The Transitivity of Consciousness as a Contingent Reference Fixer




Neurophilosophy

Originally uploaded by Pete Mandik.

Let us distinguish strong and weak versions of the transitivity thesis as follows:

Strong Transitivity: Necessarily, when one has a conscious experience one is conscious of the experience itself.

Weak Transitivity: When one has a conscious experience one is conscious of the experience itself.

One can argue against strong transitivity by arguing that it is possible to have a conscious experience without being conscious of the experience itself. One way in which this would be possible is if “being conscious of an experience” didn’t give the meaning of “having a conscious experience” but instead was a contingent way of fixing the reference of “having a conscious experience”.

Kripke illustrates the difference between giving the meaning of a term and contingently fixing its reference in terms of the example of “meter” and the standard metal bar in Paris. For the sake of simplicity, let us call that metal bar in Paris “Frenchy”. If “meter” simply meant “the length of Frenchy” then the phrase “Frenchy might have been longer than a meter” is necessarily false. However, it is relatively obvious that there is a way of thinking about “Frenchy might have been longer than a meter” whereby it is not necessarily false. On this way of thinking, we use “the length of Frenchy at time t” to identify a length that Frenchy has contingently and then we use “meter” to refer to that length for whatever object in whatever possible world has that length. There are possible worlds in which Frenchy does not have that length. Thus there are possible worlds in which Frenchy is not a meter long.

By analogy, I suggest, we use “states we are conscious of” to fix the reference of certain kinds of brain states, but there are possible situations in which those brain states occur without their possessors being conscious of them.

16 Responses to “The Transitivity of Consciousness as a Contingent Reference Fixer”

  1. Richard Brown says:

    Pete, I am not sure what you are on about in this post but let me take a stab at it.

    I don’t know what someone like Rosenthal is going to think about your strong and weak distinction in the first place but assuming that you could get him to go for it I don’t see what you think you have shown. Certainly for Rosenthal it is a contingent property of any brain state that it is a conscious state (if it ever is one, that is) so of course there are possible situations in which that brain state is not conscious even though the way we pick it out is via our consciousness of it. But that doesn’t show that the strong thesis is wrong. To show that you would have to have that brain state in a possible situation where I am aware of it in a suitable way and yet it is not a conscious state. You haven’t shown that this is possible (though of course Chalmers does think that this is possible; my point is simply that you haven’t shown it here). And I don’t see that your appeal to Kripke really does anything for you here; i.e to get the analouge of ‘frenchy is not a meter long’ you would need to get ‘that conscious state (call it ‘george’) is not a conscious state’ and that this is not nec. false is a prediction of the transitivity principle. In fact if this were nec. false then according to Rosenthal we would have to give up the hope of explaining conscious at all. In more Rosentahl-ian terms, if it turns out that the transitivity principle is right (but really how couldn’t it?) than it will be just as necessary as anything else is…But again, maybe I don’t see what you’re up to here…

  2. Richard Brown says:

    Oh shoot! I of course meant ‘then’ not ‘than’ damn!

  3. Pete Mandik says:

    Richard, you are right to suggest that I don’t show much here. My aim here is more to suggest something than argue for it. I’ll aregue more for it later, but I do argue a bit for it in my “Phenomenal Consciousness and the Allocentric-Egocentric Interface“.

    Here are a few further thoughts:

    You write that in order to show that the strong thesis is wrong I would have to “would have to have that brain state in a possible situation where I am aware of it in a suitable way and yet it is not a conscious state.” I think, however, it goes the other way round: I would have to show that there is a conscious state that one is not aware of in such-and-such a way.

    I think that Rosenthal is sufficiently Quinean to deny that anything is necessary, but I take it that lots of fans of Transititvity would hold that no conscious state is one which one is only contingently conscious of.

    What I would like to have arguments for is the view that “state you are conscious of” is a nice way to pick out conscious states, but not a necessary condition on being conscious.

  4. Richard Brown says:

    Pete, you are right that that is a counter-example to TP, but so is the other way, I guess I don’t really see why one is better than the other as a counter-example…but my point still stands. You have not shown that it is possible to have a conscious state that one is not suitably aware of and I don’t see how the Kripke stuff is supposed to generate one…I just don’t see what the objection is supposed to be…if you take the Kripke stuff at face value you get the view that ’state we are conscious of’ contingently fixes the refernt as some state (or other) of ours. It is certainly possible that that state thereby picked out might not have been a conscious state, but that is not an objection to TP unless you can show independantly that the state was/is a conscious state independantly of whether we are aware of it. So in order to get your modal intuition up and running you already have to have shown that strong TP is false, which means that the Kripke stuff can’t be an argument against strong TP…

    I don’t know what that second to last paragraph is supposed to mean, but surely you don’t mean to deny that any given conscious state might not have been conscious? That a state being a conscious state is a contingent matter is something that TP predicts. How could it be necessary that I have the suitaable awareness?

    btw one re-reading strong transitivity it occurs to me that, as formulated, it is not as strong as you think. For it may necessay that every time I am in a conscious state I am aware of that state, but this does not capture the essence of TP which is that what it is for a state to be a conscious state is to be aware of it in a suitable way. It is not just that when one happens the other does, not even that necesarialy when one happens the other does; it is that the one happening just is the other happening.

  5. Pete Mandik says:

    Richard, maybe some of the following will help. You write: “I don’t know what that second to last paragraph is supposed to mean, but surely you don’t mean to deny that any given conscious state might not have been conscious?”

    Right. What I’m talking about is not whether some conscious state might have been not conscious. What I’m talking about is whether some conscious state might have been a state of which we are not conscious, yet, in spite of our not being conscious of it, it would still be conscious.

    You write: “That a state being a conscious state is a contingent matter is something that TP predicts. How could it be necessary that I have the suitaable awareness?”

    I’m not reading TP as saying that it is necessary that you have the suitable awareness. I am reading TP as saying that, necessarily, if a state is conscious, then it is one of which you are aware.

    Of course, as you again point out, my post doesn’t contain an argument for this view. It’s just invoking the Kripke stuff to help spell out what the view would even be.

  6. Brian says:

    Pete,

    I am curious why you chose the “transitivity” label for your strong and weak theses. These theses don’t appear to have anything to do with ‘transitivity’ in the logical sense. Instead, they seem to be more like “anti-transparency” theses (in roughly the sense of ‘transparency’ found throughout the representationalism literature). Maybe “weak opacity” and “strong opacity” would be more appropriate labels?

  7. Richard C says:

    Pete, I take it you are proposing the following:

    (1) “being conscious of an experience” refers non-rigidly to a mental property P, but there are other possible worlds where an entirely different mental property Q instead meets this description.

    (2) “having a conscious experience” rigidly designates whatever property is actually picked out by the previous phrase, i.e. property P, as it happens.

    Hence, on your view, the intension of “having a conscious experience” depends on which world is actual. It is like the term ‘water’ in this respect, and to extend the analogy we would correlate “being conscious of an experience” with the descriptive expression “being watery stuff”.

    Is that right? (The Transitivity claim is then contingent yet a priori, like the claim that “water is the watery stuff of our actual acquaintance”, or whatever.)

  8. Pete Mandik says:

    Brian, the “transitivity” label is not my choice by due to Rosenthal and used by him and others in describing various higher-order monitoring theories of consciousness. The label is derived from there being a “transitive” use of the word “conscious” in statements such as “Mary is conscious of the red rose”. This is supposed to be contrasted with “intransitive” uses such as “Mary is conscious” and “Mary’s belief in red roses is conscious”. In the latter example, intransitive consciousness is attributed to a mental state. The Transitivity Principle is a claim about the relation between intransitive (state) consciousness and transitive consciousness (consciousness of): it is a statement of a requirement on state consciousness that the person having the state be conscious of the state.

    I find your recommendation that we bring opacity, or at least “opacity,” into the discussion intriguing. What did you have in mind? I ask because I get into some stuff concerning opacity and monitoring theories at the following post:

    Unicorns and Monitoring Theories of Consciousness

    Additional comments welcome!

  9. Pete Mandik says:

    Richard C, yes I think I could be happy with that way of putting the point. Thanks for the suggestion!

  10. [...] The old idea that consciousness is self-consciousness, that conscious states are states of which one is aware, is the target of yesterday’s post, “The Transitivity of Consciousness as a Contingent Reference Fixer.” (See also the query I posted (and ensuing discussion) over at the group-blog, Brains, “What Are You Conscious of When You Have Conscious Experiences.”) [...]

  11. Brian says:

    So it sounds like you, Rosenthal, and others are using “transitive” in the grammatical sense rather than the logical sense. That is much more clear to me now.

    As for opacity… “Experience is transparent (or diaphanous)” is a claim made by many first-order representationalists, and is traceable back to G.E. Moore. Roughly what this means is that whenever you try to introspect your experience, you never beome aware of the experience itself, but instead always become aware of the objects of your experience. E.g. if I were to try to introspect the bitter taste I experience while drinking my coffee, I would fail to become aware of any property of my experience; instead, I would become aware of a property of my coffee.

    A very strong version of the “transparency thesis” would go something like the following: Necessarily, whenever a conscious subject S has an experience E, S is never aware of E.

    The strong transparency thesis is about as far away in spirit as you can get from your strong transitivity thesis. I suggested the ‘opacity’ label for your theses because of their contrast with this kind of transparency claim.

  12. Brian says:

    As for the Unicorn… I guess I’ll post my reply to that under the other blog entry, as it seems less relevant to the transitivity/rigidity stuff.

  13. uriah says:

    Hey Pete -

    Just took a look at your blog, and it’s really flourishing! So many interesting ideas - I’ll have to stop by here more often. I particularly like this post, which is something i argued for in the past - see section 4 of my paper “consciousness and self-consciousness” (http://www.ephilosopher.com/kriegel/index.php?Papers/Consciousness+and+Self-Consciousness&print)…

  14. Pete Mandik says:

    Hey, thanks Uriah!

    Question: Would you take yourself, then, to reject what I call “Strong Transitivity” in my post?

  15. uriah says:

    Hey Pete -

    No, I hold Strong Transitivity as well. And in fact I crushed many subteleties when I wrote that I argue for the same thing. What I actually do in that paper is I *suggest* a *similar* thing. What I suggest is that first-person knowability fixes the reference of “conscious.” I then argue from that to something similar to transitivity.

  16. Pete Mandik says:

    Ahhhh!

    Thanks for clearing that up, Uriah. I was worried for a bit there that I had completely misunderstood your views on consciousness.