A brief summary of my dissertation

My dissertation ‘Self-Involving Representationalism: a naturalistic theory of phenomenal consciousness‘ is divided into two parts, each of which comprises two chapters.

The first part attempts to make feasible the project of naturalizing consciousness itself. In it, I present some of the problems that a materialist theory of consciousness faces, my aim being to introduce and counter arguments against materialist theories of consciousness.

In the first chapter of this part, the purpose is to reflect on the two main arguments presented in the last thirty years against materialism: the modal argument and the knowledge argument. I present these interrelated arguments and discuss the plausibility of some possible replies to counter these arguments. I argue that there is a reply to these arguments that is compatible with the thesis of materialism: the phenomenal concept strategy.

The second chapter of this part, Phenomenal Consciousness and Vagueness, deals with arguments that maintain either that phenomenal characters are vague and physical properties are not or that phenomenal characters are sharp and physical properties are vague, ultimately concluding that phenomenal characters cannot be identified with physical properties. To clarify the debate, I distinguish two senses in which phenomenal characters can be said to be vague: horizontally and vertically. The non-transitivity of the relation ‘looks the same as’ has been used to support the claim that phenomenal characters are vague in the first sense. I argue that this mistakes the notion of distinguishability that should individuate phenomenal characters and that it presupposes that cognitive access is essential to the phenomenal character. I will further consider arguments that support the claim that phenomenal characters are vague in the second sense; namely, that it can be indeterminate whether being in a state feels at all or not. I will maintain that these arguments are based either on a confusion on the notion of consciousness in play or on a confusion between metaphysics and epistemology. Finally, I consider an argument that accepts that phenomenal characters are sharp but not so physical properties and argue that this is not a problem for materialism.

In the second part I offer a positive theory of phenomenal consciousness. I defend a narrow representationalist view. In order to save the internalist intuition, according to which phenomenal properties (the properties of mental states in virtue of which there is something it is like for the subject to be in any of these state) are intrinsic properties of the subject and to address certain objections to representationalist theories (shifted spectrum) I appeal, following Shoemaker and Egan, to appearance properties and offer a complete naturalistic characterization of these properties.

I argue that the content of the experience that determines the phenomenology is de se content; when having an experience I do not merely attribute a certain property to the object causing the experience but I attribute to myself the property of being presented with an entity with certain features. I argue that such content can be naturalized in first-order terms by appealing to a certain sense of self: the sense of a bounded, living organism adapting to the environment to maintain life and the processes underlying the monitoring of the activity within these bounds. I maintain that a certain form of self-consciousness is essential to the phenomenology.

Two kinds of states are involved in such an explanation. The first one is the proto-qualitative state; this is a state that represents a certain property of the world relative to a certain organism. This content is indexed to a certain kind of organisms. The kind of representational properties that proto-qualitative states have cannot be phenomenal properties (the content of the experience cannot be indexical) unless we want to give up the intuition that different kind of people (race, age, sex) can have experiences with the same kind of phenomenal character. The second one is the proto-self, a system that monitors and controls the most stable processes of the organism, the homeodynamics of the organism. It is the interaction between these two states that constitutes the phenomenally conscious mental state.

At the level of content, this interaction will explain why the content of experience is de se. What is relevant for the mental state is not only the properties that the object causing the experience has, that the apple is causing the activation of a certain neural network, but the fact that it is causing the activity of the neural network and that this neural network plays a relevant role in the homeodynamic regulation of a particular organism. The content is not just that the object is disposed to cause such-and-such but that the object is disposed to cause such-and-such in my organism, where the pronoun ‘my’ should be read de se, so that two different organisms can have states with the same content. Different organisms ascribe to themselves the very same centered property, just as Manolo and Marta attribute to themselves the very same centered property when they have the belief expressed by the sentence ’I live in Barcelona’. This fact, I argue, also makes sense of the claim in the phenomenological tradition that the self is part of the content of the experience; not as an object (Gegenstand) but as a subject.

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