Same-Order Theories of Consciousness and the Failure of Phenomenal Intimacy

Perusing the new issue of Philosophical Studies that came out I came across Chad Kidd’s paper Phenomenal Consciousness with Infallible Self-Representation, which happens to be freely available on Phil Studies home page. The paper is interesting and aims to respond to the challenge raised by Josh Weisberg’s paper Same Old, Same Old: The Same-Order Theory of Consciousness and the Division of Phenomenal Labor. Defenders of the Same-Order view often claim to have an advantage over higher-order theories when it comes to the problematic empty higher-order thought cases. Since the state that is being represented and the state that is doing the representing are parts of the very same sate there is thought to be no issue with the self-representing part occurring without the first-order state. Josh argued that the very same problems arise for any view that divides the phenomenal labor in the way that the higher-order theory does.

One way to avoid the problem is to have the first-order state a part of the higher-order state. On this kind of view a conscious mental state consists of the first-order state together with the higher-order self-representation. This does not allow for empty higher-order states and Kidd acknowledges this. He argues that this strategy incures costs, though, as it must say that there are some causal relationships that are necessary and this seems implausible. The reason for this, Kidd argues, is that according to this view it is necessary that consciousness can’t misrepresent, and if that is to be naturalizable it must be explainable in terms of natural relationships like causation. Instead Kidd wants to present a new version of the same order theory that incorporates insights from philosophical work on indexicals. Kidd wants to acknowledge, with Weisberg, that theories that invoke representation as part of the explanatory story must accept the possibility of mis-representation. This is why the quotational view defended by Block has problems, it cannot account for this. Kidd argues that if we adopt a Kaplan-esque   semantics for the self-representational content we get a view that allows that there are possible cases of mis-representation but denies that in the actual world this is possible. In other words Kidd is arguing that it is only contingently the case that there can be no empty self-representational states in exactly the same way as that it is contingently necessary that every utterance of ‘I am here now’ must refer. Thus Kidd thinks that there is a same-order view of consciousness that does not have the empty HOT problem and also allows for the possibility of misrepresentation.

What Kidd seemingly fails to notice is that in principle one could have a higher-order view which employed the kind of semantics that he does. On this view one would have a separate HOT to the effect that one was in a red* state where ‘red*’ functions as an indexical like ‘here’ or ‘now’ does in ‘I am here now’. So whether one adopts a 2-dimensional view of the semantics of the mental states or not is independent of the question of whether one is a same or higher-order theorist. So even on the same-order view you have it being true that in some possible world there is an empty self-representation. The same problem then seems to arise. What is it like for the creature that has this empty state? Kidd suggests that if there is something that it is like then the theorist has given up on the explanatory power of the theory. Kidd says,

if it is possible to have an awareness of an experience with blue phenomenal qualities without actually having such an experience tokened in one’s mind, then it seems the production of the phenomenal blueness for the subject in such cases would be due to the higher-order mental state alone, and not a representation relation between two mental states.

Kidd is here assuming that the explanatory power of higher-order theories comes from their positing a relation between two states. If one gives up the relational structure of the theory then one gives up the explanatory power. This notion seems prevalent. I have heard Ned Block make similar remarks. I think that David Rosenthal is right that this idea really stems from thinking of higher-order views in quasi-perceptual terms. But at any rate, this i snot what the theory says. It is not the relationship between the states that explains one’s phenomenality. Rather it is that one is conscious of oneself as being in various states with mental qualities and that is just all there is to phenomenality. It is, if you will, the appearance of the relation that is doing the work.

It is here that the wine-tasting argument becomes important. We seem to have some kind of evidence that simply acquiring a new concept changes our phenomenal experience. What would explain that? One explanation is that the concept became available for deployment in higher-order thoughts. Another is that having the concept somehow changes the first-order states. Which is true seems like an empirical question. If we found that one’s first order taste states (whatever they turn out to be) are unchanged by learning the word ‘tanin’, for instance, that would be support for the higher-order theory. As of now this is an open empirical issue. And if this is right then the Kaplan-esque same-order view still has no advantages over the higher-order view.

The Higher-Order Approach to Consciousness: The Hot Ticket or In Hot Water?

A propos of the recent discussion of this issue, I am pleased to announce that my paper has been accepted to the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology meeting to be held in New Orleans! So, let it snow ’cause in March I’ll be doing philosophy in the Big Easy!

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Phenomenally HOT

The Spring semester is getting off to a start here in NYC. Yesterday I attended the first session of Ned Block and David Carmel’s seminar on Conceptual and Empirical Issues about Perception, Attention and Consciousness at NYU. This first session dealt with Block’s recent paper The Higher-Order Theory is Defunct.

One of the major points that Block wants to make is that there is a distinction to be made between what he calls modest and ambitious higher-order theories. Modest views aim only at explicating the notion of state consciousness. Thus the modest view can say, as Block does, that sensations that are not state conscious are none the less phenomenally conscious. The ambitious view not only tries to explain state consciousness but also aims to explain phenomenal consciousness. The problem that Block sees is for the ambitious view. Put simply the idea is that in a case of a higher-order thought without a target we have a conscious state that is not the target of a higher-order thought and so we have a counter-example to the higher-order theory. My response to this is to use the distinction between phenomenal consciousness and state consciousness to defuse the objection. For a state to be conscious is for me to be conscious of myself as being in that state. For a state to be phenomenally conscious is for there to be something that it is like for me to have the state. These two properties do not, prima facie, seem to have anything to do with each other. It is then an open question whether or not having the appropriate higher-order thought explains phenomenal consciousness. The ambitious higher-order theory need only claim that phenomenal consciousness is instantiated in the empty higher-order thought scenario. In fact, there is no reason that one might not claim that there is no state consciousness instantiated. Sure, it seems to one as though one has a conscious state, but one doesn’t. Another way to put the point; there is no state that has the property of being state conscious, though there is a state that has the property of being phenomenally conscious (the HOT itself). This is because phenomenal consciousness simply consists in having the appropriate HOT, whereas state consciousness involves being the target of the appropriate HOT. This defuses the objection since there is no non-existent phenomenology. My conscious pains matter phenomenologically because they are phenomenally conscious.

In the presentation Block seemed to  offer an objection to my response. He claimed that one who took this path would in effect be adopting the same-order view and so would be giving up a higher-order view. This seemed to be the case because he thought that the claim was that the HOT itself was somehow targeted by the HOT itself in the empty case, but that is not the claim that I am making. Phenomenal consciousness –what it is like to have an experience– just is having an appropriate HOT. You do not have to be conscious of yourself as having the HOT in order to be phenomenally conscious; that is to confuse state consciousness with phenomenal consciousness.

In conversation afterwards Jake Berger pressed me a bit on my view. His worry seemed to be that there was something odd about  calling the HOT phenomenally conscious. He appealed to a metaphor offered by David Rosenthal. When an umpire calls a runner out the umpire makes it the case that the runner is out and the umpire is not thereby out himself. So too the HOT makes a first-order state conscious but does not thereby become conscious itself. Of course, I absolutely agree, as long as we are talking about state consciousness. No one is claiming that the HOT is state conscious (or that the umpire is out). But this metaphor does not relate to phenomenal consciousness. When we consider which state is phenomenally conscious we ask the question “which state is there something that it is like to be in?” and the only answer to that question is “the HOT”. Of course WHAT it is like to be in that state is determined by the content of the state and so it will be like being in the first-order state but all of that is besides the point being made here.

There are other interesting things I would like to explore that came up but I have to go to the DMV : (

OCC Program Finalized

I am pleased to announce that the program for the third Online Consciousness Conference is finalized and is available at the conference website:


The conference begins February 18th and lasts until March 4th. Papers (but not commentaries) will be available to read one week before the conference starts February 11th. To be updated on conference events, subscribe to the rss feed at the conference website, or join us on Facebook:

Consciousness Afoot!

The first paper in the special issue of Consciousness and Cognition that I am guest editing is now available online. Congratulations Pete! The complete special issue will have re-written papers from the second online consciousness conference, new commentary on the papers, and author’s responses. The issue should be finished sometime in 2011.  In the meantime accepted papers will appear online first, so more to come!

The call for papers for the online consciousness conference is now closed and I am working on the program. Things are moving quickly and I expect to have it put together sometime next couple of weeks.

Clip Show ‘010

I have a couple of things I have been meaning to post, but things have been really hectic lately! Anyways, while things settle down here is the traditional clip show of the most viewed posts of 2010. To see the best of posts prior to 2010 see the Clip Show ’09.

–Runner-Up– Why I am Not a Type-Z Materialist

10. Does the Zombie Argument Rest on a Mistake?
9. The Singularity, Again
8. Emotive Realism and Moral Deviance
7. Dream a Little Dream
6. Swamp Thing about Mary
5. Empiricism and A Priori Justification
4. Outline of the Case for Agnosticism
3. Explaining Consciousness and Its Consequences
2. The Identity Theory in 2D
1. Attention and Mental Paint