A talk by Ted Honderich   
Conference on Phenomenal Qualities and Perception
University of Hertfordshire

            Is disagreement in the philosophy and science on what it is to be conscious, the melee of theories, owed to our having a common-sense definition but no initial clarification of it -- owed thus to our not answering the same question? Not answering the same question about what is common to perceptual, reflective and affective consciousness, say perceiving, thinking and feeling?

            It seems to me we do not get such a clarification in five leading ideas of consciousness in the philosophy and science of mind -- qualia, what it is like to be something, subjectivity, intentionality or aboutness, two kinds of consciousness. None of the five ideas gives an initial clarification, a first approximation to necessary and sufficient conditions for being conscious.

            Qualia are not all of consciousness, and hence not sufficient. Also vague etc.

            What it is like to be a thing for that thing is unclarifying in being circular.

            Subjectivity has the same shortcoming.

            Intentionality is insufficiently general in my view and that of many others, despite a brave effort by Tim Crane to maintain otherwise. It also doesn't get much beyond part of our common-sense definition -- aboutness being involved somehow in consciousness.

            With the two kinds of consciousness of Block, Chalmers and others, phenomenal consciousness inherits weaknesses from the four preceding ideas, which it bundles together, and access consciousness is either only dispositions to consciousness or is at least obscure.

            But, crucially, we do have data on consciousness in general in the primary ordinary or core sense. The data, linguistic data but underdescribed as such, are owed mainly to each of our relatively pre-theoretical holds on what it is to be conscious.

            Are you sceptical about this 'introspection' so-called? No doubt mistakes have been made in self-reflection. In my view they still are, e.g. in the Higher-Order Thought theories of consciousness. But I can and do recall now what it was to be perceptually conscious, reflectively conscious or affectively conscious a couple of seconds ago. Surely, whatever the history of psychology, it is as good as absurd to deny this recall?

            The five leading ideas are not leading ideas for no reason. One large one is that they have the recommendation that expositions of them incidentally or in passing provide or confirm much of the mentioned data. If it can be called linguistic, it is as well called experiential. It is in or owed to our experience in a sense in which no other data are.

            Here is just a selection from the data. 

            Being conscious in the primary ordinary sense is: 

something's being there, 

something's somehow existing, 

being given, 

being had

something's being for or to something, 








transparent -- not in G. E. Moore's original sense but in being accessed absolutely without the aid or intermediary of any discernible medium whatever.

            It will surprise me indeed if Tim Crane and Paul Coates are the only fellow-workers at this conference who have effectively contributed to this data. I will be continuing my research into the thinking of Gallagher, Snowdon, Farkas, Sollberger, Raleigh, Deroy, Noordhof, Logue, Smith, and MacGregor -- however in need of some re-education they may be.

            The data, I readily and contentedly admit, are metaphorical or figurative. What is given with respect to consciousness, for example, is not given in the literal sense that 5 is given. That should not trouble you. Your will know that it is hardly too much to say that the history of science is the history of advance from metaphor to literal theory. Is this possible with something's being given etc?

            The data are open to generalization. The generalization is that being conscious in any way in the primary ordinary sense is something's being actual. That too, you can say, is figurative.

            It is my judgement that this initial clarification, given the wide or even universal implicit support of it, is correct with respect to the primary ordinary sense of what it is to be conscious. It captures the primary ordinary sense, the core sense.

           That is not to answer another question. Is consciousness as clarified or defined in this way, consciousness in the ordinary primary sense, the right subject? Is this selected question about the nature of consciousness the right question? What is to be said for this subject as against, say, consciousness as mentality -- where mentality includes both conscious and unconscious mentality, both of these understood with reference to consciousness as just initially clarified, actual consciousness? Leave that further question hanging for a while.

            There are two main criteria for an adequate answer to our main question of what it is to be actually conscious. An adequate answer must say (A) what is actual. (B) It must say what its being actual is. This is so with perceptual consciousness in particular, and each of reflective and affective consciousness in particular.

            That the three are different, crucially rather than just importantly different, is a proposition supported, tacitly, by this very conference, effectively on the subject of perceptual consciousness. The difference is explicitly supported by a lot else, starting with our holds on our consciousness. A good theory of consciousness in general will be true to this difference, take it properly seriously.

            In passing, let me say that disagreement and dispute in the philosophy and science of consciousness is not owed only to our having no initial clarification of it, answering different questions about it, but also  to our not making a fundamental difference or differences between seeing, pure reasoning, and wanting.

            Concentrate now on the subject of this conference, perceptual consciousness.

            (A) My answer as to what is actual with respect to my and your perceptual consciousness now is a room, a room out there. A room rather than the room in my usage. Nothing else whatever. This is the main proposition in what I have to say.

            If you give any other answer, I take it, you're not on our selected question, the clarified question of what it is to be conscious in the primary ordinary sense. 

           In passing, is it objectionable, or confused, maybe low, to explain or confirm what a question is by giving what you take to be its only answer or part of it? I don't see that, but I don't depend on the point.

            To say that what is actual in your case and mine is a room is to say, by the way, if you are still wedded to the boring old existential quantifier, that f is the properties of a room in the proposition that there is an x such that x is f.

            The answer a room excludes a lot. It excludes, certainly, all of the items of central theory in the case of each of the five leading ideas.

            So what is actual is not qualia or any antecedents of qualia, notably sense-data, all these being things internal to the perceiver and called subjective etc.

            To the arguments from illusion and hallucination for qualia, the largest rejoinder is what we have already -- the progress from an initial clarification of consciousness to two questions to an answer to the first one. Another rejoinder to the illusion argument, in my idea a stunning one, is that an external physical thing just is what looks different from different points of view. A third rejoinder to the hallucination argument is disjunctivism -- hallucinating is like seeing only in that it involves thinking there is seeing. This disjunctivism in my use of it is not merely an ad hoc if forceful resistance to the hallucination argument but what has an independent premise in our mentioned progress from an initial clarification.

            What is actual, to turn to other leading ideas, is also not a what it's like to be something, and not a subject or self implicit in talk of subjectivity, and not intentionality's relation of direction to an inner or outer thing, or any unconscious mentality along with conscious mentality in our senses of those terms. 

            What is actual, just to mention something else laboured on, isn't content either -- in any sense whatever other than a room out there.

            What is actual is also not an awful lot else either. Not the spiritual stuff of traditional dualism. Not an abstract cause-effect or function, as in abstract functionalism. Not what is better, and indeed required for functionality, a physical function, as in physical functionalism. Certainly not a pile of neurons, let alone Quantum events. None of the items found in other existing theories of consciousness. Say a state supervening on a neural state. Say one of John Searle's higher-level states realized and caused by a lower level state. Say, with Dennett, some state to which we are taking a stance.

            Certainly not representations of any kind. I say in passing that I can tell a representation in my life from what is not a representation. So can you. A representation in my life, given the nature of representations, is a representation for me. The only representation in my case in the room I'm usually in is that picture up on the wall.

            All of which is not to say that all these missing items are not found elsewhere than in what is actual in actual consciousness. Certainly some of them do exist elsewhere. It is more than arguable that some of them or counterparts of them are in unconscious mentality. That is not being questioned at all.

            (B) Now the answer to the second question. What is it, with perceptual consciousness, for something to be actual?

            This is the question, if you like, of how we are to understand the wonderfully uninformative 'there is an x', the existential quantifier, if it is used in expressing our analysis of the generalization something is actual.

            Approach our question in a certain way. Approach it by way of another large question. What is it for something to exist in the sense of being objectively physical?

            You can do philosophy or science by snappy definitions. There is something to be said for that. There is also something to be said for a full clarification. My clarification with respect to the objective physical world includes about 20 characteristics at the moment.

            For now, think of the objectively physical just as 

within the subject-matter of science, 

as occupying space and time, 

having thing-and-property lawfulness, 

having category-lawfulness as in the case of microcosm and macrocosm, 

as objective in that its existence independent of consciousness somehow ordinarily understood. 

            And think of the objectively physical, also, 

as standing in several relations of lawfully necessary or sufficient conditions to consciousness, 

as being in several ways perceived, 

as being different from different points of view, and also 

as being objective in that it can be argued that inquiry into it is moved by a desire for truth rather than anything else.

            Our second question, again, is this: With my or your perceptual consciousness now, what is it for something, a room, to be actual? The answer is that its being actual is its being subjectively physical. The answer is that something's being actual with my perceptual consciousness is its being a subjectively physical world. So with you -- a different such world.

            What is a subjective physical world? Again what you can have is a snappy definition or an account. My answer is an account that is a counterpart to the one of the objective physical world. About 20 characteristics again.

            But in short, to look at one side of the account, a subjective physical world is physical in being wholly within science, space-and-time occupying, lawful in several senses, one being being lawfully interdependent with both objective physical facts of a perceiver and objective physical facts external to a perceiver, in being a terrible affront to what is called mysterianism about consciousness, and so on.

            In short, to look at the other side of the account, a subjective physical world is subjective in a general sense in not being independent of consciousness somehow ordinarily understood. More particularly, for a start, it is subjective in actually being the state of affairs of what it is for something to be perceptually conscious. 

            Also, it is in several lawful dependency-relations to the objective physical world -- both to perceiver-facts such as location, retina-condition and neural structure, and also the objective physicality external to the perceiver. (Just for a start here, but not as an exact model, think of the analogy of the lawful correlation of volume, pressure and temperature in the gas laws.) Finally here, about subjectivity, a subjective physical world is a matter of a kind of privileged access.

            Evidently, both the innumerable subjective physical worlds and the objective physical world are physical in a certain perfectly clear sense. They share certain characteristics. Evidently, they differ in a sense as clear, having to do with objectivity and subjectivity. Plainly there is no inconsistency, no breath of inconsistency, between subjective physical worlds being physical in the given sense and being subjective in the given sense. Just go through the list.

            You now have rudiments of an answer to the question of what perceptual consciousness consists in, which is, I take it, the question of this conference or close enough. You have it in my two answers (A) and (B). The answer is a subjective physicalism. Your being aware of the room, by which we can mean something objectively physical, is something's having certain properties, a room existing in an entirely literal and a well-defined sense. No metaphor, no figurativeness.

            What remains in this quick tour of what also can be called actualism is five comments.

            What about reflective and affective consciousness -- thinking by itself and feeling?

            The short answer is that a partial internalism rather than an externalism is true here. The basic problem is the nature of what is shared by reflective and affective consciousness, which is representations, the things that do not turn up in perceptual consciousness. (Another reason why I'm sure they don't turn up there,  by the way, is that I know what it is for them really to turn up -- as they do with reflective and affective consciousness.) 

            Reality, by which I mean either the objective physical world or subjective physical worlds, has to get more into the story of representation than it does in current views, say Fodor's of the language of thought. It has to get into the story not only with unicorns, satyrs, golden mountains, the present king of France, and the fountain of youth, but also with real things. The story of representations must really include the represented.

            A second comment on actualism has to do with something you heard of at the beginning. Should we be asking what it is to be actually conscious?  Is actual consciousness the right subject? Maybe in comparison to something including unconscious mentality? 

            It is very often implied in the science and philosophy of consciousness there is a right subject.

            But how can there be the or even a right subject? Could running together conscious and unconscious mentality be a wrong subject? Anybody can form any question they want. Even, as I stray to say, in our crappy society now being run down further by the new teletubbies of our coalition government, making deniable war on about half of another people. But I resist that intrusion of another reality and stick to our subject. 

            What can be said for actual consciousness as our subject? Quite a lot is the answer.

            (a) It arguably is the subject that his been in dispute hisorically and still is in dispute. If you want to join a long conversation, going back to Hobbes and Descartes, surely this is the subject. Nobody or hardly anybody has said or implied, or does so now, they have been or are on about consciousness in an extraordinary sense, not the primary ordinary sense. Nobody has said or implied they are not on about actual consciousness.

            (b) Actual consciousness is the consciousness that is just about the stuff of the great human goods, the fundamental desires of human nature -- for a decent length of life, bodily well-being, freedom and power, respect and self-respect, the various goods of relationship, the goods of culture. Actual consciousness, too, is the consciousness on which a fundamental kind of human judgement is directed, essentially praise and blame where it depends on ideas of freedom, general ideas of voluntariness and origination. This kind of judgement does not attach to unconscious mentality -- what has that name as a consequence of our clarification of consciousness.

            (c) Relatedly, it seems to me actual consciousness is explanatory of behaviour or action in a sense in which unconscious mentality is not. That could be clearer to me than it is, however.

            (d) Actual consciousness, also, must be of unique interest -- it is not rhetoric to say it is our existence, our lives, where those things can, I trust, be given sense independently of being defined as existence or lives specifically of actual consciousness.

            I pass by the large question of the role of consciousness and in particular actual consciousness, and come to a conclusion, anyway an end.

            None of this gets you the conclusion that actual consciousness is the only right subject. Let a thousand theories bloom, or anyway quite a few questions asked. I do propose that we have clarified and settled on a question, the most common question, in various ways the best question, and given a decent answer.

            Third comment. As someone may ask, is the actuality theory with perceptual consciousness identical with the familiar proposition that perceptually conscious states have content? Not nearly. (i) On the actuality theory there is nothing else to being perceptually conscious than a subjectively physical world that somebody alse may speak of as content. No state or vehicle or structure or whatever. (ii) This so-called content is an external state of affairs. (iii) It is subjectively physical, as explained, not left elusive. That is a good start on an answer to the question about content.

            A fourth comment on actual consciousness has to do with whether there are other criteria of an adequate answer to the question of the nature of consciousness, and in particular of perceptual consciousness. The answer is that there is a pile of criteria, from the efficacy of consciousness or denial of epiphenomenalism to what is called intelligibility of the mind-brain connection. 

            I leave out the happy story of how the theory of actual consciousness satisfies the pile of criteria better than anything else -- or leave it out except to say two things. 

            First, actual consciousness satisfies the criterion that we have to explain a real difference between seeing as against thinking and wanting. Second, in so far as the demand for explanatory intelligibility has been clarified, which it hasn't much, there is such connection between a subjective physical world and both objective perceiver-facts including neural activity and also the objective physical world external to the perceiver. In this theory there can't be a special bafflement about how a coloured room is related to the two orders of objective physical facts.

            I also leave out here any more than an utterance of the hope that the philosophy of mind is passing out of the era of proofs, however intriguing -- colour-blind Mary, zombies, absent and inverted qualia, and so on. Consciousness is in fact a matter of judgement and the weighting of judgements. It is a matter of a batch of criteria.

            The fifth and last comment. Is there another recommendation of the theory under consideration? Something in addition to its satisfying the main criteria of being an answer to the two main questions and also succeeding with the pile of criteria?

            Well, a good theory, in science or philosophy, is likely to have a spin-off recommendation. It is what some call fertile. Maybe, with Lakatos, it makes for a progressive rather than a degenerating research programme. Actual consciousness is something like this in my judgement -- with the subject of truth.

            The default theory, so to speak, of the nature of truth is that what it is for something to be true is for it to correspond to fact. The alternative theories are mainly ideas of truth in terms of coherence or anti-realism. 

            The central argument against correspondence, which takes various forms, is simple. It is that when you verify a proposition as true you do so by means of another proposition. So, it is said, you don't get outside the ring of propositions, of thought. You never get to fact where that is not a proposition. To speak differently, truth as correspondence depends on the external world being both outside and inside consciousness, and it's inside. 

            You will guess that the spin-off of the theory of actual consciousness is that it provides exactly what is wanted -- facts or reality that are subjective physical worlds. Facts, real facts, of consciousness.  


This talk comes from work on the way towards being finished in the book Actual Consciousness, published in 2014. The talk's past includes the collection of papers that was On Consciousness (Edinburgh University Press, Pittsburgh University Press, 2004). Also in the past is a fuss about a review by Colin McGinn of On Consciousness There is also the book edited by Anthony Freeman, Radical Externalism: Honderich's Theory of Consciousness Discussed. It has in it admirable papers by Harold Brown, Tim Crane, James Garvey, Stephen Law, E. J. Lowe, Derek Matravers, Paul Noordhof, Ingmar Persson, Stephen Priest, Barry Smith, and Paul Snowdon. There are also my replies to the papers. 

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