Ned Block has produced a meaty discussion for  The Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science on Philosophical Issues About Consciousness.  

There are special difficulties about writing an encyclopedia about these topics because of the lack of consensus. There is substantial disagreement, not only about the answers, but about what the questions are, and even about how to frame and approach the subject of consciousness at all.  It is still possible to soldier on responsibly, like the heroic Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, doing your level best to be comprehensive and balanced. Authors may find themselves describing and critiquing many complex points of view that neither they nor the reader can take seriously for a moment; sometimes possible points of view (relying on fine and esoteric distinctions of a subtlety difficult even for professionals to grasp), that in point of fact no-one, living or dead, has ever espoused. This can get tedious. The other approach, in my mind, is epitomised by the Oxford Companion to the Mind, edited by Richard Gregory, whose policy seemed to be to gather as much interesting stuff as possible and worry about how it hung together later, if at all.  If you tried to use the resulting volume as a work of reference you would usually come up with nothing or with a quirky, stimulating take instead of the mainstream summary you really wanted; however, it was a cracking read, full of fascinating passages and endlessly browsable.

Luckily for us, Block’s piece seems to lean towards the second approach; he is mainly telling us what he thinks is true, rather than recounting everything anyone has said, or might have said. You might think, therefore, that he would start off with the useful and much-quoted distinction he himself introduced into the subject: between phenomenal, or p-consciousness, and access, or a-consciousness. Here instead he proposes two basic forms of consciousness: phenomenality and reflexivity. Phenomenality, the feel or subjective aspect of consciousness, is evidently fundamental; reflexivity is reflection on phenomenal experience. While the first seems to be possible without the second – we can have subjective experience without thinking about it, as we might suppose dogs or other animals do – reflexivity seems on this account to require phenomenality.  It doesn’t seem that we could have a conscious creature with no sensory apparatus, that simply sits quietly and – what? Invents set theory, perhaps, or metaphysics (why not?).

Anyway, the Hard Problem according to Block is how to explain a conscious state (especially phenomenality) in terms of neurology. In fact, he says, no-one has offered even a highly speculative answer, and there is some reason to think no satisfactory answer can be given.  He thinks there are broadly four naturalistic ways you can go: eliminativism; philosophical reductionism (or deflationism); phenomenal realism (or inflationism); or  dualistic naturalism.  The third option is the one Block favours. 

He describes inflationism as the belief that consciousness cannot be philosophically reduced. So while a deflationist expects to reduce consciousness to a redundant term with no distinct and useful meaning, an inflationist thinks the concept can’t be done away with. However, an inflationist may well believe that scientific reduction of consciousness is possible. So, for example, science has reduced heat to molecular kinetic energy; but this is an empirical matter; the concept of heat is not abolished. (I’m a bit uncomfortable with this example but you see what he’s getting at). Inflationists might also, like McGinn, think that although empirical reduction is possible, it’s beyond our mental capacities; or they might think it’s altogether impossible, like Searle (is that right or does he think we just haven’t got the reduction yet?).

Block mentions some leading deflationist views such as higher-order theories and representationism, but inflationists will think that all such theories leave out the thing itself, actual phenomenal experience. How would an empirical reduction help? So what if experience Q is neural state X? We’re not looking for an explanation of that identity – there are no explanations of identities – but rather an explanation of how something like Q could be something like X, an explanation that removes the sense of puzzlement. And there, we’re back at square one; nobody has any idea.

 So what do we do? Block thinks there is a way forward if we distinguish carefully between a property and the concept of a property. Different concepts can identify the same property, and this provides a neat analysis of the classic thought experiment of Mary the colour scientist. Mary knows everything science could ever tell her about colour; when she sees red for the first time does she know a new fact – what red is like? No; on this analysis she gains a new concept of a property she was already familiar with through other, scientific concepts. Thus we can exchange a dualism of properties for a dualism of concepts. That may be less troubling – a proliferation of concepts doesn’t seem so problematic – but I’m not sure it’s altogether trouble-free; for one thing it requires phenomenal concepts which seem themselves to need some demystifying explanation. In general though, I like what I take to be Block’s overall outlook; that reductions can be too greedy and that the world actually retains a certain unavoidable conceptual, perhaps ontological, complexity.
Moving off on a different tack, he notes recent successes in identifying neural correlates of experience. There is a problem, however; while we can say that a certain experience corresponds with a certain pattern of neuronal activity, that pattern (so far as we can tell) can recur without the conscious experience. What’s the missing ingredient? As a matter of fact I think it could be almost anything, given the limited knowledge we have of neurological detail: however, Block sees two families of possible explanation. Maybe it’s something like intensity or synchrony; or maybe it’s access (aha!); the way the activity is connected up with other bits of brain that do memory or decision-making; let’s say with the global mental workspace, without necessarily committing to that being a distinct thing.
But these types of explanation embody different theoretical approaches; physicalism and functionalism respectively. The danger is that these may be theories of different kinds of consciousness. Physicalism may be after phenomenal consciousness, the inward experience, whereas functionalism has access consciousness, the sort that is about such things as regulating behaviour, in its sights. It might therefore be that researchers are sometimes talking past each other. Access consciousness is not reflexivity, by the way, although reflexivity might be seen as a special kind of access. Block counts phenomenality, reflexivity, and access as three distinct concepts.
Of course, either kind of explanation – physicalist or functionalist – implies that there’s something more going on than just plain neural correlates, so in a sense whichever way you go the real drama is still offstage. My instincts tell me that Block is doing things backwards; he should have started with access consciousness and worked towards the phenomenal. But as I say it is a meaty entry for an encyclopaedia, one I haven’t nearly done justice to; see what you make of it.




  1. 1. arnold says:

    Entertaining for laymen to read, and thank you…
    …Could inflation(ism) be evolution now proposing our consciousness could become more an affect of observation in the cosmos…

    That if observation is allowed more, describe less and less identified with everything, including self…
    …Then the issue of more change would have place in inflation…

    Is ‘there more going on’…probably forever…and of course we should trust our ‘instincts’…

  2. 2. Paul Torek says:

    I’ve explained before why an explanation that removes the puzzlement, how a neural state can be a phenomenal one, is not likely forthcoming. But I recently read a much better phrased discussion:

    John Heil writes, “Why think that the neuroscientist’s experience of your experience of a red tomato would resemble your experience of a red tomato or, more generally, that a neuroscientist’s observation of any conscious state would yield an awareness of ‘what it is like’ to be in that state? What is misleadingly described as your awareness of your own experiences is not your inward observation of those experiences, but simply having or undergoing those experiences. Assuming it makes sense to identify experiences with neurological states or processes, having and observing an experience are two very different things.”

  3. 3. Tom Clark says:

    Block says:

    “In the room, Mary knew about the subjective experience of red via physical concepts. After she left the room, she acquired a phenomenal concept of the same property. So Mary did not learn a new fact. She learned a new concept of an old fact. She already had a third person understanding of the fact of what it is like to see red. What she gained was a first person understanding of the very same fact. She knew already that cortico-thalamic oscillation of a certain frequency is what it is like to see red. What she learned is that this[attention to a mental image] is what it is like to see red. So the case provides no argument that there are facts that go beyond the physical facts.”

    Block then goes on to say we don’t need a dualism of properties, only concepts. But curiously, instead of saying we’re conceiving of physical properties, as you’d expect given that he thinks there are only physical facts, he says we’re conceiving of *phenomenal* properties:

    “…since the phenomenal concept includes a sample of the relevant phenomenal property (on the Humean simplification I am using), there is no mystery about the mental side of the equation. The mystery is how the physical concept picks out that phenomenal property.”

    So it seems we’re left with the claim that there are only physical facts, but only phenomenal properties (since there are not two sorts of properties, only two sorts of concepts). Color me confused.

  4. 4. arnold says:

    A solution to this: ‘the hard problem of’ “how something objective can be something subjective” for Block and us…
    …Could–in being present to what is front of oneself, be the object seeing oneself as a subject…

  5. 5. John Davey says:

    Interesting article.

    It’s correct (in a sense) that heat is never reduced to the movement of particles. Heat is after all a consciousness-bases concept – “that which makes us hot”. Moving particles would not be identified normally as the source of a hot sensation on the surface of the skin : that’s a theoretical assumption in addition to the particle theory.

    Nonetheless if one concedes that moving particles can create the hot sensation on the skin, that is – indifeasibly if you ask me – a reduced account of the external causes of the heat sensation – minus the internal “hard bit” at the end, where particle movement hits skin and eventually becomes a heat sensation.

    In physics vernacular subjectivity is dismissed altogether and heat is definedin terms of aggregations of particle movement (kinetic explanations) or aggregate thermodynamic properties (such as temperature, volume and pressure) which are interchangeable with the kinetic explanations.

    So in terms of the “physics” definition of heat, there is actually no problem in describing Heat as being totally reduced to particle movement – in a sense it’s a definition of it. Heat is an example of a quality being redefined (or rather, re-scoped) as a quantity. Other examples are space and time. However re-scoping only works if you want to re-scope, if you want to do some physics for instance.

    So reduction can works in physics because the first step we take is to rescope a quality as an objective quantity through theoretical declaration.

    If you’re actually interested in the quality per se, then you are trying to do something that has never actually been done – re-scope a quality as a quantity and then try to leap back to a quality.

    Ain’t going to happen. Ever.

    But it’s good to read an intelligent article on the subject once in a while, rather than a stream of cognitive science internal linguistic constructs and tongue-twisters.


Leave a Reply