Consciousness as Representing One’s Mind: Rethinking the Higher-Order Thought Theory of Consciousness

Word on the street is that I am allegedly writing a book on consciousness…woah betide us, this is certainly the final indicator that we are in the most absurd of simulations! At any rate,I don’t have a contract or anything but there is ‘some interest’ in my completing a draft from a press, which is cool I guess (I can think of at least 4 people who would actually read a book like this!). To help motivate me I have decided to put up chapters here as I draft them. My plan is to officially start this summer, since I seem to be only teaching one class in my summer session (I usually do 3 so it feels light). I don’t have anything I want to share yet, but below is the plan of attack i.e. the proposal for the book). Stay tuned!

  1. Brief Description – The cognitive neuroscience of conscious is establishing itself as a viable branch of neuroscience. Currently the field is at the point where there are a variety of theories about the nature of consciousness on offer and we would like to compare the predictions that various theories make to narrow down the plausible candidates. This makes it especially important to develop the candidate theories in enough detail that they could meaningfully confront the tribunal of experience (i.e., be subject to possible empirical falsification). Higher-order theories of consciousness have enjoyed some attention in philosophy and have very recently been taken seriously by neuroscientists aiming to empirically test the theory. However, because of the way that the higher-order approach has been presented a version of the theory -which I think of as one of the most promising versions- has been overlooked. This book will develop and defend this Higher-Order Representation of a Representation (HOROR) theory of phenomenal consciousness. My goal, as stated above, will be to develop the theory in enough detail that it can be empirically compared to other versions of the higher-order approach. Once this is done we can take stock of recent neuroscience and see that the HOROR theory, like a few theories of consciousness, is consistent with current neuroscience. We will also be able to see what kind of neuroscientific evidence we could find that would falsify this kind of theory. Thus whether one is sympathetic to the higher-order approach or not this project will help to clarify what would count as empirical evidence for or against this approach. If one is interested in trying to show that theory is wrong, or in vindicating it, one needs to look at versions of the theory that are taken seriously by people who hold these kinds of theories. 
  2. Outline –       

I. Traditional HOT is mistaken

The science of consciousness is at a point where we would like to narrow the range of theories that are serious contenders. The field has seen a number of theories being presented, from various disciplines, but as of now we have not seen empirical evidence that the various theories can’t interpret in a way favorable to, or at least compatible with, their theory. Theories should be developed in enough detail to see what predictions they make and how we could falsify them. Higher-order theories have enjoyed some support recently but as of yet it is not clear what would count as falsifying the theory. As they are generally presented they (a) aim to explain the difference between a conscious mental state and an unconscious mental state and (b) this explanation takes the form of positing two mental states, one of which is directed at the other. Each of the above claims problematic. The problem with (a) is that it begs the question as to whether there are any unconscious mental states, which is an empirical question and (b) obscures the distinction between relational and non-relational higher-order views. I want to present and defend a version of the non-relation view I call the Higher-Order Representation of a Representation (HOROR) theory. This seems to me to be a promising version of the theory and as of yet has not been developed in detail -because of the way the debate has been set up- and distinguished from other versions of the theory.

II. Starting Over: The HOROR Theory of Phenomenal Consciousness 

Higher-order theories of consciousness appeal to inner awareness as part of the explanation of phenomenal consciousness. ‘Inner’ means higher-order, an awareness of my own mental life (‘first-order’ thus mean awareness of something which isn’t mental). ‘Awareness’ at a commonsense level means sensing, perceiving or thinking that something is present -these are all representational states. ‘Phenomenal consciousness’ means: what it is like to be a creature or what it is like to be in a mental state/ so appealing to inner awareness amounts to appealing to ‘higher-order representations of representations’ -HORORs- as part of the explanation of phenomenal consciousness. I take a theory of consciousness to primarily be a theory of phenomenal consciousness. Panpsychism, Global Workspace Theory, whatever theory one may have, if it is a theory of consciousness, it is a theory of phenomenal consciousness. This makes the theory I will defend not a version of illusionism. HOROR theory is an empirical conjecture about the nature of phenomena consciousness. 

III. Relational v. Non-Relational higher-order theories

Relational theories are familiar from the traditional approach. Non-relational theories deny the traditional account and instead hold that the relevant higher-order representation is itself enough to account for phenomenal consciousness. Non-relational higher-order theories can be understood to be versions of representationalism, but from the higher-order point of view. Representationalism about consciousness, as I will defend it, holds that for any phenomenal experience we have there is some representational content such that having the phenomenal experience consists in having the representational content. Non-relational theories hold that the right kind of content is a higher-order representation with the content ‘I am aware of (perceptible) red in a distinctly visual way’. Having that state is all by itself enough to account for phenomenal consciousness. Higher-order theories can be distinguished by the kind of content they posit at the higher-order level as well as by the proposed relation, if any, between the higher-order representations and their targets, the states they represent. 

IV. Two Kinds of Relational Theory: Joint-Determination and Split-Level

Joint-determination views hold that both the higher-order and lower-order state contribute to phenomenal consciousness. Split-level views hold that the higher-order state is a mere pointer that points to a first-order state, which then contributes to phenomenal consciousness. The difference between these theories is that on Joint-Determination views just having the higher-order state without its target will result in an atypical experience. On Split-level views the first-order state and its content, once it has been pointed to, completely determines what it is like for one but without the higher-order pointer the content remains unconscious and so not experienced. Traditional objections to higher-order thought theories (like those from Dretske on change blindness, the problem of the rock) apply mostly to relational theories. In addition it is not clear that these theories can offer an explanation of consciousness and have to settle for fitting the data. Some find these objections serious enough to disregard these kinds of theories but nature may just foil our desire for understanding and explanation. Relational theories make empirical predications and though I would prefer non-relational theories we should base our credence on the data not philosophical objections.

V. Two kinds of non-relational theory: HOT and HOROR

Traditional HOT (THOT) theory is non-relational. But none the less maintains that the first-order state is the conscious state. HOROR theory holds that the higher-order state is itself the phenomenally conscious state. The higher-order state is itself the state which there is something that there is like to be in. The THOT theory holds that the higher-order state ‘engenders’ phenomenal consciousness but that is difficult to make sense of and the ‘traditional’ objections to higher-order theories can be seen to be problems only for the relational view. For example, ‘the problem of the rock’ which asks why thinking about a rock doesn’t make the rock conscious when it does make my mental state conscious, clearly assumes the relational account of the higher-order theory. Which version of non-relation theory is preferable? HOROR theory is more plausible for several reasons to be discussed.

VI. HOROR theory and Current Neuroscience

There is much debate about the neural correlates of consciousness and there have been some attempts to use empirical work to challenge higher-order theories. One area where this has occurred is with Ned Block’s argument from phenomenological overflow. If consciousness ‘overflows’ what we can report on at any given moment then is that a problem for higher-order theories? Do we have any reason to believe that there is phenomenological overflow in this sense? HOROR theory is compatible with either view in this area. We could have a ‘Rich’ HOROR theory on which the rich contents of the higher-order states overflow what we can report or what is in working memory. We could also have a ‘sparse’ HOROR theory on which there are sparse contents of HORORs. Because of this there are versions of HOROR theory that are compatible with either way you interpret the findings from Sperling, Landman, etc. Part of the problem is that we haven’t really seen scientists explicitly try to falsify versions of non-relation theories and so we need to get clear on what kind of predictions the theory actually makes. The same issue arises with other previous empirical attacks on the higher-order approach (like Dretske’s change blindness argument, and Ned Block’s response to Lau and Brown’s use of Rahnev et al as evidence for HOROR).

VII. Empirical Predictions: A Study in Misrepresentation

Misrepresentation occurs when HO state misrepresents a first-order state. Radical misrepresentation occurs when FO state missing. Misrepresentation can be seen as an empirical predication of higher-order theories. Split-level views predict there will be a first-order explanation of misrepresentation. Joint-determination views predict there will be a ‘partial’ experience. Non-relational views predict conscious experience follows higher-order representation (and could be sparse or rich depending on the contents of the HORORs).THOT has to say non-existent first-order state is conscious! One can make sense of this with certain views about intentionality and representation but those views are very controversial. HOROR theory says misrepresentation is evidence that it is the higher-order representation which is phenomenally conscious. Radical misrepresentation is a case which shows that the state which there is something that it is like for one to be in is the HOROR itself. The overall lesson from thinking though cases of misrepresentation is that we should postulate that there are two kinds of content in the relevant HORORs: a descriptive content and a pointer/teleological/causal-historical content. The descriptive content accounts for phenomenology while the other content accounts for which first-order state is picked out. This pointer kind of content will have a functional role (keeping a represented state online, sending it to the global workspace, etc). This puts HOROR theory in between relational views on one end with solely pointer content and THOT on the other with solely descriptive content. Thus different versions of relational and non-relational higher-order theories can be tested by looking at/for cases of misrepresentation.

VIII. Implementing the Theory in the Brain

The theories as so far presented is a psychological theory. By itself they make no predications about how these various kinds of states are implemented in the brain. We have various proposals about how the implementation should go. Starting at the first-order level we might ask, ‘where are the first-order states, the targets?’ We have several candidates: recurrent processing, mid-level contents, globally broadcast contents, etc. Some of these candidates are in ‘sensory’ areas, others may be in frontal cortex (there is evidence that representations we would think of a first-order are in the prefrontal cortex at least sometimes). So it is not yet clear where the first-order states are. What about higher-order states? Lau argues they have overlap with metacognition and so prefrontal cortex. LeDoux argues anatomy suggests different circuits in prefrontal cortex with different jobs. Genaro suggests that we look for self-consciousness and focus more on parietal cortex. Cleermans argues anywhere in cortex. Not clear where higher-order states are. This doesn’t mean we can try to empirically test these theories.  We should formulate different versions  in as much detail as we can and test them (like the Prefrontally-implemented Rich version of HOROR theory Templeton is testing). To really test these theories though we need a hypothetical ‘Brain clamp’ -something that allows us to hold the activity of the first-order representations constant while we vary higher-order content (and vice-versa).

IX. Animals, Infants, and Robots

The discussion so far has centered for the most part on adult human beings and sought to develop a possible account of the kind of conscious experience we enjoy. But can these ideas help us answer questions about whether animals are conscious? Can we know if infants and newborns are conscious? Is artificial consciousness possible? And what does the HOROR theory predict about these kinds of cases? Can we use animal models to test the HOROR theory? These questions may be somewhat more speculative and less connected directly to the issue of empirical testing but the higher-order approach has been thought to have a certain position on these questions. My own view would be that animals and infants are conscious and *maybe* we could have artificial consciousness but that as of right now we don’t have any real strong evidence that this is the case. However the ideas presented here would at least give us some ideas about how we might -at least in principle- be able to empirically test HORORs predictions in animals and infants. 

2021 in Review

Like most people (I assume) I can’t believe that 2021 is almost over. This year has really flown by and I am feeling very burnt out. I feel like I am getting less and less done and yet at the same time being more and more overwhelmed by what I do manage to get done.

Because of class cancelations (don’t get me started on how CUNY has handled the pandemic!) I was only able to teach 10 classes this year and I have to admit that it was nice not teaching as much as I usually do (I average around 13-14 a year and last year I did 17!!!). I am looking forward to 2022 and being able to teach the Neuroscience and Philosophy of Consciousness course with Tony Ro at the Graduate Center (in Spring in person!) and possibly even a class on David Chalmers’ book Reality+ (in Fall), though I am not sure if that will go through or not (I hope it does!)…but I have to get through my three classes in the short 6 week winter session first (starting in January)!

I also had a lot of fun with Consciousness Live! in season 4, doing 18 conversations! This was less than I planned and less than I did in 2020. Even so I did start to find it a bit overwhelming towards the end and I felt like I was underprepared for some of these conversations. I didn’t even get to schedule all of the people that agreed to come on and talk to me! If there is a season 5 I think I need to do fewer and prepare more. Aiming for one a week is just too much with my teaching load. We’ll see what I can do once I come back in January and start missing talking to cool people about consciousness 🙂

I wrote only one blog posts and tried another short story but my mostly I have been using Philosophy Sucks! (the name of my blog) for Consciousness Live! podcasting.

Part of the reason for the lite blogging is that I tried putting more time into my YouTube channel posting some videos of my recent attempts to re-learn how to skateboard, some ‘philosophical reactions‘ and other cringey things…it turns out this is a lot of work! I was experimenting with one or two of these kinds of videos per week in November and I think that if I do more of this kind of content in 2022 that I need to limit it and do fewer. I don’t think there is any way I could keep that up when my teaching schedule returns to ‘normal’.

I had two co-authored publications come out

I have another co-authored piece in the pipeline and I am hoping that makes it out someday. It’s funny because all of my recent publications have been co-authored and I actually heard through the grapevine that maybe I should publish more single authored stuff (philosophy is weird about giving credit in co-authoring situations) and I do have some recent talks that I gave which could be written up and some other projects as well but lately I have been finding it really hard to produce anything that I think is any good. Part of the reason for that is that I teach a lot, and had my first child in 2015 (the year of my last single authored piece and the year I got tenure coincidently). But the other part of the reason is a bit more complicated.

I used to jump at every publication opportunity I got because I needed to get tenure and then when I sort of thought I had done enough to get tenure I thought maybe someday I could get a job where I could teach less and have more time for all of these other projects I am constantly starting and getting overwhelmed by (like the New York Consciousness Collective and the Qualia Fest, the Online Consciousness Conference, and all of the other stuff I do as the Director of CONSC -the Center for the ONline Study of Consciousness 😉 but if I had my way I probably would have chosen not to publish them or to wait longer. Writing philosophy and enduring the publication process takes a level of self-confidence that is hard to sustain…but I did recently pull of my first feeble and smith grinds on a (small) quarter pipe and that helps a bit 🙂

See you in 2022!

Brown on Philosophy of Religion

I have been thinking about the philosophy of religion lately and I noticed that I don’t really have my posts on this organized. So here are some of the things I have written on this topic. I am pretty much a layman in this area and have not published any of this stuff except as blog posts. I might put things differently here and there but overall I think these still hold up!

The Problem of Evil

  • Freedom and Evil
    • Back in 2006 a student in a class where discussed the problem of evil asked me if I would participate in a debate they organized with John Rankin on the question “If God exists, then why is there evil?’ the linked post was my opening remarks and re-reading it I can see I was blissful unaware of Plantinga’s work…I was also still a graduate student. I have never seen what the flaw in this argument is supposed to be.
  • Transworld Depravity and the New Logical Problem of Evil
    • final thoughts on Plantinga’s Free Will defense
  • A Short Argument that there is no God
    • my attempt to side-step the Plantinga-style free will defense against the logical problem of evil
  • Transworld Saints
    • Plantinga’s defense seems to assume that God doesn’t have power to create creaturely essences that always freely choose the good (but why couldn’t He choose to actualize the essences whose ‘counter-factuals of freedom’ had no moral evil: transworld saints)


  • God Vs. The Delayed Choice Quantum Computer
    • I argue that if God is omniscient then there must be an aspect of physical reality that He doesn’t know. This post has generated a lot of controversy and accusations that I don’t understand quantum mechanics but the more I do understand it the more this argument seems to hold up!
  • What God Doesn’t Know
    • I try to generate a Liar’s Paradox type sentence about God’s knowledge (right before I found out someone else did this already)
  • The Logical Problem of Omniscience
    • Can God know what He will do and still be free?


  • The Immorality of God
    • God cannot have morally significant free will without failing to be the source of morality
  • Reason and the Nature of Obligation
    • an exploration of the question about obligation and motivating reasons in Modern Philosophy. This is where I discovered the distinction between justifying reasons and motivating reasons that helped shape the ideas in my dissertation (on metaethics)
  • Why Must We Worship God?
    • Is it rational for a perfect being to care whether I worship Them or not? I argue that it is not
  • Invoking God doesn’t save Descartes from Skepticism
    • Using Job as a comparison I argue that Descartes doesn’t have a good reason to think that Gos isn’t a deceiver

  • Self-Selecting for Rationality
    • Can we have been self-selecting for rationality this whole time?
  • The Immorality of God

    I have been talking about my views on religion and God lately because I was recently invited to be a guest on a couple of podcasts but I have written about these things extensively over the last 10 years or so here and I have been thinking about these issues for my entire life.

    One thing that has come up a few times is the immorality of God as traditionally portrayed. I have argued that we have a lot of reason to believe that God as traditionally described acts immorally and that is usually met with puzzlement. How could God act immorally?

    Let us take a concrete example. Let us think about the Fall. A very traditional story has it that the evils of this world, from pain and suffering right down to the just plain old day to day grind, from toruture and murder to natural disasters, all of it we are told, traces back to punishment for Original Sin. It was for this ‘crime’ that humans were expelled from the Garden of Eden. Was it moral for God to punish us for that? Only if He had some morally compelling reason to do so. In fact given that we are considering an omniscient being He would have known what Adam and Eve would do, right? So the very creation of life comes with it, the story goes, the risk of evil entering the world (through free will). So let us look at the problem of evil a bit.

    When I think about the problem of evil I think about why it is that a perfect being would allow suffering -of any kind. I pretty much think that the fact that when I stub my toe there is so much pain is already enough by itself to bring up this question but of course there is a lot more suffering in the universe than my clumsy throbbing toe. Theists typically say that evil is the result of free will, original sin if you trace it all the way back to the Garden of Eden. But why couldn’t God have made a world where Adam and Eve always freely chose to do what is right? (by the way I am not convinced it was wrong for them to eat the apple but let’s leave that aside) “Well, if that were the case they wouldn’t really be free” is what I usually hear back.

    But to be free requires only that I have options and can freely choose between them. Why would God allow lying, murder, theft ect. to be possible at all? Why isn’t the world set up so that murder is like jumping to the moon. We just can’t do it and we don’t think it matter much that we can’t do it. We can still be free even if we can’t jump to the moon so why couldn’t we be free and not able to murder? More to the point, why couldn’t humans have been made so that Original Sin was like jumping to the moon? The typical answer is that if we are to have really morally valuable free will -morally significant free will as some call it- then we must be able to choose to do evil. If I have three options, the line of thought goes, and two of them are moral and the their immoral, and if I can’t choose the immoral action then I am not free to choose that action and I am not to be praised for doing what is right. The moral value, so they say, of my choosing to do good depends on my being able to freely choose to evil.

    I find that whole idea rather strange but either way you feel about that today I started to wonder how serious are we supposed to take this link between free will and choosing wrongly? Does God have free will? It certainly seems part of the traditional theistic account that God is perfectly free and -freely- chose to create us. Ok, but does God have The Real Valuable Kind of Free Will? If not then why couldn’t we have been made to be like Him in that respect? If God has a kind of free will that allows him to be free but unable to be morally bad then, He should have made us that way. If He does have morally valuable free will, then He should be able to act immorally. Thus if God is truly free then He has to be able to act immorally.

    But if one is a Theist then one must accept (or should be inclined to accept) that morality is a function of God’s nature and so to be able to act immorally God would have to act contrary to His nature, which seems like a contradiction.

    Some might see this result as fine. God is supremely rational (one might think) and so cannot create contradictions or make a highest natural number, etc. That is not a limit on His power, so the line goes, but rather a result of His nature. So if God’s nature is moral perfection then how could He act contrary to it? He can be free but unable to act immorally for the same reason He can be all-powerful (and supremely rational) and not be able to create contradictions: He cannot act contrary to His nature.

    But then God doesn’t have the same kind of free will that we have. And His isn’t morally significant.

    In fact if you follow this all the way out our ability to act immorally is a very puzzling feature on their world view. God has given us free will and made us in such a way that we can choose to act immorally without acting contrary to our nature. We are told that this is more valuable than being made in such a way that we always freely choose the good.

    But if this is the case isn’t this a way in which we are morally superior to God? I can be confronted with something immoral (on their world view) and have as live possibilities choosing to do it or not to do it. But God when presented with such an opportunity does not have that option. Compare Adam and Eve in the Garden. If God made it so that Original Sin was contrary to their nature then they would not be free with respect to the choice they make not to do it. God, if His nature is the source of morality, when freely choosing to punish Adam and Eve is not free to withhold punishment (assuming that it was morally correct to punish Adam and Eve, something which has not been established).

    So we can do something that God cannot so, we can freely choose to do the moral thing because it is the moral thing. That is, we can choose to do the moral thing because we recognize that it is moral and that is what guides our action (on their world view where I have this kind of free will). God cannot do this on their world view. God cannot, on the basis of understanding the morality of the option, freely choose to do it. He must do it because He cannot act contrary to His nature. And this is not something that such a being is worthy of praise for doing.

    The conclusion of all of this is that if God exists and is the ultimate standard of morality then God can never live up to that standard -God cannot be a moral agent. It is impossible for God to truly act morally. This is not like the case of rationality where I can do something God can’t (be irrational). This is a case where what I can do is better than what God can do. According to them humans are capable of freely choosing to act in such a way as to be in accordance with God’s nature and that is something that their God cannot do (although an interesting vie would be one where God does will to be in accordance with His nature (which he could choose not to do) and thus wills consistency, etc…does anyone hold this view?).

    I can sum all of this up in the following argument:

    1. If God’s nature is the ultimate standard of morality then He will not have morally significant free will
    2. If God does not have morally significant free will then He cannot act morally
    3. If God’s nature is the ultimate standard of morality He cannot act morally (from 1 and 2)

    Suppose God can act immorally but chooses not to. That is morally superior to a God who can only act in accordance with His nature but this requires that either God act contrary to his nature (a contradiction) or that God is not the source of morality.

    Has anyone addressed these issues anywhere? I am familiar with the traditional debate about God’s freedom from Leibniz but don’t know of any discussions about God’s freedom being morally significant.

    The Argument for Simulation via Traditional A Posterori Arguments for God’s Existence

    I had a fun and interesting discussion with Canadian Catholic on his Global Skeptics podcast the other day. In the course of our discussion something clicked that has been loosely kicking around in the back of my mind. I have previously suggested that the argument from design is an argument for simulation and that the problem of evil is made much worse when thinking about why humans aren’t photosynthetic. I now think there is a general argument here.

    1. The traditional A Posteriori arguments (Cosmological, Teleological, etc) point, if one accepts their conclusions, to a creator but *not* to what kind of creator
    2. The traditional theistic God (all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect) is one candidate for being the Creator
    3. The Simulators are another candidate
    4. The traditional arguments do not distinguish between (2) and (3)
    5. The problem of evil (evidential) suggests that 2 is not the creator [especially the version emphasizing photosynthesis]
    6. Therefore, the traditional arguments for God’s existence provide better support for the simulation hypothesis than they do for the traditional God of Theism

    What do you think? I could formalize it up a bit but I think I kind of like it!

    Cevin Soling Live!

    Join me for a discussion with Cevin Soling, a filmmaker, philosopher, musician, music producer, and artist, as we discuss his defense of solipsism -the metaphysical view that there is only one mind and that mind is Cevin Soling