Generalized Xenophenomenology: What Is It Like to Be X?




Kent, Jack Wellington

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The 'hard problem’ of consciousness is accounting for, in physicalist terms, the private subjective experience (SE) of a conscious being. It is the privacy of SE that distinguishes it from those aspects of the world that are tractable to third-person (and therefore scientific) observation and analysis. My aim in this thesis is to ask if there is anything we can know about the SE of other entities besides humans. I begin with Jakob von Uexküll’s claim that the structure of the experiences of nonhuman animals can be conceived through our understanding of their life-worlds or Umwelten – those attributes of their surroundings that are salient for their modes of life. Aiming to extend Uexküll’s approach beyond animals, I propose a formal 'Uexküllian template’ to characterize an Umwelt for any arbitrary entity. Armed with this template, I argue, one can then engage in xenophenomenology, a disciplined empathy that seeks to make at least the form of an entity’s SE conceivable to ourselves. I apply this template to three systems at ever greater evolutionary remove from us – a slime mold, the enzymatic complex CRISPR/Cas, and a dust devil. I find it possible to conceive something of the SE of slime molds and CRISPR/Cas ensembles but not of dust devils, due to the latter’s apparent lack of active sensorimotor engagement with its environment. Finally, I consider my findings in relation to two contemporary movements in philosophy, panpsychism and enactivism.


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Consciousness, Non-human minds, Panpsychism, Phenomenology, Philosophy of mind