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.

So:

S5 HOTs do not have presentational character.

Thus:

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

Therefore:

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!

Gottlieb on Brown

I have been interested in the relationship between the transitivity principle and transparency for quite a while now. This issue has come up again in a recent paper  by Joseph Gottlieb fittingly called Transitivity and Transparency. This paper came out in Analytic Philosophy in 2016 but he actually sent me the paper beforehand. I read it and we had some email conversation about it (and this influenced my Introspective Consciousness paper (here is the Academia.edu session I had on it)) but I never got the chance to formulate any clear thoughts on it. So I figured I would give it a shot now.

There is a lot going on in the paper and so I will focus for the most part on his response to some of my early work on what will become HOROR theory. He argues that what he calls Non-State-Relational Transitivity, is not an ‘acceptable consistency gloss’ on the transitivity principle. So what is a consistency gloss? The article is technical (it did come out in Analytic Philosophy, after all!). For Gottlieb this amounts to giving a precisification of the transitivity principle that renders it compatible with what he calls Weak Transparency. He defines these terms as follows,

TRANSITIVITY: Conscious mental states are mental states we are aware of in some way.

W-TRANSPARENCY: For at least one conscious state M, it is impossible to:

(a) TRANSPARENCY-DIRECT: Stand in a direct awareness relation to M, or; (b) TRANSPARENCY-DE RE: Stand in a de re awareness relation to M, or; (c) TRANSPARENCY-INT: Stand in an introspective awareness relation to M,

His basic claim, then, is that there is no way of making precise the statement of transitivity above in such a way as to render it consistent with the weak version of transparency that he thinks should count as a truism or platitude.

Of course my basic claim, one that I have made since the beginning of thinking about these issues, is that there is a way of doing this but it requires a proper understanding of what the transitivity principle says. If we do not interpret the theory as claiming that a first-order state is made conscious by the higher-order state (as Gottlieb does in TRANSITIVITY above) but instead think of transitivity as telling us that a conscious experience is one that makes me aware of myself as being in first-order states then we have a way to satisfy Weak Transparency.

So what is Gottlieb’s problem with this way of interpreting the transitivity principle? He has a section of the paper discussing this kind of move. He says,

4.3 Non-State-Relational Transitivity

As it stands, TRANSITIVITY posits a relation between a higher-order state and a first-order state. But not all Higher-Order theorists construe TRANSITIVITY this way. Instead, some advance:

  • NON-STATE-RELATIONAL TRANSITIVITY: A conscious mental state is a mental state whose subject is aware of itself as being in that state.

NON-STATE-RELATIONAL TRANSITIVITY is an Object-Side Precisification. And it appears promising. For it says that we are aware of ourselves as being in conscious states, not simply that we are aware of our conscious states. These are different claims.

I agree that this is an importantly different way of thinking about the transitivity principle. However, I do not think that I actually endorse this version of the transitivity principle. As it is stated here NON-STATE-RELATIONAL TRANSITIVITY is still cast in terms of the first-order state.

What I mean by that is when we ask the question ‘which metal state is phenomenally conscious?’ the current proposal would answer ‘the mental state the subject is aware of itself as being in’. Now, I do think that this is most likely the way that Rosenthal and Weisberg think of non-state-relational transitivity but this is not the way that I think about it.

I have not put this in print yet (though it is in a paper in draft stage) but the way I would reformulate the transitivity principle would be as follows (or at least along these general lines),

  • A mental state is phenomenally conscious only if it appropriately makes one aware of oneself as being in some first-order mental state

This way of putting things emphasizes the claim that the higher-order state itself is the phenomenally conscious state.

Part of what I think is going on here is that there is an ambiguity in terms like ‘awareness’. When we say that we are aware of a first-order state, or whatever, what we should mean, from the higher-order perspective, is that the higher-order state aims at or targets or represents or whatever the first-order state. I have toyed with the idea that the ‘targeting’ relation boils down to a kind of causal-reference relation. But then we can also ask ‘how does it appear to the subject?’ and there it is not the case that we should say that it appears to the subject that they are aware of the first-order state. The subject will seemingly be aware of the items in the environment and this is because of the higher-order content of the higher-order representation.

Gottlieb thinks that non-state-relational transitivity,

 …will do nothing with respect to W-TRANSPARENCY…For presumably there will be (many!) cases where I am in the conscious state I am aware of myself as being in, and so cases where we will still need to ask in what sense I am aware of those states, and whether that sense comports with W-TRANSPARENCY. NON-STATE-RELATIONAL TRANSITIVITY doesn’t obviously speak to this latter question, though; the awareness we have of ourselves is de re, and presumably direct, but whether that’s also true of the awareness we have of our conscious states is another issue. So as it stands, NON-STATE-RELATIONAL TRANSITIVITY is not a consistency gloss.

I think it should be clear by now that this may apply to the kind of view he discusses, and that this view may even be one you could attribute to Rosenthal or Weisberg, but it is not the kind of view that I have advocated.

According to my view the higher-order state is itself the phenomenally conscious state, it is the one that there is something that it is like for one to be in. What, specifically, it is like, will depend on the content of the higher-order representation. That is to say, the way the state describes one’s own self determined what it is like for you. When the first order state is there, it, the first-order state, will be accurately described but that is besides the point. W-transparency is clearly met by the HOROR version of higher-order theory. And if what I said above can hold water then it is still a higher-order theory which endorses a version of the transitivity principle but it is able to simultaneously capture many of the intuitions touted as evidence for first-order theories.

A Higher-Order Theory of Emotional Consciousness

I am very happy to be able to say that the paper I have been writing with Joseph E. LeDoux is out in PNAS (Proceeding of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States). In this paper we develop a higher-order theory of conscious emotional experience.

I have been interested in the emotions for quite some time now. I wrote my dissertation trying to show that it was possible to take seriously the role that the emotions play in our moral psychology which is seemingly revealed by contemporary cognitive neuroscience, and which I take to suggest that one of the basic premises of emotivism is true. But at the same time I wanted to preserve the space for one to also take seriously some kind of moral realism. In the dissertation I was more concerned with the philosophy of language than with the nature of the emotions but I have always been attracted to a rather simplistic view on which the differing conscious emotions differ with respect to the way in which they feel subjectively (I explore this as a general approach to the propositional attitudes in The Mark of the Mental). The idea that emotions are feelings is an old one in philosophy but has fallen out of favor in recent years. I also felt that in fleshing out such an account the higher-order approach to consciousness would come in handy. This idea was really made clear when I reviewed the book Feelings and Emotions: The Amsterdam Symposium. I felt that it would be a good idea to approach the science of emotions with the higher-order theory of consciousness in mind.

That was back in 2008 and since then I have not really followed up on any of the ideas in my dissertation. I have always wanted to but have always found something else at the moment to work on and that is why it is especially nice to have been working with Joseph LeDoux explicitly combining the two. I am very happy with the result and look forward to any discussion.

The Nature of Consciousness

A couple of exciting developments today. First, over at Brains the symposium on Paul Churchland’s Matter and Consciousness 3rd edition is underway. It features commentary by Amy Kind, Pete Mandik, and William Ramsey. It will run through mid-Setember so be sure to check it out and get involved in the discussion!

In other news, today is the 5th anniversary of my dissertation defense. It’s kind of hard to believe that it has already been five years but there it is. Does this mean that I am not a junior faculty member anymore? That would be nice. Anyway, this time last year I gave the opening talk at the Graduate Center’s philosophy colloquium (see here for the post I wrote on it afterwards). Since then I have been very very busy but I have recently got back to writing up the paper which that talk was based on. It is still very much a rough draft but as usual feedback is appreciated!

Introspection, Acquaintance, and Higher-Order Representations

Over at Brains Wayne Wu has been posting about, among other things, introspection and attention. One of the interesting things to come out of the discussion was the notion of ‘cognitive attention’ which consists in directing one’s thoughts. If this is truly a kind of attention then perhaps we can see higher-order thought and AIR theories as invoking different kinds of attention while both accept the transitivity principle. I hope to come back to this issue because I think it is time to start thinking about the connections between these two theories (and especially how we might experimentally differentiate them) but I will have to put that off. In this post I want to argue that higher-order theories are compatible with the acquaintance approach (see Brie Gertler’s comment for some links to some papers on this).

Before we begin we should note a potential confound here that may result in people talking past one another. Typically introspection is thought of as producing thoughts of the form ‘I am in pain now’ or ‘pain is instantiated in me now’ (see Brie Gertler’s paper in the link above for instance). And, of course, it is exactly these kinds of thoughts that higher-orer thought theories invoke to explain phenomenal consciousness in the first place. But of course by ‘pain’ the opponent to higher-order theories simply means what we would call ‘conscious pain’ and so we should reinterpret the above introspective claims as ‘I am in conscious pain now’ or ‘conscious pain is instantiated in me now’. They take the ‘conscious pain’ bit to actually be the phenomenal property of pain itself. A large art of the project that I have been engaged in recently has been to show that there is a way of thinking of higher-order thought theory that lets us, if we want, keep all of the benefits of the first-order theorist. On this view phenomenal consciousness consists in instantiating the right kind of higher-order representation. In particular one that attributes mental states and properties to the subject of the experience. This is what I have called the HOROR theory of phenomenal consciousness and it is metaphysically neutral.

In fact it looks like Dave endorses a non-physical version of this kind of theory in his response to Benj Hellie that he mentions in the discussion. There he says,

In effect, our phenomenology involves both a foreground awareness of redness and a background acquaintance with our awareness of redness. I think the most plausible line here is that phenomenal awareness is an acquaintance-involving relation by its very nature: in virtue of the nature of awareness, to be aware of x entails being acquainted with one’s awareness of x

and in the footnote he continues,

This is a relative of higher-order representation theories of consciousness, and especially of the Brentano-style self-representational views of consciousness that have become popular in recent years (see e.g. Kriegel and Williford 20xx). Some differences: the background awareness should be understood as Russellian instance-acquaintance rather than as a standard form of representation (this immediately avoids all objections from higher-order misrepresentation as well as from oversophistication), and the view does not lend any support to reductive views of consciousness. The awareness relation that the view appeals to is irreducibly a phenomenal relation. Of course someone might attempt to turn this into a reductive theory by identifying the awareness relation by a relation understood in functional terms, say. But just as in the case of first-order representationalism (discussed in chapter 8 of TCC), this move requires an additional and independent functionalism about the phenomenal, a view that is no more plausible here than elsewhere, and which leads to an explanatory gap that is as wide as ever.

Now here he is talking about phenomenal consciousness and not introspection and I am not sure whether the view is that this entire complex gets embedded in an introspective judgement or whether introspecting involves the background awareness coming to the foreground but either way is compatible with the HOROR theory. So, consider the way that Gertler lays out the Acquaintance Approach. She sums it up in the following three theses,

[Acquaintance Approach] Some introspective knowledge consists in judgments that
(1) are directly tied to their truthmakers;
(2) depend, for their justification, only on the subject’s conscious states at the time of the judgment; and
(3) are more strongly justified than any empirical judgments that do not meet conditions (1) and (2).

To be ‘directly tied’ on her account involves demonstrative attention and though that is not a requirement of the view I am happy enough with it. So, on the HOROR theory what will be required is that we deploy demonstrative attention to the proper higher-order representation and is compatible with (1). The term ‘conscious state’ in (2) should be interpreted as the appropriate higher-order representation and so the claim is just that some introspective judgements are justified solely by certain higher-order representations, which is compatible with HOROR theory and because of (1) and (2) these judgments are more strongly justified than other that don’t meet (1) and (2).

So not only is the HOROR theory compatible with introspective acquaintance it is also compatible with ‘same-order’ acquaintance.

The Phenomenology of HOT

I am happy to announce that Pete Mandik and I have finished our co-authored paper on higher-order thought theories of consciousness and cognitive phenomenology, which is forthcoming in the issue of Philosophical Topics that features participants from the 4th Online Consciousness Conference. Check it out!