Abstract Details

The Philosophical Significance of Diffuse Attention  Adrienne Prettyman (Philosophy, Bryn Mawr College, Philadelphia, PENNSYLVANIA )   C18

Is attention necessary for consciousness? Some researchers have argued that it is (Prinz 2012; Cohen & Dennett 2011). Others (Block 2012; Rosenthal 2012) are convinced by empirical evidence for a dissociation between consciousness and attention. This talk develops a new defense of the view that consciousness requires attention by appealing to a specific theory of diffuse attention to address counterexamples. On my view, diffuse attention is attention to a global object, such as a pattern or the gist of a scene. Diffuse attention can be contrasted with focal object attention, which selects specific details from a scene. In a forthcoming paper (redacted) I have defended this account of diffuse and focal object attention by appealing to a range of evidence from psychology and neuroscience. This talk turns to the philosophical implications of diffuse attention for understanding the nature of consciousness. In my talk, I will give a brief overview of diffuse attention understood as global object attention. I will then apply this view to a few of the counterexamples referenced above. The counterexamples that I will discuss have the following form: each attempts to show that we can be conscious of some object without attending to that object. To take just one example, Li and colleagues (2002) have shown that a subject can categorize a visual scene in the periphery of vision while their attention is focused on a demanding task in the center. There is also some reason (albeit controversial reason) to think that subjects are conscious of the unattended peripheral scene. These findings are sometimes interpreted as evidence for consciousness in the absence of attention. I offer an alternative explanation, on which subjects attend diffusely to the peripheral object, and focally to the central object. Other counterexamples that I will discuss include Block's identity crowding case (2012) and Jennings' conscious entrainment (2020). By appealing to a range of empirical evidence, I help to motivate the idea that we frequently attend diffusely to global objects, whether in the center or periphery of vision.This, in turn, puts us in a position to respond to counterexamples to the view that attention is necessary for consciousness. What is at stake in this debate is nothing less than a naturalized theory of consciousness. To see why, consider what I call the bridge argument. If we can understand consciousness in terms of attention, and attention in terms of its physiological mechanisms, then we can understand consciousness in terms of its physiological mechanisms. Attention could serve as an explanatory bridge between the conscious mind and the physical brain and body. This talk makes progress toward a naturalized theory of consciousness by addressing counterexamples to the first claim in the bridge argument: that we can understand consciousness in terms of attention.