Way back on November 20th 2009 Benji Kozuch came and gave a talk at the CUNY Cognitive Science series and became the first to be persuaded by me to attempt an epic marathon of cognitive science, drinking, and jamming! The mission: give a 3 hour talk followed by intense discussion over drinks (and proceeded by intense discussion over lunch) followed by a late night jam session at a midtown rehearsal studio. This monstrous marathon typically begins at noon with lunch and then concludes sometime around 10 pm when the jamming is done (drinks after jamming optional). That’s 10 hours-plus of philosophical and musical mayhem! We recorded the jam that night but it was subsequently ruined and no one has ever heard what happened that night…which is probably for the best!
This was just before our first open jam session at the Parkside Lounge (the first one was held after the American Philosophical Association meeting in NYC December 2009), which became the New York Consciousness Collective and gave rise to Qualia Fest. But this itself was the culmination of a lot of music playing going back to the summer of 2006. The last Qualia Fest was in 2012 but since then we have had two other brave members of Club Cogsci. One is myself (in 2015) and the other is Joe LeDoux (in 2016). That’s 10 year’s of jamming with cognitive scientists and philosophers! Having done it myself, I can say it is grueling and special thanks go to Benji for being such a champion.
Putting all of that to one side, Kozuch has in some recent publications argued against the position that I tentatively support. In particular in his 2014 Philosophical Studies paper he argued that evidence from lesions to prefrontal areas cast doubt on higher-order theories of consciousness (see Lau and Rosenthal for a defense of higher-order theories against this kind of charge). I have for sometime meant to post something about this (at one point I thought I might have a conference presentation based on this)…but, as is becoming more common, it has taken a while to get to it! Teaching a 6/3-6/3 load has been stressful but I think I am beginning to get the hang of how to manage time and to find the time to have some thoughts that are not related to children or teaching 🙂
The first thing I would note is that Kozuch clearly has the relational version of the higher-order theory in mind. In the opening setup he says,
…[Higher-Order] theories claim that a mental state M cannot be phenomenally conscious unless M is targeted by some mental state M*. It is precisely this claim that is my target.
This is one way of characterizing the higher-order approach but I have spent a lot of time suggesting that this is not the best way to think of higher-order theories. This is why I coined the term ‘HOROR theory’. I used to think that the non-relational way of doing things was closer to the spirit of what Rosenthal intended but now I think that this is a pointless debate and that there are just (at least) two different ways of thinking about higher-order theories. On the one kind, as Kozuch says, the first-order state M is made phenomenally conscious by the targeting of M by some higher-order state.
I have argued that another way of thinking about all of this is that it is not the first-order state that gets turned into a phenomenally conscious state. This is because of things like Block’s argument, and the empirical evidence (as I interpret that evidence at least). Now this would not really matter if all Kozuch wanted to do was to argue against the relational view, I might even join him in that! But if he is going to cite my work and argue against the view that I endorse then the HOROR theory might make a difference. Let’s see.
The basic premise of the paper is that if a higher-order theory is true then we have good reason to think that damaging or impairing the brain areas associated with the higher-order awareness should impair conscious experience. From here Kozuch argues that the best candidate for the relevant brain areas are the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. I agree that we have enough evidence to take this area seriously as a possible candidate for an area important for higher-order awareness, but I also think we need to keep in mind other prefrontal areas, and even the possibility that different prefrontal areas may have different roles to play in the higher-order awareness.
At any rate I think I can agree with Kozuch’s basic premise that if we damaged the right parts of the prefrontal cortex we should expect loss or degradation of visual phenomenology. But what would count as evidence of this? If we call an area of the brain an integral area only if that area is necessary for conscious experience then what will the result of disabling that area be? Kozuch begins to answer this question as follows,
It is somewhat straightforward what would happen if each of a subject’s integral areas (or networks) were disabled. Since the subject could no longer produce those HO states necessary for visual consciousness, we may reasonably predict this results in something phenomenologically similar to blindness.
I think this is somewhat right. From the subject’s point of view there would be no visual phenomenology but I am not sure this is similar to blindness, where a subject seems to be aware of their lack of visual phenomenology (or at least can be made aware). Kozuch is careful to note in a footnote that it is at least a possibility that subjects may loose conscious phenomenology but fail to notice it but I do not think he takes it as seriously as he should.
This is because the higher-order theory, especially the non-relational version I am most likely to defend, the first-order states largely account for the behavioral data and the higher-order states account for visual phenomenology. Thus in a perfect separation of the two, that is in a case of just first-order states and no higher-order states at all then according to the theory the behavior of the animal will largely be undisturbed. The first-order states will produce their usual effects and the animal will be able to sort, push buttons, etc. They will not be able to report on their experience, or any changes therein, because they will not have the relevant higher-order states to be aware that they are having any first-order states at all. I am not sure this is what is happening in these cases (I have heard some severe skepticism over whether these second hand reports should be given much weight) but it is not ruled out theoretically and so we haven’t got any real evidence that pushes past one’s intuitive feel for these things. Kozuch comes close to recognizing this when he says, in a footnote,
In what particular manner should we expect the deficits to be detected? I do not precisely know, but one could guess that a subject with a disabled integral area would not perform normally on (at least some) tests of their visual abilities. Failing that, we could probably still expect the subject to volunteer information indicating that things ‘‘seemed’’ visually different to her.
But both of these claims are disputed by the higher-order theory!
Later in the paper where Kozuch is addressing some of the evidence for the involvement of the prefrontal cortex he introduces the idea of redundancy. If someone objects that taking away on integral area does not dramatically diminish visual phenomenology because of some other area taking over or covering for it then he claims we are committed to the view that there are redundant duplications of first-order contents at the higher-order level. But this does not seem right to me. An alternative view is that the prefrontal areas are all contributing something different to the content of the higher-orderr representation and taking one away may take away one component of the overall representations. We do not need to appeal to redundancy to explain why there may not be dramatic changes in the conscious experiences of subjects.
Finally, I would say that I wish Kozuch had addressed what I take to be the main argument in Lau and Brown (and elsewhere), which is that we have empirical cases which suggest that there is a difference in the conscious visual phenomenology of a subject but where the first-order representations do not seem like they would be different in the relevant way. In one case, the Rare Charles Bonnett case, we have a reason to think that the first-order representations are too weak to capture the rich phenomenal experience. In another case, subjective inflation, we have reason to think that the first-order states are held roughly constant while the phenomenology changes.
-photo by Jared Blank