Research

My research on phenomenal consciousness can be divided into three interwoven strands. The first concerns how we should understand what it is like’ talk: the ubiquitous use of phrases such as ‘what it is like’ and ‘something it is like’ to talk about phenomenal consciousness. The second concerns how inner awareness is related to consciousness. The third concerns what we claim when we talk about how things (experientially) seem some way to us. I am also interested in issues related to personal identity and quasi memories .

What it is like

Philosophers commonly characterise phenomenal consciousness by engaging in ‘what it is like’ talk, i.e., using phrases such as ‘what it is like’ and ‘something it is like’. But exactly what is meant when philosophers appeal to these notions is not always clear. One way of clarifying what philosophers aim to describe, investigate, or explain, when they describe, investigate or explain phenomenal consciousness is by getting clear about how we should understand these crucial notions. I have investigated this issue in a number of papers.

It is sometimes claimed that ‘what it is like’ talk is technical talk, and so examining how it is used will shed no light on what it is used to talk about, namely, phenomenal consciousness. In ‘”What it is like” Talk is not Technical Talk’ I show that this claim is false. I show that there is no evidence that philosophers introduced ‘what it is like’ and ‘something it is like’ as technical terms. I also show that non-philosophers engaged in this talk and appealed to these notions in order to talk about phenomenal consciousness long before philosophers did.

How, then, should we understand ‘what it is like’ talk? In ‘The Lexical Account of “What it is Like” Talk’, I give an account—the lexical account—of this talk. I explain how it is that, by using these words, in this order, we can talk about phenomenal consciousness. I argue that there is more to the underlying form of ‘what it is like’ sentences than appears on the surface, and that once this is made clear we can see that it is the presence of a particular word—a ‘phenomenal “for”’—which allows us to use these sentences to talk specifically about phenomenal consciousness. I argue that the lexical account better explains how ‘what it is like’ talk is used than do other accounts, in particular Daniel Stoljar’s affective account defended in his Mind paper.

Another claim often made about ‘what it is like’ talk is that it should be understood in terms of a subject’s awareness of their own experiences. There is something it is like for Jane to be in pain, on this view, just when Jane is aware (in the right kind of way) of her being in pain. This view is popular amongst supporters of both higher-order and reflexive theories of consciousness. In ‘Higher-order Theories of Consciousness and What-it-is-Like-ness’ I describe three different pairs of ways of understanding 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 some mental state. I argue that although we can understand ‘what it is like’ talk in terms of awareness of our own mental states, to do so is to understand it in a non-standard way, one which is not connected to the usual way that this talk is understood as popularised by Thomas Nagel.

In my PhD thesis, ‘What Is It Like’ Talk: What It Is Like, I give a full account of ‘what it is like’ talk. This includes explaining how this talk is sometines used to talk about things other than phenomenal consciousness, describing the lexical account, describing and assessing other accounts (which take this talk to be meaningless, technical, idiomatic, attitudinal, metaphorical, or contextual), and refining the standard, Nagelian, definition of a phenomenally conscious state as one that there is something it is like for its subject to be in.

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. 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 (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.

How things seem

In current research, I aim to show that clarifying what we claim when we say that things (experientially) seem some way to us can shed light on contemporary disputes in the philosophy of mind.

The first task here (building on work by, for example, Roderick Chisholm and Frank Jackson) is to make a number of distinctions. First, between experiential and epistemic uses of ‘seem’. Second, between direct from indirect ways of indicating how things seem to us. And, third, between how things seem to us, and how they seem to be to us. There is also the question of how claims reported by sentences of the form ‘The tomato seems red to Fred’ are related to those reported by sentences of the form ‘It seems to Fred that the tomato is red.’

One paper in progress makes use of these distinctions in order to shed light on the debate concerning the contents of perception. It is generally agreed that some properties—colour, shape, motion—feature in our perceptual experiences. But there is disagreement about whether other properties—such as semantic, moral, and kind properties—also feature. Conservatives claim that only the former sort of properties feature in experience, liberals hold that at least some of the latter sort also feature. I argue that, by understanding the notion of a property feature in experience in terms of how the object with that property seems to us when we perceive it, we get an argument for conservativism.

A second paper in progress argues that clarifying how we understand seems claims helps us to see that consciousness is not transparent. The transparency claim is (roughly) that, when we try to attend to features of our experiences, we find instead that we are attending to features of the objects of our experiences. When we try to focus on the ‘reddishness’ of the visual experience of a tomato, for example, we find ourselves focusing on the redness of the tomato. I argue that distinguishing redSEEM—which picks out a way of seeming—from redBE—which picks out a way of being—allows us to see that the argument for transparency fails.

Quasi memories

Psychological theories of personal identity claim that what makes a person on Sunday identical to a person on Saturday, is that the Sunday person is psychologically continuous with the Saturday person. Psychological continuity is built out of psychological connections, such as those which exist between a memory of an experience and the original experience itself.

A traditional objection to this sort of view is that  it is circular: we can’t explain personal identity in terms of memories since we also have to explain memories in terms of personal identity. What distinguishes the merely apparent memory of the madman who has an experience as of remembering leading the French troops at Waterloo, from Napoleon’s real memory of leading the troops is that the only Napoleon (and not the madman) is identical to the person who had the original experience.

A traditional response to the objection is to alter the view and to explain personal identity in terms of quasi-memories, not memories. A subject has a quasi-memory if (i) they have an apparent memory of that experience, (ii) someone underwent that experience, and (iii) the apparent memory is caused (in the right kind of way) by the original experience.

Some philosophers (such as Marya Schechtman) argue that we can’t appeal to quasi-memories in this way. This is because, to do so successfully requires that a certain condition is met: roughly, it must be that (when it comes to psychologically connecting two persons) anything that real memories can do, quasi-memories can also do. But, it is argued, this condition is not met.

In one paper in progress, I argue that the arguments presented to show that quasi-memories cannot meet this condition are flawed. In a second, I argue that there is no way of setting out the condition according to which both (a) it is true that the condition must be met, and (b) quasi-memories are not able to meet the condition.