Précis of:
Consciousness, Color, & Content

(MIT Press, 2000)

by Michael Tye e-mail

Department of Philosophy
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas 78750

In 1995, in my book, Ten Problems of Consciousness (Bradley Books, MIT Press), I proposed a version of the theory of phenomenal consciousness now known as representationalism. The present book, in part, consists of a further development of that theory along with replies to common objections.It is also concerned with two prominent challenges for any reductive theory of consciousness: the explanatory gap and the knowledge argument. In addition, it connects representationalism with two more general issues: the nature of color and the location of the phylogenetic dividing line between those creatures that are phenomenally conscious and those that are not.

The book, which is made up of eight essays integrated into a whole, is divided into three parts. Part I focuses upon the explanatory gap and the knowledge argument. It aims to show that the right general strategy for dealing with these objections to reductionist theories of consciousness is to hold that the concepts deployed when subjects introspect their experiences and form a conception of their phenomenal character — phenomenal concepts, as I call them — are conceptually irreducible. A theory is developed of phenomenal concepts, one consequence of which is that questions posing the supposed explanatory gap are questions that cannot possibly be answered. They are thus not genuine questions and the claim that there are answers to these questions that the reductionist fails to provide is seen to be a kind of cognitive illusion.

Part II, which consists of four essays, is devoted to representationalism itself. It opens with a summary of representationalism and its motivations. Particular attention is paid to the development of the so-called “transparency intuition” on behalf of the theory. The following three chapters deal with objections to representationalism that take the form of putative counter-examples.

The first class of these consists of actual, real-world cases in which, it is claimed, perceptual experiences are the same representationally but different phenomenally. These are the focus of Chapter 4. Another class consists of imaginary cases in which supposedly experiences are identical representationally but inverted phenomenally. These cases, along with a modified representational theory proposed by Sydney Shoemaker, are the focus of Chapter 5. A third class of putative counter-examples is made up of problem cases in which allegedly experiences have different representational contents (of the relevant sort) but the same phenomenal character. Ned Block's Inverted Earth example (Philosophical Perspectives 4, 1990) is of this type. Counter-examples are also sometimes given in which supposedly experience of one sort or another is present but in which there is no state with representational content. Swampman -- the molecule by molecule replica of a notable philosopher (Donald Davidson), formed accidentally by the chemical reaction that occurs in a swamp when a partially submerged log is hit by lightning -- is one such counter-example, according to some philosophers. Chapter 6 presents replies both to the Inverted Earth example and to Swampman.

Part III of the book deals with some more general issues, one of which is potentially threatening to representationalism and the other of which representationalism enables us to make progress upon. The potential threat is posed by color (and other so-called secondary qualities). For reasons which are made clear in Chapters 3-6, representationalism of the sort I endorse requires an objectivist account of color. It does not require that colors be external, objective entities, but this is certainly the view of color that goes most naturally with representationalism. This is also, I believe, the commonsense view of color. Unfortunately, according to many color scientists and some philosophers, colors cannot be objective entities of the sort commonsense supposes. Commonsense supposedly conflicts with modern science on color, and commonsense supposedly has no way of accommodating the distinction between unitary and binary colors. I argue that this is quite wrong. Chapter 7 may thus be seen as a vindication of commonsense and thereby indirectly a defense of representationalism with respect to color.

The view articulated in Chapter 7 of color is developed further in a more recent essay, co-written with Peter Bradley, entitled “Of Colors, Kestrels, Caterpillars, and Leaves,” (Journal of Philosophy, October 2001). One objection that has been raised to the view presented of color in the book is that it delivers the wrong results for the surface colors of some everyday objects. This objection fails to note that the proposal I make in Chapter 7 is made on the assumption that the oversimplified opponent processing model from color science I appeal to there is correct. As I explicitly say in the chapter, any counter-example to the objectivist proposal I offer for color will also be a counter-example to the oversimplified opponent processing model. Complicate the latter appropriately to handle the counter-example and the former, with corresponding complications, will handle it too. This general claim is illustrated with examples in the Journal of Philosophy essay.

The final chapter considers an important question about consciousness on which philosophers have been largely silent, namely: Where, on the phylogenetic scale, does phenomenal consciousness cease? I address this question from the perspective of representationalism and I argue that consciousness extends beyond the realm of vertebrates to such simple creatures as honey bees.

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