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I found these similar phrases (bolded by me) in an article [1] and am wondering how they can make sense.

Ordinary human beings are conscious. That is, there is something it is like to be us. We have conscious experiences with a subjective character: there is something it is like to see, to hear, to feel, and to think. [...] More broadly, a complete physical description of a system such as a mouse does not appear to tell us what it is like to be a mouse, and indeed whether there is anything it is like to be a mouse.

Now, the meaning the expression conveys is rather straightforward — it is the formulation I have questions about.

Can anyone explain this? Is the form even grammatically correct?


[1] Chalmers, D. (2010). "The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis." Journal of Consciousness Studies 17:7-65.

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4 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

This construction is grammatical, but awkward.

there is something [that] it is like to be us

In other words, [to be us] is like [something], as opposed to to be us is like nothing (= being us is meaningless). The relative clause [that] it is like to be us has as its antecedent something. The use of like is the same as in please tell me what it is like to be a bat.

Another way to rephrase this while keeping the relative clause is: there is something that "to be us" is like. Both in this form and in the original, that is governed by the adjective-preposition like.

Note that dummy/appositive it is often used to replace an infinitive phrase (an infinitive with arguments) when the infinitive phrase is the subject: this is what it means to be conscious. In relative clauses, this it is even more common, as even simple infinitives are somehow felt to be awkward when they would precede the finite verb; we wouldn't write *this is what to be conscious means. We would either use dummy it, or replace the infinitive with a gerund: this is what being conscious means.

In philosophy of mind, this phrase has unfortunately become popular. A different phrase would have been more transparent and easier to parse, such as:

being "us" is not a meaningless statement

Or:

The subjective aspect of existence is not the same as the objective aspect of it

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Horribly awkward is more like it. –  KitFox Apr 10 '13 at 19:44
    
@KitFox: I agree. I forgot who came up with it... –  Cerberus Apr 10 '13 at 19:51
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The surface meaning of “there is something it is like to be us” is straightforward enough; it asserts that a thing exists which is similar to a condition, where that condition is “being us”, or being ourselves as people.

Whether the assertion is true might be a philosophical question. Although the meaning of the phrase is straightforward, it is not clear to me that the phrase has anything to do with “ordinary human beings are conscious”. If it fails to connect, it is a non sequitur and perhaps vacuous rather than posing a philosophical question. However, this might not be a problem for an article in an academic journal, for which it commonly is thought that appearance of thought is the important thing, not thought itself.

Grammatically, it serves as a dummy pronoun (so-called) in “there is something it is like to be us”. In wikipedia's dummy pronoun article, see the “Weather it” and “Dissenting views” sections, regarding the “general state of affairs” interpretation, which I think is appropriate here.

Some linguists like D.L. Bolinger go even further and claim that the "weather it" simply refers to a general state of affairs in the context of utterance. In this case, it would not be a dummy word at all.

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Yes, ellipsis like that may have taken place. Note, I added a paragraph re it –  jwpat7 Apr 10 '13 at 19:41
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This is just philosopher-speak. They're required to talk like that. Pay no attention.

No normal English speaker would ever say something as prolix as this without being paid to do so. So, unless you have to talk with philosophers, don't worry about it.

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I found Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Tone quite enjoyable. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 10 '13 at 20:16
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I diagnose incompletely digested symbolic logic. "For some X, Being us is like X".

The author also appears to be covering up an unsupported jump from experience to existence. Both the language and the concealment would be much simpler in Latin; you could just say something like "Cogito, ergo sum."

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