The Life & Mind Seminar Network

Seminar #25: Heterophenomenology

Posted in Seminars by mjsbeaton on August 27, 2007

The next Life and Mind seminar is taking place Wed. the 29th of Aug., at 16:30 in room Pev1 1A01.

Mike will lead a discussion on heterophenomenology.

Abstract below.

Suggested reading:


Tom has asked me to talk about heterophenomenology, and to explain why someone might believe in it.

The most basic principle of heterophenomenology is that there is no difference in conscious experience without a difference in behaviour (or, at least, some potentially measurable difference in behaviour, which could manifest itself in some circumstance). To put it another way, what needs explaining, when we explain consciousness, is the behaviour of the conscious subject – there is nothing more to explain.

Now, if you are going to take behaviour as your starting point in understanding consciousness, then subjects’ introspective reports are just that: more behaviour. So, when a subject says “I know that I have experience; that there is something it is like to be me; that I have a conscious, phenomenal inner mental life”, then, Dennett says, the production of those reports is also, in the first instance, just behaviour to be explained.

So, another explicit principle which Dennett adds, to get to heterophenomenology as usually understood, is this: explain the reports, but don’t presuppose that what the reports apparently refer to (consciousness, experience, an inner mental life) is something that exists, independently of the reports themselves. If you’re strict in starting with behaviour as your explanandum, you cannot treat any of the things referred to in the introspective reports as targets of explanation. At least, not without further philosophical work, to show that the things apparently referred to, really exist.

Now, given just what I’ve said so far, Dennett would concede that a bare possibility remains. It is the possibility that we will find out that the reason why people say those things, is because those things are true: that, after all, there are some things, such as conscious experiences, referred to, or reported on, which are in fact independent of the reports themselves. i.e. Dennett would concede that, for all I have said so far, it is a bare possibility that people really do have conscious, inner mental lives, with subjective qualities of experience – where these are something independent of the introspective reports about them.

But then Dennett goes further. He looks at what people have said about our mental lives. For instance that they are inner (in the sense that we are supposed to have mental images when we imagine). Or that they are private (in the sense that we have a certain type of privileged, perhaps infallible, access to our own mental lives, which no one else could have, even in principle). Or that our mental states have intrinsic qualities (qualities nothing to do with any relations between the experiencer and the world).

There are a lot of philosophers who’ve looked at consciousness, decided it has properties like these, and argued, from that, that consciousness cannot be any part of the normal, physical world. Essentially, Dennett agrees: there could not be any such properties as part of normal physics. But, rather than conclude that consciousness is not part of physics, Dennett concludes that consciousness, as expressed in those terms, does not exist.

Hence Dennett’s ultimate conclusion: there is nothing independent of the reports we make – about what we’re seeing now, or about what it’s like for us. The more people start reporting on their conscious, inner, mental lives, the more Dennett thinks they are simply producing a fiction. He talks about reifying, that is, speaking as if there was an object or entity independent of the talk, when in fact there is not.

You might think that someone could object: surely people are talking about their own mental lives, when they introspect, so surely they, the subject, must be ‘doing’ something when they say they are experiencing. Something must be happening to the subject of experience; it can’t be all reification, for surely there are, at least, subjects, with something to explain about them?

Not so, Dennett, would say. The self, itself, is a fiction, a ‘centre of narrative gravity’ – a construct which is not something real, independent of the story: not independent of the reports which we give, which are all we should seek to explain. That is, we tell stories to explain our presence as ‘knowers’ in the world, and the self (the experiencing self) is just the central actor in those stories.


So, for the record, where do I stand on all this?


I think that consciousness is definitely all about at-least-counterfactual behaviour. I think there can be no difference in experience unless there is some test, which you could (at least in principle) do, which would show a corresponding difference in behaviour.

Why? Because I think that conscious experiences of various types (perception, memory, imagination, etc.) are defined in terms of the associated behaviour (which would be produced, if certain situations were to come about). I believe experience is defined this way, whether we realise it or not; i.e. I believe this is what we really mean, when we talk about experience, whether we realise it or not. Finally, I think this is what we mean by experience, even when we talk about our own experience, in introspection.

Real qualia

I agree with Dennett that the elements of qualia, as they have been over-defined by some philosophers, could not possibly exist. Nevertheless, I think that there are very good reasons why we say that there are elements of our mental lives with inner, private, intrinsic, infallible, ineffable, etc. properties. That is, I think our mental lives have real, physical (functional, in the sense just outlined, to be precise) properties which would be good reasons for saying those things; I think there are ways to clarify what is meant by those terms where they do refer (and where we don’t lose track of the original intuition behind the terms).

Selves are as real as anything else

I also don’t think our self is a centre of narrative gravity, or a construct, any more than is a mountain, or a tiger, or a stream. If you want to insist, our self is a construct of our understanding. But then, in the same sense, so is everything we perceive. Of course, the self has the striking feature of being the understander, brought into its own understanding (qua understander). That feature is, obviously, unique, but it’s not (as far as I can see) a good reason to think that selves ‘don’t really exist’, in some sense whereby this claim applies more so to selves than it does to tigers and mountains. Which, I suppose, is another story – and not one I’m particularly aiming to tell, here. I will say something about the previous two above, however.


The long and short of this is, I agree with a lot of what Dennett says – more, I think, than many people in the group will.


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