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First event at the SACP was a panel involving Edward (Ted) Slingerland, discussing Confucius’s thought. Slingerland was arguing, against the somewhat behaviourist interpretation promoted by Herbert Fingarette, that Confucius has a conception of “interiority,” or subjectivity – that we are not just the sum of our roles and actions, but there’s a consciousness inside.

The objections to Slingerland were of two kinds. First, people misinterpreted him and objected to the idea of interiority (or consciousness), thinking that he was arguing for interiority himself, even though he repeatedly insisted he was only interpreting Confucius and didn’t believe in it himself. (I’m surprised how many people did that.) Second, people objected (roughly) that Confucius couldn’t possibly have believed in interiority, typically on the grounds that he was a lot smarter than that.

The big surprise, to me, was that nobody (least of all Slingerland) seemed to step up to the plate and defend interiority – to say that yes, there’s actually something going on inside our minds. That’s not exactly an unpopular view, after all – it’s common sense, as Slingerland himself was the first to acknowledge.

Now, of course, common sense is not always sensible – one of philosophy’s most important results is to push us past our everyday views and prejudices. Slingerland argued exactly this when I talked to him more at dinner: of course we think there’s something conscious going on inside our minds, but we’re wrong. We perceive consciousness, but we also perceive the earth as flat and the sun as surrounding it. And evidence from cognitive science, he claims, shows belief in consciousness or interiority to be as much an error as belief in a flat earth.

I replied that I don’t think this is possible. It’s not that empirical evidence shows us that consciousness exists. Rather, it’s the other way round. We need to assume consciousness – or at least something like consciousness, interiority, subjectivity – in order for there to be empirical evidence in the first place. Any sort of scientific experiment must necessarily rely on the evidence of experience and/or perception, and experience and perception presume consciousness. We might not require a single, unified self as a perceiver – Buddhists readily argue for consciousness without a self – but the perception itself has to exist, or it makes no sense to speak of anything being observed, in a scientific experiment or anywhere else. (Descartes’ cogito ergo sum doesn’t necessarily prove that Descartes exists, but it does prove that what we call Descartes’ thought exists.)

A scientific experiment cannot prove that the experiment being conducted doesn’t exist; if it does, it has contradicted itself and gone wrong. But the whole idea of an experiment is that the results are observed and perceived, which in turn requires (I think) that there is consciousness of the experiment. If the experiment claims to disprove the existence of consciousness, it becomes completely incoherent, and has therefore effectively proved – and disproved – nothing.