Archive for August, 2011

Picture: mind the gap. One way of setting up the vexed question of qualia is to claim that there is an explanatory gap between what science tells us about our sensory organs and nervous system on the one hand, and actual real experience on the other.  Nothing in the biological/physical story, it’s claimed, tells us what the redness of a rose or the smell of violets is actually like, and nothing of that kind ever could. The two aspects of the experience do not connect with each other.  In the latest JCS, Michael Pauen sets out to show us that that supposed gap does not exist.

He attacks from four angles.  First, the thought-experiments put forward to point out the gap are inconsistent: second, they require the first-person view to have a special privilege which it hasn’t; third, the arguments for the gap are circular, resting on the same intuition they set out to vindicate. Finally, he offers a historical argument to show that apparent gaps of a similar kind have disappeared in the past as our scientific understanding grew: there’s no reason to think that this one too will stop seeming plausible when we understand things better.

We’ve often discussed the thought-experiments in question.  There’s Mary, brought up in monochrome but knowing all the science, who nevertheless knows something more, it’s claimed, when she sees what redness is really like. There are the ‘zombies’, creatures exactly like us in every physical detail and consequently in behaviour too, yet having no real experiences: the possibility of such beings, if you accept it, proving that there’s more than just physics going on. There are also the many variants of the inverted spectrum, where what I experience when I see blue is what you experience when you see red; our inability to discover or communicate this difference once again proving the existence of the gap.

What’s inconsistent about all that? Pauen introduces a new kind of zombie (Another new kind of zombie? There must be a dozen kinds in the literature already.) .  These are part-time zombies.  Some of the time they do have subjective experience just like us, at other times, as it were, the lights go out for a while.  The intermittent nature of their experience doesn’t affect their behaviour, of course, because ex hypothesi zombies are all exactly like their non-zombie equivalents in all physical matters. Moreover, because their zomboid episodes leave no physical traces in their brains, they can’t remember whether or not they had experiences at any given time. For that matter, we can’t tell whether we are part-time zombies ourselves, because we wouldn’t remember in either case. In fact, we can’t tell whether we ever did have subjective experience: so the theory of the gap ultimately undermines our reasons for believing in the gap in the first place.

This is a useful argument: still, I think Pauen may underestimate how far committed dualists might be prepared to go in digging in on this issue. Why has the experience got to leave physical traces in the brain, they might ask – I might just remember it spiritually. Pauen in reply would no doubt point out that such a spiritual memory could never have physical effects, so nothing they say with a physical mouth or write with a physical hand could ever have been caused by those ineffable experiences.  This is certainly an uncomfortable position for the dualists to be in, but it really only expands and dramatises the bind they were already in about the acausal nature of qualia, and you could argue that it’s only a little worse than the problems about interaction with the physical world which dualists have always faced. Somehow they seem to live with it.

Pauen’s second argument is meant to show that there’s no privileged first-person access to qualia: what does that actually mean? It’s obvious that you can’t, strictly, see things from my perspective without being me: but the explanatory gap also requires that there are facts about my experience (facts, presumably, about what it is like) that you can never get to know from the third-person perspective (if you could get to know everything from the third-person view there would be no gap). Pauen argues that if the subjects can recognise qualia, there must be some resulting difference in their epistemic or functional dispositions: these in turn will be recognisable from the third-person point of view. Contrariwise, if there is no functional difference, the subjects themselves will be unable to recognise the qualia, because the mere ability to do so would itself constitute a functional difference. Although I think he’s right about this, I think he has again assumed more agreement than some would be prepared to give.  I suppose most people these days are broadly functionalist in a general sense, but not everyone would accept that the ability to recognise the presence or absence of qualia has anything to do with functional dispositions, if that is to be read as referring to functional dispositions of physical matter. It’s tough to see how it could be otherwise, but there are mouths ready to bite that bullet.

Why is that? Why do people live with positions that involve such bad, unresolved philosophical problems? I think the dualists might say: look Michael, we know this is severely problematic – they don’t call it the hard problem for nothing – but what can we do? These qualia are right there, immediately obvious. It’s as if you’d come up with some really cogent arguments to show we had no heads, arguments we couldn’t fault. In those circumstances we’re forced to say, sorry Michael, but we just have not been decapitated – we just haven’t – so for the time being we’re going to have to work on the assumption that there’s something wrong with your case for acephaly even though just at the moment we can’t give you an unproblematic alternative.

Ah, but that plays into Pauen’s hands, because his third argument addresses the strength of the intuition behind qualia. He points out, quite rightly, I think, that we generally start with a strong feeling that there is something it is like; then the various arguments get presented to validate this intuition.  But on examination all of the arguments rest in the end on the same intuition. It is logically open to us to just deny that Mary learns anything new, to deny the possibility of zombies, and dismiss the issue of the inverted spectrum as meaningless. No argument compels us to do otherwise, it’s just that the same basic intuition is supposed to lead us in the other direction. Intuitions, Pauen points out, don’t prove anything.

That’s right of course, but there are a couple of things to be said. The first is that I don’t think the advocates of qualia actually suppose they’re putting forward a tight logical case. The arguments are, as it were, ostensive, they don’t deduce the existence of qualia, they simply display it.  What we’re offered is not really arguments so much as what Dennett calls ‘intuition pumps’, less powerful but legitimate tools if used properly.

Second, in calling them ‘intuitions’, Pauen sells these impressions a bit short. There are intuitions and intuitions: here we’re not talking about a hunch that people have qualia, we’re talking about having qualia right in your face, having them in the most direct and unmediated manner – a manner which some might even argue had a special immunity from error (I can be wrong about the fact that I’m seeing a rose, but can’t be wrong about the fact that I seem to be seeing a rose (Eric Schwitzgebel might have something to say about that though)). For those who believe in them, qualia may be ineffable, but they’re also undeniable in a unique way denied to mere feelings about things are likely to be.

Or so you may think: but Pauen’s last argument is the historical one that things which one seemed irreducible to us have often ended up being perfectly explicable once we knew a bit more about the underlying science. In general Pauen is arguing against the view that there is an explanatory gap  in principle, but here his argument also implicitly rebuts those who, like Colin McGinn, never claimed qualia were mysterious in themselves, only forever mysterious to us. I don’t suppose anyone ever changed their mind because the opposition’s retelling of events convinced them they were on the wrong side of history, but I found Pauen’s account, which takes up a substantial part of the paper, enlightening. Besides Fechner and Du Bois-Reymond he picks out Descartes for particular attention, and it was refreshing to see him given fair and accurate treatment for once instead of being blamed for imaginary theatres and what have you.

On this general historical argument I again think Pauen is basically right. It is already possible to explain many aspects of vision in ways which tend to reduce the sense of ineffability a bit, and no doubt this will continue to develop. But that may not do the job of dispelling all the magic.  Part of the sensation of mystery about qualia, I suspect, does come from a certain mere bogglement over the difference between first and third person view; and a large part comes from the inexplicable haecceity of the world and even worse, of ourselves. These things are not going to stop bothering people any time soon.

Picture: correspondent. I mentioned that Mike Spenard has written a book about dualism: Duelling with Dualism. He gives a nice account of the history and arguments: if you’re wondering how things turn out for dualism, the subtitle – “the forlorn quest for the immaterial mind” – offers a hint.

One point in Mike’s account that struck me was a comparison he makes in passing between the discussion of dualism and ancient discussions of what the fundamental substance of the world might be – water, fire, earth or what. We don’t talk about that any more, and if there is an equivalent discussion it’s going on in physics, not philosophy. So why do we still seem concerned about dualism versus monism?

I think in many cases it is really a particular dualism we are concerned with rejecting: ‘dualism’ is often just a more neutral way of referring to religious belief in souls and spirits. So long as that is clearly ruled out, we perhaps don’t feel so worried about the apparent dualism of mental and physical or abstract and concrete. We all accept that the world can profitably be addressed on not just two, but several levels of interpretation (though why that is the case, and whether it’s a feature of the world or of the way we see the world are questions to which I personally have no clear answer).

The best reason for doing without traditional souls may actually not be the dualism involved, but the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any soul theory. If there was an account of the spiritual world which explained how our conscious life works, it would certainly be worth a look, but the traditional view seems to take it that once we’ve attributed the self or volition or moral responsibility to the spiritual realm, the need for explanation somehow lapses.

The book is a solid, convincing account of the issue, well worth a look.