Dear Watson




Waston and Holmes

Originally uploaded by earthdog.

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.

One way one might attempt to resist the premise that the non-existent instantiate no properties is in terms of a notion of truth in fiction. One might embrace the following pair of views:

(1) There literally is no such person as Sherlock Holmes and it is no more true of Holmes that he does coke than that he smokes pot.

(2) There is a sense of “true” whereby it is more true of Holmes that he does coke than that he smokes pot.

One might hold that the “truths” about Holmes in (2) hold in virtue of it being true in the literal sense, true in sense (1), that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote stories about Holmes doing coke but not true in sense (1) that Doyle wrote stories about Holmes smoking pot. There is thus a sense, then, in which Holmes, in spite of not existing, instantiates properties.

Note, however, how little this will help HORs and FORs. Those theories need it to be true (in sense (1)) that there is such a property as being represented. HORs and SORs want to explain, among other things, what it means for a mental state that exists to be conscious. And their explanation will be one that includes, among other things, that it is true in sense (1), that the state in question is represented. Mutatis Mutandis for FORs and their explanations of being a phenomenal property in virtue of being a represented property.

However, when things are represented, it is infrequently true of them in sense (2) that they are represented. Consider Holmes again. While it is true (2) of Holmes that he does coke, since it is part of Doyle’s story, it is not true (2) of Holmes that Doyle wrote a story about Holmes, since that is not part of the story. (I must confess to not having read many Sherlock Holmes stories, but I’m relatively confident in guessing that Doyle did not engage in the kind of self-referential meta-fiction that might constitute an exception to my claim.) Whatever sense might be made of the instantiation of properties by non-existents in terms of truth in fiction it is not going to be the kind needed to block the inference from “we represent things that do not exist” and “things that do not exist do not instantiate properties” to “there is no such property as being represented”.

6 Responses to “Dear Watson”

  1. Hey Pete,

    I think I agree with you that this truth in fiction stuff is not a way to defuse the intuition behind the argument but as you know, I do not think that the unicorn’s horn is very pointy :)

    It is not pointy for Rosenthal because he denies that the higher-order state transfers or confers a property. He explicitly denies that a conscious mental state is a first-order state that has the property of being represented by a higher-order thought. Though, I think you are right to be suspicious of this kind of move, it seems to me that it pretty much follows from his Quinian way of thinking, and since you seem to think that way too, then I wonder why you resist this way of solving the problem.

    On the other hand, it is not pointy to at least one other way of construeing the higher-order thought theory. It may be true that conscious humans can have thoughts about things that don’t exist and so true that ‘we represent things that don’t exist’ but I don’t see why that means that the higher-order theorist is comitted to saying that the special kind of higher-order thought needed to be conscious of oneself as being in a certain first-order state (i.e. a thought to the effect that one is, onself, in a certain first-order state) ever represents something that doesn’t exist. It is perfectly possible that the area of the brain that is responsible for these specialized kind of thoughts (I’m looking at you pre-frontal cortex) is only capable of producing veridical thoughts. This would make the inuition behind the premise ‘we represent things that don’t exist’ guitly of the fallacy of division….One way of cashing this claim out, though not the way that Rosenthal does, is to postulate that the first-order state has to cause the higher-order state that represents it inorder for it (the first-order state) to count as a conscious state. If this is the case there would not ever be a case where the higher-order state represents oneself as being in a state that does not exist (though it may represent oneself as being in a state that one is not in fact in). So, on this modified higher-order thought theory that requires the first-order state to cause the higher-order state we could say that the first-order state comes to have the property of being represented, which property consists in the first-order state’s causing the higher-order thought that targets it…I spell this out in more detail in the third section of that paper down there, if you have the inclination to look at it…

    Consciousness on my Mind: Implementing the Higher-order Strategy for Explaining What it’s Like

  2. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Richard,

    Your proposed revision still assumes that there is such a property as being represented. Such an assumption is vulnerable to, among other things, the Bucket Argument.

  3. I wouldn’t say that it assumes it so much as argues for a way of saying what it is…and as far as I can see (which isn’t very far ’cause I don’t see the analogy very well) the bucket only shows that thought sometimes represent things that don’t exist, not that these special kinds of higher-order thoughts do or have to…

    by the way,

    your mama is so fat and dumb that she thinks a higher-order thought is what you get when you decide to super-size your fries ;)

  4. Scott Monty says:

    Must…lie…down…head…ready to…explode.

    In the Baker Street Irregulars, we suspend all truth and simply believe that Holmes was (and is) real. It makes it so much easier that way.

  5. Pete Mandik says:

    Well, don’t suspend all truth. Otherwise Holmes is going to start smoking pot.

  6. [...] Chappell argues for ditching (1), but my inclination is against (2). I figure that ficitonal entities don’t literally have any properties yet alone essential ones. As I argued in “Dear Watson” there might be an attenuated sense in which fictional entities have properties in virtue of authorial intent, but they will seldom have, in this sense, the property of being represented. For similar reasons, they won’t have the property of being fictional. [...]