Something that it is like to be

‘[F]undamentally 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.’

So writes Thomas Nagel in his famous 1974 paper ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ (p.436). It is a compelling thought and one that seems self-evidently true. (I remember coming up with the same idea when I was a teenager and thinking it a great insight, and I’m sure many others have had the same experience.) But is Nagel’s claim correct or might it be seductively wrong? It depends, I think, on how we interpret it. Here are two things it might mean.

The first is that having conscious experiences involves having a certain kind of introspective self-awareness — an awareness of one’s own mental responses to the world. For you to be conscious is for you to know what you are like as you respond to the world, as well as what the world is like as it affects you. I’ll call this introspective subjectivity. Introspective subjectivity, we might say, stresses the ‘like’ part of ‘what it is like to be’.

The second thing Nagel might mean is that to have conscious experiences is to have a form of immediate inner awareness that exists simply in virtue of being the thing one is and that is not dependent upon introspective mechanisms. I’ll call this intrinsic subjectivity. We might say that this stresses the ‘be’ part of ‘what it is like to be’.

These two kinds of subjectivity are very different. Introspective subjectivity is not essentially private. With the right apparatus, another person might monitor the same internal states my introspective mechanisms do and so share my introspective awareness. But intrinsic subjectivity cannot be shared. The only way someone could share what it’s like to be me in the intrinsic sense is to be me, or perhaps a duplicate of me.

Now there doesn’t seem to be any special difficulty in understanding how a creature could possess introspective subjectivity. it would just need to have suitable introspective mechanisms targeting its own internal responses and hooked up in the right way to the rest of its cognitive system. But intrinsic subjectivity looks like a complete mystery. How does this inner awareness arise? What exactly is the subject of it? Which things have it? What does it do? How can we even investigate it? These look like, well, hard problems.

In the literature on consciousness these two kinds of subjectivity aren’t always clearly distinguished. Some theories — most obviously panpsychist ones — are plainly theories of intrinsic subjectivity. If there is something it is like to be a rock, it’s not because the rock is capable of introspection. But other theories look like theories of introspective subjectivity. Higher-order representational theories, for example, attempt to explain consciousness in terms of the internal monitoring of experience. Yet these theories are often discussed as if they were alternative accounts of the same thing.

Nagel’s claim has become the standard starting point for theories of consciousness, but it doesn’t identify a unique explanandum and it has sent researchers off down very different paths. In my view, it is immensely plausible to think that conscious experience involves introspective subjectivity, and developing theories of introspective subjectivity should be a major research programme for cognitive science. But the pursuit of theories of intrinsic subjectivity is, I fear, misguided and futile.

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Is the hard problem an illusion?

An oddly shaped iceberg

Note: This is a revised version of a letter I sent to The Guardian, responding to a letter by Philip Goff, which itself commented on an article on consciousness by Oliver Burkeman. The letter was deemed too long for publication in the paper, so I am posting it here instead. It is written for a general audience.

As a member of the Daniel Dennett camp on the Greenland consciousness cruise referred to in Oliver Burkeman’s article, I should like to respond to Philip Goff’s letter of 28 January 2015. Goff advocates a radical solution to the Hard Problem of explaining how consciousness fits into the natural world. Consciousness, he argues, is not a physical process, but an intrinsic feature of all physical reality. Consciousness is not fundamentally material; rather, matter is fundamentally conscious. A consequence of this view is that everything is conscious to some degree: trees, stones, atoms, quarks — all have a little bit of consciousness. This panpsychist position offers a neat solution to the problem, and Goff argues for it with intelligence and elegance, but I find it hard to take it seriously.

I do agree with Goff on one important point: Consciousness, as we ordinarily conceive of it, cannot be explained by the physical sciences. The Hard Problem, as posed by David Chalmers, can’t be solved by cognitive science. Goff draws the moral that consciousness is not physical in the ordinary sense. I draw the moral that we are conceiving of consciousness wrongly. We are mistaken about what consciousness is.

Our conception of consciousness is derived from introspection — from mentally ‘looking inwards’ at our experiences. When we do this, our experiences seem to have a private ‘phenomenal quality’ to them (think of the sensation of seeing a vibrant green leaf, or smelling coffee grounds, or running one’s fingers over a silk scarf). These phenomenal qualities (or ‘qualia’) seem almost magical and utterly different from the mundane physical properties of our brains.

But maybe that’s an illusion. Maybe when we introspect, what we are aware of are certain patterns of brain activity that seem magical and nonphysical but aren’t really. Moreover, as another cruise participant, Nicholas Humphrey, argued, maybe these brain processes were shaped by evolution precisely to seem magical to introspection. In his 2011 book Soul Dust Humphrey argued that evolution adapted pre-existing neural systems to create an inner ‘magic show’ which carries immense adaptive benefits — enriching our lives and our experience of the world, enhancing our sense of self, and deepening our engagement with each other. In short, maybe evolution has hardwired us to think that we have a magical inner life, and the problem of consciousness is a benign trick that nature has played on us.

Most people, I find, think this suggestion is just as crazy as panpsychism. If there’s one thing we are absolutely certain of (the argument goes) it’s our experience. We may doubt that there is a green patch in front of us, but we can’t doubt that we are having an experience with a green phenomenal quality. This takes us back to the origins of the Hard Problem in Descartes’ sceptical thought experiment mentioned in Oliver Burkeman’s article. There’s something right about this. If we suspect that our senses are misleading us about the external world, then we retreat to more cautious and secure claims about how things seem to us. But (I would argue) such claims should not be construed as infallible reports of the nature of our experiences. Being cautious about the external world doesn’t make us infallible about the interior one. We may be sure that we’re introspecting something, but can we rule out the possibility that we’re mistaken about its nature, just as we may be about the nature of external things? After all, to the spectator a good illusion of something is indistinguishable from the thing itself.

Of course, it’s not so simple to solve the problem of consciousness. For one thing, we need to explain what it means to say that experiences seem to have phenomenal qualities. (It better not mean that they generate further experiences which really do have phenomenal qualities. Otherwise we’d merely have moved the Hard Problem back a step.) But thinking of consciousness as involving an illusion changes the questions we have to answer, and does so, I believe, in a productive way.

On the cruise I proposed the name ‘illusionism’ for the sort of position I have been describing, and the term ‘the Illusion Problem’ for the problem of explaining how the consciousness illusion is created. (I wasn’t claiming to have originated the position or the problem; Daniel Dennett has advocated illusionism for decades, and Nicholas Humphrey has done pioneering work on the Illusion Problem.) For me, the attraction of illusionism is that it allows us to give full weight to the intuitions that motivate views like Goff’s — consciousness really does seem weird — without requiring us to endorse a weird metaphysics. Maybe it’s time to stop banging our heads against an illusory Hard Problem and start trying to solve the hard-ish but solvable Illusion Problem?


The talks from the consciousness cruise, including Jesse Prinz’s introduction to my paper on illusionism, my reply, and the following discussion, were videoed by the Moscow Center for Consciousness Studies and can be viewed on the centre’s Youtube channel. Here is the full playlist.

George Botterill

On 21 August 2014, Maria Kasmirli and I gave a joint paper at the ‘Knowing Minds’ conference in Sheffield, held to mark the retirement of George Botterill from the University of Sheffield after 26 years. It was a pleasure to take part, to see so many old friends again, and most of all to express our gratitude to George, under whom we had both studied during our time at Sheffield. Our paper, which was titled ‘Shall we go upstairs? The ethics of implicated consent’, discussed issues surrounding the giving of consent by indirect means. I have posted the slides from our talk on the presentations page.

Red pill or blue? Qualia or qualia representations?

Hand holding red and blue pills

Assume for the sake of argument that (1) qualia are real and nonphysical, (2) the physical world is closed under causation (and there’s no overdetermination), and (3) apart from qualia, the mind is physical.

Now, you have experiences with qualia. But this isn’t all. You are also aware of having qualia. You can attend to your them, think about them, recall them, and respond to them. And since (given our assumptions) the qualia themselves don’t have any causal effects on you, this suggests that you have representations of your qualia. You represent your experiences as having qualia, and these representations do the causal work. Your awareness of your qualia and your responses to them are mediated by qualia representations. (I assume these are fine-grained analogue representations of some kind. You can detect and respond to changes in your qualia that you can’t conceptualize.) The representations aren’t actually caused by the qualia, of course, any more than the other effects are. They are physical states of your brain and are caused by prior brain events, but things are somehow set up so that they track your qualia perfectly.

Now consider your zombie twin – an exact duplicate of you minus the qualia. Since it is a physical copy of you, this creature will have the same qualia representations you do, and these representations will have the same effects on it as yours do on you. Call this creature a Q-zombie.

Next consider another type of zombie. This one is a physical and phenomenal duplicate of you, except for the qualia representations. It has the same qualia you do, but no representations of them; the brain circuits involved have been fried. Call this creature an R-zombie (for Representational zombie).

The Q-zombie will take itself to have qualia just like yours, and it will display the same qualia-related sensitivities, thoughts, and responses you do. It will have the same reactions to pain and pleasure, the same sensitivity to colours, sounds, and smells, and the same beliefs about the character of its conscious experiences, even though it has no qualia at all.

The R-zombie, on the other hand, will behave – well, like a zombie. The absence of qualia representations will have drastic consequences for its mental life and behaviour. It will not attend to its qualia, or think about them, or respond to them. It will exhibit various ‘blindsighted’ behaviours, reacting unconsciously to external stimuli, but it will show no sign of having conscious experiences and no awareness of pain, pleasure, colour, smell, or any other phenomenal property — even though it does in fact have exactly the same qualia you do.

Now here’s the punchline. Something really unpleasant is going to happen to you – something that will cause a lot of pain (and pain representations). There is an anaesthetic on offer, however. In fact, there are two drugs available: blue pills and red pills. A blue pill will turn you temporarily into a Q-zombie and a red pill will turn you temporarily into an R-zombie.

Which pill would you take? And would you have any trouble deciding?

Image credit: Red Pill or Blue Pill? by Tomaž Štolfa

Keith Frankish and Maria Kasmirli: A Greek perspective on austerity psychology

Graffiti image of person holding 'Hopeless' sign

As a philosopher of cognitive science, I take a strong interest in work in psychology and have many friends working in the field. Living in Greece, I have been sharply aware of the pressures the current crisis is placing on psychologists, both academics and clinicians, and I recently co-authored a short piece on the topic, collaborating with my partner Maria Kasmilri, who is also a philosopher. The article was a contribution to a feature on austerity in The Psychologist magazine, and I republish it here with the kind permission of the editor.

‘I have the feeling that we are in a war period’

Over the past few years no country in Europe has experienced more extreme austerity than Greece. With unsustainably high levels of national debt, the country has been forced to rely on loans from the ‘troika’ of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These lenders required the government to implement austerity measures to reduce the deficit, and the consequent tax rises and spending cuts have sent the economy into a deep recession, now in its sixth year. Unemployment has risen to 27.4 per cent (60 per cent among young people); hundreds of thousands of businesses have closed, and there has been widespread social unrest. This has been a harsh climate for Greek psychologists, both academics and clinicians.1

Psychology has only recently established itself as an independent academic discipline in Greece (the first department was established in 1987), and psychology departments are small and vulnerable. For the last three years, no new staff have been recruited, retiring staff have not been replaced, and even formally appointed staff have not been allowed to assume their posts. Meanwhile the Ministry of Education has admitted more students (undergraduate admissions are centrally controlled), reduced completion times, and increased the number of exam periods (turning universities into ‘mass processing exam centres’ as one academic puts it). With budget cuts, departmental mergers and closures, and competition from the private sector, many academics feel stressed and dispirited. Some talk of the ‘slow death’ of small departments, such as those of psychology, and many younger academics have left to seek posts overseas.

Research has also been hit. University research budgets have been cut and can support only small projects, and outside funding is scarce (there are European Union grants, but competition for them is fierce). Even basic support is lacking; researchers often have to self-fund attendance at conferences, and institutional subscriptions to online academic journals have lapsed. As salaries have been slashed and payments delayed, this raises the prospect that only those with independent means will be able to remain active researchers.

Psychologists working in applied settings (hospitals, clinics, community mental health centres, and educational environments) have faced heavier demands and tougher working conditions. The crisis has brought a huge rise in depression, suicidality, anxiety disorders, drug abuse, domestic violence, social exclusion, and other mental health issues, and the services of medical psychologists are needed more than ever, especially in the public sector, to which patients have increasingly turned. Yet public provision has shrunk. Many institutions have been closed, had funding withdrawn or staff cut. This has created long waiting lists at the remaining institutions and left many vulnerable patients with nowhere to go: one practitioner told us that in many cases child victims of domestic abuse have to be kept in hospital. Meanwhile, fewer staff (from a small base) have increased workloads, while suffering exhaustion and insecurity themselves. ‘Sometimes, I have the feeling that we are in a war period,’ says Corina Hatzinikolaou, a developmental psychologist at the Institute of Child Health in Athens. ‘In many public health structures, psychologists have to act quickly and attend to as many people as they can, not necessarily providing the best service, but attending to the most urgent needs.’ There is a similarly bleak picture in the private sector, where psychologists have seen their practices shrink, while having to treat patients with more serious problems.

Yet, despite the huge stresses they are under, psychologists have responded positively to the situation. Many professionals volunteer their services, working with humanitarian organisations and churches to provide counselling and therapy services to the poor, immigrants, homeless, and addicts; and many self-employed practitioners work with public organisations for reduced fees or none at all. Many young unemployed psychologists are involved in voluntary work – selflessly, since such activities are not considered part of their practice.

Academics have also recognised the importance of addressing the new situation. Sofia Triliva of the University of Crete talks of an ‘ethical imperative’ to study the impact of the economic crisis on people’s lives, and has herself focused on the effects on young people and on the rise of racism, ethnocentrism and fascism, especially in schools. Maria Platsidou of the University of Macedonia notes that positive psychology is now appreciated more than ever, and that there is increased interest in topics such as subjective well-being, resilience and practical ways of helping people cope. More generally, the erosion of social structures has vividly illustrated the social dimension of psychological well-being. As Triliva puts it, ‘The bases of the person’s insecurities and problems are social, economic, and political, so how can s/he confront these problems as a disconnected individual or entity?’

Have there been any positive aspects to the crisis? It is hard to find any, but some of those we talked to pointed to an increase sense of solidarity and social responsibility, and to the challenges of developing new research partnerships and working together for social change. Perhaps we can mention also the opportunities for developing international collaborations. For one thing is certain: anyone interested in the effects of austerity, on individuals, society and the profession of psychology itself, can learn much from their colleagues in Greece.

Note
1. It is not easy to find hard figures on the numbers of businesses that have closed since the crisis started, but it is probably correct to say that it is more than 200,000. (110,000 businesses are reported to have closed in 2011 alone.) For more details, see the following press reports: ‘Shopkeepers shutter shops as crisis bites’, ‘Dramatic drop in budget revenues’, and 40,000 small businesses in Greece face closure despite bank rescue.

Maria Kasmirli and Keith Frankish are philosophers with strong research interests in psychology. Maria is a PhD student in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. Keith is a Senior Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the Open University and an Adjunct Professor with the Brain and Mind Programme at the University of Crete. The authors wish to thank all those who have advised them on this article, mentioning in particular Corina Hatzinikolaou, Irini Kranias, Giannis Kugiumutzakis, Maria Platsidou, Zaira Papaligoura, Lili Roussou and Sofia Triliva.

Image credit: ‘hopeless’ by aesthetics of crisis