Eliminative Non-Materialism

It struck me today that all of the eliminativists about the mind are physicalists (or materialists) and a quick google search didn’t reveal any eliminativist dualist out there. But why is that?

I can see why a particular kind of dualist would reject eliminativism. If one held that the mind was transparent to itself in a strong way then the existence of beliefs and other mental states can be known directly via the first-person method of introspection. But does that exhaust the possibilities? Suppose one thought that there was a robust correlation (or even causation) between the brain and mind. Then one would expect a robust NCC for every conscious state (assuming a law-like connection or at least correlation between the brain and mental states).

To give us a model to work with let’s assume that there is correlation between function states of the brain and consciousness such that whenever certain functional states are realized that guarantees (given our laws of physics, etc) that a certain (non-physical) state of consciousness is also instantiated. Now suppose that we have a pretty good functional definition for what the functional correlate of a given metal state should be. That is, suppose we have worked out in a fair amount of detail what kinds of functional states we expect would be correlated with the conscious mental states posited by folk-psychology. Now further suppose that when we advanced far enough into our neuroscience we saw that there were no such states realized in the brain or that the states were somewhat what we thought but varied in some dramatic way from what we had worked out folk-psychologically.

At that point it seems we would have two options. One thing we could do is to maintain that there is after all no law-like correlation between brain states and mental states. There is a belief or a red quale, say, but it is somehow instantiated in a way independently from the neural workings. This seems like a bad option. The second option would be to abandon folk-psychology and say that the non-physical states of mind are better captured by what the correlates are suggesting. The newly non-physical states might be so different from the original folk-psychological postulates that we might be tempted to say that the originally postulated states don’t exist. Wouldn’t we then have arrived at an eliminative non-materialism?

As a corollary, doesn’t this possibility suggest that there aren’t any truly a priori truths knowable from introspection?

LeDoux and Brown on Higher-Order Theories and Emotional Consciousness

On Monday May 1st Joe LeDoux and I presented our paper at the NYU philosophy of mind discussion group. This was the second time that I have presented there (the first was with Hakwan (back in 2011!)). It was a lot of fun and there was some really interesting discussion of our paper.

There were a lot of inter-related points/objections that came out of the discussion but here I will just focus on just a few themes that stood out to Joe and I after the discussion. I haven’t yet had the chance to talk with him extensively about this so this is just my take on the discussion.

One of the issues centered on our postulation that there are three levels of content in emotional consciousness. On the ‘traditional’ higher-order theory there is the postulation of two distinct states. One is ‘first-order’ where this means that the state represents something in the world (the animal’s body counts as being in the world in this sense). A higher-order mental state is one that has higher-order content, where this means that it represents a mental state as opposed to some worldly-non-mental thing. It is often assumed that the first-order state will be some basic, some might even say ‘non-representational’ or non-conceptual, kind of content. We do not deny that there are states like the but we suggested that we needed to ‘go up a level’ so to speak.

Before delving into this I will say that I view this as an additional element in the theory. The basic idea of HOROR theory is just that the higher-order state is the phenomenally conscious state (because that what phenomenal consciousness is). I am pretty sure that the idea of the lower-order state being itself a higher-order state is Joe’s idea but to be fair I am not 100% sure. The idea was that the information coming in from the senses needed to be assembled in working memory in such a way as to allow the animal to connect memories, engage schemas etc. We coined the term ‘lower-order’ to take the place of ‘first-order’. For us a lower-order state is just one that is the target of a higher-order representation. Thus, the traditional first-order states would count as lower-order on our view but so would additional higher-order states that were re-represented  at a higher-level.

Thus on the view we defended the lower-order states are not first-order states. These states represent first-order states and thus are higher-order in nature. When you see an apple, for example, there must be a lot of first-order representations of the apple but these must be put together in working memory and result in a higher-order state which is an awareness of these first-order states. That higher-order representation is the ‘ground floor’ representation for our view. It is itself not conscious but it results in the animal behaving in appropriate ways. At this lower-order level we would characterize the content as something like ‘(I am) seeing an apple’. That is, there is an awareness of the first-order states and a characterization of those states as being seeing of red but there is no explicit representation of the self. There is an implicit referring to the self, by which we mean these states are attributed to the creature who has them but not in any explicit way. This is why we think of this state as just an awareness of the first-order activity (plus a characterization of it). At the their level we have a representation of this lower-order state (which is itself a higher-order state in that it represents first-order states).

Now, again, I do not really view this three-layer approach as essential to the HOROR theory. I think HOROR theory is perfectly compatible with the claim that it is first-order states that count as the targets. But I do think it is an interesting issue at state here and that is what role exactly the ‘I’ in “I am seeing a red apple’ is playing and also whether first-order states can be enough to play the role of lower-order states. Doesn’t the visual activity related to the apple need to be connected to concepts of red and apple? If so then there needs to be higher-order activity that is itself not conscious.

Another issue focused on our methodological challenge to using animals in consciousness research. Speaking for myself I certainly think that animals are conscious but since they cannot verbally report, and as long as we truly believe that the cognitive unconscious is as robust as widely held, then we cannot rule out that animal behavior is produced by non-conscious processes. What this suggests is that we need to be cautious when we infer from an animal’s behavior to the cause of it being a phenomenally conscious mental state. Of course that could be what is going on, but how do we establish that? It cannot be the default assumption as long as we accept the claims about the cognitive unconscious. Thus we do not think that animals do or do not have conscious experience but rather that the science of consciousness is best pursued in Humans (for now at least). For me this is related to what I think of as the biggest confound in all of consciousness science and that is the confound of behavior. If an animal can perform a task then it is assumed this is because its mental states are conscious. But if this kind of task can be performed unconsciously then behavior by itself cannot guarantee consciousness.

One objection to this claim (sadly I forgot who made this…maybe they’ll remind me in the comments?) was that maybe verbal responses themselves are non-conscious. When I asked if the kind of view that Dennett has, where there is just some sub-personal mechanism which results in an utterance of “I am seeing red” and this is all there is to the conscious experience of seeing red, counts as the kind of view the objector had in mind. The response was that no they had in mind that maybe the subjects are zombies with no conscious experience at all and yet were able to answer the question “what do you see” with “I see red,” just like zombies are thought to do. I responded to this with what I think is the usual way to respond to skeptical worries. That is, I acknowledge that there is a sense in which such skeptical scenarios are conceivable (though maybe not exactly as the conceiver supposes), but there are still reasons for not getting swept up in skepticism. For example I agree with the “lessons” from fading, dancing, and absent qualia cases that we would be in an unreasonable sense detached from our conscious experiences if this were happening. The laws of physics don’t give us any reason to suppose that there are radical differences between similar things (like you and I), though if we discovered an important brain area missing or damaged then I suppose we could be led to the conclusion that some member of the population lacked conscious experience. But why should we take this seriously now? I know I am conscious from my own first-person point of view and unless we endorse a radical skepticism then science should start from the view that report is a reliable(ish) guide to what is going on in a subject’s mind.

Another issue focused on our claim that animal consciousness may be different from human conscious experience. If you really need the concept ‘fear’ in order to feel afraid and if there is a good case to be made that animals don’t have our concept of fear then their experience would be very different from ours. That by itself is not such a bad thing. I take it that it is common sense that animal experience is not exactly like human experience. But it seems as though our view is committed to the idea that animals cannot have anything like the human experience of fear, or other emotions. Joe seemed to be ok with this but I objected. It is true that animals don’t have language like humans do and so are not able to form the rich and detailed kinds of concepts and schemas that humans do but that does not mean that they lack the concept of fear at all. I think it is plausible to think that animals have some limited concepts and if they are able to form concepts as basic as danger (present) and harm then they may have something that approaches human fear (or a basic version of it). A lot of this depends on your specific views about concepts.

Related to this, and brought up by Kate Pendoley was the issue of whether there can be emotional experiences that we only later learn to describe with a word. I suggested that I thought the answer may be yes but that even so we will describe the emotion in terms of its relations to other known emotions. ‘It is more like being afraid than feeling nausea’ and the like. This is related to my background view about a kind of ‘quality space’ for the mental attitudes.

Afterwards, over drinks, I had a discussion with Ned Block about the higher-order theory and the empirical evidence for the role of the prefrontal cortex in conscious experience. Ned has been hailing the recent Brascamp et al paper (nice video available here) as evidence against prefrontal theories. In that paper they showed that if they take away report and attention (by making the two stimuli barely distinguishable) then you can show that there is a loss of the prefrontal fMRI activation. I defended the response to this that fMRI is too crude of a measure to take this null result too seriously. This is what I take to be the line argued in this recent paper by Brain Odgaard, Bob Knight, and Hakwan, Should a few null findings falsify prefrontal theories of consciousness? Null results are ambiguous as between the falsifying interpretation and it just being missed by a crude tool. As Odgaard et al argue if we use more invasive measures like single cell or ECoG then we would find prefrontal activity. In particular the Mante et al paper referred to in Odgaard et all is pretty convincing demonstration that there is information decodable from prefrontal areas that would be missed by an fMRI. As they say in the linked to paper,

There are numerous single- and multi- unit recording studies in non-human primates, clearly demonstrating that specific perceptual decisions are represented in PFC (Kim and Shadlen, 1999; Mante et al., 2013; Rigotti et al., 2013). Overall, these studies are compatible with the view that PFC plays a key role in forming perceptual decisions (Heekeren et al., 2004; Philiastides et al., 2011; Szczepanski and Knight, 2014) via ‘reading out’ perceptual information from sensory cortices. Importantly, such decisions are central parts of the perceptual process itself (Green and Swets, 1966; Ratcliff, 1978); they are not ‘post-perceptual’ cognitive decisions. These mechanisms contribute to the subjective percept itself (de Lafuente and Romo, 2006), and have been linked to specific perceptual illusions (Jazayeri and Movshon, 2007).

In addition to this Ned accused us of begging the question in favor of the higher-order theory. In particular he thought that there really was no conscious experience in the Rare Charles Bonnett cases and that our appeal to Rahnev was just question begging.

Needless to say I disagree with this and there is a lot to say about these particular points but I will have to come back to these issue later. Before I have to run, and just for the record, I should make it clear that, while I have always been drawn to some kind of higher-order account, I have also felt the pull of first-order theories. I am in general reluctant to endorse any view completely but I guess I would have to say that my strongest allegiance is to the type-type identity theory. Ultimately I would like it to be the case that consciousness and mind are identical to brain states and/or states of the brain. I see the higher-order theory as compatible with the identity theory but I am also sympathetic to to other versions (for full-full disclosure, there is even a tiny (tiny) part of me that thinks functionalism isn’t as bad as dualism (which itself isn’t *that* bad)).

Why, then, do I spend so much time defending the higher-order theory? When I was still an  undergraduate student I thought that the higher-order thought theory of consciousness was obviously false. After studying it for a while and thinking more carefully about it I revised my credence to ‘not obviously false’. That is, I defended it against objections because I thought they dismissed the theory unduly quickly.

Over time, and largely because of empirical reasons, I have updated my credence  from ‘not obviously false’ to ‘possibly true’ and this is where I am at now. I have become more confident that the theory is empirically and conceptually adequate but I do not by any means think that there is a decisive case for the higher-order theory.

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

Thinking about Higher-Order Thought Theories of Consciousness

I have on occasion been accused of being a “Higher-Order Theorist” and I suppose I will have to plead guilty to that at this point! I have spent a lot of time thinking, talking, and writing about the higher-order thought theory of consciousness. A lot of that thinking occurred here at Philosophy Sucks! and so I have gathered links to the posts I have written over the past 10 years exploring various aspects of the higher-order thought theory of consciousness (some which have been incorporated into various publications of mine but others haven’t).

Altogether I counted 51 posts, which is about 10% of my total posts!

  1. Explaining What It’s Like
  2. Do Thoughts Make Us Conscious of Things?
  3. A Tale of Two T’s
  4. Two Concepts of Transitive Consciousness
  5. Kripke, Consciousness, and the ‘Corn
  6. As ‘Corny as I want to Be
  7. HOT Fun in the Summertime 1
  8. HOT Fun in the Summertime 2
  9. Gary and Jerry
  10. On Hallucinating Pain
  11. Consciousness, Relational Properties, and Higher-Order Theories
  12. Consciousness is not a Relational Property
  13. Varieties of Higher-Order Zombie
  14. Empirical Support for the Higher-Order Theory of Consciousness
  15. The Function of Consciousness in Higher-Order Theories
  16. That’s not an Argument
  17. The Introspective HOT Zombie Problem
  18. Is There Such a Thing as a Neurophilosophical Theory of Consciousness?
  19. Implementing the Transitivity Principle
  20. Priming and Change Blindness
  21. Priming, Change Blindness, and the Function of Consciousness
  22. Unconscious Change Detection, Priming, and the Function of Consciousness
  23. HOT Fun in the Wintertime?
  24. Rosenthal’s Objection
  25. Pain Asymbolia and Higher-Order Theories of Consciousness
  26. There’s Something about Jerry
  27. HOT (Still) Implies PAM
  28. HOT Theories of Consciousness & Unconscious Gricean Intentions
  29. The Higher-Order Response to the Zombie Argument
  30. HOT Imagination
  31. HOT Byrne
  32. Consciousness, Consciousness, Consciousness!
  33. HOT Dam it’s a HO Down-Showdown
  34. Unconscious Introspection and Higher-Order Theories of Consciousness
  35. HOT Qualia Realism
  36. HOT Block
  37. More HOTer, More Better
  38. Higher-Order Mental Pointing
  39. The New New Dualism
  40. Dream a little dream
  41. Phenomenally HOT
  42. Same-Order Theories of Consciousness and the Failure of Phenomenal Intimacy
  43. Explaining Consciousness and its Consequences
  44. Cognitive Access: The Only Game in Town 
  45. Explaining Cartesian Consciousness
  46. The Overflow Cup Runneth Over
  47. The Nature of Phenomenal Consciousness
  48. Introspection, Acquaintance, and Higher-Order Representations
  49. Kozuch on Lau and Brown
  50. Gottlieb on Presentational Character and Higher-Order Thought Theories of Consciousness
  51. Seager on the Empirical Case for Higher-Order Theories of Consciousness

My Issues with Daniel Dennett

Dennett has been absent from philosophy of mind conferences for some time now. In fact I seem to remember being at an Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness meeting in Pasadena in 2005 and overhearing him say that he was passing on the torch to the younger generation (I forget who he was talking to at that time, and in fact it may have been at the Neurophilosophy conference held at CalTech that same weekend). At any rate he was true to his word and was absent from the scene for a period of time. He came back to participate in a few conferences, including the Online Consciousness Conference in 2013, now with his new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, he is back in full swing.

There has been a lot of discussion of his new book, including by himself, by Thomas Nagel in the New York Review of Books, and an extensive profile in The New Yorker, as well as a bunch of other places. I don’t know him personally, though we did email bunch as I co-ordinated the online consciousness conference and I did review a book that was devoted to his work and which had a response from him. Anyway, he seems like a really nice guy and he is certainly very smart but his philosophical views, and his way of doing philosophy in general, have always really bothered me.

I first encountered his work in a philosophy of mind course that I had with Kent Bach. This was at San Francisco State University and we were using the newly released The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates. We must have read three of Dennett’s papers in that class and I remember being very irritated with Dennett’s Quining Qualia and Time and the Observer papers. At the time I was a staunch supporter of Ned Block in his opposition to Dennett and I remember I wrote a lot about how I thought that Dennett was a verificationalist about consciousness. I remember I was in my modern philosophy class and the professor was talking about Descartes and how ‘radical’ his doubt was and he asked us if we could think of anything that Descartes hadn’t doubted and I said that he hadn’t doubted his own consciousness. He never asked the question, “am I a zombie, with no conscious experience (even though I believe that I have it)?” and so his method of doubt was not as radical as he thought. Dennett, on the other hand, had a truly radical kind of doubt. One that seemed impossibly absurd to me but even so it was struggling with Dennett’s arguments and ideas that really drew me into the philosophy of mind.

I had to re-read a lot of Dennett’s work to write the review of Content and Consciousness Reconsidered (linked to above) and now I have read his latest book (and watched his Talk at Google) and I can say I am as frustrated as ever with his work. I understand that he has a view (and that it is an interesting and clever one) and that he has been at this for a long time but it is astonishing to me that there is absolutely no engagement with the literature on this stuff. He does cite a lot of work but it is mostly people that Dennett is sympathetic to (or vice versa) or past students of his. He makes almost no attempt to engage with anything like a serious version of the arguments that people who don’t share his views have. And one starts to get the feeling that this is because he hasn’t read anything in the philosophy of mind during his absence.

For instance, in setting up his polemic he trots out the usual Cartesian Strawman to beg the question in effigy. He says,

The problem with Dualism, ever since Descartes, is that nobody has ever been able to offer a convincing account of how these postulated interactive transactions between mind and body could occur without violating the laws of physics. The candidates on display today offer us a choice between a revolution in science so radical that it can’t be described (which is convenient, since critics are standing by, ready to pounce) or a declaration that some things are just Mysteries, beyond human understanding (which is also convenient if you don’t have any ideas and want to exit swiftly).

I am not much of a supporter of Caresian Dualism but I am a supporter of taking one’s opponents seriously, and this doesn’t even come close!

Later he goes on to say,

Doggedly pursuing the idea that qualia are both the causes and the intentional objects (the existing intentional objects) of introspective beliefs leads to further artifactual fantasies, the most extravagant of which is the idea that unlike our knowledge of all other kinds of causation, our knowledge of mental causation is infallible and direct: we can’t be wrong when we declare that our subjective beliefs about the elements of our conscious experience are caused by those very elements. We have “privileged access” to the causes or sources of our introspective convictions. No logical room for any tricksters intervening here! We couldn’t be victimized by any illusions here! You might be a zombie, unwittingly taking yourself to have real consciousness with real qualia, but I know that I am not a zombie! No, you don’t. The only support for that conviction is the vehemence of the conviction itself, and as soon as you allow the theoretical possibility that there could be zombies, you have to give up your papal authority about your own nonzombiehood. I cannot prove this, yet, but I can encourage would-be consciousness theorists to recognize the chasm created by this move and recognize that they can’t have it both ways.

It is passages like this that drive me up the wall. I am not a dualist and I have spent a lot of time arguing that zombie are not actually conceivable but it is absolutely not the case that once you allow the possibility of zombies you loose knowledge that you aren’t a zombie. To even try to conceive of zombies requires first acknowledging that consciousness is real. My conviction that it is real comes from my own experience of it. It is a perfectly coherent view to say that I know that I am conscious and yet there could be creatures who had ‘beliefs’ like mine and yet lacked consciousness. I don’t hold that view but Dennett is much too glib here!

This is a general problem with Dennett’s work. He may be (re-)presenting his world view but there is very little effort to engage with the other side in a serious way. It is as though it is still 1965 and the main bad guy is Descartes-as-Ryle-understood-him and that doesn’t seem true. In addition Dennett’s discussion is so vague that it could fit with any number of actual theories of consciousness, including dualist ones! And there is almost no discussion of what is probably his actual view on consciousness which is almost certainly Global Workspace Theory (with some special Dennett-spice added in).

Here is his big argument against dualism:

Let’s suppose then that there is a subjective property of some kind that “explains” your current introspective convictions and abilities. Let’s suppose, that is, that when you experience what seems to be a horizontal red stripe, there really is, somewhere, a horizontal-shaped red quale (whatever that is) and it is somehow the cause or source of your conviction that you are experiencing a horizontal red stripe, and that this rendering in some unknown medium is caused or triggered by the confirmation (the absence of disconfirmation) of all the expectations generated by the normal operation of your visual system. Just to make the supposition as clear as possible, here is a somewhat expanded version of the purported explanation of the red afterimage effect:

Fixating on the real green stripes in front of you for a few seconds fatigues the relevant neural circuits in the complementary color system, which then generate a false signal (red, not green), which does not get disconfirmed so long as the fatigue lasts, so somewhere fairly high in the process betwixt retina and, um … the philosophical conviction center, a red stripe-shaped quale is rendered, and it is the appreciation of this quale that grounds, fuels, informs, causes, underwrites the philosophical conviction that right now you are enjoying a stripe-shaped red quale.

This spells out the idea behind the rhetorical question: We need something like this— don’t we?— to explain the undeniable fact that it sure seems to you there’s a red stripe right now. You’re not just saying this (the way a robot might, if programed to be a model of complementary color afterimages); you believe it with all your heart and soul. Fine. So now we have qualia installed in our sketchy model of the process. What next? Something would have to have access to the rendering in that medium (otherwise, the rendered qualia would be wasted, unwitnessed, and unappreciated, like a beautiful painting locked in an empty room). Call whatever it is that has this access the inner observer. Now what do you suppose an appropriate reaction to this rendering by this inner observer would be? What else but the judgment that there sure seems to be a red stripe out there, part of an apparent American flag? But that conclusion had already been arrived at in the course of the nondisconfirmed expectations. A red stripe in a particular location in visual space had already been identified by the system; that conclusion was the information that informed the inner rendering (the way a bitmap informs the rendering of colors on your computer screen). The postulation of qualia is just doubling up the cognitive work to be done. There is no more work (or play) for consciousness to do.

Now again, I am no fan of dualism but this is not fair at all. To name just one thing, for the dualist conscious experience is a datum and a theory needs to account for that. This is a point I am in agreement with them on. We start from the first-person knowledge that we are conscious. Hypothetical zombies, were they really conceivable (instead of just seemingly so), would not start from the position of first-person knowledge (by stipulation we differ from them in this respect). In addition I would add that from the panpsychist or panprotopsychist position there is a role for consciousness to play as the fundamental basis of the causal powers manifested by physical objects but to know that you might have to read something that has been written in the last 10 years and Dennett seems not to have done that!

This is why it has been nice to see philosophers like Keith Frankish defending illusionism with actual arguments. In fact one might wonder if the HOROR theory that I sometimes defend should count as a kind of illusionism. On the HOROR theory phenomenal consciousness consists in having a suitable higher-order representation of oneself as being in a mental state. I was originally going to write something for the Illusionism special issue but the newly acquired duties of parenthood (not to mention a 6/3-6/3 teaching load) overwhelmed me.

But I like to think that if I had managed to write that paper I would have suggested that the HOROR theory is compatible with illusionism but I myself do not see it as a version of it.

Seager on the Empirical Case for Higher-Order Theories of Consciousness

In the recent second edition of William Seager’s book Theories of Consciousness: An Introduction and Assessment he addresses some of my work on the higher-order theory. I haven’t yet read the entire book but he seems generally very skeptical of higher-order theories, which is fine. Overall the argument he presents is interesting and it allows me to clarify a few things.

It is clear from the beginning that he is interpreting the higher-order theory in the standard relational way. This is made especially clear when he says that the basic claim of higher-order theory can be put as follows:

A mental state is conscious if and only if it is the target of a suitable higher-order thought (page 94)

This is certainly the way that most people interpret the theory and is the main reason I adopted ‘HOROR’ theory as a name for the kind of view I thought was the natural interpretation of Rosenthal’s work. I seem to remember a time when I thought this was ‘the correct’ way to think about Rosenthal’s work but I have since come to believe that it is not as cut and dry and that.

This is why I have given up on Rosenthal exegesis and just pointed out that there are two differing ways to interpret the theory. One of which is the relational kind of view summed up above. The other is the non-relation view, which I have argued allows us to capture key insights of the first-order theories. On this alternative interpretation the first-order state is not ‘made’ phenomenally conscious by the higher-order state. Rather the higher-order state just is phenomenal consciousness. Simply having the appropriate higher-order state is what being phenomenally conscious consists in, there is nothing more to it than that. This is the way I interpret the higher-order theory.

Seager comes close to recognizing this when he says (on page 94),

Denial of (CS) [the claim that “if S is conscious then S is in (or has) at least one conscious state”] offers a clear escape hatch for HOT theory. Contrast that clarity with this alternative characterization of the issue ‘[c]onscious states are states we are conscious of ourselves as being in, whether we are actually in them’ (Rosenthal 2002 p 415). Here Rosenthal appears to endorse the existence of a conscious state which is not the target of a higher-order thought, contrary to HOT theory itself. If so then HOT theory is not the full account of the nature of conscious states and it is time to move on to other theories. I submit that it is better for HOT theorists to reject (CS) and allow for creatures to be conscious in certain ways in the absence of an associated conscious mental state.

The quote from Rosenthal is an accurate one and it does summarize his views. If one interprets it my way, as basically saying that the higher-order state is the phenomenally conscious state, then we do have a conscious state that is not the target of a higher-order state (or at least which need not be). This is because the higher-order state is phenomenally conscious but not because of a further higher-order state. It is because being phenomenally conscious consists in being aware of yourself in the way the higher-order theory requires. As I have argued, in several places, this does not require that we give up the higher-order theory or adopt a ‘same-order theory’. HOROR theory is the higher-order thought theory correctly interpreted.

It thus turns out that phenomenal consciousness is not the same thing as ‘state consciousness’ as it is usually defined on the traditional higher-order theory. That property involves being the target of the higher-order state. This is something that, on my view, reduces to the causal connections between higher-order states, and their conceptual contents, and the first-order states. This will amount to a causal theory of reference for higher-order states. They refer to the first-order states which cause them in the right way. The states to which they refer are what I call the ‘targets’ of the higher-order states. So, for me the targeting relation is causal, but for Rosenthal and others more influenced by Quine it essentially amounts to describing. Thus for Rosenthal the target of the relevant higher-order state will be the first-order state which ‘fits the description’ in the higher-order content. I suppose I could live with either of these ultimately but I do think you need to say something about this on the higher-order account. At any rate on my view being the target of the higher-order state tells us which state we are aware of and the content of the higher-order state tells us the way in which we are aware of it. The two typically occur together but if I had to call one the phenomenally conscious state it would be the higher-order state.

Seager goes on to say in the next paragraph,

One might try to make a virtue of necessity here and seek for confirmation of the false HOT scenario. There have been some recent attempts to marshall empirical evidence for consciousness in the absence of lower-level states but with the presence of characteristic higher-order thoughts, thus showing that the latter are sufficient to generate consciousness (see Lau and Rosenthal 2011; Lau and Brown forthcoming; Brown 2015). The strategy of these efforts is clear: Find the neural correlates of higher-order thoughts posited by HOT theory, test subjects on tasks which sometimes elicit consciousness and sometimes do not (e.g. present them with an image for a very short time and ask them to report on what they saw), and, ideally, observe that no lower-order states occur even in the case where subjects report seeing something. Needless to say, it is a difficult strategy to follow. (page 95)

I would quibble with the way that things are put here but overall I agree with it. The quibbles come from the characterization of the strategy. What Lau and I were arguing was that we want to find cases where the first-order state is either absent or degraded, or  otherwise less rich than the conscious experiences of subjects. So we would be happy just with a mis-match between the first-order and higher-order cases. Whether we ever get the ideal total absence of first-order states is maybe too high of a bar. This is why in the work that Lau does he aims to produce cases where task performance is matched but subjective reports differ. The primary goal is to show that conscious experience outstrips what is represented at the first-order level. It is a difficult strategy to follow but all we can do is to use the tools we have to try to test the various theories of consciousness.

Seager then goes on to focus on the case of the rare form of Charles Bonnett syndrome. In these rare cases subjects report very vivid visual hallucinations even though there is extensive damage to the primary visual cortex. Seager briefly considers Miguel Sebastian’s objection based on dreaming but then objects that

…a deeper problem undercuts the empirical case, tentative though it is, for HOT theory and the empty HOT scenario. This is a confusion about the nature of the lower-order and higher-order cognitive states ate issue. ‘Lower-order’ does not mean ‘early’ and ‘higher-order’ does not mean ‘later’ in the brain’s processing of information. Higher-order refers specifically to thoughts about mental states as such; lower-order states are not about thoughts as such but are about the world as presented to the subject (including the subject’s body).

There is little reason to think that lower-order states, properly conceived, should be implemented in low-level or entry-level sensory systems. It is not likely that an isolated occipital lobe would generate visually conscious states.

Nor is it unlikely that lower-order states, states, that is, which represent the world and the body occur in ‘higher’ brain regions such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. It would be astounding if that brain region were devoted to higher-order thoughts about mental states as such. (page 96)

I largely agree with the points being made here but I do not think that Lau and I were confused about this. The first thing I would say is that we are pretty explicit that we adopt the usage that we think the typical first-order theorist does (and especially Ned Block) and that we include areas outside the occipital lobe “that are known to contain high number of neurons explicitly coding for visual objects (e.g. fusiform face area)”  as first-order areas (see footnote 7 in the paper).

In the second instance we talked about three empirical cases in the paper and each was used for a slightly different purpose. When people discuss this paper, though, they typically focus on one out of the three. Here is how we summed up the cases in the paper:

To sum up, there are three kinds of Empirical Cases – Rare Charles Bonnet Cases (i.e. Charles Bonnet cases that result specifically from damage to the primary visual cortex), Inattentional Inflation (i.e. the results of Rahnev et al, in press and in review) and Peripheral Vision (introspective evidence from everyday life). The three cases serve slightly different purposes. The Rare Charles Bonnet Cases highlight the possibility of vivid conscious experience in the absence of primary visual cortex. If we take the primary visual cortex as the neural structure necessary for first-order representations, this is a straightforward case of conscious experience without first-order representations. In Inattentional Inflation, the putative first-order representations are not missing under the lack of attention, but they are not strong enough to account for the “inflated” level of reported subjective perception, in that both behavioral estimates of the signal-to-noise ratio of processing and brain imaging data show that there was no difference in overall quality or capacity in the first-order perceptual signal, which does not concern only the primary visual cortex but also other relevant visual areas. Finally, Peripheral Vision gives introspective evidence that conscious experience may not faithfully reflect the level of details supported by first-order visual processing. Though this does not depend on precise

laboratory measures, it gives an intuitive argument that is not constrained by specific experimental details.

So I don’t think Seager’s criticism of us as being confused about this is fair.

In addition, in recent work with Joe LeDoux we endorse the second claim made by Seager. We explicitly argue that the ‘lower-order’ states we are interested in will occur in working emory and likely even dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex.

But even if I think Seager is wrong to accuse us of being insensitive or confused about this issue I do think he goes on to present an interesting argument. He goes on to say,

The problem can be illustrated by the easy way HOT (or HOT-like) theorists pass over this crucial distinction. Consider these remarks from Richard Brown:

Anyone who has had experience with wine will know that acquiring a new word will sometimes allow one to make finer-grained distinctions in the experience that one has. One interpretation of what is going on here is that learning the new word results in one’s having a new concept and the application of this concept allows one to represent one’s mental life in a more fine-grained way. This results in more phenomenal properties in one’s experience…that amounts to the claim that one represents one’s mental life as instantiating different mental qualities.

Those unsympathetic to HOT theory will balk at this description. What is acquired is an enhanced ability to perceive or appreciate the wine in this case, not the experience of the wine (the experience itself does not seem to have any distinctive perceivable properties). After training the taster has new lower-order states which better characterize the wine, not new higher-order states aimed at and mentally characterizing the experience of tasting the wine.

Since there is no reason to restrict lower-order states to relatively peripheral sensory systems, it will be very hard to make out an empirical case for HOT theory and the empty HOT scenario in the way suggested. (pages 96-97)

The quote he offers here is from the HOROR paper and so it is interesting to see that the proposed solution, that the higher-order state is phenomenally conscious and that this is not giving up on the higher-order theory, is neglected.

Before going on I should say that I am pretty much sympathetic to the point being made here. I think there is a first-order account of what is going on. I also tend to think that this is ultimately an empirical issue. If there were a way to test this that would be great but I am not sure we have the capacity to do so yet. But my main point in the paper was not to offer this as a phenomenon that the first-order theorist couldn’t explain. What I was intending to do was to argue that the higher-order interpretation is one consistent interpretation of this phenomenon. It fits naturally with the theory and shows that there is nothing absurd in the basic tenet of the HOROR theory that phenomenal consciousness really is just a kind of higher-order thought, with conceptual content.

As I read Rosenthal he does not think the first-order account is plausible. For Rosenthal we are explicitly focusing on our experience sin these kinds of cases. One takes a drink of the wine and focuses on the taste of the wine. This may be done even after one has swallowed the wine. The same is true for the auditory cases. It does seem plausible that in these cases I am focused on my experience, not on the wine (it is the experience of the wine of course). But if the general kind of theory he advocates is correct then one will still come to appreciate the wine itself. When I have the new fine-grained higher-order thoughts they will attribute to me finer-grained first-order states and these will be described in terms of the properties I experience the wine as having. They will thus make me consciously aware of the wine and its qualities but they do so by making me aware of the first-order states. The first-order alternative at least seems to be at a disadvantage here because it seems that on their view learning the new word produces new first-order qualities as opposed to making me aware of the qualities which were already there (as on the higher-order view). I think there is some evidence that we can have ‘top down’ activity producing/modifying lower-order states so I ultimately think this is an empirical issue. At the very least I think we can say that this argument shows that the higher-order theory makes a clear, empirically testable predication, and like the empty higher-order state claim itself, the more implausible the prediction the more of a victory it is when it is not falsified.

At any rate abstracting from all of this Seager presents an interesting argument. If I am reading it correctly the claim seems to be that the empirical case for the higher-order theory is going to be undercut because first-order theories are not committed to the claim that first-order states are to be found in early sensory areas, and might even be found in places like the dlPFC. If so then even if there were a difference in activation there, as between early sensory areas, then this by itself would not be evidence for a higher-order theory because those may be first-order states.

The way I tried to get around this kind of worry (in my Brain and its States paper) was by taking D prime to be a measure of the first-order information which is being represented. This was justified, I thought, because the first-or-lower-order states are thought by us to largely drive the task performance. D prime gives us a measure of how well the subjects perform the task (by calculating the ration of hits to false alarms) and so it seems natural to suppose it gives a measure of what the first-order states are representing. The bias in judgment can be measured by C (the criterion) in signal detection theory and this can roughly be treated as a measure of the confidence of the subjects. So, instead of looking for direct anatomical correlates we can look for matched D prime scores while there is difference in subjective report. This is exactly what Lau and his lab has been able to show in many different cases. In addition when there is fMRI data it shows no significant difference in any first-order areas while there is a difference in the prefrontal cortex. Is this due to residual first-order states in ‘higher-order’ areas? Maybe, but if so they would be accounted for in the measure of D prime. And that would not explain why subjects report a difference in visibility, or confidence, or whatever. Because of this I do not think the empirical cases has been much undermined by Seager.

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!