Thursday, May 12, 2011

On the existence of qualia

To: Alan M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: On the existence of qualia
Date: 24 May 2002 11:48

Dear Alan,

Thank you for your e-mail of 12 May, with your fourth essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, commenting on the statement, 'If there are no such things as qualia, that means that human beings do not really experience feelings or sensations, they only talk and act as if they do.'

One question to raise with this statement is who are the 'human beings' who 'only talk and act as if they [have qualia]'? Is this everyone besides me, or does it include me? In the latter case, it would indeed be true, as you say that 'I don't have feelings, it just feels as if I do.'

If it feels as if I have X then I have feelings. It follows that 'I don't have feelings, it just feels as if I do' is self-contradictory. Where do we go from there?

An obvious thing to say would be, 'There are feelings and there are *feelings. Human beings, including myself, have feelings. What they don't have is *feelings, i.e. feelings as construed by the philosopher who subscribes to the notion of qualia.' In other words, people feel itches, and pains, happiness and sadness etc. but 'itch', 'pain', 'happiness', 'sadness' are not names of qualia. The error made by the qualia theorist is, in Wittgensteinian terminology, 'misconstruing the grammar of sensation'.

In that case, what are we to make of Dennett's statement from 'Brainchildren', which you quote near the end of your essay, 'I deny that there are any [qualia]. but I agree wholeheartedly that there seem to be'?

Recall what was said about the Martians back in unit 1 of the program:

"It is difficult to say how far the Martians would get in their investigation [into the human concept of the soul]. For the one thing that would be lacking is any sense of the problems - philosophical or otherwise - to which the notion of a soul is a response."

Unlike us, for the average Martian there do not 'seem to be' qualia or *feelings. It is as if they have fully mastered and internalised the Wittgensteinian of the grammar of sensation, to the point of being oblivious to the temptations which we feel.

I, for one, would like to know what Wittgenstein would have said about this. My point, in unit 1, is that having experienced the temptations and successfully mastered them, we know more than the Martians know. But that ducks the question where these temptations ultimately come from, whether is it human psychology or the history of human culture or philosophy, or something else that explains why it 'feels' to us as if we have qualia.

Earlier, you say that 'If we reject both identity theory and dualism, we are forced to deny the existence of either the physical or the mental or both in favour of some other, unimaginable concept of reality. Here, it seems that you have collapsed two different theories:

1. Nagel's 'double aspect' theory which he proposes tentatively in 'The View From Nowhere'

2. Eliminative materialism.

In a footnote, Nagel speculates - in a manner similar to Spinoza - that at some time in the future we will discover that reality is neither mental nor physical but a new kind of substance altogether whose properties account for the appearance of both mental and physical attributes.

I argue in the program that identity theory is really a closet dualism - in fact, the dualist and identity theorist are ultimately unable to distinguish their two positions from one another. To subscribe to 'eliminative materialism' is to reject qualia, as opposed to looking for material states to 'identify' them with.

Yet I fully accept that Nagel has identified a problem which sticks in the throat of the eliminative materialist: the place of 'I' in the materialist universe. My response is reintroduce a dualism, not of substances but of worlds.

Someone who accepts the 'two-world theory' is prepared to say, 'I don't have *feelings, it only feels as if I do.' What they are not prepared to say is, 'There is no *I, I only think there is.' In other words, I can apply the Wittgensteinian critique to my understanding of words referring to sensations. That's OK, no problem. The sticking point is the sense or feeling that there exists a subjective world, apart from or in addition to the objective world in which 'I' am just one individual amongst others.

In the former case, there seems to be at least the prospect of explaining where the illusion comes from. In the latter case, the reality of the I-illusion appears stubbornly ineliminable.

All the best,

Geoffrey