Knowing What Itís Like: Toward a Normative Account of Phenomenal Consciousness

Dave Beisecker, philosophy, UNLV


To be recognizable as such, an account of phenomenal consciousness must explain in suitably perspicuous terms just what Mary, bats, and possibly robot zombies purportedly lack. I would contend that it is no accident that the seminal discussions of phenomenal consciousness are couched in epistemic terms Ė that, for example, Mary is said to lack knowledge of what it is like to see red, or that we are unable to know what it is like to be a bat. After all, classical empiricism taught us that the notion of experience is intimately bound up in our claims to have empirical knowledge. As such, it is a thoroughly normative, or evaluative, notion. Maintaining that the puzzles of phenomenal consciousness will all be solved by a proper understanding of intentionality, representational theories focus, as it were, upon the belief component of knowing what itís like, say, to see red. While such theories offer much hope explaining the subjectivity of phenomenal consciousness, absent qualia considerations challenge the thesis that having phenomenal consciousness is simply to be in some special sort of representational state. Knowledge has a justification component too, and this, I would argue, is the evaluative dimension where Mary, bats, and zombies come up short. In particular, I argue that such beings lack a normative status, which manifests itself in our justifiable reluctance to grant them responsibility enforcing the norms governing our observational vocabulary. Simply put, we would be irresponsible linguistic beings were we to allow these unexperienced subjects to correct others in their use of certain observational terms, until they have demonstrated the capacity to use these terms as reliably as competent speakers do. So while Mary might suspect that she is being appeared to redly, she would nevertheless not know what itís like to have such an experience, for she lacks a suitable history (dare I say experience!) with non-inferential applications of that observational term to justify that belief. Much the same would be said for subjects whose perceptual apparatus differs significantly from our own, but unlike Mary they might not even be potentially capable of such knowledge.

Since such justification is content-specific, we can readily accommodate the representationalistís intuition that one cannot talk about the qualitative character of experience without appealing to its intentional content. We can also explain the perspectival aspect of phenomenal consciousness (the fact that one cannot know what itís like to see red unless one has already seen it). Furthermore, we can explain the presence of the so-called "explanatory gap," for it is notoriously difficult (albeit not impossible) to fund normative consequences from descriptions of non-normative states of affairs. Folk like Jackson are correct to contend that one cannot discern phenomenal consciousness just by examining the causal transactions inside the heads of subjects. But rather than supporting any anti-materialistic thesis, this simply illustrates the fact that having an experience with a certain qualitative character depends in part upon a subjectís history and wider linguistic surroundings.

Despite these attractions, this normative account of qualitative experience will surely strike many as wildly implausible. To the criticism that it unintuitively restricts the capacity for full-blooded phenomenal consciousness to linguistic beings, I reply that insofar as non-linguistic beings can be trained to respond differentially to certain features of their surroundings (including, famously, some features that we cannot detect with our own sensory apparatus), they can, in at least an attenuated sense, be said to know what itís like to experience those features. Most controversial is the idea that qualia "ainít in the head." Here I show that the thought experiments purporting to show phenomenal consciousness must locally supervene upon a subjectís brain states fail. Finally, I show how phenomenal consciousness, as I have characterized it, really does make a difference to the behavior of those who possess it, at least upon those who appropriately acknowledge the norms governing their linguistic practices.