Cognitive Phenomenology: What is the Issue?

First off, thanks to John Schwenkler for inviting me to write a few posts about my new book, Cognitive Phenomenology, and also for inviting other authors to write about their new books. I’ve really enjoyed following this series on the Brains Blog.

In this post I will isolate what I take to be the main thesis in dispute when people talk about cognitive phenomenology.

Consider the following two scenarios:

[Seeing] You are looking for your dogs in the dog park. At first you cannot pick them out of the mass of other dogs. But then you see them there chasing a tennis ball.

[Intuiting] In a book you read, “If a < 1, then 2 – 2a > 0,” and you wonder whether this is true. Then you “see” how a’s being less than 1 makes 2a smaller than 2 and so 2 – 2a greater than 0.

In the first scenario there is a change in sensory state. In the second scenario there is a change in cognitive state. In both there is a change in phenomenal state. There is something it is like before seeing or intuiting. There is something it is like at the moment of seeing or intuiting. And what it is like before being in these mental states is different from what it is like while being in these mental states.

The main question in the recent literature on cognitive phenomenology is roughly this: is the change in phenomenal state exhibited in the first case different in kind from the change in phenomenal state exhibited in the second case? Proponents of cognitive phenomenology say yes. They believe in cognitive phenomenal states. Opponents say no. According to them, all phenomenal states are sensory states.

In the [Intuiting] scenario there is a change in cognitive state and there is a change in phenomenal state. Plausibly the change in phenomenal state is somehow due to the change in cognitive state. But this does not show that proponents of cognitive phenomenology are right and opponents of cognitive phenomenology are wrong. Proponents of cognitive phenomenology are committed to a specific thesis that should be distinguished from other nearby theses.

The specific thesis that proponents of cognitive phenomenology endorse implies that some cognitive states make phenomenal differences that are irreducible to those made by sensory states. There are new phenomenal states in addition to wholly sensory phenomenal states. I like to put it this way:

Irreducibility: Some cognitive states put one in phenomenal states for which no wholly sensory states suffice.

I am using “put one on” to express a non-causal in-virtue-of or grounding relation. So Irreducibility can be put more cumbersomely like this: some cognitive states are such that because one is in them one is in a phenomenal state for which no wholly sensory state suffices.

In saying that a phenomenal state is one for which no wholly sensory state suffices I mean that no wholly sensory state necessitates that one is in that phenomenal state. And it follows that no wholly sensory state puts one in that phenomenal state—in the non-causal sense just highlighted. This is compatible with a sensory state causing one to be in that phenomenal state on some occasion.

So suppose you intuit that if a < 1, then 2 – 2a > 0. In doing so you might say to yourself, “If a < 1, then 2 – 2a > 0,” or you might visualize the variable “a” or the numeral “1,” or might experience kinesthetic sensations as you think of the quantity assigned to “2a” shrinking. These are all sensory phenomenal states. If you believe Irreducibility and you think this case of intuiting is an example of irreducible cognitive phenomenology, then you believe that even taken all together these sensory phenomenal states fail to make the very same phenomenal difference intuiting that if a < 1, then 2 – 2a > 0 makes to your overall experience. There is some phenomenal state left over which only the cognitive state of intuiting that if a < 1, then 2 – 2a > 0—or maybe a cognitive state very similar to this one—can put you in. This is what it is to believe in cognitive phenomenal states.

Consider a thesis that falls short of Irreducibility. This is the thesis that some cognitive states make phenomenal differences. Unlike Irreducibility this thesis does not add that the phenomenal differences are irreducible to those made by sensory states. Let us adopt the following formulation of this weaker thesis:

Phenomenal Presence: Some cognitive states put one in phenomenal states.

Suppose you think that whenever one intuits that a < 1, then 2 – 2a > 0 then one is thereby put in some phenomenal state or other. But suppose you think that these phenomenal states are just those involved in visualizing the variable “a” or the numeral “1,” or those involved in experiencing kinesthetic sensations as you think of the quantity assigned to “2a” shrinking. If this is your view then you think that the intuition is phenomenally present—it makes some phenomenal difference whenever it occurs—but that it does not introduce any new phenomenal states distinct from those that various wholly sensory states might put one in. This view falls short of commitment to irreducible cognitive phenomenology.

Now let us look at a thesis that goes beyond Irreducibility. This is the thesis that some cognitive states make phenomenal differences that are independent of those made by sensory states. Independence is a modal notion: it has to do with what is possible. Two things are independent if they can exist with or without each other—i.e. the existence of one neither includes nor excludes the existence of the other. The independence thesis can be put like this:

Independence: Some cognitive states put one in phenomenal states that are independent of sensory states.

Independence is stronger than Irreducibility. That is, Independence entails Irreducibility but Irreducibility does not entail Independence. To see that Independence entails Irreducibility suppose some phenomenal state P is independent of sensory states. Then being in wholly sensory states does not imply—i.e. suffice for—being in P. To see that Irreducibility does not entail Independence consider a cognitive phenomenal state P that is also partly sensory. Being in wholly sensory states does not suffice for being in P, but one cannot be in P without being in some sensory state.

If you endorse Irreducibility then you think there are cognitive phenomenal states. These are phenomenal states for which wholly sensory states do not suffice. If you endorse Independence then you think there are what we might call purely cognitive phenomenal states. These are phenomenal states for which wholly cognitive states do suffice. If one endorses Irreducibility but rejects Independence then one thinks that even though there are phenomenal states for which wholly sensory states do not suffice, there are no phenomenal states for which wholly cognitive states do suffice. On this view whenever one is in a phenomenal state it is at least in part because one is in a sensory state.

The literature on cognitive phenomenology intersects with the literature on phenomenal intentionality. Proponents of cognitive phenomenology tend to propound phenomenal intentionality as well. The basic idea of phenomenal intentionality is that for some token mental states their phenomenal characters determine their representational contents. We can put it like this:

Phenomenal Intentionality: Some phenomenal states determine intentional states.

As I have formulated it, Phenomenal Intentionality leaves open exactly how to understand the determination relation it says phenomenal states bear to intentional states. There are different options and I explore these in the book.

Irreducibility and Phenomenal Intentionality are related but orthogonal. They are orthogonal because there are no logical entailment relations in either direction. It is logically consistent to endorse Irreducibility and reject Phenomenal Intentionality and it is logically consistent to endorse Phenomenal Intentionality and reject Irreducibility. There is a nearby thesis, however, that is not orthogonal to Irreducibility:

Cognitive Phenomenal Intentionality: Some phenomenal states determine cognitive intentional states.

This thesis is stronger than Irreducibility. Cognitive Phenomenal Intentionality logically entails Irreducibility, but Irreducibility does not logically entail Cognitive Phenomenal Intentionality. To see that Cognitive Phenomenal Intentionality logically entails Irreducibility suppose some phenomenal state P determines a cognitive intentional state. Then being in a wholly sensory state does not suffice for being in P because once you are in P you are thereby in some cognitive state and so not in a wholly sensory state. To see that Irreducibility does not logically entail Cognitive Phenomenal Intentionality suppose there are phenomenal states for which wholly sensory states do not suffice but which themselves do not suffice for cognitive states. Maybe these are a kind of cognitive “raw feel.” One might think no such phenomenal states exist, but this is a substantive issue that goes beyond purely logical reasoning.

So there are four theses to be distinguished: Irreducibility, Phenomenal Presence, Independence, and Cognitive Phenomenal Intentionality. I see Irreducibility as the main issue in the debate about cognitive phenomenology. Proponents accept it; opponents reject it. But the other theses raise lots of interesting philosophical issues and many of the arguments about cognitive phenomenology draw on them in one way or another, so I discuss them in the book too.

9 Comments

  1. Hi Elijah,

    It seems to me that when attempting to express certain points of view, the terminology here actually works against clarity. My view, and I believe also Dennett’s view, is that there is no essential difference between phenomenal states and cognitive states — the a phenomenal state is simply a type of cognitive state. In other words, experiencing seeing a cow is the same thing as believing that one is seeing a cow. It would seem natural to express this point of view by saying that I believe in cognitive phenomenology, but using your definitions, as far as I can tell, I fall into the opposite camp.

    • Eli

      Hi Bill,

      According to doxastic accounts of sensory experience, sensory experiences just are beliefs of a certain kind. I think questions about Irreducibility can still arise. Consider the following: do conscious beliefs that are not sensory experiences have phenomenal characters different in kind from conscious beliefs that are sensory experiences? Seems like a perfectly good question for proponents of doxastic accounts of sensory experience to ask. In the book I give an analysis of the sensory/cognitive distinction. It would allow some beliefs, the special ones that are somehow sensory experiences according to doxastic views, to count as sensory states I think. This might sound odd because beliefs are paradigm examples of cognitive states. But those beliefs are not the ones proponents of doxastic views of sensory experience generally have in mind. Presumably they think there is a special class of beliefs that should count as sensory states.

  2. Markos Valaris

    Hi Eli, thanks for the interesting post!

    I have a question, which probably hinges on my not being entirely clear on the notions of determination/reduction you are using. You say:

    To see that Cognitive Phenomenal Intentionality logically entails Irreducibility suppose some phenomenal state P determines a cognitive intentional state. Then being in a wholly sensory state does not suffice for being in P because once you are in P you are thereby in some cognitive state and so not in a wholly sensory state.

    Take an entirely ordinary sensory phenomenal state, say the state normal subjects would go in upon facing a red rose in good lighting conditions. Then suppose that, for whatever reason, I am so wired that whenever I go into this state I also go into a certain belief state, with an intuitively entirely unrelated content — say some mathematical belief. So the phenomenal character of the state that “determines” my belief just has nothing to do with the content of that belief.

    Now, in this case it remains true that being in a sensory state does not suffice for me to have that phenomenal state — because of my abnormal wiring the mathematical belief comes along by nomological necessity, let’s say. But it seems odd to say that this is a case of irreducible cognitive phenomenology.

    • Eli

      Hi Markos,

      I should have made explicit that I am assuming determination is at least as strong as necessitation–or being a sufficient condition for something. I think that handles the case you present. The alternative understandings of necessitation that I consider are strengthenings of necessitation, in particular strengthenings that include some sort of non-causal explanatory relation.

      • Markos Valaris

        Hi Eli, thanks for the reply. But I am still not sure I see how the entailment is supposed to work.

        Suppose (as may well be the case) that there is a constitutive connection between feeling pain and believing you feel pain, so that (for sufficiently sophisticated and attentive subjects) feeling pain necessitates believing you feel pain.

        Would this show that certain beliefs (in particular, beliefs about feeling pain) have their own irreducible phenomenology?

        • Eli

          Hi Markos

          Your case raises a worry but I think it is slightly different from the one you state. As I see it the worry is that if there is the constitutive connection then the pain will suffice for the belief and so maybe that belief will not count as having irreducible cognitive phenomenology. But this shouldn’t be a way of refuting the claim that the belief has irreducible cognitive phenomenology.

          One idea is that if there is the constitutive connection then maybe the pain doesn’t count as a wholly sensory state. It always necessarily includes a cognitive state of believing. So my formulations are still OK.

          Here is another idea. Suppose we learn that the laws of nature are necessary. We’d still want to draw a distinction between causal relations and what, before, we took to be contrasting necessitating relations. I do not have a settled view about how best to do that. But however it works in that case I would think the strategy can be appealed to in addressing the worry your case raises.

          This is somewhat schematic as a reply. I hadn’t thought of this before. I’m open to suggestions about filling in the details.

  3. Markos Valaris

    OK, that is an interesting response. So the idea is that the painfulness of pain (contrary to what I was assuming) is not just sensory phenomenology, because the constitutive connection means that pains are not just sensory states.

    This then opens the door to a more radical move. Suppose that pain is not an isolated case and there are widespread constitutive relations among the phenomenal and the cognitive. Then this line of thought would lead us to question the viability of the distinction between sensory and cognitive phenomenology as well. (Perhaps that’s a good thing!)

  4. Markos: We can actually go beyond philosophy here. It is empirically established that the painfulness of pain is not just sensory phenomenology. Pain can be dissociated experimentally into sensory and affective aspects, which involve different brain systems and are differently affected by certain manipulations. In particular, opiate drugs such as morphine and heroin reduce the painfulness of pain without greatly altering its sensory quality. (Some neuroscientists also identify a third dissociable aspect of pain, which they call “evaluative”.)

    These distinctions might not apply to universally to all sensory modalities. However, they probably apply to some degree to at least a few others, including sensations of pleasure.

    • Markos Valaris

      Thanks, this is right of course.

      One broad observation here is that cognitive neuroscientists seem to have a very inclusive view of phenomenology — they freely speak of things such as experiences of agency (which can be dissociated from an experience of authorship for the same actions), as well as an array of experiences such as feelings of knowing, believing, intending, and so on.

      I am guessing that philosophical opponents of cognitive phenomenology would be arguing that we shouldn’t take such statements at face-value: rather they would hope they could be analyzed away in purely “sensory” terms (although I am still a little puzzled over what exactly this means).

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