(cross-posted at Brains)
The NYU Mind and Language seminar has started up again with a really excellent line up. Last Tuesday I attended Ned Block’s session on his paper Attention and Mental Paint. I have seen a version of this before. The basic idea comes from figures like figure a below. if one fixates (stares) ate the center and, while keeping one’s gaze fixed, moves one’s attention to an individual disk that disk will appear DARKER. After a bit of practice one can DARKEN any disk one wants by moving one’s attention around. Go ahead, give it a try!
Recently a psychologist, Marisa Carrasco, has run experiments trying to quantify this effect. Below is a reproduction of the stimulus. Here the two patches differ in contrast by 8% yet when one fixates on the center and attends to the 22% patch one will judge it to be the same contrast as the 28% patch.
Block wants to use these findings as the basis for an argument against both direct realism and representationism. The basic argument goes as follows.
- First we focus only on two cases. The first case is when we fixate and attend to the center. In that condition subjects get the judgment about contrast right (i.e. they judge that the left patch is lower in contrast). In the second condition we fixate on the center but attend to the left patch. In that condition people get the judgment incorrect (i.e. they judge the two patches to be the same contrast.
- The second step is his claim that there is no reason to think that either of the two cases above are illusionary. Both are veridical.
- If both experiences are veridical then the thing that they are experiences of must differ in some property but all of the properties of the objects are the same. The only thing that has changed is that one has moved one’s attention from center to right.
- Therefore there must be mental paint, or non-representational features to our experience (the anti-representational conclusion) or a mental aspect of mental experience (the anti-direct realism conclusion)
a lot of the discussion at the session focused on whether or not there was an illusion at work here. Block claims that in both cases talked about above the perception is veridical. Why? His idea is that both of the experiences play the same functional role and so are accurate. The pro-illusion folk (Jesse Prinz was in this camp) argued that when you attend to something you represent that thing more veridically and so the condition where one fixates and attends to the center is illusionary (Jesse preferred ‘distorted’). Block protested that one could just as well say that attention distorted, or magnified, the scene and so the fact that one has access to more information when one attends is not by itself an argument that the experience is more veridical. Some other issues came up about various responses direct realists or representationalism could make.
However, I am less interested in that issue as I am in the issue of whether there is an argument here against anything like the kind of higher-order thought theory that I am fond of (i.e. one very much like David Rosenthal’s). On this kind of view we have two distinct kind of mental representations. At the first-order level we have the mental states that represent the sensible qualities. So, when I am seeing red I am in a mental state that has a property, call it red*, the represents physical red. However the kind of representation that is going one here is not intentional or conceptual. It is homomorphic. Red* is the property which is related to green* and pink* in a way that mirrors the relations between physical red, physical green, and physical pink. The starred properties can occur both consciously and unconsciously. When they occur unconsciously there is nothing that it is like for the organism in which they occur. They become conscious when I am aware of myself as being in a red* state. According to Rosenthal I do this by having a thought which deploys the concepts Red. So on this view the higher-order thought is representational in the traditional sense and it is the thing which is responsible for the phenomenology of the experience.
So is there mental pain on this view? Well, as long as one agrees that there can be unconscious sensory states with no phenomenology (a big step!) then Rosenthal’s first-order sensory qualities will count as mental paint. They are not intentional and they are mental. But they do not play a role in determining the phenomenology (except in the sense that we get the concepts we deploy in the higher-order thought from them) and so if we restrict ourselves only to conscious experiences it does look like Rosenthal denies the existence of mental paint. A conscious experience of red is constituted by a ‘I am seeing red’ thought which is completely intentional/representational. So then does Ned’s argument cut any ice against Rosenthal’s account of conscious experience?
It is not clear that it does. Ned’s argument gets its force from the claim that the thing being represented would have to be different because all conscious experiences are or represent just the actual properties that the object actually has. But on Rosenthal’s view we have the first and second order mental states. So, one could hold that there is some change in the first-order representation of the two patches or one could hold that the first-order representations are the same in the two cases and what changes is the way in which we are conscious of them. In talking briefly about this with David he seems to think that attention changes the first-order state whereas I seemed to think it was teh content of the higher-order state which changed. But since we are talking about conscious experiences here and it is the higher-order state that accounts for the conscious phenomenology the difference has to be in the way that we are conscious of the patch in the two cases…this may be because of attention in a causal sense but it is the content of the higher-order state that has to account for the difference in the phenomenology.