The Subjective Brain

I’ll be putting draft chapters of my book, The Subjective Brain, up on my website at a rate of roughly one per week. Up already is the zeroth chapter, Consciousness and the Invisible Brain.

Comments are, of course, welcome.

Cyber Brain by Mandik

36 Responses to “The Subjective Brain”

  1. Eric Thomson says:

    Exciting! I look forward to reading it.

    Will you discuss implications of externalism for the identity thesis in the book?

  2. Pete Mandik says:

    Yup. Especially in chapter 7.

  3. Eric Thomson says:

    Errr. Nevermind, I see that’s the third problem you raise for identity theory. Nice. So far, so good after five pages in :)

  4. Eric Thomson says:

    I’ve worked through the chapter once. I am confused about transitivity.
    (T) A state is conscious only if one is conscious of this state.

    So let’s say we have two representational systems. One includes lower-level states and another which can be “conscious of” such lower-level states. It is quite disconverting to have the consciousness of a state delineated in terms of consciousness of that state. My mind ends up in a circle, as I have no idea what it means to be ‘conscious of’ a state. T seems almost vacuous because instead of describing conscious contents in terms of something else, it describes it in terms of consciousness ‘of’. Isn’t it consciousness we were interested in originally? T just sent my mind in a bloody circle.

    Though to be fair, you are simply trying to unpack claim 2) ‘Conscious states are states of which we are conscious,’ which is one of the three ways you survey the logical geography of the term ‘consciousness.’ Not arguing that it is right, but setting it up as a position (and its related HOR theories) you will need to deal with as an identity theorist.

    I suppose I have never liked it when people try to unpack things in terms of 2), for the very reasons I adumbrate above. My response is “Fine, what is it to be conscious of a state, what special feature does a physical system have to have to make it conscious of a state, and how does your slogan help us at all aside from adding a recursive layer to confuse my feeble mind?”

  5. R Brown says:

    Hi Eric,

    Your reaction is a common one for people who first hear about the transitivity principle, but ultimaltely it is easy to answer.

    We are conscious of things when we sense them, or in some instances when we have the right kind of thought about them. So the higher-order strategy is to try to offer an explanation of what it is for a mental state to be conscious in terms of our being conscious of it. These two conceptions of consciousness are very different and there is no circularity.

    As for you question about what is added, well, only the ability to explain the difference between conscious and unconscious mental states, which is THE problem of conscousness, so quite a bit actually. Check out my post Explaining What It’s Like for some more detail on the higher-order strategy…

  6. Eric Thomson says:

    Dr Brown: if the denotation of the term ‘conscious’ is different in its two instances in (T), why use the same word at all? At best it seems needlessly provocative.

    Re:Your last paragraph. My question was aimed at the circular-looking (T), but yes, if a more useful analysis of (T) ends up working, then we get a lot out of it. I’ll take a look at your post when I get some time.

  7. R Brown says:

    Oh, I am a ‘proto Dr.’ (i.e. ABD :), at any rate you can call me Richard if you want.

    I suppose that the answer is that historically that is the way the words have been used. You could of course come up with another word for ‘conscious of’ (perhaps ‘awareness’ immediately suggests itself)…I don’t see the harm in using the word in both senses, though, as all it takes is a word or two of explanation to clear matters up.

  8. Eric Thomson says:

    Pete: I think the section on neurophilosophy might be more of a footnote than a section. It is very good, and accurate, but seems to sort of dangle out there.

    Robert: Aw shucks: calling you ‘Dr Brown’ reminds me of good Jewish deli’s, of which there are absolutely NONE here in Durham NC. Please hurry and defend so I can regain some nostalgia.

    Awareness, consciousness, just more synonyms wouldn’t help. What a mess.

    The post you linked to is just as confusing to me: I don’t share, at all, that (T) or its cognates are ‘commonsense platitude about consciousness’ much less a ‘theory of consciousness’! Granny wants to understand how brains can have conscious states, and you tell her that conscious states are, obviously, states that you are conscious of. Granny is upset as you seem to have told her something not all that different from offering ‘The referent of a concept is the state to which it refers’ as a substantive theory of reference.

    My thanks to Fodor for lending me his grandmother.

    All that said, I am somewhat sympathetic to the HOR theories. (T), however, seems to add dry ice to the water.

    I agree that it is cool that it just falls out that there can be mental states that are not conscious (as for the argument you allude to about whether we can call them unconscious ‘pains’ or not, that seems to be largely semantic: we’d probably need two senses of ‘pain’, one to refer to conscious experiences (HOR-dependent), another to the first-order body-damage representation that can occur in the absence of HORs).

  9. R Brown says:

    No worries, I am hoping to be done by the end of the year if all goes well!

    You say that T is not a common sense platitude about consciousness and then in the next breath Granny says that it is obvious…which is it? at any rate it is nothing like the ‘theory of reference’ which says that a terms referent is whatever it refers to, since transitive consciousness is a distinct thing from state consciousness. Rather what is going on is that we try to implement the transitivity principle via our theory of transitive consciousness, thereby explaining what state consciousness consists in. That is sinething that, arguably, no other theory of consciousness can do. So this is not merely an uniformative circular theory. This is a powerful, intuitive theory. You seem to put the cart before the horse when you say that T only’adds dry ice to water’! T is the heart and soul of all higher-order theories. You cannot endorse one without endorsing the other.

    Thanks for reading the post…I agree that one thing we could do is coin a new term ‘U-pain’ for the unconscious states. But why? The only difference between them and the conscious ones is that one of them is conscious. So why not just call them both pains, except note that one is conscious and the other is not…

  10. Eric Thomson says:

    Thanks for the reply, Robert. That ‘obvious’ was in your voice. To me it isn’t at all, and granny, while flustered into silence by the ‘it is obvious that’ operator, is still confused.

    I frankly haven’t thought much about the HOR theories. I hope they aren’t bogged down in claims like ‘(T) is obvious’! What should I read that will give a short sympathetic presentation?

    As for theories that would predict some (indeed many) mental states are not conscious, this is part of, I believe, all the serious psychological theories of consciousness I have seen. The limited capacity, relative to the bulk of the processing going on, of conscious contents, is usually taken as a prime explanans. I am more familiar with the neuroscience and psychology, so perhaps you are thinking of Dretske and the like here. Couldn’t he just say that conscious contents are different in that they function differently in the system, e.g., to guide recognition or something, than the contents that are not conscious? He discusses blindsight in relation to these types of questions in his article ‘What good is consciousness?’ which I have only lightly skimmed (it is available here). I’ll have to take a look at it.

  11. Eric Thomson says:

    I keep saying ‘HOR’ theories, but I mean ‘HOT’. What kind of unconscious processing explains THAT?!

  12. R Brown says:

    One small detail, though it doesn’t really matter…I said you could call me ‘Richard’ not ‘Robert’ ;)

    I wouldn’t say they are ‘bogged down’ with that claim, but they do claim that T is intuitive, I mean it is very natural to say that an unconscious belief is simply a belief that I am not conscious of myself as having…here is a short encyclopedia article by David Rosenthal that offers, I think, a short intuitive introduction.

    It may be part of the proposed explans, but the point I was making is that T is really our only hope of explaining what the difference between the two kinds of states are…The problem with your proposed defense of Dretske is that we know that unconscious states have (mostly) all of the same causal connections as the conscious ones…finnaly, HOT theories are a proper subset of HOR theories, so what goes for HORs goes double for HOTs

  13. Pete Mandik says:


    Thanks for your remarks on the book so far. I find them quite helpful.

    Regarding the debate between you and RB, I’m quite sympathetic to your side and your complaint against Transitivity is quite similar to one that I make later in the book.

    If people want to have an argument not at the level of theory but simply at the level of what’s “obvious” or “intuitive”, then one thing that’s admissible is that there can’t be states of consciousness that are unconscious. But, at the level of theory, HOR’s assert that there are states in which we are conscious of something, but the states are not themselves conscious states. Various people are quite right to say that sounds terrible. Of course, HOR’s have a theoretical explanation of how that terrible thing can turn out true. But lots of competeing theories (like, for instance, mine) have very good theorectical explanations of how that thing can turn out false after all.

  14. R Brown says:

    Those various people are conflating several distinctions, like for instance the distinction between creature consciousness and state consciousness, and between transtitive consciousness and state consciousness…so your claim that “there can’t be states of consciousness that are unconscious” is ambiguous. In one sense it is perfectly true…i.e ‘there can’t be conscious states that are unconscious states’ but in another sense it is false…i.e. ‘there can’t be states of transitive consciousness that are unconsious states’…this is empirically false. I mean certainly you are goiing to stand here and deny 100 years of empirical psychology? We have established, beyond doubt, that creatures like us have mental states that we are in no way aware that we have, in fact in some cases (what psychologist call ’strongly unconscious states’) we may remain so in principle. So why on Eaarth should we call a belief that I am completely unaware of having a conscious belief? Either this dispute is completely terminological or it is nonsensical!

  15. Pete Mandik says:


    Why on Earth (aside from the theory you are currently in love with) call an unconscious belief a state in which a person is conscious of something?

  16. R Brown says:


    You get up in the middle of the night to take a leak, it is pitch dark in your room, you can’t see a thing, you think to yourself “there’s a table in this room by the door, I better be careful not to stub my toe”. You are not conscious of the table in the room? If not, why not?

    Now, imagine the same scenerio, but with the belief unconscious…seems to me it happen all the time.

    btw, I hope you’re planning a trip to Brooklyn tomorrow…6:30

  17. Pete Mandik says:

    Right: I would not be conscious of the table in the room.

    Why? I have a theoretical answer, but this is supposed to be a level concerning what’s obvious, common sense, or intuitive. At that level, the answer to the why question is:

    Obviously/intuitively/common-sensically, I would not be conscious of the table in the room.

  18. R Brown says:

    well then obviously/intuitively/common-sensically, you mean something very different by ‘conscious of’ than ordinary folk. Or so I would wager…I suppose there is an experimental philosophy paper here if anyone wanted to do the study….

  19. Eric Thomson says:

    Sorry about the constant name messing Richard! I’m gonna read the article you mentioned.

  20. R Brown says:

    No problem, Eric, suprisingly it happens a lot!

    You know, Pete, given what you have said you might want to offer an argument that having a thought does not make us conscious of things, as that would amount to an argument that HOT versions of HORs do not implement transitivity, which would be a bummer…

  21. Eric Thomson says:

    RB said:
    the problem with your proposed defense of Dretske is that we know that unconscious states have (mostly) all of the same causal connections as the conscious ones

    We do?! I don’t. Blindsight suggests otherwise (Dretske’s point in the above work I link to, where he discusses . And it is still quite reasonable to claim that the visual system, for instance, has dorsal and ventral streams (the latter conscious) that have different functional roles. Global workspace theory allocates a special functional role for the workspace as compared with the unconscious modules.

    I started Rosenthal, but it will take a while to wade through all this magma. Say what you will about Dretske, the guy can write.

  22. Eric Thomson says:

    Oops. Hit submit before finishing sentence:

    (Dretske’s point in the above work I link to, where he discusses all this).

  23. R Brown says:

    yes we do. Blindsight does not suggest otherwise; how else do you explain that they perform above chance? At any rate blindsight is an extreme case, priming studies certainly suggest that unconscious perceptions have all of the same causal connections as the conscious ones…

  24. Eric Thomson says:

    No way I’ll make it through all of Rosenthal. I now remember why I never read him closely in grad school. I think I’ve been spoiled by Dretske’s home-spun charm. Rosenthal reads like poorly translated Russian.

    But I did get one thing out of his article before I got fed up with it. Instead of (T), say:

    (T’) X is state-conscious when one is transitive-conscious of X.

    I frankly don’t undestand what transitive consciousness is, but Rosenthal clearly wants to explain state-consciousness in terms of transitive consciousness. About transitive consciousness, he gives us this crystal-clear and succinct description:

    There is also a question about what it is for a person or other creature to be conscious of something. We may call this phenomenon transitive consciousness. One is conscious of something when one sees or hears that thing, or senses or perceives it in some other way. Having a thought about something
    also sometimes suffices for one to be conscious of that thing, but not always. Sometimes our thoughts are not about a thing as being present to us, as with thoughts of Julius Caesar, the number 17, or the planet Saturn, and we are not in these cases conscious of those things. But one is conscious of something when one has a thought about it as being present to one, even when one does not also sense or perceive that thing. It is likely that an analogy with sensing leads us to regard this as being conscious of something, since sensing is arguably the more basic way of being conscious of things, and one always senses things as being present to one.

    To summarize this paragraph: man, I am soooo happy I left philosophy for neuroscience. I hate to be a butthole, but why is Rosenthal so popular? The above is like reading Husserl.

  25. R Brown says:

    what does writing style have to do with content?

    What is the difference between your T’ and T?

  26. [...]  In some recent arguing with Pete over at the Brain Hammer, he has denied that thoughts can make us conscious of things. Here is the example that I gave You get up in the middle of the night to take a leak, it is pitch dark in your room, you can’t see a thing, you think to yourself “there’s a table in this room by the door, I better be careful not to stub my toe”. [...]

  27. Eric Thomson says:

    T’ is better as it explicitly guards against the problem with T that it seems to be a recursive definition that never bottoms out.

    I agree that content is more important than style. The problem with the style of his analysis of ‘transitive consciousness’ is that it makes it hard to divine the content. I’m still not clear what transitive consciousness is other than consciousness of something, e.g., being consciously aware of a dog running down the street. But if that is the case we are once again left again with T and the recursive well.

    To be fair, I think he does go on and try to explicate the notion further. This is like those undergrad philosophy papers you hate to grade because they are smart enough that they might be saying something significant, but it is convoluted so you have to spend a ton of time trying to figure it out to even tell them what they need to change. I realize, of course, that this isn’t a critique of his positive theory, but a jab at his style. It’s fun to jab at philosophers’ often convoluted style (one danger of such stylistic problems is that they hide conceptual confusions, but it takes a long time for other philosophers poring over the text to realize this: hence the popularity of Heidegger).

    At any rate, perhaps T is true, but as a platitude, or something obvious, or something the folk would agree with, no way. It isn’t an analysis but a consequence of a sophisticated theory of consciousness. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact that’s a Good Thing.

  28. R Brown says:

    weel, I don’t really see thathis writing style is as bad as you say. In fact I think that he is very clear, a little dry perhaps, but nothing like heidegger and hegal as you suggest. He certainly isn’t ‘convoluted’ and I certainly don’t think he is subject to any ‘conceptual confusions’!!

    T and T’ say exactly the same things! A conscious state is a state that we are conscious of…I really do not know wy you are so obsessed with substituting equivelent terms…

    As for the last part, I really don’t know what you are talking about. Ask any undergraduate what an unconscious belief is and 9/10 they will say ‘a belief I don’t know that I have’…there is NO WAY in which T is a CONSEQUENCE of a sophisticated theory, it is the progenitor of several sophisticated theories.

  29. Eric Thomson says:

    RB: You said the term ‘conscious’ in (T) is used in two different senses, (T’) makes this explicit. I’m not seeing why you are averse to this. That T’ seems reasonable while T is just confusing suggests it is helpful for this mind uninitiated into the world of the HOTheads.

    Let’s assume for argument that an individual belief can be in the ‘on’ state (occurrent) (call this occurrent token ‘X’) but either conscious or unconscious. X is the content of our state-consciousness if we are conscious of X. That is basically T’, with an instance substituted in.

    This seems reasonable. It is not a substantive theory of consciousness, but a reasonable claim about consciousness that can be one of many claims used to build a hypothesis about consciousness. It doesn’t imply HOT. It seems consistent with everything I have seen from Dretske (he just needs some functional difference such that in the conscious case X has different consequences than in the unconscious case). Or, X is sometimes sent to the global workspace, sometimes not (perhaps the global workspace is a special instance of HOT, I don’t know).

    Pete: depending on your audience you might give a wee bit more exposition of T (I’m sure your publisher has given you infinite space :)). I have shown this chapter to another friend who knows quite a bit of philosophy of mind but who was similarly taken aback by T.

    I think I now understand it. Richard: thanks for your patience. Sometimes I err on the side of being prematurely critical, especially when it comes to philosophy.

  30. Pete Mandik says:


    thanks for the suggestion. My current plan is to say a whole bunch more about this in later chapters, especially 2 and 3. I’d be curious to see what you think of the following question after they are posted: will more foreshadowing in ch. 0 be beneficial?

  31. Eric Thomson says:

    Having reflected on T (after finally understanding why it isn’t all that crazy as a claim about a property of certain conscious mental states), I can also see that it isn’t obvious. While the folk may say we are conscious ‘of’ a belief, we need to be careful of reifying such talk and making it into a substantive theory of consciousness. We might just as well say we have ‘conscious beliefs’, which is more neutral wrt HOTheads, FORheads, and others.

  32. Pete Mandik says:

    Ha ha! “FORheads”. Nice.

  33. R Brown says:


    I am not sure what your critisism is…we do just say we have conscious beliefs, but the claim is that it is part of our common sense folk psychology that we also have unconscious beliefs and a theory of consciousness is primarily a theory of the difference between these two kinds of states. At the level of folk psychology T is an intuitive platitude about conscious states. According to Rosenthal’s view the way that we define the theoretical terms of folk-psychology is by gathering up these kinds of platittudes (a la David Lewis if you know his work on this area). They (the platitudes) in effect ‘fix the reference’ of the terms. We then use some science and logic and try to find out what those states are (i.e. those states that we are conscious of). It is at that point that T suggests itself as an account of the nature of conscious states and if then we can begin to try and spell out how to implement T, which gives us the various versions of higher-order theories (e.g. Carrathurs, Rosenthal, Lycan, Armstrong, etc)…So I don’t know why you say we have to be careful not to reify what the folk say…This is one promising strategy for giving an account of what a conscious state is, perhaps the only one that can in principle do the job that we want done…

    Drestske’s claims are not consistent with T, he has a completely different conception of what a consciou state is (on his view it is a state that we are conscious WITH not conscious OF). I think it would be very bad news for Dretske to find out that his theory is consistent with T as that would mean that he doesn’t understand what he himself means by ‘conscious state’ (by the by, I actually think that this might be right…but the point is that Dretske would be bummed to find this out).

    Oh and I like ‘FORheads’ as well ;)

  34. Eric Thomson says:

    RB: You are right about Dretske and my reformulation of T. I was putting less stock in the ‘consciousness of’ operator, but given Rosenthal and other HOTheads use of the term you are right.

    I guess I don’t take folk psychology that seriously. The folk notions can (and do) help get the science started, but beyond that if anything I tend to distrust folk psychology. Just because there is some grammatical construction that we can get people on the street to agree with about consciousness doesn’t convince me that it is true. The experiments will reveal the referents. We don’t define the referents other than as a first-pass, rough-and-ready way to get experiments started, to help us choose some model systems to study. (Perhaps the main reason I left philosophy, incidentally, was that there was too much of the definitions first approach, not enough of the ‘Study the hell out of this phenomenon experimentally to discover what it is’ approach).

    Obviously Dretske’s analog digital distinction explains everything anyway.

  35. R Brown says:

    Eric, It should not ‘convince you that it is true’ but just as you say, it provides a common sense starting point, so I don’t think you are really disagreeing with anything that I said…on the other hand, if folk psychology is a theory, then the folk are expert in that theory, and we do want to repect as much of common sense as we can when we give more scientificly informed theories of the things that we picked out via the folk definitions (though obviously we will have to modify it as we find out new things).

    I really don’t hink that that is a good reason to ‘get out of philosophy’ (which, by the way, you don’t seem to have done at all!) since both methods are used in both philosophy and science. Even Aristotle, who is perhaps the originator of the idea that one starts with necessary definitional truths about the nature of reality that are just self-evident to the faculty of reason and then deduces via syllogism all of the physical truths about the world (this is what led him to think that heavier bodies fall faster than lighter bodies), did lots of empirical work in what we would call biology and even endocrinology…he studied things empirically to discover their essences…This method of starting from a priori self-evident truths took heavy critisism from the likes of Newton, and Gallieo, and the new philosophers that were influenced by them (e.g. Locke, and Hume, and even Kant! claim to be following the model proposed by these new scientists)…of course we all know the problems that pop up when we think that we can DISCOVER truths about the nature of reality, ranging from the problem of induction (do we have any rational reason to think that the future will resemble the past? Hume’s answer: there is no rational reason at all to think that one thing will happen next as oppesed to some other thing. When I drop my pen it is just as likely that it will turn into a dove and fly away as it is that it will move towards the ground at 9.8 m/s/s) to Idealism (do we have any reason to think that there is substance (i.e. something that ’stands under’ appearances, Kant’s ‘noumena’, our ‘matter’)?)…but leave all of these well known problems with Empiricism and the experimental method aside for the moment, it is absolutely the case that science starts with definitions (sometimes called ‘operationalizing a variable’)…it is not as though scientists just go out and start randomly poking at things. They go out armed with a theory (which includes a bunch of definitions of theoretical terms, presumably) and their aim is to test that theory; to support it to undermine it, etc. They need the theory (and the definitions) before they can even identify a phenomenon to ’study the hell out of’, needless to say said studying will feed back on the theory and cause it to be reformulted or thrown out all together, or whatever…so I think what is more acurate is that you were turned off by a style of philosophy that claims that the job of philoosphy is a priori conceptual analysis, but not liking a style of philosophy is not a reason to ‘get out’ of philosophy. It is a reason to look to a different ‘definition’ of what the job of philosophy is…

  36. Eric Thomson says:

    we do want to repect as much of common sense as we can when we give more scientificly informed theories of the things that we picked out via the folk definitions (though obviously we will have to modify it as we find out new things).

    I don’t much care about commonsense when it comes to psychology, but I admit it’s an empirical question (though it would be nearly miraculous if the folk are right, given that they aren’t even right about a lot of basic physical mechanics, and that minds/brains are a hell of a lot more complicated than basic mechanics).

    As for scientists using definitions to even start their science: yes, I said that above, but they are used in a much less reverent way and simply as useful heuristics to get the experiments started. It is a very different approach in practice. It is a minor part of what they do. The conceptual clarity comes one you understand the system, not before. The best philosophy comes after the science is done, not before. (I’m stealing all this basically from Quine and Pat Churchland). While many philosophers realize this, they still keep yapping on about minds even though the science is nowhere near “done.”

    It isn’t like I didn’t give philosophy a chance: I got my MA with the Churchlands, and then realized I really just want to understand how brains work. In practice (and we have discussed this before over at Brains I think before you were in the fray: unfortunately I can’t find the flibbin’ post) philosophy isn’t the best thing to study if you want to understand brains. So, given that interest, philosophy would have been a bad choice. It wasn’t just conceptual analytic philosophy (I didn’t go to UCSD to do that) but the general toolbox used by philosophers is wrong (logic and ordinary language rather than probability/calculus/circuit/nonlinear dynamics/statistics) is wrong, the courses you have to teach undergrads are useless diversions (from the perspective of wanting to understand brains), and you have to waste time with other philosophers explaining why you are looking at data, why neuroscience might be relevant. I went through all this, it was a time sink (like arguing with creationists when you just want to do evolutionary biology), and left the professional philosophy career track. So while the main reason I left was because the whole focus on ideas rather than data is not the way to go with understanding brains, the above other stuff all contributed. Given my interests, philosophy was a bad choice. Not to mention the ridiculous job insecurity you guys have to suffer through. :)

    But you are right that I am still very interested in philosophy, and have a strong love for it. I think more so now that I am not obligated to do it. I can ignore the bullshit and try to focus on the work that maintains contact with science (e.g., Dretske, Grush, Mandik, Churchlands, Chalmers, etc.) and lightly skim the purely conceptual stuff for anything useful (e.g., Kim, apparently Rosenthal, a lot of early Mandik chapters are purely conceptual (and hence admittedly sort of boring to me: no offense Pete)). Such conceptual clarifications are OK as far as they go, but the best ideas, the most exciting concepts, will come from pounding our minds against the data provided by real brains (and not just C-fibers). By ‘data’ I don’t mean opinion polls of the folk (even though that is an interesting bit of philosophical anthropology).