Eric Schwitzgebel and I have been having an interesting (to us, at least) exchange in the comments on his recent post “Three Reasons to Mistrust Reports about Ongoing Conscious Experience“. At issue in our exchange are questions concerning introspective reliability concerning phenomenological facts or “phacts” as I called them. Eric is somewhat famous now for his many interesting arguments against introspective reliability. I tend to side with people who think that there are important senses in which introspective judgments can’t be wrong.
An interesting case, and one that Eric raises, concerns people’s judgments about the nature of their visual field. More specifically, people tend to vary over times and across subjects in their judgments concerning how much of the visual field is clear. The determinate colors and shapes of peripherally presented objects cannot be seen clearly. But people vary in their opinions about whether this is so.
Key question: do people vary in their accuracy of judgments of the phacts of the matter? That is, do some but not all of them get the phacts right?
The answer to the key question depends, of course, on what the phacts are. And one possibility that needs to be dealt with is that the variation in judgments is matched by a corresponding variation in phacts. On an extreme version of this possibility, everyone is right, they’re just right about different phacts.
One way to characterize resistance to this possibility is as interposing a third realm between a first realm constituted by objective facts concerning stimuli and sensory receptors and a second realm constituted by various conceptualized reactions to stimuli. Supplying a third realm gives something for items in the second realm to be mistaken about yet, unlike items in the first realm, look like candidates for genuine phenomenology. A lot of what Eric claims people to be mistaken about look to me to not be mistakes about phenomenology, but instead mistakes about what’s going on in the first realm (or mistakes about relations between the first and second realms).
Worries about a third realm can be put by saying that we really have no idea what sorts of denizens would populate it. In the case of the visual field, third-realm denizens would include peripheral objects that are colored and shaped but have no determinate color and no determinate shape. Do we really understand the suggestion that there can be such objects? And aside from questions about what objects would be, there are the various questions that arise about where they would be. No one’s ever found anything like that in anyone’s brains, and the items that populate our external environments certainly don’t fit the description.
It’s not enough to motivate the postulation of the third realm to say that we already know what it is, that it’s whatever makes it the case that there’s something it’s like to be conscious. Nor is it enough to counter skeptical resistance by characterizing that resistance as requiring reductive definitions. Reductive definitions are beside the point at this stage in the game, we just want something informative to “what are you talking about?” kinds of questions. No one has a reductive definition of a duvet, but could probably say something more informative about duvets beyond “if ya gotta ask, ya ain’t ever gonna know” kinds of responses.
The most pressing challenge for friends of the third realm is to say something informative about it such that it would be something separate from the second realm. This is because the second realm seems to be best suited for handling the sorts of weird indeterminacies that arise for phacts – indeterminacies like being indeterminately colored or having an indeterminate number of speckles.