Conscious-State Anti-Realism

Presenter: Pete Mandik, William Peterson University

Commentator 1: Alex Kiefer, The Gratuate Center, CUNY

Commentator 2: Daniel Kostic, Berlin School of Mind and Brain


  1. Thanks, Alex and Daniel, for the excellent comments. I’m still working up my responses and hope they’ll be finished by tomorrow. I’ll post them as soon as I can. (You guys really gave me a lot to think about!)

  2. Hi Peter,
    Is the point of the presentation that the best form of antirealism about phenomenal consciousness (or conscious states) is of a relational HOT?
    And how is it relevant to the φ phenomenon? What about postdiction for explaining φ (which I presume is neither Orwellian or Stalinesque since perhaps on that account the brain decides after something has happened what happened?
    It is unclear whether a relational HOT can be a representational view really- for instance in perception a relational view is said to be rival to representational views positing some form of direct acquaintance/reference with the world as opposed say to the intentional inexistence of the intentional object.

  3. Hi Aspasia,

    “Is the point of the presentation that the best form of antirealism about phenomenal consciousness (or conscious states) is of a relational HOT?”

    No. A better form of antirealism about phenomenal consciousness is one in which HOT theory is read non-relationally.

    “And how is it relevant to the φ phenomenon?”

    If the best explanations of color phi are one’s in which there’s no distinction between, on the one hand a conscious experience of motion and color change, and on the other hand, a judgment that one had such an experience, then a kind of antirealism is thereby supported.

    “What about postdiction for explaining φ (which I presume is neither Orwellian or Stalinesque since perhaps on that account the brain decides after something has happened what happened?”

    As you describe postdiction (“the brain decides after something has happened what happened”) I don’t see that it would be separate from either Orwellian or Stalinesque. In both cases, the brain has “decided” what happened after the actual events (the actual stationary flashed circles). Owellian and Stalinesque differ in what format the decision arises in. If the decision is itself an experience as of motion, that’s Stalinesque. If instead the decision is a memory of experienced motion without itself, the memory/decision, being an experience, that’s Orwellian.

    “It is unclear whether a relational HOT can be a representational view really- for instance in perception a relational view is said to be rival to representational views positing some form of direct acquaintance/reference with the world as opposed say to the intentional inexistence of the intentional object.”

    I’m inclined to agree with something along those lines.

  4. One of the things, among others, that make HOT theory appealing was that it offers a distinction between concious and unconscious states. It seems to me that in endorsing your anti-realism we lose this explanatory power. What do you think about this?

  5. This is all very interesting stuff. I want to try to direct some continued attention to one issue in particular. Apologies if I’m cutting in on Alex here.

    Alex constructs a scenario on which a subject has two fleeting HOTs and a longish one: of a green dot, of a red dot, and a longish HOT of motion with a color change. Presumably, given the set-up (and maybe the fleeting nature of the first two HOTs) she can only report on the HOT involving motion and color change. It certainly seems imaginable that a subject could have three such HOTs, and thus could, on HOT-theory, have two conscious experiences that are unreportable.

    In his response, Pete presses that such a possibility undermines the explanatory power HOT-theory wants for itself – a power to explain consciousness ‘in terms of the way one’s mental life appears to oneself’ (5). According to Pete, ‘positing the super-fleeting unremembered HOTs’ threatens to loosen ‘our grip on the proposal that these are my thoughts as opposed to some fleeting information-carrying state in a proper part of my nervous system’ (6). This is an interesting line to take, and I want to hear a bit more. It seems to me that here the HOT-theorist should reply that IF we come across such a case, and assuming HOT is successful in a bunch of other ways (as the HOT-theorist will probably hold), the success of HOT-theory warrants the assertion that in such cases these HOTs are my thoughts, and not just some fleeting information-carrying state. The theory tells us that my mental life does appear to me as green-dot, red-dot, motion. Introspection gives us the wrong result, and so much the worse for introspection (Eric Schwitzgebel might like this result). That we can’t report on the first two experiences might be (I think is) interesting for other reasons, but the lack of reportability shouldn’t undermine HOT-theory’s explanatory power to the degree that we give up the theory. I wonder what Pete, Alex and others think about such a bullet-biting response.

  6. Hi Miguel,
    It is good to hear from you. I think that you raise an important point. It is indeed one of the major selling points of HOT theory that it highlights the need to give an account of the distinction between conscious states and nonconscious ones.

    I do think that the relational reading gives a much more straightforward account of that distinction (as it is usually presented) than does the nonrelational/anti-realist one. However, I do think that the adherent of my brand of conscious-state anti-realism (CSAR) is not powerless in the face of this explanatory challenge. For example, on this view, there are still plenty of things that aren’t conscious, and many of them may very well be mental states. There’s no reason to think we can’t go on saying, for instance, that states of V1 aren’t conscious states.

    One way of pressing something like your objection, and maybe, Miguel, you had something like this in mind, is to say that, on CSAR, there is no distinction any more between actually existing conscious states and actually existing nonconscious states. This is because, on one reading of CSAR, so-called conscious states are merely notional. They exist *only* as contents of certain representations, and thus aren’t actually existent states. If this objection has force, it would seem, then, that a relational reading of HOT theory thereby has an advantage over the nonrelational reading.

    However, I’m not sure the objection does have force. This is going to depend, on large part, on what the data really are concerning the conscious/unconscious distinction. Perhaps what the data show is that there is a difference between states: some states are conscious and some are unconsicous. This way of representing the data arguably favors the relational reading over the nonrelational reading. However, it is open to represent the data as concerning a distinction between kinds of *contents*: some contents are unconscious and other contents are conscious contents. The distinction, then, cast at the level of content is something well handled by the nonrelational reading. Conscious contents are contents of certain thoughts: higher order thoughts that do not represent their contents as having been arived at inferentially. Nonconscious contents are just all the other contents.

  7. Hi Josh,
    Thanks for the comment. I think that you outline an avenue of response that the HOT theorist may very likely find appealing. There are a few aspects of it, however, that I want to resist.

    When you write “IF we come across such a case,” (a case of a super short-lived HOT) that’s a pretty big “if”. Part of what I want to contest is that current theorizing is sufficiently developed that we can have any confidence that we would know what to look for in looking for such a case. Such a case would not just be some short lived state. Nor would it just be some short lived state that had content concerning a colored spot. It would have to be a state that satisfied the criteria both on being a higher order thought and being one of my own higher order thoughts. I don’t think anyone has said enough yet about what such a thing would be for the mere imaginability of it to cut much ice. I can imagine that states of my own retinal ganglia are themselves higher-order thoughts, but I really don’t think that fact about my imagination should be considered a serious constraint on the theory of thought.

    Despite the under-developed state of our theory of what thoughts are, we are nonetheless pretty confident that reportability is a good route to their discovery. Of course, it would be maybe (maybe) premature to assert reportability (being laid down in memory long enough to be reportable) as a necessary condition, but it is a pretty decent line of evidence. Further, it is a line of evidence without many serious alternatives. More to the point, no one has yet suggested a serious alternative that would apply to the super-short lived states that we are wondering about.

    I would also contest the claim that “HOT is successful in a bunch of other ways”. All of the successes that I can think of are tied pretty closely to the kind of subjective access that is trackable by the subject’s reports.

    This brings me back to my point about undercutting. One way in which the HOT theory is motivated is by appeal to the Transitivity Principle, something that can be put by saying that we would count no state as conscious if we were in no way conscious of it. First order opponents of the higher order approach have offered, for example, change blindness as challenge to the transitivity principle. If two scenes differ in only some small detail, and I am given ample opportunity to scan the entirety of each scene, then plausibly I have a conscious state corresponding to the detail that differentiates the scenes even though, in failing to distinguish the scenes, I am not conscious of the differences in experience.

    If HOTs are the sort of thing that, at this early stage in theoretical development, we are positing as being so short-lived as to give rise to subjectively inaccessible conscious states, then the kinds of arguments thought to divide first-order and higher-order approaches gain no traction at all. The change blindness case might just as well be described as one in which there is a HOT of the experiential difference, but its corresponding conscious state is subjectively inaccessible. Also, it becomes unclear what sort of motivating appeal the Transitivity Principle is supposed to have any more. If conscious states are subjectively inaccessible after all, then why is it supposed to be appealing to assert that we wouldn’t regard a state as conscious if we weren’t conscious of it? What explanation is left for why that would be plausible in the first place? If, however, subjective accessibility is criterial (or close to it) for state consciousness, then that would serve to explain the appeal of the transitivity principle.

    Sorry that this got so rambling and long winded, but those are my initial reactions to the bullet-biting that you scout. I’d be curious to hear what Alex and Daniel are inclined to say about the bullet-biting line.

  8. Hi everyone, and thanks Pete for the excellent (and challenging) replies. The questions Pete poses for me in his reply have really gotten me thinking, and I have much to say about them. I’ll start by jumping in on the thread currently underway about the possible “bullet-biting” response that Josh discusses, during the course of which I’ll address some of the points Pete makes in response to my comments.

    What Josh outlines does seem to me to be an attractive line of thought for a HOT theorist who wants to reply to Pete’s worry that admitting the possibility of unreportable conscious states undercuts the motivation for HOT theory. I’d like to develop this a bit more, and say why I don’t really think this is a bullet, and thus don’t mind biting it.

    First, I agree that the “if” in “IF we come across such a case” is a big one, but as I say in my comments, I don’t think the HOT theorist needs to be committed to the view that such fleeting HOTs are *actually* possible in order to make the Orwellian/Stalinesque distinction. I think my reconstruction of the Orwellian scenario shows that HOT theory has the theoretical resources to distinguish the two cases, that is, to describe two apparently coherent possibilities, one of which explains color phi in terms of a false memory and the other in terms of a misleading experience. These are both viable possibilities for all that HOT theory itself has to say, but of course there could be facts having nothing directly to do with consciousness that rule out one or the other explanation–in particular, it might be physically impossible for neural states with the properties required of HOTs to arise in such a short timeframe. If we discover that this is the case, we’d have empirical confirmation for the Stalinesque explanation of color phi, from the perspective of HOT theory. And to the extent that HOT theory is a good theory for other reasons, we’d have reason to take this as settling things in favor of a Stalinesque explanation.

    I grant that the conceivability of fleeting HOTs of this sort is pretty thin, but I don’t see why taking it on as a theoretical possibility constitutes baggage. We have no positive evidence that such a thing is possible, but nor do we (for all I know, anyway) have positive evidence that it isn’t possible. We await a more sophisticated theory of thoughts to circumscribe the relevant possibility space, and I don’t know of a reason that we should expect an enriched theory to rule out the existence of short-lived HOTs. Even if it did, this in itself wouldn’t seem to me to count against HOT theory, but only against the actual occurrence of Orwellian scenarios.

    Now, to turn to the point about undercutting: what might seem to undermine the intuitive appeal of HOT theory here is the idea that we could have conscious states that are not just unreported but unreportable. But we have a perfectly good explanation in the terms of orthodox folk psychology of why the states would be unreportable in this case: the color phi subject immediately misremembers what happened. This is no different in principle from the unreportability, now, of states that I was in last week but can’t remember, or misremember. The “subjective inaccessibility” here is just the lack of subjective access, now, to one’s past experiences, which I think is intuitively plausible and consistent with HOT theory’s initial appeal. The Transitivity Principle isn’t undercut by the possibility that there are conscious states we don’t remember being in.

    I do, however, think that there is something to this undercutting business, which raises, in a way, a deeper issue. Pete is right to point out that if we appealed to this sort of explanation in other cases, the arguments dividing higher-order and same-order approaches couldn’t gain traction. But perhaps this is not surprising: the idea that we could immediately misremember our past experiences is in some ways akin to a skeptical hypothesis, and such hypotheses tend to undercut theories. But if this is an objection, it’s an objection to the idea of an Orwellian scenario in general, not to a HOT-theoretic description of one.

    I’m content, myself, to shy away from the Orwellian and put my money on the simpler and perhaps less destabilizing Stalinesque hypothesis. Now that I think of it, there is a further reason to prefer Stalin, too: *why* would the subject have conscious experiences of stationary dots that are immediately supplanted by a false memory? Assuming that we generally remember our conscious experiences accurately, at least in the short term, the Orwellian explanation is the more extravagant one. No similar folk-psychological platitudes tell against the Stalinesque hypothesis: folk psychology has nothing relevant to say, that I know of, about whether the color phi subject is likely to have a misleading experience, or about the unconscious antecedents of misleading conscious experiences.

    Finally, this provides part of my response to one of the questions Pete asks in his reply to my comments: what’s the point of distinguishing Orwell from Stalin once it’s conceded that HOT theory is anti-realist? Well, for one, if there are indeed reasons to prefer the Stalinesque to the Orwellian explanation of color phi that are relatively theory-independent, as I’ve just argued, then it’s a virtue of HOT theory that it allows for a distinction between the two cases. I have much more to say about this, and about the reasons that it’s important that HOT theory can distinguish the Orwellian scenario from the Stalinesque one even if the Orwellian doesn’t have much to recommend it, but I’ll take those up in my next post, as this one’s gotten quite long as is.

  9. I want to follow up with some further responses to Pete. Pete asks what the point is of distinguishing the Orwellian from the Stalinesque explanations of color phi, once it’s conceded that HOT theory is an anti-realist view in his sense. I’ll answer this question, and during the course of this I’ll try to spell out what I was getting at in the remarks about the differences between FPO and HOT that Pete responds to in section 7 of his replies.

    So, on the first point: I take it that there are at least two themes of interest in debates concerning realism VS anti-realism about X’s generally. One is whether things of type X (in this case, conscious mental states) exist independently of things of another type (thoughts or judgments). Another is whether there is an appearance/reality distinction to be made with respect the existence or properties of X’s, and if so, what the “reality” is that’s distinct from the appearance.

    Now, I do think it’s pretty hard to interpret HOT theory in any way, relationally or not, that’s going to count as “realist” about conscious states if realism requires that conscious states as such can exist totally independently of our judgments (thoughts) about them. This is because HOT theory just is a view according to which our conscious states are those states we judge ourselves to be in (without apparent inference, etc.) But this leaves it open that there might be something of interest to say concerning the question of an appearance/reality distinction for conscious states. It also leaves open questions about how precisely the class of judgments (thoughts) on which the facts about conscious states depend is to be characterized.

    Pete discusses my version of the HOT-theoretic reconstruction of the Orwellian scenario in the fourth section of his reply (by the way, Pete, everything you say about this sounds like what I had in mind!) There he characterizes me as intoducing a “reality” about consciousness (the short-lived HOTs) that transcends the “appearance” (the memory record). I think this is an interesting way of looking at it, and I’d like to elaborate for a moment.

    Putting aside the question of whether the short-lived HOTs in question are a genuine possibility (and thus the question of whether it’s plausible to posit an actual mismatch between appearance and reality of the kind that the Orwellian explanation of color phi involves), we can focus on what this kind of appearance/reality distinction for conscious states amounts to more generally. And it seems to me that really it just amounts to the appearance/reality distinction for judgments: I may have made judgments about my experiences that I subsequently had no memory of making. In this way, conscious states “inherit” an appearance/reality distinction from the relatively uncontroversial appearance/reality distinction for judgments.

    Now, as Pete righty stresses in his general remarks about the indistinguishability argument, at ordinary, macroscopic timescales FPOists would admit that there is an apperance/reality distinction for conscious states (I believed last Thursday that I saw myself in the mirror while brushing my teeth, and thus consciously saw myself in the mirror, but it might not now appear to me as though this is the case.) But then, why should we treat microscopic timescales of the kind relevant to color phi any differently? Given that there IS an appearance/reality distinction for judgments, we ought to be able to ask, of the period between the presentation of the stationary dot stimuli and the subject’s verbal report in the color phi experiment, which judgments, and how many, have been made, independently of what the subject thinks about this. If this is too short a span of time to accommodate the occurrence of judgments or thoughts about one’s seeing of the dots, then no conscious awareness of the dots took place prior to the experience of motion and color change. Whatever else we say about FPO and HOT theory at this point, this seems to cut against the idea that FPO involves the collapsing of the appearance/reality distinction for conscious states.

    Finally, there is the question of what we mean by “judgment” (or “thought”) here, which relates to the interesting issue Pete mentions in his reply about what the heterophenomenological record amounts to and how it’s related to HOTs. With respect to this question, I think the point about judgments affording an appearance/reality distinction for consciousness can be leveraged into a dilemma of sorts for FPO: either it ties judgments too tightly to explicit verbal reports, or it collapses into a version of HOT theory. What I have in mind is that if we only count explicit verbal reports of experiences as judgments of the sort relevant for fixing the contents of consciousness, then in many cases in which no explicit judgment is made we’ll have no fact of the matter about consciousness to be right or wrong about where we would expect one (one would think I either consciously saw myself in the mirror last Thursday or not, even if I didn’t say anything about it.) The best way of avoiding this extreme form of anti-realism that allows for conscious states only where there are explicit verbal reports seems to me to be to rely instead on the idea of certain contents’ making it into the “memory record”, as Pete puts it. But a very natural candidate for making sense of this idea, in turn, is HOT theory. Rosenthal has long maintained that one of the virtues of HOT theory is its providing an explanation for the link between reportability and consciousness: whenever a state is conscious, according to HOT theory, there is a higher-order thought about the state that is poised to be expressed in verbal reports. The idea that one has HOTs that don’t get expressed seems to be a good way of making precise the idea that there might be judgments about one’s stream of consciousness that aren’t explicit verbal reports.

    In a way, then, Pete is right to claim that it doesn’t matter so much whether the Orwellian and Stalinesque scenarios are distinguishable, and depending on which view we decide to label “FPO” (the uninteresting question from section 7 of Pete’s reply), he may be right to claim that there’s nothing left to distinguish nonrelational HOT theory from FPO as well. But for the reasons I’ve just offered, I think we can see HOT theory as illuminating some puzzling aspects of FPO, rather than as being reduced to it.

    Sorry if the argument toward the end of this post is somewhat rushed, but I wanted to get these thoughts out and see what comes up in subsequent discussion.

  10. Hi Pete,

    Thanks for your paper and thanks to Alex and Daniel for the commentaries.
    On one reading of your paper, you are arguing that non-relational HOT account reduces to FPO, but you also want to say that non-relational HOT theory is anti-realist independently, no?

    So some genuine wonderings (hopefully not merely strange Socratic riddles) about your account of realism/anti-realism dispute that might relate to (hopefully) to the dispute about realism/antirealism about non-relational HOT theory:

    1) On your view, would Aristotelian conceptualism about universals be realist or anti-realist?
    2) On your view, would a Lewisian Functionalism about ‘conscious’ and ‘thought’ be realist or anti-realist?
    3) If we suppose that 1) Dummett is right (huh?) that the contrast between realism and antirealism is best understood as disputes about the kind of truth that disputed statements possess– evidence-transcendent = realist and verificationist = antirealist– then we suppose that 2) the disputed statements are those about higher order thoughts on a non-relational reading, then is it still plausible to read the non-relational HOT reading as anti-realist?


  11. Hi guys, sorry for not being able to join in earlier, I had some pretty urgent deadlines to meet (and I also become an uncle). The discussion here is in the full swing, which is awesome. I’ll read the responses and comments, which I’m sure are real food for thought, and get back as soon as possible.

  12. Hi guys,
    sorry for not thanking all of you on your papers and for letting me participate in the discussion. Daniel congrads on becoming an uncle.

    1. I do not agree that a clear advantage of HOT is that it can provide some principled distinction between the conscious and the unconscious, as has been supposed
    (by Miguel and Alex). The idea that what it is for some state to be conscious is that it can be thought about draws the conscious-unconscious distinction as whatever is thought about is conscious, whatever is not thought about is unconscious. But this is trivial, you do not need HOT, you can merely say that unconscious states are latent or dispositional and conscious actual. Furthermore if the HOT theorist takes the conscious-unconscious distinction in this way, how does he propose to explain the difference between veridical perception and dreaming (unless he takes dreaming to be conscious-but again there would have to be some difference)?

    2. I was reading Dennett again and got lost. Suppose we take the easiest example of Dennett
    in chapter 6 Time and Experience the disc and the ring in a metacontrast task:
    “if a stimulus is flashed briefly on a screen (for, say, 3Omsec — about as long as a
    single frame of television) and then immediately followed by a second
    “masking” stimulus, subjects report seeing only the second stimulus.
    The first stimulus might be a colored disc and the second stimulus acolored ring that fits closely outside the space where the disc was displayed.If you could put yourself in the subject’s place, you would see foryourself; you would be prepared to swear that there was only onestimulus: the ring” (Dennett 1991:142).
    The Stalinist explanation is that in this type of task is that the second masking prevents conscious experience of the first stimulus (or prevents the first stimulus “from finding its way in consciousness” (ibid). What is embarassing in this Stalinist picture according to Dennett is that “The first stimulus never plays onthe stage of consciousness, but has whatever effects it has entirelyunconsciously” ibid. The unconscious influence is said to be proved by experiments which show that if subjects are made to guess the location of the first masked stimulus they have a good chance of getting it right. So the paradox is that stimuli can influence us unconsciously “without playing on the theatre of consciousness” (Dennett 1991: 142).
    On the Orwellian alternative: ” subjects are indeed conscious of the first stimulus ( which explains their capacity to guess correctly) but their memoryof this conscious experience is almost entirely obliterated by the second stimulus (which is why they deny having seen it,
    in spite of their telltale better-than-chance guesses). The result is a standoff — and an embarrassment to both sides, since neither side can identify any crucial experimental result that that would settle the dispute” (Dennett 1991: 142).
    So is what is embarassing the issue whether a) there exists unconscious perception or b) unconscious influence on the two accounts? One could not really say given the difficulty in interpreting Dennett at times. I think however that a basic target of Dennett’s criticism is the idea of a temporal stream of conscious experience made up of slices which we can cut and which could remain static like the frames envisages and which has a temporal dimension which represents the temporal order of the world.

    Sorry for the long reply, not my cup of tea.

  13. Hi Alex,
    Our discussion has been really interesting and your remarks have forced me to do some pretty hard thinking. As you note, we are in agreement on a lot of the larger points. There are some smaller points in your remarks, though, that I find myself resisting a bit on. But these points of departure really are quite minor. Anyway….

    Re: your Feb 20 16:19 comment.
    You write, “I don’t think the HOT theorist needs to be committed to the view that such fleeting HOTs are *actually* possible in order to make the Orwellian/Stalinesque distinction. ”

    There’s a tricky issue here that I want to raise about what sort of methodological agreement we should expect between parties to the present dialectic, especially as concerns the relevant notion of possibility. There’s a continuum of possibilities with merely verbal possibilities at one end, and full blown empirically established actualites at the other, with armchair imaginings somewhere in there pretty close to the merely verbal end and best regarded as squarely in extremeville. I don’t take Dennett’s Indistinguishability argument as saying that there’s no distinction between O and S in the verbal or armchair-imaginability sense. Regarding the merely verbal distinction, Dennett himself has already drawn it in setting up the argument. Regarding armchair imaginability, it strikes me as unlikely that the relevant parties to the debate would take it terribly seriously. I expect both parties to regard the diliverances from the armchair to be so- called intuitions that are just judgments reflective of antecedently held theories, theories that should be judged on grounds independently of appeals to intuition.

    Regarding the other extreme, it also seems unlikely as a candidate for what the relevant sense of possibility is here. The HOTpeople grant that without recourse to theory, the O/S distinction is empirally underdetermined. So, it would be unfair for the Dennettians to insist on an empirical demonstration of the possibilities offered.

    So, this leaves us with the tricky question of where in the middle of the extremes we should locate the relevant sense of possibility.

    I worry that the scenario that Josh scouts is just too close to the merely-imaginable end of the spectrum. Too little has been said about either what makes something a thought in the first place or what makes a thought *my* thought for the possibility scouted to seem sufficiently serious.

    You write, “nor do we (for all I know, anyway) have positive evidence that it isn’t possible”. I think, on the contrary, that we do. What’s thought about is conceptualized and what’s conceptualized tends to be remembered, especially over the short time frames that we are focusing on here. This is something that figures quite a bit in my paper, “Color-consciousness conceptualism.”

    You write:
    “This is no different in principle from the unreportability, now, of states that I was in last week but can’t remember, or misremember. The “subjective inaccessibility” here is just the lack of subjective access, now, to one’s past experiences, which I think is intuitively plausible and consistent with HOT theory’s initial appeal.”

    I think that the Intuitive plausibility diminishes with the shortened time frames.

    Turning now to your Feb 21 7:22 comment.
    You write:
    “either it ties judgments too tightly to explicit verbal reports, or it collapses into a version of HOT theory.” i think that this overlooks possibilities for a third option, one that puts a great emphasis on the memory record than what has been presented in your comments as HOT theory. Of course, “a version…” can be read in a much more encompassing way, and I’d happily concede the point then.

  14. Hi James,
    There are lots of debates that hinge on some version of realism or other, and I would not want ever to take on the impossible project of giving a unified account of them. However, I think enough of them can be interpreted as hinging on existence claims and mind-independence claims that I am not misappropriating the terminology in my own project. Re Aristotle, I’m hesitant to stick my neck out at all here, but if the existence of universals is ffirmed but only relative to some psychological item (concepts), then that seems like the sort of antirealism I’m dealing with. Re Lewis, he is so fearlessly realistic about so much, I can’t even imagine what the dependency base for a possible antirealism would be here. Is it the platitudes? Anyway, nothing is leaping out at me as plausibly antirealism about Lewis’s functionalism. Re Dummett, if our evidence is thought of as something psychological, then his view of antirealism fits mine. However, if evidence encompasses any non psychological stuff, then we diverge.

  15. Hi Aspasia,
    I think a lot of people will resist drawing the unconscious/conscious distinction in terms of a dispositional/occurrent distinction, for it flies in the face of a lot of evidence that there are non-dispositional, occurrent mental states that are unconscious.
    Re Dennett 1991, p. 142, the embarrassment is one that the Stalinesque and Orwellian explanations share, namely that there is no test to decide between them in their disagreement over which states are the conscious ones.

  16. Thanks Pete for your responses. You have clarified many things. The very interesting discussions in this thread also help me better understand many points in your paper and the HOT theories in general.

    I’d like to ask some questions about other related issues.

    It seems to me that HOT theories are about functional or causal roles of mental states and representations. So in this sense they are mainly based on psychological concepts, which is exactly the point of the explanatory gap problem. In this sense the HOT theories don’t seem to be able to solve it by purely representational means. If you are right about the inexistent mental states or unconscious mental states, then it corroborates the explanatory gap even more.

    Where does your argument leave us in regard to the explanatory gap problem?



  17. Hi Daniel,

    I’m interested in a debate between disputants who, whatever their dispute, can agree that there is no explanatory gap. I’m inclined to agree with these disputants. As I understand the so-called explanatory gap, it is not simply the claim that there is presently no explanation of consciousness but instead it is the claim that there can never be an explanation of consciousness. I don’t see any reason to believe the latter claim. On the contrary, I think several highly plausible explanations of consciousness have already been offered, explanations that agree in a lot of their main details. I would count Rosenthal’s HOT theory and Dennett’s Multiple Drafts theory among them.

  18. Pete,

    I’ve found this to be super interesting as well, so thanks again for the paper and the subsequent discussion! It does seem that we agree on most of the bigger issues, and as the conference will be drawing to a close soon I won’t have much more to say. Just wanted to make some final remarks on the points you raise in your comment addressed to me on Feb. 25.

    I agree largely with everything you say in your point (1).

    Regarding (2): Point taken. As the discussion has proceeded I have become more and more convinced that there are good reasons to rule out Orwellian explanations, and I take it your point about the links between thought, conceptualization, and memory push in this direction as well. Actually, it just now occurs to me that this furnishes an argument from conceptualism about conscious experience in general against Orwellian explanations: by hypothesis, Orwellian scenarios involve quickly-forgotten conscious experiences and so quickly-forgotten conceptualized contents.

    Regarding (3): Perhaps it’s intuitively implausible that we lack subjective access to very recent experiences—this is hard to argue, and shame on me for introducing the phrase “intuitively plausible”. The point I meant to make here, and which I stand by, is that lack of such access is compatible with the Transitivity Principle, and even with its initial appeal, so long as we can distinguish being aware of oneself from remembering being aware of oneself.

    Finally, it seems to me that if we consider the HOT-theory-VS-FPO (or, if you like, Rosenthal-VS-Dennett) axis of the present dialectic, HOT theory still comes out on top given the points just discussed. Even if you think, as Rosenthal and Dennett (and, I am fairly confident, you and I) do, that armchair conceivability doesn’t establish anything interesting about the subject matter one is conceiving of, it still matters whether one can account for the conceivability itself. As you point out, Dennett makes the verbal distinction between O and S in setting up his argument for FPO. Now, the conclusion of that argument (FPO) seems to render this initial distinction mysterious. Of course, in a sense there’s nothing mysterious about any verbal distinction: making a verbal distinction is as easy as rehearsing some noises to oneself, and it’s possible that that’s all there is to the O/S distinction. But it is a distinction that seems to me (even after reading Dennett) to make sense, and to have something, cognitively speaking, going for it beyond the merely verbal. HOT theory has the virtue of being able to flesh out this distinction, by spelling out what would be required for an Orwellian scenario to occur, even if, for the reasons you mention in (2), it couldn’t really occur. And (especially if the Transitivity Principle is indeed a part of our shared folk-psychological heritage) this means that HOT theory can explain why this distinction doesn’t seem to be merely verbal. I’d say, however, that this is a pretty thin explanatory edge, since it doesn’t touch on the ability of either theory to explain consciousness itself, but only an intuition about consciousness.

  19. Last Words (for now) on Conscious-state Anti-realism:

    I’ve benefitted enormously from the commenters and thread participants. Thank you so much, Alex Kiefer, Daniel Kostic, Aspasia Kanellou, Miguel Sebastian, Josh Shepherd, and James Dow. I’ll be revising through to the end of March and then submitting this as one of the invited contributions to a forthcoming work on Dennett (details here: Dennett is supposedly going to comment on the chapters. Stay tuned at Brain Hammer blog for further details (

    Big thanks too to Richard Brown and his mighty beard for another excellent conference. See you at the bar!


    Pete Mandik, New York City, March 2, 2012

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