Saturday, February 03, 2007

Phenomenologists And The Itch

Here is an example of how difficult it is to have precise knowledge about inner experience.

The phenomenologists, who specialize in observing their own inner experience, claim that a key feature of consciousness is intentionality: Consciousness is always conscious of something. I think this is untrue.

The five senses that we use to perceive the world have intentionality, and so the verbs we use to describe them can take objects: I see something, hear something, smell something, feel something, or taste something.

But there are other things in our consciousness that do not seem to have intentionality, such as a pain or an itch. An itch feels the same whether it is caused by a flea biting you or by a rash in your skin. You cannot say: "I itch a flea" or "I itch a rash." You simply say "I itch," without the itch having intentionality and refering to something beyond itself.

This seems to be a more primitive form of consciousness. We would be better off if the itch were about its cause. If you "itched a flea," that would be an unpleasant itch that you would want to scratch, getting rid of the flea. If you "itched a rash," that would be an itch that you would not want to scratch, since it is not healthy to scratch a rash. But apparently we never evolved to make this distinction between different itches, as we make the distinction between different sights or sounds.

Among humans, you might say that an itch still has intentionality in the sense that it is about an irritation in some location on our body. But we locate itches in this way only because we are conscious of ourselves and of our bodies. Animals without self-consciousness might just react to an itch as an irritation without being conscious of its location.

Conceivably, there could be animals with consciousness but without any intentionality, without any awareness that the consciousness refers to something.

For example, when worms are exposed to the light, they squirm around to excape the light. Worms have light sensitive patches of skin but do not have eyes that focus the light and let them see objects. Conceivably, they are experience the light in the same way that we experience an itch or a pain.

If I have a pain in my lower back, I try to move in a way that reduces the pain - without any reference to an object in the world that is a source of the pain. Likewise, the worm may wriggle in a way that reduces the discomfort of being exposed to light, without any reference to something out in the world that is a source of the light.

We do not know whether a worm’s consciousness actually works in this way - or even whether a worm has consciousness. But it is conceivable that a worm could have this sort of consciousness without intentionality. The fact that we would still call if consciousness even though it does not have intentionality shows that intentionality is not a necessary feature of consciousness, as phenomenologists claim.

Despite all the time that they have spent thinking about their own inner experience, phenomenologists seem to have overlooked the itch.


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