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«DON’T PANIC: Tye’s intentionalist theory of consciousness* Alex Byrne, MIT Consciousness, Color, and Content is a significant contribution to our ...»

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Given that this world contains minds, the supervenience thesis tells us that any physical duplicate of this world also contains minds. Consistently with this, it might be quite obscure why this world contains minds at all. Why does this arrangement of atoms in the void necessitate the existence of minds? What is the ingredient X that turns mere matter into thinking matter? Supervenience theses do not give satisfying answers to such questions. For another example, take the claim that the evaluative supervenes on the descriptive. Given that there are evaluative claims true at this world: Jones is brave; Alice ought to give Bert his banana back, etc., the supervenience thesis tells us that these claims are true at any descriptive duplicate of this world. Consistently with this, it might be quite obscure why these descriptive claims necessitate such-and-such evaluative claims.

Lovers of mystery have nothing to fear, then, from supervenience; in particular, those who find consciousness especially perplexing need not spurn intentionalism.8 The PANIC theory, as we will see in the following section, goes considerably beyond intentionalism: it supplements it with a substantive proposal for the philosopher’s stone, the elusive ingredient X.9

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3. The PANIC theory The PANIC theory is this: “phenomenal character is one and the same as Poised, Abstract, Nonconceptual, Intentional Content” (2000, 63; cf. 1995, 137).

Three bits of PANIC terminology need to be explained: ‘poised’, ‘abstract’, and ‘nonconceptual’ (“intentional content” is just propositional content, a.k.a.

representational content). Take ‘abstract’ first. This applies in the first instance to propositions or contents. A proposition is


iff it is not object-dependent (1995, 138; 2000, 62). Thus the proposition that Tye is a philosopher is not abstract, because its truth at any circumstance of evaluation depends on how things are with a particular individual, viz. Tye. The propositions that (some x) x is a philosopher and that (the x: x is a man drinking a martini) x is a philosopher, on the other hand, are abstract. We can speak derivatively of an abstract mental state: a state is abstract iff its content is abstract.

For example, the belief that (some x) x is a philosopher is abstract.

Now turn to ‘poised’. This applies in the first instance to mental states, not to contents. A state is poised iff it “stand[s] ready and available to make a direct impact on beliefs and/or desires” (2000, 62; cf. 1995, 138). A visual experience as of a tomato is poised, because it typically causes a belief about the tomato “if attention is properly focused” (62). However, earlier stages of visual processing that represent, say, “changes in light intensity” are not poised: “the information they carry is not directly accessible to

the relevant cognitive centers” (2000, 62). We can speak derivatively of poised contents:

a content is poised iff it is the content of some poised state.

Finally, ‘nonconceptual’. This is the most problematic of the three, and many pixels will be spilt on it later (section 6). But for now, we can make do with the following

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explanation: “The claim that the contents relevant to phenomenal character must be nonconceptual is to be understood as saying that the general features entering into these contents need not be ones for which their subjects possess matching concepts” (1995, 139). A state is nonconceptual iff it has nonconceptual content.

So much for PANIC, but now something needs to be said about phenomenal character. Tye intends the equation ‘Phenomenal character is PANIC’ to be understood as identifying phenomenal character with a certain kind of content: “phenomenal character is one and the same as representational content that meets certain further conditions” (2000, 45). As I understand it, this “representational content that meets certain further conditions” is the content of experience, as explained at the start of this paper. 10 On Tye’s usage, then, the phenomenal character of my visual experience just is the content of my 10 Since misunderstanding might set in at exactly this point, some extra clarification can’t hurt. Consider

the following passage from Tye:

The term ‘experience’ can be used in broader and narrower ways. I have assumed in my remarks above that it is correct ot say that we have visual experiences as of coins, telescopes, and so forth.

Some may prefer to restrict the term ‘experience’ to states with nonconceptual content, counting the rest as judgments superimposed upon experience proper. The issue seems to me purely terminological. I am here adopting the broader usage… (2000, 76; cf. 1995, 140 on “experiential episodes, broadly construed”).

This paper adopts Tye’s narrow use of ‘experience’, or near enough. The content of experience, on the narrow use of ‘experience’, goes hand in hand with the intuitive conception of a perceptual illusion: the content of an experience is false iff the experience is an illusion (perhaps just a partial one). So, on this narrow use, it’s clear that we sometimes have visual experiences that represent objects as purple; it’s false, or at least controversial, that we have visual experiences that represent objects as poisonous (cf. 2000, 54and it’s uncontroversially false that we have visual experiences that represent objects as friends of Tye.

It should be emphasized that ‘experience’, as used here, is not defined to apply only to states with nonconceptual content. Whether experience has nonconceptual content is a substantive issue.

11 experience: a particular content or proposition that is also abstract, poised, and nonconceptual.

I myself find this usage a bit confusing. On the way Tye sets things up in chapter 3 of Consciousness, Color, and Content, the investigation of the relation between phenomenal character and content begins before we have even settled whether the phenomenal character of an experience is a property. The hypothesis that “visual phenomenal character” is a quality (i.e. property), specifically a “quality of the surface experienced”, is considered and rejected (48). The conclusion of the investigation is that (visual) phenomenal character is not a property; rather it is a kind of content.

It seems to me preferable to sort out these basic ontological questions first, before starting the philosophical argument. And this is best done, I think, by stipulating that the phenomenal character of an experience e is a property, specifically a property of e: that property that types e according to what it’s like to undergo e. (This sort of account was given at the start of this paper.) On this alternative and fairly common usage, although the result of an investigation might be that phenomenal characters were, say, functional or physical properties, it couldn’t turn out that they were propositions, and so not properties at all.

For these reasons, the PANIC theory will be set out here with phenomenal character understood as a property of a mental state, a fortiori not a proposition. More specifically, in the usage of this paper, the phenomenal character of a mental state is that maximally determinate property that types the state in respect of what it’s like to be in the state. That is, e1 and e2 have the same phenomenal character iff what it’s like to undergo e1 is exactly what it’s like to undergo e2. (We should add the stipulation that if there is nothing it’s like to be in e, then e has no phenomenal character.) On this conception, the phenomenal character of the experience of looking at a tomato is different from the

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have something phenomenal in common), and the phenomenal character of your experience is the same as that of your twin on Twin Earth.

Tye’s identification of phenomenal character with PANIC can now be unpacked as follows. Let S be a mental state with phenomenal character Q. On Tye’s view, the intentional content of S will be both abstract and nonconceptual.11 Let it be the

proposition P. Then:

Q = the property of being poised, and of having abstract nonconceptual content P.

Let us call this general thesis PANIC. It is equivalent to the PANIC theory, assuming I have understood the latter correctly.

Notice that PANIC implies that if two states have the same phenomenal character, then they have the same content. So, for example, since my visual experience when I see Tye at a conference has the same phenomenal character as my twin’s visual experience when he sees twin-Tye on some duplicate of Earth, according to PANIC our two experiences have the same content. And it is a very short step from this to the conclusion that perceptual content is not object-dependent; that is, to the conclusion that perceptual content is “abstract”. (The content of my experience can hardly involve Tye, because my twin’s doesn’t, and his experience is supposed to have the same content.) In other words, the simpler equation ‘Q = the property of being poised, and of having nonconceptual content P’ implies, with minimal further assumptions, the longer one displayed above.

The A part of the PANIC theory is therefore not an optional extra.

11 I am here completely ignoring Tye’s “broad usage” of ‘experience’ (see preceding footnote). On that

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What is the relation between the PANIC theory (i.e. PANIC) and (intermodal, unrestricted) intentionalism? Clearly intentionalism does not imply PANIC. An intentionalist may deny, for instance, the following consequence of PANIC —that any state with phenomenal character is poised. However, as Tye in effect notes, PANIC does imply intentionalism. To see this, let e1 and e2 be experiences with, respectively, contents

P1 and P2, and characters Q1 and Q2, and assume that PANIC is true. Then:

Q1=the property of being poised, and of having abstract nonconceptual content P1.


Q2= the property of being poised, and of having abstract nonconceptual content

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Therefore, if Q1 and Q2 are distinct, so are P1 and P2. Hence, given PANIC, intentionalism follows: if any two possible experiences differ in phenomenal character, they differ in content.

According to PANIC, an intentional state lacks phenomenal character just in case it isn’t poised, or doesn’t have abstract or nonconceptual content. So Tye’s proposal for ingredient X—the ingredient that makes an intentional state one with phenomenal character—is P + A + N.

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This condition is essentially a functional role one. The key idea is that experiences and feelings, qua bearers of phenomenal character, play a certain distinctive functional role. They arise at the interface of the nonconceptual and conceptual domains, and they stand ready and available to make direct impact on beliefs and/or desires. For example, how things phenomenally look typically causes certain cognitive responses—in particular, beliefs as to how they are if attention is properly focused. Feeling hungry likewise has an immediate cognitive effect, namely the desire to eat. In the case of feeling pain, the typical cognitive effect is the desire to protect the body, to move away from what is perceived to be producing pain. And so on. States with nonconceptual content that are not so poised lack phenomenal character. (2000, 62) On the PANIC theory, an experience that is not poised has no phenomenal character, and this is Tye’s explanation of why there’s nothing it’s like for the blindsight subject to see an ‘O’-shaped figure, even though she can reliably identify it as such. In such subjects, “there is no complete, unified representation of the visual field, the content of which is poised to make a direct difference in beliefs. Blindsight subjects do not believe their guesses. The cognitive processes at play in these subjects are not belief-forming at all” (2000, 63).

The poisedness requirement is quite weak. As I understand it, a pang of hunger, say, is poised just in case it stands “ready and available to have a direct impact” on some beliefs and/or desires—which need not include “the desire to eat”. And this is just as well, because it is perfectly possible to feel hungry while having no tendency to want to eat (a state dieters strive for). And afterimage experiences do not typically cause beliefs “as to how things are” (that is, beliefs that endorse the content of the experience). When one has a green circular afterimage experience, one does not typically believe that there is

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available” to cause some other belief—say, the belief that something is wrong with one’s eyes—then it will be poised. Again, take the “waterfall illusion” (2000, 75). This arguably involves an experience with an inconsistent content, that the rocks by the side of the waterfall are both moving and not moving. The experience does not typically cause the belief that the rocks are both moving and not moving, and yet it is certainly supposed to be poised.

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