As some of you may know, I have been mounting an offensive against Pete Mandik’s Unicorn argument against higher-order theories of consciousness. We have been having quite a bit of discussion over at the Brain Hammer (Me So ‘Corny) on whether or not my proposed answer works or not, and so I thought I would take this opportunity to sum up the debate so far.
Pete’s argument is actually quite simple. Here is the way that he puts it:
First, some quick and dirty definitions of my targets:
[Higher-order Representationalism] – The property of being a conscious state consists in being a represented state.
P1. Things that don’t exist don’t instantiate properties.
P2. We represent things that don’t exist.
P3. Representing something does not suffice to confer a property to that thing.
C1. Representing a state does not suffice to confer the property of being conscious to that state (so [higher-order representationalism] is false).
There is another conclusion (C2) that first-order representationalism is false, but I already knew that and so will ignore it.
Two Ways to Kill a ‘Corn
Now it is not secret that I think that is a bad argument that rests on several misunderstandings of the higher-order theory. It is not a threat to Rosenthal’s version of higher-order theory because he would deny the assumption needed to get P3 and hence C1. Here is the way I put it in Kripke, Consciousness and the ‘Corn.
[T]his 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 state.
Now it may be counter-intuitive to say that the higher-order state in no way changes the first-order state, but intuition is not argument. Also, the transitivity principle commits you to this claim as I detailed in Explaining What It’s Like, and as Rosenthal is well aware of. Here is his response to the problem posed by P2 (The interviewer is Uriah Kriegal)]
Ephilosopher: Professor Rosenthal, let me raise one final difficulty for your theory. According to your theory, what it is like for the subject to be in a conscious state is determined by how that state is represented by the second-order state. But what happens when there is a misrepresentational second-order state, with no first-order state at all? It seems your theory commits you to saying that, in such cases, the subject is under the false impression that she is having a particular kind of conscious experience, when in fact she is not. Doesn’t that strike you as absurd, though?
David Rosenthal: Answering this question requires a lot of care in how we put things. We can get a feel for what’s at issue by considering a case that actually occurs. Dental patients sometimes seem to themselves to feel pain even when the relevant pain nerve endings are dead or anaesthetized. The widely held explanation is that these patients feel sensations of fear and vibration as though those sensations were pain. We certainly have no trouble understanding this explanation. But how should we describe what’s happening specifically in terms of the patient’s conscious states? It’s undeniable that the patient is in some conscious state, but what kind of conscious state is it? From the patient’s subjective, first-person point of view, the conscious state is a pain, but we have substantial independent reason to say that there simply is no pain. How we describe this case depends on whether we focus primarily on the state of which the patient is actually conscious or on the way the patient is conscious of it. The trouble is that these two things come apart; the patient is conscious of sensations of fear and vibration, but conscious of them as pain. So it’s not at all absurd, but only unexpected, that one be conscious of oneself as being in a state that one is not actually in. It’s worth noting that this divergence between the state of which somebody is actually conscious and how that person is conscious of it has practical importance. The area of so-called dental fear is of interest to dentists and to theorists because patients who understand what’s happening readily come to be conscious of their sensations as sensations of vibration and fear, which is not especially bothersome. How one represents one’s experiences does determine what those experiences are like for one. Is this really the kind of case you asked about? You asked about what happens when one has a higher-order thought that one is in a state that doesn’t occur. But maybe we should treat the dental case rather as a higher-order thought that misdescribes its target; it misdescribes sensations of fear and vibration as a sensation of pain. But I think it will never matter which way we describe things. When a higher-order thought occurs, there are always other mental states, as well. So whenever a higher-order thought doesn’t accurately describe any state that actually occurs, we can say either that it misdescribes some actual state or that it’s about some nonexistent state; it won’t make any difference which way we characterize the situation
So on Rosenthal’s view there simply is no difference between saying that the HOT represents a state that does not exist and saying that it misrepresents a state that does exist. So Rosenthal’s versionof higher-order theory is completely unaffected bythe unicorn argument.
Even so, it does commit him to saying some strange sounding things, but there is another way to think of the relation between the higher-order state and the first-order state, and gives rise to the distinction between what I call K-HOTs and Q-HOTs (Two Concepts of Transitive Consciousness). A K-HOT is caused by the first-order state that it represents, whereas a Q-HOT simply ‘accompanies’ the first-order state it reporesents. Rosenthal used to endorse K-HOTs but has since moved to Q-HOTs, but as I argued in ‘Two Concepts’ there is no reason to abandon K-HOTs and the give us a second, more convincing, way to kill the ‘corn. Here’s how.
A K-HOT represents its target state via the concepts at the disposal of the creature in question in just the same way that Rosenthal has spent so long arguing is the case. The difference is that the K-HOT is (theoretically) required to be caused by some first-order state or other and it is that causal link that determines what first-order state the higher-order state is about. So, K-HOTs will NEVER represent a first-order state that does not exist, it will rather ALWAYS represent (or misrepresent) a state that does in fact exist. So the property of being represented is none other than the property of causing a higher-order state. This means that while it may be true that WE represent things that do not exists, K-HOTs do not. So again, P2 and P3 are blocked.
So whether you link Quine and Q-HOTs or Kripke and K-HOTs the unicorn is no threat to higher-order theories. Of course having said that I think there are reasons to prefer K-HOTs butthat is another story.