4 Sep 2013

Ch.4 of Dainton’s Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience, “Transitivity”, summary

by Corry Shores
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Summary of

Barry Dainton

Stream of Consciousness: Unity and Continuity in Conscious Experience

Chapter 4: 


Brief Summary: Dainton explains and defends his position that all synchronic phenomenal contents are co-conscious.



4.1 Co-consciousness as a relation

Co-consciuosness is a relation and we will discuss what kind of relation it is.

Dainton distinguishes material from formal relations.

1) Material relations: “consist of a tangible concrete relationship between particular things.” “Examples of material relations are ‘having the same mass as’ or ‘being in spatio-temporal contact’.” (88)

2) Formal relations: “consist of relationships that can exist between abstract as well as concrete things, or alternatively, between only abstract things;” for example “‘being larger than’, or ‘having the same number of vertices’.” (88)

Dainton says that co-consciousness is a material relation; for,

The relata of co-consciousness are experiences, which are not abstract (even if some people think they are immaterial). Co-consciousness is an experienced relationship between experiences, and as such is a concrete relation between concrete particulars; it is not a relation that can hold between anything other than experiences, and so it is not a relation that can hold between abstract entities. (88)

There is no limit to how many phenomenal contents can be co-conscious with one another, and it could perhaps be said that one phenomenal content is conscious with itself, since its component parts are co-conscious with each other [and thus the act as a whole is co-conscious with its parts. Dainton does not here address the issue of atomic contents and if they can be co-conscious with themselves.]

Dainton now wonders if we that there can be different degrees of co-consciousness. He does not think so. (89)

He also thinks 1) that because co-consciousness is co-conscious with itself, it is reflexive; 2) that because when experience e1 is co-conscious with e2, likewise e2 is co-conscious with e1, co-consciousness is symmetrical, and 3) it is possible co-consciousness is not transitive, because diachronically, experience e1 at one moment can be co-conscious with experience e2 at the next moment, and e2 with the next e3, but e1 need not be co-conscious with e3. And with regard to simultaneous contents, it seems that in most every case for humans that there is this transitivity, but untypical humans and non-humans could conceivably have non-transitive co-consciousnesses. [For Merleau-Ponty however, all temporally diverse acts of consciousness are by default co-conscious.]

Transitivity is a more difficult issue. Could there be three experiences, e1, e2 and e3, such that although e1 is co-conscious with e2, and e2 is co-conscious with e3, e1 is not co-conscious with e3? This is | certainly possible diachronically—as we shall see—but what of simultaneous experiences? In this connection the transitivity question is harder to answer. There seems no reason to doubt that our synchronic coconsciousness is usually transitive. My current visual experience, considered as a single experience, can be divided into regions, and all these regions are all co-conscious with one another. Similarly for my auditory or bodily experience, and across modalities: my visual, auditory and bodily experiences are mutually co-conscious. But for co-consciousness to count as a transitive relation, co-consciousness must always be transitive. Might there be certain cases where synchronic transitivity breaks down? It is certainly not easy to think of any. The faint sensations at the periphery of consciousness, such as the nagging back-pain that floats in and out of one’s attentive awareness, are a possibility. Perhaps the back-pain continues to exist when we are not paying attention to it, and does so detached (experientially) from the rest of our experience. But as we have seen, sensations and experiential relations do not have to be noticed to exist; the fact that the phenomenal background seems to consist of a unified ensemble of experiences suggests that peripheral sensations usually are co-conscious with the remainder of our experience. However, even if most people’s simultaneous experiences are mutually co-conscious, we cannot conclude that simultaneous consubjective experiences are necessarily fully coconscious. Perhaps there are non-human subjects whose typical experience is only partly co-conscious; perhaps the same holds of untypical human subjects. Since these possibilities cannot simply be dismissed, we need to take a closer look at the whole issue of synchronic transitivity. (90)

4.2 Streams and their parts

Dainton now addresses the possibility that some might argue he is wrong to assume that experiences can be divided into parts. He says they have several possibly options for making their argument.

They could take entire streams of consciousness to be the fundamental units of experience, or they could ascribe this status to brief temporally extended experiences that are experienced as wholes, or even momentary streamal cross-sections. But as will become clearer later, given the temporal characteristics of consciousness—the way one phase of our overall experience flows into another—there are no obvious or natural temporal boundaries between stream-phases, so the first option looks | to be the most plausible of the three: entire streams are the basic experiential units. Let us call this doctrine primitivism. (90)

Primitivism does not say that streams of consciousness are homogeneous wholes, for indeed they have distinct regions distinguishable in accordance with their phenomenal traits. However primitivists would say that these regions are not independent but are rather modes or features of the wholes they are a part of. If we adopted this position we could still say that the parts of the stream are connected by co-consciousness. However

the question of whether or not synchronic co-consciousness is transitive would still arise; as would the issue of whether experiential items linked by co-consciousness are in some way affected by being so related. The most significant change would be with respect to the status of stream-parts: it would no longer be an option to regard these as independent experiential particulars which just happen to be co-conscious with certain other experiential particulars. (91)

Carnap for example takes a primitivist temporal position. He thinks that we can take momentary cross-sections of the unified stream; for him “the parts of experience are nothing more than distinguishable features of essentially unitary wholes, and these wholes are the ontologically primitive units of experience.” (91)

To distinguish parts in the stream, like seeing a book, requires convention learned with language. “This is why Carnap holds that streams ‘in their totality and undivided unity’ are ‘epistemically primary’.” (92)

But why think that the earliest perspective we have on experience is the truest and most revealing? Later on in life, when experience has long been world-presenting, it is quite natural to suppose hearing a nearby conversation while staring through the window opposite involves two distinct experiences, one visual and one auditory, and there is no obvious reason to suppose this auditory experience could not have occurred without the visual, or vice-versa. This line of thinking can now be extended: we can regard our visual field as a composite of various lesser phenomenal items, and wonder whether each of these could have occurred without the others. Of course, thinking of experience in this way does not come ‘naturally,’ since the ability to regard what happens when we open our eyes as involving the occurrence of experience at all requires some intellectual sophistication. From the perspective of the natural attitude, world-presenting experience seems to consist of an unmediated access to the surrounding environment, and as such entirely experience-free, if by ‘experience’ we mean something akin to a thought or sensation, an inner mental production. But the point remains: once we manage to suspend the natural attitude, is there any reason to think a total experience does not consist of logically detachable parts? This sophisticated ‘atomistic’ conception of experience might be wrong, but the fact that this conception only becomes available at a relatively advanced stage in our intellectual development does not in itself provide a good reason for thinking it is. (92)

Carnap’s conclusion comes also from constraints placed in his broader system, and we are not necessarily committed to those constraints too (92)

Phenomenal manifolds

Dainton then addresses another defense of primitivism. He has us consider if physics came to conceive the physical world as consisting only of “a four-dimensional space-time continuum and a distribution of physical qualities over this continuum. The only physical object in this scheme is the space-time manifold. Consequently, macroscopic physical objects are merely field-time quality distributions when viewed from the ontological perspective of the fundamental theory. A more reasonable course would be to hold that macroscopic objects exist, but have the status of ontologically derivative entities, entities that have no place in the ontology of the theory which reveals the underlying character of the physical realm.” (93)

By extension we might think that our phenomenal objects are not primary but rather derived from the stream. “By analogy with the physical case, could we not take this entire ‘field of co-consciousness’ to be a quasi-spatial arena in which experiential items are located? As for the experiential items, could we not take these to be composed of field-time distributions of minute phenomenal qualities?” (93) However “it seems unlikely that the analogy would ever yield a persuasive case for primitivism.” (94) For:

how could we justify positing an underlying experiential manifold, a field of consciousness or coconsciousness? There is no direct phenomenological evidence for the existence of an underlying field of consciousness; the Humean point that all we find in experience are particular experiences has as much validity in this connection as it does with that of the Pure Ego. (94)

Dainton also explains why we cannot see phenomena from the different perceptual senses as composed of the same substance so to speak.

although it may well be possible to turn a refrigerator into an experiencing human being by reconfiguring its constituent physical constituents, it does not follow that you could turn an auditory experience into a visual experience by reconfiguring the former’s experiential constituents. […] The phenomenal constituents of a visual field seem to be wholly different in intrinsic nature from those of an auditory sense-field (and the same goes for other pairings of experiential tokens of different sensory-modal types). Hence, from a phenomenological perspective, the division of a total experience into auditory, visual, somatic, etc. components is rooted in the intrinsic nature of the phenomena themselves, and to this extent is well-founded, unlike, say, the purely conventional boundaries that demarcate certain desert nations. (95)

4.3 Unity and transitivity

To further discuss transitivity of synchronic phenomena, Dainton

will use the expression total experience to refer to groups of experiences which are mutually co-conscious. To be more precise, a total experience is a group of experiences which are all co-conscious with one another, and which are not parts of a larger group of experiences which are all co-conscious with one another. So for example, suppose e1, e2, e3 and e4 are each co-conscious with one other. Although S={el, e2, e3} is a group of experiences that are mutually co-conscious, S does not constitute a total experience, since e4 is also co-conscious with all the members of S, without | itself being a member of S. I have been assuming that the simultaneous parts of a stream of consciousness are total experiences. Since this assumption may turn out to be false, we need a more neutral term to refer to the complete contents of a stream of consciousness at a given time: maximal experience will serve. (95-96)

Dainton then has us consider the notion of equivalence relation. [Note: in this chapter when Dainton refers to ‘co-consciousness he is only talking about synchronic co-consciousness.]

Equivalence relations partition their relata into distinct non-overlapping groups, where each member of any group bears the relation in question to every other member of the same group. For example, ‘being of the same age’ is an equivalence relation. If we were to divide the people in a large crowd into groups on the basis of their age, we would end up with a collection of different non-overlapping groups, and everyone in the crowd would belong to one, and only one, of these groups. If co-consciousness is an equivalence relation, the totality of experiences at any given time will be divided, without exception, into discrete non-overlapping total experiences. (96)

Dainton then supposes that we cannot have at one time two separate maximal experiences, and maximal experience again means that the experiences happen together but are not necessarily co-conscious. [Transitivity would say that component A is co-conscious with B, and B with C, thus A with C. This means that under these assumptions, all the parts will be co-conscious, which would make it a total experience, which recall he defines as groups of mutually co-conscious contents.] Thus

If co-consciousness is transitive, and hence an equivalence relation, every maximal experience will be a total experience, and vice-versa. In short, every part of every subject’s consciousness at a given time will be mutually co-conscious. We can call a consciousness of this type fully or strongly unified. Since a total experience is a fully unified experience that is not a part of any larger fully unified experience, each (momentary) total experience will belong to a different subject, and will comprise everything that subject is experiencing at the relevant time. This is a conveniently tidy situation, but it depends on the transitivity of co-consciousness. If it were the case that co-consciousness is non-transitive, i.e. not always or necessarily transitive, there are actual or possible subjects whose maximal experiences at a given time consist of distinct but overlapping momentary total experiences. (These consubjective total experiences must overlap, since we are working on the assumption that a single subject cannot, at a given time, have two wholly separate streams of consciousness.) We can call a consciousness of this type partially or weakly unified. (96)

In partial or weakly unified consciousness, the parts are co-conscious only indirectly [A is co-conscious with C not directly but indirectly by sharing a third common content B]. This conception however leads to a disjunctive sort of consciousness that is unlike our own. (97)

4.4 Transitivity: the case against

Dainton thinks that partial unity of consciousness is unimaginable, that we cannot think of experiences we have when our consciousness is not unified.

Since our own experience seems for the most part to be fully unified, we cannot hope to make much progress on the transitivity issue by appealing to introspection. This might not seem to matter, since we are concerned with ways experience might possibly be, rather than with how it actually is. (97)

He then has us consider a thought experiment that has two cases, in both of which we just awake from brain surgery.

a) Case 1: “Before the surgery your visual field was fully co-conscious. Even while focusing your attention on (say) the extreme periphery of the right-hand side, you had a passive awareness of the central and left-hand portions. Now it is very different: the left-hand side of your visual field is co-conscious with the central portion, and the latter is co-conscious with the right-hand side, but the left and right sides are not co-conscious with each other at all.” (98)

b) Case 2: “On awakening you find that your consciousness is, in effect, divided into three portions. Your ‘inner’ consciousness, consisting of your thoughts, mental images, emotions, etc., is co-conscious with your bodily and tactile experiences, and your smell and taste sensations. You also have visual and auditory experiences, just as before. But there is a difference: your visual and auditory experiences are no longer co-conscious with each other.” (98)

It is very difficult to imagine such situations, but perhaps co-consciousness is not as transitive as we think. (98)

One reason we cannot imagine the separations is because when we try to they all become co-conscious with our own imaginations. Thus just because it is unimaginable does not mean it is impossible. (98)

Perhaps like Michael Lockwood we can pursue this line of thinking by examining split brains. Such people develop two separate streams of consciousness, but it is not clear from the research how disunified these subjects’ minds are.

Lockwood has us suppose that a patient has his brain sides severed gradually and slowly all while remaining conscious. We wonder if this means that there would come a phase when the patient’s consciousness is partly unified and partly disunified. (100).

Dainton considers a variety of possible outcomes of this situation. (101-102) And he says that even if in these exceptional cases there is partial unity, for the rest of us  it seems an unlikely condition. (102-103)

4.5 Transitivity: the case for

Dainton then has us call to mind some of the previously rejected accounts of co-consciousness. “if the I-thesis were true, partial unity would be impossible. But the I-thesis is false;” “if the S-thesis were true, synchronic co-consciousness would necessarily be transitive. But the S-thesis is also false.;  (104) and if the A-thesis were true, then “If e1 is co-conscious with e2, and e2 with e3, then each of these experiences must fall under the same awareness, and all are therefore automatically co-conscious with each other. But this only applies if phenomenal items can only fall under a single awareness, as a matter of necessity. We call the doctrine that this is the case the confinement thesis;” yet “Since we have found reason to reject the A-thesis, in all its forms, we do not need to consider further whether there is any reason to reject or accept the confinement thesis.” (104)

“In rejecting the I-theses, the S-thesis and A-thesis, I reached the conclusion that co-consciousness is a basic experiential relation.” (104) Dainton now wonders that while assuming this, what can we say about the possibility of a partially or weakly unified consciousness (104).

We do know what it is like for experiences to be related by co-consciousness, so we wonder if this unity could be weak. He traces out this argument:

When an experience e1 is co-conscious with a simultaneous experience e2, these two experiences are in effect fused into a single unit of experience, each part of which is co-conscious with every other part. The two experiences are not mixed or blended together, they retain their own distinctive phenomenal characteristics, but all the same their relationship is of a very intimate nature: every part or aspect of e1 is co-conscious with every other part or aspect of e1, and with every part or aspect of e2, and vice-versa. In a manner of speaking, the two are wholly joined, there is no ‘distance’ separating them at all. Since e1 and e2 are parts of a single experience in this way, how could it be possible for another experience e3 to be co-conscious with e2 without also being co-conscious with e1? Given that e1 and e2 are fused, any experience that is co-conscious with e2 will automatically and necessarily be co-conscious with e1 as well. Since the same applies to any combination of simultaneous experiences, partial unity is an impossibility. (105)

Instead of the term co-conscious, Dainton will refer to experiences that are experienced together as co-presence or compresence, in accordance with the terminologies of other writers. Dainton then has us consider this situation and diagram.

dainton time book fig 4.4

Think of a patch of phenomenal colour, such as would result from looking at a large circular expanse of grey on a white wall. This expanse is a single experience; it is sensed as a whole, and each part of it is co-conscious—or co-present—with every other part. Now, it is natural to think of the co-presence of this experience’s parts in the way depicted in Figure 4.4.

Because we see the coloured expanse on a wall several feet away, it is easy to assume that because all its parts are co-conscious they are all observed from a single point of view, a point of view which is separate and distant from the wall itself. However, if we take the expanse to be a region of our visual field, this way of thinking is wrong. We do not observe our own visual field from some distance away; the visual field is a part of our overall consciousness. The co-presence of the expanse’s parts does not consist in their being presented to | a single point of awareness that is distant and distinct from the visual field: this is the awareness-content picture of the A-thesis, which we have rejected. The co-presence of the parts is a consequence of the fact that the parts themselves are related to one another by co-consciousness, as I stressed in §3.7. Hence, if we imagine the expanse as being divided into four, we can represent the relationships of co-consciousness between the regions in the way shown in Figure 4.5. (105-106)

dainton time book fig 4.5

We can further imagine each region divided up and so on, with all being co-conscious in the depicted manner.

In short, all the distinguishable parts of the expanse are co-conscious with one another. Indeed, not only are all the parts co-conscious with one another, they are equally co-conscious with one another: parts which are spatially distant are no less co-conscious than parts which are closer together. The same applies across the modalities: if I hear a sound to my right simultaneously with a sound to my left, both auditory contents are co-present to just the same extent as the spatially adjacent tactile sensations I have when I tap my hand with two fingers, or my visual experiences of the horizontal and vertical components of the letter T. For the sake of having a convenient label, let us say that an experience is maximally connected if all its distinguishable parts are mutually and equally coconscious. (107)

Dainton does not think that there could be another part of this above experience E that is not co-conscious with the rest. “By virtue of being maximally connected, the parts of E are enmeshed in a pervasive web of coconsciousness, and hence fused into a single unitary experiential whole, with the result that an experience cannot be co-conscious with just one part of E without also being co-conscious with the rest of it.” (107)

Dainton continues this discussion by considering non-transitive relationships of other kinds. (107-108) Afterwards he addresses the objection that “since we already know that our imaginative abilities are limited in this regard, surely it is illegitimate to go on to say that non-transitive coconsciousness is impossible” and another objection regarding split brain cases. (108)

4.6 A question of interpretation

Perhaps someone else (S) could convince us that their own consciousness is partially unified. But

S’s claim cannot be a phenomenal judgment about the character of his experience. Since his visual and auditory experience are no longer coconscious, he cannot possibly attend to both simultaneously. This means he cannot have an introspective awareness of the fact (assuming it is one) that he is usually having both auditory and visual experiences at any given time. Whenever he is introspectively aware of seeing something, he will have no introspective awareness of hearing anything, and whenever he is | introspectively aware of hearing something, he will have no introspective awareness of seeing anything; and this applies irrespective of whether the introspection is active or passive. (110-111)

Dainton continues by considering if S’s awareness were impaired and for that reason partially unified (111-112). He later concludes: “Given the strength of the purely phenomenological case against the possibility of partial unity, I will tentatively conclude that synchronic coconsciousness is a transitive relation.” (112)

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


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