Royal Institute of Philosophy Conference 2009

The Metaphysics of Consciousness

An International conference in honour of
Timothy L. S. Sprigge (1932-2007)

University of Edinburgh, 7-9 July 2009





Fred Adams

University of Delaware

Consciousness: Why and Where?

Famously, Timothy Sprigge defended a version of panpsychism. Recently, those who defend extended cognition are flirting with the ideas that at least cognition can or does extend beyond the boundaries of body and brain. The motivation for these views is different, but both imply that the mind pervades portions of the world not normally conceived of as containing mental events. I will consider recent literature from embodied cognition and show that if it is even close to being correct about the processes necessary for mental goings on, then there is good reason to doubt both panpsychism and the view that consciousness extend beyond the boundaries of body and brain.


Ken Aizawa

Centenary College of Louisiana

How Consciousness Can Safely Emerge

In The Vindication of Absolute Idealism, Sprigge argued that the physicalist must face two great hurdles, explaining how life can appear from non-life and how consciousness can arise from inert matter. He maintained that panpsychism avoids these hurdles by beginning with the view that all is living psyche. In this paper, I will show how the Dimensioned view of realization describes how it is commonplace in science for a set of lower level properties to realize a qualitatively new property. Moreover, I will describe how the theory leads to illuminating analyses of some hitherto underappreciated features of realization. Thus, the Dimensioned view of realization answers Sprigge’s argument for panpsychism. Moreover, it is independently motivated by its value in helping us understand certain dimensions of contemporary scientific practice.


Brenda Almond

University of Hull

Religious Consciousness: Revisiting the God of the Philosophers

The question raised in this paper is whether Timothy Sprigge offers a philosophy for the religious or a religion for the philosopher. Although he described idealist philosophy as the stage beyond religion, I argue that his pantheistic idealism, while not itself a religion, does have religious overtones and that his pantheistic idealism, while not itself a religion, offers a conception of God and our own place in the universe, from which it is possible to derive a way of life.

While his philosophical approach was rooted in British analytic and linguistic philosophy, he repudiated its empiricist basis, and believed that the idealist claim that the natural world is dependent on mind provided the best philosophical case for a religious view of the world. And while he favoured a metaphorical rather than a literal interpretation of Christian teachings, much of his argument provides a metaphysical underpinning for some of the essential aspects of Christian belief.

Sprigge recognised the phenomenon of religious consciousness, seeing this as the source of a yearning that can be met by absolute idealism’s conception of a ‘Whole’ that encompasses ourselves and all aspects of our world. He describes this recognition as the faltering adumbration of a truth – one that is sometimes encountered in aesthetic or sexual experience, and sometimes more directly in the lives of mystics.

The metaphysical basis for this form of absolute idealism is provided by a concept of time in which each fleeting ‘now’ has a fixed and permanent place, and by a theory of identity according to which personal individuality is dissolved in a unitary ‘Whole’.


Pierfrancesco Basile

University of Bern

It must be true—but how can it be? Some Remarks on Panpsychism and Mental Composition

Since the early 1980s, Timothy Sprigge has advocated a synthesis of absolute idealism and panpsychism. The latter is the view that experience is a fundamental feature of reality. Although panpsychism has had a very long history, one that goes back to the very origin of western philosophy, its force has only recently been appreciated by analytic philosophers of mind. And even if many still reject the theory as utterly absurd, others have argued that panpsychism is the only genuine form of physicalism. This paper examines the case for panpsychism and argues that there are at least good prima facie reasons for taking it seriously. In a second step, the paper discusses the main difficulty the theory has to face, the "composition-problem". This is the problem of explaining how the primitive experiences that are supposed to exist at the ultimate level of reality could give rise to the unified experience of a human being. What assumptions as to the nature of experience generate the composition-problem? Is mental composition impossible in principle, or do we simply lack at present any understanding of phenomenal parts and wholes?


Jason Brown

New York University Medical Center

What is a Mental State?

This paper describes a theory of the present in relation to perception and memory that developed on the study of clinical pathology. The origin of a subjective present, about which past and future seem to orbit, is an arising in the mind-independent passage from before to after. The past is less tangible, less real than the present, but it is more durable, absorbing the present as it fades into memory so the future can become actual. Experience seems to go from the present of existence to revival in personal or collective memory, but this is the reverse of the passage of nature, which goes from earlier to later or, in subjective life, from the past to the future. Put differently, psychology assumes a direction going from present to past in the shift from perception to memory, while nature moves in the opposite direction from past to future. A theory of mind consistent with the process of nature would have the future becoming the present out of the past rather than having the past deposited by the present. The direction of passage is implemented in the mind as a transition from the before to the after, from the memorial to the perceptual, which is the future-that-becomes-present. The becoming of the after is perceived in the brevity of the now. The present is a window on passage, inserted (arising) in the transition from the before, which is the past of memory, to the future, which is the becoming of perception. In this, we are witness to the motion of things in the moving occasion of the now. It is from this perspective that the present paper takes up the difficult problem of serial order.

Temporal order in perception and memory has been conceived as realized within a mind/brain state or over a succession of states. Serial order might involve a concatenation of states with a blurring of the boundaries between them. However, succession alone cannot map directly to passage, i.e. perceived succession in the world does not give that in the mind, since objects and entities perish on actualization. The perception of temporal order requires that past, no-longer existent objects recur in memory. However, to attribute serial recall to short-term, working or episodic memory merely re-states the problem without explaining it. A succession of perceptual states may be necessary for serial order but it is not a solution to the consciousness of succession.

Moreover, succession is as essential to change as to stability. Object stability occurs when replacements are similar, change when recurrences are novel. Serial order is required both to see a tree and hear a sonata. For epochal theory, events arise within non-temporal spatial wholes, with the simultaneity within a state replaced by its successor. This paper argues that perception develops out of memory through the effects of sensory constraints on a memorial infrastructure. The state lapses to its precursors in the incomplete revival (decay) of perception in a series of replacements. The transition from simultaneity to succession within a state and the layering of the state in the graded revival of past states, i.e. the orderly regress from a prior object to a present image, transposed to a temporal series within the virtual present, is the basis of serial order in memory and perception.


Andy Clark

University of Edinburgh

Locating the Conscious Mind

Is consciousness all in the head, or might the minimal physical substrate for some forms of conscious experience include goings on in the (rest of the) body and the world? Such a view might be dubbed (by analogy with Clark and Chalmers work on 'the extended mind') 'the extended conscious mind'. In this talk I review a variety of arguments for the extended conscious mind, and find them mostly flawed. One does better, but even it encounters problems. I then try to show why arguments for extended cognition do not generalize to arguments for an extended conscious mind.


Stephen Clark

University of Liverpool

How to Become Unconscious

Consistent materialists are almost bound to suggest that ‘conscious experience’, if it exists at all, is no more than epiphenomenal. A correct understanding of the real requires that everything we do and say is no more than a product of whatever processes are best described by physics, without any privileged place, person, time or scale of action. Consciousness is a myth, or at least a figment. Plotinus was no materialist: for him, it is Soul and Intellect that are more real than the phenomena we misdescribe as material. Nor does he suppose that consciousness depends on language (as Stoics and modern materialists have sometimes supposed): wordless experience is actually superior. And much of what counts towards our present consciousness is to be discarded. It is better not to remember most of what now seems more significant to us; better not to form images; better that the intellect be ‘drunk’ than ‘sober’, losing any sense of separation between subject and object. The goal of the Plotinian intellectual is to join ‘the dance of immortal love’, but it is a mark of the good dancer that she is not conscious of what she does. There is therefore a strange confluence between Plotinus and modern materialists: our experience at least is transitory, deceitful, epiphenomenal, and ‘reality’ is to be encountered when we have shed our illusions.


David Cockburn

University of East Anglia

Doubts About "Consciousness”

With particular reference to our experience of time, the paper will focus on the question: what is the purpose of the distinctive forms of description of our experience, for example of change, that are offered in the phenomenological tradition in philosophy? The purpose is sometimes stated in terms of the need to identify the source of our temporal ideas – of the meanings of temporal terms. In other authors, the emphasis is on explaining how it is possible for our experience to have certain features that it clearly does have: for example, how there can be experience of succession. The paper will raise doubts about these projects, and, with that, raise general questions about the philosophical significance of first person descriptions of conscious experience.


Tim Crane

University College London

Consciousness as Predicated of Human Beings

We call both sensations and episodes of thinking 'conscious'. Why is this? Some philosophers understand consciousness in terms of the presence of simple non-intentional qualities ('qualia'). But whatever the merits of the qualia hypothesis in explaining sensation, it is not plausible that there are any such qualities in conscious thinking. Higher-order thought theories give a unified account of the consciousness involved in thought andsensation, but at the expense of treating sensation as something which isnot essentially conscious. While the qualia theory gets thought wrong, the higher-order thought theory gets sensation wrong. In this lecture, I attempt to give an account of the sense in which thoughts and sensations are both conscious, which appeals to the epistemic sense of 'conscious'. Conscious mental phenomena are those that can be known in a special way -- by the exercise of our capacity for self-knowledge or introspection. This is not what makes sensations conscious, since sensations can be conscious regardless of what we think about them; but it does give a clear and unequivocal sense in which sensations and thoughts are both conscious (even if there are other senses in which thought and sensation are not conscious in the same way). This proposal is intended to save what is good about the higher-order theory and the qualia theory, although the proposal contains no commitment to qualia and is expressed in wholly intentionalist terms.


Barry Dainton

University of Liverpool

Phenomenal Holism

In The Vindication of Absolute Idealism, Sprigge wrote: ‘a holistic relation is strong if the kind of whole its terms unite in forming has a character which so suffuses every element that no element with some difference from it in character could be found without a whole of just that sort’. He went on to suggest that all parts of our total states of consciousness are holistically related in this strong way. If correct, this doctrine of ‘phenomenal’ holism, as one might call it, would have significant consequences. But is it correct? I will be exploring some of the ways the doctrine can be defended, with a view to ascertaining the true extent of strong holism.


James Giles

University of Guam

The Metaphysics of Awareness in Taoist philosophy

One of the earliest books of Chinese philosophy is the Tao Te Ching, or The Way and its Power, by the Taoist thinker Lao Tzu (b. 604 BCE). A central concept in this book is what Lao Tzu calls the Tao. This is something that is both basic to existence and organizes our relation to the world. But what is the Tao? In this paper it will be argued that the Tao refers to a state of awareness where things are seen for what they are. For Lao Tzu, this is the original state to which awareness returns when awareness is ‘cleansed’ of its ‘mysterious sights’ through certain yogic techniques. In this original awareness—that is, in the Tao—no distinctions are experienced between the person who has the awareness, the object of awareness, or the act of awareness. When this awareness is achieved, awareness enters a state of wei wu wei or ‘acting by non-acting’ where awareness follows the course of natural transformation.


Alastair Hannay

University of Oslo

Phenomenology versus Metaphysics

It is remarkable how both philosophy and science have taken the measure of the complexity of everyday experience but without taking it on board systematically or theoretically. The kind of phenomenology of language that Wittgenstein promoted, Austin’s dedication to verbal nuance, the structural insights into experience and practice that Heidegger and others have given us, all this is evidence of what is owed to a philosophy that has taken the world of everyday experience and language as its province. This philosophy has also revealed the emptiness of terms used outside the contexts from which they derive their sense and the dubiousness of distinctions of the kind Austin referred to as ‘monolithic’ and which philosophers imposed on the richer network of our actual language. But it has also, consciously, deliberately and by what might see a self-serving principle that saves it from having to admit limits of what can be understood, denied itself a reflection on experience itself and thus avoided the task of explaining the possibility of this experience and its place in a wider scheme of things. Perhaps under cover of a once fashionable positivism that left facts as against conceptual analysis up to science, scientists themselves have also shown an unwillingness to take the measure theoretically of a diversity they should be well able to acknowledge in practice.


Jaegwon Kim

Brown University

Explaining Consciousness: From Emergentism to A Priori Physicalism

Emergentists, both the early British emergentists and neo-emergentists of today, have claimed consciousness, as an emergent, to be unexplainable and irreducible in terms of the processes and conditions from which they arise. This also is the claim of those who believe in the “explanatory gap”, the view that there is no way to get there (consciousness) from here (the brain). But what is it to “explain” an emergent from its “basal” conditions? What would count as getting from the brain to consciousness? These questions concern broad issues of emergence, reduction, and reductive explanation, issues of importance to both friends and foes of emergentism, or of reductionism. C.D. Broad, the leading British emergentist of the early 20th century, characterized a property as emergent provided it is determined by and yet not deducible from its basal conditions. I want to begin with this classic conception of emergence, examine whether it gives us a coherent concept of emergence, and explore its metaphysical and epistemological implications. It will be seen that the program of the so-called a priori physicalism currently on the scene is interestingly related to the classic conception of emergence.


Julian Kiverstein

University of Edinburgh

The Metaphysics of Time Consciousness

We seem to be able to directly and immediately experience persistence and change such as the movement of the second hand around the clock face or the sound of the road drill outside of our window. I will take this phenomenological claim at face value and assume that persistence and change are properties of events that we can directly experience. We don’t, for instance, experience these properties through combining some sort of short-term memory with an experience confined to a durationless instant. Taking the phenomenology seriously is, however, consistent with two very different metaphysical views. On the first, the stream of consciousness can extend a short distance through time so as to allow us to experience together successive events occurring at different times. There is thus a brief period of time – the so-called “specious present” – during which we can directly experience change and persistence. Following Barry Dainton I will call this the extensionalist view. Timothy Sprigge defended a version of this view in The Vindication of Absolute Idealism. Within the extensionalist camp there is however a disagreement about how to understand how successive specious presents are related. Sprigge seemed to have held the view that each specious present is distinct from the next. Barry Dainton has more recently defended the view that distinct specious presents can overlap (also see John Foster). Opposing the extensionalist view is a position I will label intentionalism, originally formulated by Husserl. Intentionalists deny that consciousness really extends through time when we experience persistence and change. It only seems to because the contents of consciousness have a certain temporal structure. Part of my aim will be to defend the intentionalist view over that of the extensionalist. A secondary aim will be to consider how the intentionalist understands the relation between successive specious presents.


Geoffrey Madell

University of Edinburgh

Substance Dualism: You Know it Makes Sense

I consider, and reject, a number of ideas familiar in materialist treatments of intentionality: (a) that a functionalist account of intentionality is possible (b) the multiple realisability of intentional states (c) intentional concepts as picking out 'real patterns' (Dennett), and (d) the overdetermination of intentional states. I argue that the rejection of these notions points to interactionist substance dualism. A well-known argument against the idea of mental substance, stemming from Kant and endorsed by Strawson, Parfit and others, is rejected, as is the so-called 'causal pairing problem' as an argument against interactionist dualism, recently re-invoked by Kim.


Eduard Marbach

University of Bern

Is there a Metaphysics of Consciousness without a Phenomenology of Consciousness? Some thoughts derived from Husserl's Philosophical Phenomenology

Drawing on data from Philosophical Phenomenology of conscious experiences, the paper tries to argue that if consciousness is to be the subject-matter of a metaphysics which is not simply speculative or based on prejudice, it is crucial to get the phenomenology of consciousness right. To substantiate the phenomenological approach to the metaphysics of consciousness, the paper focuses on a particularly salient feature of a large class of conscious experiences which would seem to be available for analysis exclusively at the level of the phenomenological appearances of consciousness. The point in question concerns the finding that with acts of mental re-presentations – such as acts of remembering or imagining, etc. - we have to do with certain unified structures of actually occurring conscious experiences containing in themselves components which, from the first-person experiential point of view, function in a mode of non-actuality. They thereby transcend the temporally present experience in one way or another. However, everything physically necessary and together sufficient for bringing either this or that conscious experience actually about would seem to occur in the brain at present. The question then is what this means for the reality of consciousness.


Leemon McHenry

California State University, Northridge

Sprigge’s Ontology of Consciousness

Timothy Sprigge advanced an original version of panpsychistic absolute idealism as his solution to the problem of consciousness. He argued that consciousness is an irreducible, subjective reality that is only grasped by an introspective, phenomenological approach and constructed his ontology from what is revealed in the phenomenology. In defending the unique place of metaphysics in the pursuit of truth, he claimed that scientific investigation can never discover the essence of consciousness since it can only provide descriptions of structure and function in what we normally think of as physical existence. In this paper I present a critical evaluation of Sprigge’s view focusing in particular on his view of the nature of scientific inquiry vis-à-vis the ambitious project of his metaphysics. I argue that a naturalistic metaphysics provides a more adequate approach to the relation between science and metaphysics.


Brian P. McLaughlin

Rutgers University

Consciousness, Identity, and Explanation

Type-physicalism for phenomenal consciousness is the thesis that for every type of state of phenomenal consciousness C, there is a type of neuro-scientific state N such that C = N. Much of the recent literature in favor of the thesis is devoted to defending it against the charge that it is a priori false. But even if the thesis is not a priori false, the question remains whether it is justifiable. The leading line of defense of the position that the thesis is justifiable is a conditional defense: if there prove to be strict neuro-scientific correlates of types of states of phenomenal consciousness (something that even a Cartesian property dualist can allow), then the best explanation of the strict correlations would be that types of states of phenomenal consciousness are identical with their neuro-scientific correlates. In his 2005 book, Physicalism or Something Near Enough (Princeton), Jaegwon Kim offers a new objection to this conditional defense. He argues that identity claims (in which the identity sign is flanked by rigid designators) are not explanatory, and so cannot be inferred by inference to the best explanation. I will argue that Kim’s objection fails. Its fatal flaw is the failure to take into account the epistemic dimension of explanation. I conclude that Kim’s discussion leaves the line of defense in question unscathed.


Howard Robinson

Central European University, Budapest

Quality, Thought and Consciousness

Modern discussion of consciousness, especially of whether physicalism can accommodate it, tends to centre on sensation or perceptual or phenomenal consciousness. There has been a tendency, even amongst anti-physicalists, to accept some more or less reductive account of thought. In the old days, this was a form of associationism, nowadays it tends to be a combination of computationalism and functionalism. All these theories have it in common that they explain the process of thinking in a way that makes no direct appeal to the meaning or propositional content of the thoughts. Instead there is some more or less mechanical or syntactical account of the dynamic of thinking. Indeed, any appeal to meaning in the dynamics of thought has been dubbed ‘magical’ by Putnam, Kripke and McDowell, all supposedly non-reductionists.

I believe that the working of thought cannot be explained without an appeal to the role of meaning, at the basic level: in thinking one’s mind is on the meaning of what one thinks, and it is in the light of this meaning that one’s thinking develops and unfolds. My concern in this paper is with how one should understand this bedrock efficaciousness of the meaning content of thought, and how it relates to the role of the brain and the embodiment of thought.


William Seager

University of Toronto

Concessionary Dualism and Physicalism

Modern physicalists frequently offer the generous concession that although dualism is false, it is not a metaphysical impossibility. And it appears that the proper formulation of physicalism allows for this concessionary position. It would be expected that dualists also could accept that while physicalism is false, it too is a metaphysical possibility. I will argue that a careful analysis of physicalism and dualism shows that in fact these concessionary positions cannot be maintained. In particular, the nature of the ‘metaphysical determination’ which holds between matter and mind on both physicalist and dualist views precludes either from allowing that the other is a metaphysical possibility.


Peter Simons

Trinity College Dublin

Consciousness for Four-Dimensionalists

Four-dimensionalism, which is steadily growing in popularity among ontologists, is a radically revisionary ontology of ordinary things (continuants). Whereas the traditional view is that continuants, including persons, are extended in three spatial dimensions and endure through time, four-dimensionalism, denies this. They are either themselves extended process-like in time (perdurance theory) or are momentary in existence but occur in temporal sequences (stagetheory). To lend their views credibility, four-dimensionalists needto do more than hitherto to reconcile their views with everyday thought and talk by reconstructing this in the light of their theories. Since persons are ostensibly continuants, part of this reconstruction must concern their consciousness in its various forms. But there are serious barriers to a four-dimensional reconceptualization of consciousness, in particular as regards memory, intention and action, which are standardly conceptualized on the assumption that conscious subjects and agents are continuants. This talk will highlight some of these problems and outline what conceptual and linguistic barriers a four-dimensionalist will need to surmount if she is to convince us that four-dimensionalism can offer a convincing revisionist account of the phenomena of consciousness.


Galen Strawson

University of Reading

Fundamental Singleness: How to Turn the 2nd Paralogism into a Valid Argument

[1] Conscious experience—‘experience’ for short—is concretely real (real realism about experience). [2] The existence of experience entails the existence of a subject of experience. Therefore [3] subjects of experience are concretely real. [4] The synchronic unity of the subject of experience (the unity of the subject of experience in the ‘lived present of experience’ or ‘living moment of experience’, e.g. the period of time in which the grasping of a thought occurs), is, provably, a very strong—unsurpassable—kind of unity, perhaps the strongest we know; it is, if you like, a ‘logical’ unity. [5] But it is also, and no less, and necessarily, a metaphysically real unity—if thoughts, or indeed any experiences at all, occur at all. [6] Thoughts and experiences do occur, or (if one wishes to suppress the commitment to temporality in the word ‘occur’) exist. So [7] there exist entities that are genuine, concrete, metaphysical unities of an unsurpassable sort, whether we take these entities to be thoughts or experiences, or subjects of experience. [8] in the end we may agree with Kant that the two kinds of entities mentioned in [7] are not in the end different: that, in the end, ‘the thinking or the existence of the thought and the existence of my own self are one and the same’.



The conference is sponsored by:

The Royal Institute of Philosophy

Mind Association

Scots Philosophical Club

The British Society for the History of Philosophy