Friday, April 15, 2016

New Essay in Draft: Phenomenal Consciousness, Defined and Defended as Innocently as I Can Manage

Commentary on Keith Frankish (forthcoming), "Illusionism as a Theory of Consciousness".

I don't see Keith's paper publicly available, but you can get a general sense of his view from his 2012 paper Quining Diet Qualia; and in any case I've written the essay to be comprehensible without prior knowledge of Frankish's work.

Phenomenal consciousness can be conceptualized innocently enough that its existence should be accepted even by philosophers who wish to avoid dubious epistemic and metaphysical commitments such as dualism, infallibilism, privacy, inexplicability, or intrinsic simplicity. Definition by example allows us this innocence. Positive examples include sensory experiences, imagery experiences, vivid emotions, and dreams. Negative examples include growth hormone release, dispositional knowledge, standing intentions, and sensory reactivity to masked visual displays. Phenomenal consciousness is the most folk psychologically obvious thing or feature that the positive examples possess and that the negative examples lack, and which preserves our ability to wonder, at least temporarily, about antecedently unclear issues such as consciousness without attention and consciousness in simpler animals. As long as this concept is not empty, or broken, or a hodgepodge, we can be phenomenal realists without committing to dubious philosophical positions.

This paper further develops ideas from my similarly titled blog post on Feb 18. Many thanks for the helpful comments on that post!

Full paper here. As always, questions, comments, and objections are welcome, either as comments on this post or by email.


François Kammerer said...

Part 1:

Hi Eric. Thanks for the interesting paper.

I just have a clarification question about one aspect of your position. Indeed, there is one thing I am not sure I am grasping correctly (this is a kind of follow-up to some of the comments I made on your previous post, by I hope this one will be clearer).

You say that you want your “innocent definition” of consciousness to have two features (amongst others): 1/You want it not to be loaded with dubious metaphysical claims; 2/ You want it to meet the “wonderfulness condition” (that is to say, you want it to be such that it allows us to genuinely ask ourselves: is consciousness a physical process or not? Is it essentially linked to reportability or not? etc.)
Now, here is my question. First, let’s go back to a mathematical example you gave to explain what you mean by the “wonderfulness condition”. You said that this wonderfulness condition did not require “an insurmountable epistemic gap, but only a (maybe temporary) epistemic space for questioning”. For example, on your conception of the wonderfulness condition, you said that we can genuinely wonder whether f(x): x²-2x+2 crosses the x axis or not (while it is actually inconceivable that it does, an a little bit of reflection can shows that to us)

I agree that our concepts of function, of +, of square, etc., are such that they meet the wonderfulness condition regarding whether or not x²-2x+2 crosses the x axis. But I would also add that our concepts of function, of +, of square, etc., are not free of any claims regarding whether or not x²-2x+2 crosses the x axis. Actually, I think that they are loaded in a way that, given their meaning, x²-2x+2 has to cross the x axis.

François Kammerer said...

Part 2:
So let’s go back to consciousness. What if, like some illusionists about consciousness would say (maybe Keith Frankish – and, for sure, I would personnally be willing to defend such a thesis), the definition of consciousness you give 1/ meets the wonderfulness condition in the aforementioned sense, but 2/ is loaded with the metaphysical claim that it cannot be equated with a purely physical process, in the same sense of being loaded that our concepts of function, of +, etc., are loaded in such a way that, given their meaning, x²-2x+2 has to cross the x axis? (that is to say, the fact that our concept of consciousness leads to the idea that consciousness cannot be purely physical does not appear on first blush, but, like the fact that x²-2x+2, only appears after some reflection). Let’s call the conjunction of the thesis 1&2 “T”. Would the truth of T be a problem for your conception?

If yes, this is a problem, because I don’t think that you made an argument to show that T was false (or maybe I did not understand it). So, I guess you may want to say “no”, T could be true and your definition would nevertheless be satisfying according to your own criteria. Maybe, for example, you want to say that this is not a problem, because, when you said that your definition had to be “not loaded with dubious metaphysical claims”, you meant something weaker that the conception of “being loaded” I just used.

But if you think that your definition still reaches its goal even if T is true, for example because you just want a definition that is “innocent” in a very weak sense of “innocent”, then I wonder to what extent what you say can constitute a satisfying answer to illusionism regarding consciousness. After all, most of the philosophers who think that the concept of consciousness is loaded metaphysically, in the sense for example that it is so that no physical thing can ever satisfy it, don’t think that this fact about the concept of consciousness is immediately obvious. So they would agree that we have an “innocent” definition of consciousness – but only in this very weak sense of “innocence”. Indeed, whether they are physicalists (and therefore illusionists/kind of eliminativists) or dualists, they tend to think that the fact that the concept of consciousness cannot be satisfied by anything physical only appear after a careful conceptual analysis. Which, by the way, explains, from their point of view, why some people can genuinely and sincerely be physicalists and phenomenal realists: their position is incoherent, but they just haven’t done enough good conceptual analysis.

I would be really curious to know your opinion on this issue.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wonderfully thoughtful and challenging comments, Francois -- as usual!

I have tried to create a definition that is not metaphysically loaded in that way, so I will have failed in my aim if 2 is true. But the definition is not entirely innocent. For example, if the various targeted states are a hodgepodge, then eliminativism might be the best approach to the concept. That they're not a hodgepodge is an empirical claim. I think it's very likely to be true, but I can just about imagine how science could produce a set of results that would undercut it.

Returning to the mathematical example, it doesn't make sense to wonder whether "2" crosses the x-axis. You only get the wonderment about a mathematical impossibility when "2" is combined with other concepts into "x²-2x+2". Now I do think that when the relatively innocent concept of consciousness is put into interaction with other ideas, we might find ourselves with covert commitments that lead us to wondering about impossibilities. In fact, as I've argued elsewhere ("The Crayzist Metaphysics of Mind"), the folk understanding of consciousness probably isn't logically coherent. I might already be wondering about a logical impossibility in wondering whether my consciousness could survive my death in such a way that I could see my corpse as I floated above it. But if that's a logically incoherent possibility, it will be because I've brought several ideas together and generated a commitment from them that is contrary to that possibility. (For example, maybe I have an implicit theory of "seeing" on which this wouldn't make any sense, as would come out if I tried to work my way through the details.)

François Kammerer said...

Thanks for your answer, Eric. If I understand you correctly, then I think that I share most of your basic understanding of the situation regarding our concepts of consciousness. I now simply wonder to what extent your "innocent" definition of consciousness could play a role in the dialectic against illusionist theories of consciousness. Indeed, wondering if (for example) consciousness is physical or not already requires us to put our folk concept of consciousness in interaction with other ideas (concerning the nature of the physical, notably).
I would be also curious to know what Keith Frankish will answer to your paper (in case he writes responses pieces).