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.”)
Here are some further thoughts to help make clearer what my interest in this all is, excerpted from my paper “Phenomenal Consciousness and the Allocentric-Egocentric Interface“:
[T]here are philosophical reasons for being suspicious of the transitivity thesis.
First off, according to advocates of the transitivity thesis it is supposed to be intuitively obvious that it is a requirement on having a conscious state that one is conscious of that state. If the transitivity thesis is true it should be obviously incorrect to say of a state that is was conscious before any one was conscious of it. However, if we consider a particular example, it seems that the transitivity thesis is not obviously correct (which is not, of course, to say that it is obviously incorrect). Consider, for example, how one might describe what happens in motion induced blindness experiments when the yellow dots pop into and out of consciousness. [See the demo at the end of "Motion-Induced Blindness and the Concepts of Consciousness"] It seems equally plausible to say either (1) that first the perception of the yellow dot becomes conscious and then you become conscious of your perception of the yellow dot or (2) the perception of the yellow dot becomes conscious only if you also become conscious of your perception of the yellow dot. If the transitivity thesis were pre-theoretically obvious, then option (1) would be obviously incorrect and (2) would be obviously correct. However, since neither (1) nor (2) seem obviously correct (or obviously incorrect), the transitivity thesis is not pre-theoretically obvious.
A second consideration that casts suspicion on the transitivity thesis
concerns how easily we can explain whatever plausibility it has without granting its truth. We can grant that the transitivity thesis may seem plausible to very many people but explain this as being due to the fact that counterexamples would not be accessible from the first-person point of view. If we ask a person to evaluate whether the transparency thesis is true, they will call to mind all of the conscious states of which they have been conscious. But this can not constitute conclusive proof that conscious states are necessarily states that their possessor is conscious of. Consider the following analogy. Every tree that we have ever been aware of is, by definition, a tree that we have been aware of. But this is not due to the definition of being a tree, but only due to the definition of being aware of it. The fact that every tree that we are aware of is a tree of which we have been aware cannot constitute proof that trees are essentially the objects of awareness or that no tree can exist without our being aware of it. By analogy we should not conclude from our being conscious of all of our conscious states that we have been aware of from the first-person point of view that all conscious states are necessarily states that we are conscious of. We should instead view our first-person access to conscious states as a way of picking out a kind of state that we can further investigate utilizing third-person methods. The description â€œstates we are conscious of ourselves as havingâ€ thus may be more profitably viewed as a contingent reference fixer of â€œconscious stateâ€ that leaves open the possibility that it is not part of the essence of conscious states that we are conscious of them. Instead, the essence of conscious states is that they are hybrid representations that exist in the allocentric-egocentric interface.