I was recently reading through a new paper of Uriah Kriegel’s called The Same-Order Monitoring Theory of Consciousness where he says this
If consciousness were indeed a relational property, M’s being conscious would fail to contribute anything to M’s fund of causal powers. And this would make the property of being conscious epiphenomenal (see Dretske 1995: 117 for an argument along these lines).
This is, by all appearances, a serious problem for HOMT [higher-order monitoring theory a.k.a. Higher-order thought theory]. Why have philosophers failed to press this problem more consistently? My guess is that we are tempted to slide into a causal reading of HOMT, according to which M* produces the consciousness of M, by impressing upon M a certain modification. Such a reading does make sense of the causal efficacy of consciousness: after M* modifies M, this intrinsic modification alters M’s causal powers. But of course, this is a misreading of HOMT. It is important to keep in mind that HOMT is a metaphysical, not causal, thesis. Its claim is not that the presence of an appropriate higher-order representation yields, or gives rise to, or produces, M’s being conscious. Rather, the claim is that the presence of an appropriate higher-order representation constitutes M’s being conscious. It is not that by representing M, M* modifies M in such a way as to make M conscious. Rather, M’s being conscious simply consists in its being represented by M*.
So far this is all right (notice how Uriah has Rosenthal’s account correctly formulated in such a way as to be immune from certain unicorn arguments). I have also pointed out how this implicit assumption about what the higher-order thought theory is keeps people from thinking the theory is anti-Cartesian in certain important respects.
But Uriah goes on to say that
When proponents of HOMT have taken this problem into account, they have responded by downplaying the causal efficacy of consciousness. But if the intention is to bite the bullet, downplaying the causal efficacy is insufficient – what is needed is nullifying the efficacy. The charge at hand is not that HOMT may turn out to assign consciousness too small a fund of causal powers, but that it may deny it any causal powers. To bite the bullet, proponents of HOMT must embrace epiphenomenalism. Such epiphenomenalism can be rejected, however, both on commonsense grounds and on the grounds that it violates what has come to be called Alexander’s dictum: to be is to be causally effective. Surely HOMT would be better off if it could legitimately assign some causal powers to consciousness. But its construal of consciousness as a relational property makes it unclear how it might do so.
Now Rosenthal will be speaking about this issue at the ASSC, and Uriah is right that Rosenthal does not think that there is much, if any, function to consciousness qua consciousness, so I don’t want to get into that stuff. What I want to question is whether or not anyone who agrees with Rosenthal is committed, in the way that Uriah seems to think that they are, to saying that consciousness is epiphenomenal.
The brunt of the challenge seems to come from the claim that our being conscious of a mental state, and hence that mental state being conscious, does not change, or modify the first-order state in any way and so its causal powers are unaffected by being conscious. I think that this is right; in fact I use this as a premise in my argument that higher-order theories are committed to there being something that it is like for a creature to have a conscious thought. But does this claim entail that consciousness is epiphenomenal? I am not sure that it does.
I think that someone who like the higher-order theory could say that, while the first-order state does not come to have any new causal properties when it become conscious, the creature in which the state occurs does. So, at the very least, even by Rosenthal’s lights, we get the ability to report (as opposed to express) our mental states when they are conscious, and we get the ability to introspect our mental states and thereby come to know what it is like for us to have them.
Now whether they can say there is more to the function of consciousness than this is another question, but at the very least, one does not have to dine on the bullet that Uriah has prepared.