Publications

Attention and Internal Monitoring: A Farewell to HOP (with Bill Lycan), Analysis 74 (2014): 363-370.

Work in progress

The Mechanism of Attention - Under Review
In this paper I present a detailed description of the mechanism underlying goal-directed attention. I then argue that the availability of this 'how-actually' sketch provides support to the claims of Piccini and Craver (2011), who argued that explanations of how systems actually work in psychology will take the form of mechanistic explanations.

Attention is a Cognitive Tool - Penultimate Draft
In this paper I develop and defend a traditional account of attention. Along the way I argue that we should understand our capacity to attend in terms of its being a cognitive tool that subjects can use in the course of performing complex actions. I then answer the objections raised by those who are skeptical that attention has the kind of causal powers that tools do.


Dissertation Abstract

In our day-to-day lives we are aware of many different things, from the taste of the coffee we just drank to our own hopes and dreams. The central aim of my project is to understand such awareness. I begin by considering awareness of external items, largely because it is the most thoroughly studied form of awareness. I argue that representation of an external object is necessary for awareness of that object on the grounds that it gives the best explanation for why we are unaware of objects when they are occluded – we have no information about the object and so cannot represent it. Representation is not sufficient, however, because subliminally perceived objects are still represented in the mind as evidenced by the effects they have on our behavior. What else, then, is involved in external awareness?

Whatever else is involved, it is what marks the difference between subliminal and supraliminal perception. The most popular proposal is that the representation of the object must be cognitively accessed by the subject in order for the subject to become aware of that object. I give two arguments against this view. The “content mismatch” argument starts by noting that cognitively accessed contents must be conceptual if they are to fulfill the other roles required of such contents, but then argues that the contents of which we are externally aware are not necessarily conceptual (i.e., they can be nonconceptual). This means that there is a mismatch between the possible contents of external awareness and those that can be cognitively accessed. The “capacity mismatch” argument starts by noting that the available evidence indicates that we can cognitively access a maximum of four items at a time. However, we have reason to believe that we can be aware of more than four items at a time, even within a single sensory modality. This means that there is a mismatch between the maximum capacities of cognitive access and external awareness. Cognitive access is therefore not the condition that marks the difference between subliminal and supraliminal perception. I argue that cognitive accessibility can allow for both a content and capacity match with external awareness, making it a promising proposal for the difference between subliminal and supraliminal perception. I then develop a plausible mechanism underlying cognitive accessibility, which determines which contents become cognitively accessible in terms of the strength of the neural coalition encoding each represented feature.

There are two ways to extend this theory of awareness of external items to account for awareness of internal mental states. First, perhaps a cognitively accessible representation is necessary for awareness of an internal mental state. Such a representation would typically be a higher-order representation as most mental states themselves have representational content. Second, perhaps the difference between internal awareness and external awareness is not based in what is represented, but instead in terms of what is attended. When attention is directed towards properties attributed to other objects, those properties become cognitively accessible and the subject thereby becomes aware of the external objects those properties are attributed to. When attention is directed towards unattributed properties of mental states, then those properties become cognitively accessible and the subject thereby becomes aware of the mental states that have those unattributed properties. I suggest that we can best understand this kind of awareness is as an acquaintance relation between the subject of awareness and the experiential properties in question. I give two arguments for preferring the attention view to the higher order representation view. First, I note that the reason we need representations of external objects is that mental faculties can only interact with other mental items. As a result, any non-mental item must have a mental proxy in the mind. But if this is why the mind represented objects, then we have no reason to expect that a mental state must be represented. The second argument appeals to the intuition that there is no gap between appearance and reality when it comes to internal awareness of unattributed mental properties. If it is right that there is no such gap, then we should avoid any theory that uses representations in the course of explaining internal awareness. Thus, we should adopt the attention view.