Explaining What It’s Like

As some of you may know, in celebration of my one year in the bologsphere I have been re-posting some of my favorite posts that did not receive as much attention as they should have in a series I call “This Day in History (of Philosophy Sucks!)” (previous installments here , here, and here). Well, I have decided to abandon the requirement that the post be exactly one year old…so here is the latest re-post originally posted in May 2007…

The real test for a theory of consciousness lies in its ability to explain the qualitative features of our experience. One promising strategy for explaining what it is like for us to experience the nice red and pink hues of the above sunset is what I have called ‘the higher-order strategy’

So, then, what is the higher-order strategy? Contemporary theories of consciousness can be roughly divided into two categories. There are those who accept the transitivity principle, and those that deny it. The transitivity principle is a hypothesis about the nature of conscious states that is inspired by our common sense understanding of those states. It is a platitude that some mental states are conscious whereas others are unconscious and when we think about the difference between them it is natural to say that an unconscious mental state is a mental state that we are not conscious of being in. For instance it is natural to say that an unconscious belief is simply a belief that we are not conscious of having. This leads us to formulate the transitivity principle as follows. A conscious state is a state that I am conscious of myself as being in (in some suitable way). There are, of course, different ways that one might be conscious of oneself as being in these various states and this gives rise to the different versions of higher-order theory but they all accept the transitivity principle. Now, the transitivity principle is supposed to be more than just an intuitive platitude about conscious states; it is supposed to be a theory about what conscious states are. So why should we take the transitivity principle seriously as a theory of consciousness?

Rosenthal argues that the transitivity principle’s chief virtue as a theory of consciousness lies in its ability to explain what a conscious state is (p 30). The higher-order strategy is simple.  We explain transitive consciousness (consciousness of) and then we explain state consciousness in terms of the first non-problematic theory. This would be uninteresting if it were only a theory of how beliefs came to be conscious the payoff, theoretically, comes in applying the higher-order strategy to qualitative states like pain, itches, tickles, orgasms, seeings of red, etc.  Since the first theory (that is, the theory of transitive consciousness) is truly taken to be philosophically non-problematic, that means that qualitative consciousness would also be philosophically non-problematic. Of course this means that a lot depends on just what this non-problematic account of transitive consciousness turns out to be, and that means that the core of the higher-order strategy lies in its theory of intentionality. I will return to this issue in future posts. For now I merely note the importance of the issue and point out that if there is such a non-problematic theory it would yield a huge payoff!

For the other side though, that is people who think that a state’s consciousness is something that is intrinsic to it, that is the end of the rode for them. Some mental states (perhaps all) are conscious and that is that. If we take this road, we are in effect admitting that consciousness is just a big mystery and throwing up our hands. What kind of an explanation is that? It isn’t one. It is in fact to give up the hope for a scientific explanation of this fundamental aspect of reality. So if it were to turn out that the transitivity principle could not give an explanation of qualitative consciousness then our reason for taking it seriously as a theory would take a severe blow.

5 thoughts on “Explaining What It’s Like

  1. […] Rosenthal gives two very quick arguments against his former K-Higher-order view, both in a footnote that he added in 2005 (p56). His first argument is that requiring the causal connection between the first-order state and the higher-order state in order for the first-order state to count as a conscious state is theoretically unmotivated. The idea behind this is that the transitivity principle requires only that one be conscious of being in the first-order state; it seems to be silent on what actually causes you to become so conscious. However the causal antecedents of the higher-order state will seem to matter very much if one is influenced by the Grice-Kripke-Fodor picture of the mind. So the claim that the causal requirement is theoretically unmotivated by the transitivity principle is more a revealing fact about Rosenthal that about the higher-order theory. A causal theory of reference is itself powerfully motivated, and if it turns ut to be correct, then we had better have a higher-order thoery that incorperates it (that is, if we want to have a higher-order theory in the first place, which there are independant reasons for, some of which I discuss below). […]

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