HOT Qualia realism

A lot of philosophers seem to take the higher-order thought theory of consciousness to be eliminative or deflationary about consciousness; of course, it doesn’t help that people go around saying that we need to get rid of qualia or even that we should endorse the claim that we ourselves are zombies! But aside from this misguided rhetoric I just don’t see any argument which shows that the higher-order theory is eliminative or deflationary. Of course I do not deny that it is counter-intuitive but so is any cutting edge theory. Let us rehearse what I take to be the basic argument for the higher-order theory.

1. A mental state that I am in no way aware of myself as being in is not a conscious mental state

This seems to me to be a common sense platitude and maybe even an analytic truth. If one accepts this then some kind of higher-order is true: (1) is the converse of the transitivity principle.

2. Certain kinds of thoughts can make us aware of things.

Thoughts that are seemingly unmediated by inference and represent the target as present make us aware of the target. if this isn’t true then higher-order thought theory is false, though some other kind of higher-order theory may still be true.

3. Phenomenal feel is a matter of what it is like for one to have conscious mental states

This also seems like a common sense platitude. If one accepts this then explaining phenomenal consciousness is just explaining what it is like for one to have conscious mental states.

4. What it is like for one to have a conscious mental state is determined by a higher-order thought

This is supported or at least made plausible by considerations about wine tasting and the like. In the wine tasting case one’s experience changes as one learns a new concept. It is consistent with this that applying a concept to one’s first-order states results in a change in phenomenal experience with no change in the first-order state’s properties (this is not the only thing this is consistent with of course). If this is right (and it is presumably empirically testable) then applying new concepts results in a change in what it is like for one to have the experience. If this is right then perhaps it is not too crazy to think that applying concepts is what results in phenomenal feel in the first place.

5. Only conscious mental states exhibit phenomenal feel

This is where the higher-order theory stands or falls. If it really is the case that there are no phenomenal feels when a state is unconscious then we really would have evidence that higher-order thoughts result in or produce phenomenal consciousness. It is not clear that this is true but it can be supported by philosophical analysis. For instance it is not at all clear that anything substantive hangs on whether we call qualitative properties of which we are in no way aware phenomenally conscious or not. if all one means is that unconscious pains have some property in virtue of which they are pains and that when we are aware of ourselves as being in feels a certain way then there is no disagreement. if on the other hand, one means that the unconscious pain feel painful for the person that has it then it is not clear what that would even mean. Besides this there are no telling empirical reasons to think that it is wrong.

Now each one of these claims is more or less controversial but if one accepts them then one accepts the higher-order thought theory and it seems to me that nothing in these four claims rules out qualia realism. In fact it seems that if these five claims are true then we have succeeded in explaining what phenomenal consciousness is and if we ultimately identify the neural means by which all of this is implemented then we will have discovered that consciousness is physical.As of right now it seems like we can conceive of creatures that have HOTs but which lack phenomenal feels but further empirical results may yet show that the HOT theory is the best theory of consciousness available (or if you prefer: it may show that it is true). The acknowledgement that it seems conceivable to have HOTs without phenomenal feel is enough to get qualia realism but not enough to show that higher-order thought theory is false. Is it really so strange that we should find out that qualia just are higher-order thoughts and that higher-order thoughts just are brain states? Sure, it is surprising; but is it more surprising than relativity theory, quantum mechanics, or string theory? I should think that the discovery of the relativity of simultaneity, Bose-Einstein condensates, dimensionless point-particles, and 11 dimensional space-time are quite a bit surprising indeed!


  1. I think that in this field the attempt to juggle with a montage of new and old concepts leads to awkward complication. For example, do we really need to keep the idea of an unconscious? It doesn’t serve such statements as “only conscious mental states exhibit phenomenal feel” – how would we know? An answer won’t be an empirical examination, but a grammatical exploration of the circularity of “only conscious states exhibit”.

    Another term that needs juggling with or discarding altogether is “Julia”. While we keep most philosophers happy by citing it, it would do well to occasionally re-assess the usefulness of concepts that were created to serve other theories. Julia model experience on the model of physical objects. A Julia here, a Julia there. Do we really want to hang on to that odd way of talking about experience?

    Other hybrid concepts and metaphysical oxymorons that we juggle with are “mental states” which again models experience on the behaviour of physical objects, and “consciousness” which really isn’t a state at all but a grammatical hold-all for any experience, or even an ontological condition for experience and not an experience itself.

    I’m not addressing the particularities of the above study but examining the general thrust of examinations such as these. I suspect that while our ability to juggle with so many historical, philosophical players may be sound, ultimately all that our performance can generate is internal, technical consistency, divorced from those natural perceptions that inform us.

  2. Richard Brown

    Hi John, thanks for the comment!

    I agree that ‘qualia’ is a term that is so abused as to be almost useless but nonetheless it persists because of its intuitive usefulness to pick out something which is obvious from our everyday lives. 
    I also agree that the key issue here is what kind of evidence we could possibly have for thinking that there are unconscious states that exhibit phenomenality but that doesn’t mean we should get rid of the unconscious. As far as I can there is a lot of evidence that there are unconscious mental states. I think that Block is right that the choice ultimately comes down to considerations about explanatory power, unity and the “mesh” between various levels of explanation…I just claim that the higher-order theory meshes with all of the empirical data as well (if not better than) any other theory of consciousness out there…
  3. For what it’s worth, it seems to be that the decisive move in the conjuring trick is made at step 4. You make a reasonably plausible case that applying concepts can affect phenomenal character, but it’s a huge leap from there to the claim that HOTs constitutively determine phenomenal character.

  4. “1. A mental state that I am in no way aware of myself as being in is not a conscious mental state”

    I don’t know how this could come close to an analytic truth if some of the terms (“awareness”) are completely vague. If consciousness involves awareness, then what’s awareness? Do we really know what we are talking about yet?

    I am sympathetic to the higher-order theory myself, but if it is going to be successful, then ALL the terms need to become clearly defined, including “awareness”. I propose, following Julian Jaynes, that we make distinctions along the following lines:

    -One can be nonconscious but awake, alert, and “aware” of the world in the sense that you behaviorally respond to it in an intelligent manner. Automatic habits, instinctual behavior, and sleepwalking are good examples. There is “something it is like” to be nonconscious, but that something is “what it is like” to be in athletic flow, “mindless”, in a trance, “on autopilot”, absorbed, etc. Cortical brain activity in a nonconscious state would be high.
    -Unconsciousness (coma, deep sleep) is different from nonconsciousness. It involves a very limited awareness of the body and world. Cortical activity would be limited.
    -Consciousness proper involves higher-order thoughts (which we are self-reflexively aware of) “scaffolded” by our embodied experience of nonconscious behavioral reactivity. It is a functional operation and exists “virtually” or in a “functional workspace”, probably similar to the global workspace model. Its function can be cashed out in terms of executive control operations. It is probably dependent in some way on exposure to narrative and language in childhood, particularly “analogous” or “figurative” operations. Cortical activity would be high, especially in the frontal lobes.


  5. Richard Brown

    Hey Dave thanks for the comment!

    I agree that it is a huge leap…that is why I only take step 4 as opening up the possibility that HOTs do the work…it is step 5 that is really decisive. If you have an unconscious mental state that has no phenomenal feel and then a conscious mental state that does have a phenomenal feel and the only difference is that in one case we apply concepts it is reasonable to think tat it is the application of the concepts that results in the phenomenal feel…add to that independent considerations from 4 and we have a good case for HOTs. Now I grant that 5 is controversial (it amounts to the methodological puzzle) but I think a good case can be made for it…On the one hand it is not clear what non-terminological issue is at stake and on the other hand the empirical evidence that Ned brings to bear does not pose a problem…but at any rate I agree that this is counter-intuitive…but all I need is that HOT qualia realism is at least negatively primarily conceivable and I think it clearly is
  6. John Gregg

    Step 5 is decisive? It looks like one of the possibly common-sensical platitudes to me. The magic is in step 4. I think I have a better idea now of the intuition that HOT theories grasp at. The whole wine-tasting thing. I agree that there are multiple layers of feedback loops in our minds, and that there is a poorly understood relationship between our concepts and our qualia. But I have no idea what a “concept” is in this context, or why it is any less mysterious than the “raw feels”. And as I said before in another thread, I don’t understand the intentionality relation between the LOT and the HOT such that it can bear the explanatory weight that it is being asked to bear here.

    We have a LOT and a HOT, and a communications channel between them. Where is the phenomenal consciousness? In the LOT? Or in the HOT? In the channel? Which of our boxes (the LOT or the HOT) could we swap out with a dumb playback tape and maintain consciousness by keeping the other box happy with the conversation on the channel? What excactly flows over that channel that breathes life into qualia?

    -John Gregg

  7. Richard Brown

    Hi John, thanks for these follow up thoughts.

    I think the reason people are confused is because I did not put (5) in such a way as to make clear what I had in mind. The point of (5) is supposed to be that no uncosncious mental states have phenomenal feel. So according to the higher-order theory when one has an unconscious pain it is not painful for that person. The LOT is there and it has causal connection to other states but there is no phenomenal feel there. It is only when the state is conscious that there is any phenomenal feel. Only conscious pains feel painful. Uncosncious pains don’t. If that could be established that would seem to decisively show that it is apply concepts that is doing the work. (4) shows us that concepts have something to do with phenomenology and (5) suggests that they are responsible for it. 
    I agree that it would be surprising to find this out but I don’t see how it would be any more surprising than the other stuff we think we’ve figured out. So the answer to the question is just the one proposed above; applying concepts results in phenomenal feel because to have phenomenal feel is to be conscious of oneself in particular ways and applying concepts is the way that is done. You want to talk about the implementation of this theory and i agree that this is interesting and important but doing so is not an objection to the theory…
    I also agree that this whole account entirely depends on what sense we can make of concepts, thoughts, etc. But many philosophers and scientists think that these are the “easy” problems and if so then the HOT theory is very happy to be easy! 
  8. (I don’t know why my term “qualia” was replaced with the word “Julia” in my post. How on earth did that happen?)

    There is no reason to try and accomodate what isn’t conscious as a type of consciousness. Nor is there a reason to privilege a “higher” order consciousness (like self-reflection)over that which isn’t conscious in the first place.

    The idea of a “self” reflection or “applying a concept” aren’t such priviliged or higher order thoughts. They are misleading ways of thinking about concepts, objects and thoughts. When we recast an object in terms of another framework we actually eliminate the old object and its framework and create a new one. The new object isn’t priviliged over or of a “higher order” than the old object.

    There can’t be an empirical investigation to decide whether our concepts make sense. The sense of our concepts must be in order before we set about testing them.

  9. John Gregg

    OK – I think I see why point 5 is not a tautology, given how you just expanded it. But then it is a bit question-begging. On my original interpretation, of course only conscious states have phenomenology, by definition. According to this other interpretation, it is an assertion we can’t know the truth of. The verbalizing, typing, cogitating me only knows about the phenomenal feels I am conscious of, but I really can’t say if there are others that I’m not conscious of. I’m certainly not awareconscious of yours, but I’m not 100% sure there aren’t some even within my own skull that “I” am not conscious of.

    In the computer industry, it is something of running joke that sometimes people blithely brush aside huge technical problems as “implementation details”. Remembering this, I had to smile at your dismissal of my challenge as a question of iplementation. My challenge consisted of asking about the relationship between the LOT and the HOT in terms of bits per second, and could we replace either the LOT or the HOT with a playback tape and maintain phenomenal consciousness. The nature of the challenge is not “Nice theory, but a little vague. Could you please put some meat on the bones?”. My challenge is to characterize a HOT theory in the general terms that I have laid out (being as liberal as you like with the details, bandwidth of the channel, iterations of feedback loops, etc.) in a way that leaves HOT theories seeming at all plausible.

    I’m not trying to be a repetitive troll here, but as a full-bore qualophile, one of the common maneuvers that I object to among theorists who try to dissolve phenomenal consciousness’s spooky mysteriousness is to slip a bit of magic into their theories under the guise of more respectable terms like “information”, “representation”, or in your case, “concepts”. I flatly reject the notion that any of the explanatory bases you invoke (like “applying concepts”) are easy or even Easy. To the extent that you “naturalize” them, and define them functionally, they lose their explanatory power vis a vis phenomenal consciousness. To the extent that they retain their explanatory power, they get spooky and mysterious.

    -John Gregg

  10. Eric Thomson

    John said:

    To the extent that you “naturalize” them, and define them functionally,
    they lose their explanatory power vis a vis phenomenal consciousness.
    To the extent that they retain their explanatory power, they get spooky
    and mysterious.

    Just to be sure I understand what you are saying: are you claiming that no matter what naturalistic theory someone gives, it will not capture the essential features of phenomenal consciousness?

  11. John Gregg

    Good question. It depends on how we take the term “naturalize”. In the current context, I am using it in the somewhat narrow sense that most people who claim to want “naturalistic” theories of mind use it: to explain something naturalistically is to explain it in terms of reductive physicalism, or possibly in functinoal terms. In truth, however, I claim to seek a naturalistic theory myself, but my “naturalism” might be a somewhat bigger tent than Richard’s.

    -John Gregg

  12. My claim is that in order to naturalize phenomenal consciousness you need to invoke a bridging principle between the 3rd-person (objective) perspective and the 1st-person (subjective) perspective. My proposed bridging principle is this:

    *For any instance of conscious content there is a corresponding analog in the biophysical state of the brain.*

    The explanatory task is to detail the brain mechanisms that are competent to generate the corresponding brain analogs. I believe this would “naturalize” consciousness.

  13. Richard Brown

    Just to be clear I am rather agnostic about which of these views is ultimately true…I limit my activities to defending the claim that there are at this point  no a priori or empirical reasons to think that reductive accounts of consciousness can’t succeed. Sure, people like you have intuitions that it can’t be done but people like me have intuitions that it can be done…and as I said the account has a lot of “if”s and “hopefully”s but should the case go as I have outlined then there would be no reason to claim that concepts are really mysterious (as opposed to seeming mysterious to us now)…though of course it could go the other way as well…but that just seems wildly implausible to me….The basic claim is that these are empirical questions and for all we can tell now it could go either way…

  14. Richard Brown

    Hi Arnold, thanks for the comment.

    As pointed out above by John it depends on what you mean by ‘naturalize’….Dualists like Chalmers will accept you bridge principle but deny that consciousness has been reduced or that anything more than a correlation has been discovered. I guess you could call that naturalizing consciousness…and David Armstrong did use ‘naturalism’ for the more expansive view that everything that exists exists in one single space-time (so that physicalism is the more restrictive claim that everything in space-time is physical) so one could call Chalmers a natuarlist in that sense (this would distinguish him from other dualists like Plantinga perhaps)….
  15. Hi Richard,

    You wrote:

    “I limit my activities to defending the claim that there are at this point no a priori or empirical reasons to think that reductive accounts of consciousness can’t succeed.”

    I guess we have to fix what it means for a reductive account to “succeed”. As a neuroscientist, I see a successful naturalistic account of consciousness as one that can explain and successfully predict phenomenal experience on the basis of generally accepted biophysical principles. How would you recognize a successful reductive account?

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