Actual Consciousness -- A Fuller Summary
13 July 2014

           What has been called the mind-body problem, and persisted for four centuries, apparently the relation between two things, has in fact been at least primarily one of them. It has been the mind problem, at least primarily the consciousness problem. What is the fact or state of being conscious? What is its nature?

           Ted Honderich is known for work in the philosophy of mind, a resolution of the issue of determinism's relations to the freedoms, and argument for social ends and political means. He is Grote Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic of University College London, and editor of The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.

             In Actual Consciousness, Oxford University Press, 213,000 words, six years in the writing, he gives plain but cumulative argument for a new theory or analysis of what it is to be conscious in the primary ordinary sense. If he does not claim to have solved all of the consciousness problem, or dreamed of replacing the science of consciousness, he has provided a novel line of argument for a theory that is a place for further work and maybe a liberation in both philosophy and science. 

            He proposes that 'the hard problem' of consciousness identified by David Chalmers does not exist, and that other pessimisms, say Chomsky’s, are escapable. 

            This unrelenting if informal book is a conversation with a reader, a reminder that both parties are uniquely well placed to think about the subject. Conscious is what they both are. The book first seeks agreement what it eventually claims to have established. This is that philosophical and scientific disagreement or supposed disagreement about consciousness has been owed mainly to not talking about the same thing, asking different questions. Despite five leading ideas of consciousness -- qualia, Tom Nagel's idea of what it is like to be something, traditional subjectivity having to do with a self, Brentano's and Tim Crane's ideas of intentionality or aboutness, and Ned Block's idea of phenomenality -- despite these leading ideas, there has been no adequate initial clarification of a single subject. 

            Actual Consciousness, perhaps more respectful of science than philosophy, rests on a database -- linguistic and hence conceptual data provided en passant by all us possessors of consciousness, we who have a hold with respect to our own consciousnesses, and in particular data provided in passing by the proponents themselves of the five leading ideas. Just a little of the data is of consciousness as being something's being had in a certain sense, given, encountered, experienced, undergone, something's being apparent, present, manifest, provided, something's being for or to something else, in touch, something not deduced or constructed, something's being open, presented, close, naked, something being transparent in the sense of being unconveyed through anything else, something's existing, being real, something's occurring, something's being content or object, something's being right there.

            This overlooked database, both epistemic and ontic in character, is not a notion of elusive entities, or a philosopher's apercu or single good idea, or a traditional obscurity, or a too narrow idea perhaps prompted by thinking about language, or an elusive amalgamation – or any bundle of these things, or of course any circularity in them. It is of course metaphorical or otherwise figurative. It can be encapsulated in the general and still figurative idea that consciousness in the primary ordinary sense is something being actual. This is the case in one way with consciousness in (i) seeing and other perception. It is the case in two other different ways with (ii) thinking along with the rest of cognitive consciousness, and (iii) with wanting along with the rest of affective consciousness. 

            All of which issues in two principal questions. What is actual? What is its being actual?

            What is actual with your perceptual consciousness right now is very likely only a room, a part or stage of a subjective physical world. What is actual is certainly not any kind of representation of a room, or an aboutness, or an inner content or object, or a room inside your head, or qualia or the like, or what is called mental paint, or a traditional self, or the causal or other relations between things that are the stuff of functionalism and cognitive science -- whatever part representations and the other things play in unconscious mentality. 

            The subjective physical world in your case now, one a myriad number of such worlds, and whose existence is put in no doubt whatever by that fact or by its transience, is both physical, in a way that can be fully articulated, and also subjective, in a sense or rather senses that can be quite as fully explained. Its being actual is exactly those facts of physicality. Out of the figurative data and the figurative encapsulation of it comes this literal and explicit analysis. There is progress from the figurative to the literal, of a kind familiar and documented in the history of science, and in the inception and construction of theories generally.

             More particularly, a room is out there in ordinary space and time, internally and otherwise lawfully connected, within the method and inventory of science, different from different points of view, bound up with perception, and so on. This fact of a room is constitutive of your perceptual consciousness now. What it is to be perceptually conscious is for a subjective physical world to exist. One of its lawful dependencies is on the objective physical world, more particularly a counterpart of the room in the objective physical world, which world is as much in need of different articulation. A second lawful dependency is on facts of you, facts also within the objective physical world.

            The objective physical world and the subjective physical worlds together comprise two parts of the physical world. In place of generalities about the two parts, there are counterpart checklists of 16 characteristics of each of them. To repeat, that there are a myriad number of subjective physical worlds, each identified by way of a particular perceiver, is perfectly consistent with each of them having such characteristics as noted. Each takes up space, is causal, and so on. Nor are such facts about a subjective physical world at all inconsistent with the two dependencies. Patently what has dependencies can take up space, be causal, and so on.

            To turn to cognitive consciousness, what is actual with you right now, say your just thinking of your mother or the proposition of there being different physicalities, or your attending to a room or something in it, is a representation or a sequence of representations. Cognitive consciousness is differently subjectively physical than with a room. Cognitive consciousness is, further, related to truth -- truth in a clear sense. With respect to affective as against cognitive consciousness, say your now wanting a glass of wine, what is actual is also representation, subjectively physical, but related to valuing, at bottom wanting, rather than truth. 

            An adequate account of these two kinds of conscious representation, called for by Jerry Fodor and others, whatever needs to be said of languages of thought, is supplied exactly by their being representations that are also actual. Representations in general are things characterized in a good lingualism, which is to say by a relation to speech and writing, not as in the theory of evolutionary causalism. Conscious representations are not only or purely representations, as are words on paper, but are also actual representations, which is to say exactly and only representations that are subjectively physical in their explained ways. The theory is not what is called relationism or computerism, and it is related to other work including Searle's impressive lingualism and his admirable Chinese room thought experiment. 

            So the theory of Actualism, a discriminating externalism-plus-internalism about consciousness, so consistent with our experience in its three sides, and familiar in the history of psychology, is put in place of both any flattening internalism or cranialism about all consciousness and also in place of any flattening or uncertain externalism. It is put in place, too, of any universal or any pure representationisms, say those of Crane or William Lycan. It is evidently a physicalism, a different one, very different indeed from the exemplary ones of Searle, Daniel Dennett, David Papineau, and others. It  does not impose on consciousness a false uniformity.

            If Actualism is a theory of consciousness uniquely owed to data, it is also offered as most in accord with a battery of criteria for judging theories of consciousness. These are got mainly from previously existing theories, notably existing physicalisms and the computer-inspired abstract functionalism in cognitive science and artificial intelligence, say the abstract functionalism of Block, as against physical functionalism, which has a role elsewhere in Actualism. Abstract functionalism, by the way, is argued for the first time to be essentially equivalent to nothing other than the traditional mind-body dualism of Descartes -- and the dualism of such successors today as Chalmers, Howard Robinson, in a way Jaegwon Kim, and Jonathan Lowe. 

            Above all, Actualism satisfies the criteria of making consciousness both real, partly since causal, and also different. Consciousness is real and different in explicit and unfactitious senses. Further, the theory necessarily gives full content to the endless and correct preoccupation with subjectivity in connection with consciousness. In particular, subjective physicality includes an individuality, bound up with personal identity. Actualism also pays enough attention to what should be the slightly fraught matter of consensus in science and philosophy, of democracy about truth. 

            Right or wrong, the theory is an unanticipated departure from the existing philosophy and science of consciousness in general. It does indeed respect the differences we all know, between consciousness in seeing and consciousness of thinking and wanting -- in fact differences strikingly respected in philosophy and science themselves now including psychology whenever the general nature of consciousness is not the question. It is perhaps the first general and developed theory that is explicitly both an externalism and an internalism, which particular difference is also as true to our experience. It begins wholly differently and it goes well beyond the previous externalisms of Hilary Putnam, Tyler Burge, Andy Clark, and Alva Noe, and their supporting scientists. 

            The conclusions are the result not of proof, for which philosophy as against science is said to be too hard, but of the weight of argument and judgement. Actualism, it is hoped, is a case of satisfying Hume's hope -- an inescapability of conclusions given prior acceptance of at least reasonable premises. It is mainstream philosophy, a greater concentration than that of science on the logic of ordinary intelligence -- on clarity, consistency and validity, completeness, and generalness. Hopefully it is fertile or pregnant thinking. Both that and also reassuring for the science of consciousness.

            In the end there is also argument for the supposition at the start that consciousness in the primary ordinary sense and hence actual consciousness is a right concern, that consciousness in this sense is a right question, more right than anything else. It is in fact a necessary concern, which supposition does not preclude inquiry and research in terms of extraordinary conceptions, or of course in terms of all of mentality, conscious and unconscious together. Reason is given against Chomsky's so challenging scepticism about the very idea of a physicalism, and against the pessimisms about our dealing with consciouness of which Colin McGinn's was a dramatic one. We  are not at all in the position of chimps with respect to quantum theory. Nothing like.

            In the end too the fact of subjectivity as a kind of individuality, related not only to personal identity but to the living of a life, is further considered. There is also further reflection on the satisfying by Actualism of all the criteria for a decent theory of consciousness, including naturalism. Actualism's relation to Naive or Direct Realism is considered, its unlikeness, and its fruitfulness not only for the science of consciousness, but, for example, the question of determinism's consequences for our freedoms, in particular free will or origination as against voluntariness.

             For a later, longer and somewhat more popular summary, go to Your Being Conscious, a piece for the journal Think.