Yesterday I attended Miguel Angel Sebastian’s cogsci talk entitled “The Subjective Character of Experiencre: Against HOR and SOR Theories” which was very interesting. Miguel was primarily trying to show that higher-order and same-order representationist theories of consciousness cannot account for the subjective character of an experience by which he means the thing that accounts for the experience being for the subject. His main complaint seemed to be that in order to account for this we need some notion of the self and so he suggested that we need a model where we have representations of teh self interacting with representations of objects and we thus end up with a representation of the form “x for-me”. There were several interesting themes of the discussion and if I have time I will probably come back to some of them but I thought I’d start with this one.
In response to the mis-match problem David has settled on the following view. The phenomenology goes with the HOT. The sensory qualities of the first-order state play no role –other than that of concept acquisition– in determining the phenomenal character of a conscious experience. So in the case of Dental Fear the subject has a first-order state with vibration sensory qualities and a HOT that they are in pain so their conscious phenomenology is like having pain for them. The first-order sensory qualities play a perceptual role in the mental economy of the subject so having them is important but they don’t play a role as far as consciousness is concerned. In fact even if there is no first-order state at all (as may perhaps be the case in Anton’s syndrome) the phenomenology goes with the HOT. Now in the cases where there is no first-order state one still counts as being in a conscious state. The mental state that is conscious is just the one that the HOT represents oneself as being in and so in this case the conscious mental state is a notional state, which is to say that it doesn’t exist. It follows from this that there are conscious mental states that have no neural correlates. We thus end up with a dualism about consciousness of a new variety. There are some conscious mental states that exist physically in the brain and there are other conscious mental states that exist only notionally as the content of a HOT.
What should our reaction to this be? When this first became clear at David’s Mind and Language seminar it prompt Steve Stitch to shout ‘he’s worse than a dualist!’ Miguel seemed to think that at the very least this is a cost of the theory and that if you can have a theory that explains all the data without it that is preferable. David refused to say that this was even a cost for the theory, in fact he seemed to suggest that it wasn’t even counter-intuitive. His reasons seemed to be as follows. I can have a thought about things which are not present and those notional objects can have properties. So, if I think about a squirrel I might think of it as brown, and bushy even if there is no squirrel around yet the squirrel has properties; it is brown and bushy. Thus it is simply a fact about intentional states like thoughts that their contents can be notional and that those notional objects can be said to have properties. If that is right then there is nothing fundamentally mysterious about notional mental states having properties. The second step in his defense seemed to involve an appeal to hallucinations. We hallucinate regularly enough for it to be a common-place of folk psychology. Why doesn’t it make sense to say that we can hallucinate mental states? On this line the notional state is just like my hallucination of a pink elephant: it seems like it is there from my point of view but it isn’t really there. This isn’t mysterious since that just simply means that I represent myself as being in a state that I am not in. Now given various theoretical assumptions this will indeed turn out not to be counter-intuitive and since those who do find it counter-intuitive will do so because of different theoretical assumptions I suppose I can see why David thinks that this is not a cost to the theory.
But suppose that one had different theoretical assumptions? Suppose that one wanted to avoid this kind of existence dualism and so endorsed some kind of principle like this: For every conscious mental state there is a corresponding brain state. But suppose one also wanted to remain a higher-order theorist…what are the options? The most obvious option is to identify the phenomenally conscious state with the HOT. The HOT is not introspectively conscious –for that it would need to have a third order state targeting it– but it is phenomenally conscious. It is the state in virtue of which there is something that it is like for the subject and so it seems natural to identify the property of phenomenal conscious with having the HOT. Ned Block has argued that if one does this then one has falsified the higher-order theory. Why? The transitivity principle says that a conscious mental state is one which I am conscious of myself as being in but on the previous analysis we have a phenomenally conscious mental state (the HOT itself) of which we are not conscious of ourselves as being in (there is not third-order HOT) thus adopting this view falsifies the transitivity principle. But this may be too quick. This way of formulating the transitivity principle leads us to the view that the HOT transfers or confers the property of being conscious to the first-order state but as we have seen what the transitivity principle really says is that a conscious mental state consists in my being conscious of myself as being in some first-order state. That is, the transitivity principle is a hypothesis about the nature of conscious mental states. It is a mis-reading of the transitivity principle that takes it to postulate consciousness resulting in a relation between the first-order state and the higher-order state. That this is the dominant way of interpreting the transitivity principle is not in doubt; it most certainly is. However, it is misleading and cause way too many problems. I think higher-order theorists need to be more explicit about this mis-reading of the transitivity principle.
To me the second is the best option. However, lots of people seem to think that of one adopts a same-order theory one can avoid these kinds of issues. Since one takes the conscious mental state to be a complex of a first-order content and a second-order content that represents the first-order content we don’t have to worry about notional states. Bit it is far from obvious that this theory has any advantages over the HOT theory. First it is unclear why the higher-order content cannot occur without the first-order content. This seems like an empirical issue that can’t be settled by definitional fiat (I guess I think Anton’s syndrome might be a problem here). Second, even if it turns out that you can’t have one with out the other it is still not clear why there cannot be a content mis-match. Why can’t a red first-order state be coupled with a higher-order content that represents the first as green?