A Tale of Two T’s

A while ago over at the Brain Hammer Pete asked the question ‘What are you conscious of when you have conscious experiences?‘ (I think he asked the same question over at Brains a little later). His basic idea was to solicit peoples intuitions about Transitivity and Transparancy, which he defined as follows.

“The Transparency Thesis”: When one has a conscious experience all that one is conscious of is what the experience is an experience of.

“The Transitivity Thesis”:When one has a conscious experience one must be conscious of the experience itself.

Given these two claims he was in particular interested to ask

Since each of these claims is alleged to be obvious, and since they are in opposition, I’d be interested in hearing what others think of the matter: Which is more obvious than the other?

These two claims both seem obvious to me and so I am interested in finding out why people seem to think, as Pete clearly does, that they are in opposition. Part of theproblem is the way inwhich Pete define Transitivity. He claims that it claims that we must be conscious of the experience itself, but this is actually wrong. What Transitivity claims is that we must be conscious of ourselves as having the experience (or conscious of ouselves as being in a certain state). Once we see that this is the right way to construe transitivity it is no longer the case that these two claims are in opposition. When I have a conscious experience (say, as Pete does, of a leafy tree) then it will be the case that I am conscious of myself as having a leafy tree experience (transitivity) and because of that it will also be true that it seems to me that all that I am conscious of is the leafy tree.  So where is the opposition?

29 thoughts on “A Tale of Two T’s

  1. 1.
    I wonder if the issue can be restated by instead of talking about experience in general we talk about more specific type of experience, for example seeing?

    In such case, it seems to me that I can see a tree (or in general have conscious experience of a tree), without necessarily being aware that I am seeing that something (or without necessarily being aware of myself as being there and looking at the thing).
    An example would be where we are so interested in something that we read, that we aren’t really conscious of us being there, as it were.

    But also, it seems to me, even if it is not necessary, it is possible for me to watch the tree, but also to be aware that I’m watching that tree.

    I wonder if in the back of the distinction however is different issue – if there is some separate “experience” thingie which would go beyond what we are conscious of, including there consciousness of ourselves and our stance towards the object of our consciousness.
    It seems to me that there is nothing more to be conscious of, except the objects we are aware of, the way we attend to them, and ourselves. (i.e. no separate reified experience)

  2. Hi Tanasije, Glad to see you here…thanks for the comment!

    Re 1: I agree with you, but I would call that an unconscious experience…

    Re 2: I am assuming that the ‘experience’ are the mental properties in virtue of which we are conscious of the various things in the world. So, when I see (physical) red I am in a mental state that has some mental property in virtue of which I am conscious of the physical property. When that experience is conscious I am then conscious of the mental state and its properties.

  3. Yeah, that was the problem (the spam filter). Thanks for the references. I checked earlier the Reference paper (encyclopedia entry), and it was really good overview. I didn’t even click on the books, I just assumed that they were links to amazon. Thanks for pointing to it.

    About the post discussion…

    1. Why would you call it unconscious experience? In the cases I described I take it that I would be conscious (though not of myself having an experience), and would be experiencing something. The term “unconscious experience” sounds as an oxymoron to me even… how can I be unconscious and also experience – would it be some kind of zombie experience?

    2.You say that when the experience is conscious, I’m conscious of the mental state and its properties. Can you point me how to direct my attention towards those things, so I understand by examples what things you are talking about?

  4. We need to distinguish, as Rosenthal does, between creature consciousness and state consciousness. A creature is conscious when it is awake and responding to stimuli and unconscious when it is in a deep dreamless sleep. State consciousness is a matter of our individual mental states and whether or not they are conscious. It is obvious that some of our mental states occur unconsciously, for instance beliefs, desires, hopes, fears, love, hate, and etc. It is natural to say that an unconscious belief is simply a belief that I have and am not aware of having. This is in fact the genesis of the transitivity principle. It is also natural to say that sensory states occur unconsciously, for instance in the case of the “long distance truck driver”, and more techinally, in the lab in cases of subliminal perception and priming…on this view a zombie would then be a creature whose entire mental life was (in principle) unconscious…

    As for the second question…just direct your attention to any given experience that you happen to be having, and you will become conscious of the properties I am talking about.

  5. Thanks for the explanation.

    re 2. would such things as qualia belong here? (would redness qualia be the mental property of which one becomes conscious, and in virtue of which one becomes conscious of the physical redness?)

  6. Yes you could use the term ‘qualia’ if you want, though you have to be careful so many people mean so many different things by it. In particular most people use ‘qualia’ to talk about properties of experience that are intrinsically conscious, whereas I think it iis important to realize that their consciousness is not an intrinsic property of the mental state. That is why people like me, and Rosenthal, prefer ‘qualitative properties’ instead. These are the properties of mental states in virtue of hich I have mental access to the perceptible properties.

  7. Ah, thanks.

    “because of that it will also be true that it seems to me that all that I am conscious of is the leafy tree”

    Doesn’t transparency thesis claim that it is matter of a fact that the only thing of which one is conscious is the leafy tree (and not just that it seems that way)?

  8. Wouldn’t that mean also though, that if it seems to them that they are only conscious of the leafy tree, than they are in fact only conscious of the leafy tree, and hence they are not conscious of the experience itself (unless, of course in addition they are conscious of the experience)?

  9. Maybe I am missing the point of your question…the transparency thesis is supposed to follow after we have done some dillegent introspection and realized that all we are conscious of is the tree and not our experience of the tree. What I was trying to explain was why it would seem to them that way and why that seeming is not in conflict with the transitivity thesis.

  10. Hi Richard,

    If we distinguish between the following four things, then the dissolution of the opposition is not due to what you say it is due to, namely the rewording of transitivity. It is due to you switching what transparency is supposed to be.

    The four things:

    1. Transparency as I’ve worded it

    2. Transitivity as I’ve worded it.

    3. Transitivity as you’ve worded it (replacing my “the experience itself” with “ourselves as having the experience”)

    4. Tranparency’s seeming to be true.

    If we focus on 1, then it is clear that it is logically incompatible with both 2 and 3. According to 1, if you are having a conscious experience of a leafy tree, then all you are conscious of, that is, the only thing that you are conscious of, is the leafy tree. If 1 is true, it logically excludes being conscious of anything else regardless of wheter the anything else is the thing from 2 (“the experience itself”) or the thing from 3 (“ourselves as having the expereience”).

    What is compatible with 3 is 4. It is logically compatible with you being conscious of much else besides the leafy tree that it only seems to you that the leafy tree is the sole content of your consciousness. But 2 is likewise compatible with 4. So you’ve acheived a resolution between transparency and transitivity not by your rewording of transitivity, but by switching what transparency is supposed to be.

    BTW, what I really like is 5: it only seems to certain people that transitivity (2 or 3) is true. There’s really no good reason for embracing 2 or 3 as opposed to 5.

  11. Ok, but if the principle
    (P) consciousness of A, implies possibility of realizing that we are conscious of A, is true

    then, if we change A=”experience of X” it follows
    (P*) consciousness of the experience of X, implies possibility of realizing that we are conscious of the experience of X.

    So, if those people realized that all they were conscious of is the tree, either:
    a)they are right, and there is no consciousness of experience of the tree. (so the transitivity is false)
    b)their introspection wasn’t diligent enough, because: there has to be consciousness of experience of X (per transitivity), and it must appear in the introspection (per P*)

  12. Hey Pete, thanks for stopping by! And thanks for the comment…

    I am little bit confused by what you say. As I have understood transparancy it is the claim that when we introspect our experience all we find is the object that the experience is of. That is, the reason for thinking that transparancy is true is because of our introspective evidence. So I do not think I have changed what transparancy is about at all. I have merely tried to explain why it would seem that way. I mean how do I know if ALL I am conscious of is the leafy tree if not by introspecting?

    This is very different from transitivity. In fact, since the higher-order state is itself not conscious it generally does not seem to us that it is there. So in the case of transparancy what it seems like to us is important but that is not the case for transitivity. Transitivity is a theoretical claim that does not derive from introspection, though it is inspired by common sense.

    Isn’t this reason to reject your 5 in favor of 2 or 3?

    Tanasije, why should we accept P? There may be some things that we are conscious of while it is impossible for us to ‘realize’ that we are conscious of (for instance think of priming experiments)

  13. Richard,

    For many propostions, there is a difference between the proposition, and the reasons one may have for thinking that the proposition is true. Also, for many propositions, there is a difference between the proposition’s being true and it’s seeming to be true (aka the appearance of it’s truth). I see no reason to think that the proposition that formulates the Transparency thesis would be any different.

    In your post and this most recent comment you seem to be saying that the reasons for thinking that transparency are true and the appearance of the truth of Transparency are compatible with Transitivity. You are likely right about that (at least, I would agree with that).

    But that is different from showing that Transparency itself is compatible with Transitivity.

  14. I thought that you are implying something like P, when you said:
    “They may, but how could you determine that fact if not by introspection (that is if not by the way it seems to me)?”

  15. Pete, none believes transparency as you state it, everyone who espouses it says simply that when we introspect we are conscious of what the experience is of, not the experience itself. If you don’t believe me, check out Tye’s paper on this:

    Click to access Transparency.pdf

    Or the several articles at the SEP on transparency:




    Now from the fact that our introspection does not reveal anything except the objects out there in the world they may infer that that is all that we are conscious of, and as far as it goes that is right, but if it is right the transitivity thesis is capable of explaining why it is right. So there is not a conflict between these two claims.

    Tanasije, I was not endorseing anything lke P (it seems to me to be empirically false) I was saying that supporters of transparency endorse it, and that that is the reason that they move from “it seems to me…” to “that all there is…” which is a bad move because the seeming can be explained via transititivty

  16. Richard,

    You say: “none believes transparency as you state it, everyone who espouses it says simply that when we introspect we are conscious of what the experience is of, not the experience itself.”

    I say: transparency is “When one has a conscious experience all that one is conscious of is what the experience is an experience of.”

    The key difference is that you have inserted the introspective justification for the thesis into the thesis itself. What justifies you in doing this? Simply citing a bunch of articles in which people present the introspective justification and the thesis at the same time doesn’t prove your point.

    Tye and Dretske make it pretty clear that (1) transparency is a major motive for their theories and (2) that Transitivity is false.

    Here they are hating on the transitivity:

    Tye: “Cognitive awareness of our own feelings itself feels no special way at all. Phenomenal character attaches to experiences and feelings (including images), and not, I maintain, to our cognitive responses to them” (Tye 2000, pp. 36-37).

    Dretske: “Conscious mental states—experiences, in particular—are states that we are conscious with, not states we are conscious of. They are states that make us conscious, not states that we make conscious by being conscious of them. They are states that enable us to see, hear, and feel, not states that we see, hear, or feel” (Dretske 1995, pp. 100-101).

    If you think that transparency is fully compatible with higher-order representationalism, you should tell Tye and Dretske.

  17. lol 🙂

    I do not know why but wordpress blogs seem to like to randomly mark some comments as spam…I have not yet figured out why it does that. It even does that to ME (the ‘owner’ of this blog’) when I am signed in…sorry ’bout that…

  18. Now, as for your comment, you ask what justifies me in including the justification for transparency in the thesis itself, I say that that is what the supporters of the thesis themselves do. But I am willing to take your point on that score; it doesn’t seem to matter much to the point that I want to make. Which is, the only reason to believe that transparency is true is the introspection stuff and if transitivity is true then it can explain why we would (introspectively) think that transparency was true.

    As for the hating, Tye is characteristically way off the mark inhis critisisms of transitivity. First off, he seems wrong about the nature of cognitive awareness (I have argued over at brains inmy post The Qualitative Character of Conscious Thoughts) but aside from that, as I mentioned earlier, we should not expect introspection to give support to transitivity as the higher-order states that are positied will not themselves be conscious and so we will not notice them.

    As for Dretske, there are plenty of states that do what he says that are obviously not conscious (PRIMING!!!!!!!)

    So to sum up, maybe you are right that transparency as you state it is incompatible with transitivity but there isn’t any reason to think that it is true aside from introspection and we could have that evidence and transitivity could be right.

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