On the Virtue of Being Poised - Reply to Seager

by Michael Tye e-mail

Department of Philosophy
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas 78750

1)   Seager’s main focus in his probing discussion is the condition of being poised in my PANIC theory. I claim that a necessary condition upon a representational content’s being a phenomenal character is that be poised. Seager’s primary aim is to show that this is not the case. Poised content, he claims, can exist without phenomenal consciousness (even supposing my other conditions are met). Further, in his view, phenomenal consciousness can exist without there being any poised content.  So, poised content is not sufficient either.

2)   Before I turn to these points, let me mention quickly another point that Seager makes with which I am in full agreement. This is that the representational content of pain is partly ‘evaluative’. Pain is not just a sensory state. It also has an affective dimension. Pain is experienced as bad for one.[1] It is precisely because of this that people have the cognitive reactions to them they do, reactions such as desiring to stop the pain

Of course, talk of the experienced badness of pain may sound cognitive. But it need not be understood in this way. It seems to me that the most plausible view here is that we are hard-wired to experience pain as bad for us from an extremely early age.

Consider the other side of the coin for a moment. A child as young as two months, upon tasting a little chocolate, typically behaves in a way that signifies that it wants more. The child will open and close its lips, push forward towards the chocolate, look happy. Why? The answer is that the chocolate tastes good. That’s why the child wants more. The child’s gustatory experience represents a certain taste and the child experiences that taste as good. The taste is experienced as good by the child in that the child undergoes an overall experience which represents the presence of the taste in the mouth and represents it as good.

Intuitively, this is not a cognitive experience. It does not require concepts. It is preconceptual. For another example, consider orgasm. Orgasm is a bodily sensation, but it is not only that. The most natural description of an orgasm, and indeed of any pleasant sensation is “It feels good.” One’s orgasm represents a certain change in the region of the genitals as good for one, as something apt to benefit, not to harm one.[2] That isn’t a conceptual response. One cannot help but feel the relevant bodily disturbance except as good. One is hard-wired by nature to experience it in this way. It is not difficult to fathom why.

3)   Seager uses this point to argue that creatures without the capacity to introspect their pains still suffer. Here I am inclined to disagree. Consider the case of a pain of which you are unaware — a pain you simply fail to notice. Suppose, for example, that the pain is very brief and that, as it occurs, you are watching intently your favorite TV program. Did you suffer at all in undergoing that pain? Surely, intuitively, you didn’t. You were blind to the pain. You had no idea at any time the TV was on that pain was present. How could you have suffered? Admittedly, your pain represented something (tissue damage, let us suppose) as bad for you. And if no error was involved, something bad did briefly happen to you. But still, it seems to me, you didn’t suffer. Perhaps, this disagreement with Seager is verbal, as he says it may be. In any event, I shall not pursue it further.

4)   Seager’s characterization of my poisedness condition as a dispositional condition is accurate. His first objection is directed against this feature of the account. Consider a subject S1 whose PANIC states do not, in fact, produce higher level cognitive responses, though they are disposed to do so. Now consider another subject S2 , “who is identical to S1 save that S2 has been modified by the attaching of a device that would block the relevant disposition — that is, make the content unavailable to higher level cognition, but only for those states which, in fact, are not going to affect higher level cognition.” S1 and S2 are neurally and behaviorally identical, but S2 has an inert disposition blocking device attached. On my view, according to Seager, “S2 will have quite different states of consciousness compared to S1.” And that is very implausible.

5)   That is indeed implausible. But, on my theory, properly understood, S1 and S2 have the same states of consciousness. Let me explain. Take a brittle wine glass. The glass is disposed to break easily, but it is treated with care and never breaks. A second wine glass, which is also treated with care and never breaks, is identical to the first save that a support has been placed inside the glass that stops it from deforming. This support would prevent the glass from breaking were it dropped, since the glass is so constituted that shattering occurs only if certain bonds in the glass break and those bonds cannot break unless some external force deforms the glass sufficiently. The second wine glass is brittle, intuitively, just as the first is. Each of them is disposed to break easily.  The difference is merely that the brittleness of the second glass is masked by the extrinsic support. Each wine glass has the relevant disposition, since each is so constituted that, oddities aside, it would break (and thereby manifest the disposition) in the relevant circumstances (for example, dropping on hard ground).[3]

Given an understanding of this sort of dispositions, S1 and S2, on my account, undergo the same phenomenal states. The inert device attached to S2 masks the disposition in S2‘s case. But the disposition is still there.

6)   Seager is right to say that introspective accessibility is not a blanket requirement, on my theory, for a state to be phenomenally conscious. I allow that some creatures lacking the capacity to introspect still undergo phenomenal states. Such creatures are blind to their experiences. Nonetheless, in creatures like humans, introspective accessibility in normal cases is a necessary condition. Here again Seager presents my view correctly. His next examples are ones supposedly in which there are PANIC states but these states have no phenomenal ‘feel’.

The first of these is a case in which I am looking at a horse. Seager comments:

... it will not be sufficient for phenomenal consciousness that my sensory representation of the horse induce in me the belief that there is a horse before me.

I agree. As explained in my reply to Alex Byrne, what is required is that the relevant sensory representation, S, be apt for the production (in the right way) of a belief about (some of) the perceptible qualities represented by S -- qualities that I take the horse to have. Seager says, in effect, that a condition of this sort isn’t sufficient either. But all that his remarks here indicate, it seems to me, is that one can conceive of a creature meeting my PANIC condition and yet not undergoing phenomenal states. And that is not damaging to my view; for, as I have emphasized in many places, the PANIC theory is not proposed as a conceptual truth.

7)   Seager next tries to illustrate his point about an absence of sufficiency by an actual example in which he himself had (he claims) the “rather uneasy feeling that a sound was ‘coming’ “ even though at the time he had no auditory experience (all was quiet, we are told). A little later, he heard the distant noise on an airplane. He remarks:

This is an example of what has to be a state with a content which is poised,... but which was not a phenomenally conscious state.

However, by his own characterization, the state was phenomenally conscious. For he describes it as an uneasy feeling. What kind of feeling was it? That is difficult to say without further information. Perhaps the feeling was, at least in part, of very slight bodily vibration. Alternatively, perhaps Seager merely had the expectation or occurrent thought that a sound was coming, and perhaps this cognitive state had accompanying it a linguistic auditory image (so that it seemed to Seager that he was uttering internally “A sound is coming” with his usual accent and stress).  Granted, this would involve a kind of auditory experience and Seager says that all was quiet.  But perhaps what he means is that all was quiet externally, as represented by his experiences.

8)   The next objection Seager raises is of a general sort. He thinks that there is no satisfactory way of explaining how the nonconceptual content of experiences is ‘taken up’ into the conceptual content of beliefs. He calls this “the uptake problem.” I am not sure exactly what is troubling Seager here. Consider the case of perceptual experiences. Beliefs about the directly accessible, perceptible qualities of things are  based upon perceptual experiences representing those qualities. If one thinks of the basing relation which connects the relevant experiences with the relevant beliefs in internalist terms, then Seager is right: there is indeed a problem. For the nonconceptual content of a perceptual experience cannot form a premise for reasoning to a conceptual conclusion. Reasoning or inference requires conceptual premises. But that is not how I think of the basing relation. The relation, in my view, is an externalist one. There are reliable mechanisms connecting the contents of sensory states and the relevant belief contents, mechanisms whose functioning underwrites the transition from something looking F, for example, to the belief that it is F, given that one has the concept F.

9)   Seager’s final objection involves a case in which, he asserts, phenomenal consciousness exists without any poised content. Suppose that a given individual is not in the relevant PANIC state for pain, but the individual is in a (cognitive) state S that misapplies the phenomenal concept PAIN. In these circumstances, according to Seager, there is something it is like for the individual in undergoing S. For, Seager claims, the individual believes that he is in pain and he is able to describe further features of the ‘pain’ he takes himself to be undergoing. In short, “[t]here seems to be a clear sense in which [this individual] is feeling pain.”

10)   I beg to differ. By hypothesis, Seager’s example involves a misapplication of the phenomenal concept PAIN. How could this be if the individual were indeed feeling pain? Indeed, so far as Seager has described the case, it could be one of absent qualia.

Phenomenal concepts, in my view, are exercised (in the first person case) in our awareness of our phenomenal states via introspection. They enable us to become aware of the felt character of our phenomenal states. As noted earlier, without such concepts, we would be ‘blind’ to our ‘feels’. We would be in much the same state as the distracted driver who is thinking hard about philosophy, say, as he drives along the highway.[4] The driver is unaware of how the road ahead looks to him, of the visual experiences he is undergoing; for his attention is focused elsewhere. But the experiences are there alright. He still sees the road in front of him. How else does he keep the car on the road?

Cognitive awareness of our own feelings itself feels no special way at all. Phenomenal character attaches to experiences and feelings (including images), and not, I maintain, to our cognitive responses to them.[5] Admittedly, as I noted earlier, phenomenal concepts are concepts that dispose their possessors to form images or phenomenal memories of the relevant experiences (among other things); but the concepts themselves do not have an experiential character. This being so, there is nothing it is like for the individual of Seager’s example to be in state S. She certainly believes that pain is present, and she certainly takes herself to be suffering pain. In reality, she isn’t. There is no pain for her to suffer.



[1].This is something I develop further in “Another Look at Representationalism and Pain,” Philosophical Issues, forthcoming. It does not come out clearly enough in my Ten Problems of Consciousness, 1995. But see my "Blindsight, Orgasm, and Representational Overlap," Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 18, 1995. See also my "Orgasms Again," Philosophical Issues, Vol. 7, ed. by E. Villenueva, 1996.

[2].The suggestion that, for orgasms, goodness is part of their representational content is made in my “Blindsight, Orgasm, and Representational Overlap,” ibid.

[3].This view of dispositions and the example just offered are in Johnston, M. 1992 “How To Speak of the Colors,” Philosophical Studies, 68, pp. 221-263.

[4].This case is due to David Armstrong. See his A Materialist Theory of Mind, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968.

[5].As noted earlier, I do not deny that some cognitive responses have associated linguistic, auditory images. I should add that in saying here that phenomenal character attaches to experiences and feelings, of course, I do not mean to commit myself to the view that phenomenal character is a quality of experiences and feelings.

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