The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Feelings Are Not in the Head

The US philosopher Michael Tye believes that our feelings are not in the head at all.  Neurologists can never explain what it is like to smell or taste.

The starting point is a thought experiment by the  Australian philosopher Frank Jackson ("Epiphenomenal Qualia", 1982). Imagine a scientist who knows everything about a subject, but has not experienced that subject. She has lived her entire life in a black and white environment but studied all there is to know about colors. She has seen colored objects only on a black and white television set. She just has not seen them in color. But she knows what color is and what properties it obeys and so forth. Then one day she steps outside her black and white environment and experiences the colors of those objects.  No matter how much she knew about colors, when she actually sees a red object, she will experience something that she had not experienced before, she will "learn" something that she did not know: the "what it is like" of seeing a color (what Tye calls the "phenomenal character" of seeing a color).

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell had already argued that light is precisely what a blind man cannot see. We can explain the theory of electromagnetic waves to a blind man, but light is precisely the thing that a blind man can never understand.

  There is a difference between objective knowledge of something and subjective experience of something. The latter constitutes the “phenomenal consciousness” of something.

Tye believes that phenomenal states cannot be possibly realized only by neural states (as opposed to what physicalism claims).  Tye believes that mental states are symbolic representations, but he differs from Fodor in that he does not believe that the representation for a sensation involves a sentence in the language of thought. The belief of something is represented by a symbolic structure which is a sentence. The sensation of something, instead, is represented by a symbolic structure which is not a sentence. The format (the symbolic structure) of a sensory representation is instead map-like: a pattern of activation occurring in a three-dimensional array of cells each containing a symbol and to which descriptive labels are attached. The patterns are analyzed by computational routines that are capable of extracting information and then attaching the appropriate descriptive labels.

A sentence would not be enough to represent a sensation, as a sensation includes some kind of "mapping" of the domain it refers to. For example, pain is about the body, and needs a way to represent the body parts that are affected by pain. Sentences lack this map-like representational power.  Tye's patterns of activation in those map-like structures are therefore representations of bodily changes that trigger some computational processing.  And this is what an emotion is, according to Tye.

Tye's hypothesis is that phenomenal consciousness is not in the neurons: phenomenal consciousness is in the "representations".

Tye believes that the body is equipped (as a product of evolution) with a set of specialized sensory modules for bodily sensations (for pain, hunger, and so forth) just like the specialized sensory modules for the five senses (physically different neural regions).  Each module is capable of some computation on some symbolic structure.

Additionally, Tye notes that the object of a feeling is non-conceptual. We have different feelings for different shades of red even if we don't have different concepts for those shades of red. Thus we are capable of many more feelings than concepts.

Tye concludes that "phenomenal states lie at the interface of the non-conceptual and conceptual domains", at the border between the sensory modules and the cognitive system.

Tye analyzes the “phenomenal character” ("what it is like") of an experience and its “phenomenal content” ("what is being experienced").  Tye shows that the phenomenal character of an experience is identical to its phenomenal content: the feeling of pain in a foot cannot be abstracted and remains the fact that it is pain in that foot. Tye, therefore, concludes that phenomenal aspects are a subset of the representational aspects, and not distinct from them. 

Because phenomenal character (the "what it is like" feeling) is phenomenal content, experiencing "what it is like" depends on having the appropriate system of concepts: one must have the appropriate system of concepts in order to understand what it is like to experience something. I cannot know what it feels like to be a bat because I don't have the appropriate concepts to feel what a bat feels.

Appropriate concepts are "predicative" and "indexical", which can be acquired only from direct experience (past or present, respectively). 

Tye does not truly solve the "explanatory gap" between phenomenal states and physical states (how subjective feelings arises from neural states that are not subjective). His theory offers an explanation for why we cannot know "what it feels like" to be a bat, but does not explain why the bat feels whatever it feels, i.e. how feelings are created from brain states.


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