Wide Representationalism (About Qualia)

Adam Pautz, “Sensory Awareness is not a Wide Physical Relation,” Nous, 2006. (The link is to an extended version of the paper.)

Today, at the NEH seminar in Mind and Metaphysics, we discussed Pautz’s paper, which is an attack on wide naturalistic representationalism about phenomenal consciousness. (Wide (or externalist) reductive representationalism is the following conjunction: phenomenal characters of experience are constituted (at least in part) by what they represent, and representational contents are constituted (at least in part) by natural relations between brains, their bodies, and their environments.)

Pautz constructs the following putative counterexample (I will simplify the argument a bit). Suppose two similar individuals A and B look at two exactly similar squares. Their nervous systems are slightly different, such that it is reasonable to conclude that they have slightly different experiences. But representationalism entails that the difference in A and B’s experiences is a representational difference, and naturalistic externalism entails that the representational difference depends only on some type of causal/informational relation between the experience and what it represents. But the causal/informational relation between A and B’s experiences are the same, hence, wide naturalistic representationalism entails the incorrect result that A and B have the same experience, hence wide naturalistic representationalism is false.

In response, one could reject either externalism or naturalism or representationalism. One could also reject realism about the represented properties (I won’t take the time to explain this move). But it’s not even necessary to do any of that.

(In this paper, Pautz wishes to reject the externalist part only, while retaining the representationalist part. Pautz’s argument is actually a step in a longer argument for dualism.)

The weakest bit in Pautz’s argument is that he suggests he is refuting wide naturalistic representationalism regardless of what psychosemantic theory it employs, but his argument relies on features possessed by a subset of psychosemantic theories, namely, causal/informational theories. So Pautz’s argument at most shows that causal/informational psychosemantic theories have a problem when applied to the contents of experience.

In psychosemantics, there are three kinds of naturalistic externalist theory: (1) theories that assign contents on the basis of relations between internal states and environmental inputs (e.g., Dretske, Fodor); (2) theories that assign contents on the basis of relations between internal states and behaviors (e.g., success semantics); (3) theories that do both (e.g., Millikan, Harman). Some theories (sometimes called two-factor theories) take into account what happens within the brain in addition to the relations between internal and external stuff. If successful, Pautz’s argument refutes one-factor theories of type (1), but it does not seem to do much against two-factor theories of type (1) and theories of type (2) and (3).

Pautz does mention two-factor theories, but says it’s not clear how to make such theories work. (Maybe, but this has nothing to do with his main argument.) He also mentions theories of type (2) (he seems to think Millikan’s theory is of type (2)) and says he doesn’t think they are going to work either, but doesn’t really argue for it.

Lycan has a commentary on Pautz at the online philosophy conference, in which he calls Pautz on his lack of argument against theories of type (2) and (3). In the same place, Pautz has a reply in which he argues against theories of type (2) (still seeming to think that Millikan has a theory of type (2)). He says he doesn’t think these theories work as theories of the contents of phenomenal experience, because they can’t deliver contents with the right degree of fine-grainedness. (Once again, this has nothing to do with his original argument in the paper.)

In other words, when pressed, Pautz resorts to arguing that psychosemantics is hard. This is true and well known, and except for one-factor theories of type (1), it’s independent of Pautz’s main argument.

One comment

  1. Eric Thomson

    I read the Pautz paper earlier today, coincidentally, and was unimpressed.

    Dretske, for instance, could argue that the two creatures have different experiences because the downstream neurons extract different information from the photoreceptors. Just like you can extract all sorts of information from a photo of a newspaper (e.g., the information that Kennedy is dead, the information that there is writing in front of you), so you could extract different amounts and types of information from the same photoreceptors (Dretske address this using his analog-digital distinction).

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