A bit of philosophy of mind: do these quotes on consciousness make sense to you?

Whenever I open a thread for people to tell me what to write about, it seems someone always brings up consciousness. In fact, that was the very first comment on yesterday’s open thread.

I always hesitate here, because in discussions on consciousness, there seems to be an awful lot of people talking past each other, even more so than on other philosophical issues. Often, it seems, people can’t even agree on what they mean by “consciousness.”

I’ve sometimes thought of telling people that if they want a sense of how I think about consciousness, they should read David Chalmers (whose views I’m very sympathetic to) and Ned Block (who has somewhat different views, but who still tends to make a lot of sense to me).

If you read Chalmers and Block and they make sense to you (my thinking goes), you’ll have a sense of where I am on consciousness, but if their writings look like gobbledygook to you then I don’t know how to talk to you about consciousness.

But it occurs to me that I could save people some work by pulling out some relevant quotes from Chalmers and Block and maybe some other people, and get a feel for my readership by asking people if the quotes “click” or not.

I’ll start with Chalmers, who’s famous for coining the phrase “the hard problem of consciousness,” which he distinguishes from various (relatively) easy problems. The (relatively) easy problems are ones that look like they should be solvable with a straightforward empirical investigation, even if it takes a century or two.

On the other hand, Chalmers describes the “hard problem” as follows:

The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Nagel (1974) has put it, there is something it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.

It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

If any problem qualifies as the problem of consciousness, it is this one. In this central sense of “consciousness”, an organism is conscious if there is something it is like to be that organism, and a mental state is conscious if there is something it is like to be in that state. Sometimes terms such as “phenomenal consciousness” and “qualia” are also used here, but I find it more natural to speak of “conscious experience” or simply “experience”. Another useful way to avoid confusion (used by e.g. Newell 1990, Chalmers 1996) is to reserve the term “consciousness” for the phenomena of experience, using the less loaded term “awareness” for the more straightforward phenomena described earlier. If such a convention were widely adopted, communication would be much easier; as things stand, those who talk about “consciousness” are frequently talking past each other.

Chalmers ends up with a view he calls “property dualism.” Ned Block, on the other hand, is a physicalist, but shares Charlmers’ sense that there’s something very puzzling about consciousness.

Looking just now, I’m having a bit of trouble finding a juicy quote to pull out from Block, but I can approvingly quote him on one thing. In his essay, “Troubles with Functionalism,” after describing what he claims is a counterexample to functionalist theories of mind, he says:

What makes the homunculi-headed system (count the two systems as variants of a single system) just described a prima facie counterexample to (machine) functionalism is that there is prima facie doubt whether it has any mental states at all-especially whether it has what philosophers have variously called “qualitative states,” “raw feels,” or “immediate phenomenological qualities.” (You ask: What is it that philosophers have called qualitative states? I answer, only half in jest: As Louis Armstrong said when asked what jazz is, “If you got to ask, you ain’t never gonna get to know.”) In Nagel’s terms (1974), there is a prima facie doubt whether there is anything which it is like to be the homunculi-headed system.

That’s a nice expression of the kind of difficulties that sometimes occur when talking about these issues. Daniel Dennett, for example, has an essay titled “Quining Qualia,” “qualia” being another term for things like Chalmers’ “the quality of deep blue,” what Block calls “qualitative states” etc. As for “quining,” Dennett says:

The verb “to quine” is even more esoteric. It comes from The Philosophical Lexicon (Dennett 1978c, 8th edn., 1987), a satirical dictionary of eponyms: “quine, v. To deny resolutely the existence or importance of something real or significant.” At first blush it would be hard to imagine a more quixotic quest than trying to convince people that there are no such properties as qualia; hence the ironic title of this chapter. But I am not kidding.

My goal is subversive. I am out to overthrow an idea that, in one form or another, is “obvious” to most people–to scientists, philosophers, lay people. My quarry is frustratingly elusive; no sooner does it retreat in the face of one argument than “it” reappears, apparently innocent of all charges, in a new guise.

To people like Chalmers, Block, and myself, Dennett’s statements do indeed seem extremely odd, to the point that there’s been some joking to the effect maybe Dennett doesn’t have subjective mental states!

In one place, though, Dennett has given me the impression that he understands what Chalmers et al. are talking about. In an interview with Susan Blackmore in her book Conversations on Consciousness, he says:

The zombie hunch is the idea that there could be a being that behaved exactly the way you or I behave, in every regard—it could cry at sad movies, be thrilled by joyous sunsets, enjoy ice cream and the whole thing, and yet not be conscious at all. It would just be a zombie.

Now I think that many people are sure that hunch is right, and they don’t know why they’re sure. If you show them that the arguments for taking zombies seriously are all flawed, this doesn’t stop them from clinging to the hunch. They’re afraid to let go of it, for fear they’re leaving something deeply important out. And so we get a bifurcation of theorists into those who take the zombie hunch seriously, and those who, like myself, have sort of overcome it. I can feel it, but I just don’t have it any more.


Oh, it doesn’t just tempt me. I deliberately go out of my way, every now and then, to give myself a good instance of the zombie hunch. I talk to myself, ‘Come on Dan, think about it this way. Now can you feel it?’ Oh, I can feel it all right. It reminds me of how you can look out on a clear night and, if you think about it right, and look at the sky and sort of tip your head just so, you can actually feel the earth in its orbit around the sun. You can see what your position is, how the earth is turning, how it’s also in orbit, and it all sort of falls into place. You think ‘Oh, isn’t that quaint?’

This is a lovely perspective shift, but it takes knowledge and some very specific direction of attention to get into that frame of mind. Well, I think for people who have the zombie hunch and don’t know how to abandon it, they have to learn to do something like that too. But they just haven’t tried, and they don’t want to.

So maybe Dennett does understand what Chalmers et al. are talking about… or does he?

Dennett talks about “the zombie hunch” as a standard philosophical intuition, like thinking in some thought experiment that Smith doesn’t know, or that it would be wrong to throw a certain switch. But it seems to me that our awareness of our own subjective experience is very different from intuitions in that sense, and I suspect most people with my general perspective would say the same. So I’m genuinely puzzled as to what exactly is going on inside Dennett’s head here.

Now it’s your turn: who’s making sense here? Who’s talking nonsense?

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