Introspection, Acquaintance, and Higher-Order Representations

Over at Brains Wayne Wu has been posting about, among other things, introspection and attention. One of the interesting things to come out of the discussion was the notion of ‘cognitive attention’ which consists in directing one’s thoughts. If this is truly a kind of attention then perhaps we can see higher-order thought and AIR theories as invoking different kinds of attention while both accept the transitivity principle. I hope to come back to this issue because I think it is time to start thinking about the connections between these two theories (and especially how we might experimentally differentiate them) but I will have to put that off. In this post I want to argue that higher-order theories are compatible with the acquaintance approach (see Brie Gertler’s comment for some links to some papers on this).

Before we begin we should note a potential confound here that may result in people talking past one another. Typically introspection is thought of as producing thoughts of the form ‘I am in pain now’ or ‘pain is instantiated in me now’ (see Brie Gertler’s paper in the link above for instance). And, of course, it is exactly these kinds of thoughts that higher-orer thought theories invoke to explain phenomenal consciousness in the first place. But of course by ‘pain’ the opponent to higher-order theories simply means what we would call ‘conscious pain’ and so we should reinterpret the above introspective claims as ‘I am in conscious pain now’ or ‘conscious pain is instantiated in me now’. They take the ‘conscious pain’ bit to actually be the phenomenal property of pain itself. A large art of the project that I have been engaged in recently has been to show that there is a way of thinking of higher-order thought theory that lets us, if we want, keep all of the benefits of the first-order theorist. On this view phenomenal consciousness consists in instantiating the right kind of higher-order representation. In particular one that attributes mental states and properties to the subject of the experience. This is what I have called the HOROR theory of phenomenal consciousness and it is metaphysically neutral.

In fact it looks like Dave endorses a non-physical version of this kind of theory in his response to Benj Hellie that he mentions in the discussion. There he says,

In effect, our phenomenology involves both a foreground awareness of redness and a background acquaintance with our awareness of redness. I think the most plausible line here is that phenomenal awareness is an acquaintance-involving relation by its very nature: in virtue of the nature of awareness, to be aware of x entails being acquainted with one’s awareness of x

and in the footnote he continues,

This is a relative of higher-order representation theories of consciousness, and especially of the Brentano-style self-representational views of consciousness that have become popular in recent years (see e.g. Kriegel and Williford 20xx). Some differences: the background awareness should be understood as Russellian instance-acquaintance rather than as a standard form of representation (this immediately avoids all objections from higher-order misrepresentation as well as from oversophistication), and the view does not lend any support to reductive views of consciousness. The awareness relation that the view appeals to is irreducibly a phenomenal relation. Of course someone might attempt to turn this into a reductive theory by identifying the awareness relation by a relation understood in functional terms, say. But just as in the case of first-order representationalism (discussed in chapter 8 of TCC), this move requires an additional and independent functionalism about the phenomenal, a view that is no more plausible here than elsewhere, and which leads to an explanatory gap that is as wide as ever.

Now here he is talking about phenomenal consciousness and not introspection and I am not sure whether the view is that this entire complex gets embedded in an introspective judgement or whether introspecting involves the background awareness coming to the foreground but either way is compatible with the HOROR theory. So, consider the way that Gertler lays out the Acquaintance Approach. She sums it up in the following three theses,

[Acquaintance Approach] Some introspective knowledge consists in judgments that
(1) are directly tied to their truthmakers;
(2) depend, for their justification, only on the subject’s conscious states at the time of the judgment; and
(3) are more strongly justified than any empirical judgments that do not meet conditions (1) and (2).

To be ‘directly tied’ on her account involves demonstrative attention and though that is not a requirement of the view I am happy enough with it. So, on the HOROR theory what will be required is that we deploy demonstrative attention to the proper higher-order representation and is compatible with (1). The term ‘conscious state’ in (2) should be interpreted as the appropriate higher-order representation and so the claim is just that some introspective judgements are justified solely by certain higher-order representations, which is compatible with HOROR theory and because of (1) and (2) these judgments are more strongly justified than other that don’t meet (1) and (2).

So not only is the HOROR theory compatible with introspective acquaintance it is also compatible with ‘same-order’ acquaintance.

The Argument from Photosynthesis

Though I very much enjoy the taste of food I have always thought that the actual act of eating is very primitive and mildly repulsive. Described abstractly eating involves the mastication of organic substances which are then broken down in digestive acids to produce sugars that are then used to fuel metabolic activity. The mastication process involves mechanically breaking down the organic substances and mixing them with saliva and in the process the organic substance is rubbed over the taste buds in our tongues and released gasses interact with the olfactory receptors via the nasal passages.

Now compare this process with the process of photosynthesis. In photosynthesis light energy is converted to sugar with oxygen as a waste product. This process is more elegant and much cleaner than eating (eating/digestion has excrement as its waste product versus oxygen for photosynthesis). However, the naturally evolved photosynthesis we find here on Earth is not very efficient (it captures somewhere in the area of 3-6% of the energy available in sunlight) and as a result we do not find vertebrates that use photosynthesis, though there is recent evidence that salamanders have photosynthetic cells and we might have an invertebrate or two that uses it.

So is it possible that humans might be able to someday use photosynthesis? Some have recently argued that we have a moral obligation to get rid of meat eating animals and replace them with herbivores. But herbivores are carnivores as well in the strict sense. While I don’t think that eating plants is as morally problematic as eating animals I still think it would be nice to free ourselves from eating all together. At least I would like to be able to do so for myself. So might I ever be able to? As it stands it looks like it would be difficult to do because extant photosynthetic processes are relatively inefficient and so even if we did successfully integrate photosynthetic cells over the entire area of our skin we would need to be exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation to meet our energy demands. Still it is certainly possible to improve photosynthesis and in fact scientists are working on it now and so while it doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon it certainly seems possible that there could be photosynthetic humans at some point in the future. We might not be able to quit eating all together, we might still do it for pleasurable experiences of taste etc or we might have to eat some limited amount to supplement the energy from photosynthetic process, but still it is not physically impossible that this could happen and it does seem morally and aesthetically preferable to what we have now.

Aside from this bioethical issue I think this raises issues for those who think that there is evidence for design in the human body and it also puts new light on the problem of evil. Certainly if it is conceivable that we could produce a photosynthetic animal, human or not, then it must be possible for God to have created such a creature. But if so then why aren’t we photosynthetic? I mean God could have made it so that we run on solar energy, and even had the pleasurable taste and ‘mouthfeel’ experiences that makes eating enjoyable (perhaps different wavelengths and/or frequencies of light would produce different gustatory experiences). Doing this 1.) seems like a much better design. It is simpler and more elegant than eating is and 2.) seems much more humane. The sheer amount of suffering produced by eating meat over the course of evolution is nearly unimaginable. It seems to me that this argument from photosynthesis is as decisive as one can get in this area and I wonder why it has not received more attention…or maybe it has and I just haven’t found it yet?

Consciousness and its Place in Physical Reality

In the Spring 2013 semester I initiated a new course at LaGuardia that had the theme Cosmology, Consciousness, and Computation. The basic idea was to explore issues relating to physicalism. Intuitively, physicalism is the view that everything that exists is physical but what is the nature of physical reality? The idea I had was to have the couse divided into three sections. In the first section we would do a conceptual physics course talking about the development of physics from the ancient world to the present day. Then we would turn to issues about consciousness and mind and where they fit in the physical picture we have so far developed. After that we turn to issues about computation; Is the universe computable? Or perhaps does it instantiate some computation? Is consciousness computational? Are we living in a simulation? Is the universe a hologram?

In my quest to have low cost book options for students I have adopted the Terminator book I co-edited and have supplemented that with readings from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and other online material. The reception to the course was very good and I am really looking forward to doing it a second time in Fall 2013. I have updated the syllabus and, as usual, would welcome any suggestions or feedback.

Week I: Introduction
• →Richard Brown on What is Philosophy? –

Week 2: Early Attempts to Understand Mind and Physical Reality
• →Terminator Ch 10: The Nature of Time and the Universe
• Time-
• Richard Brown on Pre-Socratic Philosophy-
• Pre-Socratic Philosophy-
• Ancient Theories of the Soul-
• Parmenides-
• Zeno’s Paradoxes-
• Ancient Atomism-
• Democritus-
• Intentionality in Ancient Philosophy-
• Time-

Week 3: Modern Philosophy and Modern Science
• →Terminator Ch 2 –Animal consciousness, Descartes, and Emotions
• Descartes’ Physics-
• Descartes’ Epistemology-
• Descartes’ Theory of Ideas-
• Other Minds-
• Animal Consciousness-
• Locke on Real Essence-
• Locke’s Philosophy of Science-
• Newton’s Philosophy-
• Isaac Newton-
• Newton’s Views on Space, Time, and Motion-
• The Contents of Perception-
• The Problem of Perception-

Week 4: Relativity Physics
• →Terminator Ch 8: paradoxes of time travel
• Einstein for Everyone:
• Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe on NOVA-
• Time Travel and Modern Physics-
• Time Machines-
• The Equivalence of Mass and Energy-
• The Hole Argument-
• David Lewis’ The Paradoxes of Time Travel-

Week 5: Quantum Mechanics
• Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos on NOVA-
• Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics:
• Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics-
• The Uncertainty Principle:
• Quantum Entanglement and Information:
• The Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Argument in Quantum Theory-
• Measurement in Quantum Theory:
• Quantum Mechanics-
• Richard Feynman on Double Slit Experiment-

Week 6: The Nature and Origin of the Universe
• →The Scale of the Universe-
• Hubble Deep Field:
• Cosmology and Theology-
• Atheism and Agnosticism-
• Religion and Science-
• Teleological Arguments for God’s Existence-
• Cosmological Argument-
• The Possible Parallel Universe of Dark Matter-

Week 7: The Possibility of Life Beyond Earth
• Life-
• Molecular Biology-
• Finding Life Beyond Earth-

Week 8: Consciousness in the Physical World?
• Consciousness-
• Representational Theories of Consciousness-
• Functionalism-
• The Mind/Brain Identity Theory-
• Dualism-
• Zombies-

Week 9: Beyond Physicalism?
• Eliminative Materialism-
• Folk Psychology as a Theory-
• The Philosophy of Neuroscience-
• Panpsychism-

Week 10: Transhumanism
• →Terminator Ch 4: Extended Mind, Transhumanism
• A History of Transhumanist Thought-
• Biohackers: A Journey into Cyborg America-
• Tim Cannon on Potential Benefits of Sensory Augmentation-
• Aubrey de Grey on Defeating Aging-

Week 11: A.I. and The Singularity
• →Terminator Ch 1: A.I., Chinese Room, Transhumanism
• →Terminator Ch 3: Why always with the killing?
• The Chinese Room Argument-
• The Turing Test-
• The Frame Problem-
• David Chalmers’ The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis-
• David Chalmers on Simulation and Singularity-

Week 12: The Simulation Argument & The Holographic Hypothesis
• Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument Website-
• Nick Bostrom on The Simulation Argument-
• David Chalmers’ The Matrix as Metaphysics-
• Leonard Susskind on The World as a Hologram-

The Phenomenology of HOT

I am happy to announce that Pete Mandik and I have finished our co-authored paper on higher-order thought theories of consciousness and cognitive phenomenology, which is forthcoming in the issue of Philosophical Topics that features participants from the 4th Online Consciousness Conference. Check it out!