Universals of Consciousness


Universals of Consciousness



“There is something it is like to be a conscious being”: let’s examine the logical form of this statement. There are two possible readings of it, depending on the scope of the quantifiers: one reading says, “For any conscious being B, there is something L it is like to be B”; the other reading says, “There is something L it is like such that for any conscious being B, B has L”. That is: we can either mean that there is a unique thing it is like for any conscious being, or we can mean that for any conscious being there exists some thing it is like to be that being (not necessarily the same thing in each case). It is clear that those who use this phrase typically intend the narrow scope reading of “something”: they wish to allow that different conscious beings can have different things it is like to be them (hence the bats). The claim is not that every conscious being is identical with respect to what it is like to be them: that would be empirically indefensible and conceptually narrow. Thus the standard employment of the phrase recognizes the variability of consciousness from one conscious being to another—there is no universal thing it is like to be conscious. If we introduce a modal operator into the picture, the claim is, “Necessarily for any conscious being there is something it is like to be that being”, but not, “There is something it is like such that necessarily for any conscious being that being has that something”. In fact, there is nothing it is like to be any conscious being—nothing specific or universal or unique. It could be that conscious beings vary from individual to individual in what it is like to be them, with nothing shared.

            But this leaves open the question of whether there are any universals of consciousness: is there any property of consciousness such that every case of consciousness instantiates that property? Compare belief: every believer has some set of beliefs, but there is no set of beliefs such that every believer has it. But isn’t there something in common to all believing beings over and above the fact that every believer has some set of beliefs? Can’t we say that all beliefs are propositional or involve assent or are potential elements of reasoning? Can’t we even say that all belief systems concern an objective reality, indeed an objective spatiotemporal reality? Where is the parallel for the case of consciousness? All we are told is that there must be a thing it is like to be a conscious being, but we are not told what unites the class beyond this. Is it that nothing further can be said about what consciousness is generally? Contrast other attempts to characterize consciousness: consciousness as intentionality (Brentano, Husserl), consciousness as nothingness (Sartre), or consciousness as an inner process (lots of people). These are features held to characterize every conscious state equally, while accepting that the contents of consciousness can vary from case to case. What plays this role for the “what it’s like” characterization? The obvious answer is that each type of conscious “likeness” has something in common with the others—that there is a universal property of “likeness”. But what is this? The question comes down to whether all senses (actual and possible) share a single phenomenological feature. Without considering the question in detail, I suggest that the only possible answer will rely on some other approach to what consciousness is—say, that it is intentional, or is nothingness, or is inner. Perhaps the most immediately plausible answer is that all senses are presentational: they present a world of perceptual objects to a subject. But then consciousness is being defined in terms of the notion of presentation: to be a conscious being is to be presented with a world. The idea of what it’s like has disappeared from the definition in favor of a kind of intentionality definition. The problem is that we either rest content with a disjunctive definition of consciousness or we resort to another sort of concept in the definition: either we disjoin all the specific things it is like (bats, humans, octopuses, etc) or we find some common property such as presentation. There is no single “likeness” property that runs through all the cases and unites them: each sense has its own proprietary set of qualia, its own distinctive “feel”—there is no universal subjective property common to all senses. There are irreducibly many things it is like.

            The problem is more general. The intuitive motivation for the original definition traded upon the phenomenology of the senses, but consciousness is not confined to sensations—what about thoughts? Thoughts can be conscious, but is there something it is like to have them? Is that something peculiar to a certain class of thinkers (say, bat thinkers) or is it common to all thinkers? The question seems misguided: for thoughts don’t really have a subjective phenomenology in the way sensations do–they are not tied to a specific sense modality. If a being had thoughts but no senses, there would be nothing it is like to be that being (in the original sense of the phrase); yet such a being would be conscious. In order to cast our net widely enough we need some other way to include thoughts along with sensations; and again the notions of intentionality and innerness suggest themselves. The notion of there being something it is like lacks the generality we seek: it can’t include thought, and it fails to find a common feature for the case of sensations (except that there is something it is like to have a sensation). And this is before we get to other denizens of consciousness such as emotion, decision, and remembering. The definition only works for a subclass of conscious phenomena, and it only works well for one type of sensation at a time (we know what it is like to have a visual experience and so we grasp what visual consciousness is—but not consciousness in general). Thus the intuitive notion of “likeness” doesn’t provide a satisfactory definition of consciousness.

            It may be that the scope ambiguity conceals this failure of generality: if we hear the statement with wide scope for “something”, it says that there is something in common to all cases of consciousness (a “likeness” property possessed by every type of conscious state); but it turns out that this is not what is intended (and is not true), so we are left with a disjunctive definition. Perhaps too we have a general tendency to unify the different senses, so we easily slide into the idea that some subjective property applies to them all. But if we try to identify this property we come up empty handed or we resort to another sort of definition. For instance, we can hear the phrase “what it is like to be x” as making reference to a subject and how things seem to that subject: then we can easily suppose that what unites the different senses is the fact that each of them involves a subject being appeared-to, not the subjective quality of what appears (“qualia”). But now that is a very different kind of definition, involving subjects and the relation of being appeared to, not intrinsic features of states of consciousness. It is tantamount to saying that a conscious subject is a subject of experience, or that a conscious state is what a subject possesses in as much as it is appeared to (or some such thing). If we hear the statement in the wide scope way, it sacrifices its intuitive content as relating to specific types of sensation (what we can grasp only from a particular “point of view”); while if we hear it in the (intended) narrow scope way, it fails to capture consciousness in general, since there is nothing it is like that holds of any conscious being. In saying merely that there is something it is like to be conscious, but no specific thing it is like, we fail to unify the cases: for we cannot specify any particular “likeness” property common to all cases of consciousness. This is analogous to saying that a believing subject has some set of beliefs without being able to say generally what a belief is.

I suspect that when we consider the case of the bats we tacitly do assume universals of consciousness (at least of the sensory kind), which is why we find the definition appealing: we think of the comparable phenomenological complexity of our visual field and of our sensations of hearing echoes—we don’t assume that the bat’s experience is completely alien to us. Similarly, we unify our own sensations around such concepts as intensity, foreground and background, multiplicity of stimuli, overlap, perceptual constancy, and so on. These concepts provide a common framework for thinking about perceptual consciousness, and they are not specific to particular senses. They are what induce us to believe that we have hold of the essence of (sensory) consciousness, not the admittedly specific and parochial concepts that apply to particular sense modalities. But then the general concepts are the ones that are doing the definitional work not the specific concepts—in which case it is the wide scope reading that we need. The phrase itself (“there is something it is like”) lumps all this together, enabling us to slide from one reading to another, with the associations natural to each reading. We want to say that there is something it is like to be (perceptually) conscious, not just to be one kind of conscious subject or another; and maybe there is, but the standard formulations don’t say what it is, encouraging us to fall back on specific modes of sensory consciousness.  [1]

            My own view is that the “what it’s like” definition is a useful heuristic to move people’s intuitions in the right direction, but as a proper definition it falls short. It captures at best only certain aspects of consciousness but not consciousness in general—witness the case of conscious thought. Thoughts are not conscious in virtue of being about qualia, and they are not subjective in the sense that to grasp what they are you have to possess a certain “point of view” on the world (i.e. a specific sense modality). They have intentionality and they are also inner states or processes (private, unobservable), but these properties are a different matter. Certainly, if there is something it is like to be x, then there is something problematic about x from a materialist perspective; but that is not to say that everything thus problematic is a case of what it is like. The concept of the inner does a better job of capturing the general nature of consciousness, as well as gesturing towards the reason that consciousness is theoretically problematic. The concept “what it is like” is useful and catchy, but is not the stuff of sound definition.  [2]


  [1] Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is a five hundred page book on what it is like to be conscious as such, focusing on the concepts of nothingness, anguish, bad faith, temporality, and so on; it is not about human senses versus bat senses and the varieties of conscious awareness. This is the kind of thing we think we are getting when someone sets out to define consciousness in terms of “what it is like”: not what it is like to be a bat or a human, but what it is like to be a conscious being (to be “haunted by nothingness” etc).

  [2] Compare definitions couched in terms of “seems” and “feels”: “There is some way it seems/feels to be a conscious being”. That has an intuitive ring, but it is surely too narrow to capture the full range of conscious phenomena—is there some way a conscious thought seems or feels? And then there is the question of scope: are there many ways of seeming or feeling or is there some one way common to all cases? Interestingly, we do have available here a single property common to all cases, namely seeming or feeling as general properties; but in the case of “what it’s like” all we can say is that likeness is what is in common to all cases of there being something it’s like. But what is that property exactly—what is it for a mental state to have the general property of likeness? This question is obscure at best. It is telling that the “like” locution is preferred over “seems” and “feels”, which wear their defects on their face as general accounts of consciousness. The phrase “what it’s like” has just the right degree of appeal and obscurity to gain currency.

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