Inner lives, or inner states?

Further comment on recent papers by David Chalmers (early draft of The Meta-Problem of Consciousness) and Keith Frankish (Illusionism as a Theory of Consciousness), highlighting another area where it is easy to talk at cross purposes.

Frankish rejects phenomenal properties, but nevertheless maintains that we have conscious experiences – if we take ‘experience’ in a functional sense, as referring to those mental states that are the direct output of our sensory systems (2016, p.13). But how are we to understand the word ‘functional’ in this context?

Let’s start by considering how Chalmers uses the word. He takes it that functional descriptions are essentially third-person descriptions that must be expressed in objective terms, such as those of observable behaviour. Consider, for example, the following passage from The Conscious Mind:

Given the premise that some explanandum is forced on us by first-person experience [it follows] that what needs to be explained cannot be analyzed as the playing of some functional role, for the latter phenomenon is revealed to us by third-person observation … (1996, p. 110, emphasis added)

Turning to ‘The Meta-Problem of Consciousness’ (2018), it seems that Chalmers wants to be especially clear on this point, because in that paper every single occurrence of the word ‘functions’ is immediately preceded by ‘behavioral’ (the one exception being a backward looking reference to ‘those functions’). And in discussing such functions, he refers to ‘reports’, ‘behaviors’, ‘consequences’, and such like.

Chalmers does acknowledge that there are internal mental states that are responsible for the behavior which we observe as part of a functional analysis, but these are not conscious states – they are psychological states that are defined in terms of their role in producing that behavior. They must, therefore, be clearly distinguished from any associated conscious experiences, even if the two are closely correlated.

What this means is that Chalmers limits people’s inner lives to their phenomenal experiences. A zombie, for example, has internal mental states that produce observable behaviour that is identical to that of a conscious human being – but it has no inner life, no consciousness whatsoever. Not even our own thoughts form part of our inner lives so far as Chalmers is concerned, since thoughts are mental states that can be defined in a functional manner. What does form part of our inner lives is our experience of having those thoughts.

This account would imply that when Frankish restricts ‘experience’ to some functional notion, he thereby entirely eliminates the first-person perspective. However, this does not appear to be what he has in mind, as can be seen from the following:

… zombies are presented as creatures very different from ourselves — ones with no inner life, whose experience is completely blindsighted. As Chalmers puts it, ‘There is nothing it is like to be a zombie… all is dark inside’ (Chalmers, 1996, pp. 95–6). And illusionists will not agree that this is a good description of us. Rather, they will deny the equivalence between having an inner life and having phenomenal consciousness. (2016, pp. 22-23, emphasis added)

These comments about ‘having an inner life’ are difficult to square with a desire to eliminate the first-person perspective. And Frankish goes on to say:

Introspection delivers a view of ourselves that is peculiarly vivid and compelling and that seems radically at odds with that of the physical sciences. It might give us access to an aspect of reality inaccessible to third-person science. … But it might merely give us an unusual perspective on the same reality … (2016, p. 24, second emphasis added)

On this picture, entirely different from that of Chalmers, there are mental states (very possibly complex representational states) that constitute experience. Such states can be understood scientifically thorough the behavior that they engender, their neurophysiological bases, and so on. But each of us also has an alternative, interior, perspective on those states, precisely because they are our own experiences.

This is a picture with which I largely concur. But a problem looms. No matter how we characterize mental states from the inner perspective – in qualitative terms or otherwise – it is difficult to see how there can be any a priori entailment that proceeds from our third-person scientific descriptions of such states, in terms of observable behaviour or neurophysiology, to our first-person descriptions of those same states from the inner perspective.[1] And that lack of a priori entailment  means that we are once again faced with an epistemic gap …

However, there is a straightforward reason for this lack of a priori entailment. The third-person viewpoint derives – as its name suggests – from the possibility of inter-subject agreement on facts, where that agreement can be obtained, at least in principle, from any person placed in the relevant situation. Hence, the third-person viewpoint is not to be thought of as a perspective on some objective realm, separate from another realm which is accessible only from a privileged first-person viewpoint; rather it is akin to a generalization of the first-person viewpoint. Now in introspection, my own mental states – as aspects of my inner life – are only cognitively available to myself. Hence, the criteria that I use for deciding whether a particular concept applies to my own experiences cannot conceivably be objective, third-person criteria. And this implies that there cannot be any a priori entailment from third-person descriptions to first-person descriptions.

But I do not believe that the materialist has any reason to fear this type of epistemic gap, which arises from the development of interiority within certain organisms. Even a zombie – if we accept that it has thoughts – will find an epistemic gap between its first-person descriptions and its third-person descriptions. However, an interesting question arises: might not the epistemic gaps noted by Chalmers – expressed in terms of explanation, conceivability, and knowledge (2010, pp. 104-111) – arise for the same reason? That is, could they be due to the distinction between first and third-person perspectives, rather than the qualitative aspects of consciousness?[2]

In ‘The Meta-Problem of Consciousness’ Chalmers takes Frankish’s rejection of phenomenal properties at face value. Rather curiously, however, he does not directly address the suggestion that each of us has an interior life nonetheless. But it is a moot question – can a strong illusionist really hold that we have inner lives, or have they in fact committed themselves to the view that we are zombies who merely have inner states?


David Chalmers (1996) The Conscious Mind

David Chalmers (2010) The Character of Consciousness

David Chalmers (2018) ‘The Meta-Problem of Consciousness’ (version 2), draft paper available at

Keith Frankish (2016) ‘Illusionism as a Theory of Consciousness’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 23:11–12, pp. 11–39


[1] Could we rely here on the idea that both descriptions are of the same mental state? I do not think so. No matter how well motivated it is, this assumed identity is simply not relevant to the question as to whether there is any a priori entailment between the third-person and first-person descriptions – if you need the identity in order to show there is an entailment, that that entailment cannot be a priori. How concerned we should be about this lack of entailment is another matter, as I go on to discuss.

[2] This is a suggestion which I consider in more detail in section 4 of ‘The Possibility of Materialism’.

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