Firstly, it challenges the treatment of presence as the mere product of human information processing, a point well made by Riva and his colleagues (Riva et al. 2004). They have argued that presence either evolved for no particular purpose (that is, it is an emergent or serendipitous property of the nervous system) or it has some evolutionary advantage. In examining the latter alternative, they note that “the appearance of the sense of presence allows the nervous system to solve a key problem for its survival: how to differentiate between internal and external states”. This biological / evolutionary perspective tells us one further thing about presence, namely that it is an active state (or process) and that this activity is directed at the world. Being directed at the world means that presence is intentional. That is, it has the property of being about something rather than some kind of free floating mental state. Intentionality connects our mental states (and bodies) to the world and when we witness something we ‘inherit’ this intentionality, so that the psychological and physiological states associated with witnessing are similarly intentional.
Secondly, this consideration of witnessing also foregrounds the importance of understanding the properties of that which is being witnessed. Presence research, in the main, has tended to treat the make up of the worlds (real or virtual) in which we find ourselves present as content factors (e.g. Fencott, 1999; Lessiter et al., 2001; Schubert et al. 2001, Slater, 2003; Baños et al., 2004; Nunez and Blake, 2006 among other). Ijsselsteijn et al. (2000) have proposed examples of content factors as including objects, actors, events, interactivity, autonomy of environment and agents, reactions of others and the nature of tasks (conducted in a virtual environment). In contrast, and from this ontological perspective, we recognise that to be witnessed things, people and events are required to be available. By availability we mean, within reach, proximal or as Heidegger (1927/1962) famously put it, ready-to-hand. Thus we can feel closer to our own spouse, who might be hundreds of kilometres away, on our cell phone than we do to a passenger sitting next to us on a train. This account of ‘readiness-to-hand’ is based on his observation that we do not encounter entities as discrete objects or as substances but as part of a meaningful network of things we can use (Heidegger calls them tools and equipment), exploit or engage while other beings which are not immediately available to us are said to be present-at-hand.
Finally, witnessing is different from perceiving in that the former involves the creation of a representation of what we witness but this in itself presents us with a problem. The language and concepts we have used so far have been ontological which has no place for the representational. Our solution to this is to adopt and extend Clark’s distinction between strong and weak representation. We propose that, like Clark, those things (other beings) which are available can also serve as a kind of external memory or as a weak ‘representation’. This recalls both Dreyfus’ observation that ‘The best representation of the world is [ …] the world itself’ (Dreyfus, 2002) and that most ancient of mnemonics the method of loci.
We now consider each of these points in a little more detail beginning with a discussion of presence.
Note 2: To describe present-at-hand as unavailable is a simplification but one which I do not believe misleads. Dreyfus (1991), for example, in his commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, distinguishes between available and unavailable as being aspects of readiness-to- hand and uses the term occurrentness to describe being present-at- hand (occurrentness also having two states or modes). While these are important distinctions I do not think that they are germane to the current discussion here.