30 Jun 2012

What it is like to be

Posted by jofr

The Mysterious and the Obvious

Sometimes the most mysterious object in one area can be the most obvious thing in another. One of the most mysterious things in Philosophy is the hard problem, see for example [1]. As anything else in Philosophy, the existence of a “hard problem” in the first place is controversial and has been disputed by some philosophers. Yet generations of scholars, professors and philosophers have tried to solve it more or less in vain. One of them was Edmund Husserl, who argued that experience by itself is not science, although he founded phenomenology, the study of the structure of subjective experience.

The term hard problem of consciousness refers to the difficult problem of explaining why we have qualitative, subjective and phenomenal experiences. It is closely related to the problem of qualia. For the common sense it is quite obvious that we can not access subjective experience: we can not experience what others feel directly, since subjective experience is always private experience. Subjective experience is concealed and confined to a particular person, as opposed to objective reality which is accessible and open to public examination.

So everything is lost? Will we never understand and solve the hard problem? Private experience arises from private life, because each life is individual and unique, but the course of life is again only know to the particular person in full detail. It is obvious that we do not know everything another person does, since they have their own private life. If the person does not tell what his particular subjective experience is like, it is indeed hard to know.

Yet if the person tells his story, the chance is much better. We can now understand his life simply by listening the corresponding story. We can understand subjective experience and solve the hard problem of consciousness by experiencing similar emotional patterns and feelings. There is indeed a whole industry which knows how to arise emotions and feelings, the things that determine and color our experience. It is the entertainment industry and show business.

The Tragic and the Comic

The entertainment industry and show business tell us all the time what it is like to be something, especially for certain archetypes: the hero, the lover, the loser, etc.

* Action films tell us what it is like to be a hero.
* Romantic films tell us what it is like to be in love.
* Fantasy films tell us what it is like to live in an imaginary or virtual world.
* Comedies tell us what it is like to win, to rise and to be happy.
* Tragedies tell us what it is like to lose, to fall and to be sad.

While comedies show how others fail harmlessly, describe the rise of an ordinary person, and have a happy ending, tragedies show how others fail severely, describe the fall of a hero, and have a sad ending. Comedies tell us what it is like to win, tragedies what it is like to lose. Of course we like the former more than the latter.

Here is the surprising point: the most mysterious thing in philosophy, subjective experience, can be revealed by the most obvious thing in entertainment and show business: by watching films or reading books about the life of certain person, by watching actors or being an actor yourself. Actors act as if they would be someone else. We understand the life of others by following their story in stories, books and films: our own subjective experience while watching films or reading books is an approximate representation of the subjective experience from the person described by the main character.

A bit funny, isn’t it? The smartest philosophers have not been able to crack a problem which is obvious for the most stupid visitor of a cinema or reader of a book: we can understand what it is like to be someone or to have something  by viewing life from the same perspective. As Atticus Finch says in Harper Lee’s book “To kill a Mockingbird”: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. ” It is (only) possible to understand path-dependent behavior and subjective experience of particular persons by following the same path.

The Private and the Public

The border between the private and the public is often associated with a creative process. Experience and creativity are two sides of a coin: perception turns objective reality into path-dependent subjective experience, while creativity turns subjective experience into objective reality.

Because we can understand others by following their footprints, at least to a certain degree, we can turn subjective experience into objective one by being creative: by creating a story (i.e. making the private story public or imaginary story real), and finally by showing the course of life described in this story to a wider audience through a book or a film. To understand someone completely, one has to look at the whole story, i.e. follow his or her whole life up to the present, for example by reading a complete biography or by watching an extensive biographical film.

In a sense, each of us is creative: by living his life along a unique path, each person creates a unique course of life, generates a special personality and develops a particular subjective experience. Some are of course more creative than others. But all of them master the most creative process: the creation of the self, accompanied by this startling, surprising, dazzling, mind-boggling and confusing perception of oneself in a society of other selves.


[1] Jonathan Shear (Editor), Explaining consciousness – The ‘Hard Problem’, The MIT Press, 1998

( The Flickr photo is from Flickr user bikehikedive )


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2 Responses to “What it is like to be”

  1. […] experiences). Unlike philosophers in academic ivory towers, people are usually able to imagine what it is like to be someone or […]

  2. […] have seen earlier that the most difficult question in philosophy, the what it is like to be question of subjective experience (Thomas Nagel), the explanatory gap (Joseph Levine) and the hard […]


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