Further to my previous posts re recent work of Galen Strawson and Gregg Rosenberg, The Journal of Consciousness Studies has an issue devoted to Strawson’s paper (a good discussion of which can be found here in Steve’s Guide to Reality - also the JCS discussion forum has lots of interesting posts in response to the paper), and the online journal Psyche has a symposia devoted to Rosenberg’s book.
One of the papers in the Psyche symposia by Yujin Nagasawa, entitled “ a Place for Protoconsciousness”, claims that postulating the existence of noncognitive experiences occurring outside the brain (“protoconsciousness”) is either implausible or irrelevant to the problem of consciousness. Nagasawa’s argument relies on a metaphysical objection and a conceptual objection, the former of which I will address in this post.
Nagasawa’s metaphysical objection states:
“ Regardless of their precise characteristics, properties of protoconsciousness have
to be mental properties that are either metaphysically continuous with properties of
consciousness we ordinarily have or distinct from them. Suppose, first, that properties of
protoconsciousness are continuous with properties of ordinary consciousness. The only
difference is, perhaps, that protoconscious experience is more subtle than ordinary
conscious experience. In this case, there is a close connection between
protoconsciousness, which some noncognitive systems, have and ordinary consciousness,
which cognitive systems have. Hence, the analysis of protoconsciousness seems to be
relevant to the mystery of consciousness. However, the cost of supposing that properties
of protoconsciousness are continuous with properties of ordinary consciousness is very
high, because this supposition makes panexperientialism almost as implausible as
traditional panpsychism. That is, this supposition compels panexperientialists to accept
the implausible claim that noncognitive systems are conscious essentially in the way we
are (except on a smaller scale). Hence, if we assume that properties of protoconsciousness
are continuous with properties of ordinary consciousness, panexperientialism turns out to
be extremely implausible.
It then seems reasonable to think that properties of protoconsciousness are distinct
from properties of ordinary consciousness, and this is what Rosenberg thinks. He writes:
The experiences we might attribute to noncognitive systems…have some kind of
qualitative character very alien to us…Whatever we are attributing, it is not any
kind of feeling with which we can empathize (pp. 94-95).
This remark is consistent with the fact that Rosenberg gives the unique name
“protoconsciousness” to the postulated phenomenon, instead of calling it consciousness
However, if protoconsciousness, which noncognitive systems can have, is so
radically different from ordinary consciousness then it is irrelevant to the mystery of
consciousness, which is concerned with our ordinary consciousness. By introducing
protoconciousness, therefore, Rosenberg creates a further mystery; that of
Therefore, panexperientialism is either very implausible or irrelevant, depending
on how we interpret the relevant notions.” End of Quote.
I think the flaw in this argument is that Nagasawa is conflating two different senses in which one thing can be distinct from another. I don’t think anyone would sensibly deny that putative experiences of the most simplest systems would be distinct from human consciousness in that the two would be vastly different from each other. But this is not to say the two must belong to metaphysically distinct categories, in the same way in which a spec of dust is vastly different from but not metaphysically distinct from a diamond or a planet. Things can be distinct without being metaphysically distinct.
Once it is accepted that experiences can be distinct in the sense of being vastly different whilst still being of the same metaphysical type there does not seem to be much limit on how different other experiences could be from human consciousness. It is not the case that if consciousness and protoconsciousness are of the same metaphysical type that protoconsciousness must be conscious in essentially the same way we are. All that is necessary is that the two have a metaphysical equivalence in terms of a subjective , phenomenal, qualitative aspect.
Furthermore, because they are of the same metaphysical type, protoconsciousness would therefore not be irrelevant to the explanation of human consciousness, because it could form the basis from which more complex experiences could develop.
On the subject of metaphysical distinctness, it also does not seem relevant to me that a lack of ability to emphasize or having an alien qualitative character has anything to do with such a distinction. I may not be able to empathise with some of the experiences of an animal , a deranged murderer, or someone hallucinating under the influence of LSD, and such experiences may have a qualitatively alien character, but this is not to suggest that they are of a distinct metaphysical type from other experiences with which I can empathise.
Thus, Nagasawa’s metaphysical argument that panexperientialism is implausible or irrelevant to the problem of consciousness is not a strong one in my view. Firstly, the claim of implausibility can be refuted on the basis that human consciousness and experiences of other systems can be metaphysically continuous, without implying that the latter are conscious in the way we are. Secondly, the claim of irrelevance only applies if protoconsciousness is metaphysically distinct from human consciousness, which it need not be.