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Explicit nonconceptual metacognition

Abstract

The goal of this paper is to explore forms of metacognition that have rarely been discussed in the extensive psychological and philosophical literatures on the topic. These would comprise explicit (as opposed to merely implicit or procedural) instances of meta-representation of some set of mental states or processes in oneself, but without those representations being embedded in anything remotely resembling a theory of mind, and independent of deployment of any sort of concept-like representation of the mental. Following a critique of some extant suggestions made by Nicholas Shea, the paper argues that appraisals of the value of cognitive effort involve the most plausible instances of this kind of metacognition.

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Notes

  1. The simplified model presented here ignores top-down influences on evaluative learning, of the sort that figure in nocebo and placebo effects. It also ignores the influence of background mood (Eldar et al. 2016), and glosses over the fact that a value acquired from previous evaluative learning will be a weighted average of the values experienced in the past, with more recent rewards being counted more heavily in proportion to the learning rule.

  2. Notice that Shea does not claim that the error signal is meta-representational on the grounds that it represents something about an action (that is, a movement caused by an intention, hence a partly mental entity). This is for good reason: the action-representations involved in evaluative learning are coded entirely in sensorimotor format.

  3. Thus far Shea (2014) doesn’t disagree. For on p. 322 he writes that the correctness-condition for a stored value (in my notation, m) is that, “[m] is accurate iff the average reward payoff that would be achieved by repeatedly choosing [the thing or action] in the current environment is [m].” Note the implication here, by the way, that the stored value for Xs is at least implicitly tensed. The system is designed to track values in potentially changing circumstances. In fact, it can be helpful to think of VAL(Xs = m) as a sort of generic representation, the evaluative equivalent of a generic belief like, “Birds fly.” Although learned from previous experience, it gives rise to expectations of future Xs, somewhat as the generic belief that birds fly would lead you to expect that the next bird you encounter will fly.

  4. Note that in his 2018 book Shea still explicitly endorses a meta-representational account of reward-prediction error signals (albeit in passing), so it isn’t anachronistic to employ his later theory of representational content to evaluate the earlier account. Note, too, that Shea’s varitel semantics includes two basic kinds of representing relation. One is informational, with an internal symbol causally co-varying (in the right circumstances and in the right way) with the represented property or thing. The other is a form of structural mapping, with the relations among a set of internal symbols mirroring the relations among a set of external entities. It is the first of these sorts or representing relation that is relevant here. This is because error signals are singular in occurrence, rather than doing their work via the relations they stand in to a set of similar signals.

  5. Note that in the quoted passage Shea describes the error-signal d as telling the down-stream system to revise its expected value for the thing in question. He intends this quite seriously. He thinks that the error signal has imperative, or directive, content as well as indicative content. (That is, he thinks it is what Millikan 1995, calls a “pushmi-pullyu” representation.) But this is ill-motivated. The error signal no more has an imperative content than does visual perception of something unexpected. The perceptual content serves to update one’s beliefs about the likelihood of events in the environment. But it doesn’t direct one to update one’s beliefs.

  6. It is worth noting that reward-value representations aren’t just representations of adaptive value and disvalue; they are actually what Millikan (1995) calls “pushmi-pullyu” representations. For expectations of value directly motivate actions designed to achieve or avoid the valued or disvalued things in question. Moreover, note the difference between this case and the error signals themselves, which Shea (2014) claims have imperative content. For it is not true that anything that causes a change in an organism (e.g. in a stored value) is an imperative. Imperatives serve to cause / motivate action.

  7. Notice that in cases where one consciously and reflectively does something decision-like—such as articulating in inner speech, “I will stop and think about this one”—a decision has already been taken to engage controlled processing. (In pausing to articulate those words one is already stopping to think.) The inner-speech performance serves as an expression of that decision. My target in the discussion that follows are the (putative) unconscious decisions that initiate controlled processing.

  8. To be clear, I will not be claiming that LCA models actually succeed in providing the best explanation of the phenomenon we call “deciding to think / stop thinking.” My claim, rather, is negative. It is that, given the viability of such models and their popularity in psychology, it would be hard to establish—and certainly controversial to claim—that there is an explicit metacognitive representation-type picked out by the phrase “decision to engage controlled processing.” Note, too, that although LCA models are a specific type of diffusion decision model (Forstmann et al. 2016), nothing of significance turns on this distinction for our purposes.

  9. Note, however, that this isn’t to claim that all affective states in general are tied to a representation of something. Moods, in particular, are affective states that are free-floating—or, perhaps better, that color everything—rather than being tied to some thing or type of thing in particular.

  10. Note that if different forms of executive engagement are to be evaluated separately, as I hint at here (e.g. focused attention versus response inhibition), then the model I am proposing would require there to be distinct signals sent to evaluative systems from each component kind of executive control. The default settings for each of these signals would be negative, but evaluative learning might alter their values in particular types of context independently of one another. Note, too, that there is unlikely to be anything resembling perceptual constancies in this domain. (Mental effort doesn’t have to be identified across a wide range of differing signals; a single signal, or a single signal for each type of effort, will do.) So one cannot appeal to Burge’s (2010) framework to argue that despite the absence of mental-state concepts mental effort is represented as such.

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Acknowledgments

I am grateful to the anonymous referees for their insightful comments on previous versions of this article.

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Correspondence to Peter Carruthers.

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Carruthers, P. Explicit nonconceptual metacognition. Philos Stud 178, 2337–2356 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-020-01557-1

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Keywords

  • Cognitive control
  • Effort
  • Error signal
  • Metacognition
  • Meta-representation
  • Nonconceptual