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In a History and Systems course we studied quite a bit about the systems of psychological thought that anticipated the rise of scientific psychology.  I’ve mentioned a bit about these debates before, but one of the interesting things about consciousness that was simmering underneath quite a bit of this debate is the apparent unity of our conscious experience.

Locke and his successors in the Associationist schools rejected any previous philosophical notions that humans are born with some kind of built-in knowledge. Instead, he believed that everything we know and experience is due to associations.  We associate warmth and milk with mother and we grow to love her more.  We hear a loud, threatening dog’s bark and associate dogs with danger.  Over time these associations continue to build up into a complete picture of the world.  It should very much resemble Behaviorism to the psychologists reading this blog, and indeed, Pavlov, Skinner, and Watson would have had no qualms with it.  However, James pointed out that there was something fundamentally quirky with the idea that all our knowledge is built on associations:  where does the mind get the idea that associations could be made in the first place?  In his words, whence does the brain get such fantastic “laws of clinging?”  I would add – what exactly is putting things together?

It is one thing to address the underlying structure of the brain – the different sensory systems, the physical structure of neurons, storage structures, etc.  It is another thing to think that there is some algorithm or structure that is capable of “combining” “information” from all the different systems.  How exactly would it look or operate, where is it located, and/or where did the algorithm come from to begin with?  We don’t see any analogues in computational research because nowhere in computers do we see any part of the computer that “points at” any other part, nor do we see any real “combinations” of separate bits of information anywhere.  Anything that looks like a combination falls apart into its component parts upon closer inspection.

It is hard to see how a mechanism, no matter how complex, can really unify two separate things at all.  It is related to my previous post about Mario because I noted that there is no unifying principle behind all the different wires, pixels, and systems that make up the character Mario on the screen.  Another example:  I can set up a webcam on a computer to take video, and I can also set up the computer to record audio.  But without any further instruction, the computer will record both streams indefinitely without ever “associating” them together.  Without “laws of clinging” they would remain separate and distinct parts.

But even when we encode audio and video together, there does not seem to be any unifying principle behind both parts.  On a VHS tape the audio and video are on different strips.  When we watch a video on YouTube there are separate mechanisms that encode audio and video and play them back on our computers.  They only seem unified because when we watch them, we somehow combine them into one unified experience.  If we really trace the paths of the information in the audio and video, we find two separate streams every time.

Now some materialist philosophers, most notably Dennett, recognize the difficulty here and simply deny that we do have a unity of consciousness.  But once you get the point where materialist philosophers have to deny the very existence of a unity of consciousness, qualia, free will, or intentionality in order to buoy up materialism, I think their arguments just bounce off me.  Maybe they don’t experience those things, but I certainly do.  In fact, if someone asked me which is more sure to me: that the external world exists, or that I have subjective experience?  The answer seems pretty clear to me – the latter.  The external world could be a dream or an illusion, however unlikely.  But my own subjective experience?  How could I ever reject that?  I’m a philosophical simpleton but I simply can’t part ways with what seems to me to be the absolute base-level structuring of my entire experience as a human.  And even if I did reject it, who – or what – exactly is doing the rejecting?

I have always been befuddled by people who say that materialism is somehow the end-game of honest reason.  I just can’t make that leap of faith.  It’s not that I don’t want to, I would love to.  I just don’t see how it’s possible.