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‘What it is like’ talk is not technical talk

Jonathan Farrell, University of Manchester

[PDF of Jonathan Farrell’s paper]

[Jump to Robert Howell’s commentary]
[Jump to Myrto Mylopoulos’s commentary]
[Jump to Jonathan Farrell’s replies]

1. Introduction

Philosophers commonly talk about phenomenal consciousness by engaging in ‘what it is like’ talk (‘WIL-talk’ for short): they use sentences (‘WIL-sentences’) involving phrases such as ‘what is it like’ and ‘something it is like’. But it is not obvious what we mean when we engage in WIL-talk, or how we mean whatever it is we mean: how, by putting these words in this order do we come to talk about consciousness?[1] Indeed some have argued that when philosophers engage in WIL-talk they are talking nonsense (Hacker 2002), or saying something false or trivial (Snowdon 2010). One popular account of WIL-talk is that it involves technical terms—special terms which, although they look and sound like everyday words, in fact have a distinct meaning. David Lewis holds such an account: ‘“What it’s like” [is] ordinary enough—but when used as [a term] for qualia, [it is] used in a special technical sense.” (Lewis 1995, 140)[2] And so does Alex Byrne:

it is doubtful that ‘There is something it’s like for so-and-so to φ’ has some ‘special use to describe subjectivity’ (dialects of analytic philosophy aside). (2004, 215)

The meaning of these technical terms, according to the technical account, is such that we can use WIL-talk to talk about consciousness. Thus (as Janzen (2011) argues) philosophers can sidestep the arguments of Hacker and Snowdon—which concern non-technical, everyday language—and continue to use WIL-talk as they currently do. In this paper, I will show that the technical account of WIL-talk is false: WIL-talk does not involve technical terms.

We should care what the correct account of WIL-talk is because of the widespread use of this talk in discussions of consciousness. We are interested in consciousness for many reasons: it plays a central, significant, and immediate role in our lives, is a (perhaps the) significant mark of the mental, and is often taken to be the main obstacle to attempts to naturalise the mind. WIL-talk is used to define consciousness: ‘phenomenal consciousness is the property mental states, events, and processes have when, and only when, there is something it is like for their subject to undergo them, or be in them.’ (Kriegel 2006, 58). It is used to make statements about consciousness: ‘We all know what it is like to undergo the visual experience of bright purple, the feeling of fear, or the sensation of being tickled’ (Tye 2009, 137), ‘There’s nothing it is like to be a zombie.’ (Chalmers 1996, 95). And it is used to ask questions about consciousness: ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ (Nagel 1974), ‘what is it like to think that p?’ (Pitt 2004).[3] Simply put, it is rare for philosophers to talk about consciousness without engaging in WIL-talk.

But if we’re not clear what we communicate by engaging in WIL-talk, then definitions, claims and discussions will not be clear, and we will have no response to critics such as Hacker and Snowdon. Given the ubiquity of WIL-talk in philosophy of mind, then, it is imperative that we have a good grasp of what we mean when we engage in it. Further, if we can get clearer about the meaning of WIL-talk, this may allow us to get clearer about the phenomena that we talk about when we use it: consciousness.

But what we communicate by engaging in WIL-talk is unclear. Consider, for example, the WIL-sentence: ‘There is nothing it is like to be a zombie,’ (Chalmers 1996, 95). If we take the standard meanings of the words used, and combine them according to the apparent syntax of the sentence, Chalmers is saying that there is nothing that is similar to being a zombie. But this is not what he means. The whole point of zombies is that they are very similar to us indeed: in all ways but one—the phenomenal—they are just as we are. More generally, it is clear that WIL-talk is not concerned with similarity.[4] When faced with any kind of talk, the default hypothesis is that it works in the standard way: what it means is given by the meanings of the words used and the syntactic relations between them. As we’ve just seen, the standard account of WIL-talk is false. This shows that we need a non-standard account of WIL-talk if we are to be confident about what we mean when we engage in WIL-talk, and if we are to have a response to critics such as Hacker and Snowdon. Perhaps the most popular account of WIL-talk amongst philosophers of mind is the technical account: WIL-talk involves technical terms, and it is because of the presence of these terms that we can use it to talk about consciousness. In the rest of this paper, I will argue that this account is false.

2. The technical account

The technical account of WIL-talk can be given as the conjunction of three statements:

TECHNICAL: WIL-sentences involve technical terms.

INTRODUCTION: These terms were introduced by philosophers.

MEANING: It is because of the special meaning that these terms have that we can use WIL-talk to talk about consciousness.

By a ‘technical term’ I mean a word or phrase whose meaning is peculiar to—or closely connected with—a particular trade, discipline, or area of thought. Some technical terms—such as ‘hadron’ and ‘epiphenomenal’—have no counterpart in everyday language. Others sound and look like ordinary words or phrases, but have a different meaning. For example, the technical meaning of ‘work’ in physics—which is concerned with energy transference—is distinct from that of ‘work’ in everyday English—which is concerned with employment or effort. If WIL-talk involves technical terms, most plausibly they are of the second kind: as we saw above, on an everyday reading of WIL-sentences they are concerned with similarity.

Most writers who employ WIL-talk are not explicit about how they understand it, but there is evidence that many philosophers adopt the technical account. We’ve already seen that Byrne and Lewis accept this view. Here are some more examples. David Braddon-Mitchell and Frank Jackson say that,

Recent interest in [the knowledge argument] arises particularly from Thomas Nagel, ‘What is It Like to be a Bat?’ (the title tells you where the phrase comes from), … (2007, 152)

William Fish says that,

Perceptual experiences are paradigmatically conscious experiences: they have a phenomenology or there is, in Thomas Nagel’s influential terminology (1979), something it is like to perceive. (2010, 2)

P. M. S. Hacker (a critic of WIL-talk) says that,

the mesmerizing turn of phrase ‘there is something which it is like’, derive[s] from Thomas Nagel’s paper ‘What is it like to be a bat?’. (2002, 160)

And Jaegwon Kim says, ‘The use of the expression “what it is like” in connection with consciousness is due to Nagel.’ (1998, 181)[5]

Despite its popularity, we should reject the technical account. This is because we have good reasons to doubt the truth of both technical and introduction. I will consider these reasons in reverse order.

3. Not introduction

We can see that introduction is false by examining early uses of WIL-talk by philosophers. Most familiarly, Nagel uses WIL-talk in his (1974):

the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. … fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism. (436)

T. L. S. Sprigge also engages in WIL-talk in his (1971): ‘One is wondering about the consciousness which an object possesses whenever one wonders what it must be like being that object.’ (167) And B. A. Farrell uses WIL-sentences to talk about consciousness even earlier: ‘When, for example, we look at a red patch, we all just know what it is like to have the corresponding experience,’ (1950, 181) A slightly earlier example—from 1946–7—comes from Ludwig Wittgenstein: ‘… I know what it’s like to see red, green, blue, yellow, I know what it’s like to feel sorrow, hope, fear, joy, affection …’ (1980, 19)[6] The earliest example of a philosopher engaging in WIL-talk to talk about consciousness that I’ve found is in Bertrand Russell’s entry on ‘Philosophical Consequences of Relativity’ in the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1926:

In the four-dimensional space-time frame there are events everywhere … The abstract mathematical relations of these events proceed according to the laws of physics, but the intrinsic nature of the events is wholly and inevitably unknown except when they occur in a region where there is the sort of structure we call a brain. Then they become the familiar sights and sounds and so on of our daily life. We know what it is like to see a star, but we do not know the nature of the events which constitute the ray of light that travels from the star to our eye.[7] (1926)

The way that Russell, Wittgenstein, Farrell, Sprigge and Nagel use WIL-talk lacks three features that we would expect to see were they introducing technical terms. First, none of these philosophers tell us which terms are the technical ones.[8] Technical terms are words or phrases that have a particular meaning within some discourse. It would be surprising if someone introduced a technical term without indicating which of the many words they use is the technical one. This would be especially surprising if the technical term had an everyday look- and sound-alike counterpart. But, as we saw above, the alleged technical terms in WIL-sentences are of this kind: unlike, say, ‘hadron’, we can’t tell that the alleged terms are technical simply because they are not found in everyday language.

Second, none of these philosophers tells us what the alleged technical terms mean.[9] What it is to be a technical term is to have a particular meaning: one that is distinct from that of the term’s ordinary counterpart (if there is one). It would be odd (and not very helpful) if these philosophers had introduced new jargon into philosophy without indicating how this jargon was to be understood.

Might the meaning be given non-explicitly—by ostension, for example? The third feature of these early uses suggests not. None of the philosophers even indicate that they’re using WIL-talk in a new, non-everyday, technical way. Instead they simply use WIL-sentences in a non-self-conscious manner, without drawing attention to the language they use.

To emphasis these points, contrast what these philosophers say when they engage in WIL-talk with what Nagel says when he does introduce a technical term—‘subjective character’. Immediately after the passage quoted above, Nagel says, ‘We may call this the subjective character of experience.’ Here Nagel indicates that he is introducing a technical term, tells us which term is technical, and—by using WIL-talk—tells us what it means.

Given the way that Russell and others use WIL-sentences, it is not plausible that they are introducing technical terms. Thus we should reject introduction, and so the technical account of WIL-talk.

4. Not technical

Another reason for rejecting the technical account is that technical is false: WIL-talk does not involve technical terms. We can see this when we acknowledge that there are many examples of WIL-talk being used to talk about consciousness that come from outside philosophy, some of which precede philosophical uses. Further, there are no differences in meaning between philosophical and non-philosophical uses. So the alleged technical terms used by philosophers have the same meaning as the non-technical terms used by non-philosophers: they are not technical terms at all.

Before giving some examples, it’s worth distinguishing my argument against technical from three others that might be offered. First, we might describe and defend a positive account of WIL-talk and show that it entails the falsity of technical. (Stoljar does this in his (forthcoming).) But such an approach will only persuade those who accept the proffered account of WIL-talk. My argument shows that, even without committing to any particular account of WIL-talk, we should reject technical.

Less demandingly, we might aim to show that—regardless of the details—the correct account of WIL-talk is (as Lycan (1996), Lormand (2004), and Hellie (2004) and (2007) have argued) a compositional one: i.e., one according to which the meaning of WIL-sentences is composed out of the meaning and arrangement of their parts.[10] (Such accounts will tend to be non-standard because they hold that the syntax of or words involved in WIL-sentences, is not as it first seems to be.) But the correct account’s being compositional is compatible with WIL-talk being technical talk. After all, the correct account of the meaning of ‘There are six types of quark’ is a compositional one. But, because ‘quark’ is a technical term, this (and all other ‘quark’-talk) is technical talk.

A third argument against technical is offered by Hellie (2004). He notes that non-philosophers can understand WIL-talk and have used WIL-sentences since the mid-60’s. This is correct, but it doesn’t go far enough: these facts are compatible with a technical account according to which technical terms were introduced some time before the mid-60’s and then spread outside of philosophy. My argument shows that such an account should be rejected.

Here, then, are some examples of WIL-talk being used in the way we are familiar with which come from outside of philosophy. The first is from 1891: ‘Neither does he know what it is like to be scorched by lightning, but he has experienced the shrivelling effects of unrequited longing.’ (Unknown 1891, 541) A comparison is made here between what it is like to be scorched by lightning and the experience of undergoing unrequited longing. The latter is concerned with the subject’s conscious states, so presumably that is also what is of interest in the lightning case too.

A second example comes from a translation into English (made in 1912) of Anton Chekhov’s The Sea-gull:

Nina: And I should like to change places with you.

Trigorin: Why?

Nina: To find out how a famous genius feels. What is it like to be famous? What sensations does it give you? (1912)

Nina asks for the same information in three different ways, one of which involves a WIL-sentence. The other two ways ask about Trigorin’s feelings and sensations, so we know that it is Trigorin’s conscious states that Nina is interested in.

These examples give us further reason to reject introduction: both were published at least seventy-five years before Nagel’s paper and at least twenty-five years before Russell’s encyclopaedia entry.[11] This means that the use of WIL-talk to talk about consciousness was not an innovation of philosophers.

The next example is from a newspaper description of a blind man: ‘His great regret is that his normal sight at birth was too early to allow him to remember what it is like to see.’ (1938, 7). The fourth example is from 1969: ‘Drug-inspired psychedelic art tried to portray what it’s like to ‘see sounds’ and ‘taste colors’ while on an LSD trip.’ (Cain 1969, F17) Again, this is clearly concerned with (altered, synaesthetic) conscious states.

A book review from 1987 shows WIL-talk once again being used to talk about the experiences of the blind: ‘His description of what it is like to ‘see’ as a blind man is fascinating and inspiring’ (Kirsch 1987) Coming up to the present, in the last example, the writer tells us about his emotional state: he feels afraid (at the time, Gaza was the target of Israeli airstrikes). He then uses a WIL-sentence to ask how children in Gaza feel:

When I think of the future, I feel fear. I feel fear and I am a 34 year old man. What is it like for the children who live here in Gaza? What is it like for their parents? (Damo 2012)

We’ve seen six examples of WIL-talk being used to talk about consciousness that come from outside of philosophy. Some of these examples pre-date philosophical uses, while others are contemporary with them. Judicious use of linguistic corpora or internet search engines will allow the reader to find many more examples. These non-philosophers use WIL-sentences to talk about the conscious states associated with bodily sensations, perceptions and emotions just as philosophers do. There is no difference in meaning—in precision, in scope, or in nuance—between these non-philosophical examples, and the WIL-talk philosophers engage in. So whatever meaning the alleged technical terms employed in WIL-talk have, it is the same meaning that their everyday, non-technical, look- and sound-alike counterparts have. But an alleged technical term that means the same as its everyday counterpart is no technical term at all. Thus we should reject technical.

Before concluding, I’ll consider an objection someone might make to my argument against technical which goes as follows.[12] It’s true that philosophers and non-philosophers alike use sentences of the form ‘What it is like to …’ to talk about consciousness. But what is not true is that the ellipsis is filled in in the same way by philosophers and non-philosophers. My response is that, if we look at the examples I’ve given (and at others that can be easily found), it looks as if the ellipsis is filled in in the same way by philosophers and non-philosophers alike: both are concerned with what it’s like to see, for example, or to undergo an emotion. But perhaps all the objector needs is that some ways philosophers fill in the ellipsis are not ways non-philosophers complete the sentence. To make the objection concrete, let’s imagine that the claim is that philosophers sometimes talk about what conscious states (or qualia) are like, while non-philosophers only talk about what the world is like (cf. (Lycan 1996, 77)).

Even if this claim is true, it doesn’t show that philosophical and non-philosophical WIL-talk differs in meaning in a way relevant to my argument. It is no surprise that, when φ and ψ differ in meaning, so too do ‘What it is like to φ’ and ‘What it is like to ψ’.[13] And that the meanings differ is no reason to think that one involves a technical term that the other does not. (It might be that one of φ or ψ is, or involves, a technical term, of course. But if so, this doesn’t shed light on facts about meaning particular to ‘what it is like’-talk.) To make the point by way of an analogy: both scientists and non-scientists are interested in claims about causation. But while scientists might be interested in things like what causes radioactive atoms to decay, or viruses to mutate, non-scientists might be concerned with more mundane matters: what causes next-door’s dog to bark at night, or what caused the car battery to go flat. But this doesn’t show that ‘cause’ is being used to mean different things by the two groups and so it gives no support to the idea that scientific ‘cause’-talk is technical while non-scientific ‘cause’-talk is not.

5. Conclusion

To summarise the evidence against the technical account: when we look at early uses of WIL-sentences by philosophers, we do not find what we would expect to find if they were introducing—or even just making one of the first uses of—technical terms. These philosophers don’t indicate that they’re using technical language, don’t tell us which terms are technical, and don’t tell us what special meaning the technical terms have. Further, we find non-philosophers using WIL-talk to talk about consciousness before we find philosophers doing this. Thus we should reject introduction. And what non-philosophers mean when they engage in WIL-talk is no different to what philosophers mean when they engage in it. This shows that technical is false. Since two of the three statements that make up the technical account of WIL-talk are false, we should reject it.

Why is the technical account so popular if, as I’ve argued, the evidence against it is so compelling? I think three facts are relevant here. First, the correct account of WIL-talk is not the standard account—what we mean when we utter WIL-sentences doesn’t follow straightforwardly from the standard meanings of the words we use and the (apparent) syntax of the sentences. Second, the ubiquity of WIL-talk in philosophy of mind is due to the success of Nagel’s 1974 paper: language that is commonly used in discussions of consciousness after this date was not so frequently used before this date. The technical account purports to explain both of these facts: the standard account fails because WIL-talk involves technical terms, and we don’t find it much before 1974 because that is when the technical terms were introduced. The third fact is that there has not been much investigation of WIL-talk: of what it means or of how it means what it does. Thus the prima facie plausibility of the technical account has been unchallenged. It’s not surprising that this account is popular even though, once we consider the issue more carefully, we can see that it is false.

The aim of this paper has been negative: to show that we should not accept the technical account of WIL-talk. But if successful, it shows the need for future, positive work. WIL-talk is important because of its widespread and central use in discussions of consciousness. But what we mean when we engage in WIL-talk is obscure, and some have argued that this talk should be abandoned. We cannot simply assume that by engaging in WIL-talk we are shedding light, rather than casting shadows, on the object of our investigations: consciousness. Rather, we need an explanation both of what we communicate when we engage in WIL-talk, and of how we do this. Providing such an account will make it less likely that we talk past one another, lack clarity, or (if critics of WIL-talk turn out to be correct) utter falsehoods, trivialities or nonsense. But an account of WIL-talk also has the potential to provide positive benefits: it may allow us to be clearer both about the content of claims and arguments concerning consciousness, and about how we should respond to these claims and arguments.

There are accounts of WIL-talk that are neither standard nor technical. For example, perhaps the talk involves idioms (Sprigge (1998) seems to think this), or perhaps the context of use determines whether WIL-talk is phenomenal or not (Hellie (2004) claims this (although he later recants (2007)), as does Snowdon (2010) and Stoljar (forthcoming)), or perhaps WIL-sentences are ambiguous. But none of these accounts has been described in detail or been subjected to a sustained examination or defence—mainly because discussions of WIL-talk, when they occur at all, tend to only occur in passing. There is, as yet, no consensus about how to understand WIL-talk. More work on this topic is needed.[14]

 

References

Braddon-Mitchell, David, and Frank Jackson. The philosophy of mind and cognition. Wiley-Blackwell, 2007.

Byrne, Alex. “What Phenomenal Consciousness is Like.” In Higher-Order Theories of Consciousness An Anthology, edited by Rocco J Gennaro, 203-226. John Benjamins, 2004.

Cain, Stephen. “Thorns grow in Garden of Eden.” The Boston Globe, 1969: F17.

Chalmers, David John. The conscious mind: in search of a fundamental theory. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Chekhov, Anton. The Sea-gull. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912.

Damo, Osama. “Gaza: `If I’m Afraid, What is it Like for the Children?’.” 18th November 2012. http://blogs.savethechildren.org.uk/2012/11/gaza-if-im-afraid-what-is-it-like-for-the-children/ (accessed 17/12/13)

Farrell, B. A. “Experience.” Mind 59 (April 1950): 170-198.

Fish, William. Philosophy of Perception: A Contemporary Introduction. Routledge, 2010.

Hacker, P. M. S. “Is there anything it is like to be a bat?” Philosophy 77 (2002): 157-174.

Hellie, Benj. “Inexpressible Truths and the Allure of the Knowledge Argument.” In There’s Something About Mary, edited by P. Ludlow, Y. Nagasawa and D. Stoljar, 333-364. The MIT Press, 2004.

Hellie, Benj. “’There’s something it’s like’ and the Structure of Consciousness.” Philosophical Review 116, no. 3 (2007): 441-463.

Janzen, Greg. “In Defense Of The What-it-is-likeness Of Experience.” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 9, no. 3 (Sept 2011): 271-93.

Kim, Jaegwon. Philosophy of Mind. Westview Press, 1998.

Kirsch, Jonathan. “And There Was Light by Jacques Lusseyran; translated by Elizabeth R. Cameron.” Los Angeles Times, 1987.

Kriegel, Uriah. “Consciousness, Theories of.” Philosophy Compass 1, no. 1 (Jan 2006): 58-64.

Lewis, David. “Should a materialist believe in qualia?” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 73: 1 (1995): 140-144.

Lewis, David. “What Experience Teaches.” In Philosophy of mind: Classical and contemporary readings, edited by David J Chalmers, 281-294. Oxford University Press New York, 2002.

Lormand, E. “The Explanatory Stopgap.” Philosophical Review 113, no. 3 (Jul 2004): 303-357.

Lycan, William G. Consciousness and Experience. MIT Press, 1996.

Nagasawa, Yujin, and Daniel Stoljar. “Introduction.” In There’s Something About Mary, edited by P. Ludlow, Y. Nagasawa and D. Stoljar, 1-36. The MIT Press, 2004.

Nagel, Thomas. “What is it like to be a bat?” Philosophical Review 83, no. 4 (Oct 1974): 435-450.

Pitt, David. “The Phenomenology of Cognition, or, What is It Like to Think That P?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 69, no. 1 (2004): 1-36.

Russell, Bertrand. “Philosophical consequences of relativity.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1926.

Snowdon, Paul. “On the what-it-is-like-ness of experience.” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 48, no. 1 (Mar 2010): 8-27.

Sprigge, T.L.S. “Panpsychism.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online, edited by Edward Craig. Routledge, 1998.

Sprigge, Timothy L, and Alan Montefiore. “Final Causes.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 45 (1971): 149-192.

Stoljar, Daniel. “The Semantics of ‘What it’s like’ and the Nature of Consciousness.” forthcoming.

Tye, Michael. Consciousness Revisited: Materialism Without Phenomenal Concepts. MIT Press, 2009.

Unknown. The Eagle (Printed by W. Metcalfe) 16 (1891). http://books.google.com.au/books?id=9W84AAAAMAAJ (accessed 1/7/10)

Unknown. “Sight to the Blind.” Bath Weekly Chronicle and Herald, 1938: 7.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Vol. 1. University of Chicago Press, 1980.

 


Notes

[1] Henceforth I will drop the ‘phenomenal’ qualifier: all references to consciousness are to phenomenal consciousness. For a characterisation of phenomenal consciousness, see the quoted examples of uses of WIL-talk in this section.

[2] We might interpret Lewis as claiming here that it is only when we use the phrase ‘what it’s like’ as an alternative to—i.e., as something like a synonym of—‘qualia’ that the former is technical. But I don’t think we should understand him in this way. Directly after the sentence quoted, Lewis says: “You can say what it’s like to taste New Zealand beer by saying what experience you have when you do, namely a sweet taste. But you can’t say what it’s like to have a sweet taste in the parallel way, namely by saying that when you do, you have a sweet taste!” This seems to be offered as support for the claim that ‘what it’s like’ is a technical term. It’s unclear what the argument is here, but, in the passage just quoted ‘what it’s like’ is not being used as a synonym for ‘qualia’ (replacing ‘what it’s like’ in the passage with ‘qualia’ doesn’t result in grammatical sentences, let alone synonymous ones). Instead it is being used in the way we are interested in. This suggests that Lewis holds the technical account.

[3] As the quotations just given suggest, paradigm examples of phenomenally conscious states include perceptions, bodily sensations and emotions; whether there is cognitive phenomenology is a matter of debate. Phenomenally conscious creatures include humans and (probably) bats, but not zombies.

[4] This is widely recognised. See, for example, (Nagel 1974, n6 440), (Hacker 2002, 166), (Lewis 2002, 282), (Hellie 2004, 352–56), (Lormand 2004, 318–22), and (Snowdon 2010, 17).

[5] William Lycan (1996) holds that WIL-talk is ambiguous. He does not hold a technical account, however, since he does not appeal to the presence of technical terms to explain how we can use WIL-talk to talk about consciousness (i.e., he rejects meaning).

[6] Nagasawa and Stoljar note that this work was written in 1946–7 and that although the quoted fragment is in English the passage in which it is embedded is in German (2004, n5 25).

[7] As some of the quotations given in §2 show, it is commonly claimed that the relevant technical terms were introduced by Nagel. While it is clear that Nagel’s paper is responsible for popularising the use of WIL-talk by philosophers, it is just as clear that he was not the first philosopher to engage in this talk.

[8] Nor, as a rule, do proponents of the technical account. Lewis (1995, 140) is an exception.

[9] The same is true of most adherents of the technical account. Janzen (2011, 281)is an exception.

[10] I’m indebted to *** for suggesting this argument.

[11] It has been suggested to me (by ***) that these examples are somehow anomalous since they are “literary” English. I haven’t found more prosaic examples of non-philosophical WIL-talk from this early period, but I suspect that this is because the sources that linguistic corpora of these periods rely upon tend towards the literary and the formal since these are the sources that have survived. But even if all early uses of WIL-talk were literary, that wouldn’t show that they are technical, philosophical uses. And that is what matters here.

[12] Thanks to *** for suggesting this to me.

[13] Likewise for ‘what α is like’ and ‘what β is like’.

[14] [Acknowledgements]

Published by

Jonathan Farrell

I’m a post-doc on Tim Bayne’s ERC-funded ‘Architecture of Consciousness’ project at the University of Manchester (archofcon.wix.com/archofcon).

50 thoughts on “‘What it is like’ talk is not technical talk”

  1. WHAT’S IT’S LIKE TO USE A TECHNICAL TERM

     

    In “What it is like’ talk is not technical talk,” Jonathan Farrell argues that not only did philosophers not introduce WIL talk, WIL talk contains no indications of employing technical terms. So, WIL talk is not technical talk.

    I’m inclined to agree with Farrell about pretty much everything he says, or at least with the gist of it. It seems pretty clear from the examples he cites that WIL talk has been used with similar meanings before philosophers got their dirty hands on it, and on at least one meaning of “technical talk,” that means WIL is not technical talk. So, in these comments I take myself to be arguing largely in parallel to Farrell. Along the way I hope to suggest some distinctions he could make, as well as some possible counterexamples to his claims, but my main question is whether we should care if WIL talk is technical or not. I’ll also suggest a sketch of how such talk might be working, such that it isn’t even using words (or composing idioms with them) in a non-standard way.

    What is it for a use of an expression to be “technical?” What makes something a case of “technical talk?” Farrell’s outline of the “technical account” of WIL talk involves three theses:

     

    TECHNICAL: WIL-sentences involve technical terms.

    INTRODUCTION: These terms were introduced by philosophers.

    MEANING: It is because of the special meaning that these terms have that we can use WIL-talk to talk about consciousness. (4)

     

    But none of these theses really helps indicate what would make talk technical. “TECHNICAL” presupposes some similar notion, and while “MEANING” gets closer, by talking of “special meanings” for phrases, we need to know more about what sort of specialness makes a meaning or use technical. Farrell does help us out here, by saying immediately after these theses that “By a ‘technical term’ I mean a word or phrase whose meaning is peculiar to—or closely connected with—a particular trade, discipline, or area of thought.” (5) This suggests the following technical talk thesis:

     

    TT1: “xyz” is technical talk iff it involves a “word or phrase whose meaning is peculiar to—or closely connected with—a particular trade, discipline, or area of thought.” (5)

     

    I have a couple of worries about TT1. For one thing, it seems that just because a phrase is closely connected to a particular trade doesn’t indicate that it’s technical, at least in any intuitive sense. A perfectly commonplace phrase or word might find particular use within a field. “Dissonant” might be a word that is closely connected with music criticism, but I’m not sure I’d call the word technical. “Rhyme” surely is associated closely connected with the study of poetry, but is it a technical term? More plausible is that terms are technical when their use is peculiar to a certain trade or area of thought, but even there it would seem to depend on how liberally one construes disciplines or areas of thought. “Action” would seem to be pretty non-technical, but it is probably limited to the discussion of (mostly animal) behavior. “Sadness” is presumably limited to discussions of human psychology, but I doubt it’s technical. Part of the problem here is that TT1 relies on a notion of “areas of thought” and “close connection” that might be hard to make precise. But there is also a worry about terms that aren’t particularly technical, but that just happen, as a matter of contingent fact to be used only within a particular field, would be classified as technical. Is “pancreas” technical just because it’s almost always doctors who use the word? Is “frizz” technical because mostly hairdressers use the word?

    Perhaps these sorts of concerns would be (at least partly) mitigated by adopting:

     

    TT2: “xyz” is technical talk iff it’s meaning is peculiar to a formalized field of study whose practitioners introduced that meaning of “xyz” for the purpose of developing theories in their field.

     

    There are worries here, though, too. There seem to be technical terms that aren’t limited to particular fields. “Stochastic,” “hue”, “charge,” and “deterministic” all seem technical in a way, but are concepts that can be used in numerous fields.   Perhaps we should focus, then, more upon the fact that the terms were introduced for the purposes of theorizing. Something like:

     

    TT3: “xyz” is technical talk iff theorists in a formalized field of study introduced that meaning of “xyz” for the purpose of developing theories in their field.

     

    There is still some worry about TT3 since it would deem a term like “beat” technical if it originated long ago in the study of music but has since become part of the vernacular. Nevertheless, I’m inclined to think TT3 might be more extensionally adequate than TT1. I’m inclined to believe that Farrell has shown that WIL talk isn’t technical in this sense as well, since he gives convincing cases in which WIL talk is used to draw attention to phenomenal consciousness prior to and independent of philosophical theorizing.

    Why should we care that talk is technical? That a certain sort of language originated within a field for the purposes of developing theories in that field doesn’t really seem to be a problem. Physics has a ton of technical terms in this sense, as does any advanced science, and there is every reason in the world to think that many of these terms serve to pick out features of reality that are well worth talking about. One might even suspect that technical terms are to be preferred as they are apt to have clearer meanings that the language that evolves according to the whims of popular use.

    My suspicion is that Hacker, Snowdon and others aren’t really concerned that WIL talk is technical.   If WIL talk were technical in the way “pentaquark” is technical that would be ok. “Pentaquark” is technical, but it is associated with clear and public criteria for use. WIL talk isn’t that way. In fact, it might be closer to the truth to say that the problem with WIL talk is that it isn’t technical enough! Snowdon, for example, seems to think that WIL-talk is apt to confuse the issue, leading us to imagine that there is something more than just experiences. One suspects him of making the Rylean/Wittgensteinian point that language can sometimes lead us to posit metaphysical entities where there is in fact just peculiar and misleading phraseology. (Don’t expect the team spirit to have its own locker, etc.) But of course if this is really the worry, it is orthogonal to the technicality of the language. In fact, the classic culprits for this sort of linguistic bewitchment reside in common language.

    My own sense is that even if philosophers did invent this particular use of WIL talk, perhaps in trying to theorize about consciousness, that this wouldn’t indicate that it’s technical in the sense that tends to worry us. We’re pretty familiar, I think, with what it’s like to use a technical term among students, laymen, or even philosophers in a different field. If I’m talking to Uncle Joe, and I mention the fact that in my view everything supervenes on basic physical particles, he’ll raise his bushy eyebrows and say something about how fancy I am with my Ph.D. Mention supervenience in a talk about consciousness, even to very educated people, and they’ll look knowingly at each other and look for another speaker next time. What’s somewhat remarkable is how in the same contexts talking about what it’s like to smell bacon or taste chocolate doesn’t generate the same reaction. I’ve taught hundreds of introductory students about the problem of consciousness and have given numerous public lectures on the topic. I’ve explained the topic to aunts, uncles, and even the curious taxi driver. I almost always employ WIL talk, and far from alienating the listener and furthering confusion, the talk seems singularly successful at getting them to focus on the sense of consciousness at issue. Using technical terms isn’t like this at all.

    This suggests a further notion of technical term that is independent of the field of origin or use.

     

    TT4: “XYZ” is technical talk iff when “XYZ” is used outside of professional or trained circles, “XYZ” tends not to be understood, or at least not understood in the way professionals understand it.

     

    Though I can offer little more than my own experience, nothing could be clearer to me than that WIL talk is not technical in this sense. It is among the most successful phrases I know of for helping the untrained come to see what philosophers are talking about, in the philosophy of mind or any other subfield. There are, of course, occasions when one discovers that students or interlocutors haven’t really understood what one is talking about, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

    Here too, though, I’m not sure that as philosophical theorists we should be concerned if WIL is technical in the sense of TT4. As communicators to a larger public we need to be aware when we use terms like this, and we need to explain them when we use them, but when we talk to each other it can be quite helpful to have terms like “supervenience” and “pro tanto duty.” So I’m still looking for some reason to worry about whether or not WIL talk is technical.

    As Farrell notes, there is something funny or “non-standard” about WIL talk in that its meaning isn’t obviously built from combining the meanings of its constituent elements. “Like” talk does suggest comparisons, and at least on the face of it WIL talk is not about comparisons. This fact, combined with the fact that WIL talk is so helpful and so easily exportable from more explicitly philosophical contexts, presents a bit of a mystery. Just why does it work this way? Why does it work so well? How does the use of “like” in WIL talk tie into other uses of “like?” I, for one, don’t have any good suggestions about this, but I’d be interested in Farrell’s thoughts about the issue. Whether WIL talk is technical or not, it would be nice to have a better grasp of how it is working.

    1. Hi Robert

      Thanks for that. I have one question about a particular claim you make (so like you, I have some sympathies with the direction John Farrell is heading, I think):

      “I’ve taught hundreds of introductory students about the problem of consciousness and have given numerous public lectures on the topic. I’ve explained the topic to aunts, uncles, and even the curious taxi driver. I almost always employ WIL talk, and far from alienating the listener and furthering confusion, the talk seems singularly successful at getting them to focus on the sense of consciousness at issue.”

      I think that since “what it is like” isn’t a technical term, or at least that the phrase can be invoked quite easily in non-technical contexts, it is quite easy for anyone (laypersons) to feel at ease in using the term. That’s no guarantee, however, that the user has fixed on the relevant topic at issue in philosophical discussions or at least fixed on it in the way we philosophers might think that they do. So it’s the further claim you make, that the term gets them to focus on the sense of consciousness at issue, with singular success, of which I’m uncertain. Does it? I am no longer sure.

      Take undergraduates: the assumption is that by reading Nagel (e.g.), they are able to focus on the topic of philosophical reflection, phenomenal consciousness. But are they? What are they doing when they are said to come to focus on that topic on the basis of what it is like talk? That is, how does it help their focus (attention) to get correctly directed, locking onto the subject matter, p-consciousness? What, really, are they focusing on?

      Conjecture: we philosophers have developed an overly simple, possibly incorrect interpretation about what they are doing, when they acquire facility with what-it-is-like talk, an ability to direct their attention internally, in some way, to phenomenal properties (I’m thinking of internal acquaintance/attention to the phenomenal–what do people mean by attention here?).

      I am no longer certain that students are focusing on what I think they should be focusing on or that their way of focusing on it is as we think. Of course, students will nod because what it is like talk is so easy to grasp. But I’m not sure anymore about what they do grasp or how they do it (if anything, I think their conceptual grasp of the phenomenal might amount to something like a descriptive-theoretical mode of reference, not something direct).

      It would be easier, of course, if what-it-is-like talk were in some sense technical, and then I could as a teacher use other words to help fix what is at issue. But since “what it is like” in some sense is like a rock bottom concept, this isn’t available to me.

      So, to end with some questions: Why the confidence? And what do you think they are doing, psychologically speaking, when they seem to cotton on? What is basis of their “focus” on the phenomenal?

      1. Hey Wayne, thanks. I guess what gives me confidence is that students often suddenly see what it is that Mary doesn’t know when I present it in terms of WIL talk. Even students who seem to be confident that mental states are brain states seem to move towards the view that Mary learns something new. Then when they are debating with each other, perhaps with the few holdouts, they seem to say the right things. I’m not sure of what they are doing, of course, and I’m not sure why WIL talk works, but I guess I do think they see that its not the colors in the world or the various objective things that we can know about brain states. I doubt this usually is accompanied by rigorous introspection–rather, I suspect it is a matter of reflection on the experiences they have had, recognizing that there is something that isn’t caught by objective theorizing.

        Perhaps what’s going on is really that WIL talk works in conjunction with the various arguments and examples to recognize that there are various things one can know about ones experiences and the phenomenal character is one of them. I guess.

  2. In his excellent paper, Farrell argues that ‘what it is like’ (WIL) talk is not technical talk, and so those who wish to sidestep certain criticisms aimed at WIL-talk by claiming that it is must find another strategy.

    I would like to do two main things in these comments. First, I would like to raise some general worries concerning the two main motivations that Farrell discusses for adopting a technical account of WIL-talk. Second, I would like to raise some questions concerning the scope of Farrell’s claim that WIL-talk is not technical talk, and show that depending on how it is interpreted, Farrell’s overall argumentative strategy is affected.

     

    I.

     

    The first motivation that Farrell offers, on behalf of its proponents, for adopting a technical account of WIL-talk is that it enables us to be clear about what we mean when we engage in such talk in a way that what Farrell dubs the “standard account” does not. The standard account, as I understand it, views WIL-talk as a folk linguistic construct—a piece of ordinary language—and interprets the meaning of WIL-talk accordingly. On this account, as Farrell characterizes it, what WIL-talk communicates is simply “given by the meanings of the words used and the syntactic relations between them” (4).

    In order to establish that the standard account is inadequate for capturing the way that philosophers use WIL-talk, Farrell considers an application of it to a specific instance of WIL-talk: “There is nothing it is like to be a zombie” (Chalmers 1995, 95). He argues that it delivers the wrong verdict, and should thus be abandoned in favour of a non-standard account. He writes:

    If we take the standard meanings of the words used, and combine them according to the apparent syntax of the sentence, Chalmers is saying that there is nothing that is similar to being a zombie. But this is not what he means. The whole point of zombies is that they are very similar to us indeed: in all ways but one—the phenomenal—they are just as we are. More generally, it is clear that WIL-talk is not concerned with similarity.

    I would like to focus on two main claims here: (i) the standard account of WIL-talk treats it as being exclusively concerned with similarity relations, and (ii) such an account fails to capture how philosophers use WIL-talk, as illustrated by its application to the example sentence. I will raise some challenges to each of these claims, starting with the second.

    I think that there is a fairly natural way of interpreting the example sentence from Chalmers as a case of WIL-talk that is indeed concerned with similarity—not just any similarity, since, as Farrell rightly points out, zombies are similar to us in many ways—but similarity between or among conscious experiences. What Chalmers’ claim amounts to, on this reading, is that there is no conscious experience that is similar to the conscious experience of being a zombie, since zombies have no conscious experiences at all.

    If this is right, then this would be a limiting case of WIL-talk used to say something about similarity relations among conscious experiences, namely one in which none obtain. In regular instances of WIL-talk understood in this way, it is used not only to indicate the existence of a conscious experience, but also the nature of that experience, which would be given by the similarity relations that one would subsequently specify if pressed. For example, take the claim that there is something it is like to taste a lemon. The full extent of what one is communicating with that claim—what kind of conscious experience one is describing—would be given by the further specification that what it is like is, e.g., similar to tasting a grapefruit or a lime. And this is a standard way that we get at the qualitative character of conscious experiences. So insofar as philosophers use WIL-talk to get at the specific qualitative character of conscious experience, the standard account does a reasonably good job of accommodating such usage. It’s not clear that we need to move to a technical account on these grounds.

    One may go along with this, and yet still maintain, as Farrell does, that the standard account is inadequate because WIL-talk as it is often or typically used by philosophers does not seem to be concerned with similarity relations, and is not open to dual interpretations in the way that I suggested the Chalmers quotation is. So even if the standard account can accommodate some instances of WIL-talk, it cannot accommodate these other cases, and we still need to move to a technical account.

    Farrell provides several examples of WIL-talk that appear to be of this nature. To take one, in Nagel’s (1974) famous discussion of what it’s like to be a bat, he argues that though we might all agree that there is something it is like to be a bat, we take it to be “beyond our ability to conceive” (439), so it seems that we are not, in making the claim that there is something it is like to be a bat, disposed to offer up any similarity relations to capture the character of that experience, as we might be in the case of what it is like to taste a lemon. Nagel concludes that “[t]herefore the analogical form of the English expression “what it is like” is misleading. It does not mean “what (in our experience) it resembles,” but rather “how it is for the subject himself” (440, fn.6).

    I am doubtful that we can actually divorce, given a certain conscious experience, how it is for the subject from what in the subject’s experience it resembles. But I will set that aside here. What I would like to suggest is that even if a similarity reading of the WIL expression is not applicable here and in equivalent uses, this is, in these cases, made clear from the standard meaning and apparent syntax of the words, and so the standard account can accommodate them as well.

    More specifically, it is usually indicated—if not explicitly then implicitly—that it is how it is for the subject that is in question. In Nagel’s own famous discussion, this is clear. He writes: “The fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. … fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism” (436, my emphasis). The standard account covers this type of usage nicely.

    The upshot, then, is that I take the standard account to be well-equipped to handle cases of WIL-talk in philosophy, both insofar as it is concerned with similarity relations, as I have suggested is the case at least some of the time, and insofar as it is concerned simply to indicate the presence of a conscious experience for a subject. And so the first motivation that Farrell offers for adopting a technical account of WIL-talk, which requires that the standard account is inadequate, seems to me to face difficulties.

    The second motivation that Farrell offers for adopting the technical account of WIL-talk, again on behalf of its proponents, I take to be the following: “WIL-talk involves technical terms, and it is because of the presence of these terms that we can use it to talk about consciousness” (4, emphasis mine). This seems to be a more urgent reason to adopt a technical account of WIL-talk. If it is only when it is used in a technical sense that it allows us to talk about consciousness, then we had better use it in a technical sense.

    But here one might wonder why it should be the case that if WIL-talk involves technical terms then it can be used to talk about consciousness. After all, many technical terms (e.g., ‘quark’) cannot be used to talk about consciousness. And many nontechnical terms (e.g., ‘experience’) can. Similarly, recall the initial charges, presented by Farrell, which the technical account was meant to help refute. There was Hacker’s accusation that when philosophers engage in WIL-talk they are talking nonsense, and Snowdon’s concern that what they are saying is something false or trivial. But technical talk can be used to make false (e.g., “quarks are types of mice”), trivial (e.g., “a quark is a quark”), and nonsensical (e.g., “quarks sleep furiously”) claims. So any work that is done by WIL-talk in allowing us to talk about consciousness seems not to derive from its being technical. What, then, is the purported link between WIL-talk being technical and its enabling talk about consciousness? How is the technical account supposed to help vindicate or justify WIL-talk?

    The explanation seems to come in the third statement of the conjunction of statements that Farrell takes to characterize the technical account: MEANING. According to MEANING, “[i]t is because of the special meaning that these terms have that we can use WIL-talk to talk about consciousness” (4). So because of the specific meaning that technical terms are assigned, we can use WIL-talk to talk about consciousness.

    But this does not seem to help very much. An immediate problem that arises here is that, in all of the examples that Farrell offers of proponents of the technical account using WIL-talk, no special meaning is assigned. It seems, rather, that the meaning is not only supposed to be transparent, but doesn’t differ from many cases of non-philosophical usage of WIL-talk, a point that Farrell goes on to make and I am in total agreement with. But if that is the case, then how is it that adopting the technical account can help us justify WIL-talk? It seems that it cannot. So this renders the second motivation for adopting the technical account suspect.

     

    II.

     

    I turn now to make some remarks concerning the scope of Farrell’s main thesis, and how it relates to the overall argumentative strategy presented in the paper. The scope of the thesis is called into question since, as Farrell acknowledges, WIL-talk has an ordinary language counterpart. So the goal cannot be to argue for the falsity of the claim that all WIL-talk is technical talk, since this is already readily admitted.

    Instead, Farrell’s main concern is to show that WIL-talk as used by philosophers is not technical. But one worry here is that the main argument against TECHNICAL does not then go through. For it is compatible with there being instances of WIL-talk outside of philosophy, some of which precede philosophical usage, that philosophers still use WIL-talk in a technical way. By analogy, it cannot be established on the basis of the fact that the term ‘work’ is used by the folk in a way that is different from how it is used in physics that ‘work’ is not a technical term in physics.

    Farrell does stress, however, that, “[t]here is no difference in meaning—in precision, in scope, or in nuance—between these non-philosophical examples, and the WIL-talk philosophers engage in” (12 – 13). This seems to me to be a key point. If the WIL-talk that philosophers engage in is no different than the WIL-talk that the folk engage in, then we have no reason to think that it is ever used in a technical way. And this may indeed be right. But if so, then once again it leaves me puzzled as to the motivation for moving to a technical account in the first place.

    Another scope question arises with respect to whether Farrell is interested in establishing that no philosopher uses WIL-talk in a technical sense or something weaker. Again, a natural assumption is that it is the latter, since there are some philosophers who seem to be using WIL-talk in the folk sense (e.g., Russell as quoted by Farrell), and these do not seem to be the targets. But here a parallel worry arises for the argument against INTRODUCTION. Farrell quotes a number of philosophers that use WIL-talk in ways that are inconsistent with it. He makes the case that they do not introduce WIL-talk, since they do not indicate that they are introducing a new term, nor which term it is, nor what it means. But, though this may be correct, this does not help to establish that WIL-talk is not (at least sometimes) technical talk in philosophy. It just helps to establish that some philosophers don’t use WIL-talk in a technical way. In other cases the term may very well be introduced explicitly, consistent with the technical account. Here I would be tempted to take the quotations Farrell offers from Braddon-Mitchell and Jackson (2007), Fish (2010), Hacker (2002), and Kim (1998) as plausible candidates. (It cannot count against these usages that it is not indicated that the term is being introduced, since explicit mention is made of the introduction by Nagel in his 1974 paper.)

    So depending on the particular scope that we take Farrell’s main thesis to have, it seems to me that some of the arguments presented are impacted, so this seems an important aspect of the paper to clarify.

  3. I’d like to thank the conference organisers for setting up a great conference, and for the opportunity to give my paper here. I’d also like to thank both Myrto Mylopoulos and Robert Howell for their helpful and thought-provoking comments. In this comment I’ll respond to what Howell says, in the next I’ll reply to Mylopoulos’ remarks.

    Why it matters whether WIL-talk is technical

    Howell raises two related questions: first, why does it matter whether WIL-talk is technical? Second, what is it for a term to be technical? I’ll respond to them in turn. Howell is right to say that the paper is not clear about why it matters whether the technical account is correct and I definitely should have been more explicit about this. Here are three reasons why it matters whether the technical account is correct. First, if we are to clarify what is communicated when philosophers use WIL-talk to talk about consciousness we must know which instances of WIL-talk are the target of inquiry. If the technical account is correct, only instances which occur in philosophical and scientific contexts are canonical. If it is incorrect, then since non-philosophers also engage in WIL-talk to talk about phenomenal consciousness, we need to investigate a much larger corpus of uses. Focusing narrowly on only a subset of relevant uses is liable to lead us astray. This is so in just the same way that, if we aim to describe swans, focusing on only a subset of the relevant animals—those found in the northern hemisphere, say—will result in claims that are not true of swans in general—e.g., that they are all white. Establishing the truth of the technical account, then, will indicate where we should look to get clearer about what is communicated by WIL-talk.

    Second, if the technical account is correct, then what philosophers mean when they engage in WIL-talk is different to what non-philosophers mean. Thus while ordinary WIL-talk is concerned with our intuitive, pre-theoretical notion of consciousness, technical (philosophical) WIL-talk is about something else. This need not be a problem—perhaps the philosophical use is a precisification of the ordinary use. But it is certainly something we should be aware of given that it is with the pre-theoretical notion of consciousness that we are ultimately concerned. If the technical account is incorrect, on the other hand, then this kind of subject-changing is less likely to be occurring.

    The third reason why establishing the truth of the technical account matters is that it has consequences for current debates in philosophy of mind. There is currently much disagreement about which sorts of mental states are phenomenally conscious: whether there something it is like to be in a cognitive state (a belief, say, or a desire), and whether there are such things as agential or moral phenomenology. A second debate concerns the contents of perceptual experiences: is there a difference in what it is like to see a pine tree depending on whether one is an expert at recognising pine trees, or a novice who can’t tell one kind of tree from another? If, as is often claimed, we know nothing more intimately than our conscious experiences, then it is surprising that these matters are controversial: surely we can answer them by simply examining our experiences. If WIL-talk involves a technical term then these disagreements are explained. If the relevant technical term gets its meaning from being embedded in a particular theory of consciousness, then those with different theories may well mean different things when they use the term. Authors in these debates have different background theories of conscious and so have different technical notions in mind when they engage in WIL-talk. Thus they talk past one another. This can be avoided if participants in the debates are more explicit about their background theories, or employ terms that are not theory-laden. The truth of the technical account, then, has philosophical ramifications outside of our understanding of WIL-talk.

    What is it to be a technical term?

    Howell correctly points out that my explanation of what it is for a term to be technical lacks detail so is open to counterexamples. First a quick response, then a more detailed one. On the one hand, I’m not too worried about this since I’m not aiming to give an account of technical terms. What matters is whether WIL-talk involves the use of terms of a particular kind, not so much what we call this kind. On the other hand, however, my use of ‘technical term’ might be distracting and potentially misleading and I’d like to avoid that. So I’m grateful for Howell bringing up this issue.

    As noted above, whether the technical account is correct matters (in part) because establishing this will help us get clearer about what philosophers communicate when they engage in WIL-talk. It will help us to get clearer by telling us which instances of uses of WIL-sentences are the ones we’re interested. If we put the phrase ‘technical term’ to one side for the moment, we can say that what matters is whether the WIL-sentences philosophers use to talk about consciousness involve P-terms. A term is a P-term iff it has the meaning it currently does because of some connection it has to philosophy: either because philosophers have stipulated that it has this meaning, or because it gets this meaning by playing a role in some philosophical theory, or because it has come to have this meaning because of the way philosophers have used it over time. (So in terms of Howell’s final suggested definition of a technical term, TT4, a term is a P-term iff it is a TT4 technical term, or if it was a TT4 technical term and hasn’t changed its meaning (much) since.) The technical account says that philosophers are able to use WIL-talk to talk about consciousness because it involves P-terms. This means that in order to work out what philosophers mean when they engage in this talk, we need to work out what the P-terms mean. And to work out what the P-terms mean, we need to look (only) at philosophical uses of them. In the paper, I called P-terms ‘technical terms’. I do think that P-terms are at least closely related to what we usually refer to by the phrase ‘technical term’. But, as Howell points out, perhaps speaking this way is potentially confusing or misleading. Hopefully what I’ve said here avoids these problems.

    1. Hi Jonathan,
      Thanks for the replies. I guess I’m still not totally convinced it matters if WIL is technical. Your first reason why it matters is:
      “First, if we are to clarify what is communicated when philosophers use WIL-talk to talk about consciousness we must know which instances of WIL-talk are the target of inquiry. If the technical account is correct, only instances which occur in philosophical and scientific contexts are canonical. If it is incorrect, then since non-philosophers also engage in WIL-talk to talk about phenomenal consciousness, we need to investigate a much larger corpus of uses.”
      I’m not sure I get this. If we are philosophers, and we’re really communicating something that uncovers a puzzling feature of experience, why be concerned about other uses of the term? I’m sure there are other uses of all sorts of terms but why does that affect my clarity about my use and the puzzles I am dealing with? Physicists definitely mean something particular by “charm” but that doesn’t mean they need to engage at all with what anyone else means by it.
      I’ll try to write a bit more later. Thanks again! r

      1. I guess another way to put my worry is that it doesn’t seem that “investigating…uses” of terms plays a role in philosophical theorizing. It’s what I’m meaning by my use that tends to concern me.

    2. I have a similar reaction to the one noted above to your second reason. If our use is technical that is “certainly something we should be aware of given that it is with the pre-theoretical notion of consciousness that we are ultimately concerned.”
      Are we ultimately concerned with the pre-theoretical notion? As long as there is a notion that generates the mind-body puzzle, does it really matter if that is what other people mean by consciousness? Physicalism would still be false if it turns out it is false because of the existence of consciousness* instead of consciousness.

      1. Hi Robert,

        Re my first reason: you asked, “If we are philosophers, and we’re really communicating something that uncovers a puzzling feature of experience, why be concerned about other uses of the term?” To answer this I think we need to be clearer about how we’re using ‘term’—I think you and I might be using it differently (although I think both uses are acceptable). As I’m using it, we individuate terms in part by their linguistic meaning. On this use, there is a pair of terms in English, one of which refers to the edge of the river, the other of which refers to a financial institution, both of which are spelled and pronounced in the same way. I think you’re using ‘term’ to mean something like a sequence of phonemes (or marks on paper). On this understanding of ‘term’, there is one term in English, which sometimes means ‘financial institution’ and sometimes means ‘side of a river’.

        Understanding ‘term’ as (I think) you do, the answer to your question is that we should be concerned with other uses if those other uses are in fact the same use. The paper argues that they are the same use: they are examples of the term being used to communicate something about consciousness. If we aim to explain how this use of the term can be used to talk about consciousness, looking only at the terms used in this way by philosophers might distract us. To give an analogy, imagine that we’re trying to explain how a group of people use ‘bank’ to refer to a row of similar objects (as in ‘a bank of switches’). If these people happen to be left-handed, and we don’t check whether right-handed people also use ‘bank’ in this way, we might think that left-handedness is relevant here. But we’d be mistaken.

        But I’m not sure I’m interpreting you correctly here, because the second way you put your worry was that “it doesn’t seem that “investigating…uses” of terms plays a role in philosophical theorizing.” As I’m interpreting you, you seem to be saying that philosophical theorising doesn’t pay attention to equivocation. But surely it does.

        Regarding my second reason, you ask “Are we ultimately concerned with the pre-theoretical notion? As long as there is a notion that generates the mind-body puzzle, does it really matter if that is what other people mean by consciousness?” I’d say ‘yes’ to both questions! If we were only interested in consciousness insofar as it is relevant to the mind-body problem, then I understand why we might say ‘no’ to both of these questions. But that’s not where I find myself!

      2. Hi Jonathan,

        I’m not sure where this post will appear, but it is in response to your response that begins “Re my first reason: you asked, “If we are philosophers, and we’re really communicating something that uncovers a puzzling feature of experience, why be concerned about other uses of the term?”

        I’m not sure much hangs on how we individuate terms, but I guess I thought you were inclined to think that the question was whether philosophers use WIL talk in the same way non-philosophers do, which seems to suggest that you individuate talk in a way that two groups can be talking the same talk with different meanings. I just meant to be following you in that–that people can use the same terms, what it’s like terms, with different meanings.
        In any case, I think we might have a substantive disagreement on what we’re doing when we’re investigating phenomenal consciousness. We’re not, in my opinion, investigating “phenomenal consciousness” or “what it’s like.” I think the same thing about epistemology. I’m not particularly interested in “knowledge” I’m interested in knowledge. If I find out that some people use “knowledge” in a way that allows true belief to be labelled by that word, that tells me nothing about epistemology. You say “To give an analogy, imagine that we’re trying to explain how a group of people use ‘bank’ to refer to a row of similar objects (as in ‘a bank of switches’). If these people happen to be left-handed, and we don’t check whether right-handed people also use ‘bank’ in this way, we might think that left-handedness is relevant here. But we’d be mistaken.” I’m not sure what’s involved in trying to explain how a group of people use “bank” to refer to something, but it’s not obvious to me that it’s a philosophical question, or at least not the type of question we’re interested in when we study the hard problem, for example.
        I might have spoken somewhat carelessly by saying that investigation of uses of terms plays no role in philosophical theorizing, but I still think something like that is true. You say “As I’m interpreting you, you seem to be saying that philosophical theorising doesn’t pay attention to equivocation. But surely it does.” Notice that equivocation is a problem if in a single argument a term is being used in two different ways. True, that is bad, and in that sense we need to pay attention to usage. But in doing so we needn’t know anything about usage in general–about how people in general use the terms. That’s the sort of investigation of usage that I doubt plays much role in philosophical theorizing, and it’s investigating this latter thingthat seems to be involved in looking around to see if poets are using WIL talk in the same way we are.

      3. Hi Robert,

        I’m not sure where this post will appear either, but it is in response to the post in which you weren’t sure where it would appear. (You seem to have got yours where you wanted it. Let’s see how I do!)

        First, here’s another go at answering your previous question. I’ll say something about whether we have a substantive disagreement after. You asked: why does it matter whether philosophers are able to engage in WIL-talk to talk about consciousness because they are using technical terms? I said: because if philosophers are using technical terms then we only need to look at philosophical uses of these terms to ascertain their meaning; but if they are not using technical terms we need to look at all uses of the terms to ascertain their meaning. You then asked, “If we are philosophers, and we’re really communicating something that uncovers a puzzling feature of experience, why be concerned about other uses of the term?”

        First, if the technical account is correct, then there are no other uses of those terms to look at. (I’m back to using ‘term’ as I did throughout the paper.) Philosophers are using technical terms, the folk are using different, non-technical terms. (Or, if the folk have adopted the technical terms, it is the philosophical uses which are relevant for ascertaining their meaning, so we only need to look at them.) In the same way, it is because ‘charm’ is a technical term that we only need to look at how physicists use it to work out its meaning. (The sound-alike term ‘charm’ which means something like ‘glamour’ is a different term.)

        If the technical account is false, then both philosophers and the folk are using the same terms. The folk uses are not “other uses” in the sense that they are examples of doing something different with the same words: instead they’re doing just the same thing (talking about consciousness) with the same words, as the philosophers. The folk uses are “other uses” only in the sense that they are instances of the folk using them, not philosophers. (Henceforth this is what I’ll mean by ‘folk/philosophical uses’.) This is where your question comes in: why should we look at both folk and philosophical uses in order to work out what the terms mean in the philosophical uses? The answer is: because the terms mean the same in the folk and philosophical uses (if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be the same terms). And if we want to work out what a term means by looking at usage, we want to look at a representative sample of usage, not a skewed one. In the same way, ‘cool’ (when used to describe a person) is not a technical term, but if we work out its meaning by looking only at how physicists use it, and if popular stereotypes are correct (I’m not saying they are!) then we might conclude that ‘cool’ means ‘only slightly nerdy’. But by looking at only some of the relevant examples we would have gone astray.

        Do we have a substantive disagreement? I’m not sure. But I agree with you that what we’re ultimately interested in is phenomenal consciousness, not ‘phenomenal consciousness’. But that’s compatible with it sometimes being useful to investigate the language we use in discussing the phenomena. It’s particularly useful if people think they’re talking about the same thing but they’re not. One way to understand the distinction between the hard and easy problems is in terms of what is meant by ‘consciousness’: solving all the problems concerning consciousness (in one sense) won’t (Chalmers claims) result in solving the problem of consciousness (in a different sense). Similarly, you’re right that in order to avoid equivocation, all we need is that the relevant word is used with the same sense throughout an argument. But we don’t just care whether arguments are valid. We also care whether we should accept their premises (which requires us to know what is meant by language we use to express them), and what consequences the truth of their conclusions have (which requires us to understand what is meant by their conclusions). We could also gloss Chalmers’ claims in terms of equivocation: some people introduce a problem of consciousness (in one sense) and then solve a problem of consciousness (in a different sense)

        To put the same point in a different way: you say “I’m not particularly interested in ‘knowledge’ I’m interested in knowledge.” By doing this you’ve communicated to me that you’re not particularly interested in the word ‘knowledge’. And you’ve communicated that you’re interested in something else: knowledge. But imagine that I’m still not quite sure what it is that you are interested in. One way for me to get clearer is to ascertain what you mean by ‘knowledge’. Maybe this is a silly example because we all know what ‘knowledge’ means. But I don’t think the same is true of ‘consciousness’ or ‘what it is like’.

        (The question of the meaning of ‘bank’ by the left-handed, by the way, wasn’t meant to be an example of a philosophical question. Instead it was meant to be an example of a situation in which, if we are trying to work out the meaning of a word, we need to look at all uses of the word, not just some, or we risk being led astray.)

  4. I’ll consider two topics that Mylopoulos discusses. The first concerns what motivations there are for adopting the technical account. The second is about the scope of my claim that ‘what it is like’ talk doesn’t involve technical terms.

    Worries concerning motivations

    One set of worries Mylopoulos has concerns the motivations I suggest that there are for adopting the technical account. I should be clear that what I say about these motivations is speculation. I’m not aware of any defences of the technical account and I don’t know why some philosophers are attracted to the technical account. But I think it is clear that (as the quotations I give in the paper show) some philosophers do hold the technical account. If Mylopoulos is right, then the motivations I describe for holding the technical account are not very compelling. I agree: that’s why we should reject the technical account. Mylopoulos considers two motivations I discuss. The second is that it is because of the meaning of the alleged technical terms that we can use WIL-talk to talk about consciousness. I agree with what she says about this (i.e., that the meaning of these terms when used by philosophers is no different to their meaning when used by non-philosophers). I disagree with some of what she says about the first motivation, so I’ll concentrate on that here.

    The first motivation Mylopoulos notes that I ascribe to holders of the technical account is that standard accounts of WIL-talk fail. She suggests that we can defend the standard account of WIL-talk if we interpret this talk is as being concerned with similarity relations between conscious experiences. First, I think that interpreting WIL-talk in this way is incompatible with the standard account. Second, although such an interpretation has some plausibility, I think it must ultimately be rejected.

    The similarity-of-experiences reading of WIL-talk is not compatible with holding a standard account of WIL-talk because on a standard account, what is communicated is determined by the meaning of the words used, and the syntax of the sentence. That WIL-talk is concerned with similarity is compatible with a standard account: one common meaning of ‘like’ is ‘similar to’. But the similarity-of-experiences reading requires that WIL-talk is concerned with the similarity of experiences. But there is nothing in the words used, or the syntax of the sentence which explains this focus. Of course, other factors might do this work—perhaps features of the context of use explain why WIL-talk is concerned specifically with experiential similarity. But to appeal to features of the context is to abandon a standard account.

    Second, I don’t think that adopting the similarity-of-experiences reading of WIL-talk fits with how philosophers use it, even in the cases where Mylopoulos thinks it works. On the similarity-of-experiences reading, Chalmers’ claim is that there is no conscious experience that is similar to the conscious experience of being a zombie. But this is compatible with zombies having conscious experiences, just ones that are not at all similar to those that other subjects have. Yet one thing we can be sure of is that what Chalmers is claiming is not compatible with zombies having conscious experiences. Thus the similarity reading of Chalmers’ sentence is incorrect.

    In the same way, to say that there is something it is like to taste a lemon is not to thereby say anything about what it is like to taste a lemon—it doesn’t commit us to any particular claims about the phenomenal character of lemon-tasting experiences, or about what tasting a lemon is similar to. This is so in just the same way that to say that Joan of Arc’s favourite kind of fruit has some colour is not to be committed to any claims about what colour that kind of fruit has, or what the fruit is similar to with regards to colour. So if we interpret ‘something’ WIL-sentences as making a similarity claim, we attribute more to them than we ought.

    To put the point in a different way, I think—although I don’t defend it in this paper—that WIL-talk is concerned with properties [see Hellie for an explanation of how this is so]. And property claims are very close to similarity claims: if something has some property, it is thereby similar to other things with that property. And if two things are similar, this is plausibly because they have some property in common. Often, we can get across property information by making a similarity claim (e.g., ‘What colour is your car?’ ‘It’s the same colour as your cardigan.’), and vice versa. Thus to understand WIL-talk as concerned with similarity relations is to get close to the truth. But I don’t think it gets us all the way there. And this is because property and similarity interpretations come apart when we merely make (or deny) an existential claim, i.e., when we only say that something has or lacks some property of a given kind. The zombie claim is such a case: Chalmer’s is claiming that zombies lack some property (that of having conscious experiences). And so is the lemon-tasting case: we claim that lemon-tasting experiences have some phenomenal property, but we don’t say which.

    As a final comment on this topic: I don’t follow the argument Mylopoulos gives which emphasises that, when it comes to conscious state, we are interested in what it is like for the subject of the state. I agree that this is what we are interested in, but I don’t see how this bears on the question of whether WIL-talk is concerned with similarity claims.

    The scope of my claim

    Mylopoulos is correct to note that my main concern is to show that WIL-talk as used by philosophers (to talk about consciousness) is not technical. And she is right to stress that the argument against TECHNICAL only goes through if what philosophers mean when they engage in WIL-talk is the same as what non-philosophers mean. She thinks that this further weakens the motivation for the technical account. I think this is right, but I don’t see this as a problem for the reasons given above.

    Mylopolous suggests that the way that some philosophers use WIL-talk—by making explicit that they connect it with Nagel’s use in ‘What is it like to be a bat?’—is compatible with their use being a technical one, and so my argument against the technical account is incomplete. I disagree. I take it that by explicitly referring to Nagel’s usage these philosophers are saying something like, ‘I am using this language in the way that Nagel used it in his 1974 when he introduced it into philosophy.’ In saying this they are making two claims: one about the meaning of the language they’re using, and one about the source of the meaning of the language. I think their claim about the source of the meaning of the language is mistaken because, as I argue in the paper, Nagel didn’t introduce the language in 1974. But that doesn’t mean they are wrong about the meaning of the language. They do mean what Nagel meant in 1974, but that is just what everyone means when they use this language. In other words, these authors use WIL-sentences in the way which we might expect if they were using technical terms, and this is because they think that they are using technical terms, because they think that Nagel was using technical terms. But they’re wrong about this.

    Mylopolous is correct, though, to say that my argument doesn’t show that no philosophers use WIL-sentences in a technical way. It is, of course, open to anyone to use any term with a special meaning, although they should probably tell us that they’re doing this if they don’t want to be misunderstood. But since most philosophers who engage in WIL-talk to talk about consciousness don’t indicate that they’re using this language in an unusual way, I think we should interpret them as using the language in the way that is standard in the philosophy of mind, i.e., as having its normal, non-technical, meaning.

    1. Hi Jonathan,

      Thanks a lot for your thoughtful reply. This is a really nice discussion!

      Given your response to me, and your replies to some other comments in this thread, I’m wondering whether we might agree on the following:

      WIL-talk must be distinguished from SIL-talk (or its counterpart nothing-it’s-like (NIL) talk). WIL-talk is used to specify or ask about particular properties or particular similarity relations, whereas SIL-talk is used to state or ask about whether there exists something that bears properties or similarity relations.

      This allows us to easily account for the difference (that you’ve noted) in what one is after when one says “There’s something it’s like to taste a lemon” vs. “There is nothing it is like to be a zombie.”

      Regarding WIL-talk: (i) It is sometimes ambiguous whether it concerns properties or similarity relations, and (ii) It is sometimes ambiguous whether it concerns experiential or non-experiential properties.

      (I take John’s macaw example and Assaf’s father example to actually highlight the ambiguity referred to in (ii), since one could be interested in the experiential properties of the macaw in asking what it’s like to be one, though the cereal box didn’t reflect this, and one could be interested in the non-experiential properties of being a father in asking what it’s like to be one, though perhaps this is less common.)

      If those two main points are right, then I still wonder why the standard account can’t accommodate all cases of WIL-talk (or SIL/NIL-talk, for that matter) divvied up as above.

      You worry in your reply to me (addressing a different point), that “to appeal to features of the context is to abandon a standard account”. And if so, I suppose this would be a problem if WIL-talk is sometimes ambiguous in the way I am suggesting, since one would need to appeal to context to settle the ambiguity. But I’m not sure I see why it would be to abandon the standard account, since it allows for appeal to the regular meaning of the terms used in the WIL-phrase, and context is simply a way of resolving ambiguous meaning.

      You also seemed to want to restrict the standard account to the similarity-reading of WIL-talk, but I wonder about this as well. Since the folk seem to use WIL-talk to specify both properties and similarity relations, why not think that the standard meaning of WIL-phrases can reflect either usage?

      Anyway, I just wanted to get your thoughts on some of that. Thanks again for a great discussion!

      1. Hi Myrto,

        Thanks for your further comments. In the paper, I use ‘WIL-talk’ as a general term to refer to the use of ‘what it is like’, or ‘something it is like’, or ‘nothing it is like’, but we could make use of more specific labels as you suggest. Also, as I’m using ‘WIL-talk’, it is a kind of behaviour: the use of certain phrases. So it sounds funny to me to say that the talk is ambiguous. But I think you’re right in that the phrases themselves—phrases like ‘what is it like’ and ‘something it is like’—are ambiguous between a property and a similarity reading.

        Does this vindicate the standard account? I think I didn’t say enough about what counts as the standard meaning of a term to tell. But I think you’re right to press me here: I could have been clearer in describing the standard account, and I’m beginning to wonder whether ‘standard’ is not the best way to describe the account since there are a number of different ways in which we might understand what the standard meaning(s) of a term are. So here’s an attempt to say what I meant more clearly!

        The standard account of says that what the talk means is determined by the meaning of the parts and the syntactic relations between them. And we assume that the parts are what, at first glance, seem to be the parts (so we assume that we’re not dealing with idiomatic phrases); that the parts mean what, at first glance, they seem to mean (so we assume we’re not dealing with archaic or specialised terms); and that the syntax of the sentence is what, at first glance, it seems to be.

        It’s true (as I noted in my reply to Assaf) that it is perfectly normal in English to use ‘what … like’ to ask about the properties. But I don’t think that this is the first thing that comes to mind when we’re trying to work out what WIL-talk means by composing the meaning of the sentences involved. And this is so because I think that most of us aren’t explicitly aware that phrases such as ‘what … like’ can have this meaning, even though we easily understand sentences that involve them (e.g., ‘What is your new house like?’) as being concerned with properties.

        But perhaps all this is by the by. Even if we allow that the standard account allows us to adopt a property reading of WIL-talk, it’s still true that the standard account doesn’t give the correct account of WIL-talk. This is because some instances of WIL-talk are clearly concerned with phenomenal properties in particular, not just with properties in general. The standard account doesn’t explain this. The correct account of WIL-talk will explain how some instances of WIL-talk concern consciousness while others are more general. There are a number of options here: for example, we might think that context somehow plays a role in determining what is meant (Snowdon and Stoljar both go this way, although their views are different), or we might think that WIL-sentences involve linguistic elements that are not articulated (which is what I think), or we might think that WIL-talk involves idioms (Sprigge says something somewhere which suggests he goes for this view, although he doesn’t offer any details). But each of these goes beyond the standard account.

      2. Hi Jonathan,

        Thanks very much for those further thoughts and helpful clarifications.

        There’s something I’m still not clear on though, and it’s why you take it that appeals to context (à la Snowdon and Stoljar) are not admissible (or go beyond) the standard account. If the standard account interprets the meaning of WIL-talk by way of the meanings of and syntactic relations between the parts of WIL-phrases, and context is one aspect of meaning–and helps to resolve ambiguity–then I’m not sure I see how it falls outside the scope of the standard account.

        And, to be clear, the reason I think this is important for the project, is that if the standard account does perfectly fine in accommodating WIL-talk, then we have no reason to move to any non-standard account, whether technical or otherwise.

        Another reaction: You say that the property reading of WIL-talk is not the first thing that comes to mind when we’re interpreting it, but I’m not sure I see why. You say: “And this is so because I think that most of us aren’t explicitly aware that phrases such as ‘what … like’ can have this meaning, even though we easily understand sentences that involve them (e.g., ‘What is your new house like?’) as being concerned with properties.”

        But I would have thought that the important thing is that we easily understand “what… like” sentences to be concerned with properties, not that we are explicitly aware of doing so. (We are rarely explicitly aware of the ways in which we are understanding language.) And if so, then the standard account allows for both a property reading and a similarity reading of WIL-talk, and I think that means it does pretty well in accommodating it! What am I missing here?

      3. Hi Myrto,

        Thanks for these further comments—they are very helpful!

        On your first point: thanks for pushing me on this. I’ve realised that in the paper I should probably flag the distinction between the meaning of terms (their linguistic meaning—the kind of meaning that dictionary entries tell us about) and the meaning of WIL-talk (what is communicated or conveyed by using certain terms) explicitly. The linguistic meaning of ‘I am in Manchester’ is the same whoever uses it, but what is communicated differs depending on who is speaking. And the linguistic meaning of ‘Steve can’t wait to go to class,’ is the same whether it is spoken sarcastically or not, but what is communicated differs. I think this lack of explicitness is (one reason!) why the notion of a standard account is unclear.

        The standard account says that what is communicated can be read off from the linguistic meanings of the sentences used. So the standard account of WIL-talk says: (a) the sentences used are the ones that, prima facie, seem to be used, and (b) what is communicated by the use of the sentence is the linguistic meaning of the sentence. So an account that denies (a)—e.g., one that says that the sentences involves a technical term, not the everyday terms ‘what’, ‘is’, etc. that we initially assume the sentence involves—is not a standard account. And an account that denies (b)—e.g., one which says that how things are non-linguistically (in the sense of going beyond determining the linguistic meanings of the terms used) has consequences for what is communicated—is a non-standard one.

        Why not allow the standard account to appeal to context? I think that if we allow accounts that appeal to the terms used, the linguistic meaning of these terms, the syntax of the sentence and post-linguistic contextual influences, then all accounts will be standard accounts because it’s not clear what else is ever relevant to what we communicate.

        On your second point: the standard account is not an account of what WIL-talk means, but of how it means whatever it does. It says: to work out what is communicated by WIL-talk, assume that the terms used are those that, at first glance, seem to be used; assume that the syntax is as it seems to be and (which I could have been clearer about) assume that what is communicated by the use of the sentence is the linguistic meaning of the sentence. As you note, we’re often not explicitly aware of how some talk means whatever it means. But even the linguistically naïve amongst us know that ‘like’ sometimes means something like ‘similar to’, and so on. And so these are the terms that, at first glance, we take WIL-talk to involve.

  5. Thank you, Jonathan, Robert, and Myrto, for an enormously interesting and useful discussion. I find very convincing the claim that there are non-technical uses by the folk of WIL talk. The Chekhov example and others are quite nice. One thing I wonder, however, is how Jonathan’s argument is affected if it’s true that the following are technical: “phenomenal consciousness,” “phenomenally conscious” “phenomenology,” “phenomenally,” “qualia.” I assume that they all are technical, but perhaps others disagree. However, given my assumption, there is a certain kind of claim that Jonathan makes that strikes me as a bit problematic.

    So, for instance, I accept as non-technical the English translation of Chekhov: “To find out how a famous genius feels. What is it like to be famous?” But I worry when Jonathan suggests “we know that it is Trigorin’s [phenomenally] conscious states that Nina is interested in.” (I take it my insertion of the qualifier here is in keeping with Jonathan’s footnote #1.) I’m not fully convinced that in folk talk about feeling, sensation, perception, and emotion, on the one hand, and in philosophical talk about phenomenal consciousness, on the other, we have two groups of speakers talking about one and the same thing or expressing one and the same notion.

    Is there a way of stating what, for instance, phenomenal consciousness is supposed to be in terms of the sorts of language we get from the folk examples of WIL-talk? Note that the folk examples do not use the phrase “there is something it’s like” as does, say, Kriegel’s quoted definition of phenomenal consciousness. Is “phenomenal consciousness” to be defined simply by rounding up examples—feelings, emotions, perceptions? (And is this what Jonathan is suggesting in footnote #3?) If so, what’s “what it’s like” talk got to do with it?

    I presume that one of the main things it would be nice to get from an investigation of folk WIL-talk is a theory neutral or pre-theoretic way of describing what a theory of consciousness is supposed to be a theory of. My hunch is that “phenomenal consciousness” is a technical concept ill-suited for that task, and I don’t see a clear, non-question-begging, theory neutral way of cashing out that terminology in the folk WIL-talk. (I don’t mind granting that “consciousness” is non-technical. It’s “phenomenal consciousness” that’s bothering me.)

  6. Thanks to Jonathan for a great paper, and thanks to Robert and Myrto for interesting comments! A fine discussion.

    I have several questions/comments on this issue.

    1) Why think there is a sharp line between technical and nontechnical language, in general and here in particular? Many terms start their lives in scientific theory and quickly gain common usage. Also, in introducing a technical term, scientists (and philosophers) often take a term with common usage and refine or expand its meaning. Sometimes this is done at first implicitly or with deliberate vagueness, only to be clarified and perhaps operationalized later. Philosophical usage often lies at the border of common and technical–trying to capture our intuitive meaning while making more precise and less commonsensical claims. Term use is context-laden and fluid in this way, perhaps shifting several times within a single work. Anyway, I’m not sure we can draw a distinction sharp enough to do any heavy lifting here (i.e. allowing us to rule out certain discourse, clearly identify “subject changing”, etc.).

    2) A related issue: perhaps the phrase is introduced and even used at times in its “ordinary” sense. However, philosophers often use the term to pick out “phenomenal consciousness”, an explicitly technical term (I think! Block and Chalmers introduce and define the term in what I’d call technical language and context, though no doubt they think they’re getting at something we all should recognize). Some philosophers deny that there’s phenomenal consciousness, when that term is taken to rule out any functional, causal, or representational analysis of the notion. So, does WIL = p-consciousness? If you accept the identity and rule out functional analysis, you can rule out a range of explanations of the phenomenon. But do the folk really mean this when they use the “normal” terms? I wouldn’t have thought so. So what’s going on? Here’s a thought: the term is nontechnical, but philosophers, in their precisification of the term introduce additional elements going beyond the folk usage.

    3) I generally think that folk psychological terms are noncommittal and neutral about many of the things philosophers and scientists debate. If so, it might be that what “what it’s like” means for folk does not map to the distinctions driving the debate in philosophy. On the issue of Mary, say, philosophers might come to a consensus that Mary learns nothing new on her release (I know, I know, wishful thinking for some of us!). Would that mean there’s nothing that it’s like to be us? Or that the meaning of the term “what it’s like” has been changed? I don’t think folk would blink, really. They’d say, oh, that’s interesting, scientific description CAN capture what it’s like. This is why, I think, that eliminativism sounds so nutty. Folk psych just isn’t committed enough to any ontological claims, beyond what is needed to communicate and understand each other. If this line of thought is right, it may be that some sense of “technical” is right: when philosophers or scientists use the WIL phrase, they are using it with the goal of explaining mechanisms or ontology or what-not. By doing so, they’ve moved out of the ordinary context and into a specialist realm. Now it might be that doing so inevitably leads to confusions (see Wittgenstein and Ryle; and Hacker) or maybe when done with care it does not (see everybody else?). But maybe this is a way to get technical while starting with (and invoking, at some level) the nontechnical usage.

    Too much stuff here. Anyway, digging the debate!

  7. In support of Jonathan’s hypothesis — the following is a common appearance on the back of my kids’ cereal boxes (they do other animals, too):

    For what it’s worth, these include no talk of qualia.

  8. Hi Jonathan!

    The paper is very interesting!

    I am wondering whether translation of WIL talk to other languages is relevant to the technical/non-technical issue. When I teach about phenomenal consciousness in Hebrew, I translate “what is it like to see red?” to the Hebrew equivalent of “how does it feel to see red?” I don’t translate the ‘like’ at all (I don’t translate into the equivalent of “how does it feel like?”). So the emphasis you put on the fact that “like” means “similar” is lost in this translation. I’ve seen translation into the Hebrew equivalent of “how is it to see red” (based on the more common use, “how is it to be a father? how is it to be old?”), again, without the “like”. Also, I find it difficult to translate “there is something it is like”. I translate it into (the Hebrew equivalent of) “it feels like something”. I wonder whether the fact that Hebrew speaking philosophers drop the ‘like’ or use it only in together with ‘feels’ implies that something significant is lost in translation.
    In any case, given that your case against the “standard account “ of WIL talk focuses on the word ‘like’, it may not work for the Hebrew translation. On the other hand, a sentence like “how is it to be a father?” apparently speaks about conscious experiences, but we can’t find consciousness in the literal meaning of the words making it up. So this tells against the standard account.

    1. Very interesting debate! As Assaf, I was wondering about the relevance of the universality of the expression “what it is like” to the debate about technicality and non technicality. Russian also lacks a literal translation of “what it is like to be x”. For instance in the original Russian text Nina literally asks “How do you feel that you are famous?” using a Russian verb that can be translated depending on the context as feeling, sensing or perceiving.

      1. Let me add that Marcin Milkowski tells me — on Facebook — that something similar is true of Polish.

  9. Hi Pete, thanks for your comment. I agree with you that the terms you list are all technical. And you are right that we don’t find many examples of the folk using ‘something it is like’ rather than ‘what it is like’. But I don’t think that this means that we should think there’s something funny, or “technical-y” going on when philosophers define conscious states by using ‘something it is like’. I’ll try to explain why: let me know what you think.

    Both philosophers and non-philosophers use ‘what it is like to V’ to talk about the phenomenal properties associated with V-ing, and they use ‘what is it like to V?’ to ask about these properties. This is so in the same sort of way that we can use ‘what it weighs’ to talk or ask about the weight of something. But to assert (or deny) that there is something it is like to V is to talk about whether V-ing has any associated phenomenal properties at all. And this is so in just the same way that to use ‘something it weighs’ is to be concerned with whether that thing has any weight.

    I think that when we are not being reflective in the way philosophers often are, we tend to take for granted what kind of properties things have (whether phenomenal or weight properties) and we’re most interested which particular properties of that kind things have. Thus when someone is not engaged in a philosophical discussion they are most interested in which phenomenal properties V-ing has. Similarly, we are rarely interested in whether or not something has any weight at all (and when we do we’re plausibly now engaged in physics or astronomy talk). But that doesn’t mean that the fact that we don’t find the phrase ‘something it weighs’ in folk discussions of weight means that there’s something funny about this phrase. It’s a perfectly normal phrase. I think the same goes for ‘something it is like’. So, there is a way of saying what it is to be a conscious state in terms of the sorts of language we see in the folk examples: it is to do so in terms of whether there is something it is like to be in the state.

    1. Thank you for your further thoughts, Jonathan. I find them very helpful.

      I’m inclined to allow that there is a syntactic transformation we can apply to “wh-“ locutions and get “some-…” locutions. So, following your own example, if Pete knows what it weighs, then there some weight Pete knows it to have. Someone might say that we’re getting away from the folk speech if it turns out the folk themselves generally don’t use the “there is something it’s like” phraseology in talking about the mind. But there is a general folk phenomenon that this syntactic transformation is picking up on, and I myself don’t have any objection to its application to mental states.

      It think there are some problems for you here, though. One is a problem that strikes me as small. Early in your paper you distinguish your project from e.g. Stoljar’s in that yours does not delve into what the right account of WIL talk is. In your reply to me it seems like you are heading into that territory. But I say this is a small problem. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with having things in common with Stoljar!

      A bigger problem has to do with issues concerning why it matters whether various locutions are technical or not. My presumption is that the core issue about technicality is one that can be stated in terms of theory neutrality and fixing the data that are to be explained. I presume it would be nice to give a pre theoretic account of what a theory of consciousness is supposed to explain, or what an alleged theory of consciousness fails to explain (as many are accused of doing). I also presume it would be nice to say non-circularly what “phenomenal consciousness” is supposed to be. Many have offered that WIL talk gets us there, but I’m not so sure.

      One thing making this difficult is that there is folk WIL talk that has apparently zero to do with mentality, as in the examples about macaws that John Schwenkler brings up in this thread. So, one way I can know what it’s like to be a macaw is in knowing how big they get.

      The syntactic transformation mentioned earlier gives you something like, if Smith knows what X is like, then there is some property P that Smith knows X to have. But that alone doesn’t seem enough to introduce the topic of phenomenal consciousness, as the macaw case illustrates.

      Now, some of the ways in which the folk use WIL talk is for talking about mental states or mental events. But will it suffice for introducing phenomenal consciousness that we restrict our examples of WIL talk to mentally directed WIL talk? I have my doubts. In the examples you provide, there’s what it’s like to see, to feel, what it’s like to have sensations and emotions. But don’t those things have among their properties, one’s that aren’t phenomenal? For instance, I currently have a pain that is the 37th pain I’ve felt this week, and its supervenience base has an odd number of sodium ions in it. And the pain has a dispositional property to update my working memory. And the dispositional property to trigger certain verbal reports. Those are properties of my mental state, but I’m guessing people who think there are phenomenal properties would not want to count those as phenomenal. And there are other mental states, such as beliefs, that often aren’t regarded as examples of phenomenality. But they have properties. And presumably the WIL talk and the Wh-to-Some- transformation can pick out any properties of them.

      So maybe the properties that are supposed to be phenomenal aren’t just any old property of mental states, but properties that are directly accessible to introspection. Or properties that are intrinsic. Or properties that give rise to explanatory gaps or hard problems. But now we are getting away from theory neutrality. And we’re also getting away from any real role for WIL talk. If WIL talk is just a way to talk about properties, and can be used to talk about any old properties, then we need something other than WIL talk to spell out which are the properties that define the domain of phenomenal consciousness.

      1. Thanks for your response, Pete. On the small problem: I agree that I have had to make some commitments regarding the correct account of WIL-talk in order to respond to your first comment. But it’s not much of a commitment: I think that most people would agree that if there is an answer to the question ‘What is it like for me to V?’ then there is something it is like for me to V.

        On the larger problem, I agree with what you say here about the non-phenomenal properties of mental states. But it is still true—or at least it seems to be true—that WIL-talk is particularly useful for talking about phenomenal properties. So I don’t think that we should conclude that WIL-talk isn’t useful. Instead we need to show how it can be useful in the way it seems to be: by giving a positive account of WIL-talk which explains how it is that both philosophers and non-philosophers can use it to talk about consciousness, and also how both philosophers and non-philosophers use it to talk about properties more generally.

  10. Hi Josh, thanks for your questions. I’ll reply to them in turn.

    1) I agree that there probably isn’t a clear boundary between technical and non-technical terms. And it is hard to say when, as language evolves (whether only in the mouths of specialists or not) a word comes to have a different meaning than it had in the past. But perhaps we can say something like the following: if which reading of the relevant phrase we adopt has consequences for whether an argument goes through, then there has been a shift in meaning. Of course that doesn’t mean that an argument that only goes through on the new reading is problematic. But it does mean that more needs to be done to show that the argument says anything interesting about what the phrase concerns under the old reading. Do you think this deals with your concern?

    2) I’ve four things to say here. The first is that we need to say more about what we mean when we engage in WIL-talk in order to tell whether the truth of WIL-sentences can’t be captured in functional terms. The second is that, even if the correct account of WIL-talk reveals that phenomenal consciousness (where this is defined by using WIL-talk) is not amenable to a functional analysis, this doesn’t rule out Lewis-style ‘best candidate’ moves (whether they succeed is a further matter). Third, it may be that (as you suggest in your third point), even once we have a correct account of WIL-talk, it doesn’t tell us whether a functional analysis is possible: perhaps the folk notion captured by this language is too amorphous to give a determinate answer to this question. Fourth, if philosophers have precisified the terms, it would be good to know how this has been done: what elements have been added, or removed, or whatever. If this can be made explicit, then it would hard to resist the claim that there is a technical use. But if it can’t be done, then it’s not clear that the precisification helps discussions much.

    3) I agree that folk terms are often neutral about mechanisms and ontology. But I think this is compatible with philosophers (and scientists and other specialists) making claims about mechanisms and ontology without changing the subject or the meaning of the terms used. But maybe I’ve missed something so what I’ve just said is too quick?

    1. Thanks, Jonathan! Here’s some thoughts in reply to your reply.

      On 1, I agree that this is a vexed issue generally. My worry about your proposal is that each side in the debate my claim that the other’s only goes through because of a change in meaning. Or the debate would go: “Your argument only goes through because of a special reading of phrase x.” “No, that’s just the ordinary reading of phrase x!” And we’re back with the prior question of what the “normal” or “non-technical” reading is in the first place. Which, I take it, is where we are at present in this debate! But I see your point–it may be that arguers may be motivated to agree on readings at the outset. That’s of course always a good policy. Still, in controversial cases it just may not be possible to do so.

      On 2: I completely agree in general about your 4 points. My worry, as a vested player in this debate, is that the WIL phrase has come to mean, in the mouths of some, the more controversial anti-functional thing. Hence folk are accused of “leaving out what it’s like” and so on. (Or “abusing the property of what-it’s-likeness”.) So you’re quite right as a matter of good philosophical practice, but that good advice is not always followed in the field. Or perhaps those embracing the anti-functionalist reading take it that they’ve done the things you require and established the anti-functionalist reading. But then one might contend that this is beyond the folk reading and so is a technical usage. Anyway, I find myself in such debates on occasion.

      About 3: Well, sometimes that the case, to be sure. But it’s not unusual to appeal to folk meanings to support some position or to make an argument about mechanism/ontology/etc. I take it that Chalmers thinks the ordinary notion of WIL gives rise to the key intuitions in the zombie case; that is, if we deny zombies are conceivable we’ve changed the subject, we’re no longer talking about the ordinary WIL. I wouldn’t have thought the folk were so committed.

      1. Thanks for your further comments, Josh.

        Regarding 1, I think this is why more work is need on WIL-talk. If we can get clearer on what we mean when we engage in this talk, then we hopefully avoid the sorts of debates you describe.

        Re 2: This is interesting! I think that claims about the meaning of WIL-talk do play a role in the debate your refer to. But the ones that have caught my attention are those on the pro-HO side, rather than on their opponents. Perhaps this is just because I think I’m more inclined to a Block-like view than a HO-type one. I’ll have to look at this stuff again, more carefully. Thanks!

        Re 3: I wonder if Chalmers takes his claim to follow directly from the meaning of WIL-talk, or whether a short chain of reasoning occurs. He might take it that what we mean when we engage in WIL-talk is such that we use it to talk about such-and-such. He then adds a further claim that, when we reflect on such-and-such, we can see that there could be functional duplicates of us who lack such-and-such. If it’s the latter option, then that seems okay to me. But I don’t know enough about the details of his arguments to say which way he does this.

  11. Hi John, nice example! And, as you note, it shows that sometimes we engage in WIL-talk to talk about things other than consciousness (philosophers do this too). I think this makes the task of giving an account of WIL-talk more demanding: not only does it need to explain how both philosophers and non-philosophers can use WIL-sentences to talk about consciousness; it needs to explain how both use (what appear to be) the same sentences to talk about other stuff too.

  12. Hi Assaf interesting observations, thanks! I think (following Hellie—see the references in the paper) that ‘what it is like’ involves a compound question-term ‘what … like’ which means, roughly, ‘what way’ (or, ‘how’, in one sense of that word) and is used to ask about properties. We see this elsewhere in English: ‘What was your holiday like?’ can be used to ask about the properties of your holiday. (‘It was hot/expensive/relaxing’ are more natural answers than ‘It was like a furnace/like a new car/like lying on the sofa’.) So the ‘like’ in WIL-talk isn’t a standalone word in the way that ‘like’ (meaning ‘similar to’) is. If this is right, then I don’t think you have lost anything in translating it as you do.

    But, as you note, even if we accept that WIL-talk involves ‘what … like’ (or the Hebrew word you translate as ‘how’), it doesn’t help the standard account. On the standard account we’d now get that ‘There is nothing it is like to be a zombie’ means ‘there is no way that a zombie is’ or, equivalently, ‘zombies have no properties’. But that’s definitely not what Chalmers means when he uses this sentence.

  13. I’m a little confused about something, and it relates to a discussion JF and I are having above. To determine whether or not x-talk in domain D is technical, we need to determine if x-talk means the same in D as it does in folk domain F. But that seems to us to get clear on the meaning of x-talk in both D and F–or at least clear enough to know that x-talk has the same meaning in both domains. But I guess I wonder whether once we are clear about x-talk in D, those of us who work in domain D need to worry about anything else. Because suppose x-talk is used with a different meaning in F–if so, who cares! They’re talking about something else. As long as we’re careful not to adopt their usage, we’re all good. Suppose x-talk is used with the same meaning in F. Again, do we really care? I suspect “elm” is used with the same meaning by me as by an arborist, but the arborist shouldn’t care much about what I say about elms. She should just study elms. If I have some really idiosyncratic views about elms, she shouldn’t care either–either I am not really using “elm” with the same meaning, or I’m likely not a very careful student of elms.
    Of course in general we should be aware of when people are saying things that indicate we are missing some important evidence, and perhaps its worth investigating if a bunch of people in Zagreb start saying their elms have no root system. But what seems important in such a case isn’t that we’re using terms the same or differently, but that we’re talking about the same thing–whether using the same terms or not.
    In response to me at one point JF seemed to indicate that getting clear on whether or not WIL-talk is technical might be helpful in resolving some of the disagreement about cognitive phenomenology, for example. I’m not sure I see this, but the thought seems to be that we might find that we are really talking past one another. But this seems to be possible whether or not WIL talk is technical. Both technical and non-technical terms can still admit of ambiguity and this is enough to get verbal disagreements going, it seems to me.

    1. Hi Robert,

      I agree with much of what you say here. To work out what x-talk means in D needn’t require us to work out what x-talk means outside of D. Once we’ve worked out what it means in D we’re good to go.

      But sometimes, in order to work out what x-talk means in D, we need to work out how x-talk in D works. And to do this well, we need to look at how x-talk works outside of D to make sure that we don’t unjustifiably attribute significance to the fact that x-talk in D occurs in D. And a side effect of establishing how x-talk works outside of D is that we learn what x-talk means outside of D. Most of the rest of this comment expands on these claims and then applies them to the case of WIL-talk.

      We can contrast two methods of working out the meaning of x-talk in a domain. One method is just to rely on our abilities as competent speakers of the language to determine what people in the domain mean when they engage x-talk. Usually this method works, and it works even if we are unable explain how it is that by putting these words in this order the users of x-talk are able to communicate what they do. Call this the “top-down” method. If we apply the top-down method to x-talk in D (and ignore x-talk in F) and it works—we get general agreement—then we don’t need to worry about x-talk in F.

      The second method is the “bottom-up” method. Here we try to work out what the users of x-talk are communicating by working out which terms they’re using, what these terms mean, how they’re syntactically related, whether and context plays a role, etc. The first step here is to try out the standard account. But if the standard account fails, the method has more to give: we can consider whether the syntax is not what it initially seems to be, whether a word is being used with an unusual meaning, whether a group of words is to be read idiomatically, whether there is ellipsis, whether some words are indexicals, whether we need to take account of Gricean-type pragmatic influences, and so on. We do this by aiming for the best explanation of the facts: what our linguistic intuitions tell us is the rough meaning of x-talk, what we know about how English works, general principles concerning which explanations are more plausible (e.g., Grice’s razor: don’t multiply senses beyond necessity), etc. As noted, usually we don’t need to apply the bottom-up method because the top-down method works. But sometimes the top-down method fails—as it might if you’re trying to understand the sentence “Badgers badgers badger badger badgers,” and you haven’t seen this kind of sentence before. When the top-down method fails, we have to turn to the bottom-up method.

      When it comes to WIL-talk in philosophy, the top-down method fails. Most people (but not all, e.g., Hacker) agree that it concerns consciousness, but beyond that things aren’t so clear. So we have to turn to the bottom-up method and consider how WIL-talk works. We might think that, since what we’re interested in is WIL-talk in philosophy, we should only look at instances of WIL-talk that occur in philosophy. If WIL-talk in philosophy is special—because, e.g., it involves technical terms—that won’t be a problem. But if WIL-talk in philosophy is not special, then there’s a risk that we’ll appeal to a special feature of the examples we’re looking at—“Hey, all these examples are from philosophers! Maybe that’s part of the explanation of how it means what it means!”—when that special feature is an artefact of our choice of data.

      So, if the technical account is true, we only need to look at philosophical WIL-talk to work out how it works. But if it is false, we need to look at all WIL-talk to work out how philosophical WIL-talk works. And, as Robert notes, we can show that the technical account is incorrect by establishing that what is communicated by WIL-talk in philosophy is the same as what is communicated by WIL-talk outside of philosophy. (We also need to show that this isn’t because the technical terms haven’t been adopted outside of philosophy.)

      A quick comment about the last point you make. I agree that showing that WIL-talk isn’t technical doesn’t show that people aren’t talking past one another when they engage in WIL-talk. But it does show that one explanation for the disagreements about cognitive phenomenology that has been mooted is a non-starter. Rejecting the technical account doesn’t give us an alternative explanation unfortunately, but I think that ruling some explanations out is still progress.

  14. What it is like to be a Metaphor?

    I would like to be able to understand Jonathan Farrell’s meticulous paper “‘What it is like’ talk is not technical talk” and the wonderful arguments that follow but it reminds me of the pseudo-Aristotelian saying: in order to reject philosophy we need to philosophise, hence one cannot easily get rid of philosophy. Thus I would appreciate any help you can give.

    So WIL talk is not technical talk unless the talk is about “WIL”, as in the philosophical and technical arguments of this paper and following discussion?

    If WIL talk was not technical before this paper, then it is now…

    The argument that philosophy of consciousness is served by thinking that is rigorously linked to philosophy of language is fascinating and endless…but part of where it starts is the WIL talk of consciousness. Phenomenology is often characterised as a philosophy of beginnings…with a more rigorous approach could we begin to re-ask “What is the phenomenology of language?” or maybe “What is the phenomenology of logic?”

    That is, even the urge, which some would argue should be resisted, to “generalise the one case so irresponsibly” has a what-it-is likeness that feels, at least for me, somewhere between speculation, ambiguity and truth.

    Further, to share that type of what-it-is-likeness with an audience of philosophers may not be as technical as philosophical language can get but apparently there is an aspect of consciousness and an aspect of philosophy that is served well by the ordinariness of the technical term ‘What-it-is-like’.

    Finally, I can imagine that to a non-technical non-philosopher this use of WIL talk would be difficult to characterise as a non-technical, non-philosophical and completely ordinary use of language, and in any case I doubt that any of the people that read this much of this fairly ordinary post will feel that they are unqualified enough to accurately judge (in the way a non-technical non-philosopher may be able to judge) if the WIL talk in philosophy of consciousness is simply a case of non-technical miss-use of ordinary language.

    Even this last statement supposes a wonderful quality of consciousness this possible miss-use of ordinary language can reveal when applied phenomenologically: the chance of philosophy of mind.

    1. Hi Tommy, thanks for your comment.

      I think I disagree with this claim: “So WIL talk is not technical talk unless the talk is about “WIL”, as in the philosophical and technical arguments of this paper and following discussion?”

      I think you’re attributing to me the view that WIL-talk is technical if it is the topic of technical discussions. Is that right? If so, that’s not what I intend to claim. As you note, that would mean my paper was self-refuting, and I hope I’ve managed to avoid that!

      Instead I want to say that WIL-talk involves technical terms if it involves terms which have a particular meaning, and one which is connected to a particular discipline in the following way: in order to work out the meaning of the term we need to look at how it is used, or how it was introduced into, that discipline.

      1. Dear Jonathan,
        This is a very risk field.
        Do I understand correctly that aim of your paper is therapeutical?
        That you are interested in making a case for the replacement of WIL talk with something that is better at making light out of shadows when discussing consciousness?

        But thanks to your paper “‘What it is like’ talk is not technical talk” and your post above (both of which were written while you were conscious) we now know what-it-is-like to make a claim that “WIL talk is not technical”…the thing that it is like is “self-refutation.”
        Because of consciousness, you are a participant in your own argument, and what-it-is-like to be you thinking about WIL talk, and making the distinctions of technical, introduction and meaning, becomes the basis for your paradoxical conclusions.
        If your arguments of technical, introduction and meaning succeed then you fail in your aim, because WIL talk is implicitly linked to the generation of your arguments at all.
        If your arguments fail, then you only succeed in demonstrating that making WIL talk more technical has little therapeutic effect for the discussion of consciousness.
        Still I think that the risk was worth it and I thank you for your enlightening paper.

      2. Hi Tommy,

        My paper isn’t intended to be therapeutic. I’m not aiming to replace WIL-talk with something else (although we can, of course, talk about consciousness without engaging in WIL-talk). Instead I’m assessing one account of how WIL-talk works—the technical account—and arguing that it’s correct.

        I don’t think that my conclusions are paradoxical: there’s nothing paradoxical about saying that WIL-talk doesn’t involve technical terms. And I don’t think that “what-it-is-like to be you … becomes the basis for your paradoxical conclusions.” I don’t appeal to the nature of my conscious experiences as support for my argument. To put the point in another way: I’m not a zombie, but if I was that wouldn’t make my argument any worse (or any better) than it already is.

  15. Thanks again, Jonathan. I guess we disagree, then, about whether WIL talk is particularly useful in introducing the topic of phenomenal consciousness. I don’t think it’s totally useless. But I don’t see that it’s any more useful than property talk. Given the positive characterization of WIL talk you and I so far agree on, there being something X is like means that there is some property that X has. It won’t do, then, to define phenomenal consciousness in terms of the bare “something it’s like” locution, because definitions of phenomenal properties like “those properties in virtue of which there is something they are like” reduce to “those properties in virtue of which there are some properties”. And a definition of phenomenally conscious states along the lines of “those states such that there is something they are like” reduce to “those states such that they have properties”.

    What is doing the work that WIL talk seems to accomplish in, for instance, Robert Howell’s classroom? There I suspect it is as in my own classroom. We invite students to attend to their own mental states and invite them to draw conclusions about what they can know about those states simply by attending to them with out relying on any theoretical inference–what they can know via immediate introspection. And we invite them to reflect on what they might know or fail to know about states of other people. There might even be some discussion of Jackson’s Mary and inverted spectra that goes along with this. But now we are invoking technicalia, like “immediacy,” and controversial doctrines, like the conceivability of inversions .

    If this is so, this casts doubt on the thesis that when philosophers use WIL talk to introduce phenomenal consciousness, they are picking out something in an innocent, theory neutral way.

    1. Hi Pete, thanks for this. I think you’re right that if we stop at what we’ve so far agreed on then it’s unclear how WIL-talk can be used to introduce phenomenal consciousness. But I don’t think we need to stop there. One way to go (which I like) is to argue that the WIL-sentences we use when we talk about consciousness involve linguistic items that are often left unpronounced. And it is because these unarticulated words have a particular, ‘phenomenal’, meaning that some uses of WIL-talk are about consciousness.

      An alternative (which you might be sympathetic to, given your second paragraph) is that context plays a role in determining what we communicate when we engage in WIL-talk. Maybe, for example, contextual features restrict what we’re talking about (in the way we often find with ‘what’ questions and ‘some’ statements) to phenomenal properties. If this is right, then although it’s true that WIL-sentences (strings of linguistic items) aren’t in themselves enough to determine that we’re talking about consciousness, some WIL-talk (i.e., some uses of these sentences) is. And although we often do invoke technicalia to help students along, I wonder if we need to. Perhaps the same work could be done by talking about the colour-blind, or what becomes salient when you’re pricked by a pin, or after images. If so, then perhaps we can use WIL-talk in a fairly innocent and theory-neutral way.

    1. Thanks Eddy! I think we make it into an EP at least … (I’ve probably failed to embed these):

      (The Bee Gees ‘To Love Somebody’. Contains the line “You don’t know what it’s like to love somebody the way I love you.”)

      (The Beatles ‘She said, she said’. Contains the line “She said, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead,”)

      (Britney Spears ‘What It’s Like To Be Me’)

  16. Was just about to post the Bee Gees, Jonathan!

    And thanks to Eddy for both raising and lowering the level of debate in one fell swoop.

    So, as David Lewis put it: there’s book learnin’ and experience. To REALLY know what it’s like, as Everlast makes clear, you have to have the experience yourself. However, as Myrto makes clear, you can know by having an experience similar to that experience, one sufficiently like the target. And all that’s folksy enough to be in an Everlast song, which constitutes strong evidence of non-technicality.

    So what can we squeeze from this? Despite the Bee-Gee-like love between Pete and Jonathan over properties, I’m not sure that Everlast’s message is best regimented as property talk. Folk talk seems to be about experiences: “standing in someone’s shoes”, “loving somebody the way I love you”, etc. Maybe it’s innocent enough to move to properties, but I think it inspires the idea that there are punctate quale requiring one-to-one mapping to brain stuff or something. Maybe there are such things, but I don’t think it follows from Everlast.

    Something about “privacy” does seem wrapped up with the folk view, insofar as “you had to be there” and words alone cannot convey the experience. One of course may reject this privacy, but one will need to say why the folk think such privacy is present. Also something about “effability” and the limits of communicating about experience is nearby.

    So, yes, there’s a nontechnical notion and it’s often at play in philosophical debate, at least as a starting point. But this is about how things APPEAR to the folk. These appearances may be deceiving. That is, maybe privacy or ineffability is only apparent and with advances in science (and who knows, philosophy, though I’m not sure what that would be like), we may have reason to reject such things. But we’d still need to say why things appear as they do. And I don’t at all see why saying there isn’t any deep privacy or fundamental ineffability entails that we’re no longer talking about what it’s like, in the folk sense. We’re talking about experience, just as they are, and I don’t see that it’s analytic (or whatever) that what it’s like means privacy or ineffability or that such notions are essential to experience, as the folk take it.

    (I may have refuted many of my previous comments, but that’s just what it’s like to philosophize sometimes…)

    1. I just want to register my agreement with what you say about how things appear to the folk. It may be that some of our beliefs about our experiences are just mistaken. Exactly how much bathwater we can throw out without throwing out the baby is difficult to say, but there’s no reason to think we can’t throw out some of it.

      And thanks for The Who!

    2. Hi Josh,

      I’d hate to lose you and Everest as allies over unresolved qualms about properties, but I think the points made in terms of properties can be made innocent in a way that also highlights the virtues of your insights about the role of appearances.

      Property talk is often loose talk that can be tightened by a shift to predicate talk. And my earlier remarks about syntax might anyway make more sense in moving to predicates. So, for instance, under a common interpretation of WIL talk, the best answers to “what it’s like questions” are given in terms of predicate phrases. What’s your house like? Tan. Single-storied. This is not to rule out that sometimes similarity interpretations can do the trick, so when “what’s your house like?” is interpreted in that way, the answers are given in noun phrases. What’s your house similar to? Ken Willford’s house. The Taj Mahal.

      What I see as crucially at stake here is something dear to your heart: How best do we fix the data that a theory of consciousness is supposed to be about? And I’d hate here to send the audience racing towards qualia. When I walk a mile in Evererlast’s shoes, insofar that this has anything at all to do with philosophy of mind, as opposed to say, the philosophy of shoes, what is it that I come to know? I come to know how Everlast’s mental states appear to Everlast. And if we’re open to the falsity of ineffability claims, we’re open to Everlast himself supplying to relevant predicate-phrase and even noun-phrase answers to “what’s it like?” questions.

      What I see going on here, though, is a shift away from WIL talk as being the main data fixer. Instead, what’s serving to fix the data is talk about mental states, especially how they appear to the person of whom they are states. I would predict this as a result you’d find very congenial. None of this is to say that there’s nothing that the resultant theory (a HOT theory, maybe?) has to say about WIL. It just doesn’t lean on WIL talk as the primary data fixer.

      Look, Ma: No properties.

      1. Hi Pete,

        Can you say more about why you think (as you say in your last paragraph) that there is a shift from WIL-talk being the main data fixer to talk about mental states doing that job?

        It seems to me that WIL-talk is usually about mental states. It’s true that ‘what is it like to ride a rollercoaster?’ seems to be about riding a rollercoaster, not any mental states. But the question isn’t asking for something common to all instances of rollercoaster riding. People in comas can (but presumably shouldn’t) ride a rollercoaster. So whatever is common to all instances of rollercoaster riding it isn’t anything to do with conscious mental states. Instead the question it’s asking about the typical conscious states undergone by those who ride rollercoasters. (Or it’s about what it’s like for a typical person to ride a rollercoaster. But what makes someone typical here is that when they ride a rollercoaster they are in the sorts of conscious states that most people who ride rollercoasters are in.)

        Similarly, when Everlast talks about knowing what it is like to be in beggars’ position, he isn’t literally asking what it’s like to be poor and dirty and to beg for change. If Diogenes the cynic responds to Everlast by saying ‘I was poor and dirty and begged for change, so I know what it’s like to be in the beggar’s position’ he’s kind of missed the point: Diogenes presumably has a more positive spin on the beggar’s life than most people, including the character in the song. Conversely, if they mess up the settings on the experience machine someone in it might learn what it’s like to be poor, dirty and begging for change even though they are none of these things. Everlast is talking about knowing what it is like to have the sorts of mental states people typically have (or he imagines they have) when they’re poor, etc. He even gives us a clue as to what they are: the meaning of the song changes if the man at the liquor store has tranquillity or glee in his eyes instead of shame, but he is still poor, dirty and begging.

        I should add that I don’t think that WIL-talk is special in this way. Much talk of stubbed toes, for example, is not really about toes being bashed, but about the mental states that are typically associated with such bashings.

  17. Well, Josh, I don’t know if I lowered or raised the discussion, but at least I extended it a bit. Meanwhile, I cannot believe I didn’t also think of the Who’s Behind Blue Eyes, since not only do I love that song and play it on guitar, I’ve used it for a couple of my ‘philosophy songs’ for classes, in one version “Behind Rich Eyes” to talk about Singer’s arguments, but in another version to talk about Chalmers’ arguments. I’m afraid the lyrics are pretty lame, e.g., “You don’t know what it’s like/ to be a mad man/ to be a sad man/ behind these eyes” and “Because my dreams/ they are as empty/ as my consciousness seems to be.”

    Anyway, I’m sorry I’m not contributing to the actual discussion more substantively. I imagine you all know what it’s like…

    1. Eddy–you raised it by lowering it! Talking about the who and Everlast beats talking about Mary any day.

      Behind Blue Eyes is an awesome song. But be careful singing about Chalmers. He’ll force you to play at the Tucson post-conference poetry slam and zombie blues fest.

  18. Dear Jonathan,
    Thank you again for your help.
    I do not think I speak, (if it was possible to speak) Zombelese: a language or dialect of philosophy that attempts to discuss consciousness and the language of consciousness in a way that aims to construct its philosophical arguments about consciousness as if the what-it-is-like-ness of thinking, utterances and arguments and so on, are so separate from the philosophical and or lexical meaning of those utterances, that even if a Zombie proposed those arguments they would still be valid.
    For example, I fail to understand how there is such a term in Zombelese for“what-it-is-like”…but I would like to hear more about its possibility some time. Thanks again for your paper.

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