Mind the body (4) What kind of first-personal content?

In the previous post, I argued that the feeling of ownership must be conceived of as an affective feeling. But one may wonder whether this affective feeling is not just a side-effect of the feeling of ownership, and not the feeling itself. Evolutionary significance indeed is only a consequence of ownership (it matters because it is mine). Put it another way, why look for a different type of phenomenal property for the feeling of ownership than ownership itself? The problem that this easier strategy faces is that it presupposes what it is supposed to explain. The main challenge for any theory of the sense of body ownership is to account for its first-personal character. In brief, the feeling of ownership can rationally ground judgments of ownership of the type <this is my hand>, which are immune to error through misidentification. The crucial question is how it can do so. Another way to put it is to ask what is at the source of the de se content in ownership judgments. One may claim that the conceptual mineness content instantiated by the ownership judgment is grounded in a non-conceptual mineness content at the level of the feeling. But this solution seems to simply beg the question and to leave us with no explanation of the mineness content (conceptual or non-conceptual). It is always possible to posit mineness as an irreducible primitive phenomenal property but I believe that we should do so only when all the attempts to account for it have failed. The affective conception that I defend in my book is one such attempt. However, discussions with friends and colleagues (I’m especially thankful to Adrian Alsmith, Raphaël Millière, Chris Peacocke, and Carlota Serrahima) have shown me that it was not always clear how I succeed to meet the challenge of accounting for the first-person character of the sense of ownership. In particular, in Mind the body, I have made several claims that may appear as contradictory: 

  1. One experiences one’s body as one’s own.
  2. The feeling of ownership has a non conceptual de se content.
  3. The feeling of ownership does not represent mineness.

How are the first two claims compatible with the last one? I believe that some terminological precision is required here. One classically talks of the feeling of ownership to refer to the experience that can ground ownership judgments in such a way that the judgment is immune to error through misidentification. But this does not entail that the feeling itself has to be about ownership. All that is required is that there is a sui generis feeling that is such that when one experiences it, one is normally drawn to judge that the body that it presents is one’s own. I say “normally” because there can always be defeaters that prevent one to make the transition to the ownership judgment. With this minimal definition in mind, one can see that claim 3 is not self-contradictory. 

Still, it may seem to be in contradiction with claim 1. If there is no mineness content, then how can one experience one’s body as one’s own? Here I should plead guilty. I should have said that one experiences one’s body in a special way that makes one judge that it is one’s own, instead of simply claiming that one experiences one’s body as one’s own. I merely use claim 1 as a shortcut, a simplification, but I believe that I was not the only one (see Martin or Bermúdez, for instance). The point of claim 1 was to emphasize the experiential aspect of the sense of ownership and argue that there is a feeling; it was not to describe the specific content of this feeling. 

The question now is whether claims 2 and 3 are compatible. Here I believe that it is important to remember the many ways representational content can be de se. Let us assume that a content is de se if it includes a property that bears some relation to the self. Mineness is a type of de se content, which focuses on the relationship of belonging. There are other types of de se content, which concerns other types of relationship. A classic example of de se content is egocentric experiences, which involve visuo-spatial relation (the tree that I see is on my left). Another type of relation is what may be called personal significance (things that matter to me, see Rønnow-Rasmussen, 2011). The subject to whom the object is related is part of the truth conditions of the content. One can now see how the content of the feeling of ownership can be de se without representing mineness. I simply focus on a different type of relation to the self than belonging.

We can now rephrase the original challenge in the following way: can the type of de se content that characterizes the feeling of ownership justify the transition to the other type of de se content that characterizes the judgment of ownership? In other words, can feelings of personal significance ground mineness judgment? The first thing to note is that it is not any kind of personal significance that I have in mind for the feeling of ownership. Clearly, a drawing made by my son has some kind of personal significance but what I mean here is something different. What happens to the drawing does not happen to me. By contrast, what happens to the body that has this significance happens to me. Why is it so? One possibility is that it is because I am my body, but I do not need to make a strong metaphysical claim here. It is enough to claim that we evolved in an environment such that for the self to survive, its body must survive. (One may imagine a futuristic scenario in which one’s body can be easily replaced with no cost. In that scenario, would one still need a feeling of bodily ownership? I am not sure. The body one is born with would no longer matter to the subject). Hence, I am entitled to judge that this is my own body when I feel that this body matters to me in this special way, because under normal circumstances the body that matters in such a way is my own body.  

One Comment

  1. Hi Frédérique – thank you for these really insightful series of posts! I really enjoyed going through them and reading the follow-up discussions in the comments. It’s been very helpful to come back to some of these issues after reading your book and exchanging some thoughts about your view.

    To continue the conversation, I have a lingering concern about what you write in the first paragraph:

    “One may claim that the conceptual mineness content instantiated by the ownership judgment is grounded in a non-conceptual mineness content at the level of the feeling. But this solution seems to simply beg the question and to leave us with no explanation of the mineness content (conceptual or non-conceptual).”

    To understand the pull of this objection, I suspect more could be said about the nature of the required explanation, namely – what it is about the existence of a (non-conceptual) representation of a body part as one’s own that begs for an explanation?

    Firstly, if the relevant explanation pertains to the phylogenetic and ontogenetic origins of such representation, then I think it can be readily provided. Through the evolution of the species and the early development of a specific individual, the central nervous system (say, of humans) acquires the ability to systematically discriminate between endogenous and exogenous stimuli. Such capacity may require, among other things, that one represents bodily events as occurring in one’s own body, in order to avoid confusing bodily events with worldly events and harming oneself. This is a toy story of course, but once the relevant evolutionary and developmental story has been fully spelled out, nothing should remain mysterious about the emergence of a (non-conceptual) representation of a body part as one’s own. On a side note, it is not obvious to me that the emergence (through phylogeny and ontogeny) of a representation of a body part as carrying a special significance is any easier to explain than that of a (non-conceptual) representation of a body part as one’s own. If the latter calls for an evolutionary/developmental explanation, so does the former.

    Secondly, if the required explanation is mechanistic – namely an account of the cognitive mechanism by which any specific bodily event is represented as occurring in one’s own body –, then I also believe that it can be provided, although such explanation is not yet fully developed in psychology. Perhaps some would argue that such a mechanistic explanation can be provided in terms of the minimization of prediction error signals within a hierarchical generative model of bodily and worldly events. Whether such an explanation is correct and sufficiently specific can be debated, but there are presumably testable empirical predictions that could in principle arbitrate current and future debates about bodily ownership. In any case, it does not seem obvious that postulating the existence of a representation of a body part as one’s own leaves us unable to explain the mechanisms underlying such representation. Furthermore, the previous point still applies about the relevant explanatory strength of the two competing hypotheses: postulating the existence of a representation of a body part as carrying a special significance also begs for a mechanistic explanation, which seems no easier to provide.

    Perhaps I have misunderstood the crux of the issue you raise at the beginning of this post and at the end of the book. It seems to me that once one gets dragged into the dilemma you attribute to Peacocke, one gets cornered into an unstable position that verges on antirealism about the phenomenology of bodily ownership, in order to avoid “begging the question”. But I’ve always struggled to see how admitting the existence of a (non-conceptual) representation of a body part as one’s own is really question-begging, for the reasons outlined above.

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