Yesterday I presented Explaining Consciousness and its Consequences at the CUNY Cognitive Science Speaker Series which was a lot of fun and a very fruitful discussion. I have a narrated powerpoint rehearsal of the talk and those that are interested can look at that at the end of this post but here I want to discuss some of the things that came up in the discussion yesterday.
The core of the puzzle that I am pressing lies in asking why it is that conscious thoughts are not like anything for the creature that enjoys them. My basic claim is that if one started with the theory of phenomenal consciousness and qualitative character and came to understand and accept it but one hadn’t yet thought about conscious thoughts one would expect that the theory would produce cognitive phenomenology. Granted it wouldn’t be like the phenomenology of our sensations –seeing blue consciously is very different from consciously thinking that there is something blue in front of one– but why is it so different that in one case there is nothing that it is like whatsoever while in the other case there is something that it is like for the creature? The only difference between the contents of HOTs about qualitative states and HOTs about intentional states is that one employs concepts of mental qualities whereas the other employs concepts about thoughts and their intentional contents yet in one case conscious phenomenology –which is to say that there is something that it is like for the creature to have those conscious mental states– in all its glory is produced while in the other case nothing happens. As far as the creature is concerned it is a zombie when its has conscious thoughts. But what could account for this very dramatic difference? It looks like we haven’t really explained what phenomenal consciousness is, all we have done is re-locate the problem to the content of the higher-order thought. This is because no answer can be given to my question except “that how phenomenal concepts work” and so we have admitted that they are special.
Now one thing that came up in the discussion, by David Pereplyotchik, was what I meant by ‘special’ in the above. David P. suggested that qualitative properties may be distinctive without being special. I agree that they are distinctive and that is the reason that thinking that p and seeing blue are different. We move from distinctive to special when we deny that conscious thought have a phenomenology because we can’t explain why they don’t.
One detail that came out was that the way I formulated the HOTs and their contents was misleading. Instead of “I think I see blue*” the HOT has the content “I am in a blue* state”
At some point David said that when he had a conscious thought what it was like for him was like feeling one was about to say the sentence which would express the thought. So when one thinks that there is something blue in front of one what it is like for that creature is like feeling that they were about to say “there is something blue in front of me”. When I said ‘aha, so there is something that it is like for you to have a conscious mental state’ he responded “what does that mean?” This challenge to my use of the phrase “what it’s like for one” was a main theme of the discussion. A lot of the time I ask whether or not there is something that it is like for one to have a conscious thought and if not why not but David objected that the phrase is multiply ambiguous and is used to confuse the issue more than anything else. One way this came out was in his challenging me to explain what was at stake. What difference is made if we say that there is something that it is like for one to have a conscious thought and what is lost if we deny it? I responded that it is obvious what the reference of the phrase ‘what it is like for one’ is. It is the thing that would be missing in the zombie world. David responded that the zombie world was impossible, which I agree with at the end of a long theoretical journey but we can still intuitively make sense of the zombie world even if only seemingly. That is even if it is the case that zombie are inconceivable we still know what it would mean for there to be zombies and that still helps us zone in on what the explanatory problem is. I take it that the whole point of the ambitious higher-order theory is that it tries to explain how this property, the one we single out via the phrase ‘what it is like for one’ and the zombie and mary cases, could be a perfectly respectful natural property. So what is at stake is whether or not I really am like a zombie when I have a conscious thought and what that means for the higher-order thought theory. If we cannot account for the difference between intentional conscious states and qualitative conscious states then we have not explained anything.
David’s main response to my argument seemed to be to appeal to the different ways in which the concepts that figure in our HOTs are acquired. In the case of the qualitative states we acquire the concepts that figure in our HOTs roughly by noticing that our sensations misrepresent things in the world. So, if I mistakenly see some surface as red and then come to find out that it isn’t red but is, say, under a red light and is really white, this will cause me to have a thought to the effect that the sensation is inaccurate and this requires that I have the concept of the mental quality that the state has. In the case of intentional states the story is different. We are to imagine that there is a creature that has concepts for intentional states but only applies them on the basis of third person behavior. This creature will have higher-order thoughts but they will be mediated by inference and will not seem subjectively unmediated. Eventually this creature will get to the point where it can apply these concepts to itself automatically at which point it will have conscious thoughts. This difference is offered as a way of saying what is different about the concepts that figure in HOTs about qualitative states and those that figure in HOTs about intentional states. It amounts to an elaboration of David Pereplyotchik’s suggestion early on that the qualitative properties are distinctive without being mysterious. They are distinctive in the way that concepts are acquired. But as before how can this be an answer to the question I pose? I agree that there is this difference for the sake of argument. What seems to me to follow from this is what I said before; namely that the phenomenology of thought and the phenomenology of sensations is not the same…but this should be obvious already. So, the claim is not that having a conscious thought should be like seeing blue for me or feel like a conscious pain for me only that it should be like something for me. Basically then, my response is that this will make a difference in what it is like for the creature but doesn’t explain such a drastic difference as absence of something that it is like for one in one case.
Another way I like to put the argument is in terms of mental appearances. David Rosenthal often says that what it is like for one is a matter of mental appearances at which point I argue that the HOT is what determines the mental appearances and so in the case of thinking that p it should appear to me as though I am thinking that p. In response to this David said that while it is the case that phenomenology is a matter of mental appearances it might not be the case that all mental appearances are phenomenological. At this point I have the same response as before…viz. what reason do we have to think that there are these two kinds of appearances? It looks like on is just inserting this into the theory by fiat to solve an unexpected problem. There is no theoretical machinery which explains why we have this disparity. When we ask why applying starred concepts results in appearance of qualitative phenomenology the application of intentional concepts does not so result in intentional phenomenology when we ask why? We are simply told that this is the way phenomenology works. It is as mysterious as ever.
At the close of the talk I touched briefly on Ned Block’s recent paper “The Higher-Order Theory is Defunct” which raises a new objection to the higher-order theory based on the consequences of explaining consciousness as outlined here. The problem that Ned sees is that when one has an empty HOT one has an episode of phenomenal consciousness that is real but that is not the result of a higher-order thought. David’s response seems to be to fall back on his denial that there are ever actually cases of empty higher-order thoughts. I brought up Anton’s syndrome and David responded that in Anton’s syndrome we don’t have any evidence that they actually have visual phenomenology. They don’t want to admit that they are blind but when we ask them to tell us what they see they can’t. If there are never empty higher-order thoughts then Block’s problem goes away.
My response to this problem is to identify the property of p-consciousness with the higher-order thought while still identifying the conscious mental states as the target of the HOT but at that point we adjourned to Brendan’s for some beer and further discussion.
During the discussion at Brendan’s we talked a little bit about my suggestion that we develop a homomorphism theory of teh mental attitudes. David and Myrto wanted to know how many similarities there were between sensory hommorphisms and the mental attitudes. In the sensory case we build up the quality space by presenting pairs of stimuli and noting what kind of discriminations the creature can do. What we end up doing is constructing the quality space from these kinds of discriminatory abilities. So, what kind of discriminations would happen in the mental attitude case? I suggested that maybe we could present pairs of sentences and ask subjects whether they expressed the same thought or different thoughts. Dan wanted to know what the dimensions of the quality space for mental attitudes would be. I suggested that one would be degree conviction, so that whether one doubts something or believes something firmly or just barely will be one dimension of difference but I have yet to think of any others. This has always been a project I hope to get to at some point…right now its just a pretty picture in my head…
Ok well I feel like I have been writing this all day so I am going to stop…