For much of the last century, phenomenal consciousness occupied a curious status within philosophy of mind: it was central in some ways and yet peripheral in others. On the one hand, this topic attracted a significant amount of philosophical interest owing to metaphysical puzzlement about the nature of phenomenal consciousness and its place in the physical world. On the other hand, this metaphysical puzzlement also provided much of the impetus for a research program of understanding the mind as far as possible without making reference to phenomenal consciousness.
One defining characteristic of this research program was the idea that the so called ‘hard problem’ of explaining phenomenal consciousness could be divorced from the comparatively ‘easy problems’ of explaining mental representation and our knowledge of the external world. For instance, one central project in late twentieth century philosophy of mind was to ‘naturalize intentionality’ by explaining mental representation in terms of causal connections between the mind and the external world specified without appealing to phenomenal consciousness. At the same time, another central project was to ‘naturalize epistemology’ by explaining knowledge and justified belief in terms of causal or counterfactual connections between the mind and the external world; again, specified without reference to phenomenal consciousness.
My project, in contrast, is to argue that phenomenal consciousness is central to our understanding of knowledge and the mind. In philosophy of mind, it has become increasingly popular to argue that phenomenal consciousness is the basis of mental representation and hence that the problem of explaining mental representation cannot be divorced from the problem of explaining phenomenal consciousness. I argue for a related thesis in epistemology—namely, that phenomenal consciousness is the basis of epistemic justification and hence that the problem of explaining epistemic justification cannot be divorced from the problem of explaining phenomenal consciousness.
These claims about the role of phenomenal consciousness are related in ways that reflect more general connections between epistemology and philosophy of mind. If phenomenal consciousness is the basis of epistemic justification, then we need to ask what it must be like in order to play this epistemic role. I argue that phenomenal consciousness cannot play this epistemic role if it consists in non-representational sensations or ‘qualia’. On the contrary, I argue, its role in grounding epistemic justification depends upon its role in constituting a form of mental representation. On this view, not all mental representation has its source in phenomenal consciousness, but a specific kind of mental representation does—namely, the kind of mental representation that plays an epistemic role in justifying belief.