A talk by
on Phenomenal Qualities and Perception
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
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
general in my view and that of many others, despite a brave effort by
to maintain otherwise. It also doesn't get much beyond part of our
common-sense definition -- aboutness being involved somehow in
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
Here is just a selection from the
Being conscious in the primary ordinary sense is:
something's somehow existing,
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
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
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
as in abstract functionalism. Not what is better, and indeed required
functionality, a physical function, as in physical functionalism.
a pile of neurons, let alone Quantum events. None of the items found in
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
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
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
perceiver. (Just for a start here, but not as an exact model, think of the analogy of the lawful
volume, pressure and temperature in the gas laws.) Finally here, about
subjectivity, a subjective physical world is a matter of a kind of
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
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
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
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.
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
is very often implied in the science and philosophy of consciousness there is a
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
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
hisorically and still is in dispute. If you want to join a long
conversation, going back to Hobbes and Descartes, surely this is the
Nobody or hardly anybody has
said or implied, or does so now, they have been or are on about
in an extraordinary sense, not the primary ordinary sense. Nobody has
said or implied they are not on about actual consciousness.
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
and origination. This kind of judgement does not attach to unconscious
mentality -- what has that name as a consequence of our clarification
(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
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
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.
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,
such connection between a subjective physical world and both objective
perceiver-facts including neural activity and also the objective
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?
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 http://www.homepages.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho/HonderichOnMcGinnOnHonderich.html. 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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