Sensory Qualities, the Meta-Problem of Consciousness, and the Relocation Story

I have been so swamped lately with teaching, research and Consciousness Live! that I haven’t been able to do much else, but I have had a couple of blog posts kicking around in my head that I wanted to get to. I’ll try to jot them down when I get the chance.

Chalmers’ Meta-Problem of Consciousness is at this point well known. The central issue there is: why do we think there is a Hard Problem of Consciousness? Chalmers’ takes the main physicalist response to be some kind of Illusionism. The source of the ‘problem judgements’ (i.e. about Mary and zombies, and inverts, etc) is some kind introspective illusion. Consciousness seems introspectively to have certain properties that it does not in fact have. When I first read Dave’s paper I suggested an alternative account in terms of our (tacitly) having a bad theory of what phenomenal consciousness is. An account like this can be seen in the work of David Rosenthal (which is why I was surprised his commentary on Chalmers’ paper did not bring up these issues directly).

The account basically proceeds as follows. We begin with the common sense fact that experience seems to present objects in the environment as having properties like color. These properties seem to peskily resist mathematization and so in the modern period they are moved into the head. However, they are moved into the head as we consciously experience them. Thus we arrive at the idea that we have this simple phenomenal property because that is how the physical object seemed to be when we consciously experienced seeing it. But now when we come to theorize about this simple property we find that there is not much to say. It seems simple, or primitive, because we are thinking of it as we first encountered it in experience. We thus arrive at a view where consciousness is itself ‘built into’ the mental qualities and that the only way to know about these mental qualities is via introspecting our first-personal experience.

This re-location-story-based explanation of the problem judgements (as involving a bad theoretical conception of what consciousness is) seems to me different from the one involving introspective error. If we don’t see phenomenal consciousness as some primitive property built into every mental quality, then we can try to construct independent theories of each. On the one hand we construct a theory of the mental qualities (independently of whether they are conscious) and on the other hand we can construct a theory of phenomenal consciousness.

Since we have separated phenomenal consciousness from mental quality we can see that phenomenal consciousness just is an awareness of mental qualities. That in turn suggests that we look for an account of that kind of awareness. Perhaps it is a cognitive kind of higher-order awareness, or some kind of deflationary first-order awareness, or maybe even some kind of first-order acquaintance.

When I floated this idea to Dave his response was that we would encounter the very same problem once we tried to explain our awareness of mental qualities and so this isn’t really a solution to the meta-problem. After all, the whole thing started because of phenomenal consciousness! There is a sense in which I agree with this but also a sense in which I don’t. I don’t agree with it because the problem seems different now. If we really can separate mental qualities from phenomenal consciousness and give independent accounts of each then we can construct theories and evaluate them. Are inverts possible according to the theory? What about zombies? Suppose it turns out that we could construct a plausible theory on which they weren’t?

True, some would find these theories implausible but now we can ask: is the reason they find it implausible because of an implicit acceptance of an alternative theory of what phenomenal consciousness is? So, instead of a theory of consciousness having to explain why people find consciousness puzzling, I see the right strategy as one where we explain why people find consciousness puzzling by attributing to them a (possibly implicitly-held) bad theory of consciousness.

We solve the meta-problem the same way we solve the ‘regular’ Hard Problem on this view, which is by getting people to think of consciousness differently (not in the sense of thinking of it as an illusion but in the sense of coming to hold a different theory about what it is).

I am not sure I 100% agree with this response to the Meta-Problem but it is one that I haven’t seen explicitly explored and I think it deserves one attention!

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