First-Order Representationalism and Direct Reference

In “Me So ‘Corny“, I examined and rejected the proposal that maybe a kind of direct reference can save HOR (Higher-Order Representational) theories of consciousness such as HOT (Higher-Order Thought) from the Unicorn. I want to do a similar thing here for FORs (First-Order Representational theories). The proposal of uniting FOR with DR raises special issues. One issue is that FORs concern representations of properties, not particulars. The second issue is that FORs concern representation in experience, not thought.

Recall that, for HORs, DR was described as holding that there are certain mental representations such that (a) two or more of these representations are about the same object if and only if they have the same cognitive significance and (b) these representations have representational content only if that which they represent exists. The question arises: what is the most straightforward way of adapting DR to fit with a theory of the representation of properties in experience? I think that (a) and (b) can serve as useful models. We can attempt to make suitable alterations, (a+) and (b+). The transformation of (a) into (a+) will obviously involve replacing “object” with “property”. Not so obvious is what to do with “cognitive significance” although “experiential significance” might suffice. Or, more to the point of a discussion of phenomenal consciousness, we may work with “what it’s like,” where sameness and difference in experiential significance may be regarded as sameness and difference in what it’s like. Thus we have

(a+): Two experiences represent the same property if and only if they are the same with respect to what it’s like to have them.

Moving on to the modification of (b), the main problem to deal with is how to apply the exists/doesn’t exist distinction to properties instead of objects. Two suggestions immediately arise. The first is to identify it with the instantiated/uninstantiated distinction. The second is to identify it with the possibly instantiated/ necessarily uninstantiated distinction. I will focus on the second option, since I intend to present counter examples to FOR+DR and counter-examples to FOR+DR in terms of necessarily uninstantiated properties are a fortiori counter-examples to FOR+DR in terms of uninstantiated properties. Thus, part of what is entailed by combining direct reference with FOR is

(b+): An experience represents a necessarily uninstantiated property if and only if there is nothing it is like to have the experience.

In what follows I will argue against the wedding of FOR and DR by arguing that there can be experiences for which there is something it is like but the represented property is necessarily uninstantiated.

We see (that is, visually represent) necessarily uninstantiated properties whenever we look at certain pieces of art by M. C. Escher. In many of Escher’s artworks, we see what at first glance seem to be three dimensional objects and their arrangements, but on further reflection couldn’t possibly exist. For example, in Escher’s 1960 lithograph, “Ascending and Descending,” we see (and thus visually represent) a finite set of stairs, each one of which is higher than some other.

Ascending and Descending

Now, it is open for the FOR theorist to hold that what is paradoxical in viewing such a picture is restricted to what concepts one brings to bear on the experience and that the contents of the experiences themselves contain nothing contradictory because, for example, the contents of the experiences themselves concern only the representation of a distribution of shades of gray in the visual field. I don’t think this response is particularly plausible, but I won’t pursue this further here, for I think there are bigger and much more interesting problems for the FOR theorists, problems that arise from experiences with paradoxical contents not obviously attributable to any coinciding conceptual states.

Consider, for one such example, experiences of the motion aftereffect, or, more colloquially, the waterfall illusion. The effect occurs when one has been staring at a moving stimulus for a while, such as a waterfall, and then directs one’s attention to a stationary object such as a rock wall. One will then undergo a paradoxical experience whereby one and the same object, the rock wall in this case, appears simultaneously to be moving and not moving.

The problem posed by the motion aftereffect is that it is a putative example in which the property experienced—the property of simultaneously moving and not moving—cannot be instantiated, for nothing in reality can be simultaneously moving and not moving. At this point, the FOR theorist may be tempted to re-describe the experience in question as actually being two experiences, one of which is an experience of something as moving and the other of which is an experience of the very same thing as stationary. Such a move would block the attribution of representations in experience of necessarily uninstantiated properties. However, one might wonder what independent motivation can be provided for such a move so as to make it not so obviously ad hoc. Instead of dwelling further on the motion aftereffect, I would like to spend time on a class of examples even more powerful.
Due to peculiarities of the normal functioning of the visual system, we can experience colored after-images. Readers are no doubt aware that after staring at a bright red spot and then directing their gaze at a white wall, they will experience a green afterimage. FORs provide a natural explanation of such after-images: though no green object need be present in the room, one undergoes so-called green afterimages in virtue of mentally representing in experience the instantiation of green in a certain region in space.

Under certain conditions, there can be induced in normal subjects afterimages with colors corresponding to no color an object can have. Following Paul Churchland, let us call such colors “chimerical colors” for they are “color[s] that you will absolutely never encounter as an objective feature of a real physical object.”
The textbook case of an afterimage involves locating the afterimage on a white background by fixating one’s gaze on a white wall or piece of paper. Chimerically colored afterimages may be achieved when afterimages are located on non-white and non-gray backgrounds. For example, if one were to look at a pale-blue-green stimulus and then position the resultant orange afterimage on a maximally saturated orange background, the resultant afterimage will be colored what Churchland calls “hyperbolic orange” an orange which is “more ‘ostentatiously orange’ than any (non-self-luminous) orange you have ever seen, or ever will see, as the objective color of a physical object.”

Locating afterimages on black backgrounds yields afterimages that no objects, self-luminous or not, could have. If one looks at a saturated yellow stimulus for 20 seconds and positions the blue afterimage on a black background, the resultant afterimage will still be blue but will be exactly as dark as black. This is especially interesting since, as Churchland points out, “no objective hue can be as dark as that darkest possible black and yet fail to be black.” Even more interesting is what happens when one starts by looking at a saturated blue and positions a yellow afterimage on a black background. The resultant image is still yellow, but a yellow exactly as dark as black. This is especially interesting because we tend to think of yellow as a light hue. Ludwig Wittgenstein once asked “[W]hy is there no such thing as blackish yellow?” The afterimages described by Churchland show that while there cannot be such a thing as blackish yellow, it may nonetheless be represented in experience. The representation of blackish yellow involves the representation of a necessarily uninstantitated color, and as such, cannot be accommodated by any version of FOR wedded to DR.

Recall the sorts of objections the imagined FOR theorist raised against the Escher and waterfall illusion counterexamples to FOR+DR and note how ineffective such objections would be against the case of chimerically colored afterimages. The objection against the Escher case was that the paradoxical contents were represented in conception, not experience. Whatever plausibility such an objection had in the case of viewing a picture of an ever-ascending staircase, it certainly has no plausibility in the case of colored afterimages. The objection against the waterfall illusion was that perhaps what was happening was not a single experience of motion and its negation, but two distinct experiences, one of motion, and one of the lack thereof. Whatever plausibility such an objection had in the case of the waterfall illusion, it certainly has no plausibility in the case of colored afterimages. It is quite clear that when one as an experience of a color patch, even in the case of an afterimage, one is not undergoing three separate experiences, one each for the hue, the brightness, and the saturation of the color in question. One is, instead, having a single experience, one which involves the representation of a single color which, if instantiated, would also instantiate a particular hue, brightness, and saturation.

One possible FOR-friendly response would be to say that the necessarily uninstantiated properties described above are complexes of properties that are individually instantiable. Such a response would involve modifying FOR so that what it is like is solely determined by the atomic properties represented, not by their combination. But such a revision runs into a big problem, namely, that it makes binding irrelevant to what it’s like. To see this point about binding, consider that there’s a difference in what it is like to see (1) red squares and blue circles and (2) blue circles and red squares. However, the possible response under examination would make (1) and (2) subjectively indistinguishable, for the response under examination would make the sole determinants of what it’s like the representation of redness, blueness, square-ness, and circularity.

4 Responses to “First-Order Representationalism and Direct Reference”

  1. clayton says:

    Please tell me ‘Me so ‘corny’ is a reference to arrested development!

  2. Pete Mandik says:

    Nope. It’s my first and hopefully last reference to 2 Live Crew.

  3. Pete Mandik says:

    Or perhaps that was.

  4. Clayton says:

    Damn. I thought it was maybe a mix. Check out the third season of Arrested Development if you get the chance and you’ll catch the reference. It’s hi-larious, but I don’t want to spoil anything by explaining it.