Concepts, Consciousness and Self-Reference

Document Type: 
ASSC Conference Item
Article Type: 
self-reference, paradox, hard problem, conceptual mental content
Deposited by: 
Joel Parthemore
Date of Issue: 
Event Dates: 
19-22 June 2008
Event Location: 
Taipei, Taiwan
Event Title: 
12th annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness
Event Type: 
ASSC Conference
Presentation Type: 
This paper argues that the best candidate for the "hard problem" of consciousness is one that seems often curiously overlooked, involving self-reference. Consciousness studies take empirical study of the external world and turn it around, to focus attention on ourselves: for consciousness is intimately our own consciousness. Furthermore understanding consciousness may be seen as a recursively defined exercise, where what is being specified becomes part of the specification. Although this is not how Chalmers himself describes the hard problem, it is, I will argue, compatible with his views on the hard problem. It also shares something of the spirit of Nagel's work in the '70s. If I'm right about consciousness, then concepts share a similar form of self reference, which theories of concepts must address. It is difficult if not impossible to specify what a concept is in general without employing particular concepts in the specification. Pace Fodor, I will argue that the content of concepts must be specified, at least in part, in terms of other concepts. If, as this paper argues, getting one's theory of concepts right is critical to getting one's theory of consciousness right, then an examination of the one sort of self-reference may give insight into the other. Self-reference is important in this context for two reasons. First, to the extent that it implies recursive definitions: people have reliably been shown to be very poor at understanding recursive constructions. Second, it raises the threats of vicious self-reference and self-contradiction. Self-reference need not be vicious self-reference. But any time we have an absolute distinction between two things -- as we traditionally do, per Frege, between concepts and objects -- then any self-reference that exploits that distinction will raise certain paradoxes, which is why Frege (and following in his tradition, Wittgenstein) was so anxious to avoid such self-reference. So, for example, a theory of concepts that allows concepts to be treated as objects can be shown to be susceptible to a version of Grelling's Paradox, itself a variation of Russell's Paradox. Russell's solution to the paradox in set theory was, of course, the theory of types, which effectively bans self-reference. But as others including Douglas Hofstadter have argued, it is not clear that a solution we may be willing to accept in the relatively austere domain of set theory will be one we can, or should, accept in other domains. Given any apparent paradox, there are three obvious ways to respond: First, one can deny the intuition of meaningfulness in the paradox and so reduce it to a simple contradiction. The paradoxical statement purports to be saying something more than simple contradiction, but it's not. By somewhat different routes, this is the solution Frege, Wittgenstein and Russell all, I think, wish to take. Second, one can deny the contradiction: the contradiction is only apparent, because our understanding is incomplete. If we had but a wider perspective, we would understand how the contradiction resolves itself. Either of these approaches resolve the paradox by denying it. But there is a third possibility, which Hofstadter has alluded to in his writings: the contradiction at the heart of the paradox may be essential to the structure of our thought. If the paradox really is unavoidable – if, after all our attempts to remove the paradox, the paradox persists – then this might seem the only option left to us. Rather than avoid the problem, or deny it, perhaps the solution is to embrace it, allowing that holding two contradictory perspectives may be necessary for a more complete overall understanding, or for any proper understanding at all. What we lose -- which may not be worth saving anyway -- is the conviction that the concept/object distinction can ultimately be maintained, and that sub-propositional entities must either be one or the other in some universal, non-context-dependent sense.