Abusing the notion of what-it's-like-ness: A response to Block

Analysis 71 (3):438-443 (2011)
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Ned Block argues that the higher-order (HO) approach to explaining consciousness is ‘defunct’ because a prominent objection (the ‘misrepresentation objection’) exposes the view as ‘incoherent’. What’s more, a response to this objection that I’ve offered elsewhere (Weisberg 2010) fails because it ‘amounts to abusing the notion of what-it’s-like-ness’ (xxx).1 In this response, I wish to plead guilty as charged. Indeed, I will continue herein to abuse Block’s notion of what-it’s-like-ness. After doing so, I will argue that the HO approach accounts for the sense of what-it’s-like-ness that matters in a theory of consciousness. I will also argue that the only incoherence present in the HO theory is that generated by embracing Block’s controversial notion of what-it’s-like-ness, something no theorist of any stripe ought to do. Block is famous for (among other things) having introduced the notion of ‘phenomenal consciousness’ into contemporary philosophy of mind (Block 1995). This term is widely employed in the philosophical literature and it even appears in the empirical literature. But wide-speared usage has brought about divergent interpretations of the term. We can distinguish a ‘moderate’ and a ‘zealous’ reading of ‘phenomenal consciousness’. On the moderate reading, ‘phenomenal consciousness’ just means ‘experience’. Many people have embraced this sense of the term and use it to roughly pick out conscious experience involving sensory quality (states like conscious visual experiences or conscious pains, for example).2 On the zealous reading, however, phenomenal consciousness is held to be ‘distinct from any cognitive, intentional, or functional property’ (Block 1995: 234). That is, any explanation of phenomenal consciousness in exclusively cognitive, intentional, or functional terms will fail to capture, without remainder, what is really distinctive about phenomenal consciousness. Block, of course, is fully clear about embracing the zealous reading; indeed, his initial introduction of the notion is in those terms. The same ambiguity occurs with the much-used (and abused) idea of ‘what-it’s-like-ness’..



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Josh Weisberg
University of Houston

References found in this work

What is it like to be a bat?Thomas Nagel - 1974 - Philosophical Review 83 (October):435-50.
On a confusion about a function of consciousness.Ned Block - 1995 - Brain and Behavioral Sciences 18 (2):227-–247.
What is it like to be a bat?Thomas Nagel - 1979 - In Mortal questions. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 435 - 450.
Consciousness and Mind.David M. Rosenthal - 2005 - New York: Oxford University Press UK.

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