What is consciousness?

In the literature, there are roughly two ways to pin down the explanandum of phenomenal consciousness: first-order approaches and second-order approaches. The difference is simple enough. For first-order theories, phenomenal consciousness is synonymous with awareness; for second-order theories, phenomenal consciousness is associated with the awareness of awareness. Fred Dretske is well-known for defending a first-order definition. In his 1993 paper Conscious Experience, he says:

[The] distinction between a perceptual experience of x and a perceptual belief about x is , I hope, obvious enough. I will spend some time enlarging upon it, but only for the sake of sorting our relevant interconnections (or lack thereof). My primary interest is not this distinction, but, rather, in what it reveals about the nature of conscious experience, and thus,  consciousness itself. For unless one understanding the difference between  a consciousness of things (Clyde playing the piano) and a consciousness of facts (that he is playing the piano), and the way this difference depends, in turn, on a difference between a concept-free mental state (e.g., an experience) and a concept-charged mental mental (e.g., a belief), one will fail to understand how one can have conscious experiences without being aware that one is having them. One will fail to understand, therefore, how an experience can be conscious without anything – including the person having it – being conscious of having it. Failure to understand how this is possible constitutes a failure to understand what makes something conscious and , hence, what consciousness is.

For Dretske then, the explanandum of consciousness is simple: awareness. Take the famous truck-driver example from Armstrong:

After driving for long periods of time, particularly at night, it is possible to “come to” and realize that for some time past one has been driving without being aware of what one has been doing. The coming-to is an alarming experience. It is natural to describe what went on before one came to by saying that during that time one lacked consciousness.

Drestke thinks exactly the opposite. The truck-driver is conscious of the road the whole time, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to differentially respond to the road conditions. Drestke claims that in order to recognize differences (such as a road obstacle),  we must be aware of both the road and the obstacle. If we weren’t aware that the obstacle is there, how would we be able to “see it” and then respond appropriately by driving around it? For first-order theorists, phenomenal consciousness is simply synonymous with awareness.

When asked to define awareness, first-order theorists often say that it means, roughly, “to experience”. But when asked what this means, they usually do not offer a robust definition. First-order theorists love to say that if you got to ask, you ain’t never going to know. In other words, they don’t provide arguments for this definition, they just claim it is obvious. Everyone knows what experience is, right? It’s that strange sense that it feels a certain way to be alive and perceive the world. There is “something it is like” to experience the world. It seems to be one way or another.

This is, of course, a complete circle of reasoning. But most first-order theorists acknowledge this; they just don’t think it’s a problem. They say that we can come up with a theory of experience later, but right now it is important to get our definitions straight: consciousness is awareness and one doesn’t have to be aware that you are conscious  in order to be conscious.

Second-order theorists deny this and claim that first-order experiences require a higher-order representational state in order to generate true “phenomenal feels”, or “what-it-is-likeness”. The most well-known second-order theorists in the analytic literature are David Armstrong, David Rosenthal, William Lycan, Peter Carruthers, Robert van Gulick, Uriah Kriegal,  Rocco Gennaro, and a couple others. Second-order theorists are a fractious bunch. Armstrong and Lycan take what’s called a Higher-order Perception theory (HOP). This is often called an “inner sense” theory because it posits an internal perceptual “spotlight” that is scanning the lower-order states and this scanning generates phenomenal feels. Rosenthal and Carruthers take what’s called a Higher-order Thought theory (HOT). This is pretty much the same as the HOP theory, they just don’t like the spotlight metaphor. Instead of a spotlight, they talk about higher-order beliefs and representations. Kriegal takes what’s called a self-representational higher-order approach where phenomenal feels are generated when the system represents itself to itself in a particular way. The one thing they all agree on though is that it is conceptually plausible to suppose that an agent could have nonconscious experiences, something the first-order theorists flat out deny as violating basic intuitions.

Second-order theorists also divide on the question of whether animals have higher-order mental states, and thus, phenomenal consciousness. Theorists like Van Gulick are reluctant to deny nonhuman animals phenomenal consciousness, and thus they claim that higher-order representations aren’t that cognitively sophisticated and it’s likely a widespread phenomenon in  the animal world. Theorists like Carruthers bite the bullet and deny that nonhuman animals have phenomenal consciousness. Carruthers thus claims that there is nothing “it is like” to be an animal. They have experiences, but these experiences are nonconscious and don’t “feel” in the way that our experiences “feel”. There is something special – phenomenal – about our own experiential states.

Personally, I think this whole debate is terribly confused. Here’s my understanding:

All lifeforms possess “phenomenal consciousness”. There is something-it-is-like to be a bacterium just as there is something-it-is-like to be a bat. There can be degrees of experiential richness but it denies common sense to suppose that there is nothing it is like to be an embodied, living organism. However, I do not think that phenomenal feels require higher-order representations in order to feel one way or another. Phenomenal feels are generated at the first level of experience.

But this is precisely wrong. Phenomenal feels are not “generated” as if they were objects or things the brain was literally squirting out. This is a homuncular theory right down to its core. We must be careful not to let our evolutionary disposition for object-oriented abstraction fool us into thinking that experiences are “generated” as if they were physical objects. Phenomenal feels are not generated, they are what-it-is-like to exist as a lived body. Existence is to be cashed out behaviorally. But not in terms of Skinner’s behaviorism, a dead theory based on antiquated notions of linear stimulus-response mechanics and simple associationist learning models. Behavioral models are now based on an understanding of dynamic systems theory and complex categorization and pattern-recognition learning models. The concept of stimulus-response is replaced by concept of self-determining behavior and attention-salience models of decision making. The organism is a self-organized, self-determining, closed operational loop. The material products made by the organism are  the components that play a role a making up the production factories that generate the very structural components  of the organism. Organisms are organizatinally closed but thermodynamically open. I think it is intuitive to understand these dynamic temporal processes as having the “right stuff” for phenomenal feeling. What-it-is-like to be  a rock is radically different and of a different register than what-it-is-like to be an autonomous dynamic system.

But here is where I disagree with contemporary higher-order approaches. Whereas I do think consciousness requires a second-order explanation, I do not think that second-order theories of consciousness are supposed to be explaining phenomenal feeling. I think that phenomenal feels are a separate explanandum than consciousness. I thus take what’s called a narratological or social-constructivist approach to consciousness. Here, I follow Julian Jaynes in claiming that consciousness proper is “[T]he development on the basis of linguistic metaphors of an operation of space in which an ‘I’ could narratize out alternative actions to their consequences”. Recent defenders of social-constructivist approaches to conscious self-hood include Julian Jaynes, Gilles Deleuze, Charles Taylor, Daniel Dennett, Tor Norretranders, J. D. Velleman, Daniel Hutto, John Protevi, and James Austin (and many others).

I would thus say that an earthworm is “aware” of certain properties in the environment, but that it is, strictly speaking, not “conscious” because it does not have the right sort of higher-order metacognitive awareness. There are strong theoretical and empirical reasons for denying nonhuman animals the capacity for second-order cognition. While it is certainly possible to use a second-order explanation for nonhuman animal behavior, for any given case, I guarantee that there is a first-order explanation that is biologically plausible and theoretically adequate to account for all the facts. I also think that first-order explanations are more metaphysically parsimonious have more predictive power precisely because they are more biologically realistic given their dependence on dynamic systems theory and autopoietic, adaptive self-determination So what is consciousness proper? Consciousness is

…is an operation rather than a thing, a repository, or a function. It operates by way of analogy, by way of constructing an analog space with an analog “I” that can observe that space, and move metaphorically in it. It operates on any reactivity, [consciously selects] relevant aspects, narratizes and [assimilates] them together in a metaphorical space where such meanings can be manipulated like things in space. Conscious mind is a spatial analog of the world and mental acts are analogs of bodily acts. (Jaynes, 1976)


For a more systematic account of my theory of cognition and consciousness, check out my paper that was recently published in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, “What is it like to be nonconscious? A defense of Julian Jaynes”:


(for those without university access, the preprint copy can be found here)



Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

2 responses to “What is consciousness?

  1. Pingback: The Philosophers’ Carnival CXVI « Florida Student Philosophy Blog

  2. What do you think of Gendlin’s explanation of consciousness in his A Process Model? It’s at http://www.focusing.org/process.html

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