I’m an analytic metaphysician who thinks analytic metaphysicians don’t think enough about consciousness. By consciousness I mean the property of being a thing such that there’s something that it’s like to be that thing; the property of having an inner life. There’s something that it’s like for a rabbit to be cold, or to be kicked, or to have a knife stuck in it. There’s nothing that it’s like (or so we ordinarily suppose) for a table to be cold, or to be kicked, or to have a knife stuck in it. In contrast to the rabbit, there’s nothing that it’s like ‘from the inside’ to be a table. We mark this difference by saying that the rabbit, but not the table, is conscious.
The property of consciousness is special because we know for certain that it is instantiated. Not only that but we know for certain that consciousness as we ordinarily conceive of it is instantiated. I am not claiming that we know everything there is to know about consciousness, or that we never make mistakes about our own conscious experience. My claim is simply that one is justified in being certain – believing with a credence of 1 – that there is something that it’s like to be oneself, according to one’s normal understanding of what it would be for there to be something that it is like to be oneself.
This makes our relationship with consciousness radically different from our relationship with any other feature of reality. Much metaphysics begins from certain ‘Moorean truths’; truths of common sense that it is intolerable to deny. Perhaps it is a Moorean truth that some or all of the following things exist: persons, time, space, freedom, value, solid matter. But it would be difficult to justify starting metaphysical enquiry from the conviction that these things must exist as we ordinarily conceive of them. We must remain open to science and philosophy overturning our folk notions of what it is for someone to be free, or something to be solid, or for time to pass.
Matters are different when it comes to consciousness. It is not simply that I can gesture at some property of ‘consciousness’ with folk platitudes, and have confidence that something satisfies the bulk of those platitudes. When I entertain the proposition <there is something that it’s like to be me>, I know that that very proposition (not it or some revision of it containing a slightly different concept of ‘being something such that there’s something that it’s like to be it’) is true.
You can’t build a satisfactory metaphysical theory wholly from the datum that there is consciousness; that datum is after all consistent with solipsism. We must continue to rely on Moorean truths, empirical data and the weighing of theoretical virtues in trying to formulate our best guess at what reality is like. But because the datum that there is consciousness (as we ordinarily conceive of it) is unrevisable, it ought to occupy a central place in enquiry; a fixed point around which other considerations revolve. I call an approach to analytic metaphysics that grants the reality of consciousness this central place ‘analytic phenomenology.’
The potential of this datum is grossly underexplored; it has arguable implications for the nature of time, persistence, properties, composition, objecthood and personal identity. Time will tell, but it is possible that, with an agreed source of unrevisable data, analytic phenomenologists may achieve some degree of consensus on certain key questions, a goal which has so far eluded other schools of metaphysics.