Daniel Dennett not sceptical enough about qualia? It seems unlikely. Dennett’s trenchant view can be summed up in two words: ‘What qualia?”. It makes no sense, he would say, for us to talk about ineffable items of direct experience: things which by their definition, we can’t talk about. That’s not to say we can’t talk about our experience of the world: we just need to talk about it in third-person, heterophenomenological terms. Instead of claiming to discuss people’s first-person inner experience, we discuss what they report about their first-person inner experience. In fact, if we think about it carefully, we’ll realise that’s all we could ever do, all we’ve ever done: really, whatever we may have supposed, all phenomenology is actually heterophenomenology; all discussion is necessarily in third-person, objective, scrutable, effable terms.
Typically Dennett’s is a relatively lonely voice ranged against those who would assert that qualia, direct private phenomenal experiences, are knowably, undeniably real, however hard they may be to explain and to reconcile with the objective third-person world described by science. Now Justin Sytsma (‘Dennett’s Theory of the Folk Theory’, JCS Vol 17, no 3-4) interestingly takes a different tack, suggesting that in fact Dennett has conceded too much by accepting that the folk theory, what ordinary people naively believe about their own experience, includes belief in qualia. He quotes Dennett saying:
“there seem to be qualia, because it really does seem as if science has shown us that colors can’t be out there, and hence must be in here…”
Reasonably, if somewhat unphilosophically, Sytsma treats what people actually believe as an empirical matter, something we can test; in a sense we could say that this is turning heterophenomenology on itself. It turns out, apparently, that Dennett’s assumption is false: in fact people don’t regard, say, redness, as an ineffable mental quality, but as a real property of things in the world. Perhaps ordinary people are more sophisticated than Dennett has given them credit for: perhaps less; not sufficiently aware of ‘what science has shown us‘ for it to have had much impact on what they believe.
What are we to make of this? Well, one issue is that there is an inbuilt tension in the entity we’re trying to discuss: Sytsma is talking about folk theories: but folk beliefs are really what we have when we have no theories: a folk theory is a kind of contradiction in terms. Julian of Norwich, I think, said that the worst thing about heretics was that they forced honest Christians to determine the truth of theological propositions which pious folk could otherwise have ignored; in a similar way we might argue that philosophical experimenters force their subjects into addressing tricky phenomenological questions which would otherwise never have troubled them.
Sytsma, then, by asking his subjects questions, was not evoking their previously-held views on phenomenology so much as engendering these views for the first time. There is an obvious danger that the terms of the question would tend to influence the form of the views evoked; but really that doesn’t matter because whatever view Sytsma evoked, it would be different to the no-view that his subjects held initially. Is the folk view pro or anti qualia? The most accurate answer is probably ‘no’.
However, forensically Dennett must be in the right. If we want to establish a position, we need to argue against its negation; even if the majority or ‘the folk’ favour our view, we must instead argue against an arbitrary opponent; in fact against all the most plausible and persuasive opponents we can think of. Even if Dennett was wrong about what people generally believe, tactically it was correct to assume that they disagreed with him: without being unduly elitist, what the majority, or the folk, or the man on the Clapham omnibus actually happen to think, is in this case philosophically uninteresting. We need not worry about whether we should endorse a sceptical theory about Dennett’s sceptical theory about folk theories. Isn’t that a relief?