Cognitive Access: The Only Game in Town

[cross-posted at Brains]

In Ned Block’s recent paper, published in Trends In Cognitive Science, he has defended his argument that perceptual consciousness overflows cognitive access from several recent objections (including mine). It is important that Block is defending overflow from cognitive access since he admits that perceptual consciousness does not overflow all access. Phenomenal consciousness consists in there being something that it is like for the subject of the experience and this suggests that there must be some kind of access to the experience. Block has elsewhere argued that some non-cognitive form of access can account for this but no account of non-cognitive access to date can explain what needs to be explained. Given this the anti-overflow position should remain the default until/unless we have much stronger evidence than what Block presents. Block suggests that there is a philosophical fallacy in the assumption that non-overflow is the default and in the insistence that we need strong evidence to overthrow the non-overflow position but this is not fallacious. It is the reasonable thing to do when you have very weak evidence that is consistent with two competing theories and one of those theories appeals to a mysterious place-holder concept while the other doesn’t.

Block suggests two possible forms of non-cognitive access. The first is a deflationary account and the second is a version of a self-representational theory.  On the deflationary account we are aware of our mental states just in the having of them, in much the same way that we smile our own smiles just by smiling. Recall that what we are trying to explain is how a particular experience comes to be for the person who has it. When I feel a pain, not only do I experience the painful quality but I also experience it as mine. How can the deflationary account handle this? The deflationary account applies equally well to any state that happens to be instantiated in the brain. We can say that we are aware, in this way, of a state in the LGN, for instance, but surely we don’t want to say that it is phenomenally conscious.

The same problems arise for a self-representational account. One kind of self-representational account, holds that the higher-order awareness is itself a part of the state that it represents. But this is a variant of a cognitive access theory. Block seems to want a notion of self-representation that amounts to the state in question merely being instantiated (in the way a color sample represents the color just by being that particular color). But then every state would be conscious since every state represents itself merely by being instantiated. In fact every representation self-represents itself in this way but we don’t want to say that sentences are phenomenally conscious!

These notions of non-cognitive access are too weak to distinguish conscious mental states from unconscious mental states, or from any kind of brain activity at all. On the other hand a higher-order cognitive representation explains how a mental state can be for me; I am representing myself as being in that state, in some suitable way, so I will naturally experience the state as mine.

Block endorses only the reasonableness of tentatively accepting the overflow conclusion. But until we have a notion of non-cognitive access that can explain how a mental state can be experienced as mine that is at least as satisfactory as that given by cognitive access we need much stronger evidence than what Block presents to accept overflow.

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5 thoughts on “Cognitive Access: The Only Game in Town

  1. Richard, You acknowledge that I present genuine (if weak) evidence for consciousness without actual cognitive access. This evidence as you acknowledge is NOT evidence for consciousness without accessIBILITY. However, you maintain that we should reject consciousness without cognitive access despite the evidence for it because the evidence is not strong enough to overcome a default presumption against it. That default presumption is supposed to derive from the fact that conscious experience is experience that in some sense is accessed by what one might call the subjective self. But given the notorious obscurity of intuitions about access to the subjective self it would be better to accept—at least tentatively—consciousness without cognitive access and look for some other kind of access-related property to explain the relation to the subjective self. Maybe cognitive accessIBILITY will do for that purpose, or maybe—as seems plausible to many of us, the kind of access-related property that is involved in there being something it is like for the subject is not cognitive at all. You introduce into the debate the conflict between higher order and same order theories of awareness. But that conflict only becomes relevant to the issue at all on your highly theoretical assumption that the access-relation to the self is the same issue that is addressed by these theories of consciousness.

    • Hi Ned! Thanks for this very useful response and sorry it has taken me a while to get back to you!Things have been busy around here lately.

      I think it is helpful to think about views that emphasize accessibility, like Jesse’s view does. They too give us an empirically plausible way to think about overflow…but they also face problems…the most relevant one in this context is that phenomenology without access is just the thin edge of the wedge that gives you phenomenology without accessibility (Jesse himself seems to suggest this in a couple of places). But even if this could be overcome it is not at all clear that accessibility based views (like Jesse’s attention-based version of this) can account for there being something that it is like for the person. Why should merely being available to be encoded make a representation seem as though it is mine?

      I introduced higher-order accounts because it has an explanatory advantage with respect to accounting for there being something that it is like for the subject. You are right that this is only relevant if one takes a higher-order theory to be attempting to give an account of phenomenal consciousness but that is what I take it to be attempting. This is relevant because a higher-order account of phenomenal consciousness is one of the ways in which overflow would turn out to be false. So, when we are looking at how well theories mesh with neuroscience and such we should be looking at theories that deny overflow. It seems to me that we should grant that higher-order theories are doing that and then see how well they license meshes between neuroscience and psychology.

      I think that situation amounts to the following. We have two different interpretations of the Sperling and Sligte experiments. On one we have detailed specific phenomenology and on the other we have degraded or generic phenomenology. Your argument against the alternative interpretation is that there is no good evidence for the kinds of representations postulated and there is no evidence that attention or working memory work the way they would have to in order for the account to make sense (and maybe some suggesting that they don’t). On the other hand the other side says that there is some evidence that there are these kinds of representations, etc.

      Ultimately the science here is not nearly conclusive enough to draw any conclusions about which of these two views is right. You can make your theoretical bets if you want to but I don’t think there is anything like a compelling reason to adopt overflow -even tentatively-. The good news, I think, is that we can now see a way to move forward empirically on the issue. We need to determine whether there are the kinds of representations that are appealed to and whether attention or working memory work the way they are postulated to do.

      Just a final word; I don’t think that the higher-order theory is true but only that it might be true. It is consistent with all of the evidence we have so far (so is your view or Jesse’s view) but because it has other explanatory advantages it seems more likely that it is true than a theory that would require rejecting it. To date it is the only theory that even begins to say something credible about how a representation could come to be for the subject that has it. I represent that I am, myself, in that very state and it will of course be the case that from my point of view it will seem to me as though I am in that state. You may not think that we can get from this sense of seeming to phenomenal consciousness but to many of us it does seem as though this might be the case.

      But like I said, ultimately this is an empirical question and the science just isn’t in yet.

  2. Hi, Mathieu Fantonelle here,

    In my view it comes down to whether one thinks that there is such an entity as an “I” or “consciousness” or “self” or “me”or whatever relevant entity— or whether one holds these are simply concepts, notions and terms; rather as one might say there is a thing called a forest but another might insist that there is no forest, only individual trees grouped under a heading, lumped into a category. “I” and “consciousness” are or are not simply categories or terms to corral a bunch of separate instances that have no existence apart from those separate instances.
    Some insist that there is a self or consciousness existing in some relevant way. Others may insist that they have no inkling of such a thing and hold these to be ideas, notions and not things —-such that there is simply nothing there if you drop the concept.
    It seems to me rather arbitrary whether one holds that a self or consciousness exist in some relevant way or one holds that these do not exist or exist but in a way that is irrelevant.
    There seems no necessity to one view over the other. Both views seem rather to be like premises, assumptions.
    Further, if a distinction is made between the content of experience and the experiencer, one may argue that there is no way, other than by fiat, to distinguish them.
    For indeed, it could be asserted that “I” or “experiencer” is in fact simply a concept and so a part of the content of experience and so also is any characterization of a posited “seer” of experience
    ( including the claim that the “I” or “consciousness” is apperceived or intuited directly and so is not a mere concept) .
    Thus, in this view– in which a distinction is made between thing and concept– it is impossible to know whether there is any such thing as an “I” or not, since any positing of an “I”, could be itself simply part of the content of experience and not the “I” itself. If there is such a subjectivity, it is forever unknowable, akin to Kant’s “thing in itself” which, because we have no access to it, can never be confirmed to exist. It is therefore mere posit.
    In this view, if you “represent myself as being in that state and so “experience the state as mine”, that whole business may be considered just content and does not necessarily indicate at all that there is such a thing as “myself” for whom something is “like”.
    Is there an experience and an experiencer or is there just a kind of content that shows up, and it shows up to no one, rather the showing up to someone is all itself just more content, or notion or in any case does not exist in such a way that an entity apart from the content is indicated?
    It may be argued that if there is a self that sees and there is what appears to the self and both of these are seen, then being seen they are content and another, non-content self is needed to see them—but if that non-content self is also seen then it is also content and so another non-content self must be posited and so on ad infinitum.
    And, of course, it may be also be argued that, if the “I” or the “experiencer” is separate from and entirely unrelated to the content and non-interactive then how can it “see” the content, since it must interact with the content in some way to do so.
    If it does interact with the content, where does the content begin and the experiencer end in this interaction?
    It seems to me the answer to all these issues comes by asserting, as a kind of premise, either that there is an entity apart from the concept of it or that there is not. Consciousness is a thing apart or it is a mere idea or is existent in a way that is not relevant or substantive or some such.
    Something like the old nominalist /realist distinction is, apparently, still very much alive at the heart of this stuff.

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