. A field is a determinate pattern of values of a variable that results from many dynamic individuals. This contributes ‘formal causation’ but not as individuals, only as the pattern of the universe.) Thus, there are no real sub-fields of the universe except in the reflected sense of that part of the universal field that is non-trivially manifest to a dynamic mode.

An occasion has a spacetime domain of non-trivial occurrence constrained by both the dynamic disposition of the mode and the speed of light. (Related in principle to a light cone but more an ‘occasion ellipsoid’.) Within this domain there is no time-dependent ‘point of view’. The mode has one indivisible relation to all features of the field of its entire domain. Within an occasion there is no sequence, no before and after, only a block spacetime metric, in which time is as directionless as space. The nature of the mode involved, and its dynamic entelechy, is as dependent on its outcome as on its inception, so there is no sense in which anything has ‘happened’ or ‘is thus and so’ until the occasion is complete. Sequence is the way occasions connect: it is inter-occasional, not intra-occasional. In a sense, nothing is changing, or dynamic, within an occasion. Occasions are dynamic or ‘causal’ by dint of connecting in sequences. This feature of occasions is almost impossible to form intuitive metaphors for, creating the illusion of violation of locality.

The general framework proposed draws heavily on both Leibniz and Whitehead. There is also common ground with Ladyman’s Structural Realism in that modes are purely dynamic and relational. However, there is a distinction, potentially with all three, in that there are no real relations A to B in a universe of occasions A,B… N, only relations A to universe. Apparent relations A to B are abstractions from the consequent total ‘progress in harmony’. This harmony is ensured by the fact that all dynamic dispositions of modes are patterns of asymmetry of the universe rather than by relations between individuals. This marries with Leibniz’s view that the dynamic disposition or entelechy of a mode or ‘Monad’ is in fact a disposition of the universe (‘law of God’) not of an autonomous individual.

The universe is manifest to a dynamic mode as a single unified pattern. Local features of this pattern may be described in terms of information or values. However, a more neutral term like data might be preferable. Information and values are abstractions that only exist in the context of a complex system that can calibrate and collate features gathered by diverse paths, such as a nervous system in a mobile body equipped with clocks and rulers. The form in which a universal pattern is manifest to a mode is ineffable to other modes but to a human subject it is as ‘ideas’ or ‘qualia’ as defined by the experience of that subject.

Since collation systems like brains involve long sequences of occasions any ‘information’, ‘value’ or ‘meaning’ derived from such collation that seems to be presented in an occasion can only be a sign of something inferred about a feature or pattern in one or more distant previous occasions. This is the basis of intentionality (not to do with intention). Intentionality is puzzling only because lay culture conflates direct experience with knowledge. Knowledge is much more complex, requiring several types of convergent pathway to give meanings like spatiotemporal values. We should perhaps not be surprised that our internal occasions seem ‘like landscapes’ or ‘like writing’ since our instinctive ideas of ‘what things are like’ are so ill-founded. The mystery is how manifest signs come to have spatiotemporal and other such meanings, not why the meaning seems to be ‘misapplied’.

It follows from the above that the space and time of our experience are in no way analogous to the spacetime metric of occasions. There is no sense in which domains of the universe are spacious or long-lasting in the way we sense things to be. Our experience is of manifestations interpreted by the subject mode as signs of dispositional features abstracted from aggregates of prior occasions. The meanings of these signs and the way they combine are what they are because of the way evolution of our nervous systems has been sustained by the dynamics of certain types of cellular interaction. They are neither veridical nor non-veridical because occasions do not in themselves have any appearances; only their outcomes have ineffable manifestations within other occasions to which they connect.

All our contact with the world is through evanescent Bose mode-based occasions. The photons of light are familiar. Less familiar are the acoustic or elastic Bose modes that not only mediate sound, but also inhabit the domains of the ordered structures we call ‘objects’, like cups, chairs, etc.. These modes are entailed by spatial asymmetries. Their existence as real entities might be considered doubtful, partly because they tend to have adequate traditional descriptions and partly because their wavefunctions give values for variables that may be unmeasurable in practice or may have no obvious interpretation. Nevertheless, physics requires that these modes carry energy, quantized in terms of ‘phonons’ just as modes of electromagnetic radiation are quantized in terms of photons. Moreover, modes occupy familiar objects even if there is no overt acoustic ‘vibration’ (they may have negative energy) being entailed simply by the ordered structure of the object. They are the real vaseness that ceases to exist when it shatters.

Occasions of experience for human subjects can be expected to relate to such phononic modes, since these are the modes that have domains tied to ordered structures above the atomic level, relatively insensitive to changes at the individual molecular level. Their dynamics relate to long-range spatial order in electromagnetic phenomena and so may couple to local perturbations in electrical potential as in piezoelectric and flexoelectric effects. Such coupled modes can be expected to occupy the dipolar membranes of individual excitable (nerve) cells and support occasions in which the universe is non-trivially manifest to the phononic mode in the form of the pattern of electrical potentials at synapses. The idea of an individual cell being a human experiencing subject is unfamiliar but has a 300 year pedigree and there are several independent neurobiological arguments that support it. The ~1,000-50,000 degrees of freedom of the field of incoming potentials should support an appropriate richness of manifestation. Networks of cells cannot support single occasions since by definition a network is an aggregate of events related by sequence.

As indicated by Whitehead, we can expect experiences of modes within brains to differ greatly from any, subjectively ineffable, experiences of modes we may postulate in the inanimate world. The patterns manifest to modes in nerve cells will show high level complex order based on the collative functions of other nerve cells providing their inputs, evolved to carry a biologically advantageous ‘narrative’. The narrative meaning of this ordered pattern of input will also depend on the dynamic entelechy (perhaps flexoelectric) of the receiving mode, based on detailed parameters of cell structure that have evolved to mediate useful responses. Aspects of human experience such as a sense of space and time may relate in some specific way to the nature of the spatial asymmetry on which our modes are based. However, at this time speculation on the determinants of meaning to the human subject is difficult to justify beyond simple issues such as the number of degrees of freedom involved.

The asymmetry within occasions generates a duality that is invisibly embedded in natural language. What is manifest in any occasion is entailed by the sum of all past dynamics (changes), so all manifestations prior to that of the current occasion are redundant to description. On the other hand, change is usually described in terms of the manifestation it is expected to give rise to. The result for current natural language is a conflation of dynamics and manifestation in the meanings of individual words and a good degree of conflation in terms of our intuitive world view. However, our language faculty has the capacity to allocate relatively ‘dynamic’ or ‘manifest’ interpretations each time a word is encountered in a complete sentence in its non-verbal context such that the sentence couples to pre-established associations of dynamics and manifestations in the hearer to generate an increment of information.

Knowledge of the world is not just a matter of experience. All that we can know of the outside world is its patterns of change, since the manifestations of those changes in other occasions are not directly accessible. Patterns of change can only be inferred by collation of inputs from multiple paths. Signs for these patterns of change must then be manifest to a subject. Knowledge of the world draws on calibration of inputs in both space and time. Calibration in space depends on relative movement of the knowing creature. Calibration in time can be achieved by internal biological clocking (as provided by refractory periods and oscillations in resting potentials in neurons). This means that external ‘physical’ events can be allocated to distinct places and times, but internal ‘mental’ events, because there are no moving parts in a brain, can only be allocated to distinct times. This is probably the main basis for the idea of an ontological contrast between mental and physical.

It seems likely that for most creatures most of the time the occasions of experience in their brains that receive a narrative of the world only receive a narrative couched in the spatiotemporal terms of the outside world. Internal events may be monitored, but largely at a ‘subpersonal’ level. The boundary between ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ in this context is subtle and leaky. A pain in the foot would be ‘physical’. An episode of thinking about a pain in the foot would be mental. It seems reasonable to suggest that the novel feature of human thought is a more sophisticated ability to allocate and store episode and sequence recall tags for internal mental events independent of their relation to outside world events. A cat may have an idea of a mouse not present but may not have an idea of an episode of thinking about a mouse. The extra cataloguing mechanism required may be only a slight modification of top down feedback routines in perception and memory for outside events.

Implication for language

The cataloguing of internal events by episode or sequence, independent of outside world event episodes, may be central to the faculty of language. If the cataloguing system is available at birth and ready for use an infant may be able to relate sequences of signs to dynamic episodes in a way dissociated from the immediate spatial environment. They may not yet have any conception of what mental might mean or even that they are a ‘person’ or that noises come from another person. All they need is the ability to retrieve ideas of goings on (the cat sitting on the mat), allocated to a spatially unspecified ‘non-now episode’, in response to sensory inputs (i.e. words) that can be used to infer causal relation purely through sequence without being tied to current spatial context. Sound seems particularly well suited to this, although a well-developed faculty of language clearly can make use of visual signs. Most of the significance of sounds comes from sequence rather than spatial relation. Moreover, even our hearing of sounds in ‘now episodes’ is usually an ‘integrated replay’ following the completion of the primary pattern of sensory stimuli, which, if unfamiliar, we tend to repeat in ‘inner voice’ several times.

Such an outside world-independent temporal cataloguing system would allow sequences of noises made by a member of a group returning from a day’s walkabout to be used by others to infer patterns of change not occurring at that time but at a previous time. Four pig-like snorts followed by a decrescendo rhythmic clattering could indicate that four pigs had been seen but had run off. The temporal sequence could be put to inferential use independent of the current spatial world framework of sitting round the fire. Syntactical rules for language may not need anything very new. I suspect that all manifestations, including visual percepts, are interpreted in human occasions of experience according to syntactical rules that closely resemble those of language. I would expect features of world dynamics inferred from both temporal (e.g. for sound) and spatial (e.g. for vision) relations in sensory inputs to be encoded in the synaptic potentials of dendritic trees in a way much more similar to linguistic syntactic trees than to pixels in an LED screen.

A sophisticated soft-wired temporal cataloguing of mental episodes would allow the language to develop far beyond the stereotyped version of bees, (whose language probably uses no temporal catalogue). It would equally allow the development of a sense of the world being populated by both purely physical and mental/physical objects (and hybrids) and theory of mind. I also wonder whether human music reflects the use of contrasting pitch in sound sequences as an early form of grammatical device, superseded in verbal communication when tongue and lip movement became more sophisticated.