One of the current debates in consciousness research is whether phenomenal consciousness is something separate and apart from access consciousness. Access consciousness (A-consciousness) is generally defined as perceptions being accessible for reasoning, action decisions, and communication. Phenomenal consciousness (P-consciousness) is seen as raw experience, the “something it is like” aspect of consciousness.
Most researchers accept the conceptual distinction between A-consciousness and P-consciousness. But for someone in the cognitive-theories camp (global workspace theory, higher order thought, etc), P-consciousness and A-consciousness are actually the same thing. P-consciousness is a construction of A-consciousness. Put another way, P-consciousness is A-consciousness from the inside.
However, another camp, lead largely by Ned Block, the philosopher who originally made the A-consciousness / P-consciousness distinction, argues that they are separate ontological things or processes. The principle argument for this separate existence is the idea that P-consciousness “overflows” A-consciousness, that is, that we have conscious experiences that we don’t have cognitive access to, perceptions that we can’t report on.
Block cites studies where test subjects are briefly shown a dozen letters in three rows of four, but can usually only remember a few of them (typically four) afterward. However, if the subjects are cued on which row to report on immediately after the image disappears, they can usually report on the four letters of that row successfully.
Block’s interpretation of these results is that the subject is phenomenally conscious of all twelve letters, but can only cognitively access a few for reporting purposes. He admits that other interpretations are possible. The subjects may be retrieving information from nonconscious or preconscious content.
However, he notes that subjects typically have the impression that they were conscious of the full field. Interpretations from other researchers are that the subjects are conscious of either only partial fragments of the field, or are only conscious of the generic existence of the field (the “gist” of it). Block’s response is that the subjects impression is that they are conscious of the full thing, and that in the absence of contradicting evidence, we should accept their conclusion.
Here we come to the subject of a new paper in Mind & Language: Is the phenomenological overflow argument really supported by subjective reports? (Warning: paywall.) The authors set out to test Block’s assertion that subjects do actually think they’re conscious of the whole field in full detail. They start out by following the citation trail for Block’s assertion, and discover that it’s ultimately based on anecdotal reports, intuition, and a little bit of experimental work from the early 20th century, when methodologies weren’t yet as rigorous. (For example, the experimenters in some of these early studies included themselves as test subjects.)
So they decided to actually test the proposition with experiments very similar to the ones Block cited, but with the addition of asking the subjects afterward about their subjective impressions. Some subjects (< 20%) did say they saw all the letters in detail and could identify them, but most didn’t. Some reported (12-14%) believe they saw some of the letters along the lines of the partial fragmentary interpretation. But most believed they saw all the letters but not in detail, or most of the letters, supporting the generic interpretation.
All of which is to say, this study largely contradicts Block’s assertion that most people believe they are conscious of the full field in all detail, and undercuts his chief argument for preferring his interpretation over the others.
In other words, these results are good for cognitive theories of consciousness (global workspace, higher order thought, etc) and not so good for non-cognitive ones (local recurrent theory, etc). Of course, as usual, it’s not a knockout blow against non-cognitive theories. There remains enough interpretation space for them to live on. And I’m sure the proponents of those theories will be examining the methodology of this study to see if there are any flaws.
Myself, I think the idea that P-consciousness is separate from A-consciousness is just a recent manifestation of a longstanding and stubborn point of confusion in consciousness studies, the tendency to view the whole as separate from its components. Another instance is Chalmers himself making a distinction between the “easy problems” of consciousness, which match up to what is currently associated with A-consciousness, and the “hard problem” of consciousness, which is about P-consciousness.
But like any hard problem, the solution is to break it down into manageable chunks. When we do, we find the easy problems. A-consciousness is an objectively reducible description of P-consciousness. P-consciousness is a subjectively irreducible description of A-consciousness. Each easy problem that is solved chips away at the hard problem, but because it’s all blended together in our subjective experience, that’s very hard to see intuitively.
Unless of course I’m missing something?
h/t Richard Brown