Skip to content


Not Objectifiable

A bold draft paper from Tom Clark tackles the explanatory gap between experience and the world as described by physics. He says it’s all about the representational relation.

Clark’s approach is sensible in tone and intention. He rejects scepticism about the issue and accepts that there is a problem about the ‘what it is like’ of experience, while also seeking to avoid dualism or more radical metaphysical theories. He asserts that experience is not to be found anywhere in the material world, nor identified in any simple way with any physical item; it is therefore  outside the account given by physics. This should not worry us, though, any more than it worries us that numbers or abstract concepts cannot be located in space; experience is real, but it is a representational reality that exists only for the conscious subjects having it.

The case is set out clearly and has an undeniable appeal. The main underlying problem, I would say, is that it skates quite lightly past some really tough philosophical questions about what representation really is and how it works, and the ontological status of experience and representations. We’re left with the impression that these are solvable enough when we get round to them, though in fact a vast amount of unavailing philosophical labour has gone into these areas over the years. If you wanted to be unkind, you could say that Clark defers some important issues about consciousness to metaphysics the way earlier generations might have deferred them to theology. On the other hand, isn’t that exactly where they should be deferred to?

I don’t by any means suggest that these deferred problems, if that’s a fair way to describe them, make Clark’s position untenable – I find it quite congenial in general – but they possibly leave him with a couple of vulnerable spots. First, he doesn’t want to be a dualist, but he seems in danger of being backed into it. He says that experience is not to be located in the physical world – so where is it, if not in another world? We can resolutely deny that there is a second world, but there has to be in some sense some domain or mode in which experience exists or subsists; why can’t we call that a world? To me, if I’m honest, the topic of dualism versus monism is tired and less significant than we might think, but there is surely some ontological mystery here, and in a vigorous common room fight I reckon Clark would find himself being accused of Platonism (or perhaps congratulated for it) or something similar.

The second vulnerability is whether representation can really play the role Clark wants it to. His version of experience is outside physics, and so in itself it plays no part in the physical world. Yet representations of things in my mind certainly influence my physical behaviour, don’t they? The keyboard before me is represented in my mind and that representation affects where my fingers are going next. But it can’t be the pure experience that does that, because it is outside the physical world. We might get round this if we specify two kinds of representational content, but if we do that the hard causal kind of representation starts to look like the real one and it may become debatable in what sense we can still plausibly or illuminatingly say that experience itself is representational.

Clark makes some interesting remarks in this connection, suggesting there is a sort of ascent going on, whereby we start with folk-physical descriptions rooted in intersubjective consensus, quite close in some sense to the inaccessibly private experience, and then move by stages towards the scientific account by gradually adopting more objective terms. I’m not quite sure exactly how this works, but it seems an intriguing perspective that might provide a path towards some useful insight.

Posted in Conscious Entities.