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Philosophy, it’s everywhere!

August 18, 2010

During my travels I find myself frequently falling into conversations with many sorts of people. While the topic can vary immensely, I have come to realise that almost every such conversation boils down to some sort of discussion of philosophy. Philosophy is so often viewed as something that dusty old men do with books and most likely quill pens, while sitting in stone towers lighted by dribbly candles. When I was younger, while I didn’t exactly think about philosophy in this manner, I did not really consider it to be something particularly relevant to my life. My interest in philosophy only really developed when I was completing a masters in neuroscience. Studying how the human brain functions is bound to make just about anybody crave some broad answers, and I got myself into several courses and a seminar on the topics of philosophy of perception and of mind. I rapidly discovered the everyday presence and relevance of philosophical thought. Much of what is called “Philosophy” is really just looking at the world and saying, “ok, what are you really?” This can entail deep, complex thought, or perhaps more often than one might think, it consists of simply opening one’s eyes (figuratively) and properly considering what is there. This is why I say that almost every conversation I have is in some way philosophical — no matter what the apparent topic is, we are really considering, and to a certain extent sharing notes on, the topic of the world and our place within it. I realise that this is somewhat clichéd of me, but I have found this discovery to be extremely valuable, and consider it to have made everyday conversation just that much more interesting.

Every once in a while, I have the lovely opportunity to have an actual purely philosophical discussion with some individual along the path of my travels. Recently, I made a short visit to Oxford to visit some friends. They introduced me to an acquaintance of them who was also in town for only a short visit. He is a professor of philosophy at a small American college (I was unfamiliar with the name) and we quickly fell into conversation. It turned out that he was just preparing a course for the fall term that would focus on the philosophy of mind and cognition. I asked him about the reading he was planning on assigning, and about some of the larger topics he hoped to cover. I was delighted to discover how much of the material I was familiar with, and we began debating several points. One topic of discussion has stayed with me, and after some thought, I decided to dash of a blog post about it, as I felt it an important point to consider. And so here follows a short meditation (to give a nod to the titles of the famous papers of Descartes) on a small aspect of the nature of the continuity of self — I hope you enjoy this slight variation in my usual sort of people watching ramblings. Although in fact, the concept of “people watching” is not in any way at a remove from the idea of philosophy as I have discussed it above, as the point of both is to observe our world and comment on what we see there. I hope that you my readers will enjoy thinking about these topics as much as I do. And keep in mind that the following thoughts are just that, thoughts, and not necessarily my absolute beliefs — I like to take a concept and explore it, seeing where it will take me, hoping to learn from the process, but not necessarily requiring that I hold fast by the views I express in the process.

Perhaps one of the greatest indications of the nature of the continuity of self is our obsession with “living in the present” — we are constantly telling each other to “slow down”, to “take things one step at a time”, or to “be in the moment”. Perhaps all of this could best be summed up by the simple mantra: “be here now”, which contains the basic essence of the above phrases. I bring up this human obsession with the present because I believe that it is a “symptom” as it were of the great difficulty we have in doing so. I personally find it exceptionally difficult to exist entirely “in the moment”, but rather find myself in a state of constant reference to the past and speculation about the future. For example, I am currently seated at my desk, observing the various objects thereupon as well as the other objects contained in the room about me. If I were to exist truly and completely “in the moment”, my thoughts and state of mind in general would pertain entirely and specifically to the sensory inputs that I am immediately experiencing. This is not at all a state of existence in which I find myself, currently or at any point in my past or future that can conceive of — for example, I am looking at my iPod, and rather than treating it simply as the immediate stimulus that it is (a small black rectangle with curved edges), I attribute to the stimulus (or rather collection of stimuli) my prior knowledge, understanding, and a memory of the object. That is to say, I do not simply see a black rectangle, I see my iPod, and in saying “my iPod”, I am referring to my overall experience of the object — I remember to some vague extent my purchasing of the iPod and my experiences in using it, I also to some degree predict the future of the object in recognizing its usefulness in listening to the new recording of Mozart’s 40th Symphony that I just acquired (a piece that then identifies itself in my mind with phrases of music, and the knowledge that it is one of my favourite works of music). All of these sorts of memories and predictions come in varying degrees of importance and specificity, some, such as my desire to listen to the Mozart symphony, are explicit thoughts that exist in my verbal stream of consciousness, while others, such as my memories of the device’s usefulness in the past, as well as its purchase, are far more vague, perhaps not even developing to the point of conscious consideration unless specifically called upon. In this same way, my entire experience at any one moment is guided to a large extent by my past experience, this holds true even for novel stimuli, as I am capable of drawing upon a wide library of prior experience that allows me to attempt speculation into the nature of a novel stimulus and possible prediction of its usefulness in the future.

Therefore, we must ask, “what is consciousness without prior experience (and by ‘prior experience’ I refer to memory of prior experiences)?” Or more importantly, “what is self without prior experience?” This question reminds me of Fitzgerald’s perhaps overly popularized but intriguing short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, for at the start of the story the character Benjamin Button is an adult individual with a newborn infant’s level of experience. Perhaps my greatest problem with the story lies in this fact, for Fitzgerald portrays the protagonist from the start as existing as a fully rational adult human being, which by necessity makes the claim that experience does not make the person. But in continuing my above question, how can there be a self without complex prior experience? I do not believe that an individual such as the utterly bizarre Mr. Benjamin Button would be able to interact with the environment to a level any higher than that of a newborn infant, no matter how complex his brain. This is because he would not have the library of experience mentioned above — he would not be able to look at an object and consider its nature in relation to extensive past experience; I would even claim that he could not have a true grasp of his own relation to the sensory information being received by his neural system. I make this last claim, because everything in our awareness of the physical world is perceived in the way I have described above — partly (or largely) through our prior experience with the surrounding physical world as represented by the sensory input we experience. Therefore, an individual without an extensive history of such experience could not conceivably “makes sense” of incoming sensory information.

Based on these ideas, I believe that we must accept the ultimate importance of memory in creating our mental experience, and from that basic understanding we can address several other important aspects of our mental existence, namely the continuity of self. As I have discussed above, we as humans are quite obsessed with the concept of living “in the moment” — we consider “living in the past” as a horrible waste of time, and living in a constant state of anticipation of the future as much the same evil, but as I have indicated, it is almost impossible to not, on some level, be in constant touch with memory of the past and prediction of the future. No matter what I look at, I cannot help drawing on my memories to identify the subject of my attention and relate its presence to my own existence. In fact, I would claim that the most constant part of my every experience is the presence of my memory of prior experience. From this I would claim that I am to a very large extent little more than an animated collection of experiences, and that all current and future experiences simply add to, modify, and enrich this collection of experiences. Therefore, I am not the same person from moment to moment, but rather, while I maintain a continuity of subjective experience through the continued presence of a stable core of past experience, that collection of experience changes with the addition of new experience and the forgetting of old, meaning that the person who called himself Taylor Andrews five years ago is not truly the same person as the one who calls himself Taylor Andrews today, or even subtly, the person who will call himself Taylor Andrews tomorrow. I believe that this is a logical conclusion, and while perhaps disconcerting, it does not seem hard to accept, at least to a certain degree. It is possible that there are other more stable portions of our psyche (most likely biologically based) that maintain a sense of who we are that transcends experience, but this could very well just be the fact that our prior experiences help shape our current and future experiences, thus creating a certain sense of stability of personality and self, and that our existence is really far more transient than we might like to believe.

  1. Your blog shares some of my experiences and observations. I always find it easier to have philosophical conversation with mid aged or older people (I am 26). Whenever I try to bring abstract metaphysical topics with younger people, I come off as being boring, dry, serious person with stoic views on life. I love random philosophical conversations especially while traveling. By carefully blending contemporary topics spiced up with some witty humor, I find it easier to talk about philosophy with people of my age. I find it extremely hard to speak intellectual, abstract philosophical topics with my female peers/colleagues, they are probably wandering in Hawai or Bahamas inside their mind, when I am 10 seconds into the conversation.

    • Thanks for the comment — I am glad you enjoyed the post! I plan to continue posting philosophical ramblings occasionally as they come up.

  2. Another post of yours I must send to my daughter who is studying psychology, her boyfriend is studying philosophy – now I understand why they fit so well together.

    • They really are very closely related — both ask many of the same questions, even if they take different paths to try and find the answers. I have always been incredibly fascinated by human consciousness — the more you think about it, the more incredible it becomes. I am so glad that you enjoyed the post!

  3. Undoubtedly, one of the best article l have come across on this precious topic. I quite agree with your conclusions and will eagerly look forward to your coming updates.

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