HOT Block

In celebration of my three years in the Blogosphere I will be reposting some of my earlier posts that I am particularly fond of. This piece was originally published July 11th, 2007.
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I was recently reading Block’s forthcomming BBS paper Consciousness, Accessibility, and the Mesh between Psychology and Neuroscience. It is an interesting paper and I am looking forward to seeing the commentary. The basic puzzle is one that I have heard him talk about before; How could we tell whether the transitivity principle is right or not? What would empirically decide whether there can be a phenomonally conscious state that we are unconscious of having? So, to take Block’s example, suppose that we have a person who is subliminally percieving a face and there is activation in that person’s fusiform face area. Since the subject sincerely reports that they do not see a face it seems we can agree that this is the sensory state in the absence of the higher-order state.

How do we describe this situation? Do we say that the face expeirience is phenomonally unconscious? That there is nothing that it is like to see the face? Does it, as Rosenthal would say, have unconscious qualitative properties? Or do we say that there is something that it is like for the perseon to see the face but that they are unconscious of what it is like for them? The puzzle is that both theories make the same prediction about what the person will report (they don’t see a face) and so we need to find someother way to distinguish the two claims empirically. I don’t really want to talk about Block’s argument that phenomenology overflows our access to it (unless someone does want to talk about it), as all I could do it to repeat the Rosenthal line that the evidence that Block presents (i.e. the change blindness stuff) isn’t good evidence because the subjects can report, as Block acknowledges, that they saw some letters or ‘a rectangle’. Rosenthal can explain this on his account in the following way. In one case we are conscious of the first-order experience as just some rows of some letters or as just a rectangle while in the other we are conscious of the experience as being a row of some specific letters or shapes. So the fact that subjects report that they have some phenomenally conscious experience as Block rightly points out, needen’t be evidence for his claim that there is phenomenology without Awareness.

I think that if one steps far enough back from this debate one can see that it is the distinction between analytic and psyco-functionalism that is causing a lot of the local flare-ups and that this has some bearing on the empirical testability issue and the debate with Mandik that I have been suffering through, but I will leave that for another day.

What I do want to talk about is Block’s dismissal of Rosenthal’s kind of higher-order theory. He makes it very clear that he thinks that the higher-order thought theory is not even a candidate for a serious theory of phenomenal consciousness. As I have said many times before, I do not know if the higher-order thought theory is true or not, but it is at least not obviously false. It is a well formulated theory that could turn out to be right. So what’s Block’s problem?

He makes his case at the beggining of the paper in this rather longish quote.

We may suppose that it is platitudinous that when one has a phenomenally conscious experience, one is in some way aware of having it. Let us call the fact stated by this claim – without committing ourselves on what exactly that fact is – the fact that phenomenal consciousness requires Awareness. Sometimes people say Awareness is a matter of having a state whose content is in some sense “presented” to the self or having a state that is “for me” or that comes with a sense of ownership or that has “meishness” (as I have called it; Block 1995a).

Very briefly, three classes of accounts of the relation between phenomenal consciousness and Awareness have been offered. Ernest Sosa (2002) argues that all there is to the idea that in having an experience one is necessarily aware of it is the triviality that in having an experience, one experiences one’s experience just as one smiles one’s smile or dances one’s dance. Sosa distinguishes this minimal sense in which one is automatically aware of one’s experiences from noticing one’s experiences, which is not required for phenomenally conscious experience. At the opposite extreme, David Rosenthal (2005) has pursued a cognitive account in which a phenomenally conscious state requires a higher order thought to the effect that one is in the state. That is, a token experience (one that can be located in time) is a phenomenally conscious experience only in virtue of another token state that is about the first state. (See also Armstrong 1977, 1978; Carruthers 2000; Lycan 1996) for other varieties of higher order accounts.) A third view, the “Same Order” view says that the consciousness-of relation can hold between a token experience and itself. A conscious experience is reflexive in that it consists in part in an awareness of itself. (This view is discussed in Brentano 1874/1924; Burge 2006; Byrne 2004; Caston 2002; Kriegel 2005; Kriegel & Williford 2006; Levine 2001, 2006; Metzinger 2003; Ross 1961; Smith 1986).

So he is telling us here that his target in the paper is people who think that there is no phenomenology without awareness. Now we could (and should) quibble with the way that Block cast’s Rosenthal’s theory. For instance when he says that it is the view that a token experience that is located in time is a conscious state in virtue of a higher-order thought that is about it. But that is not quite right, as I have spent a lot of time arguing (for instance, Consciousness, Relational Properties, and Higher-Order Theories, Conscioiusness is Not a Relation Property, and The Function of Consciousness in Higher-Order Theories). but waive that for the moment.

He goes on in the next paragraph to say,

The same order view fits both science and common sense better than the higher order view. As Tyler Burge (2006) notes, to say that one is necessarily aware of one’s phenomenally conscious states should not be taken to imply that every phenomenally conscious state is one that the subject notices or attends to or perceives or thinks about. Noticing, attending, perceiving, and thinking about are all cognitive relations that need not be involved when a phenomenal character is present to a subject. The mouse may be conscious of the cheese that the mouse sees, but that is not to say that the mouse is conscious of the visual sensations in the visual field that represent the cheese or that the mouse notices or attends to or thinks about any part of the visual field. The ratio of synapses in sensory areas to synapses in frontal areas peaks in early infancy, and likewise for relative glucose metabolism. (Gazzaniga et al. 2002, p. 642–43). Since frontal areas are likely to govern higher-order thought, low frontal activity in newborns may well indicate lack of higher-order thoughts about genuine sensory experiences.

The relevance of these points to the project of the paper is this: the fact of Awareness can be accommodated by either the same order view or the view in which Awareness is automatic, or so I will assume. So, there is no need to postulate that phenomenal consciousness requires cognitive accessibility of the phenomenally conscious state. Something worth calling “accessibility” may be intrinsic to any phenomenally conscious state, but it is not the cognitive accessibility that underlies reporting.

He is making it very clear that he thinks that he has given decisive reasons for dismissing the higher-order thought theory. Has he? Not suprisingly, I don’t think that he has. Instead he displays a curious prejudice against the higher-order thought theory.

Let us look at what he says. In the first sentence he says that the same-order view, a view like Kriegel’s, is better suited to common sense and science. What follows that remark then looks like what he takes to be common sense evidence against the higher-order thought view and in favor of the same-order view, followed by some scientific evidence that illustrates the same point. The common sense evidence, evidently, rests on our intuition that “[t]he mouse may be conscious of the cheese that the mouse sees, but that is not to say that the mouse is conscious of the visual sensations in the visual field that represent the cheese or that the mouse notices or attends to or thinks about any part of the visual field.” But that is certainly true and neither Rosenthal, nor any other higher-order theoriest, denies it! The mouse is conscious of the cheese by having a first-order sensory state that represents the cheese, so it can be conscious of the cheese without any higher-order thoughts at all.

Presumably, though, what Block means here is that the mouse can have a phenomenally conscious experience of the cheese without having a thought about its first-order mental states. But that is to simply beg the question against Rosenthal. He has a story about why you wouldn’t notice the higher-order thought were it there, and yet how we can still have some evidence that they do occur, and also a story about how the concepts that occur in the higher-order thoughts about sensory states would be easy to come by. So easy to come by in fact, that animals could probably get them. So it is not crazy or absurd to think that the mouse might have a conscious experience of teh cheese by having a higher-order thought to the effect that it is seeing cheese. So the common sense evidence against the higher-order thought theory isn’t any good.

What about the scientific evidence? The suggestion here is that there is empirical evidence that newborns have very low frontal activity and that this would mean that they do not have higher-order thoughts and so do not have any conscious experiences at all. Therefore the higher-order thought theory is at odds with scientific evidence. But there is a suppressed premise in Block’s argument. Namely, the premise that it is obvious that new born infants do in fact have conscious experiences. Now, granted it does seem obvious, what with all the kicking and screaming and facial gesticulation and all, but that is really just more question beggining. According to Rosenthal, if it turned out that babies lack the part of the brain that we KNOW is responsible for higher-order thoughts the he would be committed to saying that newborn infants lack phenomenallt conscious states. And if we could show that that was absurd then his theory would be a bust. He would pack it in. But he challeneges the claim on both accounts.

First, there is some evidence that babies lack the right part of the brain for higher-order thoughts, but Rosenthal also claims that there is some evidnece that they do have it as well and we are not ABSOLUTELY sure about the role that the frontal cortex plays. The science is not in, or at least it is not a lock like Block thinks. Secondly, it is not an absurd claim to say that newborn infants lack phenomenally conscious experience. According to Rosenthal an unconscious pain will play all of the same roles that the conscious one does. It will cause kicking and screaming and hootin’ and a-hollerin’ and facial contoriations and the whole nine. We can even say that it is a bad thing and be motivated to stop it, all the while maintaining that there is nothing that it is like for the infant to have the pain. Of course Block finds this implausible and the point of the paper is to show that this doesn’t happen, but the point is that the baby stuff does not cut against Rosenthal in the way that Block thinks. Or at least he hasn’t made it clear here why it does. So neither the common sense nor the scientific evidence merits such a quick dismissal of Rosenthal’s view.

Finally, why does Block think that this evidence is more favorable for the same-order view? Block seems to assume that the same-order view does not posit a thought-like Awareness and so is more in line with his intuition about the mouse, but, at least for people like Kriegel and Gennaro, the higher-order content is thought-like. So if Rosenthal’s view is too cognitive, then so is the same-order view. Or at least there is no reason to think otherwise. And what about the scientific evidence? Block seems to assume that since the first-order and higher-order content are part of the same state that means that the frontal cortex will not play a role and so the same-order view would not be affected by the experimental evidence showing that infants have low activity there. But that isn’t obvious. On Kriegel’s view, for instance, the two contens are bound together by a ‘psychologically real’ process. But this does not require that the two contents be in the same part of the brain. In fact he explicity appeals to synchrony as a candidate for the psychologically real process and points out that it allows for binding of contents in segregated parts of the brain as one of its virtues.

So either Block’s list of positions to consider just got reduced to one (Sosa’s) or it is back up to three.

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