“There is no term [consciousness] at once so popular and so devoid of standard meaning. How can a term mean anything when it is employed to connote anything and everything, including its own negation? One hears of the object of consciousness and the subject of consciousness, and the union of the two in self-consciousness; of the private consciousness, the social consciousness, and the transcendental consciousness; the inner and the outer, the higher and the lower, the temporal and the eternal consciousness; the activity and the state of consciousness. Then there is consciousness-stuff, and the unconscious consciousness…, and unconscious physical states or subconsciousnss…The list is not complete, but sufficiently amazing. Consciousness comprises everything that is, and indefinitely much more. It is small wonder that the definition of it is little attempted.” ~ psychologist Ralph Barton Perry, 1904, quoted in William Calvin’s The Cerebral Symphony
I’d say that 100 years later the term “consciousness” is still devoid of standard meaning. Some people define it in terms of what-it-is-likeness, others define it in terms of introspection and meta-awareness, and others collapse the distinction between what-it-is-likeness and meta-awareness. Some think consciousness is primitive and shared with all mammals, others thinks its the reserve of apes and humans. For some it is a synonym of “awareness” and others it is a synonym of “self-awareness”. Some just want to abandon the term altogether. Personally, I like the definition of consciousness as an introspective or reflective operation, since I think this is in accord with its original connotation in English. Also, to define it in terms of awareness or what-it-is-likeness is hopeless given those terms are just in need of definition as consciousness itself. Adopting the introspective definition is the only way to ground the meaning of consciousness in terms other than itself or our own introspection of it (which is fraught with difficulties given the methodological limitations of introspection).
Blindsight is a neurological condition where a patient claims that they are blind, but when forced to guess about, say, the orientation of a line, they perform above chance. This is usually taken as evidence for nonconscious perception. Furthermore, such results are often interpreted by skeptics as meaning that consciousness is a by-stander and does no real causal work since perception can happen just fine in its absence. In response to these skeptics, philosophers point out that the blindsight is often impoverished compared to normal vision because it is never spontaneous and the “skill” of the nonconscious system has to be demonstrated by forcing the patient to guess. So here’s my question: has a blindsight patient ever been observed in their own home or a familiar environment? And if so, would their ability to navigate around the furniture be hampered if they were blindfolded? If blindfolding them hampered their ability to navigate a familiar environment, this would mean that their nonconscious system is operative in “non-forced” situations. What I want to know then is how blindsight works in ecologically valid situations, and not just in forced guessing scenarios. It seems to me that blindsighters would be better at navigating if they were not blindfolded. After all, if their nonconscious visual system can determine line orientations or the presence of a stimulus, would it not also be able to warn the patient if they were about to walk into a table? If anyone has answers to these questions, or knows where I should look to answer them, that would be most helpful.
One thing I have learned in studying philosophy is that there is rarely anything new under the sun. I thought I had come up with an original idea for my current paper I am working on, but yesterday I was wandering the library stacks and randomly pulled out Derk Pereboom’s book Consciousness and the Prospects of Physicalism. I read the first page of the introduction and realized I had been scooped by Pereboom’s “Qualitative Inaccuracy Hypothesis”. According to this hypothesis, when we introspect upon our phenomenal experience our introspection represents our experience as having qualitative features that it in fact does not have. For example, I might introspect on my phenomenal experience and represent my phenomenal experience as having special qualitative features that generate the Knowledge or Conceivability arguments against physicalism. Pereboom’s idea is that our introspection systematically misrepresents our phenomenal experience such we are deluded into thinking our phenomenal experience is metaphysically “primitive” when in fact it is not primitive. Although Pereboom only argues that the qualitive inaccuracy hypothesis is a live possibility, the mere possibility of it is enough to cause wrinkles in the Knowledge and Conceivability argument. That is, if the hypothesis is correct, then Mary turns out to have a false belief upon stepping outside the room and introspecting upon her experience (since her introspection misrepresents and her subsequent knowledge is thus false). Moreover, the conceivability and zombie argument doesn’t go through because if our phenomenal experience does not in fact have the special qualitative features we introspect it as having (primitiveness) then it becomes impossible to conceive all physical truths being the same as they are now (P), a “that’s all clause” (T), and there not being phenomenal experience (~Q) for the same reason that it’s impossible to conceive PT and there not being any water. That is, if our only evidence for phenomenality having the special features that make the zombie argument go through is to be found in our introspection, if there is a possibility of our introspection getting the data wrong, then the zombie argument does not work without arguing for the (questionable) assumption that our introspection is necessarily accurate.
However, despite getting scooped on this, I believe my paper is still an original contribution to the literature. For one, I give a more empirically plausible model of how our introspection works as well as give more elaborate details on how it misrepresents our experience. I also tie in this introspective inaccuracy to the well-known “refrigerator light problem” in consciousness studies. I also develop a methodological strategy for getting around the introspective inaccuracy that I call the “stipulation strategy”. From this, I develop some implications for our ascription of phenomenality to nonhuman organisms and argue that the most common stipulation strategies end up ascribing phenomenality almost everywhere in the organic world (which contradicts central tenets of Higher-order theory). This is a surprising conclusion. My paper is also well-sourced in the empirical literature and unlike Pereboom, I don’t spend much time dealing with Chalmers and all the intricate details of the Knowledge and Conceivability arguments. I spend much more time developing a model of how introspection works and how it could possibly by inaccurate with respect to our own phenomenal experience.
So although it’s nice to know I’m not alone in arguing for what I call the “Indeterminacy of Introspection”, it’s always a shock when you spend so much time developing what you think of as an original idea and then discovering that someone else already had the same idea. Luckily, my paper has a lot more going on in it, and I think it can still be published as an original contribution to the literature.
“[A]ll philosophical and scientific doctrines have to be regarded as partial visions of the truth, which we must expect to be replaced one day by more comprehensive ones. Most conceptions emphasize one aspect only of the truth; conflicting theories are often complementary; the successful doctrine may therefore eventually have to go back to its defeated rivals and learn from them…Let the study of human history help to keep the way clear for the continuing advance of the intellect, by making it unmistakably obvious that every intellectual instrument must sooner or later prove inadequate.” ~Lancelot Whyte, The Unconscious Before Freud, p. 7-8
This principle of incompleteness is something I often struggle with nonconsciously. I too often jump onto an intellectual bandwagon or attach myself to a thinker wholeheartedly without exercising the appropriate caution. My biggest struggle in this regard is probably with respect to Julian Jaynes. As much as I want to accept everything Jaynes said as 100% true, the above principle cautions me to remain more skeptical. Of course, I still think that Jaynes was the most important psychologist of the 20th century and much of his theory will stand the test of time. But I must remain vigilant in accepting that Jaynes was likely wrong about some things. My professors at Wash U have also cautioned me to not be premature in my attachment to ideas, something I struggle with immensely since I have a tendency to be opinionated about almost everything, and perhaps arrogant with respect to the adequacy of competing ideas and theories. I must remain open-minded and empirically skeptical.
“The existence of an innate universal grammar, no matter what its degree of complexity and no matter how its parameters are set, does not mean that language is not learned. The postulation of an innate universal grammar is not in itself a theory of language acquisition.” ~ José Bermúdez, The Paradox of Self-consciousness, p. 23
If only this key point was internalized by both sides of the linguistic nativism debate, much of the “controversy” would disappear overnight.