«DON’T PANIC: Tye’s intentionalist theory of consciousness* Alex Byrne, MIT Consciousness, Color, and Content is a significant contribution to our ...»
Although poisedness may well be a necessary condition for phenomenal character, it does not seem to turn A+N into a sufficient condition. Consider the cortically blind patient described by Mestre et al. (1992), who can discriminate “optic flow” (the changes in the retinal array produced by the organism’s motion).12 He can use his “blindsight” to navigate past obstacles in a cluttered environment, and so something occurs in him that plays part of the information processing role of visual experiences—let us say he has quasi-experiences.13 We may assume that his quasi-experiences are abstract and non-conceptual. So, on the PANIC theory, their lack of phenomenal character must be traced to the absence of poisedness. Surely, though, the subject’s quasi-experiences are poised. They cause the appropriate beliefs: if the subject didn’t have beliefs about various obstacles in his path, he wouldn’t be able to avoid them. Admittedly, the subject cannot, in the normal spontaneous fashion, verbally express these beliefs. But that does not mean that he does not have them: one’s beliefs may manifest themselves in one’s 12 See Milner and Goodale 1995, 85. I am indebted to Carruthers’ (2000, 154-68) discussion of this and other examples; he puts them to a related but somewhat different use.
non-verbal behavior. If beliefs are Ramsey’s “maps by which we steer”, then the cortically blind patient has the appropriate beliefs about his environment.14 It might be replied that there are two sorts of beliefs (and desires), and that the poisedness requirement relates to only one kind. First, there are beliefs/desires that are available for use in practical and/or theoretical reasoning, and reportable in speech.15 Second, there are beliefs/desires that (merely) interact with each other to control bodily movement. And if the “beliefs and/or desires” mentioned in the poisedness requirement are solely of the first kind, then the cortically blind patient’s quasi-experiences are not poised.
It isn’t likely that Tye would endorse this reply (cf. 2000, ch. 8, on the beliefs of simple animals). And in any case, it just isn’t clear why poisedness defined in terms of the first sort of belief/desire is the crucial phenomenology-maker. Given that poisedness defined in terms of the second sort of belief/desire fails to turn A+N into a sufficient condition, why should we be so confident that a definition in terms of the first sort does any better? (A similar complaint is nicely developed in Carrruthers 2000, ch. 6.) What’s more, poisedness defined in terms of the first sort of belief/desire does not seem to turn A+N into a sufficient condition. Remember that the poisedness requirement is apparently quite weak: no constraint is placed on the contents of the beliefs or desires that a poised state stands “ready and available” to cause. Imagine someone rather like a 14 Some caution is needed. The patient was not completely blind, having a small amount of macular and perifovial sparing. Mestre et al. report that “motion perception, as evaluated with optical flow patterns, appeared to be functional in perimetrically blind parts of his visual field”, and conclude: “These results support the hypothesis that the ability to visually control locomotion was preserved in the blind parts of his visual field. We cannot, however, exclude the possibility of a fundamental contribution of his residual intact visual field to his ambulatory autonomy. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that his capacities were based only on this residual field” (1992, 791).
blindsight patient, who is looking at a tomato, and who is in a state S with the content of a normal visual experience as of a ripe tomato. The subject does not have the beliefs (at least of the first sort) that are typically produced by an experience as of a ripe tomato.
The subject says he doesn’t see anything; he won’t reach out if asked to pick up the nearest tomato; and so on. However, due to some quirk of his inner wiring, his state S does cause the desire to eat. “I’m famished”, he spontaneously says, when facing a ripe tomato, and tucks enthusiastically into the hamburger pressed into his hands. Therefore, if poisedness is defined in terms to the first sort of belief/desire, his state S is poised.
Moreover, since the content of S is the same as that of a normal experience as of a tomato, and since (as noted in section 3 above) the PANIC theory entails intentionalism, it follows that the subject is enjoying a phenomenally conscious experience as of a tomato. That is not credible.
5. Abstractness As explained in section 3, a proposition is abstract iff it is object-independent. According to Tye, when one perceives a certain ripe tomato o, for example, the content of one’s experience is not an object-dependent proposition—say, that o is red and round—but instead an object-independent proposition—say, that (some x) x is red and round.16 Also noted in section 3 was the point that once an equation along the lines of ‘Phenomenal character Q = the property of having nonconceptual content P and…’ has been established, then the A part of the PANIC theory comes along (almost) for free.
That is, the identity thesis, together with the very plausible assumption that the representation of a particular individual (e.g. Tye as opposed to Twin-Tye) makes no 16 For a qualification about the use of ‘experience’, see footnotes 10 and 11 above. For the purposes of
distinctive contribution to phenomenal character, implies that perceptual content is abstract.
So, if Tye has an argument for an equation of the form ‘Phenomenal character Q = the property of having nonconceptual content P and…’, without assuming that perceptual content is abstract, then he has an argument that perceptual content is abstract. But, as far as I can see, Tye’s argument for the identity thesis tacitly appeals to the premise that perceptual content is abstract.
Moreover, Tye gives no other argument that perceptual content is abstract. And one is required, because the claim is hardly intuitively correct: if the content of belief can be object-dependent, why can’t the content of perception? In fact, on one of the most sophisticated theories, namely Peacocke’s, perceptual content is object-dependent.17 At the very least, there is no evident reason why the content of perception couldn’t be object-dependent (whether or not it actually is). And this suggests an objection. Suppose that Tye is right that the content of our experiences is abstract.
Presumably there could be a creature whose experiences were just like ours in content, but with an additional “object-dependent” conjunct. For example, suppose that when one of us looks at a certain tomato (call it ‘o’), his visual experience has the content that (some x) x is red and round. (We may assume that this content is “nonconceptual”.) Then 17 According to Peacocke, one “layer” of (“nonconceptual”) perceptual content comprises protopropositions. Protopropostions are simple sorts of Russellian propositions—“A protoproposition contains an individual or individuals, together with a property or relation” (1992, 77)—and are therefore not abstract. (For more on Peacocke’s theory, see section 6 below.) For an extended argument (from a position in many respects opposed to Peacocke’s) for, inter alia, the conclusion that perceptual content is object-dependent, see Brewer 1999, ch. 2. For some considerations on Tye’s side, see Davies 1996. It would be a distraction to consider these arguments here. Davies, by the way, claims that Peacocke’s protopropositional content is not object-involving (310). As I understand Peacocke’s official account, this is not correct; Peacocke does note, however, that an object-independent version of protopropositional content is a theoretical option (n. 7, 241).
19 the content of the creature’s visual experience when she looks at the tomato would be that (some x) x is red and round & o is red and round. However, because the content of the creature’s experience is not abstract, the PANIC theory implies that there is nothing it’s like for the creature to look at the tomato. And that seems very odd. How could getting more information from vision make the lights go out?
However, various easy repairs can be made to the PANIC theory. For example, if we say that propositions P1 and P2 are abstractly equivalent iff they are the same modulo
the representation of particular individuals, then the PANIC theory could be revised thus:
‘Phenomenal character Q = the property of having content abstractly equivalent to nonconceptual content P and…’. So, although the A-part of the PANIC theory probably has to go, this objection isn’t fatal.18
6. Nonconceptual content The most troubling objection to the PANIC theory concerns N. To anticipate: two ways of understanding ‘nonconceptual content’ yield two interpretations of the PANIC theory (the “state” interpretation and the “content” interpretation), and two corresponding horns of a dilemma. On the state interpretation, arguably experiences do have “nonconceptual content”, but the PANIC theory is (at the very least) unmotivated. On the content interpretation, the chief difficulty is that the PANIC theory is seriously underdescribed.
18 Admittedly, if perceptual content is abstract, then this neatly finesses the problem for the objectdependent view posed by hallucinations, where there is apparently no appropriate object to figure in the content of the experience (cf. 2000, 62). But this isn’t a convincing argument unless the problem cannot be solved in other ways. The analogous problem in the philosophy of language is of course the problem of empty names, with Tye’s abstractness proposal analogous to the description theory of names. And although the description theory of names does neatly finesse the problem of empty names, it is not the only viable solution.
20 The Ten Problems definition of nonconceptual content is quoted in section 3 above; the definition in Consciousness, Color, and Content is a little more expansive: “to say that a mental content is nonconceptual is to say that its subject need not possess any of the concepts that we, as theorists, exercise when we state the correctness conditions for that content” (2000, 62).
This needs to be unpacked rather slowly. Start with ‘correctness conditions’. To state the correctness conditions for a content—that is, a proposition—P is simply to specify P using a that-clause: that there is a blue triangle before one, for example.
‘Possessing the concept F’ is a little trickier, but I think a close enough approximation to Tye’s usage is this: a subject possesses the concept F iff she believes that…F…. 19 So, for example, if a subject believes that cranberries are red, or that cranberries are not red, or that everything red is colored, then she possesses the concept red. And if she possesses the concept red then she has some belief whose content can be specified using the English word ‘red’.
Next, ‘possessing/exercising the concept F’. When we theorists state that the proposition P is the proposition that there is something red and round, we are “exercising” our concepts red and round. (Note that on this way of explaining “concept” talk, one might regard apparent reference to “the concept red”, “the concept round”, etc., as a mere façon de parler, to be “paraphrased away”; as we will see shortly, this is not Tye’s view.) 19 See 1995, 108, where Tye mentions that “[h]aving the concept F requires, on some accounts, having the ability to use the linguistic term ‘F’ correctly. On other accounts, concept possession requires the ability to represent in thought and belief that something falls under the concept”. He does not officially adopt either of these two kinds of account, but since he thinks non-human animals have concepts (2000, ch. 8), it’s clear that his sympathies lie with the second. And, I think, on the intended construal of ‘the ability to represent…’ the second kind of account is more-or-less equivalent to the one suggested in the text.
21 Finally, ‘its subject’. Clearly the “subject” of a mental content P is supposed to be someone who is in a mental state S with the content P. So, if Smith believes/hopes/desires that there is something red and round, then Smith is the subject of the content that there is something red and round.
Given this explanation, the conceptual/nonconceptual distinction is most naturally thought of as applying in the first instance to states, not to contents. And in Ten Problems the distinction is first introduced as applying to states: “…perceptual sensations feed into the conceptual system, without themselves being a part of that system. They are nondoxastic or nonconceptual states” (1995, 104 20). An abbreviation will be useful: let us say that the concept F characterizes the proposition P iff P = that…F… Then (the present
version of) the nonconceptual/conceptual distinction can be explained as follows:
Mental state S with content P is nonconceptual iff someone who is in S need not possess any of the concepts that characterize P.21 We can speak derivatively of nonconceptual content: a proposition P is nonconceptual iff it is the content of some nonconceptual state. But notice that this account does not imply that “nonconceptual content” is a special kind of content. If perceptual experience has nonconceptual content in this sense, the propositions that are the contents of perception might well be perfectly familiar propositions, of the sort that are the contents of belief (Russellian, Fregean, Lewis-Stalnakerian, whatever).
20 See also 1995, 108. Similarly, in Color, Consciousness and Content the distinction is first introduced as applying to experiences: “experiences of sounds…admit of many more fine-grained distinctions than our stored representations of sounds in memory. Experiences of shapes are likewise nonconceptual” (11).
Let us call this conception of nonconceptual content the state conception. On the state conception beliefs and thoughts are automatically conceptual states; what is controversial is whether perceptual experiences are nonconceptual states—according to the state view, they are.