3. Reducing the Phenomenal

The phenomenal concept strategy has been pursued by many different authors. The basic idea is to explain the problematic thought experiments (zombies, Mary, and the explanatory gap) in terms of the distinctive set of concepts we can use when thinking about our own access-conscious nonconceptual mental states. People differ over how they think phenomenal concepts should be characterized for this purpose, however. I once used to think of them as recognitional concepts for our own access-conscious states. But this can’t explain color-deprived Mary’s thoughts when she first experiences color and thinks, “So this is what it is like to see color.” For you can only recognize what you have experienced previously. So I now follow Jesse Prinz in thinking that the phenomenal concepts that give rise to the problematic thought experiments are acquaintance-based indexicals, like the one I have just imagined Mary using to express her thought.

There need be nothing mysterious about the notion of acquaintance involved here, however. It just requires globally broadcast nonconceptual content to be made available to the same executive systems that are involved in judging and reporting worldly items and properties also. The same kind of acquaintance is involved whether one thinks, “So this is the color we should paint our living-room walls” or thinks, “So this is what it is like to see red.” The difference is just that in the latter case there is a tacit employment of the concept of experience, thereby insuring that the referent of the indexical is the nonconceptual state itself, rather than its worldly content.

Since these acquaintance-based indexicals lack conceptual connections to any of our public third-person concepts, one can of course think, “There could be a being (a zombie) who is exactly like me in all physical, functional, and representational respects but who nevertheless lacks this.” And for the same reason one will notice that no matter how much one might know about the physical, functional, and representational facts involved in perception, they still wouldn’t entail that one has this sort of state. But we can now see that this is not because there are any special properties (qualia) involved. There is just a conceptual disconnect between two different ways of thinking about one-and-the-same globally broadcast nonconceptual content—either as such, or as this.

The phenomenal concept strategy has its critics, of course. Strikingly (since he had once been a proponent of the strategy) the critics include Michael Tye. But his criticisms lose sight of the fact that the very idea of phenomenal consciousness is supposed to be a first-personal one. We talk about and debate about phenomenal consciousness publicly, of course, deploying public concepts to do so. But all such talk is really just an invitation to pay attention to one’s own experiences. The basic kind of concept we employ for phenomenally conscious states—the kind of concept that gets the problem of consciousness going in the first place—is first-personal and “private”. When we use acquaintance-based indexical concepts, in particular, we aren’t beholden to any public norms for their use, nor do we defer to the usage of others. And nor, of course, are we using them as natural-kind terms, aiming to pick out whatever underlying property scientifically explains the referred-to property. Nevertheless, the referred-to property is, in fact, globally broadcast nonconceptual content.

Given the success of the phenomenal concept strategy, the problem of phenomenal consciousness is solved. There is no extra property that is especially hard for natural science to explain. There are just some first-personal thoughts that we are capable of thinking that aren’t entailed by any set of third-person truths, no matter how complete. The puzzle of consciousness arises at the level of thought, resulting from the purely-indexical acquaintance-based concepts we can use to think about our own globally broadcast nonconceptual states, not at the level of what those thoughts are about. Given that phenomenal consciousness in ourselves is just globally-broadcast nonconceptual content, it remains to ask what should be said about phenomenal consciousness in animals. I once used to think (along with Michael Tye) that it means that phenomenal consciousness is very widespread in the animal kingdom. But I have now come to see that the truth is quite different. It is that there is no fact of the matter about phenomenal consciousness in animals. I’ll start explaining why tomorrow.

Header image: Mark Rothko, No. 301


  1. Oliver S.

    I doubt that the phenomenal concept strategy succeeds in nullifying Chalmers’ objection to the global workspace theory. You write that “[t]he puzzle of consciousness arises at the level of thought,…not at the level of what those thoughts are about”; but I don’t think so, because the puzzle is precisely how information in the global workspace becomes or became *experiential/phenomenal* information characterized by a “first-person ontology” and “ontological subjectivity” (Searle), or “ontological innerness” (McGinn).

    “[T]here is no reductive explanation of /experience/ to be found here. The question of why these processes should give rise to experience is simply not addressed. One might suppose that according to the theory, the contents of experience are precisely the contents of the workspace. But even if this is so, nothing internal to the theory /explains/ why it is that the information within the global workspace is experienced. The best the theory can do is to say that the information is experienced because it is globally accessible. But now the question arises in a different form: Why should global accessibility give rise to conscious experience? This bridging question is not addressed in Baar’s work.”

    (Chalmers, David J. The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. p. 112)

    • Peter Carruthers

      Oliver, the quote from Chalmers just begs the question, by presuming that experience is something over-and-above globally accessible fine-grained content. Granted, even given the complete global-workspace story one can still think, “But none of that explains why I should have something like *this*.” But that is precisely the phenomenal concept strategy: it explains why one can still think that thought, and still be puzzled, even though every actual property has been fully explained, and even though our capacity (and temptation) to think such thoughts has itself been explained.

      • Oliver S.

        I find it pretty plausible to object that even if the experiential content of phenomenal consciousness is identical to (“nothing over and above”) the informational content of the global workspace, its experientiality (experiential character) is still left unexplained. If it is true at all, it is not analytically true that globally accessible informational content is experiential content; so the explanatory gap cannot be closed a priori through conceptual analysis. There is a real difference between experiential, experienced information (representations) and nonexperiential, nonexperienced information (representations), so the experientiality of the global-workspace content is an additional aspect of it and an extra explanandum; and neither the phenomenal-concept strategy nor the global-workspace theory seems to explain how mental/neural information is “experientialized”. (The answer “By entering the global workspace” is insufficient because it’s consistently conceivable that information becomes part of its content without thereby becoming a subjective sensation, emotion, or imagination.)

        “This further question is the key question in the problem of consciousness. Why doesn’t all this information-processing go on ‘in the dark’, free of any inner feel?”

        (Chalmers, David. “Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness.” 1995. Reprinted in The Character of Consciousness, 3-28. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. p. 8)

        • YF

          I would say that global broadcasting is precisely what it means to be consciously aware. Your awareness of a flashing light is the global broadcasting of the information relating to the flashing light in your brain. If the light is extremely dim, the information about the light will no longer be globally broadcasted in your brain and you will not perceive it. The processing that goes on ‘in the dark’ is free of any inner feel precisely because it is not global, whereby the information is made available for report, memory, etc.

  2. David Duffy

    “…the color we should paint our living-room walls…tacit employment of the concept of experience…”. I fear that when we talk about colour preference or taste, we are alluding to the nonconceptual state.

  3. To the one who thinks “There could be a being (a zombie) who is exactly like me in all physical, functional, and representational respects but who nevertheless lacks this”, I have to ask: Would you and the zombie (who is exactly like you in all functional respects) both give the same answer to the question “Do you have ‘this’?”?

  4. Has any research been done on how patterns of brain activation are related to the colour of a visual stimulus? And in particular on what differences are observed in the cases of colour blindness due to lack of one cone type in the retina. It might be interesting if there was a way of stimulating in the colour blind some of the neural patterns that in normal people correspond to stimulus from the missing cone type.

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