No too long ago Jake Berger and I presented a paper we are working on at the NYU philosophy of mind discussion session. There was a lot of very interesting discussion and there are a couple of themes I plan on writing about (if I ever get the chance I am teaching four classes in our short six week winter semester and it is a bit much).
One very interesting objection that came up, and was discussed in email afterwards, was whether HOT theory has the resources to say which first-order state is the conscious state. Ned Block raised this objection in the following way. Suppose I have two qualitative first-order states that are, say, slightly different shades of red. When these states are unconscious there is nothing that it is like for the subject to be in them (ex hypothesi). Now suppose I have an appropriate higher-order thought to the effect that I am seeing red (but not some particular shade of red). The content of the higher-order thought does not distinguish between the two first-order states so there is no good reason to think that one of them is consciousness and the other is not. Yet common sense seems to indicate that one of them could be conscious and the other non-conscious, so there is a problem for higher-order thought theory.
The basic idea behind the objection is that there could be two first-order states that are somewhat similar in some way, and there could be a fact of the matter about which of the two first-order states is conscious while there is a higher-order thought that does not distinguish between the two states. David’s views about intentional content tend toward descriptivism and so he thinks that the way in which a higher-order thought refers to its target first-order state is via describing it. I tend to have more sympathy with causal/historical accounts of intentional content (I even wrote about this back in 2007: Two Concepts of Transitive Consciousness) than David does but I think in this kind of case he does think that these kinds of considerations will answer Block’s challenge.
But stepping back from the descriptivism vs. causal theories of reference for a second, I this objection helps to bring out the differences between the way in which David thinks abut higher-order thought theory and they way that I tend to think about it.
David has presented the higher-order thought theory as a theory of conscious states. It is presented as giving an answer to the following question:
- How can the very same first-order state occur consciously and also non-consciously?
The difference between these two cases is that when the state is conscious it is accompanied by a higher-order thought to the effect that one is currently in the state. Putting things this way makes Block’s challenge look pressing. We want to know which first-order state is conscious!
I trend to think of the higher-order thought theory as a theory of phenomenal consciousness. It makes the claim that phenomenal consciousness consists in having the appropriate higher-order thought. By phenomenal consciousness I mean that there is something that it is like for the organism in question. I want to distinguish phenomenal consciousness from state consciousness. A state is state-conscious when it is the target of an appropriate higher-order awareness. A state is phenomenally conscious when there is something that it is like for one to be in the state. A lot of confusion is caused because people use ‘conscious state’ for both of these notions. A state of which I am aware is naturally called a conscious state but so to is a state which there is something that it is like to be in.
Block’s challenge thus has two different interpretations. On one he is asking how the higher-order awareness refers to its target state. That is, he wants to know which first-order state am I aware of in his case. On the other interpretation he is asking which first-order state is there something that it is like for the subject to be in. The way I understand Rosenthal’s view is that he wants to give the same answer to both questions. The target of the higher-order state is the one that is ‘picked out’ by the higher-order state. And what it is like for the subject to be in that target first-order state consists in there being the right kind of higher-order awareness. Having the appropriate higher-order state is all there is to there being something that it is like to be in the first-order state.
I tend to think that maybe we want to give different answers to these two challenges. Regardless of which first-order state is targeted by the higher-order awareness the state which there is something that it is like for the subject to be in is the higher-order state itself. This higher-order state makes one aware of being in a first-order state, and that is just what phenomenal consciousness is. Thus it will seem to you as though you are in a first-order state (it will seem to you as though you are seeing red when you consciously see red). For that reason I think it is natural to say that the higher-order state is itself phenomenally conscious (by which I mean it is the state which there is something that it is like to be in). I agree that we intuitively think it is the first-order states which are phenomenally conscious but I don’t think that carries much weight when we get sufficiently far into theorizing.
While I agree that it does sound strange to say that the first-order state is not phenomenally conscious I think this is somewhat mitigated by the fact that we can none the less say that the first-order state is a conscious state when it is targeted by the appropriate higher-order awareness. This is because all there is to being a conscious state, as I use the term here, is that the state is targeted by an appropriate higher-order awareness. The advantage to putting things in this way is that it makes it clear what the higher-order theory is a theory of and that the objection from Block is clearly assuming that first-order states must be phenomenally conscious.