The Scrambler: An Argument Against Representationalism
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The Scrambler:
An Argument Against Representationalism

I Introduction

Brentano (1874) famously claimed that two features demarcate the mental: consciousness and intentionality. Although he claimed that these features are intimately related, subsequent generations of philosophers rarely treated them together. Recently, however, the tide has turned. Many philosophers now accept that consciousness is intentional, where to be intentional is to have representational content, is to represent 'things as being thus and so -where, for all that, things need not be that way' (Travis, 2004, 58). In fact, weak representationalism, which holds that perceptual experiences have representational content, is 'now fairly uncontroversial' (Lycan, 2004).2 [End Page 215]

More specifically, weak representationalism holds that:

(R) For any perceptual experience E, it is necessary that any experience with the same qualitative character as E has representational content.3

This paper challenges this fairly uncontroversial thesis. The challenge stems from a thought-experiment that may be called the 'Scrambler.' The Scrambler describes an experience that occurs in an extraordinary context but has the same qualitative character as a perceptual experience. This 'special' experience, it is argued, lacks representational content. Since the special experience lacks representational content despite having the same qualitative character as a perceptual experience, it provides a counterexample to (R).

Although this suggests that (R) is false, one can think of the challenge in another way. A representationalist who finds the challenge compelling can think of it as inviting representationalists to enrich their account of perceptual experience. An appropriately enriched account would reveal, without begging questions, why the special experience has representational content.

II The Scrambler

The Scrambler has two stages. The first describes a population that may be called the 'scrambleds.' The second focuses on a peculiar scrambled experience. Objections to the thought-experiment will be considered (in §IV and §VI) after the main argument (in §III). [End Page 216]

The Scrambler: Stage 1

Normal people have visual systems that consist of three key components: eyes, processors, and an organizer.4 After light impinges on the retinas, the eyes react, gathering information that they output to processors in the brain. These processors enrich the information before sending it to the organizer, which organizes the enriched information. This organized, enriched information is then used in creating visual experience. Accordingly, when ordinary people have a visual experience, they are experiencing the result of the organizer's work.

Gus, however, is different. Due to a genetic mutation, his visual system has an additional component, which neurologists dub the 'scrambler.' The scrambler takes the output from the organizer and disorganizes it before visual experiences are produced. The outputs from the scrambler then help to produce scrambled experiences. So, where normal people have ordinary visual experience, Gus experiences a big mess.

To help picture the situation, we can think of a visual experience's qualitative character as akin to a computer screen's image. At a given moment a screen displays an image. This image consists of pixels that are assigned values for hue, intensity, and saturation. Likewise, a visual experience's qualitative character results in part from assigning values for hue, intensity, and saturation to pixels in an array. The qualitative character of your current visual experience, for example, results in part from your organizer assigning specific values for hue, intensity, and saturation to specific pixels in your array. If Gus were in the same situation, his organizer would assign the same values, but the scrambler would reassign the values randomly. Accordingly, the values that are assigned to any given pixel would differ randomly. So, where you have an organized, informative visual experience, Gus would experience splashes of disorganized colors.5 [End Page 217]

Fortunately for Gus, his mutation also causes him to secrete a novel, extraordinary pheromone that produces two effects. First, it attracts a microscopic alien. The alien lodges herself in Gus' brain and provides Gus with much of the information that others acquire through visual experiences by directly affecting his later brain states. Gus uses this information to navigate, much as others, presumably, use information acquired from their visual experiences. Call the alien species 'informers.'6 Second, the pheromone acts like the mythical Spanish fly, making Gus irresistible to the...