The HOROR theory of phenomenal consciousness

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One popular approach to theorizing about phenomenal consciousness has been to connect it to representations of a certain kind. Representational theories of consciousness can be further sub-divided into first-order and higher-order theories. Higher-order theories are often interpreted as invoking a special relation between the first-order state and the higher-order state. However there is another way to interpret higher-order theories that rejects this relational requirement. On this alternative view phenomenal consciousness consists in having suitable higher-order representations. I call this ‘HOROR’ (“Higher-Order Representation Of a Representation”) theory to distinguish it from relational versions of higher-order theory. In this paper I make the case that HOROR theory is a plausible account of the real nature of phenomenal consciousness whatever one’s views are about whether it is physical/reducible or not. I first clarify HOROR theory and compare it to the more traditional same-order and higher-order thought theories. Afterwards I move to presenting some considerations in favor of HOROR theory.

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  1. 1.

    It should be noted that Rosenthal uses ‘thought’ pretty consistently in his writing and has denied that his view is a version of representationalism. However by this he means to deny the view that mental qualities are intentional. He has maintained that mental qualities represent in a distinctive non-intentional manner (see pages 119 and 222 in Rosenthal 2005). And in any case higher-order thoughts are intentional states and so his theory of consciousness (as opposed to mental quality) is straightforwardly representational.

  2. 2.

    I follow the tradition in positing that suitable higher-order representations are those that at least appear to the subject as non-inferential.

  3. 3.

    For instance Weisberg (2011) and Rosenthal (2011) seem to suggest that they are eliminativists about phenomenal consciousness. If so then they would disagree with the way I have set the problem up but they equate ‘phenomenal consciousness’ with Block’s first-order view and claim there is no such first-order property. I claim that as long as we are careful to use ‘phenomenal consciousness’ and related ‘what it is like’ terminology in a theoretical neutral way then everyone in the debate agrees that there is phenomenal consciousness.

  4. 4.

    I can be neutral with respect to the nature of first-order representations and I take no stance on whether they are intentional, or accounted for by some kind of Quality Space Theory. However I am committed to the claim that first-order states have intentional and qualitative contents and that they account for the behavior of the creature for the most part. When I consciously experience red, in the typical case, I will have a first-order state that has qualitative red as its content and a higher-order representation of myself as instantiating that first-order state. The first-order state accounts for my discrimination behavior and the higher-order state accounts for what it is like for me.

  5. 5.

    This is an example of the so-called empty higher-order representations, which I will discuss in more detail in the next section. I will note here, though, that I am neutral with respect to the question of whether it is the notional state that has the property of being conscious. This may not be as strange as it sounds; however, one potential problem is that of explaining why it isn’t always the notional state that has this property.

  6. 6.

    Even those dualists who are attracted to panquality-ism, like David Chalmers (forthcoming), may agree to this. He may think that there can be qualitative redness as a fundamental part of our ontology but that will not count as a conscious experience in the sense we are interested in since it is not experienced by anyone (cf. Chalmers 2013 for an endorsement of this line of thought in response to Hellie).

  7. 7.

    A previous version of the paper was delivered at the CUNY Graduate Center Colloquium Series September 5th 2012 and portions were also delivered at the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness meeting July 13th 2013. I am grateful to participants for very helpful discussion. I would also like to especially thank Jake Berger, Ned Block, David Chalmers, Hakwan Lau, Pete Mandik, and David Rosenthal for helpful discussion and comments on previous drafts.


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Brown, R. The HOROR theory of phenomenal consciousness. Philos Stud 172, 1783–1794 (2015) doi:10.1007/s11098-014-0388-7

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  • Consciousness
  • Representationalism
  • Higher-order thought