Join me for a discussion with john Kubie, a cognitive neuroscientist at SUNY Downstate
I just came across Daniel Stoljar’s forthcoming paper A Euthyphro Dilemma for Higher-order theories. In it he tries to present a kind of dilemma for the higher-order thought theory but I find his reasoning highly suspect.
He assumes throughout that the higher-order theory is offering a definition of ‘consciousness,’ which is not exactly right. At least as I understand the theory it is an empirical conjecture about the nature of phenomenal consciousness and so not in the business of offering a definition. However, if we mean by definition something like what Socrates is seeking, viz., the thing which all conscious states have in common in virtue of which they count as conscious states, there there is a sense in which the higher-order view is after a definition, so I will go along with him on this.
The basic thrust of the paper is that we can ask two questions, one is ‘are we aware of ourselves as being in the state because the state is conscious?’ and the other is ‘is the state conscious because we are aware of ourselves as being in it?” Obviously the first ‘horn’ is not going to be taken as it effectively assumes that the higher-order theory is in fact false. The second ‘horn’ is the one the higher-order theories will take. So, what is the problem with it? Here is what Stoljar says:
Alternatively, if you say the second, that the state is conscious because you believe you are in it, you need to deal with the possibility of being in the state and yet failing to believe that you are. On the higher-order thought theory, the state is in that case no longer conscious. But as before that is questionable. Suppose you are so consumed by the fox that you completely forget (and so have no beliefs about) what you are doing, at least for a short interval. On the face of it, you remain conscious of the fox, and so your state of perceiving the fox remains conscious. If so, it can’t be the case that the state is conscious because you believe that you are in it. After all, you do not believe this, having temporarily forgotten completely what you are doing.
I am not sure how ‘on the face of it’ is supposed to work! It seems as though he is just assuming that the theory is false and then saying ‘ahah! The theory could be false!’ Even if we interpret him charitably it seems like he is assuming that the higher-order states in question would be like conscious beliefs. Calling the higher-order thoughts beliefs is a bit of a misnomer since I take beliefs to be dispositions to have occurrent assortoric thoughts. But as long as one means by ‘belief’ something like an occurrent thought then we can go along with this as well. If one is ‘so absorbed in the fox’ that one forgets (consciously) what one is doing it does not follow that one has no unconscious thoughts about oneself.
Stoljar recognizes this and goes on to say:
Friends of the theory may insist that you do hold the belief in question. Maybe the belief is not so demanding. Or maybe it is suppressed or inarticulate, not the sort of belief that you could formulate in words if asked. Maybe, but it doesn’t matter. For even if you do believe you are in the state of perceiving the fox, it doesn’t follow that this state is conscious because you believe this. Further, even if you do believe this, it remains as true as ever that, if you didn’t, the state of perceiving would nevertheless be conscious. After all, even if you didn’t believe that you are in the state of perceiving the fox, you would still focus on the fox, and so be conscious of it, as much as before.
I find this passage to be extremely puzzling and I am not sure how to interpret it. There are arguments given for the higher-order theory and this does not address any of them. Further, there is no justification given for the final claim, that even if one did not have the relevant higher-order thought one would still be (phenomenally) conscious of the fox in the same way. What reason is there to accept this? It is just assumed by fiat. So there is no dilemma for higher-order theories here. There is just someone with differing intuitions about what conscious states are.
Stoljar goes on to consider a version of the view that os closer to what is actually defended by Rosenthal. he says:
Rosenthal says you must believe that you are in the state in a way that is non-perceptual and non-inferential (Rosenthal 2005).
This is incorrect. What Rosenthal says is that the relevant higher-order state must be arrived at in a way that does not subjectively seem to be inferential. That is compatible with its actually being the product of inference. But ok, subtle points aside what is the issue? He goes on to say:
But even this is not sufficient. Suppose again you are in S and an amazing and unlikely thing happens. Before you even open Linguistic Inquiry, you get banged on the head and freakishly come to believe that you are in S. In this case, three things are true: you are in S, you believe you are in S, and you came to believe this in a way that is neither perceptual nor inferential. Even so it does not follow that S is conscious; on the contrary, it remains as unconscious as it was before.
But again what reason is there to think this? If one is in a higher-order state to the effect that one is in S and this is arrived at in a way that subjectively seems to be non-inferential then according to the theory on will be in a conscious state! That is just what the theory claims. So there is no need to use introspection in the way that Stoljar claims.
Stoljar also briefly discusses the argument from empty higher-order thoughts, saying:
It is worth noting that many proponents of the higher-order theory insist on a different response to this objection. They say the belief can be empty but that the state that is conscious exists not as such but only according to the belief, rather as certain things may exist not as such but only according to the National Inquirer. I won’t attempt to discuss this idea here, since it is extensively discussed elsewhere; see, e.g., (Rosenthal 2011, Weisberg 2011, Berger 2014, Brown 2015, Gottlieb 2020). But it is worth noting that interpreting the view this way has the consequence that it is no longer a definition of a conscious state in the way that it is normally taken to be, and as I have taken it to be throughout this discussion. After all, adefinition of a conscious state either is or entails something of the form ‘x is a conscious state if and only if x is…’. This entails in turn that the state that is conscious must turn up on the right-hand side of the definition. But if you say that something is a conscious state if and only if you believe such and such, and if the belief in question does not entail the existence of the relevant state, then the state does not turn up as it should on the right-hand side; hence you have not defined anything.
But again, this is incorrect. According to Rosenthal the state which turns up on the right hand side is the state you represent yourself as being in, -whether or not one is actually in that state is irrelevant!-
There is a lot more to say about these issues, and other issues in Stoljar’s paper but I have to help get the kids their lunch!