Posts tagged ‘Ned Block’

Ned Block has produced a meaty discussion for  The Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science on Philosophical Issues About Consciousness.  

There are special difficulties about writing an encyclopedia about these topics because of the lack of consensus. There is substantial disagreement, not only about the answers, but about what the questions are, and even about how to frame and approach the subject of consciousness at all.  It is still possible to soldier on responsibly, like the heroic Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, doing your level best to be comprehensive and balanced. Authors may find themselves describing and critiquing many complex points of view that neither they nor the reader can take seriously for a moment; sometimes possible points of view (relying on fine and esoteric distinctions of a subtlety difficult even for professionals to grasp), that in point of fact no-one, living or dead, has ever espoused. This can get tedious. The other approach, in my mind, is epitomised by the Oxford Companion to the Mind, edited by Richard Gregory, whose policy seemed to be to gather as much interesting stuff as possible and worry about how it hung together later, if at all.  If you tried to use the resulting volume as a work of reference you would usually come up with nothing or with a quirky, stimulating take instead of the mainstream summary you really wanted; however, it was a cracking read, full of fascinating passages and endlessly browsable.

Luckily for us, Block’s piece seems to lean towards the second approach; he is mainly telling us what he thinks is true, rather than recounting everything anyone has said, or might have said. You might think, therefore, that he would start off with the useful and much-quoted distinction he himself introduced into the subject: between phenomenal, or p-consciousness, and access, or a-consciousness. Here instead he proposes two basic forms of consciousness: phenomenality and reflexivity. Phenomenality, the feel or subjective aspect of consciousness, is evidently fundamental; reflexivity is reflection on phenomenal experience. While the first seems to be possible without the second – we can have subjective experience without thinking about it, as we might suppose dogs or other animals do – reflexivity seems on this account to require phenomenality.  It doesn’t seem that we could have a conscious creature with no sensory apparatus, that simply sits quietly and – what? Invents set theory, perhaps, or metaphysics (why not?).

Anyway, the Hard Problem according to Block is how to explain a conscious state (especially phenomenality) in terms of neurology. In fact, he says, no-one has offered even a highly speculative answer, and there is some reason to think no satisfactory answer can be given.  He thinks there are broadly four naturalistic ways you can go: eliminativism; philosophical reductionism (or deflationism); phenomenal realism (or inflationism); or  dualistic naturalism.  The third option is the one Block favours. 

He describes inflationism as the belief that consciousness cannot be philosophically reduced. So while a deflationist expects to reduce consciousness to a redundant term with no distinct and useful meaning, an inflationist thinks the concept can’t be done away with. However, an inflationist may well believe that scientific reduction of consciousness is possible. So, for example, science has reduced heat to molecular kinetic energy; but this is an empirical matter; the concept of heat is not abolished. (I’m a bit uncomfortable with this example but you see what he’s getting at). Inflationists might also, like McGinn, think that although empirical reduction is possible, it’s beyond our mental capacities; or they might think it’s altogether impossible, like Searle (is that right or does he think we just haven’t got the reduction yet?).

Block mentions some leading deflationist views such as higher-order theories and representationism, but inflationists will think that all such theories leave out the thing itself, actual phenomenal experience. How would an empirical reduction help? So what if experience Q is neural state X? We’re not looking for an explanation of that identity – there are no explanations of identities – but rather an explanation of how something like Q could be something like X, an explanation that removes the sense of puzzlement. And there, we’re back at square one; nobody has any idea.

 So what do we do? Block thinks there is a way forward if we distinguish carefully between a property and the concept of a property. Different concepts can identify the same property, and this provides a neat analysis of the classic thought experiment of Mary the colour scientist. Mary knows everything science could ever tell her about colour; when she sees red for the first time does she know a new fact – what red is like? No; on this analysis she gains a new concept of a property she was already familiar with through other, scientific concepts. Thus we can exchange a dualism of properties for a dualism of concepts. That may be less troubling – a proliferation of concepts doesn’t seem so problematic – but I’m not sure it’s altogether trouble-free; for one thing it requires phenomenal concepts which seem themselves to need some demystifying explanation. In general though, I like what I take to be Block’s overall outlook; that reductions can be too greedy and that the world actually retains a certain unavoidable conceptual, perhaps ontological, complexity.
Moving off on a different tack, he notes recent successes in identifying neural correlates of experience. There is a problem, however; while we can say that a certain experience corresponds with a certain pattern of neuronal activity, that pattern (so far as we can tell) can recur without the conscious experience. What’s the missing ingredient? As a matter of fact I think it could be almost anything, given the limited knowledge we have of neurological detail: however, Block sees two families of possible explanation. Maybe it’s something like intensity or synchrony; or maybe it’s access (aha!); the way the activity is connected up with other bits of brain that do memory or decision-making; let’s say with the global mental workspace, without necessarily committing to that being a distinct thing.
But these types of explanation embody different theoretical approaches; physicalism and functionalism respectively. The danger is that these may be theories of different kinds of consciousness. Physicalism may be after phenomenal consciousness, the inward experience, whereas functionalism has access consciousness, the sort that is about such things as regulating behaviour, in its sights. It might therefore be that researchers are sometimes talking past each other. Access consciousness is not reflexivity, by the way, although reflexivity might be seen as a special kind of access. Block counts phenomenality, reflexivity, and access as three distinct concepts.
Of course, either kind of explanation – physicalist or functionalist – implies that there’s something more going on than just plain neural correlates, so in a sense whichever way you go the real drama is still offstage. My instincts tell me that Block is doing things backwards; he should have started with access consciousness and worked towards the phenomenal. But as I say it is a meaty entry for an encyclopaedia, one I haven’t nearly done justice to; see what you make of it.



Higher OrderYou 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…