Phenomenally HOT

The Spring semester is getting off to a start here in NYC. Yesterday I attended the first session of Ned Block and David Carmel’s seminar on Conceptual and Empirical Issues about Perception, Attention and Consciousness at NYU. This first session dealt with Block’s recent paper The Higher-Order Theory is Defunct.

One of the major points that Block wants to make is that there is a distinction to be made between what he calls modest and ambitious higher-order theories. Modest views aim only at explicating the notion of state consciousness. Thus the modest view can say, as Block does, that sensations that are not state conscious are non the less phenomenally conscious. The ambitious view not only tries to explain state consciousness but also aims to explain phenomenal consciousness. The problem that Block sees is for the ambitious view. Put simply the idea is that in a case of a higher-order thought without a target we have a conscious state that is not the target of a higher-order thought and so we have a counter-example to the higher-order theory.My response to this  is to use the distinction between phenomenal consciousness and state consciousness to defuse the objection. For a state to be conscious is for me to be conscious of myself as being in that state. For a state to be phenomenally conscious is for there to be something that it is like for me to have the state. These two properties do not, prima facie, seem to have anything to do with each other. It is then an open question whether or not having the appropriate higher-order thought explains phenomenal consciousness. The ambitious higher-order theory need only claim that phenomenal consciousness is instantiated in the empty higher-order thought scenario. In fact, there is no reason that one might not claim that there is no state consciousness instantiated. Sure, it seems to one as though one has a conscious state, but one doesn’t. Another way to put the point; there is no state that has the property of being state conscious, though there is a state that has the property of being phenomenally conscious (the HOT itself). This is because phenomenal consciousness simply consists in having the appropriate HOT, whereas state consciousness involves being the target of the appropriate HOT. This defuses the objection since there is no non-existent phenomenology. My conscious pains matter phenomenologically because they are phenomenally conscious.

In the presentation Block seemed to  offer an objection to my response. He claimed that one who took this path would in effect be adopting the same-order view and so would be giving up a higher-order view. This seemed to be the case because he thought that the claim was that the HOT itself was somehow targeted by the HOT itself in the empty case, but that is not the claim that I am making. Phenomenal consciousness –what it is like to have an experience– just is having an appropriate HOT. You do not have to be conscious of yourself as having the HOT in order to be phenomenally conscious; that is to confuse state consciousness with phenomenal consciousness.

In conversation afterwards Jake Berger pressed me a bit on my view. His worry seemed to be that there was something odd about  calling the HOT phenomenally conscious. He appealed to a metaphor offered by David Rosenthal. When an umpire calls a runner out the umpire the umpire makes it the case that the runner is out and the umpire is not thereby out himself. So too the HOT makes a first-order state conscious but does not thereby become conscious itself. Of course, I absolutely agree, as long as we are talking about state consciousness. No one is claiming that the HOT is state conscious (or that the umpire is out). But this metaphor does not relate to phenomenal consciousness. When we consider which state os phenomenally conscious we as the question “which state is there something that it is like to be in?” and the only answer to that question is “the HOT”. Of course WHAT it is like to be in that state is determined by the content of the state and so it will be like being in teh first-order state but all of that is besides the point being made here.


  1. John Gregg

    I guess my beef with HOT theories in general is that they seem more descriptive than explanatory. That is, introspectively it feels like something like that is going on, but it doesn’t get us any closer to closing the famous explanatory gap.

    In particular, and yes, I’ve asked this before, what is the relationship, exactly, between the HOT (phenomenally conscious) and the LOT (state conscious)? How does the HOT see the LOT? Is their interaction purely one of physical causation? If so, could we fake out the HOT by replacing the LOT with a dumb tape playback? If not, what is the connection between them? How does the HOT “see” the LOT, and why should this impart phenomenal consciousness on the HOT?

    The whole thing seems to be more questions than it answers. I think I see the intuitive appeal, since as I said, it sure seems like there is something funny going on in the second-orderliness of our thoughts and percepts. There seems to be a way in which the self-as-perceiver is always present in any perception. Articulating this sense may be useful input as data into an eventual theory, but does not itself constitute a theory.

    -John Gregg

  2. Joshua Stern

    well I don’t think I can untangle this all in this little response box, but at least in this posting and the responses, and perhaps the closing paragraph of the paper (and I think he means reflective, not reflexive), there is something of a consensus, that we all believe there is some sort of HOT in principle, but nobody has demonstrated one in practice. As physics has a unification of the four basic forces at high energy, we should be able to unify, somehow, the phenomenal and state versions of HOT … but we have not seen it done, yet. That’s a consensus, not a proof. But it moots an awful lot of what it looks like the paper is going on about.

  3. Richard Brown

    The idea is supposed to be that the HOT represents the LOT, and more specifically it represents oneself as being in the LOT. Other than that there need not be any connection between them, at least according to Rosenthal’s version of the theory. Why does this impart phenomenal consciousness? Well, part of the answer lies in the simple fact that phenomenal consciousness has to do with how one’s mental life appears to one and HOTs account for that. HOTs are the kind of thoughts that make me aware of things, in particular they make me aware of myself as being in a certain state. That explains why what it is like for me is being in that state. Now you may not think that HOTs can account for the “specialness” of phenomenal consciousness, but I don’t see why they couldn’t. When we learn new concepts our experience is different. So, if I do not know what a bass clarinet is when I listen to Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon my phenomenal experience is different from the one I have once I have acquired the concept of a bass clarinet. My experience will now seem to have bass clarinet qualities. One explanation for this is that the concept became available to be deployed in a HOT and my ability to conceptualize my experience in a new way accounts for the phenomenal difference in my experience. 

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