Some have claimed that introspection of control consciousness reveals no distinctively non-sensory component. Others make a contrary claim about the relevant phenomenology. Phenomenological disputes are notoriously difficult to adjudicate leading some researchers to be quite skeptical of the phenomenological enterprise and the reliability of introspection. Nonetheless, claims about consciousness should be made to square with the self-reports of subjects, if not to explain then to explain away. If there’s controversy regarding some point of phenomenology, it can be quite satisfying to discover an explanation of why such a controversy arises.
While I think careful reflection reveals a distinctively non-sensory component to control consciousness, I do think there is something worth taking seriously in various claims against non-sensory control phenomenology. In this post I sketch the case for non-sensory control phenomenology. In the next post, I’ll offer some possible explanations why it may have seemed obvious to some that there would be no such thing.
One point worth stressing is that control plays a relatively direct role in sensory consciousness. When we examine the phenomenology of sensory consciousness we note a role that control plays in this phenomenology. Two main ways in which control is involved in sensory consciousness is (1) vividness or intensity of sensory experience is correlated with what is contrary to control and (2) differential degrees of direct control is one of the main ways in which a person is able to distinguish, from the first-person point of view, between perception and imagery.
As has been noted by other authors (Chalmers, 1996, p. 224) (Rosenthal, 1986, p. 412), the vividness or intensity of a mental state is correlated with or constituted by the strength of its connection to action. As I shall like to put this point, especially as it applies to sensory consciousness, is that vividness is correlated with or constituted by what is contrary to control. The more vivid a pain, the more it compels our attention toward it and our acting to alleviate it. The less vivid, the more control we have over whether we are going to do anything about it.
The point generalizes beyond pain. As pointed out by Weiskrantz et al. (1971), self-administered tactile stimulations are perceived as more intense than when administered by another. The vividness of a visual experience of red needs to be characterized in terms of its inverse relation to control and cannot instead be defined in terms of sensory properties of the stimulus. The point is best drawn out by attending to differences between a sensory experience of a particular shade of red and a mental image of the same shade of red. Another useful comparison might be between an experience and a thought of one and the same shade of red. The sensible properties of the shade represented in experience—the shade’s hue, saturation, and brightness—underdetermine the differential vividness of experience and imagery (as well as experience and thought) since one can have an a thought or image that captures the properties of hue, saturation, and brightness definitive of a given experienced shade, but the experience may still be more vivid than either the corresponding thought or image.
One point that combines both the point about vividness and the point about imagery is that imagined pain is less vivid than experienced (non-imagined) pain. It is worth noting as a general point that, besides the various commonalities between sensory perception and sensory imagery, the main way in which we are able to distinguish an image from a percept with similar content is by the differential degrees of direct control that we have over the image (Kosslyn, 1994, pp. 102-104). For example, in imaging an apple, I can rotate, enlarge, or distort the shape of the apple. But in perceiving an apple, I can do no such thing, especially if I cannot get my hands on the apple.
It is worth noting that, due to similarities between percepts and images, subjects do sometimes confuse the two (Perky, 1910). However, the degree to which subjects confuse a percept and an image can be manipulated experimentally by introducing factors that either vary how difficult the imagery task is (Finke, Johnson, & Shyi, 1988) or whether the images are created intentionally rather than incidentally (Durso & Johnson, 1980) (Intraub & Hoffman, 1992). An intentionally formed and difficult to manipulate image (say, an image of a rotating, relatively complex three-dimensional figure) is less likely to be mistaken in memory for a percept than a comparatively less difficult image.