Translating ‘what it is like’

Thomas Nagel famously defined consciousness in terms of there being ‘something it is like to be’ an organism:

fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism — something it is like for the organism

T. Nagel, ‘What is it like to be a bat’, 1974, p. 436

Many people find this definition intuitively compelling, myself included. (I have a vague memory of having come up with a similar formulation myself before I read Nagel, though I may be confabulating.) But is the appeal of this definition limited to English speakers? Does the ‘something it is like to be’ formulation retain its appeal when translated into other languages?

If you have native language competency in another language, I’d like to ask your help, please. I have two questions:

1. How is the quotation above usually translated into your language? (Or how do you think it should be translated?) If there are various possible translations, which do you think is best?

2. When translated in the best way, does the passage still strike you as a compelling way of defining consciousness? (Compelling in its own right, that is, not just because it translates a definition that is compelling in English.)

If you’d like to help, please post for your answers in the comments below. Also, if you know any existing scholarly work on this topic, please post a reference to it. Many thanks!

A dialogue with Ordinary Person Keith

Eric Schwitzgebel and I have had a long-running debate about whether there is a minimal, theory-neutral conception of phenomenal consciousness, which everyone can agree picks out something real. Eric thinks there is, but I am sceptical. You can find some of the exchanges in print — see this comment by Eric, my reply in this paper, and my second thoughts in a long footnote in this forthcoming paper — but Eric and I have also continued the debate by email.

In a recent exchange, Eric suggested that we have a grip on phenomenality simply in virtue of having a grip on our conscious experiences. Phenomenality, Eric remarked, is ‘the obvious property that those conscious experiences share in common, in virtue of which you (not as philosopher Frankish but as ordinary person Keith) recognize them all as worth labeling with the term “conscious experiences”‘.

So I, Philosopher Frankish (PF) asked Ordinary Person Keith (OPK) about this. To avoid biasing him towards illusionism, I played devil’s advocate. Here’s how it went.

PF: Hi Ordinary Person Keith!

OPK: Hey, Philosopher Frankish! Nice to see you. It’s been ages. What have you been up to?

PF: Oh, you know, the usual. Making distinctions, questioning intuitions, denying consciousness. Nothing spectacular. You?

OPK: The usual too. Looking at stuff. Assuming stuff. Riding the Clapham omnibus.

PF: May I ask you something? It’s for my friend Eric.

OPK: Sure — fire away. I have views about all sorts of things.

PF. It’s about consciousness.

OPK: Uh-oh.

PF: Think about your conscious experiences.

OPK: How’d you mean?

PF: When you’re seeing something, smelling something, tasting something, feeling pain — states like that.

OPK: States?

PF: When you do those things — seeing, smelling, and so on — you enter a certain kind of state, the state we call a ‘having a conscious experience’.

OPK: I don’t call it that, but fair enough.

PF: Now, you can recognize when you’re in a state of that kind, can’t you?

OPK: You mean I can tell when I seeing something, smelling something, feeling pain, and so on?

PF: Yes. Now, how do you tell it?

OPK: Come again?

PF: What do all those experiences have in common that enables you to recognize them as conscious experiences?

OPK: I’ve no idea. Do they have anything in common? Seeing a blue sky doesn’t have much in common with smelling a rose or feeling a pain in my toe.

PF: But don’t they all have a certain feel to them?

OPK: A feel? The pain has a feel. It feels bad. But seeing the blue sky and smelling a rose don’t. There’s just the colour and the smell. I suppose they might make me feel nostalgic or something like that . . .

PF: But think about what it’s like to see blue. Forget about the emotions it causes. There’s a quality to the blue experience that you can immediately recognize.

OPK: You mean the blue that I see?

PF: The blue quality of the experience.

OPK: You mean the blue quality of the sky. You said that my experience is the state of me seeing the sky. I don’t turn blue when I see the sky!

PF: No, but focus on what seeing blue is like for you, subjectively, on the inside.

OPK: On the inside of what?

PF: In your mind.

OPK: It’s like seeing blue. What else can I tell you?

PF: Right, the mental state of seeing blue has a certain quality to it that you can attend to. So does smelling a rose, feeling a pain. Every conscious experience has its own distinctive quality.

OPK: Are you saying that the act of seeing something blue is itself blue?

PF: In a way. Not in the same way that the sky is blue, obviously.

OPK: Sheesh! So when I see the sky I’m aware of two kinds of blue — the blue of the sky and the blue of my experience of the sky?

PF: Yes — that’s it!

OPK: Seriously?

PF: Seriously. How else do you recognize that you’re having the experience?

OPK: Let me get this straight. When I see blue . . .

PF: When you consciously see blue . . .

OPK: If you insist. When I consciously see blue, I detect a sort of blue in my mind and it’s this mental blue that alerts me to the fact that I’m seeing blue in the world?

PF: Sort of, yes. It’s that mental blue that makes the experience conscious.

OPK: Is it? And the same’s supposed to go for sounds, smells, tastes, and all other experiences?

PF: Yes, every conscious experience has a distinctive mental quality to it that makes it conscious.

OPK: What if it didn’t? Couldn’t I just see the blue sky without being aware of a mental blue as well?

PF: Maybe, but then you’d be a zombie!

OPK: Blimey. Well, maybe that’s what it’s like for you. But I just see the blue of sky. Maybe I am a zombie.

It seemed that Ordinary Person Keith didn’t have a good grip on phenomenality after all. Of course, I could have gone on to talk about the physics of colour, after-images, inverted spectra, and so on, but Eric and I had agreed that such heavy theorizing wasn’t appropriate if we were trying trying to establish a minimal notion of phenomenality.

I reported back to Eric. He replied that I had confused Ordinary Person Keith by trying to shove too much theory down his throat. Instead, he said, I should ask him ‘whether seeing the sky, feeling pain, pondering how to get to grandma’s house during rush hour, and having a sudden rush of fear have anything in common that immune system response and heart rate regulation lack. When he says yes, they have something in common, ask him whether hearing a tune in his head belongs on the former list or the latter.

So I tried again.

PF: Hi again, Ordinary Person Keith. Look, I’ve had a word with Eric, and he says I’m confusing you. He suggests  that I ask you whether seeing the sky, feeling pain, pondering how to get to Grandma’s house during rush hour, and having a sudden rush of fear have anything in common that immune system response and heart rate regulation lack.

OPK: So that’s seeing, feeling pain, pondering something, and having a rush of fear?

PF: Yes, do they have something in common that immune system response and heart rate regulation lack?

OPK: I’m not sure. Seeing, feeling, thinking, a rush of fear — they all seem very different.

PF: Sure. But aren’t they all even more different from immune response and heart regulation?

OPK: Well, I’m not aware of the immune response and the heart regulation, but I am aware of what I’m seeing, feeling, and thinking. I can tell you about it.

PF: Yes — seeing, feeling pain, and so on are conscious states. Immune response heart regulation isn’t. Right?


PF: And what about hearing a tune in your head? Does that belong on the former list or the latter?

OPK: I’m aware of it, so on the former. But what follows?

PF: That all those conscious states have some property you’re aware of — a quality, which makes them conscious.

OPK: Do they?

PF: Yes, when you’re seeing, feeling, thinking and so on, you’re aware of what’s it’s like to be in those states!

OPK: I don’t get it. When I see the sky I’m aware of what the sky is like — blue or cloudy, or whatever. When I feel pain. I’m aware of what the pain is like — where it is, whether it’s dull or sharp, and so on. When I think about getting to Grandma’s house I’m focusing on the house — which direction it’s in, where it’s located on the street plan. Same with the rush of fear and the song in my head. The sky, the pain, the house, the fear, the song — they don’t have anything in common, except that I’m aware of them.

PF: Oh dear. I’m confusing you again, aren’t I? I’d better ask Eric for advice…

Eileen’s illustrious ancestry

Keith writes: I don’t come of illustrious stock. My ancestors were labouring folk who left few records, and I’ve not been able to trace their history back more than a few generations. Still, we’re all interrelated, and once I’d uploaded my findings to the FamilySearch website, other users linked their trees to mine, opening up lots of new connections. It was fun to explore them and see how far back I could go. Most lines fizzled out by the seventeenth century, but eventually I found one on my mum’s side which — if the FamilySearch data is correct — connected by marriage to a high-status Welsh family called Fletcher, which itself had connections with other aristocratic families and could claim the Capetian kings of France as ancestors. (Ironically, then, it’s my mother’s side, not my dad’s, that can trace links to Frankish royalty!) Of course, there’s absolutely nothing special about having a link to royalty. Everyone has one, and most people have a much more direct one than my family does. (Ours takes 33 generations to surface — and 2^33 is about eight and a half billion!) And — as far as I’m concerned — there’s absolutely nothing to be proud of either. But it’s fun to trace these links across a thousand years and between the bottom and top of social hierarchy. So, here I present my mother Eileen with her illustrious ancestry. (The hyperlinks are to person pages on the FamilySearch website. You’ll need to create a free account to view them.)

Kathleen Bryan (22 August 1915 – 23 June 1977) Eileen’s mother. Daughter of

Hilda Mary Johnson (26 January 1896 – 1969) Wharfedale / Pontefract, Yorkshire. Eileen’s grandmother. Daughter of:

Charles Johnson (17 September 1865 – 11 December 1939) Meanwood / Chapel Allerton / Askern, Yorkshire. Eileen’s great-grandfather. Son of:

David Johnson (16 September 1833 – 12 June 1887) Harewood / Adel / Wharfedale / Meanwood, Yorkshire. Eileen’s 2nd great-grandfather. Son of

Anne Johnson (30 April 1810 – ?) Rothwell, Yorkshire. Eileen’s 3rd great-grandmother. Daughter of:

Elisabeth Wigglesworth (1784 – 1826) Rothwell, Yorkshire. Eileen’s 4th great-grandmother. Daughter of:

Margaret Pulleine (30 October 1758 – ?) Rothwell, Yorkshire. Eileen’s 5th great-grandmother. Daughter of:

Elizabeth Wiglesworth (18 March 1724 – 1800) Methley, Yorkshire. Eileen’s 6th great-grandmother. Daughter of:

William Wriglesworth (1686 – 13 January 1777) Methley, Yorkshire. Eileen’s 7th great-grandfather. Son of:

John Wriglesworth (27 March 1661 – 25 June 1719) Rothwell, Yorkshire. Eileen’s 8th great grandfather. Son of:

Thomas Wriglesworth (about 1630 – 1675) Rothwell, Yorkshire. Eileen’s 9th great-grandfather. Son of:

Thomae Wrigglesworth about 1606 – ?) Leeds / Rothwell, Yorkshire. Eileen’s 10th great-grandfather. Son of:

Ann Fletcher (about 1588 – about 1694) Leeds, Yorkshire. Eileen’s 11th great-grandmother. Daughter of:

John Fletcher (1548 – ?) Leeds, Yorkshire. Eileen’s 12th great-grandfather. Son of:

William Fletcher (1525 – 1580) Farnsworth, Prescot, Lancashire / Quarendon, Buckinghamshire. Eileen’s 13th great-grandfather. Son of:

Richard Fletcher V (1500 – 1556) Bangor, Caernarvonshire / Hatfield, Hertfordshire. Eileen’s 14th great-grandfather. Son of:

Richard Fletcher IV (1470 – 1528) Caernarvonshire. Eileen’s 14th great-grandfather. Son of:

Richard Fletcher III (1455 – ?) Bangor, Gwynedd, Caernarfon. Eileen’s 15th great-grandfather. Son of:

Eleanor Brereton (1440 – 21 April 1497) Brereton, Cheshire. Eileen’s 16th great-grandmother. Daughter of:

William Brereton VII (about 1414 – 1485) Brereton cum Smethwick, Cheshire. Eileen’s 17th great-grandfather. Son of:

William Brereton (1389 – 1415) Brereton cum Smethwick, Cheshire. Eileen’s 18th great-grandfather. Son of:

Anyll Venables (1370 – 1442) Kinderton, Cheshire / Brereton, Cheshire. Eileen’s 19th great-grandmother. Daughter of:

Hugh de Venables (1330 – 18 April 1382) Northwich / Kinderton-cum-Hulme, Cheshire. Eileen’s 20th great-grandfather. Son of:

Hugh de Venables (1296 – 22 October 1368) Kinderton, Cheshire. Eileen’s 21st great-grandfather. Son of:

Hugh de Venables of Kinderton (1256 – 25 April 1311) Northwich / Kinderton, Cheshire. Eileen’s 22nd great-grandfather. Son of:

Lady Margaret de Dutton (1235 – 1293) Kinderton, Cheshire. Eileen’s 23rd great-grandmother. Daughter of:

Thomas Dutton, 7th Lord of Dutton (1214 – 1272) Dutton, Cheshire. Eileen’s 24th great-grandfather. Son of:

Hugh Dutton, 5th Lord of Dutton (about 1172 – 1234) Dutton, Cheshire. Eileen’s 25th great-grandfather. Son of:

Lady Isabel de Massey (about 1155 – about 1214) Dunham Massey, Cheshire. Eileen’s 26th great-grandmother. Daughter of:

Sir Hamon de Massey III (16 December 1129 – 1216) Castle of Dunham Massey, Bowdon, Cheshire. Eileen’s 27th great-grandfather. Son of:

Lady Eleanor de Beaumont, Baroness Theray (1100 – 1157). Dunham Massey, Cheshire. Eileen’s 28th great-grandmother. Daughter of:

Isabel de Vermandois, Countess of Leicester (13 February 1081 – 13 February 1131) Valois, Oise, Picardy, France. Eileen’s 29th great-grandmother. Daughter of:

Hugues Ier Magnus de Vermandois (1057 – 18 October 1101) Vermandois, France / Tarsus, Silicia, Turkey. Eileen’s 30th great-grandfather. Son of:

Henri I, Roi des Francs (4 May 1008 – 4 August 1060) Wikipedia entry. Reims / Vitry-aux-Loges, France. Eileen’s 31st great-grandfather. Son of:

Robert II le Pieux de France, Roi des Francs (27 March 972 – 20 July 1031) Eileen’s 32nd great-grandfather. Son of:

Hugues Ier Capet de France (about 938 – 14 October 996) Eileen’s 33rd great-grandfather. Son of:

Hugues “Le Grand” de France Comte de Paris (24 August 898 – 16 June 956) Eileen’s 34th great-grandfather. Son of:

Robert I, roi des Francs (866 – 15 June 923) Eileen’s 35th great-grandfather. Son of:

Robert ‘le Fort’ ‘the Strong’ Comte de Paris (834 – 25 August 866) Eileen’s 35th great-grandfather. Son of:

Robert III, Graf im Oberrheingau und im Wormsgau (789 – 7 December 0833) Eileen’s 36th great-grandfather. Son of:

Robert II Graf im Oberrheingau und im Wormsgau (about 760 – 12 July 807) Eileen’s 37th great-grandfather. Son of:

Thuringbert of Haspengaus (about 730 – after June 770) Eileen’s 38th great-grandfather. Son of:


What do we have access to?

Indirect realism and idealism are not popular with contemporary academic philosophers (in the 2022 PhilPapers survey, only 6.6% endorsed idealism and only 5.0% sense data theory), and to many — including me — they are profoundly unattractive.

Yet they retain some popularity among a wider public. When discussing philosophy of mind on social media, I frequently find people asserting as an unquestionable truth that the only things we are directly aware of are our own experiences and that all our beliefs about the external world are inferences from beliefs about our experiences. (My response is usually to ask (a) Who or what does ‘we’ refer to in this context? and (b) How do we gain direct access to our experiences? The only answers that work in the context are ‘a soul’ and ‘magic’, or some more nuanced variants of them.)

Why is this? I don’t know (the philosophical arguments are certainly not compelling), and I’d be interested to know what others think. But I suspect that one factor may be the way neuroscientists write about consciousness. They tend to stress that the brain has no direct access to the world it represents. Here’s an example from David Eagelman:

Here’s the key: the brain has no access to the world outside. Sealed within the dark, silent chamber of your skull, your brain has never directly experienced the external world, and it never will … Everything you experience — every sight, sound, smell — rather than being a direct experience, is an electrochemical rendition in a dark theater.

David Eagleman, The Brain: Story of You (Pantheon, 2017), p. 41

Now, I’m not suggesting that Eagleman or others who write like this endorse indirect realism. They are, I take it, making two perfectly good points: first, which aspects of the world we experience and how we experience them are determined by processes in our brains, which (let us suppose) create internal models of the environment, and, second, the brain has to construct its models from completely uninterpreted data — essentially, spiking patterns in neurons.

But such talk can easily be misinterpreted. A reader might reason as follows: ‘Scientists tell me that my brain doesn’t have access to the world outside. But I have access to something — this rich buzzing, booming world of sensory qualities. So this something must be an internal world, the model constructed by my brain. That’s what I’m directly aware of, and all my beliefs about the outer world are inferences from beliefs about this inner world.’

This is, of course, fallacious. My brain may not have access to the world beyond the skull, but it doesn’t follow that I, the whole organism, do not. The brain’s job (or one of its jobs) is to put the organism to which it belongs into a relation of tight sensitivity to the world around it — the relation we call ‘awareness’ or ‘experience’ — and the models the brain constructs are part of the subpersonal machinery that creates this personal relation.

Of course, our personal awareness of the world is not immediate and perfect; far from it. It is dependent on the hugely complex processes neuroscientists describe, and it is simplified, distorted, and caricatured in ways that reflect our needs as evolved biological organisms. But it is an awareness of the world, not of some inner simulacrum of it.

Indeed, if we were personally aware of an internal model of the world, then, from an explanatory point of view, we’d be back to square one. Neuroscientists would point out that the brain has no direct access to the models created in other brain regions and that it must construct our awareness of them from uninterpreted neural signals — making models of models. Drawing the same fallacious inference, indirect realism would become doubly indirect, then triply, and so on.

Animal sentience and animal welfare

A postscript to yesterday’s post on animal sentience. Some readers took me to be proposing that we drop the concept of sentience and stop asking which animals are sentient and which aren’t. Since it’s generally agreed that sentient creatures have ethical claims on us that non-sentient ones don’t, such a policy might have worrying ethical implications.

That wasn’t my intention. I no more want to eliminate the notion of sentience than you, in my imagined conference scenario, would want to eliminate the notion of life. You would want the conference participants to revise their conception of life — to start thinking of it as a cluster of biological processes rather than as a hidden essence that is only contingently connected to those processes. Substituting ‘psychological’ for ‘biological’, that’s what I want to do with consciousness.

Revising our conceptions of life and sentience in these ways would not prevent us from continuing to ask about the distribution of those properties in the natural world, and it would, in fact, make the task much more tractable. Nor would it prevent us from continuing to regard life and sentience as ethically significant. (Indeed, the revised conceptions would provide a much better foundation for ethical concern than the old ones, which treated those features as mysterious essences, which might have no casual role in the physical world.)

This isn’t to say that the revisions would have no consequences. For one thing, they would change the way we frame questions about the distribution of life and sentience. Instead of asking ‘Is this creature alive/conscious?’, we would ask ‘Which aspects of the cluster of biological/psychological functions constitutive of life/consciousness does this creature possess, and to what degree?’.

Focusing on sentience, we would cease to think of consciousness as a binary feature and and cease to ask whether or not a creature possesses it tout court. Instead, we would think of sentience as a multi-dimensional space of possibilities, whose axes correspond to different psychological sensitivities and abilities, and ask whereabouts in this space a creature is located. In short, we would replace a neat but intractable metaphysical question with a messy but tractable empirical one.

We would also change how we approach the ethical issues. If sentience were binary, then our task would be to divide animals into the sentient sheep, who have an ethical claim on us, and the non-sentient goats, who don’t. But if it’s a multi-dimensionally graded feature, then we would need to adopt a much more nuanced approach. We would need to to determine where each creature was located in the region of sentience space and ask what kind of ethical claims creatures in that region have on us, given their characteristic sensitivities and abilities. Instead of asking, ‘Should we care about this creature?’ we would ask, ‘How should we care about this creature?’

I think that would be progress.

How I feel about work on animal sentience

Yesterday on Twitter Robert Long asked me how I, as an illusionist, feel about the recent surge in work on animal sentience, such as that being done under the umbrella of Jonathan Birch’s Foundations of Animal Sentience project.

The short answer is: enthusiastic and optimistic. It’s great to see this work. It should shake up our anthropocentric assumptions, both theoretical and ethical, and give us a much better understanding the diversity and complexity of the minds of the creatures with whom we share this planet. The bulk of the experimental work being done will be useful regardless of whether one takes a realist or illusionist view of the metaphysics of consciousness.

Having said that, I do often feel uneasy at the way the debate about animal sentience is framed. I’ll illustrate my unease with a little story.

Imagine you go to a conference on animal life. Everyone there is debating furiously about which animals are really alive. Most are convinced that mammals are alive, but there is deep disagreement about whether birds, reptiles, cephalopods, and insects are, and only a few brave souls are prepared to argue that flatworms are alive.

You are puzzled at first, but then you realize that what they mean by ‘life’ is different from what you mean. They do not think of life as a loosely defined cluster of biological functions, such as growth, perception, metabolism, and reproduction. They think of life as an extra feature — an essence or spirit — which can’t be defined in functional terms and can’t be directly detected.

Most of them agree that this feature is closely associated with the biological functions you think define life, and some even think it is identical with some cluster of them, but they they can’t decide which biological processes are the best indicators of its presence. They cite vast quantities of experimental work on life in animals, but it all concerns the presence of some biological function or other, and since there is no agreement about which function is the best indicator of life, none of it is decisive. What one theorist regards as definitive evidence of the presence of life another dismisses as a confounder.

You tentatively suggest that life is nothing more than a cluster of biological processes and that the extra feature the participants are looking for is illusory, but everyone stares at you with incomprehension. Some declare that that you’re a monster for denying that animals are alive.

Now you know how I feel about work on animal sentience.

A dilemma for illusionists — and another for realists!

David Chalmers often — rightly — presses me to clarify exactly what it is that I and other illusionists deny. We say that we deny the existence of phenomenal properties, or qualia, but what exactly do we mean by this? Here, it seems, we illusionists face a dilemma. Is the notion of a phenomenal property a theoretical one or an observational one?

Suppose we say that the notion is a theoretical one — say, that of a property of experience that is nonphysical, not publicly observable, and immediately known. Then phenomenal realists such as Chalmers will say that that’s not what they mean by a phenomenal property. They mean simply the feel of experience — what it’s like. They do not define these feels as having features such as non-physicality, though they have arguments for thinking that they do in fact have them. Thus, if illusionists take this option, they are not denying the existence of properties realists believe in, but merely denying that those properties have the features many realists believe they have. Chalmers will be more than happy to engage with them on the latter point.

Suppose, then, that illusionists say that the concept of phenomenality is an observational one — the concept of the kind of feature people detect when they introspectively detect that they are having an experience of some kind. Then illusionists are denying something realists believe in, but also, it seems, making the absurd claim that experiences have no introspectively detectable aspect — that you detect nothing when you detect that you’re in pain!

This is the dilemma facing the illusionist. Francois Kammerer has likened it to the task Odysseus faced in navigating his ship between the two sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis. (See his talk ‘Defining consciousness and denying its existence’ at a workshop in Bochum.) What should the illusionist do?

The short answer is that they should reject the dichotomy and point out that all observation, including introspection, is theory-laden and that the concepts we employ in introspection are themselves infused with theoretical commitments. This is the line Kammerer takes, and I think it’s right. I won’t develop the response here, however. (I discuss the issue at much more length in a new paper forthcoming in a special issue of the French journal Klēsis, edited by François Loth.) Instead, I want to point out that illusionists can pose a parallel dilemma for the realist.

Here’s how they can do it. First, they need to sketch some positive account of what consciousness is, couched entirely in terms of informational and reactive processes centred on the brain. For present purposes, the details do not matter; the crucial thing is that the account is framed entirely in functional terms. The realist will say that the account omits, or at least fails to explain, something — the central phenomenal aspect of experience. (Note that it does not matter whether the proposed account is actually true; the point is that the realist will claim to know a priori that it is not true, or at least not fully explanatory, since it misses out something crucial.) Now comes the dilemma. How do realists conceive of the missing properties?

Suppose they conceive of them in the observational way, as the properties people detect when they introspectively detect that they are having experiences, with no commitment whatsoever as to the nature of these properties. This option was unattractive to illusionists, but it is awkward for realists too. How can they know that the detected properties are omitted from, or not explained by, the illusionist’s account? Why should they even suspect that they are not included? After all, they claim to have no idea what the properties are.

Suppose, then, that realists allow that the notion of phenomenality does have a theoretical component after all, and that they conceive of phenomenal properties as having certain specific features. Then they can maintain that the illusionist account is inadequate, on the grounds that it omits or fails to explain properties with those features. But if they make this move, then illusionists can deny the existence of phenomenal properties without denying that experiences have an introspectively detectable aspect. For they can say that experiences have an introspectively detectable aspect but this aspect is not phenomenal. What you detect when you detect that you are in pain is not really a phenomenal property.

Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander!

Where does this leave us? It leaves us having identified the core questions as, first, what theoretical commitments are packed into the notion of phenomenality, and second, whether experiences have phenomenal properties as characterized by those commitments.

In response to the first question, I’m inclined to say that the key commitments are to phenomenal properties being (a) not characterizable in functional terms and (b) clearly revealed to introspection. Other claims, such as that phenomenal properties are non-physical, resist scientific explanation, and are radically private, derive from those core ones. I discuss this more in the Klēsis article.

As for the second question, I answer in the negative, of course.

Updated 3/12/22

Some fallacies (or heuristics?)

Some common fallacies in debate. (Or are they? Might some of these moves have heuristic value?)

The Bad Company Fallacy: People who believe p typically also believe q, which is false. Therefore not-p.

The Bad Reasons Fallacy: People often believe p for bad reasons. Therefore not-p.

The Desire Fallacy: The people arguing for p want it to be true that p. Therefore not-p.

The Fairness Fallacy: It would not be fair if p were true. Therefore not-p.

The Fallacy Fallacy: It is a fallacy to think that p follows from q. Therefore not-p.

The Incredulity Fallacy: I cannot believe that you are suggesting that p. Therefore not-p.

The Tribal Fallacy: My political opponents believe that p. Therefore not-p.

Technology and the human minds

As some of you may know, I have my own particular take on the dual-process theory of reasoning, and I recently I wrote a longish paper applying this take to issues surrounding AI and cognitive enhancement. The abstract of the article runs as follows:

According to dual-process theory, human cognition is supported by two distinct types of processing, one fast, automatic, and unconscious, the other slower, controlled, and conscious. These processes are sometimes said to constitute two minds—an intuitive old mind, which is evolutionarily ancient and composed of specialized subsystems, and a reflective new mind, which is distinctively human and the source of general intelligence. This theory has far-reaching consequences, and it means that research on enhancing and replicating human intelligence will need to take different paths, depending on whether it is the old mind or the new mind that is the target. This chapter examines these issues in depth. It argues first for a reinterpretation of dual-process theory, which pictures the new mind as a virtual system, formed by culturally transmitted habits of autostimulation. It then explores the implications of this reinterpreted dual-process theory for the projects of cognitive enhancement and artificial intelligence, including the creation of artificial general intelligence. The chapter concludes with a brief assessment of the risks of those projects as they appear in this new light.

The paper appeared in a 2021 collection titled The Mind-Technology Problem, edited Robert W. Clowes, Klaus Gärtner, and Inês Hipólito. If you don’t have access the volume, here is an eprint of the article.

In addition, Anna Strasser has prepared a fantastic PowerPoint presentation summarizing the main ideas of the article, which she has kindly given me permission to share.

The brain repair experiment

Looking through old teaching materials, I found a little philosophical story I’d written as an exercise for students of my first-year introduction to philosophy of mind course at Sheffield in the mid-1990s. I thought it was moderately amusing and that others might like to see it, so here it is. I have tidied it up and removed the exercises that accompanied it, but I haven’t attempted to update it. All the characters are fictional. The Brain Repair Experiment

A dialogue between Philobios and Philopraxis

Scene: The agora of ancient Athens.

Enter Philobios and Philopraxis, two philosophers.

Philobios: Greetings, Philopraxis! Have you a moment? I have been thinking about the nature of life, and I should like to share my ideas with you.

Philopraxis: Ah well, actually I’m busy. I’m searching for my dog, you see. He’s run off again.

Philobios: It won’t take long. Then I can help you search for your dog.

Philopraxis: Very well. If it won’t take long.

Philobios: Excellent. To begin, then: Some things are alive and some things are not, and we are good at telling which are which. You and I are alive, obviously, and so are many other things, from bears to beetles to beetroots. It seems there is some property they all share, a vital property, a that-it’s-aliveness, which we can immediately recognize when we encounter it. But what is this property exactly, and how does inanimate matter come to possess it?

Philopraxis: Isn’t that a question for our scientists? Like young Aristoteles, for example.

Philobios: Ah, no. Scientists describe processes that occur in living things — responsiveness to stimuli, metabolism, growth, reproduction, and so on — but this doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. We can easily imagine all those processes occurring without life. A machine might detect things, convert resources into energy, use raw materials to augment itself, and even make copies of itself, without really being alive. Processes such as responsiveness and metabolization may be necessary for life, but they aren’t sufficient for it, and explaining how those processes occur in living things won’t be sufficient to explain life itself. We’d still have to explain how things that support those life-related processes acquire a vital property, an intrinsic that-it’s-aliveness. This is a really hard problem! We need a new science of life, which takes life seriously as a fundamental aspect of reality. Perhaps life emerges spontaneously, by natural necessity, when sufficiently complex life-related processes occur. Or perhaps all matter possesses a tiny spark of life, and the vital properties of complex organisms like us are produced by combining the micro-level vital properties of their atomic constituents. We should explore these exciting ideas! Don’t you agree?

Philopraxis: Erm, no, actually, I don’t. I think processes of the sort you mentioned are all there is to life. Being a living thing is just a matter of being a persisting system that is responsive, metabolizes resources, grows, and so on. There’s no need for an extra animating ingredient. Maybe it seems otherwise to you because we can recognize life so easily. When we encounter a living thing, we don’t have to check that all those processes are occurring within it. We can just see that it’s alive. And that tempts us to think that we are detecting a special property that is distinct from all those processes. I can understand. I feel the same, in fact. But I don’t trust my feelings here. I think it’s a sort of illusion. For her own good reasons, Nature has tuned up our perceptual systems to be highly sensitive to indications of life, so that animate things leap out at us perceptually. And this leads us to think that they possess a special property — a vital property, a that-it’s-aliveness — which can’t be explained in more basic terms. That’s how it seems; animation is a fundamental feature of the world as we take it to be — of what we might call our manifest image. But it’s not a fundamental feature of reality independent of us, and we would be making a big error if we were to set about asking how it arises, whether all matter possesses it, and so forth. We’d be mistaking a feature of our reaction to the world for a feature of the world itself.

Philobios: But that’s not taking life seriously. In fact, it’s denying life! That’s the silliest view I’ve ever heard. What’s more, it’s an immoral and dangerous view. If you deny that life exists, then presumably you don’t think that murder is possible? I assume you think that the tyrant Hippias was a fine man. For on your view, he never deprived anyone of life!

Philopraxis: You’re missing my point. I’m not denying that life exists; I’m denying that life is what you think it is…

Philobios: You’re equivocating! Does life exist? Yes or no!

Philopraxis: Yes, but…

Philobios: So you concede that vital properties are real…

We pan away to a dog scratching itself. The dog settles down to sleep in the sun as Philobios and Philopraxis continue to argue in the background.

KF: Philobios and Philopraxis continue to argue, but I think you will have got the gist of their views about life, and I hope you will agree that Philopraxis’s view is better and that it is unfair of Philobios to accuse him of silliness and immorality.

Now substitute ‘consciousness’ and ‘phenomenal properties’ for ‘life’ and ‘vital property’ and replace the references to biological processes with ones to perceptual and cognitive processes. Philobios’s position is now a robust form of phenomenal realism and Philopraxis’s is a form of illusionism.

Do you still agree with Philopraxis? If not, why not?

George Harrison - What Is Life

Below are videos and slides from some of the academic talks I have given. (For a full list of my talks, please see my CV.)

You can play the videos and click through the presentations in your browser. To open a presentation full size, click the icon in its bottom right corner. Some of the presentations have been rendered as silent videos. These will run quickly, so be ready to use the pause button!

Note: The presentations contain various images. I believe my use of these counts as fair use (if the material is not already in the public domain), but if anyone believes that their copyright has been infringed, please contact me and I will remove the relevant material immediately.

Some replication crisis resources

Note: A few years ago, I made a start on a blog post listing some resources on the replication crisis in psychology. I have just found the draft and thought I would post it, in case it is of use to anyone. It’s very incomplete and outdated. If you would like to improve the post by adding more references in the comments, please do!

Blogposts and journalism




Some thoughts on LLMs

Here are some thoughts on large language models (LLMs), derived from a recent email exchange concerning the digital simulation of Daniel Dennett recently created by Eric Schwitzgebel, Anna Strasser, Matthew Crosby.

Do LLMs such as GPT-3 perform speech acts? Is there a continuum between what they do and what we do when we speak? Or is there a sharp difference — we performing genuine speech acts and GPT-3 merely giving the appearance of doing so?

There’s a case for thinking that GPT-3 can perform speech acts. It can make appropriate contributions to conversations within domains it has been trained on. If game-playing AIs such Alpha-Zero can make genuine moves within a board game, why can’t GPT-3 make genuine moves with in a language game?

I think it can. It can make conversational moves with words. The problem is that that’s all it can do. It can’t do any of the other things we do with words. It can’t inform, instruct, persuade, encourage, suggest, imply, deceive, and so on. It can’t perform any illocutionary acts. It can’t even assess its own conversational contributions and select the best.

It can’t do any of this, of course, because it lacks the raft of psychological and social attitudes and aptitudes that illocutionary acts require. (As Dennett has noted, Grice’s theory of communication is an attempt to elucidate this implicit background; see chapter 13 of his From Bacteria to Bach and Back.) Even a non-human animal with a simple call system can perform more types of speech act than GPT-3 can.

And here there is a big contrast with the game-playing AIs. Alpha Zero can’t do much with go counters; it’s limited to making clever moves in games of go. But we don’t do much more with go counters ourselves. Go is a game, and making clever moves is the object. Of course, we can achieve other things through playing go, such as winning a bet, but we also play the game simply to pass the time.

Language, by contrast, is far more than a game. It’s a tool — a hugely complex Swiss army knife of a tool — and one that GPT-3 doesn’t have a clue how to use. If there’s a sharp divide here, it’s between systems that play language like a game and ones that use it as a tool.

It is true that humans sometimes treat language as a game. Think of a simultaneous translator whose only object is to reproduce the moves made in one language with parallel moves in another. But these are rare cases. (This example was suggested by a comment by Douglas Hofstadter.)

A final, broader point. One of the worries about AIs such as GPT-3 is that we may end up creating more complex versions of them, which display a wide range of human-like behaviours but lack a rich human psychology — counterfeit humans, which would trick us into treating them as equals. I suspect this is a red herring. We have little reason to create machines that behave like us, with all our limitations, weaknesses, and occasional concomitant sublimities, especially as we can already produce new humans by biological means.

What we will want are machines that aren’t like us — ones that can do things we can’t do or that make a better job of things we can. We will want artificial astronauts, explorers, builders, doctors, companions, inspirers, inventors — and some will want artificial cheaters, exploiters, and fighters. The danger is that we will give these beings a veneer of humanity — an ability to play social interaction like a game — which will lead us to both overestimate and underestimate their real abilities.

Revised 7/12/22