Here’s a strange idea: nonconscious qualia. Absurd you might say? Well, many proponents of the so-called Higher-order approach to consciousness believe they not only exist, but are quite routine and omnipresent in our mental lives. Peter Carruthers, Uriah Kriegel, and David Rosenthal are three theorists who have openly talked about nonconscious qualia. Examples of nonconscious qualia include sensing redness, loudness, roughness, sweetness etc. The idea is that there can be genuinely nonconscious sensory qualities. The absent minded driver is a common case used to support the idea of nonconscious qualia. The only difference between conscious and nonconscious qualia is that, obviously, the conscious qualia are conscious.
More specifically, these theorists claim that there is nothing-it-is-like to have nonconscious qualia. That is the big difference: there is something-it-is-like to have conscious qualia but there is nothing-it-is-like to have nonconscious qualia. Why is there something-it-is-like to have conscious qualia? Because the presence of a higher-order mental state is what generates what-it-is-likeness. It is easy to see why people find higher-order theory to be absurd. After all, most people associate qualia with what-it-is-likeness, so to talk about qualia that there is nothing-it-is-like to be in seems absurd.
My own position is that there is something-it-is-like to have nonconscious qualia. This puts me at odds with both First-order and Higher-order theory. Higher-order consciousness, in my view, is much closer to a kind of self-conscious introspection than any kind of “noninferential higher-order thought” (granted that the objects of such self-consciousness don’t have to be just the self). And if I were to think that only conscious qualia have what-it-is-likeness, I would have to conclude that there is nothing-it-is-like to be a cat or mouse, since cats and mice obviously aren’t capable of entertaining complex introspection. Some theorists like Peter Carruthers simply bite the bullet and deny there is anything-it-is-like to be a nonhuman animal. But I think that if what-it-is-likeness is going to be a coherent property at all, it will have to be a property shared by pretty much all lifeforms.
I think one reason why higher-order theorists think that what-it-is-likeness is associated with higher-order awareness is that Nagel’s original formulation was in terms of what-it-is-like for a subject and not just what-it-is-likeness. So the idea is that it is absurd to suppose there is something-it-is-like for Jones to not be aware of what-it-is-like to exist. But I fail to see why this is absurd. If we distinguish between what-it-is-likeness and our introspective awareness of what-it-is-like, then there seems to be no difficulties in thinking there is something-it-is-like to lack a meta-awareness of what-it-is-like. The phrase “for a subject” seems to suggest the presence of higher-order awareness, but this is because we are conflating the minimal subject with the conscious subject. If we thought the only legitimate type of subject was a conscious subject, then the idea of what-it-is-likeness without consciousness would be absurd. But if we thought there was a kind of minimal prereflective subjectivity intrinsic to being an embodied creature, then the idea of there being something “for a subject” without that subject being meta-aware is perfectly coherent.