From Sensor Variables to Phenomenal Facts
I wrote this short piece for a special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies on Chalmers's "The Meta-Problem of Consciousness" (2018). Much of my paper rehashes ideas from section 5 of my "Imaginary Foundations" paper, but here I try to present these ideas more simply and directly, without the Bayesian background.
The central claim I try to defend is that the hard problem of consciousness arises from a particular method by which our brain processes sensory input. Agents whose brain uses that method can be expected to be puzzled about phenomenal consciousness, even if they live in a purely physical world. The story is meant to answer the "meta-problem" of what gives rise to our puzzlement about consciousness, but it is also meant to dissolve the first-order problem: once we understand the source of the puzzlement, we should no longer be puzzled.
One issue I didn't explicitly address in "Imaginary Foundations", but do briefly address in the new paper, is what first-order theory of consciousness actually emerges from my proposal: Are there phenomenal properties? Are they reducible to physical properties? Does Mary learn something new? Are zombies possible? Are we zombies?
My answer is complicated, and to some extent echoes what non-cognitivists say about moral properties. In a sense, I'm an eliminativist or illusionist about phenomenal properties: there are no such things out there in objective reality. However, on the proposal I outline, our credences in hypotheses about phenomenal properties ("imaginary propositions") do not serve a straightforwardly representational function. Their purpose is to allow for an efficient and context-sensitive update of our genuine beliefs about the world. If you give credence zero to all imaginary propositions, your update system is broken. You shouldn't do that, even if you know that there is nothing in the world that makes any imaginary proposition true. In a nutshell, it's OK to have beliefs about phenomenal properties, and to talk about them, even though neither the beliefs nor the assertions track anything in metaphysical reality.
I had a strict limit of 4000 words, so I couldn't spell out any details. As a result, I'm still not sure what some of the details should look like. I also didn't have space to connect what I'm saying to the various proposals discussed by Chalmers, let alone to the rest of the literature. In many ways, my ideas are closely related to lots of other ideas that have been put forward. I'm not even sure if I'm saying something new at all, as opposed to saying something old in a new way.