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Attention, consciousness, and the semantics of questions


Attention influences the character of conscious perceptual experience in intricate and surprising ways, including our experience of contrast, space, and time. These patterns of influence have been argued to cause trouble for the attractive thesis that differences in the character of conscious experience flow from differences in what we represent (Block 2010). I present a novel theory of the functional role of attention that has the resources for a systematic representationalist account of these phenomena. On the erotetic theory of attention, we bring an interest to the task of perception, captured as a question we seek to answer. Questions, as understood here, are contents that cognitive systems can represent rather than sentences. We process perceptual input as a putative answer to our question in a way that is modulated by attentional focus; attentional focus aims to pick out something that matches what our question is “about.” In certain cases, this yields a form of predictive coding: if the contribution of focus matches what our question is about, we take it to select one of the possible answers we are entertaining, even though our perceptual input by itself does not supply a full answer. The proposed account also provides a new account of the phenomenology of salience.

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  1. What I will call “representationalism” in this paper does not include a priori restrictions on what we could potentially represent in experience, e.g. objective properties in the world, properties we merely “spread onto the world,” fictional objects, sets, relations, etc.

  2. Block gives only brief consideration to a number of alternatives. If it is a high absolute degree of attention that guarantees veridicality, then, Block concludes, “if the subject were speaking on a cell phone, nothing would be veridically perceived,” since talking on a cell phone takes up some attentional resources. That “nothing” would be veridically perceived in such a case only plausibly follows if we assume that the same absolute degree of attention is required for the veridical perception of all properties. However, it could be that different properties require different degrees of attention for veridical perception. Whether the attention-drain of talking on a cell phone could impact the veridicality of our contrast representations is an empirical question; it certainly impacts the veridicality of some representations (Scholl et al. 2003). There seems to be no easy reductio ad absurdum argument against the “degrees of attention” option here. Moving on, if the distribution of attentional resources that engenders veridicality has to do with the relative deployment of attentional resources, Block holds that we run into the problem that differences between points in the visual field in terms of relative attentional resources will often be very small. Assigning a cutoff for veridicality to such small differences would be “arbitrary” (Block 2010, p. 46). However, it is not obvious why a representationalist would have to stipulate the necessary magnitude of the difference in advance. It is not obvious why this cannot be non-arbitrarily anchored in some way to what makes a difference to the percept. Another possibility Block considers is to take equal distribution of attentional resources between the two patches to yield veridical perception. He argues that we will find that there are numerous ways of assigning our attentional resources that give equal consideration to both patches, but that will still have different phenomenal character associated with them. For illustration, he suggests the example of the two patches in Fig. 5 with focus at varying points along a vertical line through the fixation point. The phenomenal character of focusing on different points on the line will be different, but the veridicality of the comparison of contrast between the patches will be the same. The idea is that this will regenerate the problem of having multiple distinct phenomenal characters that should not all be equally veridical, if they are to be cashed out in terms of different representational contents. However, Block does not provide an argument to rule out the possibility of accounting for additional differences in phenomenal character in this case in terms of differences in what is represented as more salient in the overall visual scene, while the contrast representations stay the same.

  3. One might observe that if our project is to find out something interesting and substantive to say about the nature of conscious experience, finding that extant representationalist approaches to attention are “unmotivated” is only helpful for Block’s non-representational mental paint proposal if that proposal turns out to be better motivated. As far as I can see, he provides no clear reason to think that it is. Things may be different if we regard mental paint as our null-hypothesis.

  4. Elsewhere, I argue that we can make sense of all tasks we may attentively pursue as determining questions in terms of which we can monitor performance on those tasks (Koralus 2014). However, the main points I try to make in the present paper do not depend on this broader picture.

  5. Note that in the sense at issue here, representing something as corresponding to the domain of one’s question is not trivially accomplished by just having something in one’s visual array that belongs to the domain. Suppose I have colored things in my visual array, as yet not focused on, and my question has colored objects as its domain. Does this mean I already represent something as corresponding to the domain of my question? Not in the sense intended here. Representing red somewhere in the visual array is not the same as representing something as being an element of the set of colored things. I could have the capacities to represent color properties without having the capacity to represent sets or the capacity to represent things as elements of sets.

  6. If we watch live programming, we might be interpreting the input as telling us about the actual world from a different center or perspective. If you think that the obvious flatness or slight graininess of non-3D TV images is what blocks the illusion, imagine I am addressing myself to a one-eyed audience with less than perfect visual acuity.

  7. Live performance seen at Greene Naftali Gallery, New York, 2010. The video component can be seen at, accessed on 20 October 2012.

  8. Of course, the requisite notion of “most” here does not entail uniqueness.

  9. To avoid confusion, note that the account I propose is not that we perceive two equally sized projections on the retina and then infer that the object corresponding to one of those projections must have a different size from the other because attention made us represent it as more proximal. If the observed effects were due to an inference of this sort, they should be reversed; a nearby object has to be smaller than a more distal object, if it subtends the same degree of visual angle. The mechanism I propose is simpler and more direct and can be implemented by connections between low- or intermediate-level feature representations: A representation of proximity, activated through attention, softly activates representations of features that normally correlate with proximity (e.g., looming larger), through lateral excitatory connections that could be the result of Hebbian learning.


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Koralus, P. Attention, consciousness, and the semantics of questions. Synthese 191, 187–211 (2014).

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  • Attention
  • Semantics of questions
  • Consciousness
  • Phenomenal character
  • Predictive coding
  • Representationalism
  • Focus