Sunday, October 14, 2018

A simple reductive theory of consciousness

I think it is possible for one mind to have multiple spheres of consciousness. One kind of case is diachronic: there need be no unity of consciousness between my awareness at t1 and my awareness at t2. Split brain patients provide synchronic example. (I suppose in both cases one can question whether there is really only one mind, but I’ll assume so.)

What if, then, it turned out that we do not actually have any unconscious mental states? Perhaps what I call “unconscious mental states” are actually conscious states that exist in a sphere of consciousness other than the one connected to my linguistic productions. Maybe it is the sphere of consciousness connected to my linguistic productions that I identify as the “conscious I”, but both spheres are equally mine.

An advantage of such a view would be that we could then accept the following simple reductive account of consciousness:

  • A conscious state just is a mental state.

Of course, this is only a partial reduction: the conscious is reduced to the mental. I am happy with that, as I doubt that the mental can be reduced to the non-mental. But it would be really cool if the mystery of the conscious could be reduced.

However, the above story still doesn’t fully solve the problem of consciousness. For it replaces the puzzle as to what makes some of my mental states conscious and others unconscious with the puzzle of what makes a plurality of mental states co-conscious, i.e., a part of the same sphere of consciousness. Perhaps this problem is more tractable than the problem of what makes a state conscious was, though?


scott said...

"However, the above story still doesn’t fully solve the problem of consciousness. For it replaces the puzzle as to what makes some of my mental states conscious and others unconscious with the puzzle of what makes a plurality of mental states co-conscious, i.e., a part of the same sphere of consciousness. Perhaps this problem is more tractable than the problem of what makes a state conscious was, though?"

I think you can make a more ambitious claim than this.

We started with two problems. There was the problem of consciousness and the problem of co-consciousness. Your solution to the former doesn't solve the latter. But, nevertheless, we started with two problems and now just have one. That is an improvement.

Is that right? Or is the problem of co-consciousness not something that arises unless one accepts your account of consciousness?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think you're right that the problem of co-consciousness was already there before. So, yes, this is an improvement.

Brian Cutter said...

Here's a worry I have (though I think ultimately this is just a worry for the idea that a single mind can have multiple spheres of consciousness at the same time). I think there's a strong intuition of epistemic asymmetry between *perceptual* negative judgments (e.g., that there's not an elephant right in front of me) and *introspective* negative judgments about consciousness (e.g., that I'm not currently in excruciating pain). Namely, the latter are intuitively skepticism-proof in a way that the former aren't. When I consider the skeptical hypothesis that there really is an elephant in front of me, I can get into the "grip" of this hypothesis; I can convince myself that, sure, I can't conclusively rule out this possibility (maybe a wizard is preventing the photons from the elephant from reaching my eyes, or whatever). But when I consider the skeptical hypothesis that I'm actually in excruciating pain right now, I find this hypothesis doesn't get any grip. That seems to be something I can rule out with certainty (at least when I am feeling *nothing like* excruciating pain; maybe things are different when I have a pain that's just shy of the borderline for excruciating---I'm not making a luminosity claim for negative phenomenal properties). But, it looks like if your proposal is correct, then it would be possible for me to believe I'm not feeling the slightest pain, while in fact experiencing excruciating pain.

Maybe the intuition of epistemic asymmetry is wrong. Sometimes I think split-brain cases will force us to deny it at the end of the day. That would be surprising though. The intuition is hard to shake (for me anyway).

Alexander R Pruss said...


I suspect that my judgments generally lag behind their grounds. I would expect this to be true for perceptual judgments as well. If so, then my judgment that I am not in excruciating pain lags behind the absence of excruciating pain that grounds the judgments. But if so, then it is possible that while I was still judging that I am not in excruciating pain, the pain had just begun. My *next* judgment will be that I am in excruciating pain (but it lags, too, so it could be that the pain stops before the judgment is complete).

Here's another way to put the point. We would be epistemically safer if instead of judging that we are having (or not) a perception we judged that we just had (or did not have) one. But judgments about the past are not scepticism-proof. So, the safer judgment isn't scepticism-proof. But then a fortiori the less safe one isn't either.

Maybe the causation from the experience or its lack to the judgment is simultaneous. But causation can be thwarted. So, even so, I don't see this as scepticism-proof.

The only way I could see to make it scepticism-proof is if the judgment were partly constituted by the experience or its lack. But that seems implausible.

All this is post-theoretical. I agree that pre-theoretically I have the intuition you do.

Brian Cutter said...

The idea that (some) introspective judgments about consciousnesss are partly constituted by the experiences they are about doesn't seem all that implausible to me, at least on initial reflection. This is actually a pretty standard view, both for dualists (e.g., Chalmers, Gertler) and materialists (e.g., Papineau, Balog, many others---esp. those who endorse the "phenomenal concept strategy"). I agree it's less plausible for negative phenomenal judgments. It at least sounds bizarre to say that the absence of pain partly constitutes my judgment that I'm not in pain.

Maybe this makes for an argument against the constitution view even for positive phenomenal judgments, something like: The main motivation for the constitution view is to explain how phenomenal judgments could be skepticism-proof. But the skepticism-proof intuition holds equally for negative phenomenal judgments, where the constitution view is implausible. So, either we should give up the skepticism-proof intuitions, or find another explanation.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I would think that those who embrace the phenomenal concept strategy might say that the possession of the *concept* may be partly constituted by a past experience, but a judgment deploying the concept need not be constituted by a present experience.

But perhaps *phenomenal* judgments are different from ordinary judgments deploying phenomenal concepts. I was thinking about cases like when the neuroscientist misinforms you that they've discovered that you've got a weird condition where you don't feel an intense pain that you in fact have, and you believe their testimony. But I guess you could say that's not a *phenomenal* judgment. However I don't see how to distinguish the phenomenal judgment from the non-phenomenal one in a way that doesn't make infallibility trivial (say, a phenomenal judgment is caused by the phenomenal state).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Here's some introspective evidence. I do not feel any difference of kind between my judgment that I am now feeling pressure on my wrists (from resting them on the laptop) and my judgment that I felt such pressure a minute ago.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Some more introspective evidence. If the doctor were to ask me if I am currently feeling any pain anywhere, I would engage in some sort of a quick mental scan of my phenomenal life---any pain in my feet? no. any pain in my knees? no. etc. This scan takes time. It could be that by the time the scan finishes, my feet start hurting, but I still judge that I am in no sort of pain.

Perhaps, though, the negative judgments are specific to a type of pain. "Do I feel a pain in my feet?" But I think I would still have to *check*. And if I have to check, it seems I could miss it.

Maybe, though, excruciating pain can't be missed. I worry, though, that that's a trivial truth.