First-Person Methods in the Science of Consciousness

First-Person Methods in the Science of Consciousness

David J. Chalmers

Department of Philosophy
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721.

[[Published in the Arizona Consciousness Bulletin, 1999. These ideas are elaborated in "How Can We Construct a Science of Consciousness?".]]

Here are a few very general thoughts about how I see the shape of a science of consciousness, focusing on the issue of first-person methodology. At the end I will make a few remarks about how this might apply to the study of emotion.

As I see it, the science of consciousness is all about relating third-person data - about brain processes, behavior, environmental interaction, and the like - to first-person data about conscious experience. I take it for granted that there are first-person data. It's a manifest fact about our minds that there is something it is like to be us - that we have subjective experiences - and that these subjective experiences are quite different at different times. Our direct knowledge of subjective experiences stems from our first-person access to them. And subjective experiences are arguably the central data that we want a science of consciousness to explain.

I also take it that the first-person data can't be expressed wholly in terms of third-person data about brain processes and the like. There may be a deep connection between the two - a correlation or even an identity - but if there is, the connection will emerge through a lot of investigation, and can't be stipulated at the beginning of the day. That's to say, no purely third-person description of brain processes and behavior will express precisely the data we want to explain, though they may play a central role in the explanation. So as data, the first-person data are irreducible to third-person data.

The job of a science of consciousness, then, is to connect the first-person data to third-person data: perhaps to explain the former in terms of the latter, or at least to come up with systematic theoretical connections between the two. We ought at least to be able to come up with broad connecting principles, saying e.g. that certain sorts of experiences go along with certain sorts of processes in the brain (and/or vice versa), or that certain sorts of experiences go along with certain sorts of information-processing (and/or vice versa), and so on. If we're successful with this, perhaps we'll eventually be able to formulate simple and universal laws that underlie these broad connecting principles. That would be what I've called a "fundamental theory" of consciousness. We're a long way from that now, but we can at least make a start on connecting third-person data to first-person data at a broad level.

To do this, we need good methodologies for collecting the data and good languages and formalisms for expressing them. When it comes to the third-person data, these methods are very well-developed. Psychologists have developed sophisticated methods for studying behavior, for example, and neuroscientists have developed an ever-expanding group of ingenious methods for getting at what is going on in the brain: EEG, brain imaging, single-cell studies, and many others. And there are multiple formalisms for expressing these data: plain language, neurophysiological classification, various sorts of images and diagrams, computational models, and more. It seems fair to say that on the third-person side of things, the central constraints on data gathering and expression stem from technological (and ethical) limitations rather than conceptual barriers.

When it comes to first-person data, things aren't nearly so well-developed. Here methodologies for investigating the data are relatively thin on the ground, and formalisms for expressing them are even thinner. When it comes to methodologies, there have been various ideas: the 19th-century psychological introspectionists, 20th-century philosophical phenomenologists, and centuries of meditative studies in Eastern thought have all developed sophisticated frameworks, but all are widely held to have serious limitations, and none has been much integrated into contemporary science.

Contemporary scientists quite often do rely on first-person data in central ways, for example in psychophysics, where first-person experience of various phenomena such as illusions seems to be the coin of the realm in capturing the data that need to be explained. The methodology here seems to be that of simple untutored introspection and verbal report. This is not bad for capturing gross and simple features of conscious experience - does one see a pink splotch? - and maybe such methods will take us a fair way, but eventually we will need more to investigate that manifold intricacies of conscious experience.

When it comes to formalisms for expressing the first-person data, we are even worse off. Mostly we rely on simple language - an experience of red, of a horizontal line, a feeling of happiness, a sharp pain. But this sort of language is obviously coarse-grained and imprecise, and usually relies on an interlocutor's experience of the sme phenomena to carry any communicative content at all. There have been a few attempts at developing more structured formalisms - the quantitative methods used in measurement of sensation in psychophysics, for example, or the structured phenomenal fields of Husserlian phenomenologists - but nothing with remotely the precision and scope of formalisms in the third-person domain.

In my opinion, the development of more sophisticated methodologies for investigating first-person data and of formalisms for expressing them is the greatest challenge now facing a science of consciousness. Only by developing such methodologies and formalisms will we be able to collect and express first-person data in such a way that it is on a par with third-person data, so that we can find truly systematic and detailed connections between the two.

When it comes to first-person methodologies, there are well-known obstacles: the lack of incorrigible access to our experience; the idea that introspecting an experience changes the experience; the impossibility of accessing all of our experience at once, and the consequent possibility of "grand illusions"; and more. I don't have much that's new to say about these. I think that could end up posing principled limitations, but none provide in-principle barriers to at least initial development of methods for investgating the first-person data in clear cases. I hope to see ideas from Western and Eastern philosophy and from contemporary and historical psychology integrated with a series of new ideas in coming years.

When it comes to first-person formalisms, there may be even greater obstacles: can the content of experience be wholly captured in language, or in any other formalism, at all? Many have argued that at least some experiences are "ineffable". And if one has not had a given experience, can any description be meaningful to one? Here again, I think at least some progress ought to be possible. We ought at least to be able to develop formalisms for capturing the structure of experience: similarities and differences between experiences of related sorts, for examples, and the detailed structure of something like a visual field. I don't know what exactly such a formalism would look like, but perhaps something bringing in ideas from geometry or toplogy, or from information theory, might be useful.

As for the intrinsic non-structural aspects of experience (the sensation of red, for example), things are more difficult. But even here one could arguably find some underlying structure: e.g. color experiences can arguably be decomposed into experiences of brightness, saturation, and hue. Perhaps - let's speculate - one might develop a theory of "proto-qualia" from which the qualia we experience are systematically built up? Or perhaps not, in which case we'll need other ideas. The idea of simple building blocks might help to some extent with the problem of communication, though: although different individuals may have different experiences, arguably some of the same building blocks might be present in each case. So perhaps they could abstract the primitive elements through inference from their own experience, and then get some idea of others' experience through the idea of recombination. Perhaps this could even eventually (when connected appropriately to third-person data) give us some clue about the subjective lives of animals. Or again, perhaps not.

What about emotions, in particular? Here I don't have much to say, and I expect that other participants in this symposium have thought about the issue in far more sophisticated ways than I have. But I hope I will be forgiven for entering into the spirit of things with a little uninformed speculation.

It's clear at a glance that when it comes to first-person study of emotion, the issues of both methodology and formalism are relevant. How does one collect first-person data about emotional experience? There are presumably particular difficulties with reliability here. How reliable can one expect an observer in a red-hot rage to be? In the domain of emotion, isn't self-deception likely to be ubiquitous? And presumably there will be observer effects all over the place: it doesn't seem implausible that cultivating a detached perspective on emotional experience will change the character of the experience significantly.

On the positive side, many people seem to be quite good at investigating their own emotional states, and it is a particularly interesting project. In this area, going beyond gross features to subtleties may be particularly rewarding. This is illustrated in the rich investigations of novelists such as Proust. Perhaps there is some way to tap into this sort of thing for scientific purposes?

I don't know much about the field, but my guess is that right now, the dominant methods for accessing first-person data in scientific experiments on emotion involve relatively untutored introspection of relatively gross features: asking a subject whether they are having experiences of happiness and sadness, and the like. And I imagine that even this provides a productive source of data to be going on with, and with which a lot of interesting science can be done. I imagine that participants in this symposium will be talking about some more developed methodologies for the first-person study of emotion, though, and I will be interested to hear what they have to say.

As for formalisms, this seems to be more of a question mark. Emotions seem to be particularly inexpressible, especially to one who hasn't experienced the emotion in question before. Even where two individuals have emotional experience in common, it can be hard to find the right language to describe it. At the same time, our experiences clearly vary on a number of clear dimensions: duration, intensity, positive or negative affect, and numerous others. And I imagine that most of these things are already exploited by experimenters in the field. It's far from clear (to me, at least) just how much of the complex character of emotions can be captured in such quantitative and structural measures, but it's at least a start. And perhaps we will be able to develop more and more sophisticated formalisms for expressing more and more of the complex structure of emotion, so the unexpressed residue will at least shrink considerably. I imagine there are a good number of ideas along these lines out there already.

As to what to do with that unexpressed residue: perhaps we'll have to rely on common language to bootstrap our understanding of common elements of experience, or perhaps we'll be able to go further with some sort of building-block methodology. Or perhaps we'll come to the conclusion that formalisms can only tell us so much about emotions, and that novelists are needed to tell us the rest. I don't have any firm expectations here myself, but I'll be very interested to see how thing play out, both in this conference and in coming years.