3 Sep 2013

Ch.3 of Dainton’s Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience, “Phenomenal Space”, summary

by Corry Shores
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Summary of

Barry Dainton

Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience

Chapter 3: 
Phenomenal Space

Brief Summary: Dainton shows in various ways how spatial phenomena are unified by co-consciousness.


3.1 Consciousness, co-consciousness and space

We can in a sense think of consciousness happening within space.
Normal perceptual experience is world-presenting, the world presented to us is spatial, and the space in question seems to be physical space. But other kinds of experience seem to be located within this space too. If I focus on my own conscious thinking, it apparently occurs somewhere within my head—between my ears, behind my eyes. Although I cannot usually see my head, the latter is part of my body, most of which I can both see and touch, and sometimes hear. When viewed in this way, my body is just one object among many others in a common spatial world, a world we can see, hear, | smell, taste, touch and move about in. (61-62)
Dainton then has us consider the S-thesis, which says that “simultaneous experiences are co-conscious solely by virtue of occurring at the same time within a single unified three-dimensional phenomenal space; being thus spatially connected is both sufficient and necessary for co-consciousness.”  (62) We might also call it the K-thesis for Kantian thesis, as he is known for saying that our experience has a three dimensional spatial form. (62d)
Because of the spatial integration of our experience, there seems to be an intuitive rational for the S-thesis.
There is no denying that the S-thesis has a certain intuitive rationale. Being located in a common space is one way for things to be together—it is a way in which diverse things can co-exist. Since our (normal) experience is spatially distributed and integrated, it seems natural to suppose that this spatial integration is responsible for the mode of co-existence that is coconsciousness. Moreover, since the occupants of a single phenomenal space would necessarily be co-conscious, it seems that the notion of a phenomenal space is doing useful explanatory work: it is telling us how and why diverse phenomenal contents can be co-conscious. (62)

3.2 Non-spatial consciousness?

We might imagine what it would be like if our brains were removed from our body and we lose all sense of physical sensation. Our pure mental life would not carry with it any spatial properties, as it does when our bodily senses produce a sense that our awareness inhabits the spatial field of our bodily apparatus. This would be a problem for the S thesis. (63-65)

3.3 Dis-integration

Dainton then wonders if there can be another objection to the S thesis, and he asks
can we conceive of ordinary experiences, experiences which have spatial characteristics, being co-conscious but not spatially connected? I have already granted that our normal experience is spatially integrated. Can we imagine a | subject’s experiences being or becoming spatially dis-integrated while remaining co-conscious? (65-66)
Dainton then recounts a thought experiment by Dennet, who has us imagine his brain is removed from his body but still in control of it by radio link, then his body sees his brain in a vat. He is unable to feel his thoughts as if happening in the brain he sees; he is only able to feel them as if they sprung from his now empty head. (66-67)
Dainton proceeds with his own thought experiment also involving one’s detached brain. First you suddenly come to visual and auditory awareness alone at a rock concert by means of a robot head that is present there to be your eyes and ears. Secondly you control and sense your body underwater but without vision, hearing, smell, and taste. Thirdly in addition to controlling and feeling your swimming body, your robotic head is placed on the top of a mountain and now what your body feels (the water) and what it sees and hears from the mountain top are concurrent yet completely disjunct. Then you feel an octopus grabbing your leg. Finally it turns out the robotic head is attached to an airplane and now flies off. (68-70)

Dainton evaluates these cases.
returning to the third scenario, it does not seem too implausible to suppose that if one were to concentrate on one’s bodily experience, one would have the impression that one’s thinking was going on underwater, and if one were to concentrate on one’s audio-visual experience, one would have the impression that one’s thinking was taking place up on a mountain top. But perhaps it would take time and practice to be able to focus one’s attention in this way. In any event, this is a side issue. The main purpose of the scenarios will doubtless be evident. (71)
He continues:
In each of the first two scenarios you are provided with a single unified phenomenal space: in the first case audio-visual, in the second case bodily. In the third scenario, these phenomenal ‘worlds’ are both present at the same time. Your overall experience comprises a full range of bodily experience and a full range of auditory and visual experience; these experiences are all mutually co-conscious, all the time. But they are not integrated so as to constitute a common phenomenal space. Rather, they are split into two disjoint spaces: one wholly bodily, one formed by a fusion of sound and vision. The octopus that you feel attaching itself to your leg is not something you can see or hear; the bird you can see and hear circling over a nearby tree is manifestly not something you could approach and touch—your body is underwater on the ocean floor. It is true that all your perceptions, bodily and audio-visual, are of events occurring within physical space, and so these events are spatially related. But these physical spatial relations have no phenomenal reality for you. Not only are you unable to see any ocean from your mountain-top vantage point, you have no idea of how far away or in which direction your body lies; likewise, from your bodily point of view, you have no idea how far you would have to swim, or in which direction, to move closer to the site of your auditory and visual viewpoint. There are no experienced spatial relations between your bodily experiences and your audio-visual experiences. Yet both sets of experiences are nonetheless co-conscious. (71)
Then fourthly instead of being at the concert while swimming somewhere else, an audio-video recording of the concert is piped into your brain while your body swims. This experience would be no different than if you were at the concert live. “you have no sense at all that your bodily and audio-visual experiences are taking place within a common space, whether phenomenal or physical. Yet both sets of experiences are co-conscious.” (71)

3.4 Phenomenal spaces

So these are counter examples to the S thesis, which says that co-consciousness requires spatial coordination of the components of the experience. To further support this, and also to add clarity to these terms, he will now discuss phenomenal space and sensory field. He begins by discussing two basic positions, substantivalism (holding that space is ontologically basic) and relationism (holding that space is not ontologically basic):

What are the most basic constituents of the physical world? Assuming a realistic attitude to the physical world per se, there are three options. Physical space could be ontologically basic, with physical objects possessing an ontologically derivative status. Or physical objects could be basic, with physical space possessing an ontologically derivative status. Or physical space and physical things could both be ontologically basic physical items. Anyone who adopts either the first or the third of these options is committed to the view that physical space is an ontologically basic particular in its own right. This view goes by a variety of names: spatial realism, absolutism, or substantivalism. Anyone who adopts the second option is committed to the view that physical space is not an | ontologically basic particular. This view is commonly known as spatial antirealism, relationism, or relationalism. To minimize terminological confusion I will talk of substantivalism and relationism. (73)

Substantivism says that: “Space exists, as a concrete (i.e. non-abstract) thing. Space is just as real as any material object. Since the space we are concerned with at the moment is physical space, this space is a physical object in its own right.” (73) There are two strengths for this position.
Standard-strength substantivalism is the view that space is just as real as its material occupants (i.e. physical particles or bodies), while accepting that the latter are just as real as the space they exist within. This position corresponds with the third option outlined above. The strong or super-substantivalist holds that space is ontologically more fundamental than the objects it contains. On this view, physical bodies are adjectival on space; physical bodies exist when space takes on certain qualities; a physical body is nothing more than a region of space endowed with certain properties. For the super-substantivalist, there is, strictly speaking, only one physical particular, space itself.”(73)

The relationist position does not necessarily reject the ideas that materials objects are separated by space or that there can be places in space without any material objects [empty space of a sort, perhaps]. “What relationists do want to deny is the thesis that space exists as something separate from and independent of material objects. To achieve this, the relationist will try to show that the truth of propositions about distances, movements and locations depends exclusively on facts concerning actual and (nomologically) possible spatial relations between material objects.” (73)

Fields of presence

Dainton makes the following assumption: “for a phenomenal space to merit the label ‘substantival’, the space in question should possess some phenomenal reality—the space in question must possess some intrinsic phenomenal characteristics of its own.” (73d) There is a certain kind of sense-field that qualifies as substantival.
I will call the relevant types of sense-field P-fields; the ‘P’ is for presence or plenum. By way of an example, imagine a subject whose sensory experience is wholly visual, and whose visual experience resembles what we experience when looking at a slightly misted stained glass window: flat, lacking any depth, a mosaic of translucent coloured shapes appearing within a medium possessing inherent luminosity. Our imaginary subject’s visual field, when empty, is a luminous, pale white expanse. Phenomenal objects, i.e. coloured shapes, are literally parts of the sense-field—parts of the field which happen to be endowed with certain distinctive visual qualities. The sense-field itself possesses an intrinsic phenomenal character: it is a field of two-dimensional luminosity, two-dimensional visual presence. This sort of sense-field is the sort of thing I mean by a P-field. A P-field is spatially extended (hence a ‘field’), possessing a certain dimensionality and size (not necessarily constant), and possesses its own intrinsic phenomenal character. If we take a P-field to be a phenomenal space—call it a P-space—the size and structure of the space is fixed by the intrinsic phenomenal characteristics of the corresponding sense-field. It is clear that a P-space possesses the sort of properties one would expect a substantival phenomenal space to have. It is intrinsically spatial, and possesses an intrinsic phenomenal character throughout. The existence and structure of this spatial medium is independent of any objects located within it. (74)
[So the colored glass parts of the mosaic are like modifications of the phenomenal space they are a part of.]

This P-field then is super-substantive space, because “Phenomenal objects are adjectival on the space, since they consist of a spatial medium taking on certain qualitative features, of a visual sort, at certain locations within it.” (74) As an example of weak P-space would be hearing sounds coming from different parts of the space. Because they are audio, the do not modify the space like visual things do, but have locations in it.

Phenomenal voids

Another sort of P-field that has contents that while they “are typically spatial and spatially located, they are not located within a three-dimensional spatial medium possessing an intrinsic phenomenal character.” (75) For example, “Consider the contents of our own experience, phenomenal particulars such as itches, sounds, and the immediate objects of visual experience.” (75) He explains, “We do not find ourselves immersed within a phenomenological plenum of any kind—for the most part, the space we find ourselves in, the space our experiences appear to be located within, is a phenomenal vacuum, empty of intrinsic phenomenal characteristics” (75). Consider how we can hear various sounds, which come from different places, but between them is a void of sorts.
Imagine you are in bed, in a house in the country, in the dead of night. No matter how hard you strain your ears you can hear nothing at all; you are surrounded by silence. You then hear a dog emit a single howl, some distance away—a couple of hundred yards at least. This noise might seem to echo around for a short while, but does it fill your auditory field? Does it seem to be coming from all directions and from all distances? Of course not—most of your auditory field is still filled with silence, auditory nothingness. The same holds under more normal circumstances, when we can hear several sounds coming from different directions and distances— even when the auditory field is quite busy, it is rarely full (in the way it is when one is wearing a pair of headphones emitting loud white noise). Unlike the imagined two-dimensional visual field, the auditory field seems to have no intrinsic phenomenal qualities; it is a phenomenological void or vacuum. Call sense-fields with this nature V-fields, and the phenomenal spaces they constitute V-spaces. (75)

The phenomenal character of empty space is important when distinguishing P and V spaces.
In the case of a P-space, we do not merely sense objects as occurring in space, we sense the space between objects, and this empty space possesses intrinsic phenomenal characteristics. Imagine looking at two black circles on an otherwise white wall—you can see the whiteness surrounding and filling the circles. The entire visual expanse can be regarded as a P-field, and within this field there are no regions that are empty of visual content. In a V-space, on the other hand, we experience objects as occurring at various spatial locations, but we do not experience the space between them as having any intrinsic phenomenal character. Imagine hearing a dog bark to your left, and a door shut to your right—and nothing else; in this case there is no auditory experience of the space in between—the space is an auditory void. This is quite unlike the two-dimensional visual case, in which there is a luminous expanse between any two co-existing visual objects. (76)

V-spaces are naturally conceived as relational but Dainton discusses how they can be thought substantival as well (76-77) along with other issues with regard to V-spaces (77-78).

3.5 The S-thesis reconsidered

Dainton will now show that the S-thesis’s claim that phenomeno-spatial connectedness is necessary for co-consciousness is implausible.
Our own experience is, typically, multi-modal and spatially unified. The deliverances of our senses are combined with bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions and imaginings in a single V-space. But is there any reason whatsoever to suppose that V-spaces must be unified in this way? I cannot see that there is. The structure of a V-space depends ultimately upon the constraints governing the sorts of experience a subject can have. There is no a priori reason to suppose these constraints can take only one form. As I noted earlier, although our experience is confined to three spatial dimensions, we can conceive of subjects whose experience is confined to two spatial dimensions, as well as subjects capable of experiences possessing more than three spatial dimensions, e.g. subjects who can perceive or imagine 4-D hyperspheres. Dimensionality is one way spacerelevant experiential constraints can differ; there are indefinitely many others. Some of these variations will generate V-spaces with unfamiliar geometries. There are possible beings whose auditory experience is confined to a circular region in front of them (like our field of vision) and whose visual field extends for a full 360 degrees (they have several spherical eyes, and their bodies are translucent). There are possible beings whose audiovisual field is shaped like a torus, and like a familiar mint is holed in the middle. There are possible beings whose bodily experience is spatially disjointed. One such species is a type of sentient plant. Each plant comprises several bulbs, connected to one another by underground nerves; the plants can feel the warmth of the sun on their leaves and petals, but have no awareness of the space separating ‘their scattered stalks and shoots. And then there are possible beings with multiple sense-fields, each of a different modality, each of which generates a separate V-space; yet despite this spatial disunity, these separate V-spaces are mutually co-conscious. There is no need to describe such beings: this is precisely the possibility already explored in our earlier thought experiment. (79)

In V-space, experienced objects can have phenomeno-spatial relations without any background spatial medium. (79-80)

it seems quite conceivable that types of content which are experienced as spatially related could also be experienced in the absence of these relations, and hence as co-conscious but spatially unconnected. Hence it is plausible to think that in the absence of a P-field, co-consciousness itself places no spatial constraints on phenomenal contents. Given that experience is not confined to P-fields, and there is no reason to think the phenomeno-spatial relations among co-conscious experiences will necessarily warrant the postulation of a single unified V-field within which all the subject’s experience can be located, there is no reason to accept the S-thesis. (80)

3.6 V-spaces: further issues

Dainton continues by discussing whether spatial relations in a V-space are absolute or relative (80-81), and he also discusses his distinction between real and imaginary V-spaces and how this supports his claim that we can have spatially unconnected but co-conscious contents of our phenomenal experiences (81-83)

3.7 Co-consciousness

We can conclude from the foregoing that
diverse experiences can occur together, as co-conscious. That different and diverse experiences are experienced together as co-conscious is a basic fact about the experiential realm. Co-consciousness is a basic experiential relationship, one about which there is nothing more to be said, at least while we confine ourselves to describing how things seem.
In adopting this view, I am, in effect, defending a version of the view that our experiences at any given moment are simply bundles of phenomenal items, items which are not properties of any substance, or at least not of any substance which could be regarded as being experiential in nature. Bundle theories are faced with a problem: what is it that binds the bundled items together? In the phenomenal case we can now see that this is not really a problem at all. A suitable binding agent is available: co-consciousness, conceived as a simple experiential relation between phenomenal contents. This proposal has two merits. It is more economical ontologically, since there is no need for any unifying substance over and above experiences and interexperiential relations. It is also phenomenologically justified, for there is no denying that phenomenal contents do occur together as co-conscious—they are experienced as occurring together—so there is no need to postulate an undetectable unifying agent (such as a featureless substrate). (84)

Dainton explains that his bundle view does not imply that “there are two distinct kinds of unity within experience: a unity which exists between distinct phenomenal objects, and a unity within or amid phenomenal objects themselves.” [Dainton seems to be saying that co-conscious is just one unity that unites all parts regardless, because the whole field over a temporal stream can be divided any way you like.]
If this were the case, then co-consciousness would only hold between contents, it would not be responsible for the unity of the contents themselves. This does not seem to be the case. I pointed out in §1.7 that any phase of a stream of consciousness can be divided into parts in many different ways; there is no one ‘right’ way to divide a subject’s overall experience over a given interval into parts. As is plain, no matter which division is considered, all the relevant parts are related by co-consciousness, and this fact alone suggests that it is a mistake to think one unifying relationship holds between contents while another is responsible for the unity of the contents themselves. But there is a more direct way of bringing this point out. Take any phenomenal | object you like, a patch of colour, an expanse of sound, a combination of a bodily feeling and a mental image. No matter what the object, if it has discernible parts these are all co-conscious. Every part of a coloured expanse is co-conscious; every part of a spatially extended sound is co-conscious, and likewise for the constituent elements of a bodily feeling and a mental image. Co-consciousness is not limited to binding distinct phenomenal contents, it binds together the contents themselves; it operates both between and within contents. In short, if we confine our attention to the simultaneous contents of a stream of consciousness, co-consciousness is all-pervasive. (84-85)
Dainton continues by defending his position against the charge that there is some mysterious element that glues the parts of our phenomenal bundle. He notes that there is nothing mysterious about co-consciousness.
in what sense is co-consciousness mysterious? If it were transcendental in nature, being neither a physical relationship nor a relationship which exists within consciousness itself, then it would be mysterious in a damaging sense, as we would have no idea at all of the nature of the relationship; we would be positing a unknown quantity, a deus ex machina, to solve a problem we could not solve in any other way. However, co-consciousness is not like this at all. It is a relationship that exists in and between experiences; we know what it is like for experiences to be co-conscious.  (86)

Dainton ends by drawing the following two conclusions:
synchronic co-consciousness is a basic experiential relation, and the Simple Conception of experience is preferable to the alternatives. These conclusions are not independent; the claim that co-consciousness is basic is supported by the rejection of the A-thesis that in turn supports the Simple Conception. Indeed, it seems likely that the two conclusions stand or fall together. (86)

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


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