Friday, 4 March 2016

Subjectivity Can't Be Universal

Imagine a diverse collection of marbles. Some of them are perfectly spherical, some of them are deformed through malfunctions in the manufacturing process, and some of them have been chipped and damaged from regular use. The marbles differ from each other in slight ways that are unique to each marble. Now throw them onto a tabletop, introducing them into an environment. The spherical marbles will roll off the table and fall onto the ground. Some of the remaining marbles will get caught on the ridges and imperfections of either the table or the marble and stop their movement. Some of them will cluster together and cause others to fall, while others will remain on the table because of this clustering. The marbles that have remained on the table are there because either the marble or the table have properties that led them to not fall off. You wouldn’t ascribe these marbles as having the intent of staying on the table, or the table of having the purpose of holding these marbles. The marbles that have remained are there because they happen to have the properties that keep them there, if they did not have those properties, they would not be there. The fact that the marbles were diverse meant that the interaction with the environment of the table allowed their separation. If the environment was different where the marble’s ability to roll was beneficial, spherical marbles would have been selected instead.

Evolution works much in the same way. Organisms don’t carry intent or purpose in their survival. Their interactions with their environment caused them to survive and so they are there. They are not required to comprehend the actions necessary for their propagation, as to do so would be an unnecessary waste of resources. In the von Uexkull description of Umwelts, a mother hen was said to react to the cries of its baby chick with aggressive pecking behaviours. A natural observation would be to say that the mother hen is acting in this manner in order to scare away predators. That it understands that its offspring is in danger, and that it intends to protect it by scaring away the predator. Careful observations have discounted this assumption, showing that the chicken is reacting solely to the sound cue. Tying a chick by one leg and causing it to call out in distress will result in the mother pecking aggressively around it even if there is no predator. Placing the chick under glass where its cries cannot be heard do not elicit the same response from the mother, who is unperturbed by seeing its offspring in distress. The Umwelt Theory describes this behaviour as a reaction cycle, where the sound cue elicits a response, a response that is beneficial for the survivor of the species. The chicken does not need a mental representation of its offspring in danger, neither does it need to understand what it means to scare off predators. It acts solely in the manner that has benefits for survival, and nothing more. These kinds of behaviours have been seen in animals across all sections of the animal kingdom, including jackdaws, cats, starfish and dogs. Would it be too much of a stretch to assume it occurs in humans as well? Do humans need to understand their actions in order to complete them?

When learning a new skill, humans deliberately and consciously think about the actions necessary to develop that skill (source). As they practice, certain actions that were previously controlled consciously become automatic, making them easier to accomplish. The actions move from the realm of conscious representation to that of an unconscious automation. The individual stops thinking about what they are doing and instead act intuitively. One can’t properly describe the actions required to ride a bicycle because they are not aware of the actions, and they are not required to be aware. It is no longer accessible to their conscious mind but remains only as a feeling. Can we really then say that this person understands how to ride a bike? Or are they just like the mother hen caught in a reaction cycle.

Not only do humans acquire new skills, but they can acquire new senses as well. Blind individuals can learn to echolocate just like bats. They click their tongues repeatedly and can accurately avoid obstacles by analysing the way sounds bounce off of them. In this manner, they have acquired a new sense, similar to vision, that allows them to represent their world, or at least react to it. This even allows certain blind individuals to ride bicycles. Similarly, a special anklet has been designed that gives haptic feedback to the user in the direction that faces north. This haptic cue is noticed consciously by the user until it eventually dissolves into a general sense of location, a feeling.

Feelings then seem to be in clear opposition of conscious thought. Their subjective quality is something that can’t be described, for attempting to turn it into words strips it of its subjective quality. Communication can be very effective when referencing objects that can be mutually perceived, but when trying to describe sensations, it fails miserably. You can describe to someone your pain but you can’t make them feel your pain. You can’t make them feel exactly as you do. This account is similar to what Nagel describes in his paper “What it is like to be a bat?” Any attempts to understand how the animal feels will just be modifications, additions or subtractions of one’s representation, but not what it truly feels to be a bat. 

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