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The loneliness of the long-distance truck driver

William G. Lycan & Zena Ryder

In one sense (among many) of the word ‘conscious’, a mental state is a

conscious state iff its subject is aware of being in that state. Thus, in
this sense of ‘conscious’, a conscious decision is a decision that one is
aware of making, a conscious memory is a memory that one is aware of
having. ‘Inner sense’ or ‘higher-order perception’ (HOP) theories ‘of con-
sciousness’ are concerned primarily with consciousness in the sense just
According to such Lockean theories, for a mental state to be a conscious
state (again, for its subject to be aware of being in it) is for the subject
to detect or register that state internally, to be in a quasi-perceptual
state that represents the original state. For Jane’s mental state M to be con-
scious, Jane must have a higher-order perception-like representation of M,
and if M is not conscious, it follows that Jane lacks such a higher-order
Armstrong (1968, 1981a, 1981b) is the leading contemporary propo-
nent of a HOP theory. He illustrated the theory using a memorable example
that has become very familiar in the consciousness literature: that of the
long-distance truck driver.
If you have driven for a very long distance without a break, you may
have had experience of a curious state of automatism, which can occur
in these conditions. One can suddenly ‘come to’ and realize that one
has driven for long distances without being aware of what one was
doing, or, indeed, without being aware of anything. One has kept the
car on the road, used the brake and the clutch perhaps, yet all without
any awareness of what one was doing. (1981a: 12)
In this kind of case, Armstrong thinks that ‘something mental is lacking’
(1981a: 12). So what is it that the driver lacks when he is on autopilot?
Armstrong says,
The driver in a state of automatism perceives, or is aware of, the road.
If he did not, the car would be in a ditch. But he is not currently aware
of his awareness of the road. He perceives the road, but he does not
perceive his perceiving, or anything else that is going on in his mind.
He is not, as we normally are, conscious of what is going on in his
mind. … The driver in the automatic state is one whose ‘inner eye’ is
shut: who is not currently aware of what is going on in his own mind.
(1981a: 14)

Analysis 63.2, April 2003, pp. 132– 36. © William G. Lycan and Zena Ryder
the loneliness of the long-distance truck driver 133

The example has been gladly taken up by other theorists, including Lycan
(1987, 1996), Güzeldere (1995), Carruthers (2000) and Levine (2001).
So the idea is that, whilst on autopilot, the driver lacks awareness of his
perceptions (of the road, and so on); he does not have any higher-order
‘perceptions’ of his first-order perceptions. And when the driver ‘comes to’,
he gains higher-order perceptions and thus his perceptions become con-
scious. The example appears to illustrate the HOP theory very nicely. It
seems to exhibit the contrast between conscious and unconscious percep-
tions, and how a HOP theory can neatly accommodate that contrast.
However, we believe that the example does not, after all, usefully illustrate
the HOP theory.
Armstrong says that the difference between the driver’s autopilot state
and the normal state is that the driver is not having HOPs, while normal
(non-autopilot) people are having HOPs. It does indeed seem likely that the
driver, whilst on autopilot, lacks HOPs of his first-order perceptions, and
is not aware of those perceptions. But that hardly shows that having HOPs
is required for not being on autopilot. For the driver to come to, it doesn’t
seem necessary that he suddenly acquire HOPs. What seems to change in
the driver when he comes to is, not a sudden awareness of his perceptions
(i.e. not a sudden acquisition of HOPs), but rather some change in his
awareness of, or attention to, the road and other elements of the environ-
ment. In which case, the presence or absence of HOPs does not seem to
mark the difference between non-autopilot driving and autopilot driving –
and so the example does not usefully illustrate the HOP theory.1
After all, what happens when the driver comes to? Does he say, ‘Good
Lord, I’m now aware of being in such-and-such sensory states’? Surely not;
he says, ‘Good Lord, I’m on Rte. 153 and I must have come through three
traffic lights.’ It is the road he realizes he has not been attending to, not
his own perceptual states. (As we’ve said, it’s probably true that whilst on
autopilot, he has not been attending to those either, but that is not what
strikes him when he comes to.)
In order to account for the phenomena of automatism or autopiloting
and ‘coming to’, more distinctions must be made. There are two things
missing from the autopilot driver: HOPs, and a normal degree of attention
to the road.2 Thus, we also distinguish normal attention to the road from
Güven Güzeldere (1995) makes a related point about the truck driver example, but
as a criticism of HOP theories; he does not draw our conclusion (which is no such
Here the two of us tend to disagree with each other. WGL believes the driver is paying
no attention to the road, while ZR holds that the driver is paying only scant atten-
tion to it. But since that issue is entirely empirical, neither of us makes her/his bet with
much confidence. We shall hereafter speak neutrally of the driver’s failing to pay
‘normal attention’.
134 william g. lycan & zena ryder

merely (or minimally) perceiving the road, because the driver does perceive
the road but does not have a normal level of attention to the road-features
perceived, or possibly to any external-world features at all. A more alert
driver could have a normal level of attention to the road without having
HOPs, and the more alert driver could be thus more alert without being
aware of any of his own mental states. In which case we need not allude to
HOP in order to explain autopiloting.
So: we agree that the autopilot driver does not completely lack aware-
ness of the road (he does perceive the road features, or he would crash),
though it is fair to say that he has only a low degree or minimal type of
awareness of it. But clearly he does lack something. And an obvious can-
didate for what he lacks is awareness of seeing the road; that is, a lack of
awareness of his own mental states. Armstrong may have been assuming
that the lack must be a total lack of some awareness. But such an assump-
tion would be groundless. As we’ve said, we think the phenomena are
better explained by the driver’s lack of normal attention to the road. And
we have been given no reason to think that the driver’s awareness of his
own mental states when he comes to differs at all from when he is on
Perhaps Armstrong would resist the foregoing analysis, by appeal to his
notion of ‘reflex’ consciousness, which he compares to ‘reflex seeing’.
Reflex seeing is the inattentive seeing that occurs most of the time (‘[t]he
eyes have a watching brief at all times that we are awake and have our eyes
open’, Armstrong 1981b: 63). But some of the time, seeing is not merely
reflex; we can engage in scrutinizing or attentive seeing. We are not aware
of reflex seeing; we may or may not be aware of scrutinizing. Similarly,
according to Armstrong, ‘inner sense’ can be either reflex or scrutinizing.
It is scrutinizing when, for example, we indulge in some serious ‘observa-
tion’ of our own bodily sensations or our current emotional state. In con-
trast, reflex introspection is ‘normally always present while we are awake,
but … is lost by the … driver’ (1981b: 63). Like reflex seeing, reflex intro-
spection is not itself ‘perceived’.
So, in order to resist our analysis of the autopilot phenomena in terms
of attention instead of HOPs, Armstrong might say that what happens to
the driver when he comes to is that he re-acquires merely reflex conscious-
ness of his mental states. This would explain why the truck driver does not
exclaim, ‘Good Lord, I’m now aware of being in such-and-such sensory
states’. The driver does indeed begin ‘perceiving’ his perceptions again, but
he does not introspect that activity itself and so that is not what he would
report. On this view, non-autopilot mentation is always conscious, though
it need be so only to the reflex degree. (In Armstrong and Malcolm 1984
Armstrong says, ‘Normally, introspective consciousness is of a pretty
the loneliness of the long-distance truck driver 135

relaxed sort. The inner mental eye takes in the mental scene, but without
making any big deal of it’ (120).)
But now the claim becomes a substantive and controversial thesis. On
the basis of what argument does Armstrong maintain that non-autopilot
activity must be constituted by awareness (even if only ‘reflex’) of one’s
own mental states? He gives none. So even if one enthusiastically accepts
a HOP theory, one may well baulk at Armstrong’s claim that what is
distinctive of non-autopilot activity is having HOPs. (In contrast to
Armstrong’s view of the ubiquity of conscious mental states, Lycan 1999
has contended that, in the present sense of ‘conscious’, we do not have very
many conscious mental states at any given time.)
We have argued that non-autopilothood does not require HOPs.
Conversely, it also seems to us that autopiloting does not require lack of
HOPs, even though a driver on autopilot would usually lack HOPs.
To show that, we need a counter-example in which the driver is on auto-
pilot despite having HOPs of his perceptions of the road. Though that
idea sounds slightly weird, we believe we do have such a counter-example:
The driver is a bit of a philosopher and has been reading Descartes.
He knows about the Gestalt shift whereby one stops looking right
through one’s perceptual experiences (without even realizing one is
having perceptual experiences) and snaps into the Cartesian movie
theatre, looking at one’s Russellian sense-data and wondering whether
there is any external world at all. Musing, the driver does actually snap
into Cartesian solipsist mode, brackets the external world, and examines
the character of his perceptual experiences as such. He ceases to pay
normal attention to the road. He is now on autopilot. But he is
having HOPs directed upon his visual experiences (that are in fact of the
Thus the autopilot driver may or may not have HOPs of his perceptions,
and a normal, non-autopilot driver may or may not have HOPs. And so
the contrast between being on autopilot and not being on autopilot is not
explained by the absence or presence of HOPs. And as such, the truck
driver example fails to exhibit an advantage of the HOP theory. Indeed,
contra Armstrong and those who have followed him, it is hard to see what
the driver example has to do with HOP at all.
So we maintain that, despite his pedigree, the long-distance truck driver
should be abandoned by HOP theorists.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3125, USA
136 gerald vision

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