First and Third Person, Tripping Over Descriptions

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One of the more ludicrous follies of philosophers is the claim that "mind" cannot be reduced to brain doings because of the "ontological distinction" between "first-person" experience and "third-person" brain and neuron events.

This is of course a symptom of those who know nothing about representation and the structure of information prattling insipidly.

In some ways, given philosophers' prediclection for presuming that their words somehow influences the way the world is, it's almost understandable that they lack the skill to discern the scope of description from the object being therein described.

In rather colloquial (as is all my writing anyway) a response to one particularly egregious example which is affronted to the audience as an authority appeal.

Let me unpeel his authority and repeal his appeal:

I dispair of amateurs ever understanding the problems of representation and scope.

Myron, quoting Georg Northoff @

Either the First-Person Perspective, referring to mental states, is distinguished (and thus dissociated) from the Third-Person Perspective, which rather refers to neuronal states. Or the First-Person Perspective is reduced, subordinated or eliminated in favour of the Third-Person Perspective.  In the first case, the First-Person Perspective can no longer be linked to the brain because otherwise it could not be distinguished from the Third-Person Perspective. 

There is no "elimination", no non-linkage to the brain. The existence of a first person perspective perception is not in question.

There is reduction and sobordination (as identity) as The first person perspective is a particular structure of process and representation that is representable from a third person perspective.

There is no "perspective" to what happens. The brain does as it does whether being described - whether or not there is first-person, third- person, liberal, conservative, tory, sybarite, tea-partier, Martian or Betelguesian "perspective". The universe, including brains, do not need to be looked at to do.

In the latter case, the First-Person Perspective can be linked to the brain.However, the question for the distinction between First- and Third-Person Perspective arises. If the First-Person Perspective is reduced to the Third-Person Perspective, it should refer to neuronal states. This however is not the case since it e.g. First-Person Perspective rather refers to mental states.

Wrong. A correctly descriptive and expository "Third-Person-Perspective" of a would indeed "reduce" the "First-Person-Perspective" to "Third-Person-Perspective. But it would not eliminate it ... remember this is a description of what happens objectively; it is merely a d0escription of what is happening.

Instead it would IDENTIFY - the structures and organizations of process of particular "neuronal states" (ignorance is no excuse, the brain, and consciousness is an ongoing dynamic process ... billions of them each second ... and consciousness and conscious feelings/thoughts/sensations/dispositions are transient, transactive entities, not "states") from this "Third-Person Perspective" that ARE the "First-Person-Perspective" of those phaneric transactions. In other words a properly comprehensive descriptive elaboration of brain processing will SUBSUME as a complete subset whatever first person perceptions are transacted overall.

First person perception is necessarily a subset of the processing of the brain (not a description of that processing) which includes many other things within that time-frame.

The "Third-Person-Perspective" is NOT something coincident with the *experience* of the first person perspective. In fact the author, and philosophers generally speak as though it MUST exist contemporaneously and coincidently with the experience itself. That is not how reductive exposition works! If we imagine some future, brain-process-omniscient super-tech scan capable of cotemporaneously generating a "Third-Person-Perspective" in the same time-frame of the first person experience, it will NOT BE THE SAME MIND describing the "Third-Person-Perspective" as experiencing the "First-Person-Perspective". It will be either another mind (most likely a super-sophisticated-super-computer of the future programmed to read as of now unimaginable brain-scan sensors and use yet speculative algorithms to analyze them in real time) or - if and only if the "first person" is a future brain scientist, might it possibly himself (aided by super-computer software) generating the "Third-Person Perspective" long AFTER the primary experience from the scan recordings and analysis programs. The "Third-Person Perspective" will not be the same experience as the "First-Person-Perspective".

It is important to note that as Myron likes to insist, the "Third-Person-Perspective" is a DESCRIPTION where as the "First-Person-Perspective" is the event. Ergo ontologically distinct. But the "Third-Person-Perspective" describes WHAT the brain is doing where the experience IS the brain's doing.

There is indeed clear contrast, but no conflict. The identity is between what is described by the "Third-Person-Perspective" and the being of the "First-Person-Perspective", NOT between first and third person perceptions. As they are different things, their "ontologic" types do not in fact conflict at all. They don't even overlap.

We reduce fire to oxidation and thermodynamics. We describe it in extreme detail, in many cases known top to bottom. But we NEVER confuse our description, our chemical and thermodynamic equations and other descriptions, no matter how detailed with the fire itself.

Likewise the first person experience is analogously fire. It is the brain's doing just as the flame of a burner is the doings of pumped methane and propane gas and atmospheric oxygen. Our knowledge and descriptions don't change what is or was ... though they afford us abilities to move things around to our overall benefit for the future.

Similarly a "Third-Person-Perspective" of a first person experience is a description of the brain's doing that doesn't change what the brain does .... or the "first person" experience that is part of that doing. If comprehensive and expository it simply describes how that brain processing is perceived by the brain as that experience. As a description, it in no way changes that which it describes ... but as with fire, as understanding comes it may in the future let us change things around to our benefit.

The problem comes ONLY in the incompetence of thinking that the "Third-Person-Perspective" which should properly describe brain doings (asserted incompetently as "neuronal states") IS the identity being asserted. It isn't. It is the brain-doings that are the asserted identity. The description of and as a "Third-Person-Perspective" could not be available until after the fact.

(Note that the brain is re-entrant and degenerate. While the brain is, I surmise, arranged to achieve as much determinacy as feasible, it is both physically and computationally impossible to predict the whole of the evolution of an experience, particularly a prolonged one, before it eventuated. That is, in my surmise a good part of the evolutionary "why" (not how) we have consciousness. (Consciousness allows us to remember parts of the process path of an experience to reproduce or avoid such paths in the future). But that non-predictability enforces the absolute logical (and computational as "consciousness" lags events perceived therein) necessity that a *description* will follow and NEVER be identical with the transaction of an experience. Any "third person" - including re-presentation of an event with self aware knowledge of it - is necessarily a separate and later event than the experiential registry of the event. The brain process is the event; the description of it a separate one).

As final icing on the cake, we remember that there is no such animal in this universe as a "Third-Person-Perspective". A "Third-Person-Perspective" is an abstraction, a fantasy of (mostly) colluding sentient agents agreeing that their separate and individual "First-Person-Perspectives" can be expressed in term they will (mostly) jointly agree upon as referents to consistently observable actions and consequents that they believe they or their trusted surrogates can in fact transact and experience. Which is ultimately only to say what is said above: a "Third-Person-Perspective" is an expression, a description of prior experienced events. It is NOT the events being described.

The example I commonly use is that a neurologist examining a conscious patient's fully exposed brain is, in his phaneron and in it his phenomenal awareness and perception of his patient's brain along with whatever instrumentation readouts he employs, are every bit as much a constructed generation, a fantasy, of his (own) brain as that of his patient strapped in a chair being distracted by a Spider-Man film. His "Third-Person-Perspective" of his patient's brain's doings are an expression or report of how his own brain interpreted the lights and sounds incident upon him as he examined his patient. They are NOT the lights and sounds of a fantasy film that are the experience being processed by his patient's brain. This should make it painfully, pellucidly obvious that the "First-Person-Perspective" and "Third-Person-Perspective" are physically distinct things in this universe transpiring at distinct and separate loci. The TPP, to whatever extent valid, may describe aspects of the FPP, but they are not the same thing.

Either solution implicitly or explicitly presupposes the epistemic dichotomy between First- and Third-Person Perspective with respect to mental and neuronal states.

Yes it does. THERE IS NO THIRD PERSON PERSPECTIVE OF AN EXPERIENCE ... at least not until such time as our science is capable of more sophisticated scanning technology than is today considered possible, and computational power a million or so times above what is now available, and a rather complete knowledge of brain process that we are today a long way from yet having.

Which does not mean that a comprehensive, correct, and substantially complete description of how such generally happens cannot be derived from the intense researches, hard and subtle work now underway. We may never be able to generate a real time, even substantively delayed, elaboration of any particular experience as a "Third-Person-Perspective" of that experience. But there is no bar to us knowing in a general (and highly detailed so far as the particular brain processes and structures - or as a high level information flow schemata) way how it happens. But such knowledge is NOT and does NOT purport to be "the experience" being described.


A reductionist/identist claim asserts the possibility in principle of the existence of a proper DESCRIPTION of behaviors of matter in the brain according to the laws of physics and chemistry that DESCRIBES HOW THE BRAIN creates and perceives experiences from senses and other ongoing internal processes. The DESCRIPTION doesn't change what the brain does. The reductionist/identist claim is that the BRAIN doing as and what it does IS the perception of the experience (which IS the experience). The unitarian-materialist (TM by me, keep philosofuckulist hands off) does not claim that such description can be made at the instant of an experience ... or for that matter necessarily ever for any partucular and specific real person real-event-experience. Only that A DESCRIPTION consistent with what is (then) known of physics on up through chemistry, biology, neurology, and information manipulation per computer science and the rest ... in expectation, hugely consistent with what is now known of physics and basic chemistry and computer science at least .... is possible in principle to account for any manifestation of a "First-Person-Perspective". Note again and well: a description does NOT change what is described.

In the case of distinction between First- and Third-Person Perspective, their epistemic dichotomy is explicitly presupposed. Though implicitly this remains also true in the case of subordination or elimination of the First-Person Perspective in favour of the Third-Person-Perspective because otherwise there would be no need for its resolution by either subordination or elimination.

This is incompetence. Again there is no subordination or elimination. The "Third-Person-Perspective" if and when manifested can only only ever exist after complete fact of the transaction of the "First-Person-Perspective". And the "Third-Person-Perspective" is a DESCRIPTION of the BRAIN transactions that SUBSUME, NOT SUBORDINATE, and certainly not "eliminate" the "First-Person-Perspective". A correct and expository "Third-Person-Perspective" as a DESCRIPTION will DESCRIBE how brain process IS the event experience in "First-Person-Perspective".

The discussion about the ‘epistemic mind problem’ presupposes subsequently the epistemic framework of an dichotomy between First- and Third-Person Perspective with respect to mental and neuronal states.

The only "epistemic mind problem" here is that of how people who do not understand how to map the scope of representations assert knowledge and understanding of the subtleties of "mind".

There is no more an "epistemic mind problem" than there is an "epistemic fire problem". Anyone who thinks reductive "knowledge how" reductions "eliminate" and thus cause some kind of "problem" is invited to test their theory to see whether a wholly reductive description of combustion eliminates the fire of their stove burner. Keep a first aid kit handy and somebody standing by to take you to the emergency room.

On the other hand it seems that *belief* that there is an "epistemic mind problem" does tend to actually reduce at least the ability to USE what mind such believer may have. In some cases, it seems that the critical faculties of such mind, at least in context of consideration of connections between material and mind, are completely eliminated. Fortunately though a widespread pathogen a few of us seem to have some immunity.

-- TWZ

Change History

Spacing and spelling.
Added two paragraphs beginning "As final icing on the cake...". Minor typographic cleanup.