When Platitudes Collide

I haven’t posted here much since I started Philosophy Sucks! but I wanted to discuss something that was brought up on this blog a while back and so I thought I’d do it here (though I have talked about it before, to a different end).

In consciousness studies there are two claims which are appealed to over and over again known as Transparency and Transitivity.


Transitivity– A conscious mental state is a mental state that I am conscious of myself as being in

Transparency– When I have a conscious mental state all I am conscious of is what the mental state represents

These two claims are often thought to be incompatible. In fact which one one finds more plausible is usually thought to determine whether you like (first-order) representational theories of consciousness like Tye and Dretske or higher-order theories of consciousness like Rosenthal and Lycan. In fact Tye has use transparency to argu that higher-order theories must be wrong.

But if David Rosenthal’s version of higher-order theory is right then it actually predicts that it will seem to us that transparency is true. Consider the following passage from Consciousness and Mind


When one has a thought that one’s own experience visually represents a red physical object, that thought need not be in any way consciously inferential or based on theory; it might well be independent of any inference of which one is conscious. From a first person point of view, any such thought would seem unmediated and spontaneous. And it is the having of just such thoughts that makes one conscious of one’s experiences. Such a thought, morover, by representing the experience as itself visually representing a red physical object, makes one conscious of the experience as being of the type that qualitatively represents red objects. And being an experience of that type simply is having the relevant mental quality. So, being conscious of oneself as having a sensation of that type is automatically being consciousof oneself as having a sensation with the quality of mental red, and thus of the mental quality itself. (p. 119)
According to Rosenthal the higher-order state makes us conscious of the first-order state in a particular way; namely as being an experience of red. So it will seem to us that all we are conscious of is the redness of the experience even though we are in fact conscious of the experience.

Now one may very well object that transparency says that we are actually only conscious of what the experience is of NOT that it seems to us that we are only so conscious. True. But the only reason we are ever given in support of transparency is that that is how it seems to us. So if we have an alternative account of why it seems that way to us (via transitivity) then we need another reason to believe transparency.

So transitivity is compatible with a weaker version of transparency, i.e. the claim that transparency makes seems true, is faithful to our experience, or whatever and that all we have evidence for in the first place. I don’t see how a similar story would work going the other way and since both seem to be intuitively true, transitivity is better.

18 Comments

  1. Eric Thomson

    “When one has a thought that one’s own experience visually represents a red physical object, that thought need not be in any way consciously inferential or based on theory; it might well be independent of any inference of which one is conscious”

    What does the word ‘experience’ mean in this sentence? In particular, is experience a general representational property that is neutral vis a vis consciousness (i.e., an experience is something we can be conscious of, but is not itself conscious)?

    It seems that’s what he is saying, but I want to be clear before I spend more time deciphering Rosenthal’s tortured prose.

  2. Richard Brown

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for the comment!

    Yes, that’s right…

    Do you really find his writing ‘tortured’? I have always found it to be very clear, if somewhat formal, which is difficult when one is talking about these kinds of topics…

  3. Eric Thomson

    Thanks. OK that makes it more clear. I’ll replace his word ‘experience’ with ‘first-order representation’.

    He says: “When one has a thought that one’s own [first-order representation] visually represents a red physical object, that thought need not be in any way consciously inferential or based on theory; it might well be independent of any inference of which one is conscious”

    Say my HO-box has a thought about a red representation (sloppy shorthand for ‘representation of a red object’). This may be something that my HO-box simply does naturally: it isn’t something that has to be learned, or that I have to consciously think about doing. E.g., my pet monkey’s mind has this HO-box and it doesn’t consciously know it.

    Later, he says “So, being conscious of oneself as having a sensation of that type [i.e., of a red object] is automatically being conscious of oneself as having a [first-order representation] with the quality of mental red, and thus of the mental quality itself.”

    I don’t see it. For one, there are two senses of ‘conscious of’. One, phenomenological, the contents of my visual awareness. Second, HOT-consciousness, where to be ‘conscious of’ X is by definition to have an internal representation of a first-order representation.

    Phenomenologically, I am not conscious of myself having a sensation of red. I am conscious of the redness out there in the world. That is, the contents of my awareness seem to be the property that the first-order representation indicates. So, in virtue of being HOT-conscious of X, one is phenomenologically-conscious of X, not of the HOT about X. (I just don’t have the transitivity intuition, in fact I have the intuition quite strongly that transitivity is false as an intuitive phenomenological claim, while it may be true as a theoretical claim about how consciousness is carried out in representational systems).

    So, the first-order contents that are targeted by the HO-box are the contents of my visual awareness. I never have conscious awareness of the fact that I have a HO-box, nor does my monkey.

    This seems like a much more plausible story. How far is it from what he is actually saying, and if that’s what he’s saying I wish he’d stop throwing around terms like ‘experience’, ‘sensation’ and the like that evoke images of Hume, Locke theories which he probably doesn’t want to evoke.

  4. Richard Brown

    Hey, thanks for the response. I am glad that that helped. A couple of comments.

    You say, “Phenomenologically, I am not conscious of myself having a sensation of red. I am conscious of the redness out there in the world. That is, the contents of my awareness seem to be the property that the first-order representation indicates. So, in virtue of being HOT-conscious of X, one is phenomenologically-conscious of X, not of the HOT about X”

    That is what he is saying. By having the higher-order thought to the effect that one is seeing red it will seem to you that all you are conscious of is the redness out there in the world (notice, too, that this is exactly what you say), but it seeming to you to be this way is in virtue of your having the appropriate HOT (i.e. in virtue of your being conscious of the experience)…treansitivity is not, nor was it ever, intended to be an intuitive phenomenological claim…it is supposed to be a common sense intuitive claim about the nature of conscious mental states. It is best evoked by talking about intentional states…a conscious belief is one that I am conscious of myself having, an unconscious one that I am not conscious of having…the higher-order theory then tries to extend this intuitive idea to a general theoretical claim about the nature of all conscious mental states.

    You then say “So, the first-order contents that are targeted by the HO-box are the contents of my visual awareness. I never have conscious awareness of the fact that I have a HO-box, nor does my monkey.”

    No. The higher-order thought targets the first-order representation. It represents it AS a sensation of red. It does not merely represent the contents of the first-order state: it represents the first-order state as having a certain content in virtue of which it seems to me that all I am aware of is the contents of the first-order state. But this does not mean that you are conscious of the fact that you are having the higher-order thought! To be conscious of something is not to be conscious of being conscious of something….though Rosenthal is committed to this kind of claim when talking about introspection (which is having a higher-order thought about ones higher-order thoughts on his view).

    Finally, you say “if that’s what he’s saying I wish he’d stop throwing around terms like ‘experience’, ‘sensation’ and the like that evoke images of Hume, Locke theories which he probably doesn’t want to evoke.”

    Why wouldn’t he want to invoke those theories? They are representational theories, just like his. And Locke is arguably the first to hold a higher-order theory of consciousness (though in the ‘inner sense’ form)…and ‘experience’ and ‘sensation’ are part of our common sense vocablulary that we use to talk about mental phenomena so I don’t see any reason that he should stop using them, or any way in which they obscure the argument that he is giving.

    But I do agree that all of these terms in this area (‘qualia’, ‘consciousness’ etc) are so theoretically loaded that it makes saying anything uncontroversial practically impossible…

  5. Eric Thomson

    Well, his view seems reasonable then.

    It’s weird to me, these HOT-heads trying to convince people that transitivity is intuitive. Maybe they are so steeped in the theory that it seems intuitive, like Freud saying it is intuitively obvious that so-and-so has an Oedipal complex. Arguing about what is intuitive is ultimately sort of silly. I want to know what is reasonable, and Rosenthal’s theory passes that test.

  6. Richard Brown

    Well I am glad that you agree that his view is reasonable…as for the intuitive stuff. I think that part of the reason why Rosenthal argues that way is because he accepts David Lewis’ account of how you define theoretical terms and he also thinks that ‘conscious state’ ‘pain’ etc, are part of a theoretical vocabulary and so are defined by collecting all of teh platitudes about them. This makes it important that transitivity is an intuitve platitude. And, I don’t think that anyone needs convincing of the intuitiveness of transitivity. Pay attention to the way that people talk and you will see that it is part of our folk conception of what a conscious mental state is.

  7. Eric Thomson

    And, I don’t think that anyone needs convincing of the intuitiveness of transitivity.

    Ummm, that’s an interesting way to beg the question. I guess I’m deviant…

    This weird Lewis technique you describe may help explain my antipathy toward Rosenthal’s style. When explaining consciousness scientifically, who cares about commonsense platitudes? If we form a tight interlocking set of bologny, it is still bologny. As Leonard Nimoy said on the Simpsons (the X-files parody episode): “The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It’s all lies. But they’re interlocking lies, and in the end, isn’t that the real truth? The answer…is no.”

    At any rate, as a scientist this weird focus on intuitions, platitudes, common sense, really just seems crazy. And it is just queer when philosophers actually have fights over what is intuitive, each camp quite sure X is intuitive (or ~X is intuitive). The screwey thing is, he actually has a viable scientific hypothesis about how consciousness is implemented. I guess it shows that philosophers can sometimes get lucky.

  8. anna-mari rusanen

    Eric Thomson,

    you are simply the best. I am half dead after all those conferences and “conferencings”, having a flue and tired, but still when you start to nag about the notion of intuition, I find myself giggling in front of my laptop. Please, do not even think that you should do something to the quality of your comments, they are PERFECT.  

    So, intuition… yeah, I´d say in many occasions “intuition” is just a philosophical filler term. (When, for instance, I say something like “on the basis of my intuition blah blah blah…”, people should stop listening because it means I have no idea what I am talking about…) But even if it is quite common to have controversies what is intuitive and what is not, in many occasions there is a genuine consensus. And I guess Richard is right when he says that the transitivity is intuitive. What he means, of course, is that if you deny the thesis of transitivity, you have to argue for it.  And it is not going to be easy.

    However, I still think you point out something important. Of course these “intuitions” and “I have this feelings” and “it seems to me”ings are in many cases just part of the empty rhetorics. But the important question is, whether or not we actually have a legitimate way to use intuitions. Of course, many philosophers such as Peirce have said about this, and they have not always been too happy about the notion.  Some, of course, have been.

    But let´s assume that there is something so crystal clear to all of us that it could be counted as an example of intuitively clear thing. What is the right criteria for this “intuitiveness”? Are analytic truths or tautologies, for instance, intuitive? How to define the right contrast class – that´s the real question… What is it when something is NOT intuitive? Should define it by using some sort of information value-based notion or what?  How to operationalize the notion of intuition and test it empirically?

    I have actually been thinking about this since IJCNN. Some neural net modellers were trying, and this is a true story, model the “intuition” by neural nets. And since I don´t know any really good operationalization for that concept, I was abit surprised. As far as I know there is no widely accepted theory of intuition in (cognitive) psychology either.

    a

  9. Eric Thomson

    Anna-Mari: thanks. I think I can get away with being more glib because I’m not a philosopher 🙂

    At some level, intuitions drive everything. But one of the main assets of philosophy is that it serves to question and make explicit the basis for intuitions. E.g., I have the intuition that there are neurons out there in the world, that they would exist even if we didn’t know it. While centuries of philosophy have demonstrated that it isn’t very helpful to argue about this intuition, what if it had been otherwise?

    Also, perhaps Richard could argue that this is exactly what Rosenthal is doing. He is taking what at least one philosopher takes to be a commonsense platitude about consciousness that a “conscious mental state is a mental state that I am conscious of myself as being in”, fleshing it out, seeing how it relates to other intuitions about consciousness, and constructing a more explicit, larger-scale, self-consistent story.

    Perhaps all sciences start out like this to some degree. I just reason that commonsense platitudes haven’t been a good guide in any other branch of science, and I don’t see a good reason to think psychology will be any different. Even Einstein’s conceptual revolutions were born from struggles with data, data born in a conceptual framework that itself was grounded in a ridiculously detailed set of experiments. Perhaps, though, because we are about as far along with consciousness as the Greeks were with physics, there is more room for voices from the armchair.

  10. anna-mari rusanen

    Hi there,

    yeah… From the armchair point of view we should probably distinguish at least intuitions (intuition*) in the context of (scientific) discovery and intuitions (intuition**) in the context of justification. There are some differences between those notions at the conceptual and practical level. And needless to say, (if there is a such a thing in the first place) intuition (intuition***) as an psychological mechanism… it also should be seen as an independent concept.  

    The annoying thing with the concept is that it has two meanings. In many cases we say that “ok, I found this out on the basis of my intuition, and this is completely new to all of us” and then the concept intuition is seen as a source for new information (INTUITION 1). If this is so, then it implies that the notion of intuition should be defined trough the concept of information. But, the another way to use the concept is to say “This is intuitive, because this and this is so obvious” (INTUITION 2). This is a complete opposite to INTUITION 1, right? 

    Which one do you hate most?  

    Btw I agree with you when you express your scepticism. Intuition cannot serve as a basis of scientific (or philosophical) justification. This seems to me… very intuitive, since I have this feeling. But I am not sure, whether or not there is actually room for intuition in the context of SCIENTIFIC discovery either. But is there a  psychological mechanism that could be called “intuition”? Probably it is such one of those empty folkpsychological concepts, but who knows…   Where have all the brave neural net modellers gone?  

     

  11. Richard Brown

    That wasn’t begging the question. I was making an empirical hypothesis. Notice what I said next indicates that I think it is testable…I actually think this would make a good project for experimental philosophers to take up…

    I don’t know why it is a ‘weird lewis technique,’ you simply seem to assume that folk psychology is a flawed theory and Rosenthal assumes that it isn’t. I guess this is becausee you were a student of Churchland and Rosenthal is friends with Fodor, but at any rate if folk psychology is a theory then you need some way to define the terms that occur in that theory. Lewis’ way is one way of doing that.

    Of course you are right to object to the use and abuse of intuition in philosophy, but on Rosenthal’s view intuitions are simply theoretically informed judgments that occur (seemingly) non-inferentially and spontaneously. A person’s intuitions are reliable if that person is an expert concerning the theory in question. So your intuitions about neurons are more reliable than an undergraduate’s (though not infallable)…so the intuitive platitudes are a good place to start because the folk are experts in (applying) the theory…

    Of course all of this is just the starting point! We then go on to find out a lot about these things whose reference we fixed with the platitudes…and science can come to correct common sense (as it does for Rosenthal when, as he argues, we find out that sensations and pains etc. can occur unconsciously)…maybe it will even someday be the case that we replace these terms with terms from a complete neuroscience, but whatever the case may be, these platitudes are a good place to start. So I don’t think it is as crazy as you make it out to be…

    So maybe the scientifically viable theory is the result of a method that has some promise, or maybe, as you say, he just got lucky…either way, the point that I wanted to make was that the transitivity principle, taken as an empirical hypothesis about the nature of conscious mental states, is not threatened by the usual argument from transparency, and it seems that we agree on that.

  12. Richard Brown

    Hey! I just saw these two other comments!

    Eric, you say “I just reason that commonsense platitudes haven’t been a good guide in any other branch of science, and I don’t see a good reason to think psychology will be any different.”

    I guess I just don’t agree with that. I see science as starting in the 6th Century before the birth of Christ in Thales and other Ionians. Looking back we see time and time again when platitudes play crucial roles…and you are right that a lot of the time they lead to the wrong answer, but not always. And of course I agree that these intuitions come only after grappling with theory…but when we begin we have to fix the reference in a common sense way. There really is no other alternative, so in consciousness studies what the platitudes represent are conclusions based on massive amount of data; first-person data.  Just like Aristotle’s intuitive physics is based on massive amounts of induction.

  13. Eric Thomson

    Richard: as I said in my more conciliatory reply to myself, since we are about as far along in consciousness research as the Greeks were with physics, there may be more room for voices from the armchair right now.

    You are right that I have a strong skepticism toward platitudes and folksy theories (this is why I went to UCSD in the first place!).

    I prefer to treat transitivity as a hypothesis, as you put it. The fact that it doesn’t square with my folksy intuitions doesn’t stop me from seeing it is an interesting and reasonable as a hypothesis.

    If you want to talk about intuitions, my intuition is that none of the stories about consciousness on the table in all the scientific and philosophical literature can solve the Hard Problem, and that the Hard Problem is real, and that some kind of panpsychism is the only way out. I feel that intuition quite strongly, but pretty much ignore it because the science is so young that I attribute it to my own ignorance rather than use it to build a new theory of consciousness.

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