Presidential Address

Presidential address

Thursday June 19, 5:30PM-6:30PM at Alexander Hall

David Rosenthal
Philosophy Program
City University of New York

Why Are Mental States Ever Consciousness?

Theories of consciousness typically seek to say either what it is for a mental state to be conscious or what the neural correlate is of a state's being conscious. But not all mental states are conscious. So there is a third question, which has received little attention: Why is it that mental states are ever conscious? Answers to the first two questions, I'll argue, do not by themselves provide an answer to the third, and several theories actually preclude giving any informative answer.

Some have urged that states are sometimes conscious because their being conscious has utility for the organism. I'll argue, however, that the utility of thoughts, desires, and perceptions is almost entirely independent of whether those states are conscious.

I'll advance two explanations of why many mental states are conscious, one for perceptions and another for intentional states such as thoughts and volitions. In both cases, the process that leads to states' becoming conscious is beneficial, but the consciousness of the states itself adds little or no utility.

In brief, perceptions come to be conscious when an organism detects its own erroneous perceiving, thereby becoming conscious of itself as being in perceptual states. By contrast, thoughts, which lack qualitative character, become conscious only in creatures with relatively sophisticated linguistic abilities. Many states of nonlinguistic creatures are presumably conscious, but arguably thoughts are not among them. Thoughts come to be conscious when saying something becomes virtually interchangeable with saying that one thinks that thing, as it is in humans. Because saying that one thinks something expresses an awareness of that very thought, such habituated interchangeability brings with it consciousness of many of one's thoughts.