David Rosenthal and I had an interesting mini-debate at the bar last night. Things got kicked off when NC/DC drummer Richard Brown asked David if inexistents had properties. I don’t think we got to the bottom of what the right answer should be or how this sits with the Higher-Order Thought theory of consciousness. But here’s a pretty relevant passage from Rosenthal’s (2002) â€œHow many kinds of consciousness?â€:
The pretheoretic notion of a mental stateâ€™s being conscious, Iâ€™ve argued elsewhere, is that of oneâ€™s being conscious of being in that state. Common sense doesnâ€™t count as conscious any state of which a subject is wholly unaware. One’s HOTs need not be accurate; one can seem to be in a state that one isn’t in. But since one is conscious of oneself as being in such states, that’s not a case of being conscious of something that doesn’t exist.10 There is no problem about how a nonexistent state can have the monadic property of being conscious. States do not in any case occur independently of something of which they are states. And the occurrence of a conscious state is the appearance one has that one is in that state; compare the way we speak about rainbows. This will seem problematic only if one regards the phenomenological appearances as automatically veridical.11
Since HOTs make one conscious of oneself as being in a particular state, what it’s like for one to be in a state is a function of how one’s HOT represents that state. Does this mean that phenomenality is, after all, a property only of HOTs, and not the qualitative states that HOTs are about?12 Here the distinction between thick and thin phenomenality is crucial. Thin phenomenality, which occurs independently of our being in any way conscious of it, is a property of qualitative states, not HOTs. By contrast, thick phenomenality, which simply consists in the subjective appearance of phenomenality, occurs solely in connection with HOTs. Only if one sees the two types of phenomenality as a single, indissoluble property will there be an appearance of a problem here.
10 Plainly one can be conscious of existent things in ways that are inaccurate, e.g., in respect of properties the thing doesn’t have, and the commonsense idea that being conscious of something is factive must bow to that.
11 For more on the HOT hypothesis, see my â€˜â€˜Two Concepts of Consciousness,â€™â€™ Philosophical Studies, 49, 3 (May 1986): 329â€“359; â€˜â€˜Thinking That One Thinks,â€™â€™ in Consciousness: Psychological and Philosophical Essays, ed. Martin Davies and Glyn W. Humphreys, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993, 197â€“223; â€˜â€˜A Theory of Consciousness,â€™â€™ in The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates, eds. Ned Block, Owen Flanagan, and Gâ‚¬uven Gâ‚¬uzeldere, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997, 729â€“753; and â€˜â€˜Explaining Consciousness,â€™â€™ in Philosophy
of Mind: Contemporary and Classical Readings, ed. David J. Chalmers, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, forthcoming 2002.
12 As Elizabeth Vlahos has argued, in â€˜â€˜Not So HOT: Higher Order Thought as an Explanation of Phemomenal Consciousness,â€™â€™ delivered November 2000 at the New Jersey Regional Philosophical Association.
One thing I’m especially curious about is whether appeal to notional states constitutes a satisfying response to my Unicorn argument. I see how appeal to notional states works against Vlahos’ and others’ empty HOT kinds of objections. But unlike their objections, built into mine is the premise that things that don’t exist don’t instantiate any properties. As I’ve said, unicorns fail to instantiate the property of being fast not because they are slow, but because they don’t exist. I gather that there’s a sense in which Rosenthal would disagree with that premise, and I gather this from the remark from the 2002 passage: “There is no problem about how a nonexistent state can have the monadic property of being conscious.” I guess I think there is a problem and I wonder why I shouldn’t. Immediately following that sentence Rosenthal writes:
States do not in any case occur independently of something of which they are states. And the occurrence of a conscious state is the appearance one has that one is in that state; compare the way we speak about rainbows. This will seem problematic only if one regards the phenomenological appearances as automatically veridical.
I suppose that if I knew more about what he had in mind regarding rainbows I would know more about how the instantiation of properties by inexistents is supposed to be unproblematic. Is he supposing that rainbows don’t exist? I’m inclined to think that while rainbows are creatures of appearance–that they have no existence apart from a network of what we might call appearances–they are not notional and thus it is true of rainbows, e.g., that they are visble after showers. The appearances that constitute rainbows strike me as more objective (having to do with angles of light rays etc) than whatever kind of appearance is constituted by potentially false beliefs. So I guess I’m not seeing how appeal to rainbows is supposed to help show as unproblematic the instantiation of properties by notional things since I’m not seeing rainbows as notional. My failure to see rainbows as notional is due to my thinking that whatever appearances they are constituted by are different than whatever might make it that Santa Claus or Sherlock Holmes are notional. But perhaps this distinction I’m appealing to cannot be sustained. Or perhaps my problem is that I’m regarding a certain class of appearances as, in Rosenthal’s words “automatically veridical”.
Whatever the strengths the notional state response has against Empty HOT objections, when considered as a reponse to The Unicorn, it is question begging insofar as it begs the question against my premise that inexistents lack properties.
Fig 1. Nice shirt.