On Philosophy

March 19, 2007

Consciousness and Phenomenal Consciousness

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:00 am

Previously I have put forward the thesis that any system that has experiences, and whose experiences are structured to as to be “from” a first person perspective, is conscious. This means that a fair number of animals may be conscious, the mammals especially seem likely to be conscious in this way. But that doesn’t mean that they have qualia (that experiences “feel” a certain way to them), and thus that they may not be phenomenally conscious.

In fact I would claim that only humans, and perhaps a few of our close relatives, have phenomenal consciousness. Not because the other animals are lacking in consciousness or are somehow not “really” conscious in the way that we are. Rather it is because most animals probably don’t have the capability to consciously reflect upon their own inner states, an ability that comes along with (or perhaps is the source of) higher intelligence. It is my contention that qualia are a product of the way we think about, and reflect on, our own experiences, and thus beings that don’t reflect on their experiences don’t have qualia. But this doesn’t make them less conscious, instead we can think of them as missing a kind of sensory ability, one that is directed inwards instead of outwards. Of course this makes their consciousness different from ours, but I don’t see how it would necessarily make it less than ours.

But why should we think that qualia are a product of reflexive thoughts about our own experience? Well, it comes from the indubitability of qualia. If I think that I am experiencing the qualia of red then I am experiencing the qualia of red. It just doesn’t make sense to deny that someone is really experiencing the qualia that they think they are, because qualia are supposed to be part of consciousness. So if they aren’t experiencing their actual qualia then where are their qualia, are they unconscious? But that can’t be since qualia are necessarily conscious. And this should remind us of the higher order aspects of inner states (last time). As I argued then you can’t be wrong about being in some higher order inner state, say painh, because all there is to being in that state is thinking that you are in that state. Which is exactly the kind of analysis we want of qualia; you can’t be wrong about your qualiah, because all there is to having a qualiah is thinking that you have it.

But what about the functional-behavior aspect, qualiaf? Well, if qualia are necessarily conscious then there is no such thing, because the functional-behavior is basically unconscious. We can know we are in that functional-behavioral state by the fact that we are in the corresponding higher order state, or by observing our own behavior, but this only make us conscious of it, it doesn’t make it conscious (experienced consciously). Now this is not to endorse a higher order model of consciousness, where things are only conscious because of a particular higher order state directed at them. As I have defined the terms any information that we can consciously act on is higher order in this way, including every “thought” with some content (not necessarily propositional). Remember this is simply a description of the way the mind works, not an analysis of what makes a system conscious or why some states are conscious and others aren’t. The functional-behavioral aspect simply refers to how the rest of the system, including the unconscious, is working. And thus qualia have no functional-behavioral aspect, unless we interpret the term very loosely, and perhaps call the sensory information that reaches the unconscious their functional-behavioral aspect.

Notice then that even humans don’t usually have phenomenal consciousness. Qualia exist only when we think that we are experiencing them. But how often do you really notice what the current experience feels like? Often we are too concerned with the content of the experience, what is happening and what we are thinking, to consider its character. And so it is only when we stop and reflect on experience do qualia exist. This means that for the most part we do have basically the same kind of non-phenomenal consciousness that is found in the other animals. Which is why I deny that there is something lacking about this kind of consciousness. Certainly I seem conscious enough most of the time, with or without qualia.

Now some might object to this thesis, claiming that, while it might be coherent when considering our current experience, it falls apart when we consider the nature of past experiences as remembered. Clearly I can reflect on a past experience, one in which I was not considering the character of experience, and thus one in which there were no qualia according to my thesis, but if I consider the character of that remembered experience seems like it has qualia, contrary to my claim that it didn’t. To this I would say that the qualia are not in the memory, but are generated by the process of reflecting on the content of the remembered experience, just as qualia are normally generated in the process of reflecting on the content of our current experience. Although I can’t offer evidence that this is so neither can evidence be presented against the hypothesis (since remembering qualia would seem the same as qualia created in the process of reflecting upon the memory from my perspective), and so this objection does not provide warrant to reject the proposal.

Assume then that we accept this proposal. What follows from it? The primary consequence is that doubting the existence of qualia as qualia (versus as some aspect of our psychological constitution) becomes justified, even rational. All there is to experiencing qualia is thinking that we are experiencing qualia. And this makes qualia unproblematic. As such they can easily be explained by a materialist theory of mind, since they are no longer specially subjective and irreducible.

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