The autonomic nervous system and Dretske on phenomenal consciousness

Dan Ryder (UNC Chapel Hill) & C. B. Martin (University of Calgary)


Ideally, a theory of consciousness should propose necessary and sufficient conditions for a state to be conscious. One obvious way to refute any such proposal is to provide an example of a state that meets the conditions but that isn't conscious. A neglected instance of this strategy is using the non-conscious, autonomic nervous system (ANS) as the refuting example. In this paper, we use the ANS counterexample against representational theories of phenomenal consciousness, focusing on Dretske's.

We now know that the ANS, far from being a simple reflex loop, is capable of elaborate differentiated behaviours that rival in their complexity the capacities of conscious systems. There is good evidence that the physiology of the portion of the central autonomic network that controls blood pressure and haemodynamics meets both the representational and use requirements that together form Dretske's theory of qualia.

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