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David Ray Griffin

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Matter, Consciousness, and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

David Ray Griffin

II. Overcoming Misplaced Concreteness with Regard to Both Matter and Mind


E. Implications of the Bodily Origin of Sensory Perception


“How do we observe nature?” Whitehead asks.  “The conventional answer to this question,” he says, “is that we perceive nature through our senses” (MT, 158).  We are likely, he adds, to narrow this down to sight.  However, he points out, we should be suspicious of this answer.  (For all their talk about suspicion, most philosophers who think of themselves as “postmodern” have remained true believers in this respect.)  This suspicion should follow from what Whitehead has called the “physiological attitude” (SMW, 148).  Besides the fact that we are directly (if only vaguely) aware of the intervention of the body even in visual perception,

every type of crucial experiment proves that what we see, and where we see it, depend entirely upon the physiological functioning of our body. . . . All sense perception is merely one outcome of the dependence of our experience upon bodily functionings.  Thus if we wish to understand the relation of our personal experience to the activities of nature, the proper procedure is to examine the dependence of our personal experiences upon our personal bodies.  (MT, 158f.)  

The most direct way to observe nature, in other words, is to observe it working in ourselves, as it influences our own experience (which is, we recall, as much a part of nature as anything else).  If we are empiricists, we should draw our conclusions about the nature of nature from our best vantage point: “The human body provides our closest experience of the interplay of actualities in nature” (MT, 115).  Of course, many today have adopted a “physiological attitude” with respect to the mind-body relation.  The dominant approach, however, interprets the physiological and psychological evidence in externalist categories derived from sensory perception.  Whitehead means something quite different: an approach that interprets what we know from physiology in terms of what we know about the body from within.  This approach, while including an introspective element, is not a return to introspective psychology in the old sense.  First, as pointed out earlier, the introspective element here does not focus on the high-level, superficial aspects of our experience, even its medium-level mentality, but on the truly fundamental, originating, physical dimension of our experience, in which it takes its rise largely from bodily activities.  Second, it involves a coordination of this internal observation of nature in action with the information acquired from the external physiological approach.  

The moral of Point D must not be forgotten.  The purely external, purely physiological approach to the study of the body is an approach in which “all direct observation has been identified with sense-perception” (AI, 217).  But the central lesson of physiology itself is that sense perception is not direct observation of its objects.  The physiologist looking at my brain is not directly observing my brain cells.  As Whitehead repeatedly stresses, “unless the physicist and physiologist are talking nonsense, there is a terrific tale of complex activity” that occurs between my brain cells and the brain cells and conscious experiences of the observing physiologist (MT, 121).  It is simply credulous to accept the results of sense perception (even if magnified by instruments), accordingly, as giving us direct information, and indeed the only kind of relevant information, about the nature of brain cell activity.  Sensory perception gives very indirect information, mediated through billions of events and then modified by the constructive and abstractive processes of one’s own unconscious and conscious experience.  Although I from within am not consciously aware of my individual brain cells and their “firings” (all this kind of knowledge must come from physiology) and am not even directly aware of the existence of a brain in my head (except perhaps when I have a headache), I do in effect observe the brain insofar as I am directly aware of the kinds of influences that flow into my own experience from it.  And I am conscious of receiving influences from various other portions of my body, such as my eyes, my hands, my skin in general.  The purpose of the present point and the next is to see what can be learned from this direct observation that can be used to interpret the more indirect findings of physiology.  

In speaking of (external) sensory perception thus far, I have for the most part been assuming the equation of it with its dimension of presentational immediacy, which conveys information about the world external to the body.  This information, albeit highly abstract, is still information (when all goes well) about that external world.  As I took pains to stress in Point D, however, sensory perception involves an integration of the perceptual mode of presentational immediacy with that of causal efficacy.  If we attend to that other mode, then even (external) sensory perception tells us something about the body.  The remainder of the present point explores implications of the fact that sensory perception does arise out of our perception in the mode of causal efficacy of our own bodies.  Points F and G will then explore the information directly learned from that mode.  

One thing that an examination of our own sensory perception tells us is based on the recognition that the human body is the “self-sufficient organ of human sense-perception” (AI, 214).  Although generally, to be sure, the body in producing sensory perceptions in us does convey information transmitted through the body from the outside world, this need not be the case: By doing various things with the body, such as with drugs or electrodes, the same kinds of sensory impressions can be generated; and our dreaming activity shows most clearly that the body can be quite self-sufficient in producing sensory imagery.  The pertinent question from this realization is: What does this fact, plus the fact that waking sensory perception normally does convey information about the world external to the body, tell us about the bodily parts themselves? Whitehead’s answer: It tells us that our bodily units must incorporate within themselves aspects of the world beyond themselves.  

Your perception takes place where you are, and is entirely dependent on how your body is functioning.  But this functioning of the body in one place, exhibits for your cognisance an aspect of the distant environment. . . . If this cognisance conveys knowledge of a transcendent world, it must be because the event which is the bodily life unifies in itself aspects of the universe. (SMW, 91–92)

For example, if my sensory perception of the sun arises completely from my prehension of my brain cells and yet my sensory data in some sense correspond to the sun itself (and who really doubts that? ), then my brain cells must in some sense incorporate aspects of the sun into themselves.  This recognition implies that the notion of these cells as “simply located” is false.  The functioning of the brain cells in conveying this information suggests that each cellular event contains a reference to the past world, in this case the events that occurred on the surface of the sun eight minutes ago, and to the future, in this case to my experience that comes immediately after the neuronal events.  (If you doubt that a temporal distinction can be made here, simply think about the cellular events in the eye: They certainly occur prior to the mind’s sensory perception based on data received from them, so in this case the temporal relation is clear.)  Each event seems essentially to prehend aspects of past events and to pass on aspects to future events, which prehend it.  What we know from sensory perception by combining inner and outer knowledge, accordingly, is that bodily cells are analogous to our own experiences, at least in respect to being prehenders.  And if they are prehenders, they cannot be purely spatial entities: They must have an inside, into which the prehended material is taken before it is passed along to subsequent prehenders.  Having an inside would mean that they have an inner duration, which is the time it takes each event to occur—the time between its reception of information and its transmission of this information to subsequent events.  Looking at sensory perception from this perspective, accordingly, gives us a much different idea of the nature of nature than we get simply from the sense data of presentational immediacy alone.

In light of this idea, I will pause to look at a particularly interesting part of McGinn’s argument, which I passed over before.  In discussing intentionality, he says that the most fundamental question is not the nature of its content but “what this directedness, grasping, apprehension, encompassing, reaching out ultimately consists in” (PC, 37).  It is this feature of our own experience that leads McGinn, given his assumption that the mind is ontologically reducible to the brain, to despair of ever solving the mind-body problem in physicalist terms (which would require an epistemic reduction).  “Phenomenologically, we feel that the mind ‘lays hold’ of things out there, mentally ‘grasps’ them, but we have no physical model of what this might consist in.”  To make the point vivid, he says: “If I may put it so: how on earth could my brain make that possible? No ethereal prehensile organ protrudes from my skull!” (PC, 40).

In light of Whitehead’s analysis, we can give a twofold answer.  First, we need not think of the brain as somehow having the ontological unity to prehend other things into the unity of experience that we know directly (“phenomenologically”).  By distinguishing between the brain as a multiplicity and the mind-event as a unification of aspects of brain events into an experiential unity, we can attribute that unifying capacity to the mind.  Second, we can, however, think of each brain cell event as indeed having a grasping or prehensive capacity, by which it unifies aspects of what it has received from beyond itself into an (albeit much less complex and sophisticated) experiential unity.  This means, of course, that we must think of the remainder of the bodily cells in a similar way; for example, those constituting the remainder of the central nervous system must be able to prehend and be prehended so that the information from the surface of the body can be transmitted to the brain cells.  

In any case, besides learning from this dual mode of observation that our bodily units must be prehensive events, we learn that they must embody, to use the current jargon, “qualia.”  This conclusion follows from the same kind of reasoning, being already implicit in the analysis of “secondary qualities” in the previous point.  Sensory qualities such as red as we see it, it is agreed on virtually all sides, do not exist in external nature; for example, the molecules in a red ball are not red as we see it apart from someone’s seeing it, and they certainly do not see red.  But we do see red, and this sensory quality surely arises out of our bodily activities.  It is impossible to understand how, apart from supernatural intervention, this could be so if these bodily activities were purely quantitative in nature, devoid of all qualia.  A naturalistic perspective leads to the inference that our bodily cells must embody qualia of some sort, even if they do not experience them in the same way that we experience them in conscious sensory perception.  That is, cells surely do not enjoy red as we see it.  But perhaps red for them is an emotion.  Perhaps red as it exists throughout most of nature is a subjective form of immediate feeling, whereas it is only in the conscious presentational immediacy of animals with sensory organs that that subjective form is turned into an objective datum projected onto outer things.  “Red as seen,” then, would be a transmutation effected by more or less high-level experiences out of “red as felt. ”  This is a kind of transmutation that requires no supernatural assistance.  

This suggestion, of course, will be widely repudiated out of hand.  Many philosophers will respond angrily, or at least smile knowingly, muttering, “This suggestion violates common sense.”  That is true: It violates soft-core common sense based on an uncritical acceptance of the deliverances of sensory perception reinforced by several centuries of dualistic thinking and language.  Most philosophers (including scientists qua philosophers) have become so strongly enculturated with this soft-core commonsense perspective that they are willing to carry out its implications, to violate several of our hard-core commonsense convictions, even though this leaves them with a violent contradiction between their theories and the presuppositions of their practice, including the practice of formulating theories.  Alternatively, they are willing to countenance an unintelligible dualism, to accept a magical emergentism, or to proclaim the mind-body problem permanently insoluble.  Is Whitehead’s suggestion, in spite of its violation of long-standing soft-core prejudices, not both more rational and more empirical? Do we not indeed have good reason to be suspicious of the conceptions of matter based on (sensory) perception-based categories alone? Has Whitehead not provided good reason to reject the notion that entities in nature in themselves have only the spatial properties that we assign them on the basis of perception in the mode of presentational immediacy? Has he not provided good reason to think, instead, that bodily events involve prehension and therefore an inside? And does that not remove one of the basic reasons for assuming that cells could not experience subjective forms such as emotions of a lowly sort? This is a defensive paragraph, but I do know from experience what kind of response to expect from the suggestion that colors are emotions and that cells could experience them.  My response is an appeal to Searle’s regulative principle that we constantly remind ourselves of what we know for sure.  This carries with it the negative principle that we keep reminding ourselves of what we do not know.  We do not know directly that cells do not feel emotions, and we do not know anything from which this could be deduced.  However, we do know a lot of things that this idea helps us make sense of.  

The present point is based on inference: We derive such and such from our brain, therefore the brain’s units must embody such and such.  The next point appeals to direct experience.

 Posted August 31, 2007


F. Information about Nature Derived from Direct Prehension of Our Bodies


Abbreviations of Works Cited

·          AI Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas

·          SMW Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World

·          MBS John R. Searle, Minds, Brains and Science: The 1984 Reith Lectures

·          MR Galen Strawson, Mental Reality

·          MT Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought

·          PCH Lewis Edwin Hahn, ed., The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne: Library of Living Philosophers XX

·          PR Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology

·          VN Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere


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