First-Order Psychology and Causal Self-Reference

Carl H. Flygt

February 2006


Searle’s account of intentionality is intended to be a first-order, materialist account. It is supposed to describe causal relations that produce intentional states, and these states are supposed not to be intrinsically self-conscious. They are supposed to be unadorned first-order states wherein objects are disclosed realistically and any imputed second-order recognition of these objects, any self-consciousness of or about them, misinterprets the parsimony and elegance of the materialist account. A generally first-order representation of objects and events, although it admittedly is propositional, is handled by the mechanics of a network and background of cognitive capacities embedded in the brain. End of story, end of self-consciousness as an important explanandum. From there it is simply a matter of giving neuroscience its marching orders, as a program to render the mechanics of the human soul transparent, and to reveal spiritual psychology to be the fraud that it is.


A dilemma arises, however, when Searle claims in visual experience to analyze second order self-consciousness in that experience as causal self-referentiality in the content of that experience. Suppose someone’s experience has this content:


  1. Vis exp (there is a bottle on the table and that bottle is causing this experience).

In virtue of reference to what self is the experience caused? If to the bottle, which seems the obvious candidate, it seems to follow that the intentional content is imputing selfhood to the bottle, and that seems to commit Searle to animism. The alternative is to say that there is a bottle is causing the experience, so the relevant “self” is a proposition. This would be an altogether peculiar use of the notion of self, one that appears designed merely to avoid the question of self-consciousness in general, and the transcendentalist dictum that all consciousness is self-consciousness. It is moreover in the wrong causal position. Unless one is Kantian, one would not want to say that objective experience is caused, in Searle’s sense, by propositions produced by consciousness.


Propositional attitudes in general just are second-order self-consciousness. Who would seriously contest the notion that an experience with the content,


        2.  Vis exp (that there is a bottle on the table)

is an irreducibly second order psychology, regardless of what is said about its causes? It seems hard to believe that even John Searle would do that.


Perhaps causal self-referentiality as an explanatory device, and the first-order psychology it seeks to reinforce, can be salvaged by revisiting the animism implicit in the idea that the unity of the object produces a propositional self-reference (a reference to itself) capable of causing intentional states. Perhaps our sensory-motor expectations are the mechanism that produce this self-reference. Such a transcendental unity would be a good candidate for something we could unambiguously call causal self-reference, and for preserving some semblance of a first-order psychology, although at that point in the account it would be unclear why one would want to do so. It seems to me that causal self-reference is really just a disguise for transcendental unity, and ultimately an unconvincing one, and that our explanatory programs of language and consciousness are destined to embrace transcendental and spiritual facts about the cosmos, and to give institutional prescriptions that accord with those realities, not with those of first-order materialism.