«DON’T PANIC: Tye’s intentionalist theory of consciousness* Alex Byrne, MIT Consciousness, Color, and Content is a significant contribution to our ...»
On the state conception, the phrase ‘nonconceptual content’ is somewhat unfortunate, as it suggests a special kind of content. However, according to most theorists of nonconceptual content, the phrase isn’t at all misleading, because it really is a special kind of content. On this alternative conception—the content conception—a proposition is nonconceptual iff it isn’t a Fregean Thought—that is, if it isn’t a proposition with Fregean senses or “concepts” (in one sense of the term) as constituents. According to the content view, (a) the content of belief and thought is conceptual (i.e. Fregean), and (b) the content of perception is nonconceptual.22 (The useful “state/content view” terminology is taken from Heck 2000.) For example, on Peacocke’s recent proposal, the nonconceptual content of experience is a combination of “scenario content” and “protopropositional
protopropositional content is a simple sort of Russellian proposition, while a scenario content is something more complicated, but likewise constructed from materials at the level of reference (Peacocke 1992, ch. 3). The contents of belief and thought, on the other hand, are exclusively conceptual.23 22 Strictly speaking, (b) should be: the content of perception is at least partly nonconceptual. (See, e.g., Peacocke 1992, 88.) This complication will be ignored. See also footnotes 10 and 11 above.
23 The state and content views are, if not positively muddled up, at least not properly separated in much of the literature (as is pointed out in Stalnaker 1998a, 1998b). A similar commission or omission occasionally infects discussions of narrow content. Sometimes the claim that some content is narrow is simply a claim of local supervenience: the property of believing that p, for some filling for ‘p’, is intrinsic. If the belief that p has narrow content in this sense, its narrow content is simply the proposition that p. And this might well be a perfectly ordinary proposition, of the Russellian, Fregean, or Lewis-Stalnakerian sort, according to taste.
23 Once this distinction between the state and content views is in place, it is clear that a common argument in the literature—the “richness argument” for nonconceptual content—only supports the state view, not the content view.24 Tye’s version of the
richness argument is this:
Beliefs and thoughts involve the application of concepts. One cannot believe that a given animal is a horse, for example, unless one has the concept horse. At a minimum, this demands one has the stored memory representation horse, which one brings to bear in an appropriate manner (by, for example, activating the representation and applying it to the sensory input). However…phenomenal seemings or experiences are not limited in this way. My experience of red19, for example, is phenomenally different from my experience of red21, even though I have no stored memory representations of these specific hues and hence no such concepts as the concepts red21 and red19. These points generalize to the other senses. Phenomenal character, and hence phenomenal content, on my view, is nonconceptual. (1995, 139; cf. 2000, 61-2) That is, this first sense of ‘narrow content’ doesn’t mark a distinction among kinds of contents. But the second sense does: according to it, the narrow content of a belief is special kind of non-propositional abstract object; for example, Fodor once proposed that narrow content is a function from contexts to propositions.
24 The point to follow is an elaboration of Byrne 1996, 264, n.6. Because the richness argument at best
That is, to possess the concept F (i.e. to believe that…F…) one must have, at least, “the stored memory representation F”. And because it is possible to have a visual experience of red21, without having “the stored memory representation red21”, one does not have to possess the concept red21 in order to have that visual experience. Therefore, a visual experience of red21 is “nonconceptual”, or “has nonconceptual content”.
This argument evidently does not even purport to show that experience has nonconceptual content on the content conception. For all this argument says, a subject’s visual experience might have the content that, say, a certain tomato is red19, where the proposition that the tomato is red19 is the very same kind of proposition—a Fregean Thought, perhaps—that she can believe.25 Tye’s official argument for nonconceptual content establishes, at best, the state view. But Tye in fact holds the content view.26 The textual case for this attribution chiefly rests on the manifest inadequacy of the PANIC theory, with the N part interpreted according to the state conception. Section 6.1 explains why. Section 6.2 argues that the PANIC theory interpreted according to the content conception has problems of its own.
25 The richness argument is in embryo form in Evans 1982, 229, and 125, n. 9; Evans seems to be arguing for the content view, although this is not entirely clear. (A related argument in Dretske 1981, ch. 6;
however, plainly Dretske is arguing for something like the state view.) The richness argument is taken to support the content view by Peacocke (1992, 67-8; 1998; for a more guarded view of the argument, see 2001b) and Heck (2001, 489-90); Heck’s version of the richness argument is discussed below in section 6.2. (Neither Peacocke nor Heck can be convicted of conflating the state and content views—in particular, Heck carefully makes this very distinction.) The argument is opposed by McDowell (1994, 56-60; 1998) on the ground that demonstratives like ‘that shade’ can capture the content of color experience (see also Brewer 1999, 170-4; Kelly 2001). However, McDowell appears to concede that the richness argument provides a prima facie consideration in favor of the content view.
26 He confirmed this in correspondence. (For a slight complication—not examined further here—see note
6.1 PANIC: the state interpretation The PANIC theorist—whether she holds the state or content view—is committed to the claim that all beliefs (thoughts, judgments) lack phenomenal character. This is because, she thinks, no belief has nonconceptual content, and on the PANIC theory nonconceptual content is necessary for phenomenal character. And if the PANIC theorist is to offer any explanation of why beliefs in general lack phenomenal character, the fact that they are nonconceptual must do the work. Lack of abstractness won’t do it, because some beliefs are abstract. Neither will lack of poisedness—but this claim requires a little defense.
Sometimes Tye seems to claim that if a state is poised then by definition it cannot be in “the belief/desire system” (1995, 104, 142). If so, then no belief can be poised. On a more inclusive construal beliefs can be poised: a poised belief is one that is available to make a “direct impact” on desires and/or (other) beliefs.
On the inclusive construal of poisedness, lack of poisedness cannot explain why beliefs lack phenomenal character, because some beliefs are poised. So, why not adopt the exclusive construal of ‘poised’, on which only states outside the “belief/desire system” can be poised? But then the “explanation” that beliefs lack phenomenal character because they are not poised boils down to the unhelpful claim that beliefs lack phenomenal character because they are inside the “belief/desire system”, i.e. because they are either beliefs or desires. This is unsatisfactory (more will be said about this kind of “explanation” in a moment). So there is nothing to be gained by adopting the exclusive construal.
To repeat: any explanation of why beliefs lack phenomenal character must appeal to the fact that they lack nonconceptual content. However, on the state interpretation of the PANIC theory, the “explanation” that beliefs lack phenomenal character because they lack nonconceptual content is just as unsatisfactory as the “explanation” in terms of (the
nonconceptual state just in case it is possible to be in S without “possessing the concepts” that characterize the content of S; that is, without having beliefs (for instance, the belief
P) in which those concepts figure (see section 6 above). And it immediately follows from this that no belief is a nonconceptual state. Hence, the explanation of why beliefs lack phenomenal character boils down to the unhelpful claim that beliefs lack phenomenal character because it’s not possible to have a belief without having beliefs.
And this is a problem. According to some, conscious beliefs have phenomenal character.27 The PANIC theory’s claim that all beliefs essentially lack phenomenal character is therefore contentious. And even if introspection convinces us that, as a matter of actual fact, beliefs lack phenomenal character, this might just be a contingent truth. It is not a datum that beliefs essentially lack phenomenal character. So, if it’s true, it is the sort of thing a theory of consciousness should be able to explain. But we have just seen that the PANIC theory, interpreted on the state conception, offers no explanation at all.
Matters are no better when we ask why some states with content have phenomenal character. Consider a standard visual experience as of a ripe tomato, and the conscious belief that (some x) x is red. (We may suppose, with the PANIC theorist, that the belief lacks phenomenal character.) Why does the experience, unlike the belief, have phenomenal character? It cannot be because the experience is abstract, for the belief is too. Neither can it be because the experience is “poised”, because (we may suppose) the belief is also poised.28 As before, then, the explanatory burden must be borne by nonconceptual content. The fact that the experience has nonconceptual content must be the crucial phenomenology-maker. On the state interpretation, this amounts to the fact that the subject need not possess “matching concepts” in order to enjoy the experience.
27 See, for example, Block 1995, 230; Chalmers 1996, 9-10; Peacocke 1999, 205-6.
So, for example, the fundamental explanation of why the experience of red19 has phenomenal character appeals, not to the fact that subjects who enjoy this experience actually lack the concept red19, but to the modal fact that the experience could be enjoyed by a subject who lacked the concept. That is, the experience of red19 has phenomenal character because it could be enjoyed by a subject who did not believe anything of the form: that…red19… It is hardly obvious why a subject’s enjoying experience e while lacking certain beliefs is relevant to whether e has phenomenal character, and entirely unobvious why the possibility of enjoying e while lacking certain beliefs is relevant.
The PANIC theory on the state interpretation does not give a remotely satisfactory explanation of why perceptual experiences have phenomenal character, or why beliefs lack phenomenal character. Since some such explanation is required if we are to have reason to believe the theory, we have no reason to believe it.
6.2 PANIC: the content interpretation On the content conception, nonconceptual content is content that is not conceptual or Fregean; that is, content that is not composed of “concepts” or Fregean senses.
Russellian, Lewis-Stalnakarian, and Peacockean (scenario) contents are consequently examples of (this conception of) nonconceptual content. The PANIC theory interpreted according to the content conception implies the content view: beliefs (thoughts, judgments) have conceptual content, and perceptions have nonconceptual content.
A proponent of the content view has a couple of reasons to hold that linguistic content—the content of (natural language) sentences, relative to particular contexts of utterance—is also Fregean. First, the traditional route (i.e. Frege’s) to the conclusion that the content of belief is Fregean proceeds by establishing first that linguistic content is Fregean. Second, the conclusion that linguistic content is Fregean follows from the
content of any sentence can be the content of belief (see Peacocke 2001a, 243).29 And, indeed, proponents of the content view invariably endorse the claim that linguistic content is also Fregean.30 Now, although it might be that the PANIC theory supplemented with a wellworked out version of the content view can explain why beliefs lack phenomenal character, and why perceptual experiences have it, the immediate problem is that Tye has supplied no good reason in favor of the content view. It is advisable, then, to canvass some other arguments.31 Two recent examples are instructive: Heck’s version of the richness argument, and Peacocke’s discussion of “the most fundamental reasons for acknowledging nonconceptual representational content” (2001b, 613).
29 This premise needs some refinement, because arguably some sentences express propositions that cannot be believed (for example, perhaps no one could really believe that nothing exists).
30 Tye is a Fregean (of the kind who thinks that objects and properties, as well as senses or modes of presentation, are constituents of propositions) (2000, 18). However, he thinks that in some cases beliefs contents can have objects or properties as constituents, with no corresponding modes of presentation: in the special case of “phenomenal concepts”, they “refer directly…There is no separate guise that the referent takes in the thinker’s thought” (2001, 695; cf. 2000, 28).
Fregeanism, by the way, has been deliberately left at a vague and impressionistic level in this paper, because different theorists understand it differently. For the record, my own sympathies are with a Russellian account (of linguistic content, at any rate).
31 According to Tye, the representational vehicles of experiences have a “topographic or maplike structure” (1995, 121; cf. 2000, 70-4), unlike the representational vehicles of beliefs, which have a sentencelike structure (1995, 100) (so Tye thinks there is a language of thought, although not a language of experience).