Maybe if I pick off and respond to some of the specific assertions that Velmans makes in his 2009 book Understanding Consciousness…
According to Thomas Nagel (1974), consciousness is ‘what it is like to be something.’ (p. 7)
Eventually Velmans endorses Nagel’s position, at least in part. First-person subjectivity is integral to but not fully definitive of consciousness. To be conscious is to be conscious of something: of the world, of one’s body, of one’s thoughts. All organisms have direct contact with the world via sensory receptors. Organisms convert sensory inputs into information about features of their environments that generated these inputs. E.g., a frog synchronizes visual input gathered by dedicated motion detectors with tongue movement in order to snag an insect out of the air. Does the frog have a subjective phenomenological experience of seeing the insect fly and of nabbing it; i.e., does the frog know what it’s like to be a frog? Or is the coordination of visual input with motor output purely instinctive, without awareness? Merely by observing the frog’s actions it’s impossible to tell if it has any subjective awareness. For that matter, it would be impossible to tell simply through observation whether a human is conscious of what it’s like to watch a fly land on the window and to dispatch it with a swatter. Consciousness-of is a first-person experience that’s opaque to third-person scrutiny.
Vermans concludes from his research that consciousness does not reside in some particular part of the brain. Rather, consciousness constitutes a more intensive and focused and coordinated activation of multiple brain processes that ordinarily function unconsciously and independently of one another. It should eventually be possible to evaluate non-human organisms to ascertain whether their brains ever achieve states of activation that correspond to consciousness in humans. However, without having access to some source of first-person information it would still not be possible to conclude that a nonhuman organism’s high-level brain activity correlates with a subjective experience of itself and its environment. It’s also possible that other kinds of organisms are conscious of lower-level non-integrated brain activities that in humans remain unconscious.
So it’s possible to speculate about what it might be like to be a frog, but as far as Velmans is concerned it will never be possible really to know anything from a third-person scientific perspective about frogs’ subjective experiences of the world and of themselves. Is it possible even to speculate about what it’s like to be cornbread, or polyester, or a neutron, as Ian Bogost suggests? Velmans doesn’t explore the possibility of inanimate subjective experience, in all likelihood because he regards the first-person experience of being-like as integrally linked to the first-person experience of being conscious-of one’s interactions with the world. And if consciousness is an intensified and focused and integrated neural activity, then the experience of being-like must likewise be associated with neural states/processes. It’s possible to imagine some other architecture for implementing neural functions, but there would have to be some sort of apparatus by which an object not only interacts with the world but has some awareness of this interaction. There would almost surely be chemical or electrical traces of this sort of awareness that could be observed, such that specific changes in the environment would result in specific changes in the aware object. I’d say it’s not particularly bold to assert, based on lack of empirical evidence, that neither cornbread nor polyester nor neurons exhibit the sort of selective complex responsiveness to the environment that might indicate some sort of alien awareness.
What’s it like to be cornbread? Almost surely it’s not like anything.