On Philosophy

November 6, 2006

Deflating Qualia

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 3:20 am

To deflate something is to say that it only seems to us as if there is such a thing, when there reality there is nothing that we can identify the seeming with. For example we deflate illusions, we say that there is no such thing as the illusion, really, it only seems like there is. I call this deflating instead of eliminating because really there is still some work to be done, we must explain why we mistakenly think that the illusion exists, and show what is really going on that is responsible for this seeming. Here I will propose that qualia, like illusions, can be deflated. This means that I must show two things: why qualia can be deflated while consciousness and experience cannot (in order to show that we aren’t simply eliminating the mind entirely), and why it might seem to us as if there were qualia when really there are no such things.

The primary problem with deflating qualia is not that they are indubitable parts of our experience, as some think; much of our experience has been shown to be illusory. For example it seems to us as if our entire visual field colored, when in reality we have no ability to detect color in the periphery of our vision. Now of course it seems to us as if there were color in the periphery of our visual field, and this seeming does need to be explained, as we do think and act as if there was such color. One possibility is that all the thoughts and judgments we have about that portion of our visual input are systematically altered to be as if there was color there. Another possibility is that the visual data that is processed internally is altered to be colored in the periphery (and if this was the case then there really was something colored in the periphery, we can’t deflate it after all). And here is where it becomes interesting: there is no way, in principle to distinguish between these possibilities based on experience alone. In either case our thoughts, actions, and judgments would be the same. Of course we could conduct experiments to find out which is the truth, and I suspect that scientists who work with vision do know which is the correct description, even though I do not.

Experience, and consciousness, however cannot be deflated in this way. Let us first consider experience. To deflate experience would be to say that there is no such thing as information about the world being directly presented to consciousness, only judgments and thoughts as if there was such information. And because we could have the exact same thoughts in either case there is no a priori way to distinguish between them. Fortunately we aren’t forced to decide which is the better description based on internal evidence alone. We can, for example, notice that we can react to events before we have time to think about them. We can also notice that what we are experiencing can change rapidly and drastically. If it was really the case that our experience was an illusion then the judgments and thoughts perpetuating it would have to be vast in number, and made more quickly than most judgments and thoughts. Thus the simplest explanation that there really is something within the mind that corresponds to our naïve conception of experience, perhaps some field of data that the rest of our consciousness can interact with. We can also question whether we can deflate consciousness as a whole. Of course it may appear that the possibility that there only seems to be consciousness, is also an assertion that consciousness exists, a consciousness in which things can seem one way or the other. But let us not pre-judge the issue in this way. Let us feel free to wonder if there really are internal states corresponding to thought, or if we just talk and act as if there were. Again, this is not something that we can decide based on how things seem to us. But given the complexity of our behavior the simplest explanation is that we are conscious, and that we really do have internal states. For example, we might think, in a purely internal fashion, about some problem, and then produce a solution. If we don’t have internal states where did the solution come from? Certainly it is possible that the story we tell about pondering the solution may be false, but why would such an elaborate tale exist if it wasn’t a reflection of what was going on inside? If the story we tell about how we came to the answer didn’t reflect what was really going on inside us there would be no advantage to having it and communicating it, and thus it is unlikely creatures with such a strange quirk would have evolved.

So we can avoid deflating consciousness and experience by showing that they are the best explanation for various phenomena that can be observed “objectively”. Qualia however can be at least partially deflated. Certainly we have information available to us about colors, and other aspects of experience that allow us to differentiate them, but the ability to tell the difference between different “inputs” is something that can be explained completely physically. Similarly, we could explain in terms of physical facts how different kinds of inputs are incorporated into a mind and produce thoughts and judgments. And because we can identify some physical process with them these things can’t be deflated, since we can appeal to them as a description of how our brain is working, but neither are they a problem for materialism, and it is the problematic aspects of qualia that we are attempting to deflate. What is usually considered problematic for materialism is the “feel” of qualia. It is claimed that certain experiences feel a certain way to us, and that this feel can’t be explained by the physical facts. It is my claim that this feel can be deflated. Specifically I claim that there is nothing more to qualia than our ability to distinguish between different sensations and the ability for those distinctions to be the basis for thoughts and judgments, which is something that can be explained physically.

But if it is the case that there isn’t a way that red feels to us then why do we believe so strongly that there is? Well, we certainly have the ability to distinguish between colors, and this ability is nothing mysterious. Red visual inputs trigger different responses then blue, and these differences affect the thoughts we have about the experience. But process of distinguishing between colors is not something that we are consciously aware of; we simply have the appropriate thoughts as a result of those distinctions. This means that when reflecting on our own thoughts we won’t be able to find a reason why a visual experience seemed to us to be one color instead of another (unlike, for example, our experience of seeing a tree, where we are conscious, to some extent, of the reasons why we saw it as a tree). And so these primitive distinctions between various inputs are mysterious to us. When asked why we thought that the red ball was red all we can say is that it “felt” red, because we lack the ability to turn our thoughts directly to the underlying mechanisms. We are thus completely incapable of describing why it felt red instead of blue, or what the difference between those feeling is. It is not an indication that they are something special and non-material, it is an indication that they are one place where our ability to introspect is limited.

Perhaps then we can’t really learn what red feels like by examining all the physical facts, not because it is non-physical, but because there is no such thing as the feeling of red, and that the feelings the we describe our experience with are really labels for part of our minds that is closed to introspection, and hence not something that we understand in the same way as the rest of the mind.

For more details on what really might be behind qualia see here and here


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