2 Sep 2013

Ch.1 of Dainton’s Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience, “Introduction”, summary

Corry Shores
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Summary of

Barry Dainton

Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience

Chapter 1: 


Brief Summary: Dainton will examine the phenomenal character of time. His primary concern is how different acts of consciousness go together (are co-conscious) in a unified way in the temporalized stream of consciousness.



1.1 The phenomenal

Dainton will examine the phenomenal character of time. He defines an experience as something with a phenomenal character, and phenomenal character he defines as the distinctive feel that the experience has, the 'what it is like'-ness of the experience, if you will.

By ‘consciousness’ I mean phenomenal consciousness; by ‘experiences’ I mean states or items with a phenomenal character. The ‘phenomenal character’ of an experience refers to the distinctive feel the experience has. A state has a phenomenal character when there is something that it is like to have or undergo that state. A sudden severe stomach cramp that causes one to bend over double feels very different from a gentle tickle; the cramp and the tickle are sensations with a different phenomenal character. There is ‘something it is like’ to feel a raging anger, to see a magnolia coloured wall, to hear a cello tone, to struggle with a piece of mental arithmetic, to remember one’s first day at school, to smell a roasting chicken, to imagine the flavour of ginger. These are all experiences, they all have different phenomenal characters. (Dainton p.2)

Moments of consciousness normally are not isolated from one another, as they are unified in some way.

[...] experiences do not typically occur in isolation from one another. A stream of consciousness is an ensemble of experiences that is unified both at and over time, both synchronically and diachronically. The expression ‘the unity of consciousness’ is occasionally used to refer to the unity of the mind as a whole. Taken in this way, the topic is the way in which mental states of all kinds, experiential and non-experiential, are inter-related when they belong to the same mind. Since by ‘consciousness’ I mean phenomenal consciousness, by the ‘unity of consciousness’ I mean the unity of experience. (2)

Dainton regards this unity of consciousness as a matter of elements of our phenomenal experience being integrated; at any one moment their are different senses and thoughts that are integrated, and across moments our awareness is integrated, for otherwise there would be no developmental focus and every instant we would not know how we came upon our situation nor how anything in that situation fits together. He calls this integration "co-consciousness" and he offers the illustration of a blindfold guessing game:

Imagine a party game: participants are blindfolded and handed an object, and they have to work out what the object is relying on touch alone. It is your turn, and panic is starting to set in; your three minutes are nearly up and you still have no idea what your object is; the taunts and laughter from your audience are starting to annoy. The thing you are handling is quite small, made of plastic, and obviously a contraption of some kind, it has several moveable parts, some hinged. You suspect there is a way to get the whole thing to fold | up, but the various extremities can move in a bewildering number of directions, and you have been unable to manoeuvre them into any recognizable shape. Your best guess is that it is some sort of puzzle, an executive toy or some such thing. But too late: jeers erupt, your time has run out. Tearing off the blindfold you look at the mysterious object, only to find that you are still no wiser. Anger now surges—how could you hope to identify by touch an object you don’t recognize when you see it? Consider a few snapshots of your stream of consciousness during these few minutes; each snapshot consists of your experience over a brief interval.

1 As you start to manipulate the object you have tactile sensations in your hands and fingers. These do not occur by themselves, but are continuous with the rest of your bodily experience (e.g. your body-image: sitting hunched in a chair). You are also having some thoughts—‘What is this damned thing?’—emotional feelings (mounting frustration), and mental images (you are trying to find an image to fit the feel). These thoughts and images do not occur in isolation from one another, they are experienced together—they are co-conscious—both with one another (thought +emotional feeling+mental image) and your various bodily experiences.

2 The audience was silent at first, but has now started to make its presence felt; you try not to pay attention to the racket they are making, but can hear them nonetheless. So now there are auditory experiences which are co-conscious with your thoughts, mental images, emotional feelings and bodily sensations.

3 You have just removed the blindfold, so visual experiences now enter the mix; these are co-conscious with all your other experience: what you hear and feel in your body, what you are thinking and feeling emotionally (a mixture of anger, frustration and puzzlement). (2-3)


experience is also unified over time, at least over fairly brief intervals, of the duration of the so-called specious present. Handling the contraption while blindfolded produced a sequence of tactile sensations. As you trace a contour with a finger you feel a continuous sensation of smoothness, not a succession of discrete bursts of sensation. As you try to visualize what you are holding you imagine one object after another; each image lasts a short while, and when one object replaces another the transition itself is experienced. When the audience becomes restless you hear a rumbling of muttering and murmuring, a flow of sound which as it runs on is continually renewed. And | all the while, there is the constant presence of bodily feeling and emotion: these too constitute a continuous presence. This constant flow or turnover of experience is one reason the ‘stream’ metaphor seems apt. A stream of consciousness is a continuous succession of experiences, and what gives the stream its unity from one moment to the next is the fact that this succession is itself experienced. (3-4)

Dainton's "main concern in this book is co-consciousness, in both its synchronic and diachronic forms."

There is also the question of the relation between the physical and the phenomenal with regard to time.

So far as I can see, at the present time this relationship remains as mysterious as ever, but we do not need to resolve this mystery in order to describe and try to make sense of our experience. (4)

1.2 The phenomenal and the physical

Dainton notes how very long ago before matter collapsed into stars there were just simple particles bouncing around in space. There was not consciousness then, but after a while it evolved, so how could it arise?

Since the universe at this time consisted of simple particles randomly scattered through vast reaches of space, it seems unlikely that there was experience anywhere to be found. If the universe in this condition was wholly experience-free, how can simply re-arranging the same elementary particles have given birth to something fundamentally new and different: consciousness? How can the bringing together of nonexperiential things ever produce an experience? [...] Yet, if the evolutionary story is to be believed, this is precisely what did happen: consciousness (of a rudimentary kind) abruptly emerged on the scene as soon as matter achieved a certain type of organization. (5)

One option for conceiving this is dualism.

Substance dualism is the doctrine that experiences are states of objects which are non-physical or immaterial; property dualism, in one common form, is the doctrine that experiences are immaterial particulars which are generated by (or at least correlated) with physical occurrences. Both versions of dualism hold that experiences are non-physical; the divergence occurs over whether or not experiences are attributes or modes of a nonphysical substance. (5)

Dainton rejects Cartisian style substance dualism because he wants "to see what can be said about the unity of consciousness without committing myself to any particular view of the matter-consciousness relationship." (6)

Dainton then has us consider the possibility that there is an intrinsic phenomenal character to to some physical items, for example the nervous system. He calls this position phenomenalized materialism (P-materialism). This position solves many problems regarding this matter-phenomena relation, but it also presents difficulties, for example, we might be led to think that rocks and puddles are very slightly conscious.

P-materialism accepts our current conception of matter, but another position, liberalized materialism (L-materialism), holds that we cannot solve the matter-phenomena relation because our understanding of matter is far too limited. (8)

Because we do not know now "whether any form of materialism will prove viable," he will for the most part remain neural with regard to the details of the matter-consciousness relationship. He calls this position moderate naturalism. (10)

1.3 Understanding

Outer experiences are sense experience. Inner ones are either bodily experiences like "warmth, pain, hunger, nausea, kinaesthetic sensations and our sense of balance. (There is a case for including smell and taste in this list.)" (11). Or inner experiences are ones happening in our head or mind, for example "memories, mental images, emotional feelings, such as fear or regret, and conscious thinking," and also understanding, as when we understand the meaning of a symbol we read, hear, or think. (11) "In talking about ‘experience’ I mean to refer to both sensory and non-sensory consciousness." (14)

1.4 Perception and projection

Perception can be thought of as opening doors to let the outer world in or as projecting consciousness into the world. We can hallucinate for example, and perception involves processing of the sense material, so our consciousness contributes more than mere reception. (14-17)

1.5 Phenomenology

Perceptual experience is world-presenting. By which I mean: the things we see (or seem to see in realistic hallucinations) seem to be out there in the world; the world seems to be directly revealing itself to us as soon as we open our eyes. (18)

But if perceptual experience is world presenting, then phenomenology would not seem to lend itself to projectivism.

On the one hand there is naive or pre-critical phenomenology, on the other there is informed or critical phenomenology. Someone engaged in pre-critical phenomenology tries to describe the character of their experience without making any explicit assumptions of a broadly philosophical sort about what ‘experience’ is. Someone engaged in critical phenomenology also tries to describe the character of their experience, but does so while allowing philosophical (or scientific) doctrines to influence what ‘experience’ is taken to be. (18)

Dainton pursues critical phenomenology. (19a)

Some might be skeptical with phenomenology and say that we cannot know that descriptions of our own consciousness resemble those of others. But our everyday interactions continually suggest that in fact our consciousnesses are similar enough that we may assume that basic properties of our own consciousness is shared by most others.

the fact that phenomenology can be difficult does not mean that it is impossible. For the most part I will be concerned only with the most general structural characteristics of streams of consciousness. On the assumption, which I think (and here assume) is justified, that everyone’s consciousness shares the same general structural traits, when presented with competing descriptions of these it is reasonable to suppose that we should be able to recognize, compare and finally agree on the description which does most justice to the most basic facts concerning our experience. (20)

1.6 Reality, appearance and phenomenal truths

Experience is more than just the appearing of the world to us "Because from the standpoint of moderate naturalism, experience itself is an unreduced and irreducible component of reality" (21).

This means our introspective knowledge of the character of our experience provides us with knowledge about how some small portion of reality really is—experience itself is a part or aspect of the real, not merely an appearance of the real. (21)

Unger overlooks this. He thinks that when we reflect on our own experience, certain propositions about consciousness might seem necessarily true. However when we consider these propositions from a sort of epistemological scepticism having a 'robust sense of reality' we find that "the relevant propositions do not express deep metaphysical truths, indeed, it becomes hard to see how they could be true at all." (21) Unger thinks we should not sacrifice an objective and rigorously tested approach to doctrines about experience. (21cd)

Dainton will challenge Unger's assumption that "truths about ‘main aspects of | concrete reality’ cannot be discovered using the tools available to phenomenology, but only by the sorts of observation and experiment that are used in the natural sciences." (21-22) Dainton has us suppose there are phenomenal truths, ones that can be established solely through introspection and third-order phenomenal judgments (judgments about experience in general and not just one's own). Moderate naturalism (moderate realism) says that "experience is itself an ingredient of concrete reality;" thus, "it is clearly a mistake to think phenomenal truths are anything other than truths about concrete reality." (22) Unger seems to doubt then that phenomenal truths are suspect, thus they cannot tell us about concrete reality. Dainton defends the project of phenomenological investigations in the face of the standards of rigorous science by noting that science too finds many truths that are simple to discover, like things fall on account of gravity, and also that unlike the hard sciences, it is not part of the phenomenological project to do much more than description.

Also Unger thinks that the fact that the world is wholly physical implies that there are limitations to what we can say about the character of our existence. Dainton observes that if the hard sciences paint a picture of reality in conflict with our phenomenological findings, we can also use that as grounds to question the scientific picture rather than the phenomenological one.

For if P-materialism is true, phenomenology is our only mode of access to the intrinsic nature of the material world; if truths | about the phenomenal are truths about the physical, such truths can properly be regarded as data to which scientific theories are answerable. (22-23)

1.7 Questions of demarcation and individuation

Dainton has a flexible sense for what counts as an experience. For the most part it is anything that happens during a portion of the stream of consciousness.

I will regard any experiential component of a stream of consciousness as ‘an experience’. A complete momentary cross-section of a stream is an experience, the complete content of a stream over a given interval is an experience, any combination of co-occurring contents within a stream is an experience, e.g. the sensations of pressure on my back, and the right-hand side of my visual field together count as an experience. A typical stream of consciousness can be divided into particular experiences in many different ways. Although some divisions are more well founded than others, I will not assume that there is any one best way of dividing a given stream into its constituent parts. (23)

Dainton then defines phenomenal objects, properties, and content:

For the sake of variety as much as convenience, as well as referring to experiences and their phenomenal characters I will sometimes refer to ‘phenomenal objects’ and ‘phenomenal properties’. By ‘object’ here I mean any part of an experience; a phenomenal ‘property’ is any feature of a phenomenal object. So a pain I feel in my leg is a phenomenal object, and the felt quality of this pain is a phenomenal property. I shall use ‘phenomenal content’ to refer to both phenomenal objects and properties. (24a)

Dainton continues with a discussion of how the type-token distinction can be applied in these phenomenological matters. (24-25) He concludes:

So, in order to accommodate the possibility of numerically distinct experiences which are both qualitatively indistinguishable and simultaneous, we need to introduce an alternative third ingredient. If we assume some form of materialism is true, we can treat experiences like any other physical occurrence and individuate them in terms of their spatial location—or, possibly, their sub-spatial material ingredients. If some form of property dualism is true, we can individuate in terms of physical causes and effects, or—more radically—take token experiences to be primitive particulars. Hence my policy. I will assume that token experiences owe their individuality to three factors: their exact phenomenal character, their time of occurrence, and their physical basis. In keeping with my stance of moderate naturalism, I will not speculate exactly what form this physical basis takes. If token experiences should prove to be primitive particulars, nothing I have to say will be affected. (25)

1.8 A look ahead

Dainton then outlines his text. In chapter one he deals with the synchronic unity of consciousness, namely, when simultaneous experiences are co-conscious. In chapter two he examines two similar accounts of co-consciousness. The third chapter discusses the possibility that co-conscious phenomenal experiences happen within a unified space and yet in another sense co-consciousness does not necessarily take a spatial form. Dainton’s description then skips to chapter five, which is about the diachronic unity of co-consciousness. (26)

Dainton notes that it might seem phenomenologically unrealistic to simply the matter by first analyzing synchronic unity before moving to diachronic.

Consciousness, it could be objected, is temporal through and through: our thoughts and experiences are never static, but constantly and continually flowing. While this seems true, there is no denying that we are aware of experiences happening simultaneously as well as successively. Experience may always be flowing, but we can nonetheless distinguish between the unity which cuts across a stream, and holds between simultaneously occurring experiences, and the unity which runs through a stream and binds non-simultaneous successive experiences. Since the unity of consciousness has these two dimensions, there is no reason why we should not deal with them separately, although we will only have a full understanding of the phenomenon when we have investigated both. (26c.d)

Chapter five (also) gives an overview of some problems posed by phenomenal temporality. Chapter six focuses on C.D. Broad and Edmund Husserl. Chapter seven discusses a solution to their problem. Chapter four discusses other questions regarding multiple co-consciousnesses. In chapter eight he discusses forms of phenomenal interdependence, and in chapter nine he suggests co-consciousness is responsible for a form of holism within experience.

Barry Dainton. Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.


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