Friday, November 14, 2008

Consciousness Without Attention?

Do we have conscious sensory experience of objects we don't attend to? On a rich view, we have virtually constant sensory experience in every sensory modality (for example, all day long, a peripheral experience of the feeling of our feet in our shoes). On a thin view, conscious experience is limited to one or a few things or regions in attention at any given time. This rich-thin dispute is substantive, not merely terminological, and ordinary folks (as well as psychologists and philosophers) seem to split about 50-50 on it (with some moderates). I worry that the issue may be scientifically irresolvable.

However, some leading researchers in consciousness studies (Block 2007; and [more qualifiedly] Koch & Tsuchiya 2007) have recently put forward an argument against the thin view that runs as follows. When one's visual attention is consumed with a demanding task and stimuli are presented in the periphery, one can still report some features of those stimuli, such as their "gist" (e.g., animal vs. vehicle). Similarly, when one is presented with a Sperling-like display -- a very brief presentation of three rows of alphanumeric characters -- one has a sense of visually experiencing the whole display despite the fact that one can only attend to (and report) some incomplete portion of it. Therefore, conscious experience outruns attention.

I believe this argument fails. In both cases, it's plausible to suppose that there may be diffuse attention to the entire display, the entire (say) computer screen, albeit with focal attention on only one part of it. Such examples may establish that consciousness outruns focal attention narrowly defined, but they do not establish that consciousness outruns some broader span of diffuse attention. When attending to a visual display on a computer screen one may not even diffusedly attend to the picture on the wall behind the computer or the pressure of the seat against one's back. The question is, are these consciously experienced when absorbed in the experimental tasks? The Block/Koch argument shines no light whatsoever on that issue.

[Update November 19: Ned Block emailed me to say that he thinks I'm oversimplifying his view. I did simplify the argument somewhat, and for brevity and convenience I used the Sperling example, which he mainly deploys for another (closely related) purpose, rather than using his own preferred example. But whether the above is an objectionable oversimplification is a further question. I emailed Ned back hoping for clarification on some key points but have not yet received a reply.]

[Update November 20: Ned Block has emailed me with a fuller reply (full text, with his permission, here). He explains that in his view consciousness only probably outruns attention and that "the evidence points toward" that fact; and he thinks this is better suggested by "inattentional blindness" type cases (where people don't report seeing even fairly large objects or property changes when their attention is primarily occupied in some distractor task) than in what I called "Sperling-like" displays (by which I meant complex displays shown too briefly to allow full report but with report enabled by a cue to some portion of the display either during the display or very shortly thereafter). He also points out that Koch & Tsuchiya, like he, say that "it is difficult to make absolutely sure that there is no attention devoted to a certain stimulus". Finally, he says that to the extent he makes a case that consciousness outruns attention, it is a "holistic" case based on a variety of evidence and theoretical considerations, not a single type of experiment.

When I originally wrote the post, I was less interested in the details of Block interpretation than in a certain form of argument which I have heard several times orally (including during a well-attended talk by a very eminent researcher), the argument taking the form described in the post; and Block and Koch & Tsuchiya are the most eminent people I've found recently saying things along those lines in print; but it's true that I should have more carefully stated their qualifications and hesistations.]

45 comments:

kvond said...

Eric, you say you fear that the rich/thin question may not be resolved. An interesting fear. :)

I don't really understand the fundamental question at the end of your post: "The question is, are these consciously experienced when absorbed in the experimental tasks?"

I take it that you do not imagine that there is NO additional perception other than those defined under the thinnest of descriptions. So the question is, just how far out does perception bleed? Clearly this would vary person to person, circumstance to circumstance. One could train one's capacity to perceive in a diffused fashion (a hunter listens in a rather broad spectrum I would think, and artist can take in a wealth of visual effects). I guess what I want to know is, What kind of answer would be the one that would be satisfying to you? Would you want some kind of brain activity proof of the ultimate horizon of awareness?

dan haybron said...

Hey Eric,

I haven't read those papers, but from your description your point seems right on the money. If it were found that the reliability of reports on peripheral stimuli decayed in the right way with distance from the focus of attention, that might suggest that, indeed, attention is simply somewhat diffuse. Which seems plausible.

Perhaps mood phenomena would give a better test, insofar as they are hedonically valenced yet often seemingly (and more clearly than in the visual attention studies) outside the scope of attention. (Eg, the Evans office noise study, where higher background noise levels yielded physiological stress responses not matched by hedonic self-reports. I've suggested their experience may be less pleasant throughout, but not brought to awareness.)

Not sure how to test this reliably though. (We can test our *convictions* on the point by asking whether we'd be indifferent between such scenarios, but that wouldn't tell us what's really happening.) Maybe you could have subjects in a modest background noise situation for a long time and ask for current and then retrospective evaluations of the hedonic quality of their experience a minute before. But in the experimental group, have the noise conspicuously stop, replaced by blissful silence, just before eliciting the report. If they repudiated their prior assessment, perhaps this would suggest a case of experience without attention. Though I could imagine alternative explanations...

kvond said...

dan: "If it were found that the reliability of reports on peripheral stimuli decayed in the right way with distance from the focus of attention"

kvond: Are we to conflate reliability of reports with what Eric calls the phenomenology of "what its like"?

On the one hand ake an autistic artistic savant like Stephen Wiltshire: http://www.boreme.com/boreme/funny-2006/rome-drawing-p1.php

Are we to assume that Stephen has an immediate "what its like" of what London looks like from an arial view?

On the other hand, are not reports also marred by recollection problems, that is, we might very well have had a rather rich "what it is like" experience, but would not be able to reliably report on it?

Angelina Fabbro said...

I am inclined to agree that it is likely that the stimuli may be attributed to diffused attention, whereas the attention attributed to conscious experience is based on the amount of focus invested.

Block, Koch and Tsuchiya's argument does not serve to refute this in any meaningful way and while I respect a new way of thinking about the problem, I'm on the fence until I hear the idea become more developed.

I also agree that it may be the case that we don't get an answer to this question. At least, probably not in my lifetime...

Anonymous said...

Would you say that diffuse attention also explains the semantic priming effect where there is no explicit recollection of any features of the unattended stimulus but the concept appears to have been primed by the unattended exposure?

Sue

Anibal said...

I´m with Koch and others in this. You don´t have to attend to something to be conscious of it.

Attention and consicouenss are dissociable.

Michael I. Posner differentiates between direction of attention and the locus of fixation of the eyes.

That is, you can fixate on something in the visual field but your attention could be diverted to other point in the visual field.

Brad said...

Hi Eric,

What a cool topic - I did not know about it!

I think you would make your case stronger if after introducing the notion of diffuse attention you explained how the thin-think dispute remains more than terminological.

Your initial gloss on the thin view is as follows: "On a thin view, conscious experience is limited to one or a few things or regions in attention at any given time."

But once we add the notion of diffuse attention, this seems to be like a misleading gloss; given the way you use the notion of diffuse attention, it seems I am probably usually (at least diffusely) attending to many things or regions at any given time.

And the thin-thick dispute is then in danger of becoming a dispute about how to use the word 'attention'; the thin people want to use is premissively, while the thick people want to restrict it. And if that is right, then your move to include diffuse attention might look like a tacit admission that the thick folks were right on the substantive debate.

I think you can dispel all these worries by explaining how the thick thin dispute remains substantive even once we modify the thin view as you suggest we should.

Josh Weisberg said...

Hey Eric!

I think Block's argument fails to establish the thick view even if he's right about consciousness without attention.

On a higher-order view, we may represent items in focal attention with more detail and represent items outside of focal attention with less detail (using much more vague representations). So there could be consciousness outside of attention on the HO view. Since it's a paradigm case of a THIN view of consciousness, I don't see how Block's claim cuts any ice.

My feeling about empirically settling these kinds of cases is that it's only going to be by way of much more general theoretical virtues. If a theory does the best overall job of explaining consciousness, fitting with or explaining away commonsense intuition, meshing with new and novel empirical results, etc., then it may gain enough justification to support one or another interpretation of these kinds of cases. Short of that, I don't really see how to get an empirical wedge into such fine-grained phenomenological and experimental stuff. (Worries of Orwell and Stalin linger here...)

Josh

Shecky said...

You say the issue "is substantive, not merely terminological" but I'm not convinced there aren't significant ambiguous semantic elements involved here; moreover there may be no black-and-white answer, but a variety of degrees and circumstances.
ANYWAY MORE IMPORTANTLY... I just came across your blog, and 35 years ago I had a great professor in Calif., named Robert Schwitzgebel, for a single course -- I assume you have to be related, probably a son or nephew???

Subvert said...

Dr Schwitzgebel,

These issues also do not take into account the idea of rapid task switching. While you may not instantaneously be conscious of the pressure of the chair on your back, the feeling of your feet in your shoes, the picture on the wall... That data is still being fed to your brain fairly constantly, and your attention (whether focused or peripherally) can cycle through all of this data probably faster than you are "consciously" aware.

It also seems to assume that there can only be one focus of your attention. We have two hemispheres... what's to say that we don't have two mechanisms of conscious attention? It'd be interesting to do some studies of someone with a hemispherectomy against someone with a typical brain.

Subvert said...

To Sue anonymous: regarding the semantic priming effect...

It seems to me that what you're describing is already explained by Atkinson and Shiffrin's sensory memory or Sperling's iconic memory.

laro said...

Interesting post!

Eric, this sort of point has already been raised in the comments, but would you mind giving a short definition of 'consciousness', 'attention', 'focused attention' and 'diffuse attention'?

This may clarify what exactly is at issue.

Additionally, in a recent cogpsyc class we studied >4 types of 'attention', and I'm pretty sure 'consiousness' was never defined.

kvond said...

laro: "This may clarify what exactly is at issue."


Eric in April wrote: "So let me make it as clear as I can: I’m talking about phenomenal consciousness, subjective experience, what it’s like – the central subject I take it that all of us at this conference are concerned with. I’m not talking about knowledge of consciousness or any acute sort of self-awareness, except insofar as those are entailed by the mere fact of phenomenal consciousness itself. Nor am I talking about mere non-conscious reactivity, to the extent that reactivity can be separated from phenomenology. The question is, phenomenal consciousness itself, the holy grail of consciousness studies – how pervasive is it?" [ http://schwitzsplintersunderblog.blogspot.com/2008/04/does-experience-outrun-attention-and.html ]


Honestly, I think part of the problem is to think that there is just such a rigours category as phenomenological "what its like". When we assume such we generally get into positions and end up asking questions for which we have no idea what the answers would look like.

Kevin Winters said...

Eric,

For some information on this issue (in case you didn't know already), I would suggest looking into 'inattentional blindness'. It talks a lot about how things within the visual field, even within the focal region, can be 'unseen' given the task of perception.

Also, I always find the Gestalt and more refined Merleau-Pontian understanding of the figure-ground relation to be useful when talking about perception. Perception is always the perception of a figure against a background. This ambiguous background plays a vital part in our perception of the object or project, but is of a different nature than either.

You could also bring in a Heideggerian discussion of truth-untruth: for every disclosing of a being as something or other, there is a necessary and simultaneous covering over those aspects of the being that are not salient or relavent to that disclosure. So my perceptions of the keyboard are subsumed and not explicitly percieved under the task of typing and my experience of the laptop when typing is different than, say, when I see it as something to be cleaned. Are we supposed to say that these unsalient aspects are still 'in' perception or consciousness? That, 'unconsciously,' I am 'perceiving' my laptop simultaneously as something on which to type, something to clean, a work of art, a bookmark (yup, I've done that before), etc.? That, it would seem, would make consciousness uber-rich, exceedingly rich, excessively rich, as catching an indefinite (and potentially infinite) number of meaningful aspects under which the laptop can be experienced.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the comments, folks! Sorry I had to let this languish over the weekend.

Kvond: There has to be some sort of perception without attention, it seems to me -- otherwise nothing unexpected could ever call our attention. My question is specifically about consciousness (phenomenology, "what-it's-like-ness") -- whether inattentive perceptual processes are accompanied by conscious experience or whether they are as non-conscious as immune system response. If the phrase "conscious experience" is the trouble here, we could talk about that a bit, but I mean the same thing Block means by "phenomenal consciousness" or "phenomenality" and that Chalmers means by "consciousness" or "phenomenology".

Dan: That's an interesting suggestion. I'm not seeing a decisive test in the vicinity, but it does seem like a dimension along which we could try playing out the different views. One question is what it is to attend to mood or emotion. Does that involve actually (consciously) thinking about what mood or emotion one currently has? If so, I agree that it's rare! On the other hand, there might be some weaker sense of attending to a mood or emotion -- maybe attending to the annoyingness, pleasurableness, etc., of something in one's environment, or.... Hm, I think we have a pandora's box here. Great set of issues!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Kvond #2: I'm totally with you on the second comment. There are all those issues there, making Dan's suggestion all the more difficult (but interesting!) to explore.

Angelina: Thanks for pitching in.

Sue: I'm not sure. Possibly! How could we test this?

Anibal: I agree about the dissociation of visual fixation and visual attention, but I don't think that particularly favors the view that consciousness and attention are dissociable. (It does, of course, favor the view that consciousness and visual fixation are dissociable.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Brad: That's a helpful suggestion, thanks! What I need to do, I think, is clarify that there can be degrees of austerity in the thin view. On an austere thin view, we really are only conscious of very little at any one time. On a less austere thin view, we might be diffusedly conscious, say, of a broad range of the visual field much or most of the time but not of things far out of attention, e.g., completely ignored phenomena on the far periphery and at least peripheral and probably also central things in sensory modalities that aren't central to my cognitive processing at the moment.

Josh: Yes, I think you're right that a thin view could still allow for consciousness without attention. As a matter of fact most explicit defenses of the thin view have appealed to attention, but I think the issues are separable. Combining this with Brad's comment, I think maybe I need to cast the word "attention" out of my definition of the thin view. I also agree that single experiments are highly unlikely to settle this sort of question. It's going to be settled, if it's settled at all, by a broad range of experiments and theoretical considerations.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Shecky: The question of whether it's terminological and multifaceted is a complicated one -- too complicated for a lean blog post. I'm convinced it's not terminological by a number of factors including the fact that people seem to change their minds without (it seems to me and probably to them) changing their terminology and by the fact that it doesn't seem obvious to me given my terminology so I can see how people could substantively disagree.

And: Yes, Robert Schwitzgebel (now Robert S. Gable) is my uncle. My father is his twin Ralph Schwitzgebel (now (R.) Kirkland Gable).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Shecky: The question of whether it's terminological and multifaceted is a complicated one -- too complicated for a lean blog post. I'm convinced it's not terminological by a number of factors including the fact that people seem to change their minds without (it seems to me and probably to them) changing their terminology and by the fact that it doesn't seem obvious to me given my terminology so I can see how people could substantively disagree.

As to whether it's multi-faceted: I'm sure it is, as almost everything in the universe (especially the mind) is if you look at it closely enough. The question is whether one can get a close enough approximation with simple concepts and theses or whether you're really forced to adopt a complex model.

And: Yes, Robert Schwitzgebel (now Robert S. Gable) is my uncle. My father is his twin Ralph Schwitzgebel (now (R.) Kirkland Gable).

Subvert: Rapid task switching and divided attention are certainly possible models to explain cognitive or conscious phenomena that might require attention and yet be outside of what seems to be the primary focus of attention. For this reason I think a proper test of unattended stimuli has to be of things not likely to be among the first 20 most likely foci of attention. (Even if attention can be divided it probably can't be divided by 20 and a cycling of attention probably can't include 20 items even at an ultrafast cycle rate of 20 milliseconds.) The pressure of one's shoes against one's feet while doing a Sperling tast seems a good candidate for something outside the top 20.

On your response to Sue, I take it to still be an open question whether semantic priming requires attention *if* one allows for broadly diffuse attention. Are you aware of any experiments that look for priming of environmental stimuli well outside the range of things between which attention might be split or that we might occasionally cycle to check?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Kvond #3: Ah, I should have read the full list of responses before starting to reply! This is a foundational issue. I'm not sure how to argue for phenomenal realism apart from stating that it seems obvious to me that there are facts about my phenomenology/ consciousness/ whatever-you-want-to-call it, and that I and other people who agree with me on that point can use a word to refer to the kind of facts in question. This isn't to say that there aren't blurry cases or cases in which there aren't precise facts of temporal order, etc. (same with the physical world).

Kevin: Yeah, I know the "inattentional blindness" phenomenon. Block talks about it too. In fact, it's probably more central to Block's view of the relationship between attention and consciousness than Sperling-like displays, but I concentrated on Sperling for ease of presentation. I'm not convinced that so-called inattentional blindness is truly "blindness" if blindness implies a lack of phenomenology.

Your Heideggerian keyboard example is neat. Someone like Terry Horgan might think that all these possibilities somehow contribute to my phenomenology of the keyboard, but probably most people would agree that that is too rich. The issue is partly, but I think only partly, separable from the issue of how broad my experiential field is.

arnold Trehub said...

Eric,

In response to Anibal, you grant that consciousness and visual fixations can be dissociable, but you doubt that consciousness and attention are dissociable.

How would you define "visual attention"?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

"Attention" is tricky to define. I think of it as the dedication of central cognitive resources toward a personal or subpersonal goal; visual attention is then the dedication of such resources in a way that centrally involves visual input.

But here's the intuitive idea: Fix your gaze on a poiont in the distance. Without moving your eyes, consider an object 10 degrees off to one side. You are now visually attending to a point other than the point of foveal fixation.

arnold Trehub said...

O.K. Imagine you are in a plane flying over Washington D.C. You fix your gaze on the Washington monument and, without moving your eyes, you shift your attention to the Capital building.

(1) Would you say that you are no longer conscious of the Washington monument? This would support your contention that consciousness and attention are *not* dissociable.

(2) On the other hand, if you are still conscious of the Washington monument after shifting your attention to the Capital building then consciousness and attention *are* dissociable.

I would argue that (2) is the case, and I would be able to point to the retinoid model and various psychophysical findings to support this interpretation. Notice that (2) does not imply that you *remember* seeing the Washington monument while while your attention was on the Capital building. The normal operation of our cognitive brain does not allocate learning/memory resources for those parts of our phenomenal world that are outside the focus of attention.

kvond said...

Eric: "Kvond #3: Ah, I should have read the full list of responses before starting to reply! This is a foundational issue. I'm not sure how to argue for phenomenal realism apart from stating that it seems obvious to me that there are facts about my phenomenology/ consciousness/ whatever-you-want-to-call it, and that I and other people who agree with me on that point can use a word to refer to the kind of facts in question."

Kvond: I did not realize that holding something called "phenomenonal realism" was a pre-requisite for you. Realisms in general are usually involved in confusions over issues of justification, and I don't see how "phenomenal realism" helps in this manner. If by this phrase you simply mean that you want to hold that experiences are real, I don't see how that is much of a burden. Our experiences clearly seem to cause our beliefs (in the Davidsonian sense), and things or events take to cause beliefs are usually read as real.

But I don't know additional gain is made by saying that there are "facts" as to your experiences. Facts are culturally constructed, (from factum, the made thing), and refer to criteria by which they are justified. If I picture my house, and see a pink wall, it seems to me to be a distortion of the word "fact" to say that "It is a fact that I see pink". I just see pink. This subjective experiences is an underpinning of fact giving, not a fact.

If someone else says, "I see pink too, when I look at that wall," this does not make the experience of pinkness suddenly a fact.

But perhaps you are committed to just such a position. I just would want you to tell me what it gives you, to be able to talk about the facts of experience, or awareness, or what-have-you. What does this status of subjective facticity allow you to say?

From my point of view, it only forces you to ask questions which have unimaginable answers. If you don't even know what your answer would look like, what kind of form it would take so as to satisfy you, then isn't the problem likely with the question itself?

kvond said...

Also, I would want to ask, would not a cognitive dissonance model of perception and attention help in this question? If attention is directed towards some form of dissonance (let us call it conceptual dissonance), then one must assume that there is a secondary background perception of cohension against which the dissonance reads. If a carpenter is running his hand over the grain of wood, and feels the subtle bulge of a buried knot, such a knot is only read against all else that is Not-Knot, so to speak.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Arnold and Kvond!

Arnold: That's very nicely put. My own view is that the issue is not so easily resolved. (I am not committed to the view that consciousness requires attention; I only think that that view has not been shown false.) There may be cases where attention to what is in the visual periphery makes us fail to experience what's in the visual center (Mack and Rock 1998 offer some experiments they interpret as showing this); but there may also be cases where attention spreads along a gradient so that even if the primary attention is on the Capital there's still enough secondary attention on the Monument to experience it.

Kvond: By saying there are phenomenal facts I really mean only to be making a very weak claim that I think few would deny. However, people do sometimes interpret Dennett or the Churchlands or behaviorists as denying it -- and I was wondering whether you meant to deny it too in one of your comments. The position is that just as much as there are facts (can't I call them that? what else should I call them) about the history of my car and its physical evolution through time so also are there facts about my conscious experience or phenomenology (and not just facts about what I'm apt to report).

arnold Trehub said...

I agree that the issue has not been resolved. I think the argument will go on interminably until there is a reasonable consensus on the biophysical mechanisms and processes that constitute what we call "attention" and "consciousness".

The retinoid model successfully explains and predicts many previously puzzling psychophysical findings. This theoretical model holds that while attention is necessary for perception, it is not necessary for phenomenal consciousness. It also holds that consciousness is a necessary precondition for the deployment of attention. In the retinoid model, selective attention scans and enables the analysis of the occurrent undifferentiated egocentric phenomenal field of our conscious content.

kvond said...

Eric: "The position is that just as much as there are facts (can't I call them that? what else should I call them) about the history of my car and its physical evolution through time so also are there facts about my conscious experience or phenomenology (and not just facts about what I'm apt to report)."

Kvond: Well, you can say that if you like, but I can't say in return that I agree with you. Facts are things which are constructed out of reference to criteria. There are facts about the history of your car because one can refer to shared criteria and justify claims. If you said, "my automobile was in an accident on July 4th" can be justified by turning to the criteria for accidents and calendar dates, and others can then check your judgements. "Sam saw this shade of yellow at 10:15" escapes just this process.

But what I really want to ask you is, when you say,

"there facts about my conscious experience or phenomenology (and not just facts about what I'm apt to report)."

just what does this facticity get you? What are you able to say, that you could not otherwise say if you were to hold that though experiences are real, there are no facts of phenonemenal experience.

What I would say, on the other side of the coin, is that refusing facticity allows one to see that certain kinds of questions are just misconstrued.

kvond said...

p.s. in thinking about it for a moment, your notion of phenomenal fact allows you to hold:

"This rich-thin dispute is substantive, not merely terminological..."

I would have to know the substance gained, but I suspect that this is what you believe.

kvond said...

Eric,

It also occurs to me to ask, do you distinguish between your requirement for "phenomenal realism" and the assertion that there are qualia? I ask this because you say,

"However, people do sometimes interpret Dennett or the Churchlands or behaviorists as denying it..."

If what you argue for or assume are qualia, one certainly doesn't have to interpret Dennett to see that he denies this. He flat out denies this. And I'm pretty much with him, and others of the Wittgenstein line, on this.

But if you have a more nuanced sense of what Dennett accepts and denies, or a distinction to make between qualia and phenomenal realism, I would love to hear it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Arnold: Someday there might be such consensus, but I don't see it yet. For example, Koch and Block are about as eminent as you get in consciousness studies and they both deny that consciousness is necessary for attention. There's immense dispute about what types of brain activity are necessary or sufficient for consciousness, with people with rich and thin views having very different types of position here. Don't you agree?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Kvond: Right, what I get by saying there are facts about phenomenology is that certain sorts of debates are substantive and not merely terminological, and also I get the possibility that people can be incorrigibly mistaken in their reports. These things just seem true to me, so I think a view needs to make room for them.

As for Dennett, I don't think his position is entirely self-consistent, so there are a variety of possible interpretations. (I have a 2007 article in Phenomenology & the Cognitive Sciences on this to which Dennett replies.)

arnold Trehub said...

Eric,

I think the primary reason for the current confused state of affairs about conscious and attention is that insufficient attention has been paid to the kinds of minimal neuronal brain mechanisms that appear *competent* to account for the phenomenal content of consciousness and for selective attention.

As for the views of Koch and Block, I doubt that either one of them would be willing to say that attention can be deployed without consciousness, full stop. This is a crucial issue. Why don't you invite both Koch and Block to express their opinion about this on your blog?

kvond said...

Eric; "I get the possibility that people can be incorrigibly mistaken in their reports"

kvond: Can I get an example of someone who is incorrigibly mistaken in their report?


Eric: "As for Dennett, I don't think his position is entirely self-consistent, so there are a variety of possible interpretations. (I have a 2007 article in Phenomenology & the Cognitive Sciences on this to which Dennett replies.)"

kvond: This is very interesting, you are telling me that you have an article where Dennett does not hold that "qualia" exist. I would be very interested in this, as Dennett has by all that I have read, been very firm on the position that "qualia" is a confused notion, and that it would be best to eliminate it.

Or is that that Dennett admits something which something which you would find as a satisfactory replacement for the notion of qualia?

But I didn't get your firm answer on this. Do you mean by "phenomenal realism" the existence of "qualia"?

kvond said...

ah, I should have asked:

"This is very interesting, you are telling me that you have an article where Dennett DOES hold that "qualia" exist."

Anonymous said...

I think that these kinds of scenarios highlight the likely inadequacy of our folk taxonomy in the interoceptive/introspective domain.

"Consciousness" probably does outrun attention, but I have no idea what that means.

From an empirical standpoint the real problem is how these processes relate to each other across space and time. Attention often functions as a gate to other processes, like memory, and can interfere with processes like orienting (which are critical to both attention itself and survival, depending on the circumstances).

A thought experiment: Imagine neural "muscles" that shift attention from one place to another, analogous to the muscles involved in producing saccadic eye movements. If one were to selectively paralyze these muscles an individual would likely be conscious of quite a lot, but what would their experience be like?

They would probably not be capable of remembering or reporting anything of this experience if queried after the fact. They would be conscious but their consciousness would be useless.

This leads to the question: Is consciousness (independent of attention) even anything special? Is it even useful under ordinary circumstances? Whatever it is, I am leaning toward "no" on both questions.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

kvond: Of course Dennett doesn't like that word. He imports more into it than at least some qualia-philes mean by it.

Dennett does think consciousness exists, right? Or does he? Is it independent of report? Or...? That's the issue on which I think he's not self-consistent.

Anon: Those are tough questions, right? You might be correct in your sense of them, but if so, that's not straightforward. The difficulty of such issues is really my overall point.

arnold Trehub said...

Anonymous asks "Is consciousness (independent of attention) even anything special? Is it even useful under ordinary circumstances? Whatever it is, I am leaning toward "no" on both questions."

Since consciousness is our immediate phenomenal experience of the world from our privileged egocentric perspective, there would be nothing for attention to focus on and parse for further cognitive processing if consciousness were absent. In fact, attention cannot exist without consciousness. So consciousness *is* something very special and useful in the evolutionary scheme of things. The intuition that consciousness outruns attention is supported and explained by the retinoid model of consciousness. See Trehub (2007), Space, self, and the theater of consciousness. *Consciousness and Cognition*.

kvond said...

Eric,

This is the thing. When people say things like:

"Dennett does think consciousness exists, right?"

There is a terrible sense of, what I can only call naive ontology in such a sentence. As if there is some kind of Raw and Obvious meaning of what "exist" would mean. Searle talks this way to my ear.

I have no idea how one can ask such a question as if there would obviously be only one kind of answer to it. It all turns one what one means by "exists".

What, again to my ear, comes from behind such a question, is a kind of "Come on now, let's quit playing philosophical games, and parsing meanings, and just admit the obivious, let's just use the word "exists" in a plain old fashioned way...so then once we have that assumption, we can go ahead and philosophize and parse all we want". It is just this kind of reasoning from the apparently obivious that philosophy is supposed to warn us off from. Yes, regular old-fashioned folks usually mean by "exists" objects, things we can point to, and even make factual statments about. But if we are to believe Wittgenstein, there is a great temptation to use the language games organized around that kind of plain-sense "exists", in appropriately, for all kinds of other sense of exist.

What you would have to show me is how thinking that consciousness exists ENTAILS that there are such things are the fact of the matter for "what-it-is-like".

Perhaps it is that because you feel that any sense of consciousness existing would require facts of the matter about consciousness, you feel that Dennett is inconsistent in his position. It is much more likely that his notion of existence simply is not your (it does not possess the entailments you imagine to be there).

Also, I didn't have your answer to my question: "Can I get an example of someone who is incorrigibly mistaken in their report?. It was buried up there near my question about Dennett.


thanks

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Arnold: I would say, in contrast, that until we know better what the causal role of consciousness is, we can't answer that question.

Kvond: I'm sympathetic with concerns about the use of the word "exist". But then I'm not sure how to put my point in a way that you would find satisfactory: no "facts", no "exists". Maybe you can find a way to put the view you suspect I have in words you find clear enough, then I can embrace or reject the formulation?

I think Dennett is inconsistent in his position because he at different times says (if I recall correctly, I'm not rechecking here), (1a.) You can no more go wrong about your experience than Doyle could go wrong about the color of Holmes's easy chair and (1b.) People go wrong about their experience. (2a.) There are no facts about consciousness independent of report. (2b.) Consciousness has [the following features] which people don't accurately report. (3a.) People are not infallible in their reports about consciousness. (3b.) People get it right about what it's like to be them simply by virtue of being sincere in their reports. (3c.) Consciousness is what-it's-like-ness. I can't hold all these together. (I do a much better job of making this point in my 2007 paper.)

Here's a kind of case where I think people go wrong in reporting their experience: Some people report detailed visual experience through at least 30 degrees of arc; others report that their detailed visual experience is limited to about 2 degrees of arc. Often these are the very same people after a short interlude with some introspective exercises and theoretical discussion, therefore it's unlikely to reflect any real change in capacities. So one of the two groups (I'm inclined to think the first) must be getting it wrong. (I have a section on this, where I put the argument in more detail in my 2008 essay "The Unreliability of Naive Introspection").

arnold Trehub said...

Eric,

It seems to me that the evidence is clear about the causal role of consciousness -- at least as far as human consciousness is concerned. When I'm not conscious, as in non-rem sleep, I have no phenomenal experience and I can't do anything interesting. In fact I'm almost inert. I'll bet you are too. When I'm conscious, I have a phenomenal experience of a world around me with varying richness of content, that I can examine (using selective attention) and think about, and within which I can engage in planned activity to try to attain the goals I set. I'll bet you have a similar experience.

Wouldn't you agree that the central causal role of consciousness is to enable thought, feeling, and action in the real world?

kvond said...

Eric: "But then I'm not sure how to put my point in a way that you would find satisfactory: no "facts", no "exists"."


Kvond; I guess I have not made myself clear. Just because something can be said to exist (that is yes "exists") does not entail that there are "facts" about that existence, commonly called "properties" (something imagined to "belong to" that existence). Facts are what they are in reference to criteria which are shared. Without the existence of shared criteria, there are no facts.

What I take you to be saying is that if ANYTHING is said "to exist", necessarily there must be facts about that existence, existence must entail properties. So you find an admission that consciousness exists entails the logical consequence that there are facts about and/or properties of that exixstence, irrespective of criteria.

This I cannot abide, due to the very nature of facts.

Eric: " therefore it's unlikely to reflect any real change in capacities. So one of the two groups (I'm inclined to think the first) must be getting it wrong."

Kvond: Well, this is different than incorrigibly wrong" which admits not "inclination" nor "likelihood". People are simply wrong.

I would say that thinking that there are extra-criterial facts of the matter might allow to SAY that these people are wrong, it does not get you any closer to showing that they are wrong. There are a host of explanations, but the easiest in the example you give is that after exercises and reflection people understand what "detailed visual experience" MEANS, and so report their experiences differently.

Beyond this though, if there are no "facts" of "what its like", then knowing definitively the answer to that kind of question, (without the aid of intersubjective correction), is not a possibility.

I would like to ask you, if you find the first group of people "incorrigibly" wrong, on what criteria to you find the second group "incorrigibly" right?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Kvond: On the metaphysics of "facts": I'm flexible about words. I'm not sure, though, if you are appealing to a general "verificationist" principle according to which there must be some public test for there to be meaningful statements about facts, properties, whatever.

On your second point: I'm not aiming for apodictic certainty. I'll settle for probability. I think it's highly likely that either the first or second group is mistaken. I think it's somewhat likely that it's the second group, based on my own introspection, facts about physiology, facts about the time-course of the change of opinion, and the fact that there's an attractive "error theory" that would explain the first group's report.

arnold Trehub said...

Eric,

You stated that we need a better idea of what the causal role of consciousness might be. I suggested that the central causal role of consciousness in humans is to enable thought, feeling, and adaptive action in the real world. Would you agree or disagree with this view of the causal role of consciousness?

Alva Noe has recently given his views about consciousness and the brain on *The Edge*, and I have written a short rebuttal. It can be seen here: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/noe08/noe08_index.html#trehub

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the link, Arnold!

I don't have a stand on the causal role of consciousness, because I don't think we are in a position to make an informed judgment about its causal role -- at the very least not until we settle the rich/thin question.