Everybody Hates My Unicorn

I’ve been developing an argument against both higher-order and first-order representational theories of consciousness (hereafter HOR and FOR, respectively). I call the argument the Unicorn and so far everybody (but me) hates it. To constructively focus the hate on a single blog post (instead of a longish paper draft), I briefly summarize here.

First, some quick and dirty definitions of my targets:

HOR – The property of being a conscious state consists in being a represented state.

FOR – The property of being phenomenal consists in being a represented property.

And now…the Unicorn:

P1. Things that don’t exist don’t instantiate properties.

P2. We represent things that don’t exist.

P3. Representing something does not suffice to confer a property to that thing.

C1. Representing a state does not suffice to confer the property of being conscious to that state (so HOR is false).

C2. Representing a property does not suffice to confer the property of being phenomenal to that property (so FOR is false).

That’s the argument. Here are some quick notes on it.

N1. Re: P1, cheetahs, not unicorns, are the fastest animals. This is not because unicorns have the property of being slow. This is because they have no properties whatsoever.

N2. Re: P2, if contrary to P2, we don’t represent things that don’t exist, then P2 is meaningless since it would represent nothing at all (it wouldn’t represent so-called people-who-represent-things-that-don’t-exist). P2, however, is not meaningless. Therefore, it’s true.

N3. Re: P3, it follows from P1 and P2. I don’t think it takes a lot of fancy work to show that it does, so I won’t bother.

N4. Re: P4, mutatis mutandis for how C1 and C2 follow from P3.

N5. HOR and FOR can’t dodge the Unicorn by simply adding existence to the list of criteria for consciousness/phenomenality. The key question HOR and FOR address is “in what consists the property of being conscious/phenomenal?” The problems the Unicorn raises for the answer “it consists in being represented” cannot be solved by requiring the existence of the representational target, since existence is not a property. Not being a property, existence adds nothing in “being represented and existing” not already present in plain old “being represented”. I take it that something like this dodge is at work in so-called same-order representational theories of consciousness (SOR). It (and they) won’t work.

Fig 1. Don’t hate me, hate my unicorn. (Photo by Ray Gunn.)

Fig 2. This is not my unicorn. (Photo source: http://www.fortgreenepups.org/03/images/unicorn.jpg )

63 Responses to “Everybody Hates My Unicorn”

  1. [...] 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. [...]

  2. Pete Mandik says:

    So, Chase, I’m not sure we have a diagnosis that points a way to a cure yet, but one hunch I have is that a lot of trouble is being created by not fully resisting the twin temptations to treat representation relationally and quantify into representational contexts. Perhaps my “x is true of y” is guilty of the sort of thing I worry about. I think you are right to suggest that I “want to reinterpret the claim that “Being represented does not suffice for a state/property to be conscious” as something other than “Not all represented states/properties are conscious states/properties”.”

    I would like to (and still figure that I can) spell out the premises of the Unicorn without assuming that saying of x that it “represents y” commits one to relating x to y. I think it commits one to nothing further than the existence of x and a y-representation, where the “y” in “y-representation” is non-referring. There ought to be some formulation of P3 (the crucial premise) along the lines of something analogous to

    It’s not the case that if Pete says “Unicorns stink.” then unicorns stink.

    Of course, it would have to generalize beyond Pete to include other persons, beyond “Unicorns stink” to include other utterances, and beyond utterances to include other representations.

    In short, I don’t just want to avoid quantifying over inexistents, I want to avoid quantifying over representeds.

  3. Chase Wrenn says:


    Here’s how (I think) John Heil (might) say what you are wanting to say with your Unicorn. maybe it’ll help.

    Representation is an internal relation, and internal relations introduce no additions to Being. This isn’t nonsense. R is an internal relation whenever the mere existence of a and b is sufficient for aRb to hold, and the holding of aRb makes no difference to the relata.

    Consider some representation (with a certain content) and some existing thing that it represents. Either could exist without the other. Moreover, either could exist without the other WHILE REMAINING EXACTLY THE SAME. Now, look at a world where the representation (with that content) exists and so does the thing is represents and, PRESTO!, the representation relation holds between them. But it’s not a genuine relation. It’s not an addition to Being.

    So here’s what I’ll call Heil’s Hippogriff:

    1. Representation is an internal relation.
    2. So, things always have the same properties regardless of whether they are represented or not.
    3. So, any state of a person has exactly the same properties whether it is represented or not.
    4. So, if a state has the property of phenomenality, it has the property of phenomenality whether or not there is a representation of that state.
    5. HOR/FOR imply that there are states that have the property of phenomenality in virtue of being represented, but that contradicts 4.
    6. Therefore, HOR/FOR are false.

  4. Pete Mandik says:


    The allegedly Heil-ish Hippogriff somewhat appealing, though I personally am not real happy with the first premise (on account of not being real happy saying that representation is any kind of relation, internal or otherwise, between a representer and a represented).

    I confess to having read very little Heil. Where might I look for a concise statement of his thoughts on representation?

  5. Chase Wrenn says:

    Don’t fear the first premise, Pete. To say that R is an internal relation is not to say that R is a relation and R is internal. It’s to say that R is a pseudo-relation whose obtaining amounts to nothing other than the existence of its relata.

    So, I think you can accept premise 1 without supposing that the existence of unicorn-representations implies the existence of unicorns. Unicorn-representations don’t represent unicorns (there being no unicorns for them to represent), but they would if only there were some unicorns for them to represent.

    Another way of putting the point of the previous paragraph: Being a unicorn representation is not a relation to unicorns, and it is not the same as representing unicorns. Unicorn representations and unicorns are independent existences, and for a unicorn representation to represent a unicorn is nothing more than for both of them to exist.

    As for a concise statement of Heil’s thoughts on representation, I think I’d direct you to Chapter 18, “Intentionality,” in *From and Ontological Point of View*. But beware, I think he’s more interested in defending internalism there than anything else, and he doesn’t say explicitly that representation is an internal relation. My attribution is based on having heard him say that truth-making is an internal relation about seventy or eighty times this summer.

    You might find that the nascent internalism of the view that representation is an internal relation is not to your liking. I wouldn’t blame you fo that at all.

  6. Pete Mandik says:


    Thanks for the reference. Thanks too for exploring this line.

    I really have no problem with R beyond calling it ‘representation’ and related problems.

    I don’t mind saying that there are relations between x and y that obtain between them solely in virtue of their existing, for example, “_is a proper part of the same mereological fusion as _ is” or “_is a member of the same set as _is”.

    I do mind saying things like “unicorn representations don’t represent unicorns”

    Suppose there exists both a unicorn, u, and a unicorn-rerpesentation, r.

    I bet there are lots of relations that r bears to u in virtue of them both existing. Which one is the R relation?

    I bet there are lots of relations r bears to things a, b, c, etc. other than u in virtue of merely existing. In virtue of what does r bear R to u but not a, b, c, etc?

  7. Chase Wrenn says:

    I think the important point about internal relations is that they aren’t real relations at all. There’s no point counting them, because aRb is equivalent to ($x)($y)(a=x & b=y).

    So, in answer to your question, I think I’d say this. r bears R to u but not a, b, c, etc. simply in virtue of the fact that u is not identical with a, b, c, etc.

    Now, you don’t like saying ‘unicorn representations don’t represent unicorns’. I think I do like saying it, but I think our disagreement is verbal. I read it as saying that unicorn representations don’t refer to unicorns, and you (I’ll bet) read it as saying that unicorn representations dont’ *purport* to refer to unicorns.

    I’ll be glad to adopt your lingo. To represent unicorns is to purport to refer to unicorns. The important point is that purporting to refer to unicorns is an intrinsic feature of a unicorn representation. So, if there were any unicorns, they would be referred to by unicorn-representations simply in virtue of the fact that (a) the unicorns exist while (b) there are representations with a certain intrinsic feature. That makes being referred to by a unicorn representation a Cambridge property.

    And so we have the Moorean Mermaid:

    1. Phenomenality is a genuine property, not a Cambridge property.
    2. “Being represented” is a Cambridge property.
    3. Therefore, phenomenality is not the same as being represented.

    [I have no idea why I want associate Moore with the disparaging of Cambridge properties, but I was really aiming for fantastical alliteration more than anything else.]

  8. Pete Mandik says:


    I’m happy at this point to view our disagreement as verbal. There’s something that bothers me about this “purport to refer” stuff that I cannot articulate to my satisfaction. Here’s an unsatisfactory attempt:

    There are two different kinds of things that fail to refer: those that purport but fail, and those that don’t even purport. What account can be given of what this difference consists in that doesn’t just sneak through the back door the relationality of purporting? I can’t think of one, so there is none.

    As I said, that’s unsatisfactory, so I’m happy to drop it for now.

    P.S. So, what are the origins of “Cambridge properties” and “Cambridge changes”? I have a dim recollection that these were born of disparaging remarks made by someone not at Cambridge.

  9. [...] The gist of the Unicorn Argument against representational theories of consciousness is that while both higher-order and first-order representational theories (HORs and FORs) require the existence of such a property as being represented, there is no such property since we can mentally represent things that don’t exist and things that don’t exist don’t instantiate properties. [...]

  10. [...] If you won’t be an Atlanta, there’s a draft here and a synopsis here. [...]

  11. [...] Over at the Philosophy of Brains blog, Richard Brown has a post called “Kripke, Consciousness, and the ‘Corn” in which he tries to defend Higher-Order Representational theories of consciousness against the Unicorn Argument, by wedding HOR to a Kripkean cauasal theory of reference. [...]

  12. [...] In case you think you’ve heard it (and hated it) all before, pause and appreciate this: you haven’t. There’s new stuff peppered throughout. See, for instance, the brand-spanking-new section 7. Enjoy! The conclusion of the Unicorn argument is incompatible with HOT and FOR. HOT and FOR derive much of their plausibility from Transitivity and Transparency, respectively. If the lesson of the Unicorn is something that we can live with, then perhaps we must either (1) learn to live without Transitivity and Transparency or (2) find a way of accepting Transitivity and Transparency while rejecting HOT and FOR. Option (1) is the best option. Option (2) is unwelcome because it is hard to see how Transitivity and Transparency don’t just lead relatively directly to HOT and FOR, respectively. Further, a direct case for (1) can be made, and it is the aim of this section to make it. Resistance to abandonment of Transitivity and Transparency may be due to the fact that both theses are prima facie plausible and arguably useful. However, I think that their plausibility can be explained away and their utility can be had by much more plausible substitutes. [...]