Streams of consciousness

In an earlier post, in the context of drawing the distinction between observers and participants, I quoted Kierkegaard’s statement that:

It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.

This remark also draws attention to the dimension of time and way in which this causes practical reasoning to engage with the flow of events in a different fashion from theoretical reasoning.

We understand backwards because the evidence that confirms a theory must be something that is happening or has already happened. Theoretical reasoning has a formal component concerned with conceptual modelling and an evidentiary component concerned with application and confirmation and it is the second which makes it backward looking. It’s why, in Hegel’s nice phrase, the owl of Minerva spreads its wings at dusk.

This doesn’t mean that the future is not important. The ability to predict how things will go is an important test of whether the system has been understood. Observers are usually trying to understand how types of system function and evolve. The model is constructed based on what is already known and tested by using it to make predictions that can be confirmed.

Predictions are important to participants but for another reason. A participant has more invested than the satisfaction that comes from knowledge and understanding. Participants also have both their own and others well-being at stake. In this case the predicted future is a projection and one that will have to be lived.

Introspection, which manifests itself as a stream of consciousness, has three determining features: interiority, particularity and continuity through time. Interiority is the basis of the particularity and the continuity. I don’t mean by interiority here the privacy of the mind but rather the inside of a singular sequence of events that will unfold through time. Interiority is the consequence of individuation, the identity of the individual through time.

Individuation means that each person has a unique predicament and point of view. Practical reasoning is therefore necessarily perspectival. It is engaged in from the singular perspective of a participant inside a course of events. Because it is perspectival, practical reasoning engages with a flow of time in which events are initially considered as the projected future but become the experienced present and, later, the remembered past.

For this reason, identity through time as a consequence of individuation, everyone has a unique relationship with their own past and own future. Decision making is a commitment to a future that will then have to be lived through. Deciding on a course of action is a projection into the future in the knowledge that what is now a future will become a present and then a past.

While, this is true for any individuated entity, the difference with regard to human beings is that we are aware that the current state of things is the outcome of past decisions and that the future course of events will be the outcome of current choices.

Practical thinking leads where theoretical thinking lags. Participation allows for initiative. We do not have to follow the same course of action as last time. If this were not the case, there would be nothing for a practical reasoner to do.

Introspection carries both an awareness of the continuity of the past, present and future and an awareness than the future is not yet determined. This is what being on the inside really means and why it can never be experienced at a distance or by proxy.

Identity through time implies the unity of the self through time. From the perspective of a moment in time, we are at once a projecting self, looking forward, an experiencing self, living in the present, and a remembering self, looking backwards. There are three selves but they are unified through time. An event is initially the concern of the projecting self, then of the experiencing self, and then, later, the remembering self.

Participants are also caught up in the flow of time in a way that observers are not. There is no time for preparation, there are no time-outs, and it’s not possible to go back and repeat a course of action. A participant without sufficient information to make a good decision cannot delay because the flow of events continues regardless. A course of action occupies a period of time and excludes all possible alternatives. In this sense, time is always wasting. The flip side of this is that there is always uncertainty and therefore risk.

Somewhat ironically, though the experiencing self is the one that makes all the decisions, it is not always the most salient self. The future and the past often dominate the present. Theorists tend to explain action as a response to an environment or situation but much of the time we not so pre-occupied or concerned with the events that are happening immediately around us. We exist as a stream of consciousness on which the events of the present time and place from time to time intrude.

This possibly makes novelists, essayists, historians and diarists better guides than philosophers and scientists to practical life.