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.