How Fruitful is This Debate?

In a recent post, I noticed that the debate over representationalism about consciousness is often conducted by discussing putative counterexamples, i.e., experiences that some philosophers find to be intuitively different even though according to some representationalist theories, they have the same representational content.  These examples are usually met by representationalists who offer ways in which the different experiences differ in their representational content.

At the end of the post I asked, how fruitful is this enterprise?  (And in his comment to my post, Pete Mandik echoed my question.)

Bill Lycan is one participant in this enterprise.  He noticed my post and was kind enough to write me as follows (excerpts reproduced with permission):

      In the matter of fruitfulness, I’d say generating 8 interstingly different
      responses is pretty fruitful.
           My view of such examples (Peacocke, Macpherson, et al. as well as Nickel)
      is that they can’t ever be *clear counterexamples* to any interesting
      thesis, because the aspect-perception and attentional phenomena are already
      so weird and paradoxical in their own right; no one has said anything
      uncontroversial about them in the first place.  But that makes them all the
      more fruitful to talk about.

What I take from Lycan’s response is that there is at least one class of putative counterexamples that are too controversial to show anything definitive about representationalism.  But my worry is more general than that.  As I wrote in
a subsequent post, I worry that that the whole debate is insufficiently constrained, and as a result, it’s unclear what needs to be done to score points within it.  In response to this, Lycan had the following to say:

      Yes.  It’s a legitimate worry.  (1) I’ve always assumed as a ground rule (I
      said this in more detail in _C&Exp_) that if the R.’ist can say something
      plausible about what the mental state in q. represents, then R.’ism is
      unrefuted (though of course the objector may in fact be right).  (2) It
      helps if the R.’ist story is backed by “function-to-indicate”
      considerations; e.g., it’s fairly obvious that pain has inter alia the
      function of indicating damage to tissue.  (3) It further helps if the state
      gives rise to impressions and appearances having conceptual content; e.g.,
      pain locates or is located on your body map, so that a particular pain is
      in your leg and not in your finger.  Finally, (4) there may be actual
      specific arguments, such as I gave in _C&Exp_ for the case of smell. 

Lycan’s responses make me want to read more of this literature, including his book Consciousness and Experience

Meanwhile, does anyone have thoughts on whether Lycan’s rules are reasonably neutral?  Are they enough to make the debate fruitful?


  1. Ken Aizawa


    Maybe you (and Pete) can clarify your concerns regarding fruitfulness.

    It’s not, is it, that you do not like the practice of exchanging counterexamples, is it? A lot of philosophy takes that form.

    If it’s just this instance of counterexample trading that bothers you, then perhaps you can spell out what you find to be problematic.

  2. gualtiero piccinini

    Well, I have some doubts about the general philosophical practice of exchanging counterexamples too, but that is another matter.

    In this case, my main concern is that without some neutral constraints on what counts as a legitimate counterexample, or more generally, about how to test representationalism about consciousness, it appears relatively easy to meet any putative counterexample by simply assigning some convenient representational property to the counterexample.  After all, everything can be interpreted as representing some thing or other.

  3. kenneth aizawa

    Well, here is a thought.

    How is the development of a counterexample different that the development of a falsifiable/falsified prediction of a scientific theory?  I take it that the latter is a perfectly intellectually respectable activity, but you have doubts about the former.

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