The First Person

Avoiding the problems of consciousness

Robert Pallbo © 2001

Unpublished draft, last revision 2001

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To explain experience, an identity and a first person perspective is needed. Frequently, experience is treated separately from the other aspects of the mind, such as the cognitive abilities. Unfortunately this easily leads to the idea of a border between what is experienced and what is not. In this paper it is argued that from the perspective of the first person such a border does not exist and that it would be a category mistake to address it. In accordance with this idea, it is asserted that the first person perspective cannot be treated as a separate problem but must be a result of how the cognitive abilities are organized. To accomplish this, the mind can be seen as an evolutionary process with organizational closure. That way the mind obtains an identity meaning that there is something that is the mind and therefore something that it is like to be this very mind.
Extended abstract
Explaining consciousness is difficult. If we do not understand the cause of the difficulties, it is even more so. A scientific approach to consciousness should therefore begin with an analysis of these difficulties. Without one, we cannot go but blindly.

I argue that our difficulties to explain consciousness emerge from our assumptions of how consciousness arise. We tend to split the world into two parts. On the one hand, there is the first person and its conscious experience. One the other, the "outer world" that constitute the rest of the universe. A common conception of how we experience the outer world is that something – e.g., a thought or information – is transferred from the outer world into the sphere of the first person. This, the story goes, leads to a conscious thought.

This idea assumes that for something to become conscious, it must first be non-conscious. That is, first we have something that is not conscious and then it becomes conscious. This trick of becoming is indeed difficult to explain – and most probably impossible. As far as I understand, this is our root problem of consciousness.

The next question is not how to solve this problem but if there is any way to avoid it. I think there is. The problem arises because we try to penetrate the borderline between what is and what is not conscious. The obvious solution, then, is to refrain from doing this. But can we? Are there any other means by which conscious thoughts may arise?

At this point we need to distinguish between how thoughts arise and why these thoughts are conscious. If we start with the former we realise that thoughts must not be produced outside of consciousness (because then we need to cross that borderline again). That means, we cannot let the outer world produce our thoughts. Our sensation of e.g. a chair cannot produce our perception of it. If it did, again we would start from something not conscious and then cross the borderline. Instead, thoughts (and perceptions) need to be created internally, inside consciousness.

Is this possible? Can our perception of the chair be accurate if it is produced internally? I believe it is. The production is internal, but not necessarily without influence from the chair. What I assert is basically a kind of refined neural Darwinism where thoughts are produced in something similar to an evolutionary process occurring inside the mind and where the external world – like the chair – influences the process by means of selectional pressure.

This way, thoughts arise inside the first person and we need not address the issue of non-conscious thoughts becoming conscious. Furthermore, by not penetrating the borderline of the first person, we accomplish an organisational closure. Using the concept of autopoiesis, we recognise that the existence of our mind has become independent of external observers defining it as such. There is something that is the mind, and, therefore, something that it is like to be that mind - and, alas, a first person experience.

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