So now let’s look at the review by Richard Brown of Rocco J. Gennaro’s new book, which sets out his HOT. I should disclose that I have not read Gennaro’s book, so I’m merely reviewing a review of a theory. You could call it a higher order review.
Gennaro’s own concerns feature concepts strongly: his theory includes conceptualism, the belief that concepts provide key structure for our conscious experience. This causes him some difficulty over animals and infants, as he needs them to have sufficiently advanced concepts to form the required higher order awareness. He needs at least some account of how the required concepts are acquired (or how they came to be innate), and he needs to avoid getting into the bootstrap bind where you need to have sophisticated conceptual structures in order to pick up the concepts you need in order to have sophisticated conceptual structures.
My personal bias is that conceptualism tends to bring unnecessary complications, and in this particular case I’m not sure why we need to make the weather so heavy (though no doubt Gennaro has his reasons). All we need is the awareness of an awareness: the higher order awareness does not need to look through to the objects in the external world. The conceptual apparatus required surely ought therefore to be modest, and I wouldn’t fight very hard against the idea that it could be built in or be the result of a very early internal rewiring exercise in the infant mammalian brain.
The main point of interest for us is the difference which Brown sets out between his own view and Gennaro’s. This hinges on a fundamental point: are we talking about higher order awareness of a mental state (Gennaro), or of our being in that mental state (Brown)? At this point I’d say I find Brown’s view, which he characterises as the non-relational view, more appealing. It seems important to specify that the awareness involved must be ours, after all.
However, both sides claim that their view is best able to deal with the kind of objections raised by Block and discussed last time, arising from cases where we have the higher order awareness but actually through some error the lower-order awareness which it targets is not actually there. Gennaro, it seems, wants to disqualify these states altogether: where the first-order state is not there, there’s no consciousness. If you’re not seeing something red, you can’t have the subjective consciousness of redness. This is neat in its way, but seems arbitrary (How come subjective experience, of all things, comes to have a special kind of immunity from error?), and surely we want to retain the possibility of a subjective experience not based in reality? I can see that some might argue that dreams lack real subjective experience, but are we prepared to say the same of illusions and mirages? That seems a high price to be paying.
Brown’s escape route is quite different: by adopting the non-relational view he can cut free from the first-order state altogether. Who cares whether it’s there or not? It’s just about the right kind of second-order state, that’s all. This may seem a little weird, but after all the orthodox view of qualia, our subjective experiences, is that they are largely decoupled from ordinary causal reality. On Brown’s view, if we see green, we can have the experience of red without invalidating the experience. We’ll still behave as though we were having the experience of green. Block might denounce our qualia as fake, but meh, if that’s what you mean by fake, all qualia were always fake, so who cares?
The logic of that seems faultless, but I couldn’t help feeling that my sympathies were swinging back to Gennaro somewhat. Brown mentions a second problem, the problem of the rock: why can’t we make a rock conscious by having the right kind of second-order mental state about it? For Brown’s decoupled view, there’s no problem because we’re not even talking about the first order awareness – rock, schmock, it’s simply irrelevant. Gennaro does have to face the issue and it seems he seeks to do it simply by disqualifying rocks with an additional rule or specification. Brown considers this another unattractively arbitrary lash-up, and perhaps it is, but in another light it seems far closer to common sense (though of course the realm of common sense is some way off by now in any event).
For myself the net effect of the discussion is to make me feel more strongly than before that if we are to have a HOT (and I’m not absolutely wedded to that in itself), we’d do much better to stick with what Block calls the unambitious variety, the kind that doesn’t seek to explain subjective experience or exorcise those deadly sirens we call qualia.