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!

Mental Qualities 02/07/13: Cognitive Phenomenology

As I mentioned earlier I am sitting in on David Rosenthal’s Mental Qualities class and I wanted to jot a few things down in the wake of the class while they are fresh in my mind.

What is this class about? The title is ‘mental qualities’ but what are those? Rosenthal has been suggesting that the mental qualities are those properties of mental states that are produced by the senses. So this would include visual qualities, auditory qualities, tactile qualities, etc but also bodily sensations like pain, itches, and tickles. On this way of doing things it will be the case that there is no cognitive phenomenology.

Before we begin a little in the way of full disclosure. Those who know me, or have looked around this blog long enough, might know that I personally do think that there is cognitive phenomenology (see here). In fact I am tempted to think that what makes a mental state mental is that it has some qualitative property, and that there is thereby something that it is like for me to be in that state when it is conscious (note that is perfectly compatible with the claim that the quality can occur unconsciously and that there is nothing that it is like when it does), but leave that aside. It is controversial whether there are mental qualities associated with thoughts. Indeed, we would only need posit them if there were cognitive phenomenology and we thought there must then be some corresponding mental quality in virtue of which there was phenomenology when the quality was conscious. But why think that there is cognitive phenomenology in the first place? Can we even make sense of what it would mean for the to be cognitive phenomenology? Rosenthal doesn’t think so.

His central challenge seems to be that there is no well defined thesis worth defending in the area. We seem to have a handle on what it means to say that there is sensory phenomenology, but what do we mean when we say that there is cognitive phenomenology? If we are tempted to say, as I would be, that we mean that there is something that it is like for one to have cognitive experiences then David will reply that this phrase is useless. It is used in many different ways by many different people. So we can ask again ‘what does it means to say that there is something that it is like to think a conscious thought?’

One thing we might mean is just that thoughts can occur consciously. But if that is all that we mean, Rosenthal says, then it is not interesting. Everyone knows that thoughts can occur consciously. So we must mean more than that thoughts occur consciously. But what else do we mean? Well, that there is something that it is like to have the thought. But why think that? One line of argument is that we can find cases where the sensory qualitative properties are held constant and we vary the intentional content we get a difference in phenomenology (this line of argument was pushed by Zoe Jenkin). He admits that this can happen (and that it is common) but denies that it supports the existence of cognitive phenomenology.

So, suppose that I am looking at my dog Frankie and that I clearly see her. I thereby have a conscious visual experience as of certain shapes and colors, etc. But I also perceive that she is a dog. Rosenthal conceded that the phenomenology in this case is distinct from that of a similar experience with different intentional content. So if in one case the intentional content is ‘that there is a dog’ (or whatever) and in the other it was ‘that there is an animal of some kind’ then we would have a difference in phenomenology. But this does not show us that there is cognitive phenomenology. Phenomenologically the two properties (that is the qualitative and intentional properties) seem to be intertwined, or co-mingled, in some intimate way. In fact they are so co-mingled that one might think that it is a mistake to talk about qualitative properties without talking about intentional properties and vice versa. Since this is true in the case of perception we may be tempted to think that this is also true in the case of thoughts. This would be one way to give content to the claim that there is cognitive phenomenology. But it does not by itself give us a reason to think that the two properties are the same.

He then suggested that we have some reason to think that the two properties, though intimately intertwined, are distinct properties. He argued that since we theorize about these properties in very different ways we have prima facie reason to think that the two things are different properties. So, he concludes, treating them as the same kind of property doesn’t buy us anything theoretically.

There is a lot more to be said about all of these issues, but I’ll save that for another day.

Spring Ahead

The Spring semester is up and running here in nyc! I have been ultra busy and it looks like there is no end in sight…it is getting harder and harder to find time to write substantial posts (frivolous ones too) but I hope that I will be able to do a bit more this Spring. In the meantime here is a round up of what has been going on in the new year.

Besides preparing to teach my super cool class on Cosmology, Consciousness, and Computation for the first time I have been doing a lot of writing and have finished a few papers (it turns out when you don’t teach during the break you can get a lot done!). One is The Two-Dimensional Argument Against Dualism, which is a product of my presentation at Tucson 2012 and the discussions it prompted. As a result of all of this I have come to understand some of the key issues a lot better and I think this is the clearest statement of the issues yet. Any feedback on this is highly appreciated! Another is David Chalmers on Mind and Consciousness which is forthcoming in Philosophy of Mind: The Key Thinkers edited by Andrew Bailey. The goal? Explain Chalmers’ views on mind and consciousness to someone who was unfamiliar with them in 6,000 words or less. I’ll let posterity judge to what extent I succeeded. (btw completing the Chalmers 2013 trifecta is my review of Constructing the World for The Philosopher’s Magazine which should be coming out later in February…1,700 words to review a book that is nearly 500 pages of highly technical philosophy? No Problem…it’s a bit like a word puzzle! Incidentally, I may be the only person on the planet who has now read both The Character of Consciousness and Constructing the World back to back and cover to cover!)

I am also planning on being at the Grad Center more this semester. I am going to be be sitting in on David Rosenthal’s class on Mental Qualities. Believe it or not I have never taken this course and so I am excited for it. I am hoping to do some posts on some of the readings and discussions (for instance I was re-reading Nagel’s paper on Panpsychism which seems to anticipate a lot of the themes of recent discussions). In addition the CUNY Cognitive Science Speaker Series looks fantastic and I am hoping to be able to attend more regularly.

And of course coming up shortly is the Fifth Online Consciousness Conference! I can’t believe that it has been 5 years already! The program is nearly finalized (still looking for commenters if you know anyone who is interested). I would really like to thank David Chalmers, Susanna Siegel, Adam Pautz, and John Schwenkler for helping me put together such an awesome program!

Also coming up quickly are a couple of meat space conferences. Sadly I am not able to make it out to the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology but Pete Mandik will be there presenting our joint paper On Whether the Higher-Order Thought Theory of Consciousness Entails Cognitive Phenomenology Or What is it like to think that One thinks that P? (with comments by David Pitt). I am sad to miss this conference since it looks like it will be the best one ever but even I have limits 🙂

But I will going out to the apa in San Francisco to present my solo version of the above paper The Phenomenology of HOT Or What is it Like to Think that one Thinks That P?. It’s a funny story because I wrote that and submitted it to the apa before Pete and I teamed up for the co-written one above. Jake Berger is going to comment on this version of the paper and so it should be a very interesting session! Afterwards Pete and I will revise the paper which is slated for a special issue of Philosophical Topics so any feedback would be greatly appreciated as well.

Finally my edited book Consciousness Inside and Out: Phenomenology, Neuroscience, and the Nature of Experience is due to be published in March 2013 and is already listed on! After two years of hard work I am very excited to see this finally coming out! It includes rewritten papers, new commentaries, and new responses, from the participants of the Third Online Consciousness Conference held in february 2011.

Looking ahead past the spring my proposed Symposium was accepted by the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness meeting in San Diego. The symposium is titled ‘The Role of Prefrontal Cortex in Conscious Experience” and will feature talks by Rafi Malach, Joe Levine, Doby Rahnev and me. Very exciting!

Shesh, just writing that out is exhausting!