Picture: zomboids. I’ve suggested previously that one of the important features of qualia (the redness of red, the smelliness of Gorgonzola, etc) is haecceity, thisness. When we experience redness, it’s not any Platonic kind of redness, it’s not an idea of redness, it’s that. When people say there is something it is like to smell that smell, we might reply, yes: that. That’s what it’s like. The difficulty of even talking about qualia is notorious, I’m afraid.

But it occurred to me that there was another problem, not so often addressed, which has the same characteristic: the problem of one’s own haecceity.

Both problems are ones that often occur to people of a philosophical turn of mind, even if they have no academic knowledge of the subject. People sometimes remark ‘For all we know, when I see the colour blue, you might be seeing what I see when I see red’, and similarly, thoughtful people are sometimes struck by puzzlement as to why they are themselves and not someone else. That particular problem has a trivial interpretation – if you weren’t you, it would be someone else’s problem – but there is a real and difficult issue related to the grand ultimate question of why there is anything at all, and why specifically this.

One of the standard arguments for qualia, of course, is the possibility of philosophical zombies, people who resemble us in every way except that they have no qualia. They talk and behave just like us, but there is nothing happening inside, no phenomenal experience. Qualophiles contend that the possibility of such zombies establishes qualia as real and additional to the normal physical story. Can we have personhood zombies, too? These would be people who, again, are to all appearances like us, but they don’t have any experience of being anyone, no sense of being a particular self. It seems at least a prima facie possibility.

That means that if we consider both qualia and selfhood, we have a range of four possible zomboid variants. Number one, not in fact a zombie at all, would have both qualia and the experience of selfhood – probably what the majority would consider the normal state of affairs. His opposite would have neither qualia nor a special sense of self, and that would be what a Dennettian sceptic takes to be the normal position. Number three has a phenomenal awareness of his own existence, but no qualia. This is what I would take to be the standard philosophical zombie. This is not really clear, of course: I assume the absence of discussion of the self in normal qualia discussion implies that zombies are normal in this respect, but others might not agree and some might even be inclined to regard the sense of self as just a specific example of a quale (there are, presumably, proprioceptive qualia, though I don’t think that’s what I’m talking about here), not really worthy of independent discussion.

It’s number four that really is a bit strange; he has qualia going on inside, but no him in him: phenomenal experience, but no apparent experiencer. Is this conceivable? I certainly have no knock-down argument, but my inclination is to say it isn’t: I’m inclined to say that all experiences have an experiencer just as surely as causes have effects. If that’s true, then it suggests the two cases of haecceity might be reducible to one: the thisness of your qualia is really just your own thisness as the experiencer (I hope you’re still with me here, reader). That in turn might mean we haven’t been looking in quite the right place for a proper account of qualia.

What if number four were conceivable? If qualia can exist in the absence of any subjective self-awareness, that suggests they’re not as tightly tied to people as we might have thought. That would surely give comfort to the panpsychists, who might be happy to think of qualia blossoming everywhere, in inanimate matter as well as in brains. I don’t find this an especially congenial perspective myself, but if it were true, we’d still want to look at personal thisness and how it makes the qualia of human beings different from the qualia of stones.

At this point I ought to have a blindingly original new idea of the metaphysics of the sense of self which would illuminate the whole question as never before. I’m afraid I’ll have to come back to you on that one.


  1. 1. Nicolas says:

    I’m a subscriber and regular reader of yours, but I thought I’d dare a comment.

    “His opposite would have neither qualia nor a special sense of self, and that would be what a Dennettian sceptic takes to be the normal position.”

    Although Dennett rejects qualia, does he really refuse that we have have conscious experiences or that we seem to experience qualia? The following Dennetian quote seems to be clarifying:

    “Suppose you have just seen an afterimage of an American flag, caused by staring at a green, black and yellow flag image for a few seconds. Just as the fictional Sherlock Holmes can be correctly described as taller than the real Max Beerbohm, the fictional red stripes on your afterimage can be correctly described by you as somewhat more orange than the real red stripes on the flag flying outside the window. Fiction is parasitic on fact, and the afterimage stripe is red in exactly the same way that Holmes is tall.” – Heterophenomenology Reconsidered, D.Dennett 2007

    (…although the difference between seeming to have qualia and having qualia is a bit unclear to me)

    “It’s number four that really is a bit strange; he has qualia going on inside, but no him in him: phenomenal experience, but no apparent experiencer.”

    Isn’t this just how Antonio Damasio’s animals experience the world? They have just a very, very basic self-consciousness, but can nevertheless experience the world outside themselves.

  2. 2. Peter says:

    Cheers, Nicolas. Obviously this is just my reading of what the Dennettian position would be. I don’t think he’d deny that we have conscious experiences, just that they involve anything ineffably private; as I understand it, heterophenomenology is all about being able to talk about people’s experiences – what they might mistakenly describe as qualia – but from a third-person stance.

    Good point about Damasio’s animals – I might need to re-read him. My instinct still tells me there’s always an experiencer, albeit a very stripped-down one in some cases.

  3. 3. Nicolas says:

    Whether Dennett would agree on being placed in the category of “no qualia and no self” or not isn’t really central to your post if you substitute qualia and self with “qualia-like experiences” or something like that. I might have misunderstood the philosophical zombie, but something that experiences an illusion of qualia (not only claiming to experience them) wouldn’t actually qualify as a zombie, would it?

    “My instinct still tells me there’s always an experiencer, albeit a very stripped-down one in some cases.”

    I don’t think Damasio would disagree with that. I have his book on my desk now, and would have loved to quote him if I had the time right now, but I’m quite sure he says something about animals being able to experience without actually experiencing themselves (like we experience our selves).

  4. 4. Alec says:

    Please excuse me if it is inappropriate to discuss religious concepts, but from my own direct experience, the fourth state is very close to “loss of self” one achieves in Zen meditation (not just Zen, I am sure). The experience of qualia can even be intensified presumably because of the lack of interpretation which normally is provided by the conscious self. One of the peculiar impressions one gets during this meditative state is that “all things are equal” (e.g., the color red and the smell of gorgonzola are perceived to be completely equivalent things) which may a simple and direct result of that lack of conscious interpretation.

  5. 5. Peter says:

    Interesting point, Alec. Some contemporary sceptics about the self point to Buddhist ideas as being in harmony with their views – Susan Blackmore, for example.

  6. 6. joku says:

    it’s clinically observed that me-ness is largely an activity the left hemisphere


  7. 7. Michael Baggot says:

    I would like to make a few brief points:

    1) The qualia argument is nonsense because it does not stipulate the computational architecture of the zombie. In other words, if consciousness is an inevitable consequence of computational architecture – which I propose it is – then even if you had an android that mimicked consciousness you would be no closer to understanding true human consciousness.

    2) Self is not an experiencer. It seems that after the demise of the homunculus many, if not virtually all, authors have extended the experience-experiencer dichotomy to include the self-other dichotomy. Instead let me propose that the real dichotomy which pervades consciousness is the colloquial expression I-myself which we all use intuitively and which can also be expressed as agent-self. So what then is a self? Quite simply: A self is all of the tools that an agent has at hand to deal with the vagaries of its milieu. This includes the body as a whole ambulatory entity, all of its appendages and all of its mnemic stores. (The square root of 3 which any engineer can tell you off the top of their head is 1.732 is actually just another aspect of the toolkit that constitutes my self.) Self then has nothing whatever to do with metaphysics or phenomenality. Instead it is about functional organization; specifically, about how the animate machine elements that constitute the brain distinguish between information processes that derive from the environment and which cannot be modified directly from those over which it has direct control. Quite simply, I and self are both about functionality that occurs within the realm of conscious experience. Neither has anything whatever to do with the phenomenality or metaphysics of consciousness.

    3) The major failure in these endeavors is that consciousness is treated as phenomena or metaphysics rather than as functionality. All of the events of consciousness correlate with computational functionality within the brain itself. The hard problem is really quite simply expressed: How is it that all of this functional information comes to be expressed sans any artifactual evidence of the underlying neuronal electrical activity. Unfortunately, the gurus of our time, among them Chalmers and Dennett, with all their arguments about zombies have simply obfuscated the real issues that lie behind consciousness.

    4) My grand proposal is this: Once we understand the animate engine(s) that account for the functional contents of consciousness then we also find that the enisle substrate that experience is projected upon derives inherently from from these ordinary Newtonian processes rather than from some intercession of the quantum netherworld.

    My apologies for the length here; this is after all your blog. I do, however, think that you are caught up in the myopic philosophical quagmire that seems to dominate these issues.

    Michael Baggot

  8. 8. Peter says:

    No apology required, Michael – long and thoughtful comments are most welcome, especially if they’re intended to help me out of the (undeniable) quagmire surrounding these issues.

    I’m more than a little sceptical about qualia myself, and I’m sympathetic to functionalism. My intuition tells me that something with the same relevant set of functional characteristics as my brain (whatever they may be) would necessarily have the same experiences, so that zombies, or at least the most demanding variety, physically indistinguishable from normal humans, are impossible. I don’t think quantum physics is likely to be the key to consciousness. But it still does look to me as if there’s some real and fundamental mystery to do with experience in there somewhere, even if it isn’t quite the one it is normally taken to be.

    Your ‘agent-self’ dichotomy is an interesting idea.

  9. 9. doug newton says:

    I am not much past the point where I asked myself the question “when I see the colour blue…” but in trying to follow this most interesting exercise I had these observations.
    As Alec comments the third zombie state immediately reminded me of a state that I would like to achieve in meditation.
    The fourth zombie state is difficult to imagine unless I try to think of what it might be like to be a fetus again.
    If it is possible to separate qualia and selfness as you have done, which comes before the other in the natural course of an individual’s development.

  10. 10. dj superflat says:

    this is all odd to me — the zombie assumption is that we don’t feel like biological machines should feel (whether that assumption is that we have qualia, or even that we consciousness). that is, whatever you’re calling qualia are only an issue if there’s some reason to think that biological entities structured as we are shouldn’t have such qualia (or be “conscious”). what’s the basis for that assumption? none. from what i can tell, it’s just some human need to feel special, pretend we’re not like the other animals. the other dumb thing about the discussion: if you believe in science, the reason we have qualia, whatever you think those are, is because that’s how evolution got from there to here. evolution takes some roundabout ways to get where it gets, with stray bits and pieces, odd leftovers, odd but elegant ways of doing things, etc.

    my version of consciousness explained:

    dinner with a human, a zombie, a dog, a martian, and occam:

    human: prove you’re conscious.

    zombie: you first.

    dog: arf.

    martian: prove you’re superconscious.

    human: i don’t understand what you mean by “superconscious.” but assume my internal state is different from what you would expect in a biological machine.

    occam: why?

  11. 11. Jennifer says:

    I came here to make the same point Alec did about Buddhism. Here’s a quote from Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen:

    “The observer is empty. Instead of a separate observer, we should say there is just observing. There is no one that hears, there is just hearing. There is no one that sees, there is just seeing. But we don’t quite grasp that. If we practice hard enough, however, we learn that not only is the observer empty, but that which is observed is also empty. At this point the observer (or witness) collapses. This is the final stage of practice; we don’t need to worry about it. Why does the observer finally collapse? When nothing sees nothing, what do we have? Just the wonder of life. There is no one who is separated from anything. There is just life living itself: hearing, touching, seeing, smelling, thinking.”

  12. 12. Mark Peaty says:

    I think Jennifer’s description can be put in other words: our experience of being here now is what it is like to be the universe observing itself from a particular point of view. It seems to me this must be self-evidently correct. The subjectivity is entailed in it being a *particular* point of view; the experience is inherently private.

    The experience is also intrinsically paradoxical I believe. This is because – Michael Baggot should like this – the experience is what it is like to be certain parts of the processes occurring in the brain, certain essential functions amongst all the coordinated self-organising interactions between the multitude of signalling foci active at any given moment.

    I characterise my view on this in an acronym: UMSITW [pronounced “um sea two” for English speakers]meaning *updating model of self in the world*. The assertion is that, for there to be a conscious experience, the brain must be representing within itself important features of the world, important features of the ‘self’, and connecting these with representations of the current relevant relationships between self and world. I propose that these representations are instantiated in the form of dynamic logical entities which are otherwise referred to as “cell assemblies”, “repertoires”, and similar terms. They consist of patterns of self-sustaining interaction amongst many groups of neurons distributed across many regions of the cortex, limbic system, cerebellum, and so forth. While they are active we can say that they exist and explicitly so. While not active we can say that they still exist but in an implicit or dormant form.

    I tend to think that denying this model forces a person into some form of radical eliminative behaviourism or some kind of spiritualist dualism.

    The paradox is that we usually take the construct the brain is creating and maintaining to be the actual world. This is normally not a problem however because for most normal purposes it is irrelevant or down-right dysfunctional to be noticing the process of construction instead of concentrating on “the world” and “myself”.

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