Tom Jonard's Privacy of Consciousness Page

We are only ever directly aware of one consciousness and one mind -- our own.  We are completely isolated from directly knowing the thoughts and feelings of another.  It is a gap that we bridge only partly with language.  Others report to us their thoughts and feelings and we conclude aided by other evidence of their likeness to us that they too have conscious minds like ours.  What a remarkable situation and one to which unless we think about it we are totally unaware!

If I think of a cup of hot chocolate but tell no one about it then I am the only one who knows about that thought.  No one else has any way of knowing that thought.  If I never tell anyone about that thought then I am the only witness to its existence.  If I died bearing this secret it would be to the rest of the world as if that thought never existed.  Nevertheless it is not true in this case that it did not exist only that I never revealed its existence.  In this way our thoughts and feelings are ultimately private.

Even if I report what I have thought I do not give you the thought that I have.  You may hearing my report construct in your own mind another thought with similar content.  But it is not the same thought.  If for instance I neglect to mention that my chocolate was in my favorite cup you might think it in your favorite cup.  Even if we resolve all the permutations of the thought of a cup of hot chocolate (if we could) our respective constructions will always remain as separate and unique as our minds.

The same is true of our feelings and perceptions.  We may both see a cup of hot chocolate on the table between us but the perception of that cup in each of our minds is not the same.  Each perception is a construct -- a fact which is obscured by the additional fact that both constructs are related to a single external independent artifact.  Nevertheless we are not talking about what is on the table but what is in our minds.

Perception seems a simple act but it is not.  Just like describing a thought perception is a negotiation between the external stimulus of that thought and the construct we build for it in our minds.  It is not an all at once event, complete and without refinement over time.  The longer we look at the cup the more we notice.  The more we notice the more revisions we make to the construct.  The process is similar to the verbal exchange in which I related my mere thought of the cup to you.

Another example is the experience of pain.  We do not experience the pain of another though we might experience another type of pain in the presence of their displayed agony.  Alleviating pain is a doctor's dilemma.  With no direct experience of what their patients are going through, no objective measure of pain and perhaps not even any personal experience of pain under similar conditions they have little guide as to what or how much to do.  Their power to help is frozen by the subjectivity of experience.

If science fiction is any guide it is a good thing that we can not directly sense the thoughts and feelings of others.  Science fiction is replete with stories of the social and practical dilemmas such a sensitivity would supposedly bring.  To me it seems such concerns are mostly naive and lacking in imagination.  In part this seems to me to be a consequence of confusing the working of the human mind with that of a computer.  A computer program mimics human mental processes in many ways but it is a limited and therefore misleading model.

At some level given similar hardware and operating software a computer program runs the same on two different computers.  By this I mean that logic elements and signal states will change in exactly the same way on the two machines so paired.  The Psycho-Neural Identity (PNI) model of the mind is based on experiments which show that the same areas in individual brains are active when performing the same mental functions.  So it seems that PNI and the computer model both support an identity of structure and function for individual brains.

PNI however is based on observation of large structures of the brain and it is reasonable to ask how identical in function individual brains are at the level of neurons and synapses.  It is unlikely for instance that individuals have the same structure at these levels in their visual processing cortex.  So it is unlikely that individual processing of the same visual input involves identical complexes of neurons and synapses.  Without negating the insight of PNI it is possible to see how mental experience could have a unique element tied to the unique neural and synaptic structure of individuals.

Computers are the end product of a design and manufacturing process whose goal is to produce identical machines that replicate the behavior desired.  We know how computer logic elements work and how they can be aggregated to produce such automated calculating machines.  On the other hand brains are the end state of a long evolutionary process.  We don't know how or why the brain behavior that we observe developed.  We don't know how neurons work to produce that behavior.  Our ability to understand computers and brains and explain their functions are arguably different.

Human development is an evolutionary process in miniature.  The basic plan is genetically given but the expression is subject to years of influence by outside factors.  Thus the brain that results does not have the same neurons and neural connections as another.  Just as the brain is not laid down like a computer chip from a master design the "program" of consciousness is not crafted by a single master craftsman and replicated in to biological equivalent of a file copy.  It too is evolution and development working hand-in-hand.

The computer metaphor for brain function does not extend to how brains get to be brains and therein lies its limit.

It is naive to think that when I think of a cup of hot chocolate I have the same identical brain state in terms of neurons and synapses as another thinking the same.  It is much more plausible that this is not true.  Indeed the same mental state in someone else might represent something entirely different to me -- a green sports car for instance.  This would solve all science fiction conundrums of telepathy and mind reading.  If we sensed other's thoughts and feelings what we sensed might only be a cacophony of apparently random thought or meaningless noise.  Telepathy might be possible but mind reading impossible.  Indeed we could all be telepathic -- learning to ignore the random and disjointed mental images produced at an early age.

If it is true that the way our brains represent our thoughts and feelings is unique to each of us then our mental processes are private in a more fundamental way than implied by our separateness as individuals.  That separateness results in privacy only because we cannot directly share our thoughts and feelings with another mind like a computer can share a file.  In the latter case if we could somehow find a way to share thoughts and feelings this way we would nevertheless find that they were unintelligible -- like two different brands of computers trying to share files coded in proprietary formats.

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Created December 8, 2002, 
© 2002, Thomas A. Jonard