Containing Phenomenological Overflow

I am going to the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness meeting in Toronto to do a poster presentation of the higher-order response to Block’s phenomenological overflow argument. This is important since it is a crucial step in the argument for the naturalization of qualia. The core argument is in this video.

This shows that phenomenological overflow is no threat to the higher-order theory. Is there any reasn to prefer it?  I was rereading Huxley’s On the Hypothesis that Animals are Automata, and Its History and I came across this very interesting passage,

If the spinal cord is divided in the middle of the back, for example, the skin of the feet may be cut, or pinched, or burned, or wetted with vitrol, without any sensation of touch, or of pain, arising in consciousness. So far as the man is concerned, therefore, the part of the central nervous system which lies beyond the injury is cut off from consciousness. It must be admitted, that, if any one think fit to maintain that the spinal cord below the injury is conscious, but that it is cut off from any means of making its consciousness known to the other consciousness in the brain, there is no means of driving him from his position by logic. But assuredly there is no way of proving it, and in the matter of consciousness, if anything, we may hold the rule, “De non apparentibus et de non existentibus eadem est ratio.”

As far as I can tell the latin phrase there means something like “things that can’t be detected don’t exist,” though my latin is rusty. If this is roughly right then Huxley seems to be making an argument similar to the one I was pushing at the Online Consciousness Conference. If the mesh argument doesn’t decide between a Blockian or a Rosenthalian view then we should decide the issue on philosophical grounds. One way of reading the Huxley passage is as a semi-verificationalist move. Since there can be no empirical test of the matter we may treat it as a meaningless hypothesis. I would read this passage differently.

A state is phenomenologically consciousness when there is something that it is like for the creature that has the state. When there is nothing that it is like for the creature then there is no phenomenal consciousness. Thus when there is no what it is likeness around we can assume that there is no phenomenal consciousness hanging about. To imagine otherwise is to imagine that there is something that it is like for me that is not like anything for me…and that sounds like a contradiction.

Importantly, none of this is to deny that unconscious pains have qualitative properties. These qualitative characters, when unconscious, do not have any phenomenal feel but they do resemble and differ other qualitative characters in the right ways and they have causal connections as usual. It is only when we are conscious of them that they have the phenomenology we associate with pain. True, this seems to violate our common sense thinking about pains, though there are some platitudes that cit the other way which just again illustrates that folk theory is often inconsistent.

As Aristotle recommended we must try to save as many of the most basic pre-theoretical platitudes as we can but it may be the case that some will have to go; perhaps the common sense idea that there are unconscious pains that are phenomenally conscious is one of them. The claim turns out to be either paradoxical or merely terminological.


One thought on “Containing Phenomenological Overflow

  1. […] As I also said, I think that a crucial step in securing this premise in the argument is showing that there can be unconscious states with qualitative character which are not like anything for the creature that has them. If we established that then we would have evidence that it is solely applying concepts that constitutes phenomenal consciousness. There is another line of argument which might show this as well which is given by David Rosenthal in a few different places (see page 155 in Consciousness and Mind for a representative example). Basically it is a subtraction argument. Take some phenomenally conscious experience, like listening to music. We already agree that applying new concepts will change the character of the experience. So, if I were to learn what a bass clarinet was then listening to Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon will sound differently to me. Now suppose that we subtract this concept. My experience will change. More specifically it will lack the bass clarinetiness that my experience had when I applied that concept. Now we can continue subtracting out concepts one by one without altering the first-order state in any way. Since subtracting the concept produces a phenomenal experience that lacks precisely the element corresponding to the concept we can conclude that subtracting these concepts will produce phenomenal consciousness that is sparser and sparser. What are we to say when we have reached teh point where there is just one concept characteriing the first-order state? Suppose that we are at the point where we are only applying the concept SOUND to the experience. Phenomenally it will be like hearing a sound for me but not any particular sounds. Now suppose we subtract that concept. What will it be like for the creature? […]

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