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.
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.
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!
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…