TA 106 (Müller)




Commentary 66 (to Adams C63)




by Sid Barnett

October 7, 2009, posted 17 October 2009



Adams’ critique of my allegory begins with this misquotation:  “We are to suppose that a VR screen displays ‘images representing subjective experiences.’”  The correct quote reads:  “the screen displays all subjective experiences”.  The omission of the word “all” is not trivial because much of the criticism that follows concerns what Adams contends is absent from the screen. 


I intended the allegory for the limited purpose of illustrating how the common-sense contradiction of an observation without an observer can be said to disappear from a “thorough phenomenological” view.
  (Adams uses the expression “a phenomenological approach”, but the word “thorough” here is as important as the word “all” in the previous paragraph.)  I offered the allegory neither to argue that the thorough phenomenological approach is preferable to any other, nor was it intended to be a complete description of subjective experience.  Plato’s cave allegory does not specify whether the dancing shadows are doing a waltz or the boogaloo because that detail doesn’t matter to the limited point the allegory was intended to illustrate.  In the allegory that I posit, whoever assumes the position of observer brings with him his entire present subjective experiences, and those are all represented on the screen – “nothing but present experiences”.  I did state, but perhaps I didn’t sufficiently emphasize “all” and “present”.  What’s on the screen is all the present experiences of the observer including the observer’s own philosophical views.


Adams says:  “It is thus completely arbitrary and random what counts as true, since there is no criterion for truth in this environment.”  Au contraire, Pierre.  I did not specify truth criteria just as Plato did not specify the Tango.  Whatever exists in Adams’ present experience as criteria for truth will be properly represented on the screen when he assumes the observer position.  For me, the common-sense principles of reason and science are prominently identified as highly efficacious and I imagine they are for Adams as well.  But somebody else might have wishy-washy relativistic criteria.  Whatever the observer’s truth criteria might be, the self-concept would still occupy a position on the screen that is just a part of the many additional images against which the self can be said to disappear.


Adams asks:  “So then, why would it not be possible for the observer to manipulate the contents of the display?  Imagine a flying pig and one should appear … we do, as a matter of fact, manage our mental contents all the time.”  Here is my answer:  Whatever it is in Adams’ experience that constitutes the management of his mental contents, or as he says, “intentionality” or “autonomous capacity to refer” would be represented on the screen.  Whatever may be the autonomous capacity of the observer (the observer might be Adams or might be a zombie), the representation of the self on the screen would still be just a part of a much larger set of experiences displayed.  If I am the observer, regarding “intention” and “management”, the “presentness” of present experience is operative.  The attempt to do something (whether to manage mental contents or to do anything else) involves volition which exists within present experience. But the effect of present volition can only be experienced in the future.  And by the time the future comes around, the volition itself is past.  What exists in the new present is, at most, a memory the correctness of which is unverifiable.  Present experience contains volition intended to effect the future, but about present experience itself, there is a type of passivity.  For practical purposes, I consider myself a free agent but fine grained philosophical analysis doesn’t rule out zombiehood.  And for that matter, neither does neuroscience.  I vaguely remember a dance called the Monster Mash, in which the dancers mimic the imagined character of dancing zombies.  Zombie life may not be so bad.  


Adams uses the word “token” to refer to the representation of the self-concept on the screen.  No objection to that.  Then he says:  “Sid says that the token itself “adds no information” to what is on the screen.”  Au contraire.  Here’s what I actually said:  “The idea of a separate observer adds no information to what is on the screen – no additional understanding.  … If the notion of a separate    observer/homunculus is excised from the expanded allegory, what remains is the ‘thorough phenomenological view’ – nothing but present experiences.”  It’s not the token that adds no information, as Adams misapprehends the allegory; rather, it’s the separate observer who’s redundant.  The token, the self-concept, is very important information on the screen.  It’s a concept that relates many other concepts and experiences.  It can’t be excised without severely distorting the remaining images and entirely defeating the limited purpose of the allegory which was to demonstrate that the token is just one of many other tokens that constitute the subjective world displayed on the screen and against which the self-concept/token may be said to disappear.  What adds nothing is the observer looking at the screen.  That’s why it’s easy to excise the observer from the allegory without losing the experiences called “observations”.  This implies that to understand both (1) the “observed external world” represented by the experiences that constitute observations, and (2) the rest of the universe of subjective experiences, it is sufficient to refer only to the information on the screen without making any reference to the separate existence of an observer.  No need to posit the separate existence of an observer or anything else.  (And as a bonus, you avoid the mind/body problem.  This last point goes beyond the limited purpose of the allegory and is an argument in favour of the thorough phenomenological view over common-sense realism.  Not a conclusive argument.)


Adams concludes with a rhetorical question whether a TV program is enjoyed even if the TV is playing in an empty house.  For those participating in the KJF who experience the idea of the TV and the empty house and who contemplate the philosophical implications that Adams raises, the answer is a resounding yes, whatever program might be playing.




Sid Barnett

     e-mail <barnett.sid (at) gmail.com>