You may have seen the very interesting review that Micha kindly mentioned recently. I plan to discuss that next week, but before talking about Higher Order Theories (HOTs) it seemed best to set the context by talking about Ned Block’s paper which seeks to demolish them.
Higher Order theories come in many flavours, but the basic proposition is that a mental event, a thought or a feeling, is conscious if there is another thought about it, that original mental event. The basic intuition is that you can be aware of something unconsciously, but when you’re aware of your awareness it’s conscious.
Not everyone likes this perspective (Roger Penrose caustically pointed out that pointing a video camera at itself doesn’t make it conscious) and some would say either that it only explains certain varieties of consciousness or that it only explains certain aspects of consciousness. Nevertheless, HOTs have had a long run as respectable contenders, representing one of the major areas where we might choose to look for The Answer.
Block’s paper last year was unusual in seeking to offer something like a knock-down destruction of the case, or perhaps it would be more accurate to sought he meant to pursue the HOTists until their last hiding place had been flushed out. His targets were not the modest theorists who claim that HOTs may explain some varieties of aspects of consciousness, but the ones he characterised as ‘ambitious’: in particular those who claim HOTs could explain the ‘what-it- is-likeness’ (let’s call it WIIL) of conscious experience.
The starting point is the uncomfortable fact that we can have thoughts about being in conscious states we’re not in fact in. We can think we’re seeing red when in fact we’re seeing green, or not seeing anything at all. You might well feel that this in itself is something of a blow for HOTs, and your first reaction might be that they should give up any claim of a conscious state where there is no state to work with. That sounds sensible but the retreat is not so easy as it seems if we want to retain WIIL for dreams and illusions, as we surely do. In any case, Block’s targets take the opposite path: sure there can be WIIL in those cases, they reply.
Now Block springs the trap. So you’re saying, he observes, that an episode is conscious if it is the object of a simultaneous higher order thought? And that thought is a sufficient condition for a conscious episode. Yet it’s also a necessary condition that that episode is the object of a higher order thought. Yet in this case we have only the one, higher-order thought to work with (and we can assume it ain’t self-referential). So there is no conscious episode. We’ve got necessary and sufficient conditions which are not compatible – what madness is this?
There is a way out which those unused to philosophical discussion may find a little odd: this consists of saying that in these cases, where we have a second-order thought about an experience we’re not actually having, there is an object of the second order thought after all: it’s simply one that doesn’t exist, that’s all. We must remember here that the objects of thought are slippery customers; we often think about things that don’t exist (Pokemon, the sixth wife of Henry VII, the house I would have built if I had won the lottery, square circles).
But, says Block, if you take that route, where’s your WIIL (or maybe in this case it should be WIIAL –What It Isn’t Actually Like)? It’s now fake WIIL – and you can’t rest content with that.
I’ve omitted some important technicalities and details in the foregoing, but I hope the gist comes through: where does it leave us? It seems an effective argument to me, and I would add that for those who are seeking the essence of WIIL, it seems intuitively unlikely to me that it could ever have resided in thoughts about thoughts: that brings it all back into the head, whereas what it is like ought to out there with ‘it’. Those who never believed in WIIL will not, of course, be troubled by any of this.
So following Block’s demolition, the advocates of HOT admitted their error, thanked him for clarifying, and issued a full retraction. No, of course they didn’t, as we shall see…