Theories of Perception and Higher-Order Theories of Consciousness: An Analogy

I recently came across a draft of a post that I thought I had actually posted a while ago…on re-reading it I don’t think I entirely agree with the way I put things back then but I still kind of like it


When one looks at philosophical theories of perception one can see three broad classes of theoretical approaches. These are sometimes known as ‘relationalism’ and ‘representationalism’ (and ‘disjunctivism’). According to relationalism (sometimes known as naive realism) perception is a relation between the perceiver and the object they perceive. So when I see a red apple, on this view, there is the redness of the apple and then I come to be related to those things in the right way and that counts as perceiving. Often a ‘window’ analogy is invoked. Perception is like a window through which we can look out into the world and in so doing come to be acquainted with the ways that the objects in the world are. Representationalism on the other hand holds that perception involves, well, representing the world to be be some way or other, and this may diverge from the way the world is outside of perception.

I think a similar kind of debate has been occurring within the differing camps of higher-order theories of consciousness. In this debate the first-order state, which represents properties, objects, and events in the physical environment of the animal, takes the place of the physical object in the debates about perception. If one takes that perspective then one can see that we have versions of relationalism and representationalism in higher-order theories. Relationalists take the first-order state, and it’s properties, to be revealed in the act of becoming aware of it. Representationalists think that we represent the object as having various properties and that the experiences we have when we dream or hallucinate are literally the same ones we are aware of in ordinary experience. This is the famous argument from hallucination.

I think that the misrepresentation argument against higher-order theories of consciousness is actually akin to the argument from hallucination, and shows roughly the same thing, viz. that the relationalist version of higher-order theory is not in a position to explain what it is that is in common between “veridical” higher-order states and empty higher-order states. As long as one accepts that these cases are phenomenologically the same, and some versions of higher-order theory commit you to that claim, then it seems to me that you must say that we are aware of the same thing in each case. In the perception debate representationalists tend to say that what we are ware of in each case are properties. So take my experience of a red ripe tomato and my “perfect” hallucination as of a red ripe tomato. In one case I am aware of an actual object, the tomato, and in the other case I am not aware of any object (it is a hallucination). But in both cases I am aware of the redness of the tomato and the roundness of it, etc, in the good case these properties are instantiated in the tomato and in the bad case the are uninstantiated but they are there in both cases. The representationalist can thus explain why they two cases are phenomenologically the same: in each case we represent the same properties as being present.

I think the representational version of higher-order theories of consciousness have to similarly commit to what it is that is in common between veridical higher-order states and empty ones which none the less are phenomenologically indistinguishable. In one case we are aware of a first-order mental state (the one the higher-order state is about) and in the other case we are not (the state we represent ourselves as being in is one we are not actually in, thus the higher-order state is empty). So it must be the properties of the mental states that we are aware of in both cases. So if I am consciously seeing a red ripe tomato then I am in a first-order state which represents the tomato’s redness and roundness, etc and I am representing that these properties are present and that there is a tomato present, etc (this state can occur unconsciously but we are considering its conscious occurrence). To consciously experience the redness of the tomato I need to have a higher-order state representing me as seeing a tomato. And what this means is that I have a higher-order state representing myself as being in a first-order visual state with such and such properties. The ‘such-and-such properties’ bit is filled in by one’s theory of what kinds of properties first-order mental states employ to represent properties in the environment. Suppose that, like Rosenthal, one thinks they do so by having a kind of qualitative (i.e. non-conceptual, non-intentional) property that represents these properties. On Rosenthal’s view he posits ‘mental red’ as the way in which we represent the physical property objects have when they are red. He calls this red* and says that red* represents physical red in a distinctive non-conceptual non-intentional way.

This is not a necessary feature of higher-order theories but it gives us a way to talk about the issues in a definite way. So the upshot of this discussion is that it is these properties which are common between veridical and hallucinatory higher-order states. When one has a conscious experience of seeing a red ripe tomato but there is not a first-order visual representation of the tomato or its redness, etc, one represents oneself as being in first-order states which represent the redness and roundness of the tomato, one is aware of the same properties one would be in the veridical case but these properties are uninstantiated.