The problem of consciousness is one of the hardest facing science and philosophy today. But in order to inquire fruitfully into this great problem, we first need to make sure we are asking the same question, and have an adequate initial clarification of what we are talking about. There are perhaps five leading ideas in the existing philosophy and science of consciousness: qualia; what it is like for something to be that thing; subjectivity; intentionality; and phenomenality. Each of these five ideas has advanced inquiry in different directions, but they have all failed to provide an initial clarification of the subject. They demonstrate the unfortunate fact that minds are not meeting – we seem concerned with different subjects.
As a result of this disagreement about definitions of consciousness, we have seen the emergence of a number of competing theories. There is a clear confrontation between functionalism and mentalism, for example, and, most obviously, a confrontation between the different subjects of mentality in general and conscious mentality somehow conceived, maybe conscious mentality inchoately conceived as actual consciousness.
I propose that consciousness clarified as consciousness in the primary ordinary sense, as actual consciousness, is the rich fact of what is subjectively physical in the three ways. That is to say, first, that if you look at advocacy of the five leading ideas, you can accumulate data in fact owed to our hold on our consciousness, linguistic data that records our knowledge of our consciousness. This is consciousness in the (or a) primary ordinary sense. You can add to the evidence right now by reflecting on what it is for you to see the room you are in without attending to it. You can add to the data as well by thinking it must be getting on for 7 o'clock, and wanting to hear the radio news.
In a metaphorical or at least figurative generalisation, to be conscious in perceptual, cognitive and affective ways is something's being actual. This is what it is to be conscious in the primary ordinary sense. This consciousness can rightly have the name of being actual consciousness. You can follow what may be the most common early step of method in science and the rest of inquiry. That is to attempt to proceed from the figurative to the literal. You can answer literally two general questions. What is actual with each of the three sides of consciousness (perceptual, cognitive and affective)? What it is for it to be actual? A general theory or analysis of consciousness will consist in those answers and their elaboration.
You can then proceed towards the answers, different in the three cases, by looking over the weaknesses and strengths of dominant theories of consciousness at this time, these being abstract functionalism and physical functionalism, and then considering an additional raft of theories. The functionalisms and the other theories illustrate the proposition of disagreement being owed to no common subject, most notably with respect to conscious mentality or unconscious mentality or both. More importantly, you can complete a set of conditions of adequacy for a theory of consciousness. You can proceed further by considering what it is for something to be physical in at least the dominant sense in science and philosophy. That is, what is it to be objectively physical.
The general answer to the question of what is actual with your perceptual consciousness is part of a subjective physical world of several dependencies, out there in space, and nothing else whatever. Your being conscious now is exactly and nothing more than this severally-dependent fact external to you of a room's existing, certainly not a representation of anything. So universal representationism is denied by actualism.
The general answer to the question of what such a world's being actual comes to is that it is in a way subjectively physical. It is both physical and subjective, this being a matter of a considerable number of characteristics. One physical characteristic is spatiality. One subjective characteristic is the large and special fact of subjectivity that is individuality.
The general answer to the question of what is actual with cognitive and affective consciousness gives a place to representationism. Cognitive and affective consciousness is actual representations, all about or in some way derived from subjective physical worlds or thereby from the objective physical world. What is actual are these dependent aboutnesses, which can be explained in general, and nothing else whatever. Thinking and wanting, all cognitive and affective consciousness, consists in these actual representations. Their being actual is their being subjectively physical in ways different from subjective physical world. Again this is a matter of a number of characteristics, and of judgement pertaining to them rather than proof.
Your being perceptually conscious is therefore exactly a dependent state of affairs external to you, and your being cognitively and affectively conscious is a dependent state of affairs internal to you. So with any kind of conscious thing. The partial externalism, a matter of our common experience, is not any other existing externalism about meaning, to the effect that meaning or conscious states are determined or affected by some kind of externality, or an externalism that includes or implicates action and behaviour in consciousness, or one that has to do with external representation. This externalism has rightly had the name in the past of being a radical externalism.
The externalism and internalism together of dependent worlds and representations exhaust the facts of conscious mentality, as against unconscious mentality or the unconscious mind. To say so is not to diminish the role or contribution of either. The theory locates in unconscious mentality the realities of which counterparts have often been assigned mistakenly to conscious mentality, such as qualia and the vehicle of consciousness.
Actualism, in its embrace of both an externalism and an internalism, is of course again distinguished from the other externalisms. Looking back for a moment, questions come to mind. Has it been the fact persuasive to all of internalism about cognitive and affective consciousness that has stood in the way of a wide acceptance of any somehow general and encompassing externalism? Has it been the fact of externalism about perceptual consciousness that has prompted an externalism that has been extended more or less to all of consciousness? Is it only our different position – externalism in the one case and internalism in the other – that accords with reality as it speaks for itself?
To accept the premises of actualism, essentially the figurative data on consciousness as we think and speak of it and the resulting figurative general conception of consciousness as actual, is to be committed to the theory or analysis of actualism about consciousness. If the theory is not only respectful of but owed to the science of consciousness, it is more owed to the logic of ordinary intelligence that is philosophy. It eschews scientism and tries as much to eschew the counterpart of it that can have the name of being philosophism. If it cannot engage in the science of consciousness or science in general, then it is constrained by it.
This is an edited extract from Ted Honderich's book, Actual Consciousness, OUP 2014
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