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.
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.
Hi John, thanks for the comment!
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.
“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.
Hey Dave thanks for the comment!
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?
Hi John, thanks for these follow up thoughts.
(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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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…
Hi Arnold, thanks for the comment.
“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?