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Consciousness and the limits of memory

  • S.I.: Neuroscience and Its Philosophy
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Abstract

Intermodal representationalism is a popular theory of consciousness. This paper argues that intermodal representationalism is false, or at least likely so. The argument turns on two forms of exceptional episodic memory: hyperthymesia and prodigious visual memory in savant syndrome. Emerging from this argument is a broader lesson about the relationship between memory and perception; that it may be possible to entertain in memory the very same content as in a corresponding perceptual experience, and that the ‘overflow’ interpretation of the classic Sperling paradigm experiments may not fully generalize.

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Notes

  1. For these distinctions, see Speaks (2015: pp. 22–23). There are many versions of representationalism: see, e.g., Harman (1990), Dretske (1995, 2003), Tye (1995, 2000, 2009), Lycan (1996), Byrne (2001), Crane (2003), Chalmers (2004), Jackson (2006), Pautz (2007), Bourget (2010, 2017a), Speaks (2015), and Schellenberg (2017). Intermodal representationalists include Dretske, Tye and Bourget. (Dretske and Tye ultimately ascribe to a stronger thesis about the relationship between phenomenal character and representational content, but their views entail the supervenience claim. Bourget identifies phenomenal states with non-derived representational states.) Lycan and Crane are intramodal representationalists.

  2. This constraint, along with the use of the term ‘intelligibility,’ comes from Wayne Wu (2014: p. 132). But as far as I can tell, it has never been explicitly leveraged as a strategy for arguing against representationalism.

  3. Psychologically possibility is a species of nomological possibility. Let us say that x’s being F is psychologically possible iff there is a possible world W, such that the laws of psychology in W are the same as in the actual world, and x is F in W (cf. Kriegel 2003: p. 275).

  4. It's not clear to me how to assess many of these alleged counterexamples. Emblematic of the problem are phosphenes. Block (1996) contends that phosphene experiences do not represent anything. Perhaps. But the problem is that there does not seem to be a principled means for settling the issue—that is, a principled means for deciding whether, and what, representational properties are attributable to such experiences. As a result, the ability to assess the representationalist's response is undercut, leaving the debate unprincipled. Gualtiero Piccinini gives voice to this issue when he says that without answers to these questions, it is not even clear what needs to be done to “score points” within the debate. (For discussion by Piccinini, see The Brains Blog. As far as I know, this point has not been made in print.) While I am somewhat optimistic that the cases under consideration here present a methodological advance in at least some respects, I will not defend this point.

  5. An exception is discussions of synesthesia in relationship to representationalism. See, for example, Brogaard (2016).

  6. Presentational character has been discussed frequently in the literature, although not always under the same name. Valberg (1992) simply uses the term “presence.” Sturgeon (2000) and Schroer (2012) use “scene-immediacy,” Hellie (2007) uses “phenomenal naïveté,” Chudnoff (2012) uses “presentational phenomenology,” and Millar (2014) uses “phenomenal directness.'' I have introduced “presentational character” elsewhere (2015), so as to emphasize the phenomenon's status as a kind of phenomenal character. The quotes found below can also be found in Hellie (ibid: 266). For a discussion of presentational character in non-visual perceptual experiences, see Chudnoff (2012).

  7. I am assuming that presentational character is a positive phenomenal feature. If instead the non-presentational character of memory were positive—by virtue of containing a representation of pastness, say—one might then conjecture that the presentational character of perception is just the same as the content of episodic memory minus the representation of pastness. But this is not plausible; perceptual experience is conceptually and psychologically prior to episodic memory. I thank an anonymous referee for raising this point.

  8. I thank an anonymous referee for suggesting this option.

  9. This would not be a problem for intramodal representationalists, of course. But our concern is with intermodal representationalists. Recall Sect. 1.

  10. That said, Kriegel (ibid) argues that a (b)-treatment of temporal orientation is the best way to resolve the tension between our A-theoretic temporal phenomenology of episodic remembering with a B-theoretic metaphysics without implying an error theory. Others too have denied that the temporal aspect of episodic memory is a feature of its content for different reasons. See, e.g. Michaelian (2016).

  11. The same point holds for a nearby proposal, also suggested to me by an anonymous referee: (i) for any EM/EP pair, while EP will represent it’s object as being in one's environment, EM will not, and (ii) it is because of this difference that EP has presentational character, but EM does not. For one thing, it is hardly clear that perception even represents such a relational property, since it is hardly clear that perception has anything beyond ‘low-level’ content. The property of being in one's environment is not a kind property or a semantic property, but it is not a low-level property either. (For discussion, see Hawley and Macpherson 2011.) But again: we can have the thought that the Fabergé egg is before me in my environment, yet that thought won’t have presentational character. So, once again, while it might be right that memory does not represent its objects as being in the current environment, this story could not help with explaining why perception has presentational character.

  12. It is not simply introspective evidence that suggests that non-veridical perceptual experiences have presentational character; it arguably falls out of the common kind claim as well, another frequent commitment of representationalism. One way to cash this out is to say that the very same properties that are represented in veridical experience are represented in non-veridical experience. The difference is that in non-veridical experience the properties are uninstantiated. (Whether we are also aware of these uninstantiated properties is a further matter. Dretske (1995: p. 102) and Tye (2018) say ‘yes’; Pautz (2007) says ‘no’.)

  13. None of this deny that the representationalist can appeal to the representation of other sorts of properties in their account of phenomenal character. We briefly noted relational properties, like spatial relations. Although differences in the representation of spatial relations can make a phenomenal difference, what matters is whether such differences have any bearing on presentational phenomenal character. Imagine two experiences E and E*: E represents a tree as being to the left of me, and E* represents a tree as being to the right of me. Because of this, we can suppose that E and E* will differ in phenomenal character. They will differ in what they are like for a subject to undergo them. However, there will be no difference in presentational character, which is consistent with there being a difference in phenomenal character overall, since an experience can have a phenomenal character that is not entirely presentational. The tree will not seem any less (or any more) directly before me in the sense articulated earlier. More generally, if these relational properties were phenomenally presented in experience, the presentational characters of E and E* would be different; different relational properties presented, different presentational characters. (True, exactly where the tree will be presented as being will be different. But that's beside the point.)

  14. Schroer (2012) briefly discusses this line, albeit without endorsing it.

  15. Many thanks to an anonymous referee for pushing me to explore this option more.

  16. Technically, Bourget does not use the expression ‘presentational character,’ and his focus is on what he calls ‘imagery’ and ‘cognitive’ experience as opposed to episodic memory experience. The former issue can be set aside, since I think the distinction Bourget does talk about—experiences with ‘vivid’ phenomenal character compared to those with ‘faint’ phenomenal character—can be assumed to map on to presentational versus non-presentational distinction. The latter issue, however, deserves further discussion. For more, see Sect. 3.3.

  17. There is some precedent in the literature for the claim that content of episodic memory is non-conceptual (e.g. Evans 1982; Bernecker 2009; Russell and Hanna 2012). This is relevant for Bourget’s thesis if one grants the following conditional: if episodic memory experiences are not fine-grained, they'll have conceptual content. For then, if they do not have conceptual content (i.e. if they have non-conceptual content), then by modus tollens, they will be fine-grained. However, Bourget (Bourget 2017a, b: p. 677, fn. 8) seems to be neutral on this conditional, denying that his argument hangs on the conceptualism versus non-conceptualism debate about experiential content. It is not entirely clear to me what justifies Bourget's neutrality—as noted earlier, with Tye (2006), I would have thought that fineness of grain entails non-conceptualism—but I will not contest Bourget’s neutrality here. So the issue to be examined in what follows is just the grain of the sensible properties represented in episodic memory.

  18. Anatomically, there is robust evidence that stress hormones (like epinephrine and cortisone) associated with emotional stimulation play a role—mediated by the amygdala—on the regulation of long-term memory formation (McGaugh 2013).

  19. It is also worth noting that nothing in this discussion will obviously turn on the metaphysics of episodic remembering. While the preservative conception of memory has been popular in the philosophical literature on memory (e.g. Burge 1993; Bernecker 2009), the constructive conception predominates in psychology (Michaelian 2016). What follows is neutral on these conceptions. That said, if the preservative view were true, the case for P2 would be rendered somewhat easier. This is because the preservativist’s take on memory guarantees that the experiences in our EM/EP pair share at least some content (cf. Michaelian, ibid: 67).

  20. HK is (as far as I know) only the second single-case study of HSAM, after AJ. But while the study of HSAM is new territory, it is relatively fertile. Since AJ and HK, there have been numerous additional confirmed cases of HSAM. Leport et al (2012) have recently developed a screening process in which they identified ten new HSAM subjects (in addition to AJ and HK) in a single study.

  21. As Ally et al (2013: p. 167) note, despite the lack of visual imagery, patients born blind do not show drastic differences in the quality or detail of their autobiographical memories.

  22. I thank an anonymous referee for a query that made it necessary to make this point explicit.

  23. The behavior-representation connection has nothing to do with behaviorism. Perhaps it would if it said that the only reason we posit representational states is to explain behavior. But it does not say this. It says that this is one reason why we do, and that we can, if need be, go some way towards ascertaining the content of representational states by examining the behavior of the subjects that token them. (The behavior-representation connection is also independent of representationalism. One can admit that experiences represent without being a representationalist. For example, Block (1996), a long-standing anti-representationalist, does not deny that experiences represent. He only denies that what they represent exhausts their phenomenal character.) Still, I assume Block would endorse the behavior-representation connection. I thank an anonymous referee for helping me clarify what this principle, does, and does not, say.

  24. On C1: like the rest of us, AJ and HK are better at remembering the more significant events of their daily lives, even if they are unlike the rest of us in the way they remember them (Parker et al 2006). On C2: HK's episodic accuracy was strongly correlated with the time remembered events occurred, with both his highest overall scores (nearly 100%) and highest proportion of episodic to overall details (91%) occurring in the most recent time-period of age 15–20 (Ally et al 2013: pp. 169–170).

  25. Of course, if the main interpretation is false, then the richness proposal will not work anyway, and we will be already halfway to P2.

  26. Hume (1739: p. 24) can be read as making something like this point when he observes a difference in ‘force' and ‘vivacity' between perception and memory. Of course, that is only a first pass reading, undoubtedly complicated by various exegetical issues.

  27. By ‘external' I just mean something akin to a local cue or third-person testimony. S might be able to tell that she is undergoing E* (and not E) because her friend, who she trusts and is somehow privy to these things, tells her that she is undergoing E*.

  28. So the following nearby thesis is false: if a subject S undergoes two experiences E and E*, E at t1 and E* at t2, where E and E* have the same phenomenal character, then S will not be able to tell, unaided by something external to those experiences, whether she is undergoing E* at t2 or E at t2. I thank an anonymous referee for pointing this out.

  29. Alas, I was unable to acquire copyright release to use images of Wiltshire’s drawings here. To get an idea of their accuracy and level of detail, my advice would be to search for images of Wiltshire’s cityscapes and juxtapose them with photographs of those cityscapes. For videos of Wiltshire’s process, including excerpts from the 2006 documentary “Beautiful Minds: A Voyage into the Brain'' featuring Wiltshire, see http://www.stephenwiltshire.co.uk/.

  30. Though some of this might be due to artistic license, rather than lack of recall. See below.

  31. Not entirely from such reflection, as Bourget does detail some supporting empirical evidence. But the point I will make against F2 holds for the empirical evidence too.

  32. In fairness, Bourget (ibid: 685) does briefly attempt to make a distinct argument concerning the metaphysical impossibility of equally fine-grained EM/EP pairs. But the method he settles on for determining this—what he calls the “empirical method” (ibid)—is no help here, since my contention is that “the victor in the actual world” is not the intermodal view.

  33. I think this problem is somewhat common in discussions of representationalism. For example, Lycan (2015) points out that Byrne (2001) plausibly errs in a similar way in his ‘argument from seeming.' Very roughly, the argument goes like this: Suppose that an idealized subject S has two phenomenologically distinct experiences, E and E*. Being idealized, (i) the way things seem to our subject in virtue of undergoing E and E* will be different. But (ii) if things seem different to S, then E and E* will represent the world as being different. The problem, as Lycan notes, is that it is not unreasonable for the anti-representationalist to say that Byrne equivocates on ‘seems': in (i) it is used in the phenomenal sense; in (ii) it is used in the representational sense. See also Pautz's (2009) discussion of the ‘appears-looks' conception of experiential content, which (Pautz contends) makes the claim that experiences have content trivial.

  34. I first wrote an ancestor version of this paper in December 2010. For helpful comments on that paper I thank Myrto Mylopoulos, Colin Klein, James Virtel, and audiences at Kent State, CUNY Graduate Center, the ASSC 15 in Kyoto, and the Central APA. That paper was lost for almost six years, only to be entirely re-written and re-invigorated in the Fall of 2016. For comments on the more recent version, I thank Ed Averill, Jonathan Dorsey, Christopher Hom, Jeremy Schwartz, Jeff Speaks, Henry Taylor, Joel Velasco, and an audience at the ECAP 9 in Munich. Special thanks go to two anonymous referees for Synthese whose efforts greatly helped improve this paper, and my father-in-law Edward Gillette, for first pointing me to HSAM, and thus inspiring the project.

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Gottlieb, J. Consciousness and the limits of memory. Synthese 195, 5217–5243 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-1793-9

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