Putting our minds together: on Roeloefs’ Combining Minds
It is usually considered impossible for distinct subjects to together constitute a further subject; in particular, it is thought impossible for the conscious experiences of a subject to be composed of the experiences of distinct subjects which make it up. This assumption has recently been challenged by Luke Roelofs, who defends Combinationalism: “The experiential properties of a conscious subject are sometimes mere combinations of the experiential properties of other subjects which compose it” (2018, 6).
I shall present two objections to this thesis. The first questions some of the general metaphysical claims made by Roelofs. In particular, I shall question Experience Inheritance, the thesis that whenever a member of an aggregate undergoes an experience (i.e., instantiates a phenomenal property) the whole aggregate undergoes the same token experience (op. cit., 79).
Roelofs assumes that if a member of an aggregate is F, the aggregate is thereby (at least) partly F. But being partly F is just to have a part (member) which itself is F; e.g., an aggregate which contains me as a member is partly spatially located wherever I am located. Correlatively, it may be that an aggregate of which I am a member is partly undergoing a certain visual experience. But this is just for an aggregate to have a member, i.e., me, which is undergoing that visual experience. And for an aggregate to instantiate the property of having a part which is undergoing a visual experience is very different to that aggregate’s itself instantiating a phenomenal property. Therefore, Roelofs has not provided a robust defence of Experience Inheritance.
The second objection to Combinationalism depends on the idea of phenomenal unity: for two distinct experiences e1 and e2 to be phenomenally unified, there must be something it is like to experience e1 and e2 together (e.g., when one hears the radio together with tasting coffee). Phenomenal unity contributes to the phenomenal character of the experiences which are unified. As Barry Dainton puts it, when token experiences are phenomenally unified, “a full description of the phenomenal features of each experience […] will mention (in some manner) all the other experiences” with which they are unified (2008, 281).
On Roelofs’s view, it is possible for a subject S3 to be made up of distinct subjects S1 and S2; S1 experiences e1 but not e2, S2 experiences e2 but not e1, and S3 experiences both e1 and e2 together. The problem is that the phenomenal character of e1 will differ for S1 and S3; for S3, e1’s character involves being experienced together with e2, but for S1 its character cannot involve this, since S1 does not experience e2. But a single token experience cannot have distinct phenomenal characters. Therefore, the above scenario is not coherent: S1 and S3 cannot each have literally the same experience, if S3 but not S1 experiences it together with a distinct experience.
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