There are many eye-brow raising sentences in Ted Honderich’s paper “Consciousness as Existence, Devout Physicalism, Spiritualism”, accessible on his own web-site. Not the least surprising is the confession, half-way through, that the paper was rejected by the Journal of Consciousness Studies. The lack of reserve here will be familiar to readers of Honderich’s remarkably frank autobiography “Philosopher: a kind of life”.
But what’s going on? Honderich, now retired, had a long and eminent career in philosophy. He is the former Grote Professor at University College, London; author of many magisterial works, notably on punishment, free will, and the justifications for terrorism. He has himself acted as editor for more philosophy books than you could conveniently shake a stick at. You really wouldn’t expect him to be getting many flat rejections at this stage.
I think I can shed some light on that. I believe the JCS must have rejected the paper because it just makes no sense. I’ve read it carefully, and it’s not that I disagree with Honderich – I just cannot make out what he is getting at. Look, he says ‘For you to be conscious of the room is, it seems, for the room somehow to exist.’ I’d like this sentence a lot better without the ‘it seems’ and the ‘somehow’, but those are minor quibbles. Can he really mean that the room’s existence is the same thing as my being conscious of it? If so, it follows that I must be conscious of everything that exists. Which is surely nonsense. Equally, if my being conscious of the room is merely a fact about the room (that it exists), the state of my brain at the time is irrelevant. So I could have exactly the same brain state while conscious of the room as I have while I’m not conscious of it. Which is also surely nonsense.
So what can he mean? He says that what is normally, or by some people, taken to be the contents of consciousness are in fact, more or less, consciousness itself. What could that mean? I can imagine someone declaring that the contents of a book were the book (rather than any actual physical copy of the book), but how would that apply to consciousness? It seems that if you interpret it one way it becomes vacuous (the fact that consciousness has contents is what distinguishes it from unconsciousness); if you interpret it another it becomes absurd (there is no distinction between the conscious thing and the thing it is conscious of).
Honderich doesn’t give us all that much help in the course of the paper. He compares his theory with hard-line materialism and with dualism (the ‘devout physicalism’ and ‘spiritualism’ of the title), and he rates it against four criteria which he seems to take as obvious, but which in fact seem rather arbitrarily chosen. None of this helps much in the basic task of grasping his meaning. At one early stage I wondered if we were heading towards some kind of idealism, but Honderich, pointing out that he is ‘not mad as a hatter’ says his views are nothing to do with Bishop Berkeley, and no kind of epiphenomenalism, either.
I think you have to remember that Honderich has been struggling with the mind-body problem since long before it became so fashionable. I think part of his reason for stressing existence is simply to short-circuit the argument from error which was still strong thirty years ago (actually it still crops up). According to that argument, the fact that we are sometimes wrong about our perceptions shows it’s really only sense-data, or images we perceive – by stressing that true consciousness involves the existence of the perceived, Honderich rules that line of thinking firmly out of court.
I don’t think the theory is quite as confusing as you maintain, but I do have a bit of difficulty deciding whether it is meant to be relativistic or absolute. Some of the things said imply that each conscious entity exists in its own perceived world, where indeed existence and consciousness coincide, but it’s also a key point for Honderich that his argument makes consciousness a straightforward physical phenomenon, amenable to physical investigation. I’m not sure how these two claims can be reconciled.
We mustn’t forget, of course, the possibility that Honderich has got it absolutely right, and cracked the ultimate mystery of consciousness – but that we’re still too stupid to understand the answer, even when it’s explained to us.
Honderich himself doesn’t seem to regard the theory as the final truth, though. He claims that it has the desirable quality of explaining its own limitations – if consciousness is like this, no wonder it seems permanently mysterious – and suggests we might see merit in several different theories – pursue several in tandem. That doesn’t seem to me an unappealing perspective.