Welcome to the Brains Blog’s Book Symposium series on Declan Smithies’ The Epistemic Role of Consciousness. In this series, seven critics discuss the book with the author. The critics are Kengo Miyazono, Lu Teng, Takuya Niikawa & Yasushi Ogusa, Brie Gertler, Thomas Raleigh, and Tony Cheng. From April 26 to May 1, we will post each critic’s commentary and the recorded discussion one by one on the blog.
In this third post, Takuya Niikawa and Yasushi Ogusa discuss the phenomenal sufficiency thesis defended by Declan. Here is the link to the recorded discussion, in which Declan responds to Takuya’s comments.
Commentary (Summarized Version)
This commentary presents two points about the phenomenal sufficiency thesis that Smithies argues for:
Every perceptual experience provides immediate, defeasible justification to believe some content in virtue of its phenomenal character alone (p. 91).
The first point concerns his characterization of presentational phenomenology. Smithies claims that the phenomenal character of perceptual experiences is identical to “the property of representing some content with presentational force” (p. 90), where presentational force is “the kind of phenomenal character you have when it seems to you that you’re presented with the very things that make your experience true” (p. 93). According to Smithies, the presentational force is a distinctive phenomenal character, which is identical to the way of representing P in such a way that it seems to the subject that she is presented with the truthmaker of P.
The question is, what can explain the epistemic appropriateness of representing P in such a way that it seems to the subject that she is presented with the truthmaker of P? It seems to us that representing P in that manner involves a commitment to the presentation of the truthmaker of P. If so, we would be tempted to ask whether and why the commitment is epistemically appropriate.
We tend to think that presentational phenomenology should serve to explain the epistemic appropriateness in question: we seem able to explain whether and why one’s commitment to the presentation of the truthmaker of P is epistemically good by appealing to the fact that she is perceptually presented with it. However, if presentational force is just a phenomenal character that is identical to the property of representing P as being presentational, then the presentational force cannot account for the epistemic appropriateness of representing P as such.
The second point concerns the scope of contents to which perceptual experiences are supposed to provide immediate justification by themselves. Smithies claims that
Your background beliefs affect what you know, and what you have justification to believe, on the basis of perceptual experience (p.118).
Epistemic justification depends not only on your total experiential state, but also on your total doxastic state. Phenomenal duplicates can differ in which propositions they have epistemic justification to believe owing to differences in background information stored unconsciously in memory (p. 206).
As shown here, Smithies accepts that doxastic conditions affect what proposition a perceptual experience can provide justification to. Given this, we wonder what proposition a perceptual experience can provide immediate, defeasible justification to believe in virtue of its phenomenal character alone. Even propositions about shape do not seem to be included in them. For instance, it seems that a perceptual experience in which the subject is presented with something square can provide justification to the proposition that there is something square only when the subject has a set of background knowledge about shape, such as how square items look like from certain perspectives.
Relevantly, the phenomenal sufficiency thesis seems to imply that if a creature has a perceptual experience, even if it lacks the capacities to form beliefs, the perceptual experience can provide immediate justification to believe something. But what can the something be? Suppose that such a creature has a perceptual experience in which the creature is presented with something square. It seems implausible to think that the perceptual experience provides immediate justification for the creature to believe that there is something square, because (1) the creature does not know anything about how square things look like and (2) the creature cannot form any belief about squareness. Then, in this case, what proposition does the perceptual experience provide justification for the creature to believe?