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					Phenomenal Consciousness and the Logic of “What it’s Like”
(Submission for the XXI World Congress of Philosophy, Istanbul, Turkey)
David Beisecker, Department of Philosophy,
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Most philosophical puzzles about phenomenal consciousness are raised in terms of “what it‟s like” to have
certain experiences: to see red, to taste a pomegranate, to wake up with a headache, to be in love, maybe
even to be a bat. Accounts of phenomenal consciousness should aim to make sense of such discourse. To
the extent that such statements are dismissed as unintelligible, one fails to have a satisfactory theory of
phenomenal consciousness. Yet such discourse notoriously resists analysis in purely physiological or
functional terms. The “hard problem” of consciousness arises because statements involving the qualitative
character of experience-- or “qualia”-- bear no obvious logical connections to descriptions couched in
physical terms. Nevertheless, we shouldn‟t abandon all hope for an account of phenomenal consciousness.
Just as so-called “semantic” accounts of truth aim to make sense of proper applications of the truth
predicate, a “semantic” account of phenomenal consciousness would attempt to regiment talk about “what
it‟s like” to have certain experiences. The task of providing a logic for such talk hasn‟t been seriously
pursued, and too quickly dismissed. This paper is my attempt to address that lacuna.

I. Speaking with “the vulgar”

While the philosophical conception of “what it‟s like” to have certain experiences is
presumably an extension of ordinary notions, everyday talk about “what it‟s like” is very
different from rarefied philosophical parlance. When the “vulgar” (those not trafficking
in the consciousness industry) ask one another to describe “what it‟s like” to have a
certain experience, they seek information about its effect upon the subject‟s
psychological and emotional makeups. Inter- and intra- personal comparisons of “what
it‟s like” are thus relatively unproblematic. Your reactions to skydiving might be similar
to my reactions to snowboarding. And your first taste of Arrogant Bastard Ale (the bottle
says you‟ll probably not like it) might be different from a subsequent taste, if and when
you grow to appreciate an exquisitely hoppy beer.

However, when those in the consciousness biz talk about “what it‟s like” to have a certain
experience, they do not have a subject‟s reactive attitudes in mind. The experiences that
form the stock and trade of philosophical discussions of phenomenal consciousness (e.g.,
seeing red) tend to be too thin to elicit distinctive reactive attitudes. Furthermore, the
claim that “qualia” do not supervene either upon an experience‟s intentional content or

even a subject‟s occurrent physical condition makes inter- and intra-personal
comparisons of “what it‟s like” in this philosophical sense much more problematic.
Rather than ridiculing the philosophical conception and hoping eventually that it would
just go away, my aim is to clarify many of the funny things we in the biz are tempted to
say about the qualitative dimension of phenomenal consciousness.

II. Sense Inpressions and “What it‟s Like”

Let‟s begin with a commonplace observation. Competent speakers of natural languages
must learn how to apply observational vocabulary “non-inferentially” or in experience.

We all need to be trained to make even the most basic observation reports. Our ability to
classify things as red, or even as looking red is not innate. Other speakers of our
language must teach us how to make observation reports that accord with the
classificatory dispositions of our fellows.1 Subjects thus face the task of coordinating or
calibrating states of themselves with the application of observation concepts in
experience. Simply put, speakers must learn to report that something is or seems to be a
certain quality (say, “red”) whenever they are struck in certain fashions -- that is,
whenever they are in certain physiological states. And they must further learn when to
restrain their acquired dispositions to report that something is a certain observable quality
when circumstances are such that the subject‟s being in this physiological state is not a
reliable indicator of something‟s actually exhibiting that quality. In such circumstances,
subjects learn to say that something merely “seems” or “looks” to have that quality. That
is, they learn to report merely that they are stimulated in a way that, under normal
circumstances, would be a reliable indicator of that quality.

Now even though these states are presumably physiological states (and states of the
nervous system in particular), subjects are not able to identify them in physiological
terms. Ordinary observational vocabulary -- including „looks‟-talk-- is conceptually prior

    I do not mean to deny that we have biologically innate predilections for certain classification schemes.

to a developed neuroscience. In speaking about the task facing speakers as they learn to
apply observation concepts in experience, we should remain theoretically neutral
regarding the underlying physiological substrate.

In the final episode of his “Myth of Jones,” Wilfrid Sellars showed us how the
philosophical notion of a sense impression could be introduced as a theoretically neutral
way to refer to such physiological states of subjects.2 Roughly, Sellars bid us to regard
the sense impression of some particular perceptible quality as the imprint that is
characteristically left upon us by the presence of that quality under normal circumstances.
And so the task described above is that of subjects learning how to coordinate their sense
impressions with the application of appropriate observational concepts. To borrow a
term from Dretske, one might say that subjects must face the task of “recruiting”
appropriate physiological states of theirs (or sense impressions) to play the role of
indicators of particular observable features of the world.

I submit that many of the curious things philosophers have said about phenomenal
consciousness can be understood as making perfectly straightforward assertions about
Sellarsian sense impressions. In particular, the expression “what it‟s like” functions to
designate -- rigidly-- the specific physiological states subjects have recruited as indicators
of particular qualities. It follows that this expression applies only to concept-mongering
creatures who‟ve coordinated their sense impressions with the application of empirical
concepts. That would explain why some measure of reflection or higher-order thought is
required for phenomenal consciousness, without having to identify qualia with specific
aspects of such thoughts.

Notice that sense impressions are functionally specified. Like other functionalizable
concepts, sense impressions are unmysteriously material, even though their particular
physical constitutions are not their defining features. As a result, they could be multiply
realizable; different sense impressions of the same perceptual quality might have vastly

 See Part XVI of “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” recently reprinted in DeVries and Triplett,
Knowledge, Mind, and the Given (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett 2001).

different intrinsic constitutions. A sense impression of red for a typical human might be
realized in a wholly different manner in a bug-eyed alien … or a bat (if indeed, bats have
such impressions at all). So if we understand the phrase “what it‟s like” to operate as
sugested above, then “what it‟s like” to see red for us might be completely different from
“what it‟s like” for them to see red. Moreover, although we identify sense impressions in
terms of particular sense contents, we do not have to regard these contents as part of their
intrinsic natures. There is no need to assign them any non-conceptual intentional content
(or meaning that isn‟t parasitic upon conceptual meaning).3 The physiological states that
turn out to realize my sense impressions of red might not have been so. Had the world
been other than the way it is (or had I been outfitted with those color-inverting lenses of
philosophical legend), then that state might instead have been recruited as an indicator of
green. In fact, the physiological state that serves now as my sense impression of red
might not serve that function in the future. We must continue to recalibrate our
dispositions to report when things are or seem red to us. As my perceptual equipment
ages, it might undergo a “red shift.”4 The physiological state that once was recruited to
be my sense impression of red might no longer be a reliable indicator of redness in my
environs, in which case I would be obliged to recruit a different state (should one still be
available, and I not have become color-blind). So referring once again to the particular
states that I recruit to indicate the presence of red things under normal circumstances,
“what it‟s like” for me to see red now might well not be what it‟s like to see red in the
distant future. Indeed, it‟s possible (albeit highly improbable) for what it‟s like for me to
see red eventually to shift all the way across the spectrum and become what it‟s like for
me to see green.

Finally, it becomes clear why an “explanatory gap” begins to appear.5 Discovering more
and more physiological facts isn‟t going to help someone learn how to apply observation
terms in experience. Doing brain science by itself will not tell me which of my
impressions are impressions of red. To do that, one needs to coordinate the occurrence of

  This is the major point of departure from Tye‟s PANIC theory. See Tye, Consciousness, Color, and
Content (Cambridge, MA: MIT 2000).
  So-called “blindsighted” people apparently lack this ability to monitor their observation reports.

red things in a subject‟s purview with the occurrence of particular physiological states.
This is clearly where Jackson‟s fable of Mary fits in, so let‟s turn our attention now to
attributions of knowledge of “what it‟s like.”6

III. Knowing what it‟s like

Sellars himself famously thought that sense impressions play little role justifying
empirical knowledge. He also had little truck with the skeptical worries generated by
absent and inverted qualia scenarios. Nevertheless, it‟s clear how this story about sense
impressions can help untangle the issues surrounding the so-called “knowledge
argument.” For Mary has not come to face the task that the language of sense-
impressions has been introduced to describe - namely that of coordinating her own
physiological states with the application of particular observation concepts in experience.

I propose then that Mary lacks a justificatory status, which manifests itself in our
reasonable reluctance to grant her authority enforcing the norms governing our
observational vocabulary. While most speakers would qualify as capable enforcers of the
norms governing non-inferential color reports,7 it would be irresponsible to extend this
authority to just anyone. A color-blind person would be an incompetent teacher of color
terms, even if he knows all the inferential connections between colors and other empirical
concepts.8 Unlike the color blind, Mary (we suppose) has the potential to make accurate
color discriminations. She also knows all the inferential connections color terms bear to
the other terms in our language. However, until she has actually demonstrated that she
can apply color terms in experience as reliably as competent speakers, we can reasonably
deny that she truly knows what it‟s like to have perceptual experiences of color. And this

  See Levine, “Materialism and Qualia: The Explanatory Gap,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 64 (1983):
  Jackson first introduced the curious thought experiment involving Mary, the color-benighted
neuroscientist, in “Epiphenomenal Quality, ” Philosophical Quarterly 32 (1982): 127-36.
  Of course, perceptual concepts can be much more exotic, and less accessible to everyone, than colors.
Think of those describing the subtle differences in the taste of wine, beer, or coffee.
  It‟s also reasonable to withhold this authority from those, such as young children, who haven‟t been
sufficiently indoctrinated into our reporting practices.

would be so, even if she happens to possess an uncanny ability to make accurate color
discriminations. As a result, “knowing what it‟s like” requires more than just having an
ability; one must be in a position to justify this discriminative capacity as well.9

Note that I haven‟t claimed that Mary is unable to entertain any specific beliefs. She
might suspect that something looks red to her yet fail to know this, for she fails to have
the appropriate “experience” to justify this suspicion. Thus we can hang onto Jackson‟s
conclusion that Mary lacks propositional knowledge that we would normally express
with non-inferential observational reports. Rather than missing the ability to form certain
beliefs, she lacks the history required for her to entertain those beliefs responsibly. And
it is her assumed responsibility, not simply her lack of experience, which really prevents
her from entertaining beliefs that things look red to her.10

Insofar as their perceptual apparatus differs from our own, we‟d also be justifiably
reluctant to grant perceptually exotic creatures – bats or bug-eyed aliens, for instance –
knowledge of what it‟s like to see our colors.11 Lacking the perceptual capacities to
employ our observational vocabulary in experience, they might not ever attain the status
of full-fledged (norm-enforcing) members of our linguistic community. Likewise, we
would be unable to master a bat‟s observational concepts. Hence we can respect the
intuition that we are unable to know what it‟s like to be a bat, without having to claim we
can‟t so much as entertain the same beliefs. Some perceptually exotic creatures might
even make the same color discriminations that we do (in their own terms, of course). The
conditions of proper application for some of their observational concepts would mirror

  Thus we need to distinguish this analysis of knowing what it‟s like from the “ability account” proffered
by Lewis in “What Experience Teaches,” Mind and Cognition: A Reader, ed. Lycan (Oxford: Blackwell
   Consider how this proposal applies to those ever-popular subjects of philosophical fantasy: our physical
and functional duplicates spontaneously generated out of swampmuck. Such abominations might make all
sorts of claims about how things look to them, but if they‟d never actually faced the task of recruiting sense
impressions with the application of observation vocabulary, then the phrase “what it‟s like” fails to refer to
any of their physiological states. They‟d be “zombies,” at least for a time, and though they‟d try to
convince us that they already have the requisite history for knowing what it‟s like to have certain
experiences, we‟d reject the justifications they offer, simply on the grounds that they‟d be false.
   In particular, their different physiology might well prevent such beasties from being able to tell when
things are likely only to “look red” to a human observer. That is, their different perceptual equipment
might prevent them from anticipating our justifiable perceptual errors.

those of our own color concepts. Still, if we lack sufficient contact with these creatures
to justifiably believe this extensional equivalency, we can reasonably deny them the
authority to enforce the rules governing the use of our color terms. So while they would
know what it‟s like for them to see red, they might not know what it‟s like for us to see

IV. Conclusion

By making sense of the puzzling things we are inclined to say about “what it‟s like” to
have certain experiences, I‟ve begun to sketch a perfectly unmysterious account of
phenomenal consciousness or “qualia.”12 Although one cannot discern “what it‟s like” to
have an experience just by examining the causal transactions inside subjects‟ heads as
they have those experiences, that merely shows that such a narrow focus abstracts away
from the epistemically significant, historical facts required for them to genuinely know
what it‟s like to have a certain phenomenal experience. The proper moral isn‟t that
phenomenal consciousness must remain objectively ineffable, for these further social and
historical features are by no means inaccessible from a third-person perspective. Finally,
we can see why subjects should care about “what it‟s like” to have certain experiences.
For justifiably applying observation concepts in experience is something we find
important. Hence having knowledge of what it‟s like really can “matter” or “make a
difference” to conscious subjects.

  To be sure, I cannot pretend that this account solves all the problems of phenomenal consciousness, for it
doesn‟t begin to address the issue of what would make a mental state conscious, as opposed to unconscious.


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