" . . . however complex the object may be the thought of it is one
undivided state of consciousness."
The All-At-Onceness of Conscious Experience
As we encounter things in the world around us, when do we judge
something to be just a heap or aggregate of smaller things,
like a pile of sand, and when do we judge it to be a true, unified,
single thing? It depends, almost always, on how you look at
it. I have argued that when we look at the world in strict
reductionist terms, nothing above the sub-atomic level really
counts as a holistic thing. Are there any things above the micro
level that really are inherent, single
things in a way that does not depend on how
you look at them? Do we have any reason to believe that there
are, in contrast to the reductionist view, inherently unitary mid-level
things in the universe?
I have an art nouveau poster in which a woman is smoking,
and there is a stylized curl of smoke rising from her cigarette.
When I look at that languid asymmetrical curve,
I see the continuous curve in its entirety, all at once. I do not just
have some kind of cognitive access to the fact of the curve. The
parameters of the curve are not just available to me upon making
certain kinds of
inquiries. I do not just have a pointer or reference to a lot of
data beyond my view that yields results pertaining to the
curve when evaluated. The details of my perception are not just at my
fingertips, but bang! right there, live, all at once. I see the
whole curve now. Of an intelligent computer with its video monitor aimed at
the curve (LDA, STA, JMP . . .),
all we can say is that at some level
it may be thought of (by us) as seeing the curve. That is, given an
abstract understanding of its algorithm and data structures,
one may interpret the functioning of the machine as
"seeing" the curve. When analyzed in certain terms
or thought of in a certain way, it is "seeing" the curve.
This, however, is anthropomorphizing on our part,
albeit on the basis of a the computer's deliberately programmed design.
There is, in contrast, nothing
"may be thought of" about my seeing the curve. My seeing the curve
is not a matter of interpretation. It is an absolute fact of Nature
that I really do see that curve all at once, before me.
Seen at the low level, as the ant-like CPU crawling over the
data-gravel, there is no inherent sense in which "it all
comes together" for the computer, whereas there is an inherent
sense in which it all comes together for me.
This is not just another "I see red, the computer will never see
red" argument (although it is perhaps related).
The "seeing red" arguments focus on
qualitatively rich but nevertheless cognitively simple aspects of
experience. I am talking instead about our ability to have cognitively
complicated scenes before us in our mind's eye,
to see the complex as one thing, all at once in its entirety:
e pluribus unum. This is sometimes referred to as the unity of
I would like to distinguish this from the so-called binding
problem, however. The binding problem refers to the fact that, for
example, the visual processing parts of the brain and the auditory
processing parts are quite different, and in fact take different
amounts of time to do their jobs. In spite of these facts, we can have a
single experience that incorporates elements from several
senses at the same time, and they are synchronized. The binding
problem is fascinating in its own right, but what I am talking
about here is, I think, at least as fundamental. I am concerned not so
much with the way in which different sense modalities (vision,
hearing, smell, etc.) can be bound
together in a single percept, but how anything at all, even
within a single sense
modality, may have any kind of high-level unity at all.
The upshot of all of this is that
we do not live in a reductionist universe. That is to say, there are
inherent, absolute things above the level of the quark, but below
the level of the whole universe itself. Mid-level things may
only exist in our minds, but that is enough to say that they do
exist. My moment of consciousness as I look at a tree
is absolutely, indubitably, a single thing. There are inherent
things in my conscious mind that spread across or incorporate any
lower level things that might be taken as their elements.
Like my seeing red, these things in my
mind can not be illusory. If it seems that there are mid-level
unitary things among my percepts, then those seemings themselves
must be mid-level unitary things. They really exist in the universe.
It could be argued that my percept of a tree is not an indivisible
whole: you can easily break it into parts. But that only means that
I have a tree percept, then, often by effort of willful analysis,
I have a subsequent follow-on percept of tree parts, albeit possibly with
tendrils of reference reaching back to the original
unitary tree percept. Just because a
cathedral is made of stones, it does not follow that my conception
of a cathedral is made of my conception of stones. Even if my
conception of the cathedral incorporates the knowledge of the
stones, there is still a single experienced percept of the
cathedral that subsumes this fact.
My percepts are immediately, manifestly unitary whole things.
Regardless of the cognitive or physiological
mechanism which supports them, they provide
me with a counter-example to the doctrine of ontological reductionism.
I know I perceive my percepts, and that those percepts really are
whole objects just as certainly as I know I see
red. Things, in my mind, are qualia, as are all abstractions -
manifestly before me, all at once.
A thing is an abstraction, and all abstractions
are things. In contrast, a car, for example, just is
a heap of its atomic parts, doing what they must whether you
think of them collectively as a car or not.
I think that this unique status of our objects of consciousness as
mid-level inherent things is at least as
important as the fact that red seems red to
me. Consciousness gives us not only examples that there are such
things as qualitative essences in the universe, but also that there
are such things as things. This argument
may strike some people as a case of comparing apples and oranges.
"Just because you perceive something as
an inherent whole doesn't mean it actually is an inherent whole",
one might be tempted to argue. "You are just interpreting it that
way." But it is the percept itself, the interpretation, not the
thing out there in the world that is being perceived, that I am
I realize that this line of thought
represents a whole new level of taking first person phenomenal
Nevertheless, if we are going to be honest and fearless as we try
to figure out the sorts of things and forces that are at work in the
universe, we must take this step. We must take
first person experience seriously, both in
the seeing red case and in the case of the unity of our percepts.
Both (and perhaps more besides) must be explainable in any final
theory of nature we concoct. Such a theory must include principles
of individuation that allow for the mid-level things that are my
discusses this quite a bit (although from
a somewhat different perspective). To use his term, we need a
theory of natural individuals.
My conscious perceptions are mid-level
things, and they have qualitative essences which outrun their
functional descriptions. They are big and complex, yet they must
count as primitive objects in the sense that there is no lower
level of description or analysis in terms of which they may be
exhaustively characterized. There is certainly a huge number of possible
conscious percepts - quite possibly infinite. All this being true,
we live in a
universe in which there is a huge (possibly infinite) number of fundamental
components, these components have qualitative essences, and they
are big and rich, not tiny and simple. Any formulation of
reductionism that could accommodate these facts would hardly be
worthy of the name.
It is worth noting, however, that this view is nevertheless reductionist
in a sense: everything in the universe may well be reducible in
principle to its component parts - it is just that there is no
small number of such fundamental components
in the universe, and a lot of those fundamental components
substantial things in their own right. Technically, this counts as
reductionism, of a sort, although the size of the menagerie of
the fundamental components of the universe is great enough to make most
reductionists blanch. The important respect in which it still
counts as a form of reductionism is that under this view,
you do not get anything out that isn't there in
the lowest levels. Specifically, this view does not posit any magic
"emerging" from a system on the basis of its "complexity" or