A Visit to the Phenonemological Garden

This chapter categorizes and discusses mental phenomena.  It emphasizes that we don't re-draw the outer world inside our heads for a little person to look at.

1. Welcome to the phenom

"Kant distinguished "phenomena," things as they appear, from "noumena," things as they are in themselves, and during the development of the natural or physical sciences in the 19th century, the term phenomenology came to refer to the merely descriptive study of any subject matter."

["Phenomenology" seems similar to what I recently called "mere curve-fitting" in a comment exchange about gravity, as something that lets us make accurate predictions about a phenomenon, while still leaving it in the realm of metaphysics (not integrated causally into the rest of physics).]

D will use the term "phenom" to denote the (true) ontology of conscious phenomena.  He divides it into

  • sense perceptions
  • imagined perceptions
  • affect

2. Our experience of the external world

D tells an interesting fable about a philosopher who denied that the mechanical reproduction of an orchestra's sounds could be possible, due to a failure of his own imagination.  He then challenges the naive assumption that, after all the sound of all the different instruments have been translated into a stream of pulses, they get converted back into all the different orchestral sounds in the brain.  The distinctive sounds of different instruments, once thought to be unanalyzable, are due to the superposition of a number of different frequencies and amplitudes of pure tones.  This leads into the argument that we don't experience sounds in our heads - we're not going to go to the effort to break sound down into frequencies just to get it inside our heads, and then build the original waveform back up again.  Similarly, we imagine we hear word boundaries in speech; yet there are no gaps between words in the acoustic energy profile.

Vision:  We don't draw pictures in our heads and then look at them.  That would lead to an infinite regress.  Besides, it's dark in there.  Our visual perception is a conglomeration of different objects at different resolutions tagged with different visual properties.

3. Our experience of the internal world

The gist of this section seems to be that we don't imagine things by, eg., drawing pictures in our heads.  [I remember an experiment 5 or 10 years ago, in which a subject was able to literally draw a simple figure in its primary visual cortex, detected by fMRI, by imagining it.  So I'm not sure this is a meaningful distinction to make.  Imagining a scene may start at an end closer to consciousness; but it still ends up re-activating images in topographically-mapped areas.]

4. Affect

Fun is a mysterious phenomenon not yet given enough attention by philosophers.  Affect and qualia are still mysterious; but D promises (p. 65) to give a materialistic account of them.


[I agree with most of this chapter, with the caveat that a large percentage of our cortex is taken up with topology-preserving maps of our visual field, of the type D says we don't have.  I'm willing to overlook this, because I expect that a lot of the "important stuff" goes on in more rostral associational brain areas.  But in order to make this excuse for D, I have to slide a little toward the "Cartesian theater of the mind" view that D is going to spend much of the book arguing against.]


7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:03 AM
New Comment

I appreciate these summaries and the following discussions, but I don't think each chapter merits a separate top-level post. When your summary is short and you're not arguing with D, as here, only a few posts are needed for the whole book.

Phil Goetz: If this comment or the above comment are voted up higher than the post itself, please do not continue your chapter-by-chapter summaries. I will remove them if you do. One more post for the rest of the book.

Okay. You don't need to threaten removal. I may never get around to finishing the book, though.

I will remove them if you do.

This reads as unnecessary (preemptive) aggression to me.

I agree. This sort of discussion would be fine for a book club but here 14 posts for a single book is a bit much.

To follow up on what others are saying, I'd suggest writing these posts for a personal blog or something like that and then posting a summary / parts here if it's relevant.

I have read Consciousness Explained, but utterly forgot and unlearned the bit about there being no pauses between spoken words. I have no idea why; I just spent 15 minutes reading about it, because it's really cool.