Self-Representationalism and the Neo-Russellian Ignorance Hypothesis: A Hybrid Account of Phenomenal Consciousness

Thomas Mcclelland

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


This thesis aims to provide a compelling and distinctive response to the Problem of Consciousness. This is achieved by offering a bipartite analysis of the epistemic gap at the heart of that problem, and by building upon the hypothesis that the apparent problem is symptomatic of our limited conception of the physical.Chapter 1 introduces the problem. The key question is whether phenomenal consciousness is onticly dependent on the physical, or onticly independent of it. There are powerful arguments for the Primitivist view that consciousness is independent of the physical. These arguments rest on the apparent epistemic gap between the physical and the phenomenal. I propose that this apparent gap must be understood as a composite of two deeper conceptual gaps pertaining to the subjective character and qualitative character of consciousness respectively. The ‘–tivity gap’ claims that physical states are objective, phenomenal states are subjective and that there is no entailment from the objective to the subjective. The ‘–trinsicality gap’ claims that physical properties are extrinsic (structural), that phenomenal qualities are intrinsic (non-structural) and that there is no entailment from the extrinsic to the intrinsic. After refining the case for Primitivism, I consider the compelling reasons for rejecting Primitivism in favour of Physicalism. The challenge posed by the Problem of Consciousness is to resolve this antinomy between Primitivism and Physicalism.In Chapter 2 I consider standard responses to the problem. The failings of these positions lead me to introduce three criteria that an adequate response must satisfy. I reject the view that Primitivism can be salvaged, and hold that a satisfactory response to the problem must protect Physicalism. I reject standard ‘Type-A’ responses according to which there is no epistemic gap between the physical and the phenomenal, and argue that a satisfactory response cannot deny the manifest reality of phenomenal consciousness. Finally, I reject ‘Type-B’ responses according to which the epistemic gap does not entail ontic distinctness. I hold that if Physicalism is true, the entailment from the physical facts to the phenomenal facts must be knowable a priori for an epistemically ideal subject.Chapter 3 evaluates a non-standard Type-A response to the Problem of Consciousness which promises to satisfy all three criteria. According to Stoljar’s Epistemic View (EV), consciousness only seems inexplicable in physical terms because we have a limited conception of the physical. I argue that EV should be supported iff two demanding challenges can be met: the Relevance Condition requires adequate reason to believe that unknown physical properties could address the –tivity gap and the –trinsicality gap. The Integration Condition requires adequate reason to believe that there is a specific blind-spot in our current conception of the physical that is plausibly occupied by properties that perform the requisite explanatory role. To satisfy these conditions, the advocate of EV must make positive claims about the content of our proposed ignorance.In Chapter 4 I argue that EV stands or falls with the plausibility of the Russellian Ignorance Hypothesis (RIH). According to RIH, we have no concepts of the intrinsic properties of physical entities, and those intrinsic properties are integral to the physical explanation of consciousness. I argue that we are indeed conceptually ignorant of intrinsic physical properties. I also argue that RIH meets the Integration Condition, and goes some way to satisfying the Relevance Condition. RIH plausibly undermines the –trinsicality gap by showing that some physical properties are intrinsic, though they are beyond our current conception. The apparent gap is then an illusion resulting from the fact that all known physical properties are extrinsic. RIH fails, however, to address the –tivity gap. I conclude that no version of EV can offer a full response to the Problem of Consciousness.In Chapter 5 I explore an entirely different kind of response to the Problem of Consciousness. Representationalism claims that consciousness is explicable in terms of intentional properties, and that intentional properties are explicable in terms of physical properties. I argue that standard Representationalist proposals are unable to account for the qualitative character of conscious states, and diagnose this failure in terms of the –trinsicality gap. However, the prospects for a Representationalist account of subjective character are more promising. Specifically, Kriegel’s Self-Representationalism holds that a mental state is a phenomenal state in virtue of suitably representing itself. I argue that this proposal plausibly addresses the –tivity gap.RIH and Self-Representationalism each deal with one of the two apparent conceptual gaps between the physical and the phenomenal, but not the other. In Chapter 6 I develop a hybrid proposal that combines the best of both positions. The ‘Neo-Russellian Ignorance Hypothesis’ (NRIH) claims that a mental state is a phenomenal state at all in virtue of suitably representing itself, and has its qualitative character in virtue of the intrinsic physical properties involved in its implementation. I expand this claim and defend it against a number of potential criticisms. I also explore the relationship between its two components, suggesting that they are each founded on a common epistemic insight. I argue that NRIH successfully addresses the –tivity and –trinsicality gaps and, moreover, that it provides a compelling account of why consciousness appears to be inexplicable in physical terms. I conclude that NRIH offers a powerful response to the Problem of Consciousness that successfully undermines the case for Primitivism. Furthermore, I conclude that NRIH has substantial advantages over competing attempted responses, and offers the best possible way of capitalising on the insights of EV and Representationalism.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Sussex
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2012


  • Consciousness
  • Problem of Consciousness
  • Self-Representationalism
  • Ignorance Hypothesis
  • Russellian Monism


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