SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Nagel's Paradox
  5. Rejecting Essential Perspectivalness
  6. Intelligible Realism
  7. Objectivity, Realism and Intelligibility
  8. Commonsense Realism
  9. Intelligible Realism about Phenomenal Consciousness

Is the location of consciousness in the objectively represented world intelligible? The paper examines the grounds for Nagel's negative answer, which can be presented as a response to the following paradox. (1) We are realists about consciousness. (2) Realism about a domain of reference requires commitment to the possibility of an objective, perspective-free conception of it. (3) The phenomenal character of an experience can only be captured by means of perspectival concepts. According to Nagel, we can have either realism about consciousness or the link between realism and objectivity. He opts for the former, where this leads to the postulation of an essentially perspectivally reality inhabited by consciousness. I argue, contra Nagel, that questions about the intelligibility of locating consciousness in the objectively representable world should be asked relative the kinds of objectivity provided for by our spatial thought. Not only does this formally dissolve the paradox, as such thought allows for essential reliance on perspectival concepts; but it also shows how we do in fact make sense of the objective location of consciousness, in virtue of the link between spatial thought and something Strawson calls our ‘commonsense realism’ about physical objects, which ascribes ‘phenomenally-laden’ properties to such objects.1

Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Nagel's Paradox
  5. Rejecting Essential Perspectivalness
  6. Intelligible Realism
  7. Objectivity, Realism and Intelligibility
  8. Commonsense Realism
  9. Intelligible Realism about Phenomenal Consciousness

The metaphysical version of the ‘hard’ question about consciousness asks whether consciousness is part of the natural world. The conceptual version asks whether we can make sense of such a location, given the way we think of consciousness and the natural world respectively.1 Negative answers to the first question are often motivated by negative answers to the second, and much debate in recent years has focused on the legitimacy of such transitions. My concern in what follows, in contrast, will be almost exclusively with the way the conceptual question itself should be formulated, and once formulated, addressed. I will call the question of how and whether we can make sense of the location of consciousness in the natural world the ‘Intelligibility Question’. Obviously, how it is formulated has implications for the legitimacy of transitions from conceptual to metaphysical claims, and I touch on these issues at various places in what follows, but they are not my primary concern.

The specific issues I want to focus on are best brought out by revisiting Thomas Nagel's second chapter in The View From Nowhere.2 The chapter throws into relief a particular question that has somewhat faded from view in recent years but is central to examining the kind of Intelligibility Question I am interested in. This is the question of the relation between commitment to realism about consciousness, on the one hand, and the account we give of objectivity, on the other. The puzzle Nagel presents us with in that respect can best be captured in the form of the following paradox.

  • (1) 
    We are, and are right to be, realists about consciousness. (Realism)
  • (2) 
    Realism about a domain of reference requires commitment to the possibility of an objective conception of it. Objective conceptions consist of representations from no point of view, representations that contain no perspectival concepts, an ideal exemplified by the natural sciences. (Absoluteness).
  • (3) 
    Doing justice to the nature of consciousness requires recognizing that the phenomenal character of an experience can only be captured by means of perspectival concepts. (Essential Perspectivalness).

In the next section I set out the way in which Nagel understands the terms used in the paradox. But even before we do that, we have enough before us to say that, on the face of it, Realism, Absoluteness and Essential Perspectivalness cannot all be true. In particular, the tension between Absoluteness and Essential Perspectivalness means that there is something prima facie deeply unintelligible about locating consciousness in the natural world in the way required for justifying realist intuitions about it. That is what I am calling ‘Nagel's Paradox’.

Nagel himself ultimately opts for a resolution of this puzzle that involves positing an essentially perspectival ‘subjective reality’, distinct from the reality captured by our objective concepts (thus rejecting Absoluteness). This is Nagel's metaphysical claim, his negative response to the metaphysical question, arrived at through considering this particular version of the conceptual question.3 There is every reason to be suspicious of this move, and much of the response to Nagel in the literature has been concerned with questioning its legitimacy by putting pressure on Essential Perspectivalness. In particular, the claim I will set out in section III says that the most Nagel shows is that there is something essentially perspectival about our phenomenal concepts, but that there is no direct route from this to the claim that their referents can be accessed only by means of such concepts, and hence no direct route to his metaphysical conclusion.

To endorse this critique is to say that the Essential Perspectivalness should be replaced with something I will call the ‘Perspectival Concept Claim’. One suggestion I will be making is that while this response is right as far as it goes, it does not directly engage with Nagel's original puzzle, considered as a puzzle of intelligibility – a puzzle that survives this point. The puzzle that remains is about how and whether, from within the perspective we have when using our phenomenal concepts, we can make sense of the location of their referents in the objectively represented world, in the manner required for realism about phenomenal consciousness. Such realism is what I call ‘intelligible realism’, the requirements of which are spelled out in section IV. In these terms, the core of Nagel's claim is this. We can have either intelligible realism about the referents of our perspectival phenomenal concepts, or insist on the link between realism and objectivity. We cannot have both, and Nagel opts for holding onto realism. The remainder of the paper addresses the question of whether Nagel is right in forcing this choice.

I will approach this question in two stages. The first, addressed in section V, asks whether the terms in which Nagel sets up the requirements on objectivity in Absoluteness are appropriate when explaining the link between intelligible realism and objectivity. To anticipate, my answer to this will be that they are not. Rather, the model of objectivity we should be drawing on, I will argue, is the one we find in our ordinary, everyday spatial thought. As we shall see, such thought not only does not rule out reliance on perspectival concepts, but also, prima facie, essentially exploits them. The tension between intelligible realism and objectivity does not exist in the case of ordinary spatial thought. Moreover it is relative to such thought that we ask ourselves questions about the place of consciousness in the world. Or so I shall argue.

However, such a move is of little more than formal, paradox-dissolving interest unless we can show that intelligible realism about the world around us does in fact allow for, or even more strongly actually involve, intelligible realism about consciousness. In section VI, I suggest that this is exactly what Peter Strawson's account of ‘commonsense realism’ in ‘Perception and its Objects’ suggests, though the paper itself is concerned with a different debate.

If the line of argument I set out is cogent, two conclusions follow. First, Nagel's requirements on intelligible realism about consciousness, as set out in the paradox, should be rejected (as should any metaphysical conclusions based exclusively on them). Second, questions about intelligible realism should be redirected at the intelligibility and coherence of commonsense realism. I say something about the latter claim in the last section of the paper.

I begin, though, in the next section, with a brief summary of the way in which Nagel understands each of the claims that constitute his paradox.

Nagel's Paradox

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Nagel's Paradox
  5. Rejecting Essential Perspectivalness
  6. Intelligible Realism
  7. Objectivity, Realism and Intelligibility
  8. Commonsense Realism
  9. Intelligible Realism about Phenomenal Consciousness

Realism

On Nagel's understanding of ‘realism’, to be a realist about a domain of reference involves commitment to the idea that the entities in this realm of reference exist independently of whether we take them to exist, and have the nature they have independently of what we take their nature to be.4 It is realism in this sense that shows up when we encounter a mind that seems to us impenetrable, for example a bat's, and insist that mere absence of access by us is not a bar to existence, in particular, not a bar to there being something it is like for the bat.5 More generally, with respect to the phenomenal character of an experience, equated by Nagel with ‘what it is like’ for the subject who has the experience, commitment to realism is commitment to the idea that the character exists, and has the nature it has, independently of our taking it to exist and have that nature.

Absoluteness

There are many different possible definitions of ‘objectivity’, and I return to some relevant ones later on. On the one Nagel is appealing to, a completely objective representation is one that uses concepts that can be slotted into something that Bernard Williams calls the ‘absolute conception’ of the world, and Nagel calls the ‘view from nowhere’.6 Informally, this is a representation that can be used and understood by anyone, independently of who they are, where they are, what their processing mechanisms, tastes, habits and interests and so forth are. It is in this loose sense perspective-independent.

Somewhat more formally, let us say that a representation is objective, in this sense, if it contains no ‘perspectival concepts’. A concept is perspectival, in the sense I am concerned with, if using it correctly to refer to a specified object or property requires that certain contextual facts apply to the user. So, for example, ‘here’ is perspectival in this sense because successful use of it to refer to a particular place requires that one be at that place. ‘Now’ is perspectival because successful use of it to refer to a particular time requires that that it be uttered at that time; ‘I’ is perspectival because in order to use it correctly to refer to a particular person one must be that person; perceptual demonstratives are perspectival because using them correctly to refer to an object requires that one perceive the object, and so forth. Objective representations, of the kind that can be slotted into the view from nowhere, contain no such concepts.

It is debatable whether any of our everyday thought is non-perspectival in this sense. This is where the appeal to the natural sciences, in particular physics, comes in. The second part of Absoluteness says that the ultimate, ideal physics will provide us with such a conception. Or, more accurately, the more careful claim we need is that if anything will yield such a conception, it is physics, and we can stipulate a sense for ‘physics’ where this is part of its aim.7

Essential Perspectivalness

According to Nagel, thinking about the bat case not only shows up our realism about phenomenal properties, but also reveals intuitions to the effect that the capacity to use and understand phenomenal concepts – the ones we use to refer to the phenomenal character of an experience, for example that of the experience of echolocating, or of seeing red – requires that one actually have had an experience with that phenomenal character. That is why, intuitively, the nature of echolocatory experience eludes us.

I shall take it that at least part of what this means is that the correct use of phenomenal concepts is grounded on the capacity to apply them to current, demonstratively identified phenomenal characteristics of properties of experience. So, for example, to possess the phenomenal concept that captures what it is like to see red, one must be able to apply it to current experiences of red. This condition can only be met by subjects who actually have such experiences. Phenomenal concepts are in this sense perspectival.

Coming back now to the paradox, according to Nagel, we appear to lose sight of what we are talking about when we abandon our perspective-dependent phenomenal concepts and ‘go objective’. Phenomenal consciousness gets ‘bleached out’ when we represent the world from no point of view. And it is this thought that leads him, eventually, to adopt Essential Perspectivalness, which says that the phenomenal character of an experience can only be captured by means of perspectival concepts. As Nagel sees it, to do so just is to reject Absoluteness, and to hold that ‘there is more to reality than objective reality’.8 There is also an essentially perspectival ‘subjective reality’.

Most responses to Nagel have been directed at blocking this metaphysical move by rejecting his reading of Essential Perspectivalness. Such responses make useful points, which I set out in the next section, and which I will simply help myself to in suggesting a first reformulation of the Intelligibility Question. With this in place, I will then move on to examine and put pressure on Nagel's understanding of the link between objectivity and realism.

Rejecting Essential Perspectivalness

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Nagel's Paradox
  5. Rejecting Essential Perspectivalness
  6. Intelligible Realism
  7. Objectivity, Realism and Intelligibility
  8. Commonsense Realism
  9. Intelligible Realism about Phenomenal Consciousness

Suppose we grant that our phenomenal concepts are perspectival, in the sense outlined above. To say this is to say that someone who has never had experiences with the character referred to by such concepts cannot think of these experiences in the same way we do. To say this, though, is not the same as saying that one can have access to the phenomenal character of experiences only by the means of such concepts. The latter is what Essential Perspectivalness says, and a recurring criticism of Nagel is that none of his claims or thought experiments succeed in showing that the phenomenal properties of experiences are not also accessible by means of wholly non-perspectival concepts. If that is true, the case for rejecting Absoluteness has not been made.9

This kind of critique of Nagel is very similar in structure and spirit to criticisms that have been made of Jackson's ‘knowledge argument’, a similarity brought out when we consider that a natural way of expressing intuitions about the bat is to say that in the absence of echolocatory experiences we cannot know what it is like to have such experiences, and hence cannot know what it is like to be a bat. Just as, Jackson says, someone who has not had experiences of red cannot know what it is like to see red.10

Suppose now we help ourselves to Nagel's claim that complete physical knowledge is expressible by means of wholly non-perspectival concepts, and consider Jackson's Mary who knows everything physical there is to know about having experiences as of red when she is restricted to a monochromatic existence. So prior to her release Mary knew everything knowable that is expressible by means of wholly non-perspectival concepts. Suppose we say that upon her release she acquires the capacity to use perspectival concepts, a capacity that depends on her having experiences with the right phenomenal character. And now suppose we concede that upon her release she acquires new knowledge about the experience, which she can now think about in this way. Suppose we even say that she now has access to new facts, in virtue of her capacity to use perspectival concepts. The claim in response to Jackson's knowledge argument then is that this is not tantamount to a concession that there are facts, coarsely individuated, which she did not have prior access to, when she could use only wholly non perspectival concepts. The case for the falsity of physicalism has not been made. Similarly, one might say, conceding all of the above is not sufficient for showing that there is a realm of perspectival facts coarsely individuated that cannot be accessed from no point of view. But this is what Nagel would have to show for his metaphysical conclusion to follow.

If this is right, we should reject Nagel's grounds for rejecting Absoluteness, and the terms in which he phrases his rejection. But to say this is not to say that there are no important insights about the claim that there is something essentially perspectival about the concepts we use to capture the phenomenal character of experience. This is something that should be retained, and expressed as follows:

(3*) The concepts we use in capturing what it is like are essentially perspectival, in the sense of depending essentially on the capacity to have experiences with the properties they refer to (Perspectival Concept Claim).

Such a replacement dissolves the paradox: Realism, Absoluteness and the Perspectival Concept Claim can all be true. Now, a common aim of making this kind of response to either Nagel or Jackson is to defend ‘Type B Materialism’ which says that while there may well be an explanatory or epistemic gap, of the kind highlighted by Nagel and/or Jackson, between the thoughts we have about phenomenal properties and the thoughts we have about the physical world this is consistent with there not being a metaphysical gap.11 I will not, however, pursue this issue here, but simply help myself to the Perspectival Concept Claim. For the question I am interested in here concerns the assumptions we find in Nagel's Paradox about what would make the location of consciousness intelligible to us in the first place, and it is to these I turn in the next section.

Intelligible Realism

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Nagel's Paradox
  5. Rejecting Essential Perspectivalness
  6. Intelligible Realism
  7. Objectivity, Realism and Intelligibility
  8. Commonsense Realism
  9. Intelligible Realism about Phenomenal Consciousness

Nagel is, of course, perfectly aware of the possibility of the kind of response to Essential Perspectivalness just outlined. In ‘What it is like to be a bat?’ he puts his unhappiness with this kind of move as follows. Suppose you are told that the perspectivally identified properties of your experience are in fact identical with brain properties, which are identified by means of wholly non-perspectival concepts. The problem with such an identity claim, According to Nagel, is this.

Usually, when we are told that X is Y we know how it is supposed to be true, but that depends on a conceptual or theoretical background and is not conveyed by the ‘is’ alone. We know how both ‘X’ and ‘Y’ refer, and the kinds of things to which they refer, and we have a rough idea how the two referential paths might converge on a single thing, be it an object, a person, a process, an event, or whatever. But when the two terms of identification are very disparate it may not be so clear how it could be true. We may not have even a rough idea of how the two referential paths could converge, or what kinds of things they might converge on, and a theoretical framework may have to be supplied to enable us to understand this. Without the framework, an air of mysticism surrounds the identification.12

Nagel then goes on to argue that precisely such a framework is lacking when we are told that conscious states are identical to physically or functionally described brain states, and that properties of conscious states are identical to brain properties. Nagel does not say exactly why such a framework is lacking, but let us say that for such a framework to be present, it must at least be one in which we actually use our perspectival concepts within the framework, in a way that manifests our grip on the reality of their referents. A mere assertion of an identity does not deliver this.

What Nagel is after is a kind of intelligible realism about consciousness, one that does not involve the idea that our commitment to realism rests on the possibility of abandoning our perspectival concepts and replacing all the truths we express using our perspectival concepts with truths expressed using only non-perspectival concepts. Is this a case of special pleading for the case of consciousness? Is the very idea of ‘intelligible realism’ metaphysically suspect? By way of an answer, which provides a parallel but is also of substantive importance to our question about consciousness, consider the requirements that Gareth Evans imposes, in ‘Things Without the Mind’, on an account of the role played by spatial concepts in providing for the idea of a mind-independent world. For the purposes of the points I want to make, I divide the passage into two sections.

  1. For an utterance like ‘It's φ-ing’ [originating as a response to experience] to become an assertion about an objective world, it must loosen its tie with experience, so that it makes sense to suppose it is true even when no experience occurs. But, although it must loosen its tie with experience, the tie must not be severed: that which is potentially true in the absence of any experience must be the very same statement as may, on occasion, be affirmed upon the basis of experience. There must be no question of allowing for ‘It's φ-ing’ to be true in the absence of experience by introducing a new sufficient condition for its truth, unconnected with its existing basis. This would merely produce ambiguity, so that what is required would not yet have been accomplished – sense has not been made of the idea of the very same state of affairs that is on occasion experienced obtaining in the absence of experience.
  2. Now we can detach ‘it's φ-ing’ from experience, without pulling the concept apart, only if that in virtue of which ‘it's φ-ing’ is true is connected with experience by some condition which is sometimes, but not always, satisfied. The proposition ‘it's φ-ing’ will then be understood to entail that, if that condition is satisfied, it may be perceived to be true. In the formulation of the condition there lies a theory, or the form of a theory, of perception.13

It might be claimed that I. imposes too strong a link between intelligibility and realism. Why should it be possible for the subject to be able to tell whether or not the conditions are met? Isn't this tantamount to a kind of verificationism? The answer is, first, that we should treat this passage as setting out a requirement specifically on an internally intelligible realism, by which I mean realism intelligible from within the perspective of our demonstrative concepts, the ones we use immediately on the basis of experience. Second, viewed in this way, the challenge for someone who endorses it and is not a verficationist is to show how this kind of intelligibility yields, at the same time, a commitment to realism tout court about the realm of reference. The answer to this challenge, as articulated by Evans in II., is this. Our spatial concepts manifest our commitment not merely to intelligible realism but to realism tout court in virtue of their incorporation into a ‘primitive theory of perception’, the workings of which can be summarized roughly as follows.

Our spatial concepts, as used within the framework of such a theory, provide us with a grip on ‘the enabling conditions of perception’. It is this that gives them their distinctively realism-conferring role, as it is this that gives substance to the idea that this very item I am now experiencing could really exist unexperienced by me. These enabling conditions include such basic principles as that in order to see something one must be correctly positioned relative to it, there must be nothing in the way, and the like. As John Campbell has put it, our grip on these enabling conditions provides for realism about the world we take ourselves to be perceiving because in deploying the theory to articulate these conditions we manifest a grip on the idea that p's being true is not sufficient for it's seeming to us p is true. These further spatio physical conditions must be met. Grasp of the enabling conditions provides us with an intelligibility conferring explanation for the case of perception, of how it can be that there are truths about the world that we are not aware of.14

With the bare bones of the spatial case in place, let us now come back to consciousness. What we seem to have here is an account of spatial thought, as it is linked to our primitive theory of perception, which is explicitly formulated in such a way as to show how spatial thought provides for exactly the kind of intelligible realism that Nagel is after for the case of consciousness–an account that insists that we show how, in using our perspectival concepts, we at the same time make sense of the idea that their referents exist and have the nature they have independently of our experience of, or thought about, them. Nagel thinks that in the case of consciousness, intelligible realism breeds a new metaphysical reality. But, on the face of it, in meeting this requirement in the case of the referents of our spatial thinking we are not thereby committed to treating their referents as ingredients in an essentially subjective, perspectival reality. The question for Nagel now is: why should this be so for consciousness?

According to Nagel, recall, we can have either intelligible realism about the referents of our perspectival phenomenal concepts, or insist on the link between realism and objectivity. This is the core of the dilemma he thinks we must confront, his solution to which is to opt for a perspectival reality inhabited by consciousness. So far we have said very little about objectivity. In order to make progress with this issue, the first thing we must do is revisit Absoluteness, and turn our attention to the notion of objectivity to which it appeals.

Objectivity, Realism and Intelligibility

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Nagel's Paradox
  5. Rejecting Essential Perspectivalness
  6. Intelligible Realism
  7. Objectivity, Realism and Intelligibility
  8. Commonsense Realism
  9. Intelligible Realism about Phenomenal Consciousness

Why should realism about the world be thought to commit us to the possibility of an absolute conception? By way of an informal introduction to the very idea of such a link, consider the following. Using a visual demonstrative in a way that suffices for securing reference to a particular object depends on actually perceiving the object, this is part of the definition of what a visual demonstrative concept is. Thinking of a place as ‘here’, in a way that suffices to secure reference to a particular place, likewise requires that the thinker actually occupy the location referred to. The rough intuition linking Absoluteness and objectivity is that if the object and place are part of ‘the world as it is anyway’, in Williams' phrase, it must be possible to express all truths about them in a way that does not depend on ways of thinking that exploit idiosyncratic properties of any particular thinker. For example, if a place is there anyway, exists whether or not a particular person occupies it, it must be possible to express all the truths there are about it in a way that does not rely on a way of thinking that essentially depends for its success on the thinker's occupation of that place.

Let us say that the notion of ‘objectivity’ appealed to here is one on which an objective representation is a ‘perspective-independent’ representation. Absoluteness may seem to be no more than a natural, inevitable articulation of this notion of objectivity. But it is not. The shortest route to seeing why is contained in the following quote from The Varieties of Reference in which Evans fleshes out his account of the kind of objectivity provided for by spatial thought.

Any thinker who has an idea of an objective spatial world – an idea of a world of objects and phenomena which can be perceived but which are not dependent on being perceived for their existence–must be able to think of his perception of the world as being simultaneously due to his position in the world, and to the condition of the world at that position. The very idea of a perceivable, objective, spatial world brings with it the idea of the subject being in the world, with the course of his perceptions being due to his changing position in the world and to the more or less stable way the world is. The idea that there is an objective world and the idea that the subject is somewhere cannot be separated, and where he is is given by what he can perceive. (My emphasis).15

What this adds to the idea of a primitive theory of perception, as spelled out in the previous section, is the claim that the spatial concepts we use in this theory are internally linked to something we may call a ‘primitive theory of self-location’. That is, in spelling out to yourself the conditions of perceivability for an object you take yourself to be seeing, say, the very least you will have to make sense of is the varying visibility of the object as either you or it move. So much as thinking of your relative locations as possibly changing involves grasp of the idea that the very same place that now looks to your to be on your left will, as you move, be perceived to be on your right, say, or ahead of you or behind you, and so forth. You must, at the very least, make sense of the possibility of re-identifying the same place using different perspectival concepts, if you are to be able to appeal to spatial considerations to explain how it is that there can be truths about the object you perceive which you might not have been aware of had you not been appropriately located relative to it. This is a very local application. In extending our explanations further afield, we join up local maps to make global ones and thereby expand the range of potential perspectives on each place and object indefinitely, such that any new place can be fitted into the map we already have. However, we never lose sight of the idea of ourselves being in the world we are thinking about. Primitive theories of perception are bound up with primitive theories of self-location.16

Note that on the model of objective thought that Evans is alluding to, freedom from perspective is a vital ingredient in the story of what it is to be credited with the idea of an objective world. However, there is a critical difference between this kind of freedom from perspective and the one Nagel is appealing to. On the spatial model, grasping the idea of a mind independent world is a matter of learning to manipulate perspectival concepts in such a way as to be credited with the idea of there being no one privileged point of view from which the world can be accessed. As Campbell has put it, the kind of objective representation we arrive at by manipulating perspectival concepts within the framework of our primitive theory of perception in this way is best characterized as a representation of the world from no particular point of view, in contrast to the ideal, proposed by the absolutist, of a representation from no point of view at all17 . With this distinction between two ways of cashing the notion of ‘perspective-independence’ in play, let us come back, now, to Absoluteness. As it stands, it can be broken down into the following three clauses.

  • (i) 
    Realism about a domain of reference requires commitment to the possibility of an objective representation of it.
  • (ii) 
    Objective representations are representations from no point of view, representations that contain no perspectival concepts.
  • (iii) 
    Objectivity as defined in (ii) is an ideal exemplified by the natural sciences.

Suppose now we cash ‘objective representation’ as it occurs in (i) as a ‘perspective-independent’ representation. The upshot of what we have been saying can be summarised as follows. First, there is a crucial difference between two understandings of this notion, and only one of them leads to the adoption of (ii) Second, spatial thought provides for the idea of a world as it is anyway in virtue of providing us with a representation of the world as viewed from no particular point of view. Third, on the ‘no particular point of view’ reading, intelligible realism is not ruled out for thoughts about objects and properties that we entertain from within the perspective we have when using perspectival concepts.

Let us now come back to consciousness. Suppose we concede this point about spatial objectivity. Why should we care about it when thinking about consciousness? One immediate answer is this. When we ask whether consciousness is part of the natural world, it is the spatial world of objects around us that we have in mind. If questions of intelligibility are posed relative to the way we actually think, it is spatial objectivity we should have in mind when asking whether we can make sense of the location of consciousness in the objectively representable world. And relative to spatial objectivity, the mere requirement that we hang onto our perspectival concepts does not, of itself, raise problems for the very idea that we can, in using them, also make sense of the referents of these concepts being part of the objectively representable world.

Taking these points on board suggests Absoluteness should be reformulated. But we need one more piece in play before doing so. If we accept the stipulation that science aims for representations from no point of view, clause (iii) should be replaced by reference to something often referred to as our ‘intuitive physics’. The term refers to the principles grasp of which is required for thinking about the items we locate in the spatial world around us as physical objects. These consist in a set of principles that express systematic dependencies between geometrical properties and magnitudes such as shape, size and distance, and physical properties and magnitudes such as velocity, acceleration and force.18 The point is that there is no built-in link between such physics and the idea of a representation from no point of view. If we swap reference to the natural sciences, in (iii) with reference to our intuitive physics, the proposal I want to have before us is that we replace the Absoluteness with something I will call the Objectivity Requirement which says the following.

(2*) Realism about a domain of reference requires making sense of the possibility of an objective representation of it, a representation from no particular point of view. This is what is provided for us by a combination of spatial thought and our intuitive physics, as these are deployed in making sense of the idea of existence unperceived.

Let us now pause to take stock. In section III, I proposed that we accept claims to the effect that Nagel's Essential Perspectival Claim should be replaced with the Perspectival Concept Claim. The complaint then was that doing so does not suffice for showing how realism about consciousness is intelligible from the inside, using our phenomenal concepts. Replacing Absoluteness with the Objectivity Requirement takes us one step closer. For doing so shows that there is no clash, in principle, between objectivity and intelligibility from the inside about the referents of perspectival concepts.

So far, though, we have not been given a strong reason to make the latter replacement, other than the claim that in fact, when we think of the world out there, we have in mind the world as conceived of by our spatial concepts and intuitive physics. In particular, we have not been given a reason for thinking that relative to the kind of objective conception of the world which is provided for by our spatial thought, we do in fact find the location of phenomenal consciousness in the world intelligible. And so long as this is the case, the replacement of Absoluteness by the Objectivity Requirement is not much more than a formal move in the game.

My final suggestion is that there are key ingredients in Strawson's account of ‘commonsense realism’ about the world of objects distributed in space around us that do require making sense of a kind of intelligible location of phenomenal properties in the world. His own concern is not with the question of whether we find the location of consciousness in the natural world intelligible, but, rather, with A.J. Ayer's claim that there is something incoherent about our commonsense realism. In the next section I lay out key ingredients in Strawson's account of his debates with Ayer, in its own terms, and with this in place, come back to its implications for Nagel's problem.

Commonsense Realism

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Nagel's Paradox
  5. Rejecting Essential Perspectivalness
  6. Intelligible Realism
  7. Objectivity, Realism and Intelligibility
  8. Commonsense Realism
  9. Intelligible Realism about Phenomenal Consciousness

Strawson develops his account of commonsense realism in the context of an extended critique of Ayer's sophisticated version of the causal theory of perception, on which (a) perceptions deliver sensations, mental items with no objective import, and (b) our commonsense view of the world is the upshot of a (false) theory we form about what we take to be the causes of these sensations.19 From our perspective, there are several key points he makes, implicitly or explicitly, which have a direct bearing on our issues. I set these out in the next few paragraphs and then return to our problem.

Strawson and Ayer agree, roughly, about what our commonsense view of the world consists in. On this view, the world around us contains ‘objects, variously propertied, located in a common space and continuing in their existence independently of our interrupted and relatively fleeting perceptions of them’. They also agree that this commonsense view of the world is a realist one, hence their title ‘commonsense realism’ for this view. Most importantly, from our perspective, they also agree that it is part and parcel of this shared understanding of the commonsense view that the various located objects that populate our world are ‘phenomenally-propertied’; they have ‘colours and visual shapes and felt textures’.20 Or, as Ayer puts it, the objects we think of as inhabiting the mind independent world we perceive are conceived of as ‘visuo-tactile continuants’. And it is the latter component of the view that forms the crux of their disagreement.

Ayer holds that it is this particular aspect of commonsense realism that is false. In thinking of objects in this way we project properties of sensations onto the objects we perceive. An accurate account of our experience as it really is will drop such a projection and ascribe these properties to sensations, as will an accurate account of the world we perceive. The world we actually perceive, the mind independent world, has no such properties, and everything essential to our everyday conception of the world is retained once we eliminate this mistaken projection.

These are the key claims that Strawson is arguing against. He argues that in giving accurate descriptions of experiences, in staying faithful to experiences, we need to ascribe such properties to objects we take to be spatially distributed and mind- independent. This is how experience presents such properties as being. Moreover, he insists, such ascription is an essential ingredient of our commonsense realism about the world. When Strawson describes the commonsense view as incorporating a robust realism about the world, this realism is, in part, realism about these shapes as felt and as seen, and so forth. And it is this account of commonsense realism that I want to focus on.

It incorporates two distinct claims. The first we may label the ‘Phenomenal Reality Claim’. This is the claim that, on our commonsense conception of the world, properties such as shapes-as-felt, or as-seen, are mind independent in the sense, at least, that they are, essentially, conceived of as properties of mind independent objects rather than of mental states, mistakenly projected onto objects. The second claim is something I will call the ‘Inextricability Claim’. It says that our conception of physical objects as mind independent is inextricably bound up with our ascription to them of such properties. Let me say something about the second, and then come back to the first, which needs strengthening if Strawson's point is to be made.

What the Inextricability Claim comes to is most clearly brought out in the following passage, in which Strawson imagines an objection from someone who says that our everyday notion of physical, mind independent objects – the kind of entities we think of as cabbages and chairs – is fully explicable by means of so called ‘primary quality’ concepts such as ‘shape’ and ‘mass’, concepts from which reference to all phenomenal aspects have been stripped away.

Surely we mean by a cabbage a kind of thing of which most of the specimens we have encountered have a characteristic range of colours and visual shapes and felt textures … The common consciousness is not to be fobbed off with the concession that, after all, the physical thing has – in a way – a shape. The way in which scientific realism concedes a shape is altogether the wrong way for the common consciousness. The lover who admires the curve of his mistress's lips or the lover of architecture who admires the lines of a building takes himself to be admiring features of those very objects themselves; but it is the visual shape, the visually defined shape that he admires.21 (My emphasis).

As Strawson puts it, in summary, the concepts we use in our description of the observable world of shape, size, texture and so forth are ‘radically infected’ by, or inextricably bound up with, the idea that it is shapes as-seen or as-felt that we are referring to. I will use the notion of ‘phenomenally laden’ to describe both the concepts that go into this conception, and the properties referred to.

Turning now to the Phenomenal Reality Claim, in its first formulation it said that according to our commonsense conception, such phenomenally laden properties are properties of objects rather than of mental sensations, projected onto objects. But the claim must be stronger than that for securing their reality, as Strawson understands it. It must almost be set against definitions of phenomenally laden properties as ‘secondary qualities’, which are correctly ascribed to objects, but are defined in terms of how the subject responds to objects, in particular how she experiences them. For Strawson is clear, in the last section of the paper, that he regards what I am calling ‘phenomenally laden’ properties as being on a par with properties referred to by scientists, as far as their metaphysical standing is concerned. One thing, at least, that this commits him to, for his phenomenally laden properties, is an inversion of the explanatory order between properties of perceived objects, on the one hand, and those of experiences of objects, on the other. On the traditional secondary quality view, objects are ascribed a particular secondary quality because this is how we experience them as being. What he needs, in contrast, is the claim that in the case of phenomenally laden properties, objects appear to have such properties because that is how they are. That is, on Strawson's account of our commonsense realism, when we ascribe phenomenal properties to our perceptual experiences we take these properties to be inherited from the phenomenally laden properties of the world we perceive.

With these pieces in place, let us come back, finally, to the problem of intelligible realism about consciousness. If Strawson's account of our commonsense realism is right about the way we in fact take the world around us to be, there is a sense in which this view of the world presupposes making sense of the location of consciousness in that world. The sense in which this is true is that it is an implication of his account that we in fact treat the phenomenal character of our experience as inherited from properties of physical objects.

One way of drawing out the implications of such an account is to propose, on Strawson's behalf, though this was not his explicit concern, the following diagnosis of why, at least in the case of perception, one might be baffled, wrongly, about the location of consciousness in the natural world. Where a sense datum theorist says that we project properties of our sensations onto physical objects, if we endorse Strawson's account of commonsense realism, we will say that when we express puzzlement about the place of consciousness in the natural world, this is because, in philosophical mode, we detach the phenomenal properties of the objects we experience from the objects themselves, and ascribe them, thus detached, to the experience, conceived of independently of the object. Having detached these properties from their real, natural moorings, and forgetting where they came from, we are then puzzled about where in the world they belong.

In putting the issue in this way we have moved a long way away from Nagel's formulation of the problem, and I end with a few comments on the implications of this kind of move.

Intelligible Realism about Phenomenal Consciousness

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Nagel's Paradox
  5. Rejecting Essential Perspectivalness
  6. Intelligible Realism
  7. Objectivity, Realism and Intelligibility
  8. Commonsense Realism
  9. Intelligible Realism about Phenomenal Consciousness

According to Nagel, recall, we can have either intelligible realism about the referents of our perspectival phenomenal concepts, or insist on the link between realism and objectivity. We cannot have both, and Nagel opts for holding onto to realism. If the line of argument I have been pursuing is cogent, a correct account of our objective spatial thought, coupled with Strawson's descriptions of our commonsense realism about the objects we locate in that space, suggests that this is simply wrong. It is wrong, that is, relative to the way we in fact think. If what we find intelligible should be accounted for relative to the way we in fact think, then we find the location of consciousness in the world, at least in so far as this is implicated by commonsense realism, perfectly intelligible.

This is hardly the end of the story, though. It is, rather, the beginning of one that addresses questions that include the following. Is this a correct account of how we in fact think? Is the kind of location of consciousness in the world that commonsense realism provides for sufficient for the kind of location of consciousness in the natural world that we have a right to expect? Even if it is true that we are committed to this bundle of ideas, are they coherent/correct? What is supposed to be the relation between the descriptions provided by science and our commonsense realism? And many others. My central proposal just is that these are the first questions we should be asking when we consider what intelligible realism about consciousness involves.

To do so is to adopt a quite radical change of direction with respect to the questions that ordinarily get considered under the Intelligibility Question heading. Where would this leave Nagel's Paradox? In particular, where does it leave the question of whether or not we can make sense of the location of consciousness in the world as viewed from nowhere?

It is important to note that nothing I have said is intended to put pressure on the very coherence of the notion of an absolute conception. In claiming that the kind of objectivity provided for by our spatial thought has priority, I mean only to suggest a priority in our account of what intelligible realism about consciousness involves. For all that has been said, this is wholly consistent with insisting that there are important questions to be asked about the possibility of an absolute conception, its link with science, and the role for the latter in providing for a complete account of the world. Rather, the upshot in this respect of what I have been saying is that if commonsense realism about the objects around us and intelligible realism about consciousness are related as suggested by the picture just sketched, then what Nagel has alighted on is not a particular problem for consciousness, but, rather, a problem for our commonsense notion of an objective world, linked as it is, in everyday thinking, to perspectival identifications of particular objects and places, coupled with the ascription to objects of phenomenally laden properties). The main point of the argument I have been pressing is that commonsense realism about the objects around us, and intelligible realism about phenomenal consciousness rise and fall together, and should, therefore, be examined and justified or rejected together.

Footnotes
  1. 1

    These labels are due, originally, to David Chalmers, in David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996). ^p

  2. 2

    Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986). ^p

  3. 3

    See Nagel, The View From Nowhere, p. 26. ^p

  4. 4

    See Nagel, The View From Nowhere, p. 90. ^p

  5. 5

    See Nagel, ‘What is it like to be a bat?Philosophical Review, 83, 1974, pp. 435450. Reprinted in ^p Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 165180. ^p See also Nagel, The View From Nowhere, pp. 2225. ^p

  6. 6

    See Nagel, The View From Nowhere, p. 15, where he also refers to Williams' notion of an ‘absolute conception’ as introduced in ^p Bernard Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1978), pp. 6468. For a careful definition of the notion of an absolute conception, see ^p Adrian Moore, Points of View, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 120. ^p

  7. 7

    For more on this way of linking Absoluteness and physics, see Moore, Points of View, pp. 2831. ^p

  8. 8

    Nagel, The View From Nowhere, p. 24. ^p

  9. 9

    The most compelling and comprehensive critique of this kind is to be found in Moore, Points of View, in particular in Chapter 3, pp. 4161. ^p

  10. 10

    For an early, particularly clear example of this way of linking Nagel and Jackson, see Martin Davies, and Glyn Humphreys, in M. Davies and G.W. Humphreys (eds), Consciousness: Psychological and Philosophical Essays. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), pp. 1523. ^p

  11. 11

    For an extensive review, and critique, of different ways in which appeal to the perspectivalness of phenomenal concepts has been used in this context, see Daniel Stoljar, ‘Physicalism and Phenomenal Concepts’, Mind and Language 20 (2), 2005, pp. 296302. ^p

  12. 12

    Nagel, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, p. 172. ^p

  13. 13

    Gareth Evans, ‘Things Without the Mind’, in Zak van Staaten (ed.) Philosophical Subjects: Essays Presented to P.F. Strawson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980). Reprinted in: ^p Gareth Evans, Collected Papers, (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1985), p. 262. ^p

  14. 14

    For an extended discussion of the link between the primitive theory, realism and objectivity see John Campbell, Past, Space and Self (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press 1994), pp. 201222. ^p

  15. 15

    Gareth Evans, The Varieties of Reference (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 222. ^p

  16. 16

    For further elaborations of the links between primitive theories of perception and theories of self-location see e.g. Quassim Cassam Self and World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 3640. ^p

  17. 17

    John Campbell, ‘Possession of Concepts’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society LXXXV, 1984/85, pp. 135156. ^p

  18. 18

    For debates about the contents of our intuitive physics and their role in providing for an objective conception of the world, see papers in the ‘Intuitive Physics’ section in Naomi Eilan, Bill Brewer, and Roz McCarthy, Spatial Representation: Problems in Philosophy and Psychology, (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999), pp. 97176. ^p

  19. 19

    A. J. Ayer, The Central Questions of Philosophy, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973), pp. 68111. ^p

  20. 20

    P. F. Strawson, ‘Perception and Its Objects’, in Perception and Identity, ed. G. F. Macdonald (London: The MacMillan Press, 1979), p. 54. ^p

  21. 21

    Strawson, ‘Perception and Its Objects’, p. 54. ^p