Phenomenal Consciousness and the Logic of "What it's Like"

 

Abstract

Accounts of phenomenal consciousness purport to make sense of statements that involve talk about "what itís like" to have certain sorts of conscious experiences: to see red, to taste a pomegranate, to wake up with a hangover, to scale Mt. Everest, to be in love, maybe even to be a bat. I know what itís like to have several of these experiences, although I might not be able to describe them in a way that would allow others to recognize when theyíre having similar experiences. Others I can only imagine having (more or less accurately). And a few are completely beyond my cognitive ken, even though I can still refer to them. Moreover, what itís like for me to have some of these experiences is presumably very much what itís like for most humans to have them. But thereís a possibility (albeit seemingly bare) of that not being the case - that, for example, what itís like for me to see red differs greatly from what itís like for another (even one physiologically similar to me) to see red, perhaps so much so that instead, it approximates what itís like for them to see green.

To the extent that such statements are dismissed as wholly unintelligible, one simply fails to have a satisfactory theory of phenomenal consciousness. Yet such discourse notoriously resists analysis in purely physiological or functional terms. The "hard problem" of consciousness arises because statements involving the qualitative character of experience-- or "qualia"-- bear no obvious logical connections to descriptions couched in physical terms.

Nevertheless, we shouldnít abandon all hope for an account of phenomenal consciousness. Just as so-called "semantic" accounts of truth aim to make sense of proper applications of the truth predicate, a "semantic" account of phenomenal consciousness would attempt to regiment talk about "what itís like" to have certain experiences. The task of providing a logic for such talk (and cognate expressions) hasnít been seriously pursued, and too quickly dismissed. In this paper, I sketch some of the conditions in which it would be appropriate to make claims about phenomenal consciousness, as well the consequences that follow from those claims. In particular, Iíll argue that the appearance of an explanatory gap arises because talk about "what itís like" performs an important, yet familiar, epistemic function that cannot be played by ordinary physical vocabulary. When we attribute to subjects knowledge of what itís like to have a certain experience, we endorse them as competent enforcers of our observational vocabulary. That is why such talk is so tightly attached to particular subjects. I will then explain how intra- and inter-personal comparisons of the qualitative character of experience serve to inform us about who should be endorsed as competent with our terms. Armed with the "introduction and elimination rules" for expressions involving "what itís like" (and their cognates), I would argue that we have virtually all we want out of an account of phenomenal consciousness.

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Key Words: philosophy; phenomenal consciousness; the function of consciousness; qualia; the explanatory gap; the knowledge argument; the hard problem; intentionality; language