• Philosophy 101: Qualia

    As part of my introductory series which has looked at different philosophers and the philosophical questions from the 2009 philpapers survey, I am going to look at qualia, as asked by a friend on facebook.

    Qualia – what are they?

    Qualia (sing. quale) are subjective experiences, in simple terms. Whether it be looking and experience a colour, such as having the subjective experience of redness, or any other such experiential event. These are qualities of ‘phenomenal character’. There are other, more restrictive definitions which are worth looking into and can be found here, at the SEP. Accounting for qualia is known as the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

    What do qualia entail? Well, as the SEP says:

    The following would certainly be included on my own list. (1) Perceptual experiences, for example, experiences of the sort involved in seeing green, hearing loud trumpets, tasting liquorice, smelling the sea air, handling a piece of fur. (2) Bodily sensations, for example, feeling a twinge of pain, feeling an itch, feeling hungry, having a stomach ache, feeling hot, feeling dizzy. Think here also of experiences such as those present during orgasm or while running flat-out. (3) Felt reactions or passions or emotions, for example, feeling delight, lust, fear, love, feeling grief, jealousy, regret. (4) Felt moods, for example, feeling elated, depressed, calm, bored, tense, miserable.

    Now here, feeling in a particular mood is not to say what those physiological mechanisms of a mood are (hormones, blood etc), but the experience of having them, the feeling. Some other philosophers include things like the experience of understanding a sentence or thinking.

     The question of importance is what are these qualia made of, if they exist (which is an important addendum)?

    Mary’s Room

    One thought experiment to explain the notion of qualia is the famous Mary’s Room, which the SEP outlines thusly (known as the Knowledge Argument):

    The literature on qualia is filled with thought-experiments of one sort or another. Perhaps the most famous of these is the case of Mary, the brilliant color scientist. Mary, so the story goes (Jackson 1982), is imprisoned in a black and white room. Never having been permitted to leave it, she acquires information about the world outside from the black and white books her captors have made available to her, from the black and white television sets attached to external cameras, and from the black and white monitor screens hooked up to banks of computers. As time passes, Mary acquires more and more information about the physical aspects of color and color vision. (For a real life case of a visual scientist (Knut Nordby) who is an achromotope, see Sacks 1996, Chapter 1.) Eventually, Mary becomes the world’s leading authority on these matters. Indeed she comes to know all the physical facts pertinent to everyday colors and color vision.

    Still, she wonders to herself: What do people in the outside world experience when they see the various colors? What is it like for them to see red or green? One day her captors release her. She is free at last to see things with their real colors (and free too to scrub off the awful black and white paint that covers her body). She steps outside her room into a garden full of flowers. “So, that is what it is like to experience red,” she exclaims, as she sees a red rose. “And that,” she adds, looking down at the grass, “is what it is like to experience green.”

    Mary here seems to make some important discoveries. She seems to find out things she did not know before. How can that be, if, as seems possible, at least in principle, she has all the physical information there is to have about color and color vision — if she knows all the pertinent physical facts?

    So, if there is something to be gained for Mary, how do we explain it? How is qualia and the hard problem to be explained? I will now present, in as simple terms as possible, the main positions:

    New Mysterianism – it’s impossible to know. It’s a mystery.We will either never in principle be able to, or simply don’t have the conceptual hardware to do it.

    Functionalism – this talks about the function of a mental state as defining it. So if we look at pain, it is seen in terms of the function which it plays: “causing avoidance behavior, warning us of danger, etc., in response to certain environmental stimuli”. However, it can be said that this position doesn’t quite do the explanatory job. As the IEP states:

    (1) those aiming to show that two systems might be functionally identical even though only one of them has any qualia at all, and (2) those aiming to show that two systems might be functionally identical even though they have vastly different qualia from one another.

    There are two criticisms of functionalism here: the Absent Qualia and the Inverted Spectrum arguments, but I will not spell them out hugely here (though check out the next section). Check out the SEP or IEP for more info. The basic criticism is that functionalism fails to be a qualitative account.

    Physicalism – The best way to look at physicalism here is with the philosophical zombies (p-zombies) thought experiment:

    Chalmers has argued that we can conceive of what he terms “zombies”—beings who are molecule-for-molecule identical with phenomenally conscious beings but who are not themselves phenomenally conscious. In appearance and action, a conscious being and his zombie replica would be indistinguishable, but for the zombie, as Chalmers says, “all is dark inside.” (Chalmers 1996, 96) When Zack and Zombie Zack each take a bite of chocolate cake, they each have the same reaction—they smile, exclaim how good it is, lick their lips, and reach for another forkful. But whereas Zack, a phenomenally conscious being, is having a distinctive (and delightful) qualitative experience while tasting the chocolate cake, Zombie Zack is experiencing nothing at all. This suggests that Zack’s consciousness is a further fact about him, over and above all the physical facts about him (since all those physical facts are true of Zombie Zack as well). Consciousness, that is, must be nonphysical.

    Along with this is Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?” where both appear to be unsettling for physicalism. It seems that there needs to be a non-physicalist explanation of qualia, since, as with Mary’s Room, a physical understanding of the world cannot account for qualia – “there are facts about color in addition to all the physical facts about color (since Mary already knew all the physical facts about color). Thus, the argument goes, physicalism is false.”

    Eliminitavism – Physicalists can answer Mary’s Room by saying that there simply IS nothing we learn from leaving the room:

    If we really imagine that Mary has learned all the physical facts about color while in the room, then there would be no “Aha!” moment when she is shown a ripe tomato. We are led to think otherwise only because we typically fall short of imagining what we’ve been asked to imagine—we imagine only that Mary knows an immense amount about colors, that she has mastered all the information contained in our present science of color, which still remains incomplete. As Patricia Churchland has argued, “How can I assess what Mary will know and understand if she knows everythingthere is to know about the brain? Everything is a lot, and it means, in all likelihood, that Mary has a radically different and deeper understanding of the brain than anything barely conceivable in our wildest flights of fancy.” (P.S. Churchland 1986, 332; see also Dennett 1991, 399-400)

    This approach is not the answer for many phsycialists though, who, if they accept that something is learnt, have two options: “(1) They might accept that Mary gains new knowledge that isn’t understood in terms of facts; or (2) they might accept that Mary’s knowledge is factual but deny that she’s learned anything new; rather, facts that she already knew are presented to her in a new way.”

    Dennett has traditionally been no fan of qualia and has said that nothing is learnt, that Mary would have full knowledge of how qualia worked:

    He argues that Mary would not, in fact, learn something new if she stepped out of her black and white room to see the color red. Dennett asserts that if she already truly knew “everything about color”, that knowledge would include a deep understanding of why and how human neurology causes us to sense the “quale” of color. Mary would therefore already know exactly what to expect of seeing red, before ever leaving the room. Dennett argues that the misleading aspect of the story is that Mary is supposed to not merely be knowledgeable about color but to actually know all the physical facts about it, which would be a knowledge so deep that it exceeds what can be imagined, and twists our intuitions.

    If Mary really does know everything physical there is to know about the experience of color, then this effectively grants her almost omniscient powers of knowledge. Using this, she will be able to deduce her own reaction, and figure out exactly what the experience of seeing red will feel like…

    Perhaps Mary’s failure to learn exactly what seeing red feels like is simply a failure of language, or a failure of our ability to describe experiences. An alien race with a different method of communication or description might be perfectly able to teach their version of Mary exactly how seeing the color red would feel. Perhaps it is simply a uniquely human failing to communicate first-person experiences from a third-person perspective.

    He has also stated that, in order for qualia to be meaningful, it must be shown that:

    a) it is possible to know that a change in qualia has occurred, as opposed to a change in something else; or that b) there is a difference between having a change in qualia and not having one

    But if we had a neurosurgeon mess around with us such that our qualia were inverted (green for red) you would have no means with which to do the above.

    The Ability Hypothesis – Mary learns no new facts, but new abilities or know-how.

    Phenomenal Concepts – as the IEP states that no new knowledge is gained “when she leaves the room; rather, she simply comes to apprehend an old fact under a new guise. While in the room, she did not have the conceptual apparatus she needed in order to apprehend certain color facts in a phenomenal way. Having seen color, she has now gained new concepts—phenomenal concepts—and thus is able to re-apprehend the same facts she already knew in a different way.”

    Representationalism – this theory aims to give an account of qualia. According to this view, the qualitative character of our phenomenal mental states depends on the intentional content of such states. Qualia are transparent, that despite our own personal perceptions (no matter how (in)correct), the entity still exists in reality. This gets confusing now:

    While functionalism and physicalism are put forth as general theories of mind, representationalism aims specifically to give an account of qualia. According to this view, the qualitative character of our phenomenal mental states depends on the intentional content of such states…

    Recall the distinction above between the easy problems of consciousness and the hard problem. Accounting for representational content is supposed to be one of the easy problems. It may take us an enormous amount of empirical work to get to the solution, but the standard methods of cognitive science will be able to apply. Thus, if qualia can be reduced to intentionality, then we have turned the hard problem of consciousness into an easy problem. A full and satisfactory account of qualia awaits only a solution to the easy problem of intentionality.

    Consider pain qualia. Traditionally, philosophers classified pain experiences as non-intentional. However, the representationalist claims that this is a mistake. When one has a pain in one’s leg, the experience represents damage in the leg. Moreover, its phenomenal feel—its painfulness—consists in its doing so. As Michael Tye argues, “[T]he phenomenal character of my pain intuitively is something that is given to me via introspection of what I experience in having the pain. But what I experience is what my experience represents. So, phenomenal character is representational.” (Tye 1990, 338)

     I would suggest reading much further on this in the IEP since it is a fairly complex and developed theory.

    Naturalistic Dualism – This is something which David Chalmers has offered. This theory posits that there are nonphysical properties and nonphysical natural laws which feature in the world. Such qualia are ontologically independent of physical properties; they can arise from them but do not depend on them (supervenience). This can lead to epiphenomenalism (that mental events are viewed as completely dependent on physical functions and, as such, have no independent existence or causal efficacy; it is a mere appearance).

    There are more theories, no doubt, that I have forgotten. The main point to take away, perhaps, is that there are theories of qualia which can fit and cohere with a naturalistic worldview. So worry not! Trying to get your head round them, well, that’s another story…

    Category: FeaturedPhilosophy


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce