Dispatches from the Ivory Tower

In celebration of my ten years in the blogosphere I have been compiling some of my past posts into thematic meta-posts. The first of these listed my posts on the higher-order thought theory of consciousness. Continuing in this theme below are links to posts I have done over the past ten years reporting on talks/conferences/classes I have attended. I wrote these mostly so that I would not forget about these sessions but they may be interesting to others as well. Sadly, there are several things I have been to in the last year or so that I have not had the tim to sit down and write about…ah well maybe some day!

  1. 09/05/07 Kripke
    • Notes on Kripke’s discussion of existence as a predicate and fiction
  2. 09/05/2007 Devitt
  3. 09/05 Devitt II
  4. 09/19/07 -Devitt on Meaning
    • Notes on Devitt’s class on semantics
  5. Flamming LIPS!
  6. Back to the Grind & Meta-Metaethics
  7. Day Two of the Yale/UConn Conference
  8. Peter Singer on Climate Change and Ethics
    • Notes on Singer’s talk at LaGuardia
  9. Where Am I?
    • Reflections on my talk at the American Philosophical Association talk in 2008
  10. Fodor on Natural Selection
    • Reflections on the Society of Philosophy and Psychology meeting June 2008
  11. Kripke’s Argument Against 4-Dimensionalism
    • Based on a class given at the Graduate Center
  12. Reflections on Zoombies and Shombies Or: After the Showdown at the APA
    • Reflections on my session at the American Philosophical Association in 2009
  13. Kripke on the Structure of Possible Worlds
    • Notes on a talk given at the Graduate Center in September 2009
  14. Unconscious Trait Inferences
    • Notes on social psychologist James Uleman‘s talk at the CUNY Cogsci Speaker Series September 2009
  15. Attributing Mental States
    • Notes on James Dow‘s talk at the CUNY Cogsci Speaker Series September 2009
  16. Busy Bees Busily Buzzing ‘Bout
  17. Shombies & Illuminati
  18. A Couple More Thoughts on Shombies and Illuminati
    • Some reflections after Kati Balog’s presentation at the NYU philosophy of mind discussion group in November 2009
  19. Attention and Mental Paint
    • Notes on Ned Block’s session at the Mind and Language Seminar in January 2010
  20. HOT Damn it’s a HO Down-Showdown
    • Notes on David Rosenthal’s session at the NYU Mind and Language Seminar in March 2010
  21. The Identity Theory in 2-D
    • Some thoughts in response to theOnline Consciousness Conference in February 2010
  22. Part-Time Zombies
    • Reflections on Michael Pauen‘s Cogsci talk at CUNY in March of 2010
  23. The Singularity, Again
    • Reflections on David Chalmers’ at the NYU Mind and Language seminar in April of 2010
  24. The New New Dualism
  25. Dream a Little Dream
    • Reflections on Miguel Angel Sebastian’s cogsci talk in July of 2010
  26. Explaining Consciousness & Its Consequences
    • Reflections on my talk at the CUNY Cog Sci Speaker Series August 2010
  27. Levine on the Phenomenology of Thought
    • Reflections on Levine’s talk at the Graduate Center in September 2010
  28. Swamp Thing About Mary
    • Reflections on Pete Mandik’s Cogsci talk at CUNY in October 2010
  29. Burge on the Origins of Perception
    • Reflections on a workshop on the predicative structure of experience sponsored by the New York Consciousness Project in October of 2010
  30. Phenomenally HOT
    • Reflections on the first session of Ned Block and David Carmel’s seminar on Conceptual and Empirical Issues about Perception, Attention and Consciousness at NYU January 2011
  31. Some Thoughts About Color
  32. Stazicker on Attention and Mental Paint
  33. Sid Kouider on Partial Awareness
    • a few notes about Sid Kouider’s recent presentation at the CUNY CogSci Colloquium in October 2011
  34. The 2D Argument Against Non-Materialism
    • Reflections on my Tucson Talk in April 2012
  35. Peter Godfrey-Smith on Evolution And Memory
    • Notes from the CUNY Cog Sci Speaker Series in September 2012
  36. The Nature of Phenomenal Consciousness
    • Reflections on my talk at the Graduate Center in September 2012
  37. Giulio Tononi on Consciousness as Integrated Information
    • Notes from the inaugural lecture of the new NYU Center for Mind and Brain by Giulio Tononi
  38. Mental Qualities 02/07/13: Cognitive Phenomenology
  39. Mental Qualities 02/21/13: Phenomenal Concepts
    • Notes/Reflections from David Rosenthal’s class in 2013
  40. The Geometrical Structure of Space and Time
    • Reflections on a session of Tim Maudlin’s course I sat in on in February 2014
  41. Towards some Reflections on the Tucson Conferences
    • Reflections on my presentations at the Tucson conferences
  42. Existentialism is a Transhumanism
    • Reflections on the NEH Seminar in Transhumanism and Technohumanism at LaGuardia I co-directed in 2015-2016

Gottlieb on Presentational Character and Higher-Order Thought Theories of Consciousness

In his paper, Presentational Character and Higher-Order Thoughts, which came out in 2015 in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Gottlieb presents a general argument against the higher-order theory of consciousness which invokes some of my work as support. His basic idea is that conscious experience has what he calls presentational character, where this is something like the immediate directness with which we experience things in the world.

Nailing down this idea is a bit tricky but we don’t need to be too precise to get the puzzle he wants. He puts it this way in the paper,

Focus on the visual case. Then, fix the concept ‘presentational character’ in purely comparative terms, between visual experiences and occurrent thoughts: ‘presentational character’ picks out that phenomenological quality, whatever it is, that marks the difference between what it is like to be aware of an object O by having an occurrent thought about O and what it is like to be aware of an object O by having a visual experience of O. That is the phenomena I am claiming to be incompatible with the traditional HOT-theoretic explanation of consciousness. And so long as one concedes there is such a difference between thinking about O and visually experiencing O, we should have enough of a fix on our phenomenon of interest.

Whether or not you agree that presentational character, as Gottlieb defines it, is a separate, distinct, component of our overall phenomenology there is clearly a difference between consciously seeing red (a visual experience) and consciously thinking about red (a cognitive experience). If the higher-order theory of consciousness were not able to explain what this difference amounted to we would have to admit a serious deficit in the theory.

But why should we think that the higher-order theory has any problem with this? Gottlieb presents his official argument as follows:

S1  If HOT is true, m*(the HOT) entirely fixes the phenomenal character of experience.

S2  HOTs are thoughts.

S3  Presentational character is a type of phenomenal character.

S4  Thoughts as such do not have presentational character.


S5 HOTs do not have presentational character.


S6 If HOTs do not have presentational character, no experience (on HOT) has presentational character.


P1 If HOT is true, no experience has presentational character.

The rest of the paper goes on to defend the argument from various moves a higher-order theorist may make but I would immediately object to premise S4. There are some thoughts, in particular a specific kind of higher-order thought, which will have presentational character. Or at least these thoughts will be able to explain the difference that Gottlieb claims can’t be explained.

Gottlieb is aware that this is the most contentious premise of his argument. This is where he appeals to the work that I have done trying to connect the cognitive phenomenology debate to the higher-order thought theory of consciousness (this is the topic of some of my earliest posts here at Philosophy Sucks!). In particular he says,

Richard Brown and Pete Mandik (2013) have argued that if HOT is true, we have can have (first-order, non-introspected) thoughts with propriety phenomenology. Suppose one first has a suitable HOT about one’s first-order pain sensation. Here, the pain will become conscious. Yet now suppose one has a suitable HOT about one’s thought that the Eiffel Tower is tall. As Brown and Mandik point out, if we deny cognitive phenomenology, one will then need to say that though the thought is conscious, there is nothing that it is like for this creature to consciously think the thought. But this would be—by the edicts of HOT itself—absurd; after all, the two higher-order states are in every relevant respect the same.

I agree that this is what we say about the traditional higher-order theory (where we take the first-order state to be made conscious by the higher-order state) but I would prefer to put this by saying that if we are talking about phenomenal consciousness (as opposed to mere-state-consciousness) then it would be the higher-order state that was conscious, but other than that this is our basic point. How does it help Gottlieb’s case?

The argument is complicated but it seems to go like this. If we accept the conclusion of the argument from Brown and Mandik then conscious thoughts and visual experiences both have phenomenology and they have different kinds of phenomenology (i.e. cognitive phenomenology is proprietary). In particular cognitive phenomenology does not have presentational character. Whatever the phenomenology of thinking is, it is not like see the thing in front of you! But now consider the case where you are seeing something red and you introspect that conscious experience. When one introspects, on the traditional higher-order view, one comes to have a third-order thought about the second order thought. So, in effect, the second-order thought becomes conscious. But we already said that cognitive phenomenology is not the kind of thing that results in presentational character, so when the second-order thought becomes conscious we should be aware of it *as a thought* and so *as the kind of thing which lacks presentational character* but that would mean that introspection is incompatible with the presentational character.

I have had similar issues with Rosenthal’s account of introspection so I am glad that Gottlieb is drawing attention to this issue. I have also explored his recommended solution of having the first-order state contribute something to the content of the higher-order state (here, and in my work with Hakwan)

I also have a talk and a draft of a paper devoted to exploring alternative accounts of introspection from the higher-order perspective. I put it up on Academia.edu but that was before I fully realized that I am not much of a fan of the way they are developing it. In fact, I forgot my login info and was locked out of seeing the paper myself for about a week! Someday I aim to revisit it. But one thing that I point out in that paper is that Rosenthal seems to talk about introspection in a very different way. Here is what he says in one relevant passage,

We sometimes have thoughts about our experiences, thoughts that sometimes characterize the experiences as the sort that visually represent red physical objects.  And to have a thought about an experience as visually representing a red object is to have a thought about the experience as representing that object qualitatively, that is, by way of its having some mental quality and it is the having of just such thoughts that make one introspectively conscious of one’s experience, (CM p. 119)

This paragraph has often been in my thoughts when I think about introspection on the higher-order theory. But it has become clear to me that a lot depends on what you mean by ‘thoughts about our experiences’.

Here is what I say in the earlier mentioned draft,

…In [Rosenthal’s Trends in Cognitive Science] paper with Lau where they respond to Rafi Malach, they characterize the introspective third-order thought as having the content ‘I am having this representation that I am seeing this red object’. I think it is interesting that they do not characterize it as having content like ‘I am having this thought that I am seeing red’. On their account we represent the second-order thought as being the kind of state that represents me as seeing physical red and we do so in a way that does not characterize it as a thought. One reason for this may be that if, as we have seen, the highest-order thought determines what it is like for you then if I am having a third-order thought with the content ‘I am having this thought that I am seeing red’ then what it will be like for me is like having a thought. But this is arguably not what happens in canonical cases of introspection (Gottlieb forthcoming makes a similar objection). Rosenthal himself in his earlier paper agued that when we introspect we are having thoughts about our experiences and that we characterize them as being the kind that qualitatively represents blue things. This is a strange way to characterize a thought.

So I agree that there seems to be a problem here for the higher-order theory but I would not construe it as a problem with the theory’s ability to explain presentational character. I think it can do that just fine. Rather what it suggests is that we should look for a different account of introspection.

When Rosenthal talks specifically about introspection he is talking about the very rare case where one ‘quote-unquote’ brackets the external world and considers one’s experience as such. So, in looking at a table I may consciously perceive it but I am focused on the table (and this translates to the claim that the concepts I employ in the higher-order thought are about the worldly properties). When I introspect I ‘bracket’ the table in the world and take my experience itself as the object of my inner awareness. The intuitive idea that Rosenthal wants to capture is that when we have conscious experience we are aware of our first-order states (as describing properties in the world) and in deliberate attentive introspection we are aware of our awareness of the first-order state. The higher-order state is unconscious and when we become aware of our awareness we make that state conscious, but, on his view, we do so in a way so as not to notice that it is a thought.

But part of me wonders about this. Don’t some people take introspection to be a matter of having a belief about one’s own experience? If so the a conscious higher-order thought would fit this bill. So there may be a notion of introspection that a third-order thought may account for. But we might also want a notion of introspection that was more directly related to focusing on what it is like for the subject. When I focus on the redness of my conscious experience it doesn’t seem as though I am having a conscious thought about the redness. It seems like I am focused on the particular nature of my conscious experience. We might describe that with something like ‘I am seeing red’ and that may sound like a conscious higher-order thought but we are here talking about being aware of the conscious experience itself. So, to capture this, I would suggest, in both cases we are aware of our first-order states. In non-introspective consciousness we are aware of the first-order state as presenting something external to us. In introspective consciousness we are aware of the first-order state as a mental state, as being a visual experience, or a seeing, etc.

I am inclined to see these two kinds of thoughts as ‘being at the same level’ in the sense that they are both thoughts about the first-order states but which have very different contents. And this amounts to the claim that they employ different kinds of concepts. But these ideas are still very much in development. Any thoughts (of whatever order) appreciated!

Zombies vs Shombies

Richard Marshall, a writer for 3am Magazine, has been interviewing philosophers. After interviewing a long list of distinguished philosophers, including Peter Carruthers, Josh Knobe, Brian Leiter, Alex Rosenberg, Eric Schwitzgebel, Jason Stanley, Alfred Mele, Graham Priest, Kit Fine, Patricia Churchland, Eric Olson, Michael Lynch, Pete Mandik, Eddy Nahmais, J.C. Beal, Sarah Sawyer, Gila Sher, Cecile Fabre, Christine Korsgaard, among others, they seem to be scraping the bottom of the barrel, since they just published my interview. I had a great time engaging in some Existential Psychoanalysis of myself!

Stazicker on Attention and Mental Paint

On Monday I attended a discussion of James Stazicker‘s paper Attention, Visual Knowledge, and Psychophysics. I have talked about Block’s argument before that recent experimental work on attention suggests that there is mental paint (i.e. that there is more to phenomenology than what’s in the world or in our representations of it). In this paper Stazicker wanted to offer an account of the representational contents of vision that denied any kind of illusion (like Block) but at the same time rejected Block’s argument for mental paint (Stazicker says that his view is compatible with mental paint but not with the argument that Block gives for it).

The basic idea that Stazicker wants to develop is that vision represents determinable properties rather than determinate properties. That is to say that our visual representations while we are looking at a line of (say) 5 centimeters will be something to the effect of a line that is, say, 4.5-5.25 centimeters long. If this is right then there are many different ways of veridically representing the line of 5 cm length. We could represent it, as above, or as 4.75-5.5 or many others. Stazicker wants to maintain that these two different representations will produce different phenomenologies but that each is perfectly veridical. If this is what happens in Carrassco type cases then we can still say that our belief are veridical even though we agree that attention changes our phenomenology. He also argues that we have independent reason to think that vision does deal in determinable representations stemming from considerations about the limited spatial resolution of our representations.

Block is aware of this kind of objection and responds to it in Attention and Mental Paint. As he says,

The problem with this proposal is that it if the phenomenology of perception flows from representational content, then indeterminacy in content would have to be reflected in an indeterminacy of look. But there need be no such indeterminacy.

If our experience represents something indeterminately as, say, 4.5-5.25 cm in length then we should expect the phenomenology to be indeterminate as well, but since our phenomenology isn’t this way we have some evidence that there is more to it than the indeterminate representation; there is also the phenomenological mode of presentation, that is what it is like for the subject to have that conscious experience.

Stazicker responds to this line of argument in the paper. He argues that there is no problem with saying that our phenomenology is indeterminate. He denies that saying that conscious experience is indeterminate is the same as saying that it is blurry (though blurriness does involve indeterminacy, it also involves something else, something like the phenomenology of blurriness), nor is it the same as representing a disjunct of possibilities. He rather appeals to notions of seeing things in the distance. When one sees something that is far away one’s representations are indeterminate but without being burry or fuzzy or disjointed.

During the discussion Dan Shargel brought up the issue of how we can tell if our normal conscious vision is blurry or not. He reported an experience of having his prescription updated on his glasses. Suddenly he realized that his vision had been blurry before but had not realized that it was that way before the update. Perhaps that is what conscious vision is like for us. Block argued that there is a phenomenological difference between seeing a clear image blurrily and seeing a blurry image clearly. In each case one would be tempted to say that a subject would draw the same ‘pixel array’ even though there is a distinct phenomenological difference (the difference between feeling like you see it clearly or blurrily). Block also argued that one could not cash this out merely in terms of determinable versus determinate contents. Chalmers suggested that you might be able to capture that difference representationally in the following way. In the case of seeing the blurry image clearly one has a visual experience which represents the various smudges in a very determinate way (so one has a determinate representation of the indeterminate thing itself), whereas when one see a clear image blurrily one has an indeterminate visual experience in that one represents the determinate thing in a smudged way. Block insisted that this did not meet his objection since one would end up drawing the same thing in both cases.

I have to admit that I lean towards Block view here. It does seem to me that conscious visual experience presents things as being some determinate way. So, when I look at the frame of a painting it seems to me that the frame has some determinate length even though I am unsure what that length is. One interpretation I have long been attracted to is to see higher-order thought-like states as (phenomenal) modes of presentations for first-order sensory qualities. The higher-order states may very well represent the indeterminate first-order states as being determinate. This would allow one to endorse Block’s view that experience doesn’t seem indeterminate while also taking the empirical evidence to suggest that first-order states are indeterminate.