Picture: Talking to myself. I keep an open mind on the subject of qualia, the ineffable redness of red and the equally ineffable smelliness of smell, and I always read new arguments on the subject with interest. But if I’m honest, in my heart of hearts I believe that the problem, as normally formulated, embodies a misunderstanding. That redness you see isn’t a mysterious quale; it’s just some real, extra-theoretical redness. When Mary sees something red for the first time in her life, she doesn’t gain new information or knowledge, she just has an experience she has never had before. We should not be puzzled over the fact that colour theories do not themselves contain real colours, and so cannot convey them into minds any more than knowledge about an experience conveys the experience itself.

I think we are right to be puzzled, nevertheless. There is a profound mystery here – it just isn’t the one we usually discuss. The redness of an apple is just real redness: but what on earth is that? What is real anything? When we try to distinguish reality from dreams, we often rely on epistemic arguments about the consistency and coherence of the real world, but those properties are not of the essence: there’s nothing to say a dream or delusion couldn’t by chance be consistent and sustained. The realness of reality must lie somewhere else, in some inscrutable region of meta-ontology.

Part of the problem, at least, is what we might call haecceity (with no particular commitment to Duns Scotus or others who have used the word): thisness: the property of being a particular thing and not something else. One of the deepest metaphysical questions we can ask is why everything is like this, instead of like something else: indeed, why is everything like anything, instead of nothing (which after all would require much less explanation)? Abstractions may sometimes be hard to get your head around, but when you come down to it there’s nothing so incomprehensible as the detailed particularity of ordinary reality.

We might look for some kind of cosmogonical explanation for why the world is the way it is. Now that we all know about chaos and have played with Conway’s Game of Life, it seems relatively plausible that quite a simple starting point for the Universe could have given rise to the buzzing complexity of the real world. To be real, then, would be to feature in the unrolling of some cosmic algorithm. But this seems unsatisfactory in more than one respect. First, the ultimate explanation is now deferred to the laws or rules which sustain the algorithm, whether they are simply the laws of physics or some unknown principles of maths, logic, or metaphysics. Apart from the fact that we now have the new and daunting problem of explaining how and why these laws work, we’re back with the old problem of putting the source of reality in a theory, the same sort of mistake we were making with qualia in the first place. Speaking for myself, I see theories and laws of nature as explaining and clarifying the innate tendencies of stuff: to say that the reality of the stuff arises out of the operation of the theory, or the laws, seems very like a category mistake.

Moreover, since it is a real thing, consciousness also has haecceity; but I find it impossible to believe that my own consciousness is merely a product of some rolling program: it may seem like a feeble recourse to intuition, but that just doesn’t seem a satisfying answer. It doesn’t explain why I am so definitely here and not there, or so definitely this person and not that one. I am not a zombie, in the philosophical sense, and my existence has a more solid character than any Platonic process. And let’s face it, it is all about me. I’m keen to understand the nature of reality in general, but like Descartes, I want my own reality to be clarified first and above all.

Perhaps metempsychosis is part of the answer. This post of Shankar’s a while back, drawing on Hindu ideas, proposed that qualia reside in a universal background entity, which gets plugged into the disparate personalities and bodies of all of us. I think some tricky stuff needs to be put in place to deal with that kind of split, but the idea of one soul, as it were, doing the work for all of us, is interesting. For one thing it clears up the tricky housekeeping side of reincarnation. Since deaths and births are not neatly paired up, reincarnation requires at least a kind of celestial waiting-room, and possibly a kind of time-travelling on the part of the transmigrating souls. But if one soul can animate an indefinite number of people simultaneously, the problem doesn’t arise. And why shouldn’t things work like that? That magic core which sustains my selfhood doesn’t seem to be dependent on the details of my body, my situation in history, or perhaps even my personality, when you get right down to it. So it doesn’t seem to have many differentiating characteristics. If it’s indistinguishable from other people’s magic core, then perhaps a rather slapdash application of Leibniz’s Law suggests it’s really the same. Perhaps in some sense all human experiences are experienced by the same essential me, either sequentially or somehow simultaneously; perhaps, in fact, I am talking to myself here? So I can conclude that it would indeed be odd and puzzling if I were an island of haecceity – because in fact I am nothing less than universal subjectivity.

Convinced? No, nor me, I’m afraid. In the end all that we’re left with, at best, is a persuasive denial of the very haecceity, so pressingly evident, which I wanted explained in the first place. I’m not convinced that my core of selfhood can be stripped of all its characteristics without losing its identity, and if it could that would identify me, not just with other people, but with everything. To some that might be a congenial conclusion, but to me again it looks as if the identity we wanted elucidated has run through our fingers. It seems more likely to me that my personality and the quirks of my physical history are constitutive of what I am even in the deepest sense: unfortunately of course, those quirky particularities are as hard to account for as my own thisness.

So it’s back to the metaphysical drawing board, I fear. Perhaps the next set of ideas about qualia will, after all, hold the vital clue?

One Comment

  1. 1. tw says:

    2 and a half years late seems like as good a time as any to comment on this…

    Thanks for the word ‘haecceity’ – it’s funny how being able to assign a word to something can help clarify your ideas about it so much. And thanks for the whole site for that matter – I haven’t explored too much of it yet, but even the small bit I’ve looked through so far has been wonderful.

    For several years I thought something somewhat similar to Shankar, although I differed in all the particulars; I’ve never been a QM-consciousness fan, and I didn’t think it was necessary for any sort of “interfacing” to be going on connecting conscious beings to the greater unified consciousness. But it was based on the same underlying idea: once all the seemingly inessential details of a particular individual’s consciousness are removed, and when you look at their conscious experience itself rather than what in particular is experienced, there seems to be nothing to differentiate one “experiential node” or whatever you want to call it, from another. Consciousness is the same, wherever it arises.

    The next step for me wasn’t positing some universal psychic substrate that we all plug in to (I thought of that content-free consciousness-itselfiness as a kind of abstract algorithmic process, not an ethereal substance [thus allowing myself to hold faintly onto the idea that I wasn't actually a dualist]). It was adjusting my definition of “I”, so that it referred not to the particular, haecceity-laden mind that constituted Me, but rather to that undifferentiated experience that was common to all conscious beings. It seemed like a valid thing to so, since whenever I say “I”, I almost always mean my consciousness, self etc. Then I could say, and mean, “Why am I me? Because I am all of us” – which had all the same ethical implications and such that Shankar described. It also rid me of the need to ever be jealous, for example – why wish I was somebody else when I already was them, just as much as I was ‘me’? It was a ridiculously comforting thought, which is why I probably avoided trying too hard to see what was wrong with it until recently.

    Ignoring my sleight of hand with the definition of “I”, the real problem is clear – I just assumed off the bat that consciousness is possible without content; that experience can even exist in the absence of the details of what is experienced. But that seems like clear-as-day dualism to me now, which to my mind undermines the whole thing. So no dice – in the end, I am one of us. Problem solved, I guess, although I’m still not totally convinced that’s the end of the discussion.

    I try to wash my hands of my former self-deceiving dualism. I embrace materialism – I am my brain, and nothing more! But it seems an obvious consequence of materialism that my brain is itself nothing more than a part of the universe, in the same way that any physical object is a part of the universe – a galaxy, a star, a baseball. So what is it exactly that is conscious? If it’s my brain, then does that entail that since my brain is just a part of the universe, then in a way it’s the universe itself that is conscious? I don’t mean that in any mystical sense – whether “my” consciousness gets ascribed to just my brain or my whole body or the universe itself doesn’t change what consciousness is or how it works in any way. But the idea that the universe is consciously experiencing itself through my brain seems both exciting and logically coherent to me. And of course the upshot of this is that if it’s ultimately the universe itself that’s experiencing my conscious world, then doesn’t that mean that it’s also the universe that’s ultimately experiencing everyone else’s conscious worlds too? And might that legitimately resuscitate (albeit in a rather more metaphorical sense) all the same comforting implications of my prior misguided musings?

    I have a dim sense that I’m just toying with semantics here, and god knows I don’t know enough about mereology and what have you to say any of this part-to-whole stuff with much conviction, but I haven’t yet found the precise flaw in this way of approaching the all-of-us-are-everyone type argument. If anyone could set me straight, I’d be grateful – I’ll wait another 2 and a half years if need be.

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