A Question For Dispositionalist Higher-order Thought Theory

According to Peter Carruther’s Dispositionalist Higher-order Thought Theory, “phenomenally conscious experiences are analog/non-conceptual states that are immediately and non-inferentially available to a faculty of higher-order thought; and that by virtue of such availability (together with the truth of some sort of consumer semantics) the states in question possess dual analog/non-conceptual contents, both first-order and higher-order.”

The Dispositionalist theory is supposed to be superior to Armstrong and Lycan’s “inner sense” higher-order theory, which says that the relevant higher-order function is a kind of internal perception-like scanner or monitor of first-order states. Carruthers says:

Dispositionalist higher-order thought theory has all the advantages of inner sense theory, then, yet it has none of the associated costs. No “inner scanners” or organs of higher-order perception need to be proposed. Rather (in common with the actualist version of higher-order thought theory) all that needs to be postulated is some sort of mind-reading of theory-of-mind faculty, which has available to it concepts of experience, and which can access perceptual input.

My question is simple: why can’t we rephrase the mind-reading faculty’s “access to perceptual input” as saying the “mind-reading faculty scans perceptual input”? The difference between “having access to” perceptual input and being able to “scan” perceptual input seems to me to be trivial. The mind-reading faculty is obviously internal, and it can also scan or “access” perceptual input. Therefore, it can be understood as a kind of inner scanner. So on the face of it, I don’t see how Carruthers has done anything except provide a further mechanical specification of what an “inner scanner” might look like.

Of course, Carruthers might reply by saying that the mind-reading faculty’s knowledge of the “concept of experience” is more of a conceptual (thought like) process than a perceptual process. First of all, I am of the opinion that the notion of a “concept” applies even to simple perceptual motor systems (given Gibsonian assumptions about affordance ontology), so I don’t see any problem in talking about a “conceptualized” perceptual process. I think it’s concepts all the way down. Second, there is no reason to suppose that “inner sense” works the same way as first-order perceptual systems although it is grounded in such systems. After all, can’t we talk about first-order processes being redeployed for new functional purposes? However, it seems more neurally realistic to me to think that the kinds of micro-operations of neurons involved in first-order perception are going to be similar to the micro-operations of neurons involved in any kind of higher-order process, even a “mind-reading faculty” (since there are only so many ways to propagate neural information throughout the brain). The inner sense theory therefore captures the sense in which it becomes neurally unrealistic to posit radically distinct kinds of mental operations such as “thoughts” as opposed to just more abstract, invariant, and offline perceptual processes. Perceptions can be abstract too, not just “thoughts”.

But don’t get me wrong. I like Carruthers idea that consciousness in some way involves the mind-reading faculty “turning upon itself”. I also like the idea of consciousness depending in some way on having a concept of experience. But I’m just not sure how this is supposed to be radically incompatible with “inner sense” theory so long as we understand that (1) perceptual processes can be conceptual too and (2) whatever form the inner sense takes it won’t be like a “sense organ”. My guess is that part of the neural realizer for inner sense involves the default mode network, and all the systems associated with “mind-wandering” and other off-line imagination processes. A good chunk of the default mode network includes frontal regions, which makes architectural sense of the inner sense theory since the frontal lobes evolved last and take input from practically every other part of the brain. So long as we have a simplistic notion of what an “inner sense faculty” might look like, it will be easy to construct strawman arguments against it. But since it’s perfectly plausible that high-level cortico-cortical connectivity to the frontal areas would allow for the influence of language and narrative processes on our inner sense, the notion of an “inner sense faculty” can be as complex as we need to account for the rarefied psychological processes of higher-order cognition

This was Julian Jaynes’ idea. He thought “inner sense” depended in some way on special kinds of language and narrative learning. More specifically, he thought that inner sense depended on having linguistic concepts of psychological processes. In ancient peoples these psychological concepts were rather concrete and tightly attached to bodily states, such as the ancient Greek concept of “thumos”. But eventually the concepts grew more abstract and concepts like “mind”, “consciousness”, and “soul” were developed. Jaynes thus predates Carruthers in supposing that the concept of psychological experience is somehow necessary for the occurrence of consciousness. But Jaynes’ didnt take himself to be explaining anything like “phenomenal consciousness” as it is normally understood. He would have thought such notions were too amorphous to capture the uniquely human capacities for introspective consciousness, which were his main explanatory target. Jaynes’ emphasis on introspection makes him a early precursor to modern “inner sense” theories of consciousness, but I think Jaynes’ theory is more complex and nuanced than any simple “inner sense organ” given his emphasis on the importance of language, narrative, and conceptual complexity.


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Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy

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