Consciousness Live! Season 3

I am happy to announce the opening line-up for the new season of Consciousness Live! I originally intended to try to limit these to the summer but then I realized I am just as busy then as now so why not let people pick when is best for them? There may be more to come and I will announce timing info when I have them scheduled.

Sounds like a lot of fun!!

…And the Conscious State is…

No too long ago Jake Berger and I presented a paper we are working on at the NYU philosophy of mind discussion session. There was a lot of very interesting discussion and there are a couple of themes I plan on writing about (if I ever get the chance I am teaching four classes in our short six week winter semester and it is a bit much).

One very interesting objection that came up, and was discussed in email afterwards, was whether HOT theory has the resources to say which first-order state is the conscious state. Ned Block raised this objection in the following way. Suppose I have two qualitative first-order states that are, say, slightly different shades of red. When these states are unconscious there is nothing that it is like for the subject to be in them (ex hypothesi). Now suppose I have an appropriate higher-order thought to the effect that I am seeing red (but not some particular shade of red). The content of the higher-order thought does not distinguish between the two first-order states so there is no good reason to think that one of them is consciousness and the other is not. Yet common sense seems to indicate that one of them could be conscious and the other non-conscious, so there is a problem for higher-order thought theory.

The basic idea behind the objection is that there could be two first-order states that are somewhat similar in some way, and there could be a fact of the matter about which of the two first-order states is conscious while there is a higher-order thought that does not distinguish between the two states. David’s views about intentional content tend toward descriptivism and so he thinks that the way in which a higher-order thought refers to its target first-order state is via describing it. I tend to have more sympathy with causal/historical accounts of intentional content (I even wrote about this back in 2007: Two Concepts of Transitive Consciousness) than David does but I think in this kind of case he does think that these kinds of considerations will answer Block’s challenge.

But stepping back from the descriptivism vs. causal theories of reference for a second, I this objection helps to bring out the differences between the way in which David thinks abut higher-order thought theory and they way that I tend to think about it.

David has presented the higher-order thought theory as a theory of conscious states. It is presented as giving an answer to the following question:

  • How can the very same first-order state occur consciously and also non-consciously?

The difference between these two cases is that when the state is conscious it is accompanied by a higher-order thought to the effect that one is currently in the state. Putting things this way makes Block’s challenge look pressing. We want to know which first-order state is conscious!

I trend to think of the higher-order thought theory as a theory of phenomenal consciousness. It makes the claim that phenomenal consciousness consists in having the appropriate higher-order thought. By phenomenal consciousness I mean that there is something that it is like for the organism in question. I want to distinguish phenomenal consciousness from state consciousness. A state is state-conscious when it is the target of an appropriate higher-order awareness. A state is phenomenally conscious when there is something that it is like for one to be in the state. A lot of confusion is caused because people use ‘conscious state’ for both of these notions. A state of which I am aware is naturally called a conscious state but so to is a state which there is something that it is like to be in.

Block’s challenge thus has two different interpretations. On one he is asking how the higher-order awareness refers to its target state. That is, he wants to know which first-order state am I aware of in his case. On the other interpretation he is asking which first-order state is there something that it is like for the subject to be in. The way I understand Rosenthal’s view is that he wants to give the same answer to both questions. The target of the higher-order state is the one that is ‘picked out’ by the higher-order state. And what it is like for the subject to be in that target first-order state consists in there being the right kind of higher-order awareness. Having the appropriate higher-order state is all there is to there being something that it is like to be in the first-order state.

I tend to think that maybe we want to give different answers to these two challenges. Regardless of which first-order state is targeted by the higher-order awareness the state which there is something that it is like for the subject to be in is the higher-order state itself. This higher-order state makes one aware of being in a first-order state, and that is just what phenomenal consciousness is. Thus it will seem to you as though you are in a first-order state (it will seem to you as though you are seeing red when you consciously see red). For that reason I think it is natural to say that the higher-order state is itself phenomenally conscious (by which I mean it is the state which there is something that it is like to be in). I agree that we intuitively think it is the first-order states which are phenomenally conscious but I don’t think that carries much weight when we get sufficiently far into theorizing.

While I agree that it does sound strange to say that the first-order state is not phenomenally conscious I think this is somewhat mitigated by the fact that we can none the less say that the first-order state is a conscious state when it is targeted by the appropriate higher-order awareness. This is because all there is to being a conscious state, as I use the term here, is that the state is targeted by an appropriate higher-order awareness. The advantage to putting things in this way is that it makes it clear what the higher-order theory is a theory of and that the objection from Block is clearly assuming that first-order states must be phenomenally conscious.

2019 in Review

I had a busy year in 2019!

I taught three less classes than I usually do and so I only taught 13 classes in 2019 (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ‘semesters’). That is the same number as the year I was on parental leave.

I teach a lot of courses but I also get to teach a lot of different classes. Besides my typical philosophy courses (Intro to Phil, Phil Religion, Logic, Ethics) I get to teach a variety of science classes including Introduction to Neuroscience, General Psychology, and a capstone seminar that I usually do on consciousness and some aspect of science. In the Spring semester I am teaching Life in the Universe which is really cool. In addition this semester I got to co-teach a class on neuroscience and philosophy of consciousness at the Gradate Center with Tony Ro, which was awesome!

I like teaching but I feel like I would be better at it if I did less of it. And I do wish I could do more teaching at the graduate level.

I also had my paper with hakwan Lau and Joe LeDoux come out in Trends in Cognitive Science. This journal works very quickly and we spent most of early 2019 working on this paper, which came out in September 2019! The whole experience of writing that paper was intense and a bit surreal.

On the other side of the spectrum, my paper with Hakwan Lau for the Ned Block volume was written a long time ago but just came out along with Block’s response (see my response here)

In addition I wrote some book reviews, gave a couple of talks, wrote a couple of blog posts, and of course completed my second season of Consciousness Live!

Looking back further, back in December 2009 I was a newly-married Assistant Professor and was organizing the very first jam session at the Parkside Lounge (after the American Philosophical Association meeting in Times Square December 28th 2009). (I also was just realizing that the way things had been presented to me at CUNY had slightly skewed my intuitions about philosophy over-all). (In addition I was also in the middle of organizing the second Online Consciousness Conference). I recently found an old recording of one of the tunes we played. I don’t remember who was playing what, or when it was recorded (maybe sometime in 2008) but it is some combination of core-NC/DC members. Next year in December 2020 we will be coming up on the 10 year anniversary of the Qualia Fest; might the world be ready for another one?

10000 lies performed by NC/DC
The New York Consciousness Collective at the Parkside Lounge December 28th 2009

Since that timely life has changed a lot! I don’t get to play as much music but I have been promoted to Full Professor, celebrated my 10 year wedding anniversary, welcomed two sons, bought a house, and moved out of Brooklyn. It’s been an eventful decade both personally and professionally! I wonder what I’ll be writing in 2029?