Mental Qualities 02/21/13: Phenomenal Concepts

Like I don’t have enough going on over at this year’s Online Consciousness Conference (which is still in session until Friday March 1st) I have been sitting in on David Rosenthal’s class at the Graduate Center on Mental Qualities (previous post here). Today he presented an argument against phenomenal concepts that was very interesting.

The argument began with pointing out that our normal concept of pain is one that we are able to apply to other people. It then proceeds to point out that a phenomenal concept is such that it can only be applied in one’s own case. The challenge then, according to Rosenthal, is to give an account of how it is (or how it is even possible) that these two concepts (one public and the other private) line up. I take this to mean the following. How can we explain how the extension of these concepts come out to be the same (viz pains). So, for instance, when I see you moaning and groaning with a visible injury I am likely to say ‘you are in pain’. When I do so I must be employing the public concept of pain (the other one applies only in my own case).

It is certainly the case that those who like phenomenal concepts allow their referents to come apart. Chalmers, for instance, argues that the public language concept has its reference fixed in a relational way. It will refer to whatever it is that is the typical cause of painful experiences. Whereas the phenomenal concept (the ‘pure’ one to use Chalmers’ terminology) does not have its reference fixed in this relational way, but rather picks out the conscious experience by its intrinsic nature or essence (that it is painful for me). So, if we consider a ‘pain invert’ -someone who experiences pleasure in response to painful stimuli- then their public language concept will pick out the same things that mine does (I am not inverted). This is because the pain-invert learns the word ‘pain’ in the way we all do and she will apply it to stabbings, burnings, etc. However the pain-invert’s phenomenal concept picks out the pleasure as the kind of conscious experience that it is. So when they think “I am having *this* kind of experience” they single out and refer to a pleasurable experience, whereas when I do so I single out and refer to a painful one. So in this kind of case the referents of the two concepts come apart.

So is there a problem about extension here? It is true that when I attribute painful experience to you I think that I am attributing an experience to you which is like the one that I have when I pick out my pain via a phenomenal concept but what could possibly guarantee this? Especially in light if the invert cases. I suggested that at this point those who like phenomenal concepts ought to appeal to the dancing and fading qualia arguments (though in light of Dave’s recent backing off of the dancing qualia argument maybe we should focus on the fading qualia one). Those arguments aim to show that it is highly implausible that you and I are inverts with respect to our conscious experience (even though it is logically possible the argument tries to suggest that it is not nomologically possible). The reason why it is highly implausible is that it would entail that I am radically out of touch with my conscious experience and we have good reason to think this is not the case (for some discussion of this see here). If those arguments work then we can be reasonably confident that your phenomenal pain concept picks out a conscious experience which is like the one that I pick out with my phenomenal pain concept. So when I use the public language concept I am attributing to you a property which is typically caused in a certain way (stabbing, burning, etc) and I can identify this property in my own experience via a phenomenal concept. So I take myself to be attributing to you the same kind of property which is caused in those ways in my experience (and which I single out via a phenomenal concept). My belief that these kinds of properties are similar in the way I think they are is licensed by reflection on dancing and fading qualia.

Ok, now off to the conference!

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