What are you conscious of when you have conscious experiences?

Various arguments in contemporary philosophical work on consciousness boil down to alleged conceptual connections between ‘conscious’ and ‘conscious of’. To wit, some philosophers hold as pre-theoretically obvious what we can call “The Transparency Thesis”:

When one has a conscious experience all that one is conscious of is what the experience is an experience of.

To explicate this thesis in terms of an illustration, it is the claim that when one has a conscious experience of a leafy tree one is only conscious of the leafy tree and need not be conscious of any state of oneself.
In opposition, other philosophers hold as pre-theoretically obvious what we can call “The Transitivity Thesis”:

When one has a conscious experience one must be conscious of the experience itself.

To explicate this thesis in terms of an illustration, it is the claim that when one has a conscious experience of a leafy tree one must be conscious of one’s own experience of the leafy tree and thus be conscious of a state of oneself. (Note this doesn’t rule out that you are conscious of the leafy tree. It says that in addition to being conscious of the leafy tree you are also conscious of a state of yourself.)
Since each of these claims is alleged to be obvious, and since they are in opposition, I’d be interested in hearing what others think of the matter: Which is more obvious than the other?

0 Comments

  1. Ken Aizawa

    I don’t know which is more obvious, but the transparency thesis is not obvious to me.

    I read that with your nostrils closed off, a bite of an apple tastes like a bite of a potato. Suppose this is right. Now I bite an apple with my nostrils pinched shut and have a conscious experience. So, this conscious experience is, ex hypothesi, just like the conscious experience I would have had had I bitten into a potato. Am I supposed to be having a conscious experience of biting an apple or what?

  2. Doesn’t this question drive home the problem of introspective reports. I would assume that these views are alleged to be obvious because some introspective reports indicate that we are only conscious of the leafy tree while other reports indicate that we are conscious of the leafy tree and we are conscious of ourselves having or being able to have the conscious experience of the leafy tree. If I ask one of my friends what they are conscious of and they say the leafy tree how am I supposed to authenticate their report. The same goes for a different friend who reports the experience of the tree and the experience of having the conscious experience.

    When I think about ‘Consciousness’ I can’t get it out of my mind that it seems like the best way to deal with it is by recording what people think about their own consciousness. For, who better to express the experience of being conscious than the conscious person. But, where does the assimilation of this type of date lead us? This last question is not rhetorical in nature, I am hoping that this will be explained by another commenter.

  3. “When I think about ‘Consciousness’ I can’t get it out of my mind that it seems like the best way to deal with it is by recording what people think about their own consciousness.”

    Ok, Jeff. So what do you think about your own consciousness?

  4. gualtiero piccinini

    Ken’s example highlights an ambiguity in the transparency thesis. Is “what the experience is an experience of” de re or de dicto? That is, does it refer to what the subject take the experience to be an experience of or what the experience actually is of?

    Either way, the converse of the transparency thesis seems problematic (by which I mean, the thesis that when one has a conscious experience, one is conscious of what the experience is an experience of). Under the second reading, it is obviously false, since one may be unaware of what an experience is actually of (due to illusion, hallucination, etc.). Under the first reading, it is still not generally true, because there are experiences in which a subject may take the experience to be of nothing. For instance, close your eyes and squeeze your eyeballs. Are you having an experience of something? It seems to me that although you are having an experience, it is not “of something”–or at least not in the semse sense in which your experience of your leafy tree is an experience of something.

    Finally, the transitivity thesis is also ambiguous. Does “being conscious of the experience itelf” simple mean that one is conscious of being conscious or that one is conscious of whichever mental/neural event underlies the experience itself? The first is implausible (since we can be conscious on autopilot, without being aware that we are conscious), the second is crazy.

  5. I’m a bit unclear on the two positions, so I’m going to answer your query with one of my own. How does each thesis deal with an instance of mistaken perception? For example, one wakes up in the middle of the night and “sees” a very large spider on the wall, only this experience is caused by moonlight falling surreptitiously on a coat-hook. My semi-pre-theoretical intuition is that the conscious experience is one of a very large spider, not a coat-hook; but I’m not sure which thesis that supports.

    Or maybe you’re asking whether a type of higher-order awareness is more pre-theoretically obvious than a type of first-order awareness…?

  6. I think there needs to be a third thesis. Something to the effect that under normal perceptual circumstances (all things being equal) “consciousness of x” involves both a perception of x and meta-cognitive perception of the perception of x”. So, when I am conscious of the leafy tree (whether I am immediately aware of this fact or not) I am conscious of MY consciousness of the tree. I follow Leibniz and Kant somewhat in the matter. Leibniz would point that each appercieving monad apperceives from a particular ‘perspective’ and it seems to me that this is right. While a Kantian reading of the tranparency thesis seems to imply that when I am conscious of x I somehow am conscious of the x per se, or x as ding-an-sich, which is absurd. If anything, I think, when I am conscious of the leafy tree I am conscious of the phenomenal properties of the tree AS THEY APPEAR TO ME.

  7. I think that there are times when I am aware of having a conscious experience and there are times that I am not. If someone were to ask me the color of the eraser on the pencil I used yesterday I would say blue because I remember the color of the eraser, it was blue. But, I don’t recall being aware of myself having the conscious experience of the blue eraser. I think this is the case because my ‘thought’ or ‘conscious aim’ was not directed at the blue eraser.

    Here is an example that I think of often for this problem. When I am playing my guitar at the bar I play at and I play the wrong note I have the experience of hearing the wrong note. Now, I can’t say that I am aware of myself having the conscious experience of playing the wrong note I just have the experience of hearing the wrong note. This is not to say that I don’t recognize that I am the one who played the wrong note I just don’t think that at those times I am explicitly aware of myself having the conscious experience of hearing the misplayed note.

    I think this is because my attention is diverted elsewhere. While I am playing I have a huge amount of conscious experiences in a very short time span. It seems to me that if I had to take whatever fraction of time it takes to recognize or be aware that I am having these conscious experiences I would not be able to move to the next conscious experience in time to do what I have to do. I am not sure that this helps any, but you asked.

  8. Ken

    My sense has been that there is an ambiguity in the transparency thesis. Gualtiero expresses it one way. Here, perhaps, is another.

    Is the thesis a description of the phenomenology of a conscious experience or the etiology of a conscious experience?

    In looking at a tree, I guess one can say that the phenomenology of the conscious experiences is that of seeing a tree. So is the etiology.

    Take a strange smell you’ve never smelled before. The phenomenology of that is what? But, the etiology will be some chemical odorant, right?

    So, what is the transparency thesis?

  9. If the transitivity thesis is equated with (or interpreted as) “conscious of a state of oneself” (as it is hinted in the post), I would say this…
    To be aware of state of oneself, one has to be aware of oneself. And this is possible, but not necessarily so. Lot of times we “loose ourselves” in what we observe, sometimes even so much that when someone speaks to us we need time to figure out our own presence in the picture.
    And it is possible (and in such possibility restatement is not contradicting the transparency thesis) because “all that one is conscious of” might include oneself (and e.g. its attitudes towards the experienced thing). If that wasn’t possible we could never know that we are e.g. jealous of some other person who got very interesting toy, or that we want to taste some cake in front of us.

  10. Adam, your second question is on the right track. Regarding the question of spiders vs. hooks, that’s neutral with respect to Transitivity v. Transparency. Both account for error in terms of a kind of representation. Both can agree that your conscious experience is of a spider, even though there’s no spider in the room with you. They disagree about whether your conscious experience is of only a spider or if, in addition, you are also conscious of the experience itself. Transitivity says that you must be. Transparency says that you cannot be.

  11. Ken Aizawa

    Thanks for the clarification, Pete.

    It is the understanding of the thesis as concerning phenomenology that seems to me challenged by Gualtiero’s case and mine. In the case of the tree, it seems plausible to me that what I am conscious of is the tree. In G’s case, it seems plausible to me that I am conscious of the “twinklies”, not my finger. In my case of the new strange smell, I speculate that I am not conscious of a particular odorant, I am really conscious of *that smell*. Pew! In the case of the apple with my nose closed, I would speculate that I am conscious of that taste. Not of an apple, a potato, or some other thing.

    So, I’m thinking that the transparency hypothesis is false. There are some cases where it is plausible, but other cases where it is not.

    What say ye?

  12. Adam

    Pete, given the second formulation, I don’t think either one can claim pre-theoretical primacy. I imagine that most people don’t distinguish between having an experience and being aware of having an experience, and, moreover, wouldn’t have an answer if they were presented with the distinction.

    Perhaps the answer can be found through a simple questionnaire. _gasp_ experimental philosophy! Given your BrainHammer post last week, I’m betting that approach doesn’t much appeal to you. In this case, however, it does seem that experimental philosophy can help us evaluate which theory is right when it claims to be the most pre-theoretically obvious. My bet is that the data would not significantly support either one.

  13. Hi Tanasije. Thanks for the remarks. A couple of questions for you: Do you think there can be such things as unconscious perceptions? If so, how would you distinguish the hypothesis that when you lose yourself you are having unconscious perceptions from the hypothesis that when you lose yourself you are having conscious perceptions that you are not conscious of?

  14. Hi Pete, I would not saying that I’m not conscious of the perceptions while I loose myself, but that I’m not self-aware, hence “forget” my active part in the experiencing.
    But maybe I don’t understand the distinction which you are making between two types of awareness of our experience there, and I’m reflecting on some tangential issue.
    Might be that you are trying to draw distinction between being aware of perceptions as some kind of qualia, vs. being aware of what perceptions represent?

  15. Ken, thanks for the remarks. I’d agree that the transparency thesis is foalse, but I don’t think the kinds of cases you bring up cut against it. Consider the case of the “twinklies”. If it is indeed correct to describe that experience as “an experience of twinklies”, then the transparency thesis becomes the thesis that when you have a conscious experience of twinklies, all you are conscious of are twinklies. To falsify that, you’d have to show that you could sometimes be conscious of not just the twinklies, but the experience itself. Of course, one might question whether, in cases like this one, there is any distinction between the experience itself and what the experience is an experience of. Is that the sort of thing you’d be inclined to say of twinklies?

  16. Adam, I pretty much agree with you. I think, though, that further data is not really needed and parties to this debate should probably stop claiming things like this to be pre-theoretically obvious.

    Re: whether experimental philosophy would help with this particular case, one major concern I would have about this particular survey is: how confident could you be that the subjects even understood the questions?

  17. kenneth aizawa

    Pete, maybe I’m still not certain how the principle
    works. 

     

    I also think I did not spell things out properly.  I close my eye and push on my lid with my
    finger.  I have a conscious
    experience.  I think I am conscious of
    the “twinklies”.  But, I do not think
    this is an experience of the “twinklies,” it is an experience of my finger
    pressing on my lid.  So, the problem, as
    I see it, is that I am conscious of the “twinklies” but I am not having an
    experience of the “twinklies”.  This
    seems to me to be a counterexample to the claim that

    “When one has a conscious experience all that one is
    conscious of is what the experience is an experience of.”

     

    Maybe in interpreting this principle I am being improperly
    influenced by Tye.  He writes,

    “Focus your attention on a square that has been painted
    blue.  Intuitively, you are directly
    aware of blueness and squareness as out there in the world away from you.  Now shift your gaze inward and try to become
    aware of your experience itself, inside you, apart from its objects.  Try to focus your attention on some intrinsic
    feature that distinguishes it from other experiences, something other than what
    it is an experience of.  The task seems impossible: one’s awareness
    seems always to slip through the experience to blueness and squareness, as
    instantiated together in an external object. 
    In turning one’s mind inward to attend to the experience, one seems to
    end up concentrating on what is outside again, on external features or
    properties.” (Tye, 1995, p. 30).

     

    My sense in these examples is that when I attend to the “twinklies”
    or a strange new smell, I don’t end up concentrating on what is outside again.

    (P.S. I am interested in hearing why you think the transparency thesis fails, but one issue at a time.)

  18. Thanks, Ken. This is helpful.

    Regarding the way Tye puts it, I think you could rewrite his paragraph without loss by replacing the perception of a blue square with the orange-square afterimage you’d get if you stared at the blue square too long. I’d say the resultant experience is of an orange square and the transparence theorist’s claim is that I cannot be conscious of the experience itself, only of the represented orangeness and squareness. And I think twinklies are like afterimages only they are smaller, the come in packs, and they aren’t square.

    (P.S. the long version of my beef with transparency is spelled out in my 2006 paper “The Introspectability of Brain States as Such”. In:
    Keeley, Brian (ed.) Paul M. Churchland: Contemporary Philosophy in Focus
    Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)

  19. Hi, A.P.
    Your third thesis may very well be true (though I myself do not endorse it.) Of course, your third thesis entails the transitivity thesis. If one had a prior belief in the transitivity thesis one might like your third thesis on the grounds that it explains the transitivity thesis. I doubt, though, that any one could defend the claim that your third thesis is more pre-theoretically obvious than the first two.

  20. Tanasije, maybe the following will help. Part of what is at issue is whether it is a requirement on conscious states taht one be conscious of them. When people offer “auto-pilot” examples of mental states of which one is not conscious, there is a serious questioon of whether auto-pilot states are conscious mental states or unconscious mental states.

    The friend of the transitivity thesis will grant that there are mental states of whihc one is not conscious. They will deny, though, that such states count as examples of conscious states.

  21. kenneth aizawa

    Pete,

    I will try to check out the “Introspectability” paper.

    But, I don’t see that you can re-write Tye in the way you suggest.  For Tye, there is a distinction between “conscious of” and  “experience of”, right?  For Tye, it seems, one is conscious of the mental, but one has an experience of some object in the external world.   Now, in your example, you are conscious of an orange square afterimage, but what are you having an experience of?  Nothing, I would have thought, on Tye understanding of exerience of.

    Now, when you state the principle as “When one has a conscious experience all that one is conscious of is what the experience is an experience of”, do you mean something different by “conscious of” and “experience of” than Tye does?  It sounds as though you are running the two together.

    And I don’t know how to relate “perception of” to either “conscious of” or “experience of”.

    Ken

  22. Ken, I don’t think that is quite right for Tye, especially the “conscious of the mental bit”. I’m guided here by Tye’s remarks on hallucination in his consciousness, Color, and Content. He says, something along the following lines: when one has a hallucination of a pink elephant, the awarness is of the pinkness that would be instantiated were there an elephant. (Whether he takes hallucination to be a kind of experience is something that I am increasingly unsure of, and I don’t have my copy of Tye with me right now.)

    I must confess, too, that a lot of how I think of transparency comes from Dretske, not Tye, and Dretske puts a lot more emphases on the “Conscious of” phraseology and is much more explicit than Tye to spell this out in terms that make it a clear denial of the Transitivity Principle. Dretske is pretty explicit about what one is conscious of when one has a conscious mental state: not the state itself. That leaves only one sort of thing for you to be conscious of: whatever the state represents. Of course, as you and Gualtiero have been correct to pooint out, things get all sorts of weird when one tries to sort this out in terms of de re v. de dicto.

    The way I think about this stuff is that both transparency and transitivity if plausible at all, concern de dicto representation. Transparency is supposed to support the claim that a state can be represented without itself being represented. Transitivity is supposed to support the claim that a state can be conscious only if it is itself represented.

  23. Richard Brown

    I don’t know if anyone is still worrying about this, but I just found this post and I know that this issue stillfigures heavily in Pete’s thinking so I figured Iwould pipe in my two cents worth of pontification…

    It seems to me that everyone inthis debate takes the two theses to be mutually exclusive, but this seems to me to be wrong headed. Transparency says that when I have a conscious experience of an apple all I am aware of is the apple, transitivity says that when I have a conscious experience of an apple I am conscious of myself as being in a certain apple-y state. So what is the conflict? Transitivity does not require that I be CONSCIOUSLY aware of the state, it simply says that a conscious state is one that I am conscious of myself as being in and OF course if I am conscious of the state then I am conscious of teh apple. So, both are true…where is the alleged opposition? These will only seem to be in opposition if one is laboring under some misaprehension of transitivity…

Back to Top
%d bloggers like this: