Why Consciousness Can't Be Objectified

Below is the abstract and pdf of a paper on consciousness submitted for the Frontiers series on Neo-Naturalist Approaches to Consciousness. Note that this is a pre-publication draft so may change in response to reviewer feedback. Comments welcome via the contact page or email.

Consciousness and the Representational Relation:
Why Experience Can’t Be Objectified

Thomas W. Clark, Institute for Behavioral Health, Schneider Institutes for Health Policy, Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University

Keywords: consciousness, qualia, physicalism, representation, phenomenal experience, objectivity, content


Humans are physical beings that are also conscious, but physicalism struggles to locate consciousness in the natural world described by science. The world appears to conscious creatures in terms of experienced sensory qualities – qualia – but science doesn’t find qualities in that world, only physical objects and properties. I argue that the failure to locate consciousness in spacetime is a function of our necessarily representational relation to reality as knowers: we won’t discover the terms in which reality is represented by us in the world as it appears in those terms. Other instances of this failure are uncontroversial: we don’t expect to find concepts, numbers or propositions as locatable entities or properties in the world they participate in describing. Rather, we understand that they are mind-dependent representational terms or tools – basic elements of cognitive content – that we deploy in characterizing reality. Philosophers sometimes suggest that mathematical entities have objective ontological status: they exist in a mind-independent abstract Platonic realm. Likewise, physicalists who are realists about consciousness generally assume its objectivity: experience must be something identical with physical processes or properties, perhaps the intrinsic nature of the physical, or perhaps some micro-physical, neural, or emergent property. I argue that this assumption wrongly reifies consciousness; it expects to find qualitative representational content in the physical world as characterized using such content. Instead, we should grant that conscious experience constitutes a mind-dependent, subjective, representational reality for cognitive systems such as ourselves, and that the physical world given in experience and in science is a represented objective reality. The former, since it exists only for conscious subjects, won’t be found as an entity in the latter. I suggest that naturalistic approaches to explaining consciousness should acknowledge the representational relation and the non-objectivity of experience, and be constrained by evidence that consciousness accompanies certain sorts of behavior-controlling representational functions carried out by complex, physically-instantiated mind-systems. I evaluate a variety of current hypotheses about consciousness on that basis, and suggest that a science of representation could help explain why, perhaps as matter of representational necessity, experience arises as a natural but not objectively discoverable phenomenon.

PDF of full text is PDF icon here.