PMS WIPS 009 - Nick Treanor - The Ontology of Experience

“The Ontology of Experience” by Nick Treanor, Brown University
ABSTRACT: Most philosophers share a conception of consciousness according to which conscious experiences are had throughout periods of time. If this conception is correct, then conscious experiences are not instantiated in the same way that physical processes are. This is an ontic difference, and it rules out the possibility of psychophysical identities between experiences and processes. The upshot is that physicalists face a choice: we can either (i) preserve the common conception of conscious experience and take the arguments to provide constructive constraints on the ontological kinds to which the physical entities that stand in psychophysical identity relations belong, or (ii) preserve the fundamentality of physical processes to conscious experience by reworking our understanding of qualitative character along representationalist lines. I defend the second option: The paper amounts to a new argument for representationalist theories of consciousness.

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6 Responses to “PMS WIPS 009 - Nick Treanor - The Ontology of Experience”

  1. Eric Thomson says:

    The paper brings up an interesting question: if the content/vehicle distinction is sound, does that imply identity theory is false? I see things out there in the world (the content), but the meat doing the experiencing is in my head. The content/vehicle distinction helps to clarify how this could be: does this show that identity theory (such as Mandik proposes) is false?

    I’m not sure. Since most of us would say that contents are partly fixed by things outside the head, this makes the identity theory seem strange. Is the content identical to some neuronal structure in interaction with something in the world? But then we can have an infinite number of things in the world that, in interaction with the brain, fix the content (e.g., monkeys on different days with different sets of (type) identical objects doing the same task, with brains forming the same representations on different days). Such disjunctive identities brought in with externalist fixation of content make identity theory seem very strange.

  2. Nick Traenor says:

    Hi Eric,

    thanks for your comments. I’m not sure I understand what you’re driving at. I take it that you think that, if there is a genuine distinction between vehicle and content, this might be reason to think an identity thesis is false. I guess I don’t see what that argument would be. Is that something you could explain a bit more fully?

    I understand your second paragraph to be running a basic content externalist argument against type identity. What’s the relation though between that argument and the discussion in the first paragrah? (Again, I’m just not seeing it.)

    thanks again for your interest,


    (p.s. I’m about to leave on a trip, coming back Sunday. I’m not sure what my web access will be like while I’m away.)

  3. Eric Thomson says:

    The second paragraph spells out one possible argument for the suggestion in the first paragraph. To repeat it differently, since externalism is true (or assume it is true) for content fixation, that leaves us with these infinite disjunctions of things that the mental state in question has to be identical to (brain in conjunction with external stuff, while the external stuff is a disjunction). That just seems strange.

    Hence, it seems strange to rely on the content-vehicle distinction and be an identity theorist (especially if you take content to be fixed partly externally).

    An independent argument is that if you are an identity theorist, all that exists are vehicles. Any content ascriptions are mere heuristic overlays that don’t correspond to anything real. I prefer the first argument to this, somewhat dubious, one (dubious because it feels like quicksilver, but I haven’t figured out what is wrong with it yet).

  4. Odile says:

    I don’t understand precisely what you want to say. Are you trying to skip levels of explanation? There are different layers of explanation between biology, neurology and (cognitive) psychology. There is no immediate effect from the one on the other, is there? (Even when I experience pain, my experience on the cognitive level will be different in content to the one of someone else; I will relate and evaluate what happens and become frightened or calm myself after a thoughtful evaluation process). How can you rule out identity, even with animals? I’m really curious.
    I once saw a sheep that was at the wrong side of a fence. I stopped and thought how I could help it get to the other side. While I was thinking, the sheep seemed to realize I was a threat and suddenly panicked and jumped over the ditch all paws spread in four directions thus getting at the other side of the fence. I was surprised. It seemed this sheep thought before it panicked, and then decided to act upon it. The thinking process took quite some time.
    You might argue it was a chain of internal reactions to outside content. Is this what you mean?

  5. Eric Thomson says:

    My argument above is old news, it turns out. From Stanford Encyclopedia entry on externalism (by Chalmers):
    McGinn (1989) and Burge (1986,1993) both argue that externalism refutes the token-identity theory (and hence type-identity theory as well). Token-identity says that each particular mental state token is identical to a physical brain state token. McGinn and Burge rely on a modal argument : the brain states of a subject would remain the same if the environment were to be different, as long as her intrinsic properties did not change. But her intentional mental states could have been different. So by Leibniz’s law, mental states are distinct from brain states.

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