Most of you guys probably know Pete Mandik as the bassist and/or singer for the world’s premier Zombies Blues Band, NC/DC and the Devastating Objections
He has also been hammering out an argument against higher-order theories of consciousness that he calls The Unicorn, which tries to show that theories that implement the higher-order strategy via a higher-order thought theory, as Rosenthal does, can’t be right. This is because, Pete argues, these kinds of theories claim that conscious states are states that come to have the property of being represented by a higher-order thought. This would be fine, but there is no such property, for if there were that would mean that unicorns could have it, since we represent them in thought. Closely related to the unicorn argument is the objection to higher-order theories from the possibility of the occurrence of the higher-order state in the absence of the first-order state. What state is it that has the property of being conscious?
I ave argued that this argument does not threaten Rosenthal’s version of higher-order theory because for him the higher-order thought does not ‘transfer’ or ‘confer’ the property of consciousness to the first order state. For him the property of being a conscious state consists solely in my representing myself as being in a certain state. The first-order state is not changed in any way by the higher-order thought. The only thing that has changed is that the creature is now aware of itself as being in the states. In the last post I relied on this in making my argument that the higher-order strategy commits people like Rosenthal to the claim that thoughts are qualitative. Now, if one wants to, one can say that the creature has gained a new property, that of being aware of itself as being in a certain state, but he certainly wouldn’t say that a state’s being conscious was a matter of it acquiring a property that it did not have before.
Now, though Rosenthal says this, and it is an answer to the unicorn argument, it is held by most to be puzzling. Intuitively what most people think when they think of the higher-order strategy is that the higher-order state makes the first-order state a conscious state. But now we are told that that is not the case. The higher-order thought makes us conscious of ourselves as being in a certain state, but the first-order state plays no role in determining what it is like for us to have the state in question.
But there is another way of thinking about the relationship between the first-order state and the higher-order thought that represents it. Rosenthal thinks of this relationship as descriptive. The higher-order state describes the person as being in a certain first-order state which is located at such and such a place in some quality space in the case of sensory experiences. In the case of beliefs and desires the higher-order thought describes the person as having a belief or desire with such and such a content. I call these kinds of higher-order thoughts Q-HOT’s. The other way of thinking about this relationship is along the lines of the causal theory of reference. On this way of construing the higher-order thought theory a first-order state is a conscious state if and only if it causes, in the right sort of way, a higher-order state to the effect that one is in that state. I call these K-HOT’s.
Now, I don’t really know if the higher-order thought theory of consciousness is true or not, but it seems to me that it has got a good shot at being true. It is not obviously false. But I think that if one is going to have a higher-order thought theory then it is better to cast it in terms of K-HOT’s. It solves the problem of the unicorn as well as the problem of the non-existent state. We will never have K-HOT’s about non-existent states. Every K-higher-order thought is caused by some first-order state and if all we mean by ‘has the property of being represented’ is this causal reference relation then the first-order state will have the property of being represented. There are other advantages that recommend this modification to higher-order thought theory, but I have to go grade papers and so I will come back to them.