How can we imagine consciousness

I'm reading Peter Carruthers's newest book, Human and Animal Minds. I was struck by this passage:

In general, [phenomenal consciousness / conscious experience] is definitely present or definitely absent. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what it would be like for a mental state to be partially present in one's awareness. Items and events in the world, of course, can be objects of merely partial awareness. Someone who witnesses a mugging... might say "It all happened so fast I was only partly aware of what was going on." But this is about how much of the event one is conscious of.... The experience in question is nevertheless determinately present.... Similarly, if one is struggling to make out a shape in the dark as one walks home, still it seems, nevertheless, to be determinately -- unequivocally -- like something to have a visual experience of indeterminate shape.... I conclude that we can't make sense of degrees of phenomenal consciousness (2019, p. 20-23, bold added).

In my draft paper, Is There Something It's Like to Be a Garden Snail?, I also discuss this issue, expressing ambivalence between the perspective Carruthers articulates here and what I call the "bird's eye" view, according to which it's very plausible that phenomenal consciousness, like almost everything else in this world, admits of in-between, gray-area cases.

My main hesitation about allowing in-between cases of phenomenal consciousness (what-it's-like-ness, conscious experience; see my definition here, if you want to get technical), is that I can't really imagine what it would be like to be in a kind-of-yes / kind-of-no conscious state. As Carruthers emphasizes, imagining even a tiny little smear of indeterminate, momentary consciousness is already imagining a case in which a small amount of consciousness is discretely present.

But this way of articulating the problem maybe already helps me see past the puzzle. Or at least, that's my conjecture today!

For analogy, consider this following argument by George Berkeley, the famous idealist philosopher who thought that no finite object could exist except as an idea in someone's mind (and thus that material objects don't exist). In this dialogue, Philonous is generally understood to represent Berkeley's view:

Philonous: How say you, Hylas, can you see a thing which is at the same time unseen?

Hylas: No, that were a contradiction.

P: Is it not as great a contradiction to talk of conceiving a thing which is unconceived?

H: It is.

P: The tree or house, therefore, which you think of is conceived by you?

H: How should it be otherwise?

P: And what is conceived is surely in the mind?

H: Without question, that which is conceived is in the mind.

P: How then came you to say you conceived a house or tree existing independent and out of all minds whatsoever?

H: That was I own an oversight....

P: You acknowledge then that you cannot possibly conceive how any one corporeal sensible thing should exist otherwise than in a mind?

H: I do.

(Berkeley 1713/1965, p. 140-141).

Therefore, see, there are no mind-independent, material things! Whoa.

Few philosophers are convinced by Berkeley's argument, and there are several ways of thinking about how it might fail. One way of thinking about its failure is to analogize it to the following dialogue:

A: Can you visually imagine something that exists but has no shape?

B: No, I cannot visually imagine such a thing. Everything I visually imagine has at least some vague, hazy shape.

A: Therefore, everything that exists must have a shape.

The problem with A's argument is that he is assuming a certain kind of psychological test for the reality of a phenomenon -- in this case, visual imagination. Because of how the test operates, everything that passes the test has property A -- in this case, a shape. But the test isn't a good one: There are things that might fail the test (fail to be visually imaginable) and yet nonetheless exist (souls, numbers, democracy, dispositions, time?) or which might be visually imaginable but with shape as only a property of the image rather than of the thing itself (if, for example, you visually imagine a ballot box when you think about democracy).

In Berkeley's argument, the test for existence appears to be being conceived by me (or Hylas), and the contingent property that all things that pass the test have is being conceived by someone. However, we non-idealists can all agree that being conceived of by someone is only a contingent fact about things like trees, and thus we see straightaway that the test must be flawed. From Hylas's failure to conceive of something he is not conceiving of, it does not follow that everything that exists must be conceived of by someone.

[ETA: See update at the end of the post]

Okay, so that was a long preface to my main idea. Here's the idea.

In the process of imagining a type of conscious experience, we construct a new conscious experience: the experience of imagining that experience. This act of imagination, in order to be experienced by us as a successful imagination, must involve, as a part, a conscious experience which is analogous to the experience that we are targeting. Call this the occurrent analog. For example, if we are trying to imagine what it's like to see red, we form, as the occurrent analog, a visual image that of redness. If we are trying to imagine what it would be like to see an object hazily in the dark, the occurrent analog a visual image of a hazy object.

We will not feel that we have succeeded in the imaginative task unless we succeed in creating a conscious experience that is (in our judgment) an appropriate occurrent analog of the target conscious experience. This will require that the occurrent analog be determinately a conscious experience, for example, a determinately conscious imagery experience of redness.

We will then notice that always, when we try to imagine a conscious experience, either we fail in the imaginative exercise, or we imagine a determinately conscious experience. From this general fact about testing, we might reach -- illegitimately -- the general conclusion that conscious experience is always either determinately present or absent. We think there can be no in-between cases, because we cannot imagine such in-between cases successfully enough. But this is no more a sound conclusion than is Berkeley's conclusion that all finite objects must be conceived by someone or than my toy conclusion that everything that exists must have a shape. The lack of successfully imagined in-between cases of consciousness is a feature of the imaginative test rather than a feature of reality.

[image source]


Update, Jan. 10 Margaret Atherton and Samuel Rickless have suggested that I have misinterpreted Berkeley's argument in an uncharitable way. The central point of the post does not depend on whether the bad argument I attributed to Berkeley is in fact Berkeley's argument -- it's merely meant as a model of a bad argument, where the fallacy is clear, which can be applied to the case of imagining experiences that are in-between conscious and nonconscious.

Rickless's interpretation, from his book on Berkeley, is that this passage fits with what he calls Berkeley's Master Argument:

This, then, is Berkeley’s Master Argument (where X is an arbitrary mind and T is an arbitrary sensible object):
(1) X conceives that T exists unconceived. [Assumption for reductio]
(2) If X conceives that T is F, then X conceives T. [Conception Schema]
So, (3) X conceives T. [From 1, 2]
(4) If X conceives T, then T is an idea. [Idea Schema]
So, (5) T is an idea. [From 3, 4]
(6) If T is an idea, then it is impossible that T exists unconceived. [Nature of Ideas]
So, (7) It is impossible that T exists unconceived. [From 5, 6]
(8) If it is impossible that p, then it is impossible to conceive that p. [Impossibility entails Inconceivability]
So,(9) It is impossible to conceive that T exists unconceived. [From 7, 8]
So, (10) X does not conceive that T exists unconceived. [From 9]
So, (11) X does and does not conceive that T exists unconceived. [From 1, 10]

The crucial dubious premise here is that anything that is conceived is an idea (the Idea Schema). Possibly, this still instantiates the general pattern of reasoning that I criticize in this post: the inference from the fact that all X that I conceive of or imagine (in a certain way) have property A to the conclusion at all X have property A (where in this case X is an object and A is the property of being an idea).