27 Nov 2011

Path Dependent Subjective Experience

Posted by jofr

John R. Searle, an American Philosophy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who is known for the Chinese room argument, writes in his book “The Rediscovery of the Mind” that subjectivity is the feature of consciousness that is the most puzzling to philosophical analysis. He writes “we find it difficult if not impossible to accept the idea that the real word, the world described by physics and chemistry and biology, contains an ineliminably subjective element. How could such a thing be?” (p.95 of [1]).  An interesting question. The answer is probably just path-dependence.

We have argued earlier in the blog post about the hard problem of consciousness and its solution, that each of us has taken a slightly different route during his life and is adapted to a slightly different world, i.e. everyone sees a different picture of the world on his trail, and has experienced a different “slice” of the same world along his path. Our subjective experiences arise from a long path-dependent learning process. The pure experience of the present depends on the whole series of previous experiences in the past, our subjective judgements depends on the whole series of previous judgements and personal evaluations (is it good or bad for me?).

Peter F. Strawson (1919-2006), English philosophy professor at the University of Oxford, writes in his book “The Bounds of Sense” [2] that a series of experiences has a double aspect. It contributes to our shared understanding of the common objective world, and at the same time it extends our individual subjective experience of that world. He says on page 105 (chapter “Unity and Objectivity”):

“On the one hand it (a series of experiences) cumulatively builds up a picture of the world in which objects and happenings (with their particular characteristics) are presented as possessing an objective order, an order which is logically independent of any particular experiential route through the world. On the other hand it possesses its own order as a series of experiences of objects. If we thought of such a series of experiences as continuously articulated in a series of detailed judgements, then, taking their order and content together, those judgements would be such as to yield, on the one hand, a (partial) description of an objective world and on the other a chart of the course of a single subjective experience of that world.”

All members of the same culture learn the same public language through supervised learning, but the results of unsupervised learning controlled by personal emotions is private and individual. The former is not path dependent, because supervised learning depends on an external teacher and does not depend on the own judgement. The latter is indeed path dependent, because it involves the self and is affected by positive feedback: small initial disturbances are reinforced and can cause large effects. In this sense subjective experience is self-referential: current positive/negative experiences depend on previous positive/negative experiences, etc.

This means adaptation occurs in two flavors: a shared, objective during common supervised learning (for example in schools, colleges or universities), and a personal, subjective during unsupervised learning. The former is responsible for our common understanding of the public world, the later is responsible for our subjective experience. Strawson continues to say that this double aspect of adaptation and experience can be found even in the smallest unit, the raw experience itself, and becomes visible if a judgement of an experience is altered by hindsight:

“Not only the series as a whole, but each member of the series, has a double aspect. This explicitly emerges when one objective judgement is corrected by another: what remains unaltered when the correction is made is the subjective experience.”

The history of a normal human being determines both, the objective and the subjective experience. Path dependent subjective experience arises from the individual, unique, and personal route one takes, one among many other possible routes. The objective experience, i.e. the common understanding of our shared knowledge, depends more on the goal and the milestones of the route, than on the actual path taken. We see the same world, but along different routes, and from different angles.

As Searle has noticed [1], every subjective experience is always someone’s subjective experience. It is associated with a certain path taken by a particular person. It always belongs to someone, whereas objective facts and knowledge belong to everyone, and can be checked by everyone.

subjective experience objective knowledge
relation involves the self does not involve the self
ownership belongs to s.o.
(individual understanding of
private knowledge)
belongs to everyone
(common understanding of
shared knowledge)
adaptation is acquired by accumulated
unsupervised learning
is taught by shared
supervised learning
measurement needs a jury (the genes)
and is unique
can be measured, repeated
and reproduced
dimension good-bad (psychological) dim. big-small (physical) dim.


Understanding an individual route which leads to a specific subject experience is of course difficult, but it is much less complicated if we also consider the environment. Herbert Simon has noticed in his book “The Sciences of the Artificial” [3] that “an ant, viewed as a behaving system, is quite simple. The apparent complexity of its behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which it finds itself.”

[1] John R. Searle, “The Rediscovery of the Mind”, The MIT Press, 1992
[2] Peter F. Strawson, “The Bounds of Sense”, Routledge, 1966
[3] Herbert Simon, “The Sciences of the Artificial”, The MIT Press, 1970

( The Flickr photo is from Flickr user bikehikedive )

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2 Responses to “Path Dependent Subjective Experience”

  1. […] 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 […]

  2. […] physical theory will abandon that point of view”. And as we have seen earlier, because subjective experience is path dependent we can solve the hard problem of consciousness by simply following the same path, showing for […]


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