First Person Singular
One of the problems, which constantly intrudes on Koch’s argument but is never resolved, is that conscious mental states do not belong to a single category. We assume that all sensations are conscious (there is no such thing, for example, as unconscious toothache), that there is both conscious and unconscious thought, and that while desire may be unconscious, intention never is. But what do conscious mental states have in common? At times Koch seems to suggest that they are all “felt” by the subject, or that they each possess a particular subjective quality or “quale” that is observable only to the subject. But we don’t feel our thoughts, and there is no subjective quale that distinguishes the belief that two plus two is four from the belief that three plus three is six, or the intention to sit down to supper from the intention to eat a steak. In the case of language-using creatures, we distinguish conscious from unconscious mental states through the “first-person” perspective. A state is conscious if the subject can truly confess to it, without having to carry out an investigation and on no basis other than understanding the words that he uses. Hence in other places Koch seems to take the first-person case as characteristic of consciousness, a procedure that deprives him of a clear basis for attributing consciousness to animals, who never confess to their mental states because they never confess to anything. This is serious, since the science on which Koch draws derives from examining the brains of mice and monkeys.
Crucial to the Koch-Crick approach is a thought experiment involving the idea of the unconscious zombie. This is a creature all of whose behavior issues by reflex action, mediated by the cortex, but who is not conscious of what he is doing. This creature feels nothing, has no inner “qualia” and – presumably – no first-person awareness of his own mental states. So what else does he lack? Or can he be exactly like us and lack only those things? Koch is of the view that a zombie would lack the capacity to plan for the future or to deal with multicontingency situations where complex choices must be made. Plotting, planning, and deciding, he says, are among the important functions of consciousness and point to a Darwinian explanation of why consciousness exists.
Such an argument will help in the “quest for consciousness” only if we can show how “feeling,” “qualia,” and the “first-person case” are connected to plotting and planning. If the connection is only contingent, then a zombie could possess all the functions of consciousness without the feelings. If the connection is necessary, then it must be established in some way other than by scientific inference. As it is, the reader is left at the end of Koch’s book with the puzzle with which it began: granted that there are neuronal correlates of consciousness, what exactly are they correlated with? And what exactly do we mean by “correlation”?
To answer that question, I would suggest first that we dismiss the idea of purely subjective “qualia.” The belief that these essentially private features of mental states exist, and that they form the introspectible essence of whatever possesses them, is grounded in a confusion, one that Wittgenstein tried to sweep away in his arguments against the possibility of a private language. When you judge that I am in pain, it is on the basis of my circumstances and behavior, and you could be wrong. When I ascribe a pain to myself, I don’t use any such evidence. I don’t find out that I am in pain by observation, nor can I be wrong. But that is not because there is some other fact about my pain, accessible only to me, which I consult in order to establish what I am feeling. For if there were this inner private quality, I could misperceive it; I could get it wrong, and I would have to find out whether I am in pain. To describe my inner state, I would also have to invent a language, intelligible only to me – and that, Wittgenstein plausibly argues, is impossible. The conclusion to draw is that I ascribe pain to myself not on the basis of some inner quale but on no basis at all.
Of course, there is a difference between knowing what pain is and knowing what pain is like. But to know what it is like is not to know some additional inner fact about it, but simply to have felt it. We are dealing with familiarity rather than information. While one philosopher – Thomas Nagel, a professor at New York University and author of The View from Nowhere, a fascinating study of subjectivity – has placed great emphasis on the “what it’s like” idea, suggesting that it describes a distinctive mark of conscious experience, the idea remains opaque to further analysis. “What it’s like” is not a proxy for a description but a refusal to describe. We can spell it out, if at all, only in metaphors. Q: “What’s it like, darling, when I touch you there?” A: “Like the taste of marmalade, harmonized by late Stravinsky.”
Similarly, we are not going to get very far in understanding consciousness if we concentrate on the idea of “feeling” things. For there are conscious mental states that have nothing to do with feeling. We feel our sensations and emotions, certainly, just as we feel our desires. All of those mental states would once have been classified as passions, as opposed to mental actions – thought, judgement, intention, deduction – which are not felt but done. I can deliberately think of Mary, judge a picture, make a decision or a calculation, even imagine a centaur, but not deliberately have a pain in the finger, a fear of spiders, or a desire for more cake. Even if I could have a pain by willing it, or if I manage to suppress my desires, this does not mean that pains and desires are actions, but only that they are passions that I can affect through mental discipline, as a yogi might reduce his heart rate. Moreover, there are psychologists and philosophers who seem quite happy with the idea of “unconscious feelings.” We may balk at the expression, but we know what they mean. It is possible to feel something without being conscious of the feeling. Feeling is a mark of consciousness only if we interpret “feeling” as “awareness.” But what is it to be aware of something? Well, to be conscious of it.