Unicorns and Rainbows

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) “How many kinds of consciousness?”:

The pretheoretic notion of a mental state’s being conscious, I’ve argued elsewhere, is that of one’s being conscious of being in that state. Common sense doesn’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 ‘‘Two Concepts of Consciousness,’’ Philosophical Studies, 49, 3 (May 1986): 329–359; ‘‘Thinking That One Thinks,’’ in Consciousness: Psychological and Philosophical Essays, ed. Martin Davies and Glyn W. Humphreys, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993, 197–223; ‘‘A Theory of Consciousness,’’ in The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates, eds. Ned Block, Owen Flanagan, and G€uven G€uzeldere, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997, 729–753; and ‘‘Explaining Consciousness,’’ 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 ‘‘Not So HOT: Higher Order Thought as an Explanation of Phemomenal Consciousness,’’ delivered November 2000 at the New Jersey Regional Philosophical Association.

Comments:

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.

12 Responses to “Unicorns and Rainbows”

  1. Chase Wrenn says:

    Pete-

    I got the impression from the pasage you cited that Rosenthal might have something roughly like this in mind: When you have a HOT, it isn’t properly understood as a representation of another state. It is properly understood as an ATTRIBUTION OF another state to oneself. That’s why there’s no problem about empty HOTs. You exist, and so your HOT is about something that exists.

    C

  2. Pete Mandik says:

    Chase,

    I interpret him as giving a disjunctive response and what you describe is one of the disjuncts. So he’s saying: “Well there’s no problem with saying of inexistent things that they have properties, and just in case there is, we can always see HOTs as about the person who has the sate”.

    What bothers me about the second disjunct is something that I mentioned in response to Richard Brown over at the Unicorn Hatred thread: any representation of a inexistent can easily be reinterpreted as the misrepresentation of an existent and vice versa.

  3. Richard Brown says:

    Hey Pete,

    In fairness to myself, I was not asking whether inexistents had properties. I was asing David whether he thought they did….

    That rainbow remark is interesting, especially since it goes by so quick. He says,

    “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. ”

    you interpret this as saying that rainbows don’t exist and yet we attribute properties to them. But it seems to me, after thinking about it way too much, that what he is trying to say is that the occurance of a rainbow is simply ‘being appeared’ to in a certain way and this is exactly what he thinks a conscious stae is: A conscious state simply is the ‘appearance that one has that one is in that state’.

    Also, I think you are misreading his claim that ‘there is no problem how a nonexistent state can have the monadic property of being conscious’. You, again, take him as saying that the nonexistent state has a property, but I read this as saying that the so-called problem is not really a problem. So I don’t really see the disjunctive move that you think he is making.

    Finally, YOU mentioned that to ME? Funny, I thought I mentioned it to YOU as a response to the unicorn!

  4. Pete Mandik says:

    Richard,

    If “A conscious state simply is the ‘appearance that one has that one is in that state’.” then

    1) what is the monadic property of being conscious?

    and

    2) what is the thing that has the monadic property of being conscious?

    If the answer to 1 has “being represented” in it, then it’s back to the Unicorn again. If the answer to 2 is “the person being appeared to” then what HOT turns into a theory of is how intransitive creature consciousness is implemented, not how intransitive state consciousness is implemented.

  5. Richard Brown says:

    I don’t know if it is mondadic or not, but the transitivity principle says that a state is conscious when one is aware of oneself as being in that state…one way to be aware of oneself as in a certain state would be to represent oneself as being in that state. The unicorn has nothing to do with this because I can represent myself as being in the state of seeing a unicorn even though there arn’t any uncorns. If I did so I would be conscious of myself as seeing a unicorn and thereby have the conscious experience (as) of seeing a unicron. At no point in any of this has the unicorn receieved any properties unless one has a strange view about properties…

    I really don’t understand why you say what you do about 2. Creature consciousness, according to Rosenthal, is simply an organism being awake and responsive to stimuli. Obviously a creature could be in such a state and yet fail to have any conscious states and vice versa! Translation: a creature could be awake and responding to stimuli and thereby have states that represent its environment without that creature representing itself as being in those state. So again, if a conscious state is simply the creature representing itself as being in that state how does this collapse into creature consciousness?

  6. Richard Brown says:

    Also, I think that Chase is basically correct that for Rosenthal a state’s being conscious has something to do with one attributing that state to onself, but it is important to keep in mind that it is a special kind of attribution. For instance my attributing a state to you does not reslut in your state being consious, and as Rosenthal points out, I can even attributs a state to myself without it being a conscious state (I may become convinced that I am in love with some one because someone else sees the way that I am acting a points it out to me). The attribution has to be in a subjectively immediate kind of way that is noninferential

  7. Pete Mandik says:

    Intransitive creature consciousness is the consciousness attributed when you say of a creature that it is conscious. Intrasitive state consciousness is the consciousness attributed when you say of a state that it is conscious. Transitive consciousness is the consciousness attributed when you say of a creature that it is conscious of something.

    HOT theory is frequently advertised as explaning intrasitive state consciousness in terms of transitive consciousness as follows: A state of a creature is a conscious state in virtue of the creature being conscious of that state. It is further spelled out that being conscious of something is thinking of that thing.

    Objectors object that one can think of things that aren’t there, like states one doesn’t actually have. HOT heads reply that what’s really being thought of isn’t the state after all, but the creature.

    Question: if it’s such a big deal that it’s the creature, not the state that’s being thought of, then why doesn’t it follow that it’s the creature, not the state that is thereby rendered conscious?

  8. Chase Wrenn says:

    It’s beginning to look more and more to me as though HOT-heads should take themselves to have explained the property of intranstive state consciousness AWAY, not as having explained what it really is.

    Over on the Unicorn thread, Pete, you said that denying consciousness is a property would not be a welcome move for HOT-heads. But I’m not so sure that’s not what they’re doing already. It’s starting to sound as though they’re saying something like this: “As it turns out, all there is to being a ‘conscious state’ is being a state of which a person is conscious. So, consciousness isn’t a property of first-order states after all. And, all those things we thought were causal powers of conscious states turn out to be causal powers of states of being aware of other states.”

    If it turns out that gen-yoo-wine HOT-heads aren’t willing to make this move, then I’ll be either surprised or terribly disappointed in them.

  9. Pete Mandik says:

    Chase, I think that’s an interesting move for them. One thing it would leave me wondering, though, is: What then would distinguish such HOT-heads from Dennett and other first-person operationalists?

  10. Richard Brown says:

    Pete, I am pretty sure I explained why it is not the creature…and the obvious answer to your wondering is that people like Rosenthal think that there are (thin) phenomenal properties of first-order mental states that the higher-order states either get right or not…

  11. Richard Brown says:

    Pete, I am pretty sure I explained why it is not the creature…and the obvious answer to your wondering is that people like Rosenthal think that there are (thin) phenomenal properties of first-order mental states that the higher-order states either get right or not…

  12. [...] Now this is all very interesting in its own right (but I don’t want to discuss it now…Pete and I have argued over this stuff beofre, like here), but last night, as I was introspecting while listening to some live jazz music, I started thinking about another kind of higher-order zombie; an introspective HOT zombie. Introspection, on the higher-order theory, is the occurance of a suitable higher-order state that is about one’s higher-order states. A conscious experience occurs when one is conscious of oneself as being in a certain first-order state and in introspection one becomes conscious of oneself as being conscious of a certain higher-order state. Since introspection is simply the occurance of some third-order state about my second-order states all of the issues about misrepresentation come up again at this higher level. [...]