Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On the notion of qualia

To: Robert D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: On the notion of qualia
Date: 6 April 2002 12:51

Dear Bob,

Thank you for your e-mail of 26 March, with your fourth essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question:

'Define a "quale" giving some examples of qualia. What is the philosophical interest in the notion of a quale?'

In the very last sentence of your essay, you say, 'perhaps the notion of Qualia should be rejected, acknowledging that we experience feelings and sensations, which do not in fact meet the full criteria for Qualia'.

This is really where all the action is!

What you say earlier bears on our *motivations* for believing in the existence of Qualia - defined as inner experiences whose intrinsic quality or 'feel' we are immediately aware of and can make judgements about, but cannot, even in principle, describe to another person.

In putting forward a definition of 'qualia', the point should be made that we do succeed in many ways in talking about what we feel. But such talk necessarily relates to the way we interact with the world: as, for example, 'giddiness' is something you feel when you step off a roundabout, or 'blue' is the colour of the sky, or an 'itch' is something you feel when... .

It is also true that talking about our experiences is immensely difficult, and there is always a feeling of 'more to say' that we cannot put into words. But this is different from the purely logical point that a 'quale', by definition, cannot be described to another person. People differ in how good they are at putting their feelings into words. On the Qualia theory, however, each one of us faces the same impossible predicament.

The question, however, is how one would argue against the existence of Qualia. In the program, two arguments are put forward.

The private language argument essentially says that I cannot make judgements about my own 'Qualia' because nothing would count, in principle, as identifying a given Quale correctly or incorrectly. There is nowhere for the concept of judgement or truth to get a grip.

The anti-zombie argument takes as its starting point the theory that states of the brain and body are sufficient to account for all my physical movements, including the noises made when my vocal chords vibrate. However, the believer in Qualia claims that something extra is produced by these physical processes which can only be known subjectively, to the person in whom these processes occur. This is the theory of 'epiphenomenalism'.

The problem is that, by hypothesis, the epiphenomenalist's zombie double 'believes' in epiphenomenalism too. It follows that talk of 'Qualia' is itself directly caused by the very same physical process, which occurs whether accompanied by actual 'Qualia' or not. The second argument does not *disprove* the existence of Qualia, but rather undercuts the reasons put forward for believing in their existence.

I think there is more to say, however, which is not said in the Philosophy of Mind program. As I argue in my Shap 2001 paper, 'Truth and subjective knowledge', there remains room for the concept of a kind 'knowledge' which cannot be expressed in the form of judgements (and hence is not knowledge of Qualia) but does have the connection to a unique subject claimed for Qualia. This arises from the idea - which should be fully acceptable to the physicalist - that a brain state is only directly accessible to the subject whose brain it is. In principle, there could not be such a thing as a 'brain reading machine'. This mode of access, however, is not a form of judgement, but rather what I call an 'attunement' between the subject and their environment, expressed in their behaviour, rather than in their judgements.

All the best,

Geoffrey