An intriguing paper from Benjamin D. Young claims that we can have phenomenal experiences of which we are unaware – although experiences of which we are aware always have phenomenal content. The paper is about smell, though I don’t really see why similar considerations shouldn’t apply to other senses.
At first sight the idea of phenomenal experience of which we are unaware seems like a contradiction in terms. Phenomenal experience is the subjective aspect of consciousness, isn’t it? How could an aspect of consciousness exist without consciousness itself? Young rightly says that it is well established that things we only register subconsciously can affect our behaviour – but that can’t include the sort of experience which for some people is the real essence of consciousness, can it?
The only way I can imagine subjectivity going on in my head without me experiencing it is if someone else were experiencing it – not a matter of me experiencing things subconsciously, but of my subconscious being a real separate entity, or perhaps of it all going on in the mind of alternate personality of the kind that seems to occur is Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality, as it used to be called).
On further reflection, I don’t think that’s the kind of thing Young meant at all: I think instead he is drawing a distinction between explicit and inexplicit awareness. So his point is that I can experience qualia without having any accompanying conscious thought about those qualia or the experience.
That’s true and an important point. One reason qualia seem so slippery, I think, is that discussion is always in second order terms: we exchange reports of qualia. But because the things themselves are irredeemably first order they have a way of disappearing from the discussion, leaving us talking about their effable accompaniments.
Ironically, something like that may have happened in Young’s paper, as he goes on to discuss experiments which allegedly shed light on subjective experience. Smell is a complex phenomenon of course; compared with the neat structure of colours the rambling and apparently inexhaustible structure of smell space is daunting;y hard to grasp. However, smell conveniently has valence in a way that colours don’t: some smells are nice and some are nasty. Humans apparently vary their sniff rate partly in response to a smell’s valence and Young thinks that this provides an objective, measurable way into the subjectivity of the experience.
Beyond that he goes on to consider mating choice: it seems human beings, like other mammals, choose their mates partly on the basis of smell. I imagine this might be controversial to some, and some of the research Young quotes sounds amusingly naive. In answer to a questionnaire, female subjects rated body odour as an important factor in selecting a sexual partner; well yes, if a guy smells you’re maybe not going to date him, huh?
I haven’t read the study which was doubtless on a much more sophisticated level, and Young cites a whole wealth of other interesting papers. The problem is that while this is all fascinating psychologically, none of it can properly bear on the philosophical issue because qualia, the ultimate bearers of subjectivity, are acausal and cannot affect our behaviour. This is shown clearly by the zombie twin argument: my zombie twin has no qualia but his behaviour is ex hypothesi the same as mine.
Still, the use of valence as a way in is interesting. The normal philosophical argument is that we have no way of telling whether my subjective red is your subjective green: but it’s hard to argue that m subjective nasty is your subjective nice (unless we also hypothesise that you seek out nasty experiences and avoid nice ones?).