The Qualitative Character of Conscious Thoughts

In Explaining What It’s Like I argued that any kind of higher-order theory of consciousness that wants to implement the higher-order strategy (which is explaining qualitative consciousness in virtue of our being conscious of our first-order states with qualitative properties) thereby commits itself to the claim that there is a qualitative aspect to conscious thought.

If it turns out that there is no qualitative aspect to thoughts, as a lot of people are inclined to believe, then it looks like all higher-order theories are dealt a fatal blow. But there are some independent reasons to think that there is a qualitative component to thoughts. Some are theoretical, like, for instance, as an explanation of how we have access to our thoughts (see for instance, Goldman 1993). In the sensory case, it is natural to appeal to qualitative properties as an explanation of how we have mental access to perceptible properties like color and tissue damage; isn’t it reasonable to think that qualitative properties would also be natural candidates for explaining how it is that we have mental access to our thoughts? Other reasons are intuitive, like, for instance, reflection on introspection. There is a  growing literature on hearing ambiguous utterances in one way verses another, or hearing a sentence ‘comprehendingly’ as opposed to as gibberish (see Pitt 2004 for a nice introduction to this literature). Why then do so many cognitive scientists introspect and come away convinced otherwise?

The most common form of argument that I hear goes like this.

I am thinking that 2+2=4, now I am thinking that 2+3=5 and there is no difference between them. I then think that Brooklyn is in New York and still I see no difference. Since there is no difference between these thoughts in qualitative character there is no qualitative aspect to thoughts.

The assumption here is that each distinct thought must have a distinct qualitative feel to it, and that if there were a qualitative component to thoughts we should be able to notice that difference between thoughts whose contents differ. But there is another kind of explanation we can give for why it is that these thoughts do not seem to differ from one another when we introspect. There would be, then, no intuitive reason to think that thoughts don’t have a qualitative component.

If instead of thoughts we talk about propositional attitudes this becomes eaiser to see. each propositional attitude consists of two parts; namely an attitude directed at some represented proposition. It is natural to think that, at least for propositional attitudes like hope, fear, anger, and so on, that the mental attitude itself has a qualitative component. What about beliefs and desires? Do these mental attitudes have a distinctive qualitative feel? Goldman offers us a nice intuition pump. Imagine a Mary-like thought experiment with a super scientist called Gary. Gary has never had a desire, now imagine that he suddenly does have one. Won’t he have learned soemthing new? Namely won’t he now know what it is like for him to have a desire? It seems to me that this suggests that there is a qualitative aspect to this mental attitude. But what about beliefs?

 To begin with, it is natural to say ‘I feel very strongly that evolution is true’, or ‘I don’t know how I feel about Intelligent Design’ which suggests that it is part of our folk psychology that the attitude of belief consists in a qualitative attitude held towards some content. If this is true then having a belief consists in taking some qualitative attitude towards some represented proposition, but what qualitative property? I have elsewhere suggested that we call it the quality of conviction. To have a belief is to feel convinced (to some degree or other) of the truth of a certain represented proposition. All beliefs are similar in this respect; all desires differ from all beliefs in exactly this respect: They feel different. Within each of these kinds of attitudes we see intensity continuums. You can be firmly convinced, just barely convinced, not quite convinced, etc. So to use an analogy belief is red, desire like green. Just like red contains all of the various shades of red, so belief contains all of the intensities of conviction and just as all shades of red are more similar to each other than they are to shades of green, so too all the various intensities of belief are more similar to each other than they are to all the various intensities of desire.

We can now see why the belief that 2+2=4 and the belief that 2+3=5 seem not to differ in qualitative character when introspected. Since they are both mathematical beliefs that we hold to be fairly certain, they will both have the same (or very similar) qualitative character. It is normal that we would not be able to distinguish them from each other. It is even normal that we should miss this qualitative character when we first introspect since we have had these beliefs since we were very young and they are had very ‘coolly’ (cf Hume’s remarks about passions being mistaken for beliefs due to their being had cooly) but there are times when we feel the conviction of our beliefs very strongly, and the idea of a belief that one in no way felt convinced of would be a very strange thing.


  1. michal

    I worry about the same thing. I disagree with how you presented the problem, however. The problem with your proposal, as I see it, is that isn’t clear what qualitative properties can contribute to the content ‘2+2=4’, etc., that isn’t already there in propositional form. The sort of experience that Hume describes can be attributed to another mental state that is caused by the thought. For example, we have a thought that p. Since p is something we were looking to retrieve from memory for a while (as in the tip of the tongue phenomenon), when we finally do, the occurrence of the thought causes a pleasurable sensation that we can dub the ‘aha experience.’ One could say that the ‘aha experience’ is really what your ‘quality of conviction’ amounts to. We have an explanation of the phenomenon you describe without appeal to any qualitative properties of thoughts.

  2. Richard Brown

    Hi Michal thanks for the comment,

    I think I agree with you that it is a dead end to look for the qualitative aspect of thought in the contents of the thoughts,  but I was not arguing that the qualitative aspect of thought is part of the content of the thought, but rather that it is the mental attitude that we take towards the content. So, the quality of conviction is a certain way of feeling about the represented proposition, i.e. feeling convinced. My claim is that what a belief consists in is feeling convinced of the truth of some represented proposition. In fact, I think that all of the mental attitudes (desire, doubt, hope, fear, etc.) each consist of a distinct qualitative feeling that we can take towards some representred proposition.

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