1. Are you troubled by the following apparent contradiction to which you are apparently committed, namely, that consciousness is both nothing and something? This (apparent) contradiction comes out clearly in your 1994 Midwest Studies in Philosophy paper "Direct Realism Without Materialism," p. 10.
2. You say above that your metaphysical picture is compatible with physicalism. How so? Consciousness for you is real, albeit impersonal. Your "direct realist conception of consciousness" (Midwest Studies, p. 9) suggests that there is something physicalism cannot allow, namely, consciousness. After all, your conception of consciousness, while externalist, is not eliminativist: you are surely not maintaining that consciousness just is (identically) its objects.
3. Consciousness in your sense has no subject or subjects. But must it not have a 'site,' i.e., must it not be tied to animal organisms in nature? And what is the nature of this 'tie'? Or does consciousness 'float free' of all organisms and objects generally?
Butchvarov's Replies with My Rejoinders
1. “Consciousness is both nothing and something” is Sartre’s view, which I endorse. It’s no more self-contradictory than Meinong’s “there are objects concerning which it is the case that there are no such objects” or Wittgenstein’s that a sensation “is not a something, but not a nothing either.” They are attempts to convey a radically new thought. Even in everyday life we often hear sentences like “He is and he is not,” “I like it but also I do not.”
BV: We will agree that Meinong's paradoxical formulation involves no formal contradiction. He chose to express himself in that way for literary effect. What he is saying, of course, is that some objects do not exist. To be precise, he is saying that some objects neither exist, subsist, nor enjoy any mode of Being whatsoever. Pace van Inwagen and many others who toe the Quinean line, there is no formal contradiction involved in maintaining that some objects do not exist. The apparent contradiction in Meinong's formulation is shown to be merely apparent by distinguishing two senses of 'there are,' one existentially noncomittal, the other existentially loaded.
What I don't understand, however, is what the Meinong example has to do with Sartre's radically externalist, anti-substantialist theory of consciousness. It is no contradiction to say of the golden mountain that it is something and nothing: we can read this as saying that it is some item but nothing that exists, or subsists for that matter. It is a contradiction, however, to say of consciousness that it is something and nothing -- unless one can make a distinction, parallel to the distinction made in the Meinongian case -- one that shows that the contradiction is merely apparent. What would that distinction be?
In the everyday cases that Butch cites, it is clear that they can be read as non-contradictory. But again, what does this haveto do with Sartre? Agreed, Sartre is aiming to convey a radically new thought. But the question is whether it is a contradictory thought. (Side point: a case could be made that the thought is already in Heidegger.)
Consciousness is not nothing, but neither is it a thing. “[Consciousness] ‘exhausts’ itself in its objects, [Sartre] wrote, precisely because it is nothing but the revelation of them: ‘consciousness is outside; there is no ‘within’ of consciousness.’ It has no inhabitants. Whether perceptual or conceptual, consciousness is not a ‘thing.’ One may even go so far as saying that it is nothing. To use a word Heidegger had applied, consciousness is only the ‘lightening’ of its objects, like the coming of dawn, which lightens, reveals, the rocks, bushes, and hills that had been invisible in the darkness of the night, but is not itself an object of sight” (page 204). See also 2 below.
BV: I agree with this as a description of Sartre's theory. But it leaves us with the problem. Consciousness, although other than every object and every entity, is not a mere nothing, a nugatory nothing, ein nichtiges Nichts to borrow a phrase from Heidegger. Why not? Well, it is is the 'light' in which objects appear and without which they would not appear. Although this 'light' does not itself appear as an object of sight as Butch well explains, it is not a mere nothing: it is in some sense or other 'real.' Note also that while Butch is surely right to describe Sartrean consciousness as exhausting itself in its objects, this 'exhaustion thesis' is not an eliminativist claim to the effect that consciousness just is its objects such that there is no distinction at all between consciousness and objects. There is this distinction and so its terms must be 'real': consciousness on the one hand and its objects on the other.
2. Physicalism denies the existence of mind and consciousness as they are usually understood, and so do I. It asserts that there are only physical things. Consciousness is not nothing, but neither is it a “thing” (see 1). On page 235 I explain: “[C]onsciousness has no intrinsic nature and no “inhabitants,” not even an ego.... there is just the world. Hence, there is some plausibility of the physicalist picture of the world as matter. But, unlike it, ours does not exclude consciousness – it merely does not include it, much as a group portrait of a family usually does not include the photographer” (235).
BV: Butchvarov is telling us here that his picture neither excludes nor includes consciousness. I am afraid I find this as contradictory as the claim that consciousness is both nothing and not nothing.
3. As I just said, my picture of the world “does not exclude consciousness – it merely does not include it.” I deny that consciousness is a thing in the world, that “the photographer is included in the photo.” This is why I say nothing about its site or ties to animal organisms in nature.
Of course, I do not deny that sometimes I have a headache, that sometimes I am hungry, that usually I remember what I read yesterday, that I need eyeglasses to see better, that what other people say often makes sense to me, etc. In these everyday or scientific contexts we may speak of consciousness as tied to animal organisms, though the word is seldom used. They may involve nonphysical, “mental,” events, but these events would hardly be bits of consciousness rather than just objects of consciousness. Biology, psychology, and linguistics may tell us what they involve. I doubt that philosophers have special knowledge of such essentially empirical matters. But it is exactly in these contexts that to
hold, as only philosophers might, that consciousness shapes or makes the world would be especially absurd.
One of my aims has been to question philosophical claims, especially in ethics and epistemology but also in philosophy of mind and metaphysics, to knowledge of what can only be empirical
A full answer to this excellent question, however, would require a whole book -- or several books!
BV: I would insist that it is legitimate to ask about the relation of consciousness as Butchvarov conceives it and what goes on in us when we think, perceive, imagine, remember, feel, and so on. Granted, consciousness is not a thing in the world, and so it cannot be identified with or reduced to any events that transpire in human animals or their brains when they perceive, imagine, remember, and so on. I also grant that empirical matters should be left to empirical scientists. But that does not change the fact that consciousness in Butchvarov's Sartrean sense is involved when a man sees a tree or imagines a tree or remembers a tree. Suppose a man sees a tree. This cannot be accounted for without referring to consciousness in whose non-physical 'light' the tree appears. Butchvarov will of course grant this. He will surely not maintain that the 'lightening' that he mentions above can be accounted for by the empirical sciences of vision. Consciousness is a transcendental condition of the revelation of objects; as such, it is not something that can itself be investigated objectively by empirical means.
Given all this, is it not legitimate to ask how consciousness, as Butchvarov conceives it, is related to animal organisms, or at least those who we describe in ordinary language as conscious? Butchvarov maintains that consciousness is subject-less. But it doesn't follow that we can ignore the question of how consciousness is 'tied to' animal organisms.
One possible answer is that consciousness is not tied to animal organisms at all: it floats free. Not a very satisfactory answer! Where did it come from? Another answer is that it is an emergent. Doesn't Sartre speak of the "upsurge" of the For-Itself?
In any case, I don;t see that this question can be evaded in the way that Butchvarov evades it by reiterating the point that consciousness is not a thing in the world. I grant that!