The First-Person and Third- Person Views (Part I)

David J. Chalmers

[[An overview of "first-person" and "third-person" issues about consciousness, written when I was a first-year graduate student at Indiana in 1989. This was Part I of a supposedly 3-part paper - the two remaining parts got turned into "Consciousness and Cognition". This part doesn't reach any firm conclusions, but it captures something of the eternal internal struggle.]]

Organization, roughly.

We CAN'T separate the first-person from the third-person. Even as I write this, it's my brain that is doing the thinking.

The First Person and the Third Person

Perhaps the most important duality in the philosophy of mind is that between the first-person and third-person views of mental events. Some might say that the fundamental duality is that between mind and brain, or between subjective and objective - but all of these reduce to the first-person/third-person duality.

The first person is, at least to many of us, still a huge mystery. The famous "Mind-Body Problem," in these enlightened materialist days, reduces to nothing but the question "What is the first person, and how is it possible?". There are many aspects to the first-person mystery. The first-person view of the mental encompasses phenomena which seem to resist any explanation from the third person. Such phenomena include some famous philosophical bugbears: subjective experience, qualia, consciousness, and even mental content (although see below. It is notoriously difficult to even talk about the first person without slipping into confusion, and these terms may have different connotations for different people.).

The distinguishing mark of the first-person view is the air of mystery which surrounds it. This feeling of mysteriousness has led many people to dismiss the first-person out of hand. It perhaps has 'spiritual' connotations not unlike those of the occult or religion. But the first-person is not to be dismissed so easily. It is indeed a glaring anomaly today, in the heyday of the scientific world-view. If it was not for the direct experience which all of us have of the first-person, it would seem a ridiculous concept. But it throws up too many problems to be neatly packaged away in the kind of third-person explanation which suffices for everything else in the scientific world. Pity.

The third-person view, by contrast, poses no deep metaphysical difficulties. The difficulties here, while not to be underestimated, are in a sense merely technical. From the third-person view, the human brain is (in principle at least) perfectly understandable. It is after all only a physical system - a tremendously complex one, without doubt, but a physical system nevertheless - which like all other such systems, is constituted at the bottom line by microscopic physical parts, obeying the laws of physics. Its behaviour would be totally analyzable and predictable if one had a detailed knowledge of physical principles. From the third person, there is no room for any mystery.

Of course, as with any complex system, a microscopic-level physical explanation may not tell the whole story, or at any rate it may not tell the story as elegantly and simply as it could be told. Purely reductionist explanations are not noted for their parsimony. So third-person theorizers are drawn into a search for the correct level of explanation, and for useful high-level predicates and properties which can be abstracted from the physical base. Some kinds of abstractions may prove to have great explanatory and predictive power, in which case they will be retained; others will not, and will thus be discarded. This is the way of the world in any sort of complex system analysis - whether it be in the field of biology, economics or psychology.

The kind of abstractions which have proved particularly interesting to third- -person theorizers in the philosophy of mind include such diverse concepts as beliefs and desires, rationality, understanding,...; and occasionally even concepts like consciousness, sensation and experience (but importantly, these latter concepts have a subtly different emphasis when viewed from the third person to when viewed from the first person). Some of these have proved to have great explanatory power. But nevertheless, from the third person these remain (merely) convenient and useful abstractions. From the third person, no-one need ascribe any absolute 'reality' to these concepts, and more than is ascribed to any other abstraction. One might say that the distinguishing mark of the third-person view of the mental is convenience.

By contrast, first-person mental events seem to be something more than just convenient abstractions. When we talk of colour-sensations, or pains, or even consciousness, we are not doing this because of the need to make useful abstractions. We are doing this because they seem to have an absolute reality. From a totally 'objective' view, no-one would stop for a moment to think that there might really be something in there experiencing those convenient abstractions which they had made; no third-person theorizer would believe that their elegant stipulations of mental content had any absolute truth behind them; nobody would believe that a mere physical system could really carry meaning; and yet there is, they do and it does. What would seem ridiculous from the objective view is almost self-evident from the subjective view. The first person is an anomaly, but it is forced upon us.

In recent years there has been a polarity between philosophical thinkers who take the third-person stance, and those who address the first-person issues. In a sense there seems to be an irreconcilable division. I will argue that this division is not as great as it seems to be. Unlike hard-line members of the third-person camp, I believe that the first-person does present us with major problems to be answered. Unlike hard-line members of the first- -person camp, I believe that the third-person view can be the source of much wisdom. The third-person and first-person are inseparable - I try to outline why, and how.

In Part I of this paper, I outline some of the major differences between the first-person and third-person camps, and some of the subdivisions within these camps. In some ways the polarity between these camps is not surprising - I try to make a case for why.

In Part II, I take up the third-person position. I give arguments showing why it was perhaps ridiculous to ever suppose that the first-person could be separated from the third-person view. In particular, I try to investigate the possibility of a being which seems to have all the third-person attributes required for, say, consciousness, but which is nevertheless lacking a first- -person 'experiencer.' More than one recent thinker seems to believe in such a possibility, but I show that if this could be the case, it would lead to strong consequences. In particular, it might mean that the Mind-Body Problem was insoluble.

By Part III, we will have seen the necessity for coherence between a first- -person and a third-person theory of mind. I will try to present a framework for such a theory, which might explain the notion of the first person without dismissing it. This will involve the two fundamental (and inseparable) concepts of pattern and information. Without giving too much away, the fundamental thesis will be this: third-person is to first-person as pattern is to information.

A Note on Terminology

Readers of this paper may hear rather more of the terms "first-person" and "third-person" than they would like. I originally intended to use the word "consciousness" to represent the mysteries of the first-person, but this had two problems: the word has been often used to denote third-person viewable phenomena (the notion of a system which gets feedback from its own processing, to name just one aspect), and this could lead to much confusion; and secondly, I believe there is more to the first-person mystery than consciousness alone (the problem of qualia, for instance, does not fit easily into a framework shaped around consciousness).

Instead I have chosen to use the term "first-person", as a coverall for all the problems which we recognize when we take the first-person stance - that range of problems often subsumed under the somewhat antiquated heading "Mind-Body Problem." The baffling problems of qualia, consciousness, and subjective experience are all part of the "first-person" mystery. What this term lacks in sparkle, it makes up in generality and accuracy.

Many mental events are viewable from the first person and from the third person. Take a pain, for instance: from the first-person we are interested in the particular qualitative sensation to which it gives rise; from the third-person, we are interested in the state of the brain at the time (including the famous firing of C-fibres), its causal effect on other parts of the brain, and the behaviour to which it gives rise. Obviously, these views of a pain are very much related. But when I want to make the distinction between these aspects of a pain, I will refer to "first-person pains" and "third-person pains," as a kind of short-hand. Similarly for other mental events. Even such a phenomenon as consciousness we can view in two ways, as "first-person consciousness" and "third-person consciousness."

This is a very useful distinction to make. Firstly, it avoids confusion. Secondly, it allows us to talk about mental events from the third-person without presupposing that there are true, first-person mental events 'going on inside.' This is very useful when, for instance, we want to speculate on the possiblity of a robot being conscious. The first step is to take what Dennett would call the "intentional stance" towards it, and see what kind of third-person mental events we could ascribe. Hard-line members of the first-person camp, such as Searle and McGinn, would deny us even this.

And an apology to grammaticists. "First-person" is an adjective, not a noun. When I speak of "the first person," this is usually a shorthand for "the first-person view," or sometimes "phenomena viewable from the first-person view." I hope the intended usage is clear in context. I do not mean to beg the question of whether there is indeed a single, indivisible "first person." This question, the problem of the self, is a related but separate issue which has been discussed by thinkers from Hume to Dennett and Parfit, and I believe the jury is still out.

The Dominance of the Third-Person View

The third-person view has enjoyed a distinct primacy in the philosophy of mind of recent years. This is not least because philosophers have finally caught up with the scientific notion that the bottom line of all that exists is the physical universe. But there are other reasons. In this section I will present some of the reasons why we should expect the third-person program to be dominant and quite successful. None of these reasons are inconsistent with the view that there remains a great mystery about the first person.

It seems that many philosophers of mind find first-person questions a little embarrassing. Here we have a very sophisticated academic field, but still it seems we have trouble getting far with what most outsiders would see as our fundamental problem: the Mind-Body Problem. There are four typical reactions to this embarrassment:

Position (1) is the most common reaction. There is, after all, much interesting philosophy which can be done from the third-person stance. The sophistication of this domain contrasts hugely with the vagueness which surrounds the first-person. So we have today a proliferation of papers which deal with the third-person without taking a stance on the first person. Occasionally, authors explicitly admit to being baffled by the mysteries of the first person, but more often their position is left unstated. Some third-person philosophers par excellence include Fodor, Stich, ... (???).

Position (2) is also not too uncommon, and is a not unexpected reaction to the apparent mystery of the first person. There exist many recent papers which take the third-person stance, give a detailed analysis of mental phenomena, and in doing so claim to have dismissed or explained seemingly first-person problems. This claim is usually the part most in need of examination. Sometimes it is supported with a great deal of careful argument (Parfit). More often, what is given is a purely third-person account, perhaps an account of the architecture or evolution of mental structures (Dennett, Churchland); and immediately thereafter the claim is baldly made that this account eliminates the first-person mysteries. Often, at least to the eyes of a member of the first-person camp, the argument given to support this claim seems a little thin.

One of the main difficulties with taking position (3) or (4) is that it is difficult to even talk about the first-person without confusion. Part of the reason for this is the huge intrinsic difficulty of the problem; another reason is the predominance of terminological confusion when talking about such things as "mind," "consciousness," "self" and other traditionally first-person concepts. Everybody uses these terms in their own way, and there is no general agreement about their domains of applicability (let alone about to what they refer!). I go into more detail about this problem below.

Given this difficulty with talking about first-person issues, it is not surprising that third-person philosophy of mind should be prevailing, almost by default. Despite the fact that many people out there are hugely puzzled by the problems of the first-person (as they may admit off-the-record), it is difficult to make much noise about it without falling into both repetition and negativity. The third-person stance, by contrast, can yield many important insights about the mind, despite the fact that it does not usually deal with the Big Issues. Taking the third-person stance, one is able to make much more noise. So, almost by natural selection, the third-person stance becomes dominant, and the first-person stance is reduced to the status of a quirky domain for those who like to cause trouble.

An Analogy with Behaviourism

One might make an analogy with behaviourism in psychology, in the earlier part of this century. In those days, nobody had the slightest idea what was going on inside the brain. To speak of internal cognitive processes was to descend to the level of speculation. The only things which people could get a handle on were behavioural manifestations. It was natural that as a result, behaviour became by far the dominant area of research. Nobody even had a clear idea of what would be the correct language to talk about internal processes with.

One may presume that when the behavioural paradigm was just beginning, not many serious thinkers actually doubted the existence of internal processes. It was just that nobody knew quite how to study them, and that in even talking about them researchers felt like they were standing on quicksand, descending into vagueness. Little wonder they grasped at whatever surer ground they had available, the direct study of behaviour. And indeed the analysis of behaviour produced many important insights. These insights had a profound and often positive effect on psychology. All that believers in 'cognitive processes' could do was stand around and say "but this isn't all!".

A curious thing began to happen. Where once behaviourists had abjured the study of internal processes because of the difficulty of dealing with these, some now, following upon the great success of their research program, began to deny the existence of internal processes at all. When spelt out, the argument of these radical behaviourists went something like this:


Looking upon this with the assistance of hindsight, there seems to be a monumental non sequitur there somewhere. To be sure, behaviourism had met with some success, but surely no-one had ever expected it to tell us everything? And did they completely doubt the evidence of their own introspection, about the existence of internal states? The arguments of the cognitivists, which seem so obvious to us today, surely must have given them cause for doubt?

But we should not be surprised. The argument was almost self-supporting, by natural selection. Believers in internal processes found it difficult to get beyond naysaying, to achieve concrete results, because these processes were still shrouded in mystery. So, to make a living these believers had to either join the behaviourist bandwagon, or more likely leave the field. The behaviourists were the ones who were making the noise, given the constraints of the current state of scientific knowledge, so the field acquired an unnatural bias in their direction. To be sure, many 'reasonable' behaviourists remained, who admitted that one day internal processes would have to be dealt with; but these comments were more often made in the protection of their homes, or their departmental tea-room. The point could only be made in print so many times, before repetition and negativity set in.

Sound familiar? I am sure that I do not need to spell out the analogy. These days, nobody has any problem believing in cognitive processes. They may not be totally understood, but progress has been made and a language for discussion has been developed. The bugbear these days is "subjective experience," and related first-person phenomena. We are simply not yet sophisticated enough to discuss these without encountering a fog of vagueness. As with the behaviourists, this leads to a understandable predominace of third-person analysis. And just as with the behaviourists, there are some 'radicals' who, to avoid the embarassment of problems we do not understand, claim that the problems do not exist, despite strong arguments to the contrary. We should not be surprised by this.

Reductionism and the cult of the third-person

The term "reductionism" is often a little vague in its application, especially in the philosophy of mind. Dawkins has said that "nobody is a reductionist in any sense worth being against." This may or may not be true in the philosophy of mind. I will divide reductionism into "hard-line" and "soft-line" varieties.

The Hard-Line Reductionist believes that to explain everything that is interesting about the mind, all we have to do is explain what is happening in the physical system that is the brain (and, perhaps, in the body and surrounding environment). Beyond this collection of third-person facts (they believe) there is nothing more to explain. Any claims of "but you've left out the most interesting part!" are not countenanced. These reductionists may allow certain abstractions from the physical base to be made, for the purposes of elegance and explanatory power, but these abstractions are made simply out of convenience, and they are not held to reflect any absolute truth.

Hard-line reductionists believe that questions of "subjective experience" and "qualia" and "phenomenology" are distracting chimeras, at best powerful illusions. A list of hard-line reductionists would include Ryle, Armstrong, and more recently, Dennett, Churchland and Parfit. These are people who take position (2) above, in reaction to first-person issues: they deny that there is any mystery. I believe that this is a sense of reductionism is worth being against.

In contrast, Soft-Line Reductionists are much more amenable to first-person questions. The soft-line reductionists believes that the cause of everything which is going on in the mind is the physical system, and this physical system is explainable from the third-person, but there may still be some emergent phenomena which are not captured by a purely physical, third-person description. Most hard-line reductionists probably regard soft-line reductionists as unbearably "wimpy," in rather the same way that an atheist would regard an agnostic, or that a communist would regard a social democrat.

Essentially, a soft-line reductionist is a materialist who nevertheless believes that the first-person is a great mystery; a hard-line reductionist believes there is no mystery at all. While the soft-liner may be dismissed by the hard-liner as "soft, squishy, and mystical," in this paper I intend to show that not only is soft-line reductionism a tenable position, but also that it does not inevitably lead to throwing up ones armss in frustrated wonder at the mystery of it all. I believe that a theory of the first-person can be developed which is coherent with a theory of the third- -person, but which is not subsumed by a theory of the third-person.

The Appropriation of First-Person Terms

As I have said, the first-person is hard to talk about. One important reason is that every first-person concept has a corresponding third-person concept. The word "consciousness" has often been taken as a compact reference to all that is mysterious about the first-person; but obviously, there are some third-person aspects which are very relevant to the word. If consciousness means something like "awareness of self," then a third-person commentator can point to the properties of physical systems (like the brain) which are monitoring their own processing, and using this feedback to adjust their behaviour. "So," the reductionist will claim, "wasn't this just what you meant by the term?". The first-personite will of course reply "No, the problem is, how could a mere physical system experience this awareness." The reductionist will reply in character, and the two will go on, feeling that they are talking past each other. The two are talking about corresponding phenomena, but not necessarily about identical phenomena.

This direct correspondence between first-person and third-person phenomena is the cause of much of the confusion. It has led to a slippery terminological slope, where nobody is sure what words in the "mental" vocabulary are referring to at a given time. Increasingly, terms which were once reserved for first-person issues are now used to cover third-person issues also.

The word "mind" once stood for everything that was quintessentially first-person. Witness the phrase "mind-body problem," for instance. But over the years the emphasis of the term has changed, until now is now much more frequently used to refer to third-person phenomena. Terms in common parlance such as "the subconscious mind" bear witness to this fact. Cognitive science, which is essentially the third-person investigation of mechanisms of thought, is often described as the "study of mind." These days the word "mind" is a general coverall for abstractions from the brain, first-person or third-person.

The word "consciousness," even. People who talk of "the evolution of consciousness", and of its survival value, are obviously addressing third-person aspects of the problem. I don't mean to say that these aspects are uninteresting, but nevertheless these aspects are not what makes consciousness such a mysterious problem. It is a pity; for a while the word "consciousness" was a general indication that one was talking about the mysteries of the first-person. These days, this seems to be less often the case.

The cause of this confusion is of course the intimate relation that the first person has to the third person. We should never forget that the mind is caused by a brain, and that the brain is at the bottom line a physical system understandable from the third-person view. Although we do not know how, a first-person is emergent from a third-person-understandable substrate. A consequence of this is that much of interest from the first-person viewpoint corresponds directly to phenomena viewable from the third person. Even the thought which I am having now: "Wow, how could it be that a mere brain could experience this thought", is being supported by a pattern of neural activity in my brain.

Take "consciousness," for instance. Despite the fact that this word usually represents all that is mysterious about the first-person, it would be naive to expect that the phenomenon be completely separable from the third-person viewpoint. And indeed, there is much in the third-person viewpoint which gives us insight into consciousness. The third-person notion of a brain which is scanning itself, or observing (directly or indirectly) its own processing, for example, obviously has a lot to do with consciousness - it is an important part of the third-person substrate from which consciousness emerges.

But it would be a mistake to regard this view of consciousness as dissolving the first-person mysteries altogether (as is sometimes claimed). To make this distinction clear, I will always denote this view of consciousness as "third-person-consciousness", or in the interests of brevity, "3P-consciousness." (One should not confuse this third- -person view of consciousness with "consciousness of the third person," which is a different matter entirely.) When I use the word "consciousness" alone I will always mean "first-person-consciousness", which I will sometimes abbreviate "1P-consciousness."

This direct correspondence (some might even say isomorphism) between first-person phenomena and (a certain subset of) third-person phenomena seems to be what often leads to confusion when discussing first-person issues. Many commentators, particularly those in the third-person camp, give the illusion of reducing first-person mysteries by appropriating the usual first-person words to refer to the third-person phenomena to which they correspond. It would be a final irony if this was to happen to the word "first-person" itself. I hereby issue a plea that this word be off-limits to the third-personites. If they wish, they may argue that the first-person does not exist; but they may not pretend to 'explain' the first-person by describing only third-person phenomena.

It would be nice if every article on 'mind' and 'consciousness' came with a caveat at the beginning, alerting the reader whether it is to be the first-person or the third-person phenomena that will be discussed. It is not unusual to find a paper which seems to be addressing the great first-person mysteries, only for the reader to find halfway through that it is doing no such thing. Sometimes even authors themselves seem confused as to which questions they are addressing.

It seems that there are only about three expressions which these days are still reserved only for first-person phenomena. These are "qualia," "phenomenology," and "subjective experience." But even these words (particularly the last) may begin to be appropriated by reductionists; and besides, each of these words has a fairly limited domain of application. I will always use the term "first-person" as a general term covering the whole area of this metaphysical mystery.

Of course there is also the old standby "Mind-Body Problem." This phrase has probably outgrown its usefulness, with the change in usage of the word "Mind" and the change in emphasis from "body" to "brain." But I will still use it from time-to-time; no other phrase has such universal first-person connotations.

The Mystery of the First-Person

As I have said, it is difficult to talk about the first-person without descending into vagueness. But what can be done, if it is done carefully, is to point out the mysteries, and ask how a third-person, physical theory could ever deal with these. I do not intend to do this in this paper - I take it that this has already been done most ably, by Nagel and others, and that reductionists have never given an adequate response. To re-present these arguments would be to go over old ground.

Instead, I intend to find out what the third-person can tell us about the first- -person, and to present a first-person theory which coheres with the third-person view. Any hard-line reductionists reading this will of course not be convinced by my premise. They may read this paper perhaps for amusement, perhaps because these first-person ideas may give them some insight into their third-person ideas, and perhaps even to realize that not all believers in the first-person are as unreasonable as they had supposed.

I will, however, give a very brief account of some of the most difficult first person problems. Two of these stand out above the others.

{end of linear article so far...}

{ {fit this in somewhere?}

Most writers on the subject of 'consciousness' recently have chosen to take a very third-person stance, talking about such things as the "Evolution" and "Architecture" of consciousness, while in fact talking about no such thing. They talk about fascinating third-person properties of thinking systems, which begin to explain why the systems produce these outlandish CLAIMS of consciousness and so on; and even explain how the ability of these systems to monitor themselves leads to the appearance of consciousness; but only very rarely is the bottom-line question of "how could ANY physical system support a first-person?" addressed.

One of the these of this article is that we should not be at all surprised at the success of these writers in explaining the "appearance" or evolution or "illusion" or achitecture of consciousness - claims of consciousness are something we should expect every intelligent creature to make, and these claims by themselves are not inherently mysterious facts. There is plenty of fertile ground for Reductionists to give theor numerous explanations of the "fiction of the self" and the "evolution of consciousness". But the first-person, subjective question is still not answered. Only rarely do reductionists take more than a paragraph or two to address the true concerns of the first-personites, and when they do it is usually to say "Well, we've explained why a physical system might believe in these fictions, and that's all we need to do." But if they don't answer the question of how a physical system night have semantic content or subjective experience, then this is wasted effort. [Aaaargh, rephrase this.] One reductionist who does a great job of applying third-person thinking to yield though-out first-person conclusions is Parfit, but he is definitely in the methodological minority.

[Last two sections are horribly incoherent. Mass reorganization required.]}

Philosophers these days who argue for the mystery of the first-person view are often regarded as having a slightly anti-materialist bias. I try to show in this paper that this is not necessarily the case. I will present a materialist framework which, I believe, can explain the first person without dismissing it. One can be a materialist without being a hard-line reductionist.


I intend to present a framework for discussion of the first-person that still makes sense from a third-person view. The theory which I present is, as I see it, the only real alternative to the cult of the third-person. In fact I have a sneaking sympathy with the reductionists, and I believe they have a passing chance of being correct. Who knows, perhaps they are in fact right, and consciousness is just an incredibly powerful illusion. (Especially in view of the occasional really good argument such as that of Parfit). But this is far from demonstrated now. If a first-person theory is to have any chance of being coherent, I believe it must fit into the framework which I present.