Analytic Phenomenology

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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.

The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.


  1. Paul says

    I understand that you are a panpsychist and that the central claim that you defend as such is that whatever the fundamental constituents of the universe turn out to be, they must have some sort of consciousness; an ‘intrinsic nature’ that is experiential in some way, so to speak. (For the record I am defending a version of this view in a thesis I am writing).

    Well with that understood, I read your example illustrating the difference between consciousness in a rabbit, and non-consciousness in a table and I start to wonder if you have given up the central claim of panspychism. I have not yet read your approach to solving the combination problem, so you may have an answer to this challenge there, or at least a more reasonable way of explaining why tables and rocks don’t have consciousness, but it seems to me that by claiming first that the fundamental constituents of the universe are conscious, you must then claim that *all* resulting composite forms are themselves also conscious in some way. Otherwise you seem to be in the same predicament as the physicalist who claims that the fundamental constituents are fully and wholly non-conscious, and then must rely on brute emergence to explain our current human consciousness. Only you are in this predicament for the opposite reasons. If you believe that the fundamental constituents of the universe are conscious, then it seems to me that you cannot get any composite form out of those constituents that does not have some form of consciousness as well. Otherwise you are implicitly admitting that somewhere along the way, when all these fundamental constituents were combining together, their consciousness and the affects that it has, just disappeared. It just stopped having any affect. This is the brute emergence of non-consciousness, as opposed to the physicalist brute emergence of consciousness.

    So it seems that your examples of tables and rabbits might need some revision. The basic question is: “How do you get non-conscious objects out of fundamentally conscious constituents?”

    • Thanks Paul, interesting response.

      I wouldn’t read too much about my views into my definition of ‘consciousness’. I’m just trying to make the concept clear with reference to our commonsense views about what kind of things are or are not conscious; commonsense views which I guess I don’t hold as a panpsychist.

      Great argument though. Three points in response:

      1. I’m a panpsychist on grounds on theoretical virtue, not because I share the view of Galen Strawson that moving from non-consciousness to consciousness would constitute radical emergence. I am quite comfortable with the coherence of panprotopsychism, but panpsychism seems to me the default view on grounds of parsimony and theoretical elegance.
      2. I’m not sure I believe that there are any composite objects other than organisms, at least not in a metaphysically serious sense (i.e. I would distinguish the ‘metaphyscially serious’ in roughly the way Sider does, which I explore in my paper ‘Against funny physicailsm’).
      3. I do actually have a forthcoming paper ‘Orthdox property dualism + linguistic theory of vagueness = panpsychism’ arguing that all combinations of particles compose a conscious thing. I’ve gone off this view, though, as I’ve come to think that there is no reason to accept micro-physical causal closure.

      Do you write on these issues? Are you based at a university somewhere?

      • Paul says

        To answer the easy questions first: Yes, I am about to start my last year as an undergraduate philosophy major at the University of Texas at Austin. I’m currently writing an honors thesis defending panpsychism in much the same way that you do, which is why I sought out your blog and started reading your papers.

        Now to respond:

        1. I see where you are coming from in terms of your motivations for your defense of panpsychism, however, I think that the argument against brute emergentism is one of the key virtues of the view, beyond its elegance. And secondly, I am not as comfortable with panprotopsychism mainly because I don’t really know what it means for something to be ‘proto-experiential’ or ‘proto-conscious.’ One of the biggest arguments against that view for me is that the physicalist can say the same thing to save their view when challenged. They can stay consistent with the idea that the fundamental bits of the world are non-conscious per se, but have the capability to become conscious per se when they combine in the right way.
        2. I would have to read your full explanation of you view on composite objects before I felt comfortable responding(I’ll read it in the next few days). But, I do have a question: Is a block of lead a composite object or not? Science tells us it is a composite of millions of molecules. Is this a true composite object for you?
        3. As for this final point, I read your paper ‘The Phenomenal Bonding Solution to the Combination Problem’ today, and thought it was spot on. I have recently been reading “Process and Reality” by A.N. Whitehead, and he develops quite a similar view, although in his own terms, to yours. I had also had the general thought that this type of solution would work when I first came across pansychism and the combo problem a year ago. I think you’ve got the right answer. (if I had read that before making my first comment, my first comment would have been quite different haha!)

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