Monday, November 10, 2008

Grasping the Mind

Is there something curious about the fact of our subjective experience? Is it mysterious? Is it oddly immaterial yet causally efficacious? It can certainly look that way to us. Yet I think Rorty would say that it looks that way because of certain conceptual pictures or stories we adopt about the way the world is.

One of those stories is the scientific story of the world as essentially material or physical and the brain being one of those material things that creates the immaterial mind. Furthermore, causality works through the interaction of the material parts being in physical contact with each other. With this background story, how can the seeming immateriality of a thought or belief have an effect?

There is a way the world is constructed in our dominant worldview due to a philosophical and scientific legacy that causes consciousness to seem curious and uncanny. But it is experienced as curious and uncanny relative to that dominant worldview. The felt experience of subjective consciousness is affected by the contextualizing story we’ve adopted. It would look and feel different if we saw the historical causes of that worldview which divides the world in numerous ways – subject and object, mind and matter, private and public - before we even observe, examine and start reflecting upon our subjective experience.

So the brute, self-evident, direct looking at the objects of our internal world isn’t so direct even though it seems like it. It’s not direct because to look at something and perceive it requires a mentality that is already conditioned in various ways: it is infused with meaningful understandings through language; it has a reason to direct its attention; it has a directedness of attention; it perceives what is seen, identifying the thing seen as this and not that. While it feels like there is a “sheer having” of a pain, we can question whether it is “sheer” or unmediated.

We don’t have to doubt the having of pain. But do we have contact with it, pain, in its raw, unadulterated form? To say yes is to open an investigation into this basic datum of experience and perhaps to try to build a theory of knowledge out of it. Rorty would say that it’s been tried and we now know it’s better not to go down that unproductive philosophical road.