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Dominic John Repici
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First Person Knowledge

A term used in the philosophy of mind and the study of consciousness. When you see something that is red you can tell me that it is red, and I can confirm that I see it as being red. We can even do blind tests that prove that what looks red to you, also looks red to me. We both associate the word "red" with our personal, internal experience of an external phenomenon.

But "red" is just a label we use to relate what we perceive internally. What do you actually perceive when you see something red? Is it the same as my perception? You may perceive red in a way that is similar to what I see when I look at something "blue". Or you may perceive something that's red in a way that I have no analog to in my perceptions, and therefor could not imagine.

This subjective knowledge of how we perceive common things in the external world is first person knowledge. It is not transferable from one person to another.

What We Can Do

Nobody has seen the high-energy particles that we know exist, and which fly through our environment. We can, however, see evidence of their existence, —and learn about their characteristics— by observing the trails that are left behind when they fly through a cloud chamber. Note that these trails are not produced by the high energy particles directly, so we are looking at evidence of the particles that is actually twice removed from the phenomenon it indicates.

While it's true that we have no way to get at the fine details of first person data, there may be ways we can make removed observations and begin to describe, document, and categorize some course details of these phenomena. For example:
  • Flocks, Herds, and Schools
    When we look at the behavior of various species we see that there is a tendency for groups of them to move in unison, and in very close proximity to other individuals in a group. One can conclude with a high degree of certainty, that this occurs because those prey animals that have not developed the herding behavior have been culled over the generations by external predators. Essentially we see a form of selective adaptation in the flocks, herds, and schools.

    The flocking/herding/schooling behavior is a "learned" response to an external stimuli. The external stimuli to which the prey animals are adapting, are caused by the perceptions (the first person information) that exist within the minds of their predators.

    This tells us nothing about what is going on in the minds of the individual prey animals, but it tells us a great deal about "perceptions" (first person knowledge) that exist solely within the minds of their predators.

  • Flowers and Bees
    There are similar situations that can be inferred from flowering plants (selective adaptation in response to perceptions existing within pollinator organisms).

    Perceptions in insects? I know it has become fashionable of late to reject reductionism. It is reasonable to at least consider the possibility that "perceptions that are primitive" might translate to "perceptions that are easier to document and abstract." See also, the entry for John Lubbock in this glossary for a bit of background on this.

  • The Whole Damn Fish
    This is just a sampler. The two specific examples above, allude to a class of possible phenomena for study. The class might be defined as: The selective adaptations caused within populations of organisms, as a direct response to the (first person) perceptions that exist within the minds of other, external, organisms with which they interact.

  • Second-Order Perceptions of Similes With Many Possible Underlying Analogies.
    Observations of what different people perceive as the underlying analogy in ambiguous similes (those that can be perceived in many different, equally valid, analogies) might be helpful in gaining information about differences in perceptions among different people.

  • fMRI:
    Using fMRI, correlations can be observed between specific topographical locations in the brain, and mental processes. This can be combined with many other experimental techniques, (such as simile-interpretation discussed above) in order to further characterize and classify mental processing based on common brain areas used to produce them. Also, new fMRI techniques are now being developed which may be able to pinpoint mental processing based on contextual functionality as well as topographical location.

In any event, there may be implementable ways to collect new observational data about first person knowledge, even if we can't get a look-see at the actual phenomena.

More Resources

Also: Phenomenal Consciousness     Chalmer's, David    


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