Thursday, 25 June 2015

Is Phenomenal Consciousness Non-Conceptual?

You can hear a church bell and not hear it as a church bell. That is, concepts may not be applied to the sounds you hear. Similarly, you can see a fridge; though not see it as a fridge. Your visual sensory receptors are stimulated by the light-waves from the fridge and eventually such data enters consciousness; though you haven’t applied the concept [fridge] to the fridge.

Are these examples of experiences in the strict sense?

It could be the case that while these sensory stimulations are entering consciousness, the mind is applying concepts to other things instead. So the sensory input from the fridge or the church bells are, as it were, in outer consciousness. The sensations or perceptions aren’t experiences in that the mind doesn’t infer anything from the church bell or the fridge (they're not “poised for reasoning”, as Ned Block puts it). The sensations are cognitively impotent and irrelevant.

Nothing is derived from the sound of the church bells or the sight of the fridge because they're not heard as church bells or seen as a fridge. Indeed no concepts are applied. They're certainly not an epistemological “given” because there's no cognitive awareness of the sensations or perceptions. These sensations - not experiences - can't be the ground for inferences, knowledge or anything. They are, ultimately, vacuous. The sensations from the fridge or the church bells aren't accompanied by a higher-order thought to the effect that there's any cognitive application of concepts to the sensations.

The terms of the trade have it that the sensation of hearing the church bells (though not as church bells), and seeing the fridge (though not as a fridge), are examples of “phenomenal consciousness without access-consciousness” (according to Ned Block).  “Access-consciousness” (AC) includes the application of concepts to “phenomenal consciousness”(PC). Phenomenal consciousness alone isn't experience or awareness.

John Searle clarifies things a little here (1990). He says that we can call the fridge or the church-bell sensations (not his examples) examples of “peripheral consciousness”. I wouldn’t also use Searle’s “inattentiveness” because there may have been no reason why we should have been attentive to the fridge or the church bells. They may, however, be in “peripheral consciousness”.

A better example than the church bell and the fridge would be someone saying to you, “I’m going to kill you right now!”. The sound-waves from this person’s voice will eventually enter your consciousness as phenomenal consciousness; though you don’t take the words in. (That’s why it’s pure phenomenal consciousness.) You'll have no knowledge of the sentence’s meaning. All you may have are the sensations: their phenomenal non-cognitive reality. This example may be an example of peripheral consciousness and, this time, perhaps also inattentiveness. Though it wouldn’t be an experience and therefore not the basis of reasoning. (I'm willing to concede that at some lower level of consciousness the sentence’s meaning could have been taken on board in a manner which is vaguely similar to what happens with blind-sight.)

The example of “I’m going to kill you right now!” can’t be compared to, say, driving on autopilot. If there were genuinely no access-consciousness or awareness of the ins-and-outs of driving, then such a person would crash. However, if you'd applied concepts to - or been access conscious of - the utterance “I’m going to kill you right now!” (presuming it was a real threat), then you'd have done something about it. Therefore the auditory sensation of “I’m going to kill you right now!” was indeed non-conceptual; though not an experience. Alternatively, driving on autopilot is – partly – a conceptualised event and therefore an experience: if an inattentive experience.

I can quite happily accept phenomenal consciousness as something distinct from conceptual experience without allowing non-conceptual experience or, alternatively, phenomenal consciousness without concepts.

Jennifer Church cites an example of putative non-conceptual phenomenal consciousness. She writes:

Consider the example of a noise that I suddenly realise I have been hearing for the last hour. Block uses it to show that, prior to my realization, there is phenomenal-consciousness without access- consciousness…” (1995)

The above doesn’t go against the necessity of conceptual experience because such phenomenal-consciousness wouldn't be experience in my (or Kant’s) sense. It would be peripheral consciousness (Searle) or perhaps it would be in what can be called outer consciousness. However, Church even denies (or doubts) the possibility of true peripheral consciousness or phenomenal-consciousness without access-consciousness. She continues:

“…it seems that I would have accessed it [the noise] sooner had it been a matter of greater importance – and thus…it was accessible all along. Finally, it is not even clear that it was not actually accessed all along insofar as it rationally guided my behaviour in causing me to speak louder…”

If my “I’m going to kill you!” example earlier is a possibility, then Church’s arguments may go too far and don’t work for my example. My example is pure phenomenal-consciousness. Church, therefore, doesn’t give us an argument against the independence and purity of phenomenal-consciousness from AC. She gives us an example of something which may appear at first to be independent and pure PC; but which in fact isn't. She says that she would have “accessed the noise sooner had it been a matter of greater importance”, which gives the game away. Not even Ned Block would accept that scenario as independent and pure PC. This would, I think, simply be a case of Searle's inattentiveness. Similarly, Church says that all along she was speaking loudly. So clearly the noise was AC; though not the center of her attention. Her example doesn't, therefore, work as an argument against independent and pure PC.

What about Block himself?

For a start, I’m not quite sure what Block means by “aware” in his “You were aware of the noise all along” (1992). It seems to be an idiosyncratic usage of that word. However, the implication must be that concepts (of some shape or form) were applied - or belonged - to the noise all along: otherwise how would he have known that it was a noise before he was AC of it at noon? If he wasn’t applying concepts, then how did he know it was a noise before such a realisation? The atomic concept [noise] is just as much a concept as the molecular concept [the noise of a drill]. The atomic concept [drill] may have been applied to the atomic concept [noise] at t², but at t¹ the atomic concept [noise] was still applied (or belonged) to the noise (vis-à-vis Ned Block himself). Consequently, how could it have been pure and independent PC of the noise if all these assessments are correct?

Indeed Block himself (a paragraph later) comes up with an alternative way of describing this putative before-noon pure and independent example of PC: “P-consciousness without attention.” I would say, perhaps only as a paraphrase, PC with inattentive AC; which doesn’t rule out AC and, therefore, the deployment of concepts. To use Searle’s term, the noise before noon was “peripherally conscious”; though not an example of pure and unadulterated PC.

Block does say that although PC and AC are distinct, they often (or always?) do occur together. Block’s example of “P-consciousness of the noise” and “A-consciousness of it” isn't quite as clearly defined as he thinks (in the noise example, that is). It now remains to be seen whether the conceptual experience before noon does actually entail – limited – AC (in Block’s sense).

Strangely enough, while writing the above there was a noise outside my flat. I didn’t pay attention to it. I was inattentive. It was in peripheral consciousness (or in my topographical outer-consciousness). However, I knew all along that it was a noise. Indeed I knew it was a car alarm. If the car alarm’s noise had seamlessly turned into a woman’s scream (if you can imagine such a thing), I would have been attentive to the scream. This simply means that a different concept [a woman’s scream] was applied or belonged to a seamless change to another noise: the car alarm. The car alarm’s noise was no less conceptual, only the concept [a woman’s scream] would make me attentive; whereas the concept [a car alarm] made me indifferent.

Perhaps concepts are applied (or belong) to all noises. Therefore all noises are AC for Darwinian reasons. If we didn’t deploy or notice what kind of noises the sounds were (or apply or notice their conceptual content), we wouldn’t be ready for an unexpected attack or suchlike. We'd be unprepared. That’s why I would notice the woman’s scream and seemingly ignore the car alarm. If car alarms were infrequent, I wouldn’t ignore them either. The fact is, however, I didn’t ignore the car alarm completely: I was simply inattentive.

Prima facie, PC on its own can’t be conceptual. Could we say that “what something is like” is conceptual? Would that even make sense? The same may be true of PC states like hearing, smelling, tasting and the having of pains. All these seem non-conceptual – at first. They aren't about anything in and of themselves. (Alternatively, we could say that they aren’t representational or intentional.) Some philosophers call these things “intrinsic”. The idea of a pain (say, a toothache) as conceptual seems strange. Similarly with the smell of beer. However, there’s nothing to stop concepts being applied to them. Or, more likely, these phenomenal properties may come along with conceptual baggage. We can still accept that PC is distinct. A toothache has a feel - a “what it’s like” - that’s hard to describe in words. However, concepts are applied (or sometimes come with) pains. These concepts aren’t always descriptions.

For example, [a toothache] is itself a concept made-up of two atomic concepts [tooth] and [ache]. The first concept [tooth] isn't descriptive of pain; though the concept [ache] is. We could ask what sort of concept or description it actually is. It’s not much of one. It’s not descriptive like “The King of France”- it’s a single concept. It’s like a pointer to what it’s like without actually describing what it’s like. It’s also like a name or noun and unlike a definite description or ostensive definition. The concept [ache] may get its identity from non-linguistic comparisons with other previous toothaches or other aches. It would be an imaginative rather than a linguistic concept.

Block writes:

Even pain typically has some kind of representational content. Pains often represent something (the cause of the pain? The pain itself?) as somewhere (in the leg).” (1992)

Similarly with smells, tastes, sounds, sights, etc. They aren't intrinsically conceptual. They're indeed distinguishable from AC or concepts. However, they come with concepts and concepts are applied to them. Therefore PC states become the objects of concepts. (Or PC properties do.) Block says that “P-consciousness is often representational”. Representations are conceptual. Concepts make-up representations. Representations are intentional – they're about something.


2) Church, Jennifer, 'Fallacies or Analyses?' (1995)
3) Searle, John, 'Who is computing with the brain?' (1990)

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