Sensory States, Consciousness, and the Cartesian Assumption

In Nathan Smith and Jason Taylor (ed.), Descartes and Cartesianism. Cambridge Scholars Press (2005)
One of the central assumptions made in much of contemporary philosophy of mind is that there is no appearance-reality distinction when it comes to sensory states. On this assumption, sensory states simply are as they seem: consciousness is an intrinsic property of sensory states—that is, all sensory states are conscious—and the consciousness of one’s own sensory states is never inaccurate. For a sensation to be felt as pain, for example, is for it to be pain. This assumption, which I call the Cartesian assumption, can be seen everywhere from the standard arguments against physicalism—such as those advanced by Kripke, Nagel, and Levine—to current theorizing about consciousness. I here argue that this assumption is false and that it goes wrong in two ways. I further argue that the appeal of the Cartesian assumption is due to a commitment many still have to a poorly motivated and misguided Cartesian model of consciousness and its relation to mental states. As an alternative to this Cartesian concept of mind, I argue for a theory of consciousness which claims that the “phenomenal character” of a sensation or perception—the “what it’s like” to have that sensation—is determined by the content of a higher-order thought one has of that sensory state.
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