The Economist Investigates Consciousness

Today I’ll take a break from discussing Six Persistent Enigmas about Consciousness, to comment on The Economist’s recent series on six great mysteries of science. I highly recommend these thoughtful and fact-filled two-page essays, and the final installment (September 12) is titled:

“What is consciousness? The hard problem”

There’s a lot of good material in this piece, but journalism often contains mistakes, even in a respected periodical such as The Economist. A few examples:

“Subjective though it is, consciousness … looks like a specific phenomenon, not a mere side-effect.” But of course side effects can be “specific.”

I think it’s fairly obvious that being conscious, in the sense of having vivid, sensuous, introspectible experiences, is quite different from being self-conscious, in the sense of being aware of oneself. In all probability, many animals that lack self-consciousness are perceptually aware of their surroundings and their own body-sensations. But the article muddles these two uses of the term “consciousness” repeatedly.

Some people with damaged visual cortices have “blindsight.” They report that they cannot see anything in large areas of the visual field, but if they are asked a yes-no question about the “blind” part of their visual field they can often answer correctly – e.g., “Did a light flash just now?” I have never heard of blindsighters spontaneously reaching out and picking up things they cannot see. But The Economist claims they can “point to, and even grasp, objects in their visual fields.” (If researchers have found blindsighters who do that spontaneously, without being cued, I am happy to be corrected, but I’m skeptical.)

These criticisms aside, the whole series is worth seeking out, and it is complimented by a series of brief videos. The video on consciousness showcases major scientists and philosophers such as Christof Koch, David Chalmers, and Daniel Dennett. See

Roger Christan Schriner

What Is It Like to Be a Bat? More on Nagel’s Famous Conundrum

In my previous posting I quoted Thomas Nagel’s famous essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Nagel suggested that it is “like something” to be conscious. It is like something, for example, to be a bat. It is like something else to be you, reading these words right now. It is like something to be tasting guacamole. It is like something else to feel nauseous (unless it was really bad guacamole).

And so on. By contrast, most of us assume there is nothing it is like to be a light bulb or a toadstool. They are not conscious, so it is like nothing at all to be them. (Some would argue that the toadstool is sentient, and of course panpsychists would argue that even the light bulb is conscious.)

In time “a consensus … emerged that Thomas Nagel’s expression, ‘what it is like to be’ succeeds in capturing well what is at stake” in discussions about consciousness” (Varela and Shear, Journal of Consciousness Studies, February/March, 1999, p. 3). But even though it was a stunning intuitive breakthrough, some people doubt that it has any clear meaning. David Rosenthal complains that the term “‘what it’s like’ is not reliable common currency” and quotes William Lycan as saying that this phrase is “positively pernicious and harmful” (Rosenthal, Analysis, July, 2011, p. 434).

Here’s an example of the way this phrase can confuse us. Some say that what-it’s-like includes only sensory experiences, such as seeing the blueness of the sky, hearing a harpsichord, or suffering a migraine headache. Others say that non-sensory mental states such as highly abstract thoughts can be “like something.” As Rocco Gennaro writes, “It does indeed seem right to hold that there is something it is like to think that rabbits have tails, believe that ten plus ten equals twenty, or have a desire for some Indian food” (The Consciousness Paradox, p. 27). It’s not easy to adjudicate this dispute.

Another problem is that this term allows us to fuse the subject of experience and the object of experience without realizing we’re doing that. If that sounds confusing, it probably means you’re paying attention. It is very difficult to think and communicate about this issue, but I’ll give it a go:

People sometimes use “what it’s like” to refer to what it is that we are experiencing – blueness, musical notes, pain, and so on. But others use what-it’s-like language to mean what it’s like to subjectively experience these things – what experiences are like for the creature that has those experiences.

This reflects a duality in the way we think about consciousness. Sensory experiences seem to be both what we experience and the way these experiences seem to us. They are a certain way, and they seem a certain way. There is a subtle but crucial difference between the sense that you are experiencing something and the sense that you are experiencing something.

I read Nagel himself as emphasizing the second interpretation. He didn’t talk about what a bat’s echolocation patterns are like. He talked about what it was like to BE the bat, sensing via echolocation. But many philosophers who speak of what-it’s-like emphasize the first interpretation – what the mental states that we are experiencing are “really like.”

I’ll mention just one reason this distinction is important. Theoretically, what we are experiencing and what it’s like for us to experience it could come apart. Suppose pain is a brain state that is sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious, as when a headache drifts in and out of my awareness. And suppose the experiencing self is a (very complex) brain state that detects and responds to sensory inputs. In principle, my brain could malfunction so that when the experiencing self detects a pain state, it operates as if it was enjoying the experience of tasting peanut butter. In that case, what am I really experiencing, pain or peanut-flavor? (For a spirited argument about this point see the articles by Block, Rosenthal, and Weisberg in Analysis, July, 2011.)

So when people talk about what it’s like to have conscious experiences, this implies both the experience that we’re aware of and what it’s like to be aware of this experience. It fuses the object of experience with the subject of experience. Discussing what-it’s-like makes it sound as if we’re dealing with one idea, but it’s actually an amalgamation of two ideas. This causes confusion.

And speaking of confusion, I’d appreciate feedback about which aspects of this blog-post are unclear to readers. I’m trying to refine my presentation of this murky topic.

In Your Living Mind I wrote: “We seem to have needed such a term, but perhaps we will eventually find better ways to express what Nagel was getting at.” I still find myself using what-it’s-like language, but I try to make clear what this phrase means to me. To me, consciousness involves what experiences are like for the experiencing subject. This seems more in keeping with Nagel’s original intent.

Roger Christan Schriner

Six Persistent Enigmas about Consciousness

It seems obvious that consciousness is remarkable and mysterious, but we struggle to say just why it’s so special. In recent decades, however, several philosophers have managed to articulate some of the key features that make consciousness extraordinary. These new insights are intriguing, but they also make it hard to understand how consciousness could occur within a brain. In fact, some of them make it hard to understand how consciousness could occur at all, in any conceivable medium.

In the next few weeks I will explore some of these insights and conundrums. So here is the first of six persistent enigmas about consciousness:

In 1974 Thomas Nagel challenged behaviorism with an essay called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (Philosophical Review, October, 1984, pp. 435-50). According to behaviorists, if we want to learn about bats, we study the way bats behave. But what about knowing how it is to be the bat itself?

Nagel used bats as his example because they use an exotic navigation system called echolocation. They send out high-frequency shrieks and monitor the way these sounds are echoed back. Since we do not typically navigate in this way, we have a hard time guessing what it is like to have this sensory ability.

But Nagel wasn’t really talking about bats. He was using echolocation as a dramatic example. His real point is that for every conscious organism there is something it is like to be that organism. It is this what-it’s-like aspect of experience that is left out by behaviorism – and, some would say, by science itself.

If I knew everything that could possibly be known about you except what it’s like to be you, would my knowledge of you be complete?

Nagel drove home his point by writing that “to form a conception of what it is like to be a bat … one must take up the bat’s point of view” (p. 442). But if we can only understand an organism’s experience from its special vantage point, how can science ever understand consciousness? Science strives for objectivity, and Nagel declares that “any shift to greater objectivity – that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint – does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it” (p. 445).

Nagel’s essay was only 15 pages long, but it has had an enormous impact. The phrase “what it’s like” now permeates consciousness literature. Some think this is an unfortunate development, and in my next entry I’ll consider the strengths and weaknesses of this revolutionary piece of scholarship.

Roger Christan Schriner