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 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.

Zombies vs Shombies

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

Clip Show ‘011

It’s that time of year again! Here are the top posts of 2011 (see last year’s clip show and the best of all time)

–Runner Up– News Flash: Philosophy Sucks!

Philosophy is unavoidable; that is part of why it sucks!

10. Epiphenomenalism and Russellian Monism

Is Russellian Monism committed to epiphenomenalism about consciousness? Dave Chalmers argues that it is not.

9. Bennett on Non-Reductive Physicalism

Karen Bennett argues that the causal exclusion argument provides an argument for physicalism and that non-reductive physicalism is not ruled out by it. I argue that she is wrong and that the causal exclusion argument does cut against non-reductive physicalism.

8. The Zombie Argument Requires Phenomenal Transparency

Chalmers argues that the zombie argument goes through even without an appeal to the claim that the primary and secondary intension of ‘consciousness’ coincide. I argue that it doesn’t. Without an appeal to transparency we cannot secure the first premise of the zombie argument.

7. The Problem of Zombie Minds

Does conceiving of zombies require that we be able to know that zombies lack consciousness? It seems like we can’t know this so there may be a problem conceiving of zombies. I came to be convinced that this isn’t quite right, but still a good post (plus I think we can use the response here in a way that helps the physicalist who wants to say that the truth of physicalism is conceivable…more on that later, though)

6. Stazicker on Attention and Mental Paint

Can we have phenomenology that is indeterminate? James Stazicker thinks so.

5. Consciousness Studies in 1000 words (more) or less

I was asked to write a short piece highlighting some of the major figures and debates in the philosophical study of consciousness for an intro textbook. This is what I came up with

4. Cohen and Dennett’s Perfect Experiment

Dennett’s response to the overflow argument and why I think it isn’t very good

3. My Musical Autobiography

This was big year for me in that I came into possession of some long-lost recordings of my death metal band from the 1990’s as well as some pictures. This prompted me to write up a brief autobiography of my musical ‘career’

2. You might be a Philosopher

A collection of philosophical jokes that I wrote plus some others that were prompted by mine.

1. Phenomenally HOT

Some reflections on Ned Block and Jake Berger’s response to my claim that higher-order thoughts just are phenomenal consciousness

Two Ways to (Not) Think About Unicorns

Listening back to the discussion Pete and I had, as well as my previous post on this stuff, and something occurred to me. There really are two different ways of thinking about the concept “unicorn”. One way is the way that I have been thinking about it ad that is as a regular natural kind term like ‘horse’, ‘tiger’, etc. Concepts like this, according to me, are best treated along the lines of a causal-historical account like the Kripkean inspired theory that Devitt produced. But there is another way of thinking about unicorn, one that thinks of it as like ‘bachelor’ rather than ‘tiger’. Terms like that are best treated in terms of a conceptual-role theory. So, it is the relations between the concept ‘bachelor’, ‘unmarried’, and ‘male’ that makes my thought that all bachelors are unmarried males true. If one thought about ‘unicorn’ like this, one might think that it is the conceptual relations between ‘unicorn’, ‘horse’, and ‘horn’ have that make it the case that when I am thinking about unicorns I am thinking about horned horses. That is, one might think of the concept ‘unicorn’ as being defined as ‘horse with a horn’. Now, it seems to me that we employ both kinds of representations in thought so then the question becomes one of which kind features in the content of higher-order thoughts. I claim that it is the former and not the latter and that that matters.

Can We Think About Non-Existent Objects?

I am scheduled to record a conversation with Pete Mandik for Philosophy TV tomorrow on higher-order approaches to consciousness and in the course of preparing for it I was rereading Pete’s Unicorn paper where, among other things, Pete gives several arguments that we are in fact able to think about non-existent objects. I do not think that we can.

It may seem quite natural to think that the answer to the above question is ‘yes’. For instance, we think of Count Dracula, unicorns, Santa Claus, and many other examples of this kind. If we take ‘thinking about’ to involve having some kind of relationship with the thing that is thought about this can seem crazy. If I am thinking about Santa Claus, for instance, that would mean that there would have to be some object that I was related to and since Santa doesn’t exist the object would seem to be a very strange one indeed! What should we conclude from this? Should we conclude that ‘thinking about’ doesn’t really involve a relationship between the thinker and the thing thought about?

Suppose that one accepted some kind of causal-historical account of the reference of (at least some of) our concepts and that thinking about x means tokening a thought containing a mental representation of x with the approriate causal-historical connection to x. So, to rehearse a familiar picture, Some child is born, his parents say “let’s call him  ‘Saul Kripke'”, other people are told “this is Saul Kripke” and thereby acquire the ability to refer to this child. Over time this name propagates, like a chain, link by link to us. So that when I think about Saul Kripke I employ a thought token that traces a causal-historical route back to the initial “baptism”. If this were the case, and one thought that natural kind terms worked like this as well, one would end up denying that we think about non-existent objects. The concept UNICORN has as its reference whatever it is that actually turns out to have been “baptized”. This may turn out to be a deformed goat, a hallucination, or maybe an imaginative act on the part of a person, whatever it actually turns out to be is what we are thinking about when we think about unicorns and that thing exists. So too for Dracula, Santa Claus, Jackalopes, etc.

But what about when we think thoughts like ‘there are no square circles’? Aren’t we thinking about square circles? I don’t think we are. Rather I think we are having an existentially quantified thought to the effect that nothing is both square and circular at the same time. Aha! Aren’t existentially quantified statements that are actually false examples of thinking about non-existent objects? If I think that the present King of France is bald, and there is no present King of France, are not I thinking about a non-existent object? Of course not! What you are thinking is that there is someone or other who is the present King of France and that is just plain, ordinary, boring false. There is no non-existent object which is correctly described as the one you are thinking about.

But isn’t denying that we can think about non-existent objects self refuting? What have we been talking about this whole time if not whether or not there are any of this kind of thought! So denying that there are any just shows that we have been thinking about non-existent objects all along! The very thoughts about non-existent objects that we have been discussing. But this is too quick. This is again just another example of an existentially quantified statement. ‘There are no thoughts about non-existent objects’ is really just saying that thoughts about non-existent objects don’t exist but that does not thereby mean that I am thinking about some non-existent objects! And this is for just the same reason as above; there are no objects which can be correctly described as the ones that I am thinking about.

So I am inclined to deny that we can think about non-existent objects…I am not saying that everyone should but only that there is a reasonable view, one that we ought to accept for other reasons not gone into here, and which denies that we think about non-existent objects. What this has to do with consciousness and Pete’s unicorn argument I will save for tomorrow’s discussion.