We owe the problem of the speckled hen to Gilbert Ryle. It was suggested to A. J. Ayer by Ryle in connection with Ayer's account of seeing. Suppose that you are standing before a speckled hen with your eyes trained on it. You are in good light and nothing is obstructing your view. You see the hen in a single glance. The hen has 47 speckles on its facing side, let us say, and the hen appears speckled to you. On Ayer's view, in seeing the hen, you directly see a speckled sense-datum or appearance. Ryle wondered how many speckles there are on the sense-datum. After all, intuitively, the hen does not appear to you to have 47 speckles. And if this is the case, then it does not present to you an appearance with 47 speckles. Equally, however, the hen does not appear to you not to have 47 speckles. So, it does not present an appearance that lacks 47 speckles either.
Ayer (1940) responded by saying that the sense-datum has many speckles on it, but the number of speckles is indeterminate. In Ayer's view, this is why the number of speckles on the sense-datum cannot be counted. Prima facie, Ayer's position is contradictory.
An alternative response is to give up Ayer's supposition that seeing involves the sensing of sense-data.1 If there are no sense-data, then there is no thing with respect to which philosophical puzzlement arises concerning its number of speckles.
Still, even once we eschew sense-data, we may find ourselves in sympathy with the thought, embraced by Ayer, that the visual experience undergone in seeing the speckled hen is indeterminate speckle-wise. How can this be?
The representationalist theory of experience I favour (Tye 1995, 2000) provides a simple answer. According to the representationalist, what makes it the case that the hen appears speckled to you is that your experience represents it as speckled. There is phenomenal indeterminacy with respect to the number of speckles, since there is no number N such that your experience represents the hen as having N speckles. Your visual experience does not ‘comment upon’ the precise number of speckles. It leaves open how many speckles are present just as does the linguistic report that there is a speckled hen in the garden.
This response may seem to fly in the face of the obvious truth that if you see the hen in good light at close quarters and nothing is obstructing your view, you see all the speckles on the facing side of the hen. If you see all the speckles, you see each particular speckle. How, then, can your visual experience be indeterminate with respect to the number of speckles?
1. Some general remarks on seeing and consciousness
Seeing a thing is a matter of being visually conscious of it. While you can certainly be conscious of a thing without being able to identify it – think, for example, of seeing a thing through thick, distorting glass – intuitively, you cannot be conscious of a thing if you cannot even mentally point to it on the basis of your experience. If you cannot attend to a thing then you cannot bring the thing under the concept that. So, you cannot even ask yourself ‘What is that?’ with respect to the thing. But then surely you are not conscious of the thing. So, you do not see the thing.
In making these remarks, I am effectively proposing a test for consciousness of a thing. My claim is that if you are sophisticated enough to be a subject of propositional attitudes, then you are conscious of a thing just in case you can, at a minimum, at least ask yourself ‘What is that?’ with respect to the thing and do so directly on the basis of your experience.2
Here is another way to motivate the test I am proposing. Consciousness of a particular thing requires that the relevant experience represent the thing (if experience is representational at all). The thing itself must enter into the representational content of the experience. How does it get in there? How does the experience get to be about that particular thing?
Consider a perfectly camouflaged moth sitting on a tree trunk. Do you see it? Are you visually conscious of it? I say no. Likewise for the blob of white-out on a white sheet of paper. Neither the moth nor the blob of white-out is marked out or differentiated in the phenomenology of your experience. So, you cannot mentally point to either thing. You have no clue from your experience that either is there. Your experience is not about the moth or the white-out. Each fails my test for consciousness of a thing.3
It follows from these brief reflections that the thesis that the grain of seeing is finer than the grain of attention should be rejected: you cannot see a thing, if you cannot attend to it.4
2. Back to the speckled hen
Some verbs have a collective (non-distributive) character. For example, I can weigh the warbles without weighing any one marble in particular. If the marbles are of different sizes, after having weighed all the marbles (by putting them together on the scales), I cannot say what this marble weighs. I haven’t weighed it. Similarly, I can think about my colleagues without thinking about any one in particular. I can form the plural analogue of a singular thought about my colleagues without having a singular thought about any one (e.g. I can think of my colleagues that they get on well together). These points are relevant to a full understanding of the case of the speckled hen.
Consider first the following example. Fixate on the plus sign in Figure 1. As you do so, you are conscious of the bars to the right. But you are not conscious of, for example, the fifth bar away from the plus sign while you continue to fixate on the plus sign. So, you are conscious of the bars on the right without it being true that each bar on the right is such that you are conscious of it. Some of the bars are such that while you fixate on the plus sign you cannot mentally point to them individually. You cannot single them out in your experience (and hence you cannot count the number of bars). You cannot attend to them individually. So, with respect to those particular bars, you are not conscious of them. Nonetheless, you are conscious of the bars on the right; you do see them. They collectively are what your experience is about. And your experience clearly does enable you directly to ask such questions as, ‘Are they parallel?’ or to believe of them that they are vertical.
This view seems to me to fit the phenomenology very well. Fixate again on the plus sign in Figure 1. I predict that it will seem to you that you are seeing the bars on the right; but, assuming that you continue to fixate on the plus sign, it will not seem to you that with respect to each bar on the right – for example, the fifth bar away from the plus sign – you are seeing it.
Of course, if the fifth bar away had been red instead of black then you would have seen it. But equally if the camouflaged moth on the grey tree trunk had been red, you would have seen it too. Still, in actual fact, you don’t.
But don’t you know that the fifth bar away – that particular bar – is black on the basis of your experience? Yes and no. Via your experience you know that the bars on the right collectively are black and so you are in a position to infer that each particular bar is black. But you don’t know that the fifth bar away is black directly on the basis of your experience. You know it indirectly via reasoning.
Turning now to the case of the speckled hen, given that the speckles are many and densely packed, seeing the speckles in a single glance is much like seeing the bars to the right of the plus sign as you fixate on it. Thus, you are conscious of the speckles on the hen without each speckle being such that you are conscious of it. The reason that you cannot enumerate the number of speckles is that the enumeration would require you to attend to each of the speckles. This you cannot do in a single glance any more than you can attend to each of the bars while you fixate on the plus sign.
Even so, you do see the speckles. You are conscious of them. Further, there surely are individual speckles of which you are conscious in seeing the speckled hen (just as there are individual bars of which you are conscious as you fixate on the plus sign, e.g., the bar closest to the plus sign and the next one away). But these speckles, like their counterpart bars, are such that your experience enables you directly to form beliefs (or other conceptual attitudes) about them individually, if you so choose.
Do you see all the speckles? That depends upon how ‘all’ is understood? You do not see each speckle, since there are speckles you do not see – speckles of which you are not conscious. So, if ‘all’ is read distributively, it is false that you see all the speckles. But there remains a collective sense of ‘all’ under which it is true that you see all the speckles: you see them collectively. This is the sense of ‘all’ under which it is true that I weigh all the marbles (in the earlier example).
So, your visual experience is indeterminate with respect to the number of speckles. It leaves open the number of speckles just as your visual experience of the bars leaves open the number of bars. Still, it is perfectly correct to say both that you see all the speckles and that there are individual speckles you fail to see.
A consequence of my account is that there are sometimes things in clear view which are large enough for us to see but which we fail to see. This is a claim made (but not properly defended) by some change blindness theorists. The connection between the views sketched above and the right account of change blindness is a topic worthy of extended discussion and one I take up elsewhere (Tye 2008).