Consciousness goes under the microscope (UPDATED)
The nature of conscious experience has been one of philosophy’s most hotly debated questions in recent decades. While discussions of intentionality, phenomenology, and first-person access have produced a voluminous literature, there’s been frustratingly little consensus. Jamie Roth hopes to change that.
“I want to start a conversation about conscious experience that doesn’t just turn into another opportunity for Ned Block to talk about how impressive his orgasms are.” She wants, that is, to break away from relying on diverging intuitions about cases. “Representationalists and qualia freaks, physicalists and property dualists — each camp trots out its favored examples and no one ever changes their mind.”
In an effort to break the impasse, Roth is partnering with Francis Goldman, a microscopist at Michigan State University. The two claim to have developed a technique for extracting and imaging subjects’ conscious experiences. “Getting the experiences was easy,” says Roth. “By the end of freshman year the average student is brimming with experiences they wish they didn’t have and is more than willing to donate a few.”
“The problem was the transparency of experience,” Goldman explains. “Whenever I tried to focus on its features, I found myself focusing on some object external to experience.” The key, he says, was to use phase contrast microscopy, a technique that uses phase shifts in light to image transparent specimens. “It’s perfect,” Goldman remarks. “It lets us see the structure of conscious experience, its intrinsic properties, its contents — basically everything we wanted to know.”
While Roth has to leave to teach a class, Goldman is kind enough to show me his laboratory, including the behemoth of a microscope they use to image experience. Against the protests of his partner, Goldman has taken to calling the microscope “The Experience Machine.” “What’s wrong with that?” he asks with a shrug. “She said it would be too confusing, but come on. It’s a big machine that lets us investigate experience — The Experience Machine.”
After a little cajoling, Goldman agrees to discuss their preliminary results. We sit down at the microscope, and he preps a slide for illustration. He picks an experience as of a ripe red apple. With Block still on my mind, my first question is whether the experience could possibly be inverted. “I, uh, suppose we could do that,” Goldman says with a quizzical look. He reaches over and rotates the slide 180 degrees. It’s an inauspicious beginning to what turns out to be a disappointing exchange.
So, do you think that experience is ineffable?
Hard to say.
Well, is it private?
The specimen is the property of Michigan State University. Since that’s a public university, though, I don’t know whether it counts as private or not.
Goldman is obviously frustrated, and after a few more miscommunications I thank him for his time and end the interview.
Whether or not the technique delivers on the promise of revolutionizing the philosophy of mind, it’s certainly one of the most exciting projects in recent memory and one that FauxPhilNews will be keeping an eye on.