Phenomenal Consciousness: Between the Lines of Experience and Representation

Here is an essay I wrote for the following prompt in a class on the philosophical issues of artificial intelligence…

Please write a 500 words comment explaining your views about the relation between experiencing and representing a content. To keep things manageable, please focus on color or pain. The relevant examples from the book are Jackson’s Mary thought experiment and the discussion on pain and the peak end rule.


The real question here is what is phenomenal consciousness. We can talk ad infinitum about how we feel about the difference in our experience of phenomenal consciousness versus its representations. Mary knew everything there is to know about red before she saw it, except what it was like to experience it. What is the there, there? What difference can we say exists beyond the way we feel about the question? The real question is not how experience and representation are similar or different; but who asks the question and why.

The fact is that any discussion on phenomenal consciousness is inherently introspective, and no one in modern cognitive science would argue that introspection is a valid source of facts about the mind or consciousness. The real problem being talked around here is the combination of the hard problem (how does any amount or configuration of non-conscious stuff become conscious) and the easy problem (how could we possibly know for sure whether or not another was conscious). The answer to both questions is that we have no idea how to even begin to answer the question, and that every attempt to do so is roundly debunked in short order. The answer then to this question is the fact that it doesn’t matter; that it’s a fool’s errand to define and limit the bounds of a phenomena about which we have no real knowledge or understanding. We don’t even have a clear consensus in the field of science of mind that consciousness is more than merely illusory; it’s not clear what if anything it does, and whether it can even be argued to exist. I suspect that the real value of the question is mostly in determining who is following along with the course material, rather than the illumination of some deeper secret of the universe.

The peak-end example is another interesting case which I would argue poses more of a problem to the premise of the first case than to support the view of its authors. The fact that we can reliably determine qualitative self-reports for events based on the average of the last state and the most intense state, rather than an average of the entire event, is evidence for the fact that all the decision-making processes in the brain are purely mechanical deep structures with zero authorial input form some apparit ional consciousness alighting from the brain in the form of a spirit or soul, as is so often the assumption by people engaging with topics like this. It has been my experience that most discussion of phenomenal consciousness in academia tends to use it as a stand-in for these and other non-scientific bases for arriving at conclusions about essentially any topic related to consciousness.

In trying to grapple with this most fundamental of mysteries, we find ourselves at the crossroads of introspectionism and empiricism. Mary and the peak-end are both lenses to view the problem, but to me they seem more murky than illuminating. It’s easy to argue introspectively for some irreplaceable subjective quality of personal experience, but it’s not clear that this feeling has any valid basis outside of one’s own opinion. Therefore, it seems like the pursuit of an answer to these questions is more about searching for a justification for a particular worldview than about seeking scientific truth. Judith Butler called this approach “prediscursive construction,” the process of seeking out as a proxy for clarity the subjective experience of confirmation bias in nature rather than deeply examining what flawed assumptions led us to such murky waters.