Consciousness and inner awareness

It is often noted that consciousness is characterised by subjectivity—there is something it is like for the subject of a conscious mental state to be in that state. A popular way of understanding this is in terms of the subject’s having a kind of inner awareness. But exactly what this inner awareness amounts to—whether it requires introspection, and what it is awareness of (the subject, their mental state, the subject’s owing that mental state?)—is unclear.

Special issue on Consciousness and Inner Awareness

Papers in a special edition of Review of Philosophy and Psychology on Consciousness and Inner Awareness co-edited by Tom McClelland and myself investigate these topics from both philosophical and psychological perspectives. Our introduction to the special issue can be found here.

Higher-order theories of consciousness

Higher-order (HO) theories of consciousness appeal to inner awareness to explain what consciousness is. On these views, a mental state is conscious (roughly) only if a subject is aware (in the right kind of way) of that state. Ambitious HO theorists attempt to show that appealing to awareness in this way allows us to explain consciousness in the what-it-is-like sense. In ‘Higher-order Theories of Consciousness and What-it-is-Like-ness’ I argue that this attempt fails.

I examine two arguments related to this issue. The first—which aims to debunk ambitious HO theories—is the Misrepresentation argument (see Ned Block, David Rosenthal and Josh Weisberg for previous discussion). The second—which offers support to these theories—is the Awareness argument (found in David Rosenthal, Joseph Levine and Uriah Kriegel). Both arguments hinge on how we understand the notions of there being something it is like to be in a mental state, and of there being an occurrence of what-it-is-like-ness associated with a mental state.

I show that the HO theorist’s response to the Misrepresentation argument requires understanding these notions in a way that is both different to the way proponents of the argument understand them, and non-standard. Thus the argument higher-order theorists respond to is not that which is presented to them as a challenge. I also show that this same non-standard reading means that the Awareness argument can only show that HO theories can account for what-it-is-like-ness in an uninteresting sense—one which offers no support to ambitious higher-order theories.

I conclude that ambitious HO theories of consciousness fail.