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 : (