Robert Alan and Kathryn Dunlevie Hayes Professor of Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at Rice University

What is phenomenal consciousness?

[Numbers in brackets are linked to entries in "Publications."]

‘Consciousness’ is a slippery term. We need to interpret it in a way that gives us a firm grasp of the controversies it occasions while minimizing initial theoretical commitments. We should, in particular, avoid stacking the deck in favor of disputable theories by introducing the topic in ways that from the start narrowly restrict phenomenal consciousness to “sensory qualia” or “felt qualities,” or immediately make the mind’s self-representation essential to, or constitutive of consciousness.

I propose three ways into the topic of consciousness (or “phenomenality”)—three complementary, convergent conceptions of it—by refining some intuitively appealing starting points. I explain and bring together these three aspects of my conception of consciousness in [2] .

"Subjective experience" This involves the idea that what is primarily phenomenally conscious are experiences—not in a sense in which an experience is merely something you are affected by—but a sense in which an experience coincides with your experiencing it. This is illustrated by the “internal accusative” sense in which you “feel a feeling.” But it isn't assumed that all experiences are "felt" or that whenever we use the word "feeling" in connection with consciousness we speak of something purely sensory (consider: "feeling doubtul," "feeling sure"). And this does not automatically rule out the idea that when a thought occurs to you that is also something you experience in this sense.

"Subjective contrast” This aims to make phenomenality conspicuous by its absence. It contrasts, from a first-person point of view, certain sensory examples of consciousness with actual and hypothetical cases where these are absent (as in “blindsight”), even though spontaneous discriminatory capacities remain.The sense in which visual stimuli would not look any way to such blindsighters is a phenomenal, visual sense of 'look'--and something's looking some way to you (as it would not to them) is a phenomenally conscious state.

Subjective knowledge This is based on an interpretation of the idea that conscious states are states there is “something it’s like for one to be in.” The key proposal is that conscious states are instances of “phenomenal features”—where these are features essentially suited for one to claim or desire a subjective, non-theoretical knowledge regarding what features they are, which is not entirely derived from such knowledge of other features.

In  [1] (Chapters 3-4) I develop the second, “subjective contrast” conception at length (on the basis of my critique of Dennett in  [7] and work in my doctoral dissertation), through a discussion of hypothetical cases of “blindsight.” I later elaborate on this in [8] , where I use it to reformulate some of the anti-reductionist and anti-eliminativist arguments I first made in  [1] (Chapters 5-6). (For my responses to physicalism and eliminativism, also see  [14] and [15] .) In Chapter 6 of  [1], I criticize the idea that phenomenality essentially involves (and is to be explained in terms of) the mind’s self-representation—e.g. “higher-order thought” or “higher-order perception”—criticisms that I reformulate, extend and revise in  [8] , [9] , [16] , [17] ], [18] , and [28] .

The third, subjective knowledge ("what it's like") conception I also explain in some detail in  [6] (and then, more briefly in [9] ).

© 2020 Charles Siewert. All Rights Reserved.