Posts tagged ‘qualia’

world alterBernardo Kastrup has some marvellous invective against AI engineers in this piece…

The computer engineer’s dream of birthing a conscious child into the world without the messiness and fragility of life is an infantile delusion; a confused, partial, distorted projection of archetypal images and drives. It is the expression of the male’s hidden aspiration for the female’s divine power of creation. It represents a confused attempt to transcend the deep-seated fear of one’s own nature as a living, breathing entity condemned to death from birth. It embodies a misguided and utterly useless search for the eternal, motivated only by one’s amnesia of one’s own true nature. The fable of artificial consciousness is the imaginary band-aid sought to cover the engineer’s wound of ignorance.

I have been this engineer.

I think it’s untrue, but you don’t have to share the sentiment to appreciate the splendid rhetoric.

Kastrup distinguishes intelligence, which is a legitimate matter of inputs, outputs and the functions that connect them, from consciousness, the true what-it-is likeness of subjectivity. In essence he just doesn’t see how setting up functions in a machine can ever touch the latter.

Not that Kastrup has a closed mind, he speaks approvingly of Pentti Haikonen’s proposed architecture; he just doesn’t think it works. As Kastrup sees it Haikonen’s network merely gathers together sparks of consciousness: it then does a plausible job of bringing them together to form more complex kinds of cognition, but in Kastrup’s eyes it assumes that consciousness is there to be gathered in the first place: that it exists out there in tiny parcels amendable to this kind of treatment. There is in fact, he thinks, absolutely no reason to think that this kind of panpsychism is true: no reason to think that rocks or drops of water have any kind of conscious experience at all.

I don’t know whether that is the right way to construe Haikonen’s project (I doubt whether gathering experiential sparks is exactly what Haikonen supposed he was about). Interestingly, though Kastrup is against the normal kind of panpsychism (if the concept of  ‘normal panpsychism’ is admissible), his own view is essentially a more unusual variety.

Kastrup considers that we’re dealing with two aspects here; internal and external; our minds have both; the external is objective, the internal represents subjectivity. Why wouldn’t the world also have these two aspects? (Actually it’s hard to say why anything should have them, and we may suspect that by taking it as a given we’re in danger of smuggling half the mystery out of the problem, but let that pass.) Kastrup takes it as natural to conclude that the world as a whole must indeed have the two aspects (I think at this point he may have inadvertently ‘proved’ the existence of God in the form of a conscious cosmos, which is regrettable, but again let’s go with it for now); but not parts of the world. The brain, we know, has experience, but the groups of neurons that make it up do not (do we actually know that?); it follows that while the world as a whole has an internal aspect, objects or entities within it generally do not.

Yet of course, the brain manages to have two aspects, which must surely be something to do with the structure of the brain? May we not suspect that whatever it is that allows the brain to have an internal aspect, a machine could in principle have it too? I don’t think Kastrup engages effectively with this objection; his view seems to be that metabolism is essential, though why that should be, and why machines can’t have some form of metabolism, we don’t know.

The argument, then, doesn’t seem convincing, but it must be granted that Kastrup has an original and striking vision: our consciousnesses, he suggests, are essentially like the ‘alters’ of Dissociative Identity Disorder, better known as Multiple Personality, in which several different people seem to inhabit a single human being. We are, he says, like the accidental alternate identities of the Universe (again, I think you could say, of God, though Kastrup clearly doesn’t want to).

As with Kastrup’s condemnation of AI engineering, I don’t think at all that he is right, but it is a great idea. It is probable that in his book-length treatments of these ideas Kastrup makes a stronger case than I have given him credit for above, but I do in any case admire the originality of his thinking, and the clarity and force with which he expresses it.

knight 3This is the third in a series of four posts about key ideas from my book The Shadow of Consciousness; this one is about haecceity, or to coin a plainer term, thisness. There are strong links with the subject of the final post, which will be that ultimate mystery, reality.

Haecceity is my explanation for the oddity of subjective experience. A whole set of strange stories are supposed to persuade us that there is something in subjective experience which is inexpressible, outside of physics, and yet utterly vivid and undeniable. It’s about my inward experience of blue, which I can never prove is the same as yours; about what it is like to see red.

One of the best known thought experiments on this topic is the story of Mary the Colour Scientist. She has never seen colour, but knows everything there is to know about colour vision; when she sees a red rose for the first time, does she come to know something new? The presumed answer is yes: she now knows what it is like to see red things.

Another celebrated case asks whether I could have a ‘zombie’ twin, identical to me in every physical respect, who did not have these purely subjective aspects of experience – which are known as ‘qualia’, by the way. We’re allowed to be unsure whether zombie twin is possible, but expected to agree that he is at least conceivable; and that that’s enough to establish that there really is something extra going on, over and above the physics.

Most people, I think, accept that qualia do exist and do raise a problem, though some sceptics denounce the entire topic as more or less irretrievable nonsense. Qualia are certainly very odd; they have no causal effects, so nothing we say about them was caused by them: and they cannot be directly described. What we invariably have to do is refer to them by an objective counterpart: so we speak of the quale of hearing middle C, though middle C is in itself an irreproachably physical, describable thing (identifying the precisely correct physical counterpart for colour vision is actually rather complex, though I don’t think anyone denies that you can give a full physical account of colour vision).

I suggest we can draw two tentative conclusions about qualia. First, knowledge of qualia is like knowledge of riding a bike: it cannot be transferred in words. I can talk until I’m blue in the face about bike riding, and it may help a little, but in the end to get that knowledge you have to get on a bike. That’s because for bike riding it’s your muscles and some non-talking parts of your brain that need to learn about it; it’s a skill. We can’t say the same about qualia because experiencing them is not a skill we need to learn; but there is perhaps a common factor; you have to have really done it, you have to have been there.

Second, we cannot say anything about qualia except through their objective counterparts. This leaves a mystery about how many qualia there are. Is there a quale of scarlet and a quale of crimson? An indefinite number of red qualia? We can’t say, and since all hypotheses about the number of qualia are equally good, we ought to choose the least expensive under the terms of Occam’s Razor; the one with the fewest entities. It would follow from that that there is really only one universal quale; it provides the vivid liveliness while the objective aspects of the experience provide all the content.

So we have two provisional conclusions: all qualia are really the same thing conditioned differently by the objective features of the experience; and to know qualia you have to have ‘been there’, to have had real experience. I think it follows naturally from these two premises that qualia simply represent the particularity of experience; its haecceity. The aspect of experience which is not accounted for by any theory, including the theories of physics, is simply the actuality of experience. This is no discredit to theory: it is by definition about the general and the abstract and cannot possibly include the particular reality of any specific experience.

Does this help us with those two famous thought experiments? In Mary’s case it suggests that what she knows after seeing the rose is simply what a particular experience is like. That could never have been conveyed by theoretical knowledge. In the case of my zombie twin, the real turning point is when we’re asked to think whether he is conceivable; that transfers discussion to a conceptual, theoretical plane on which it is natural to suppose nothing has particularity.

Finally, I think this view explains why qualia are ineffable, why we can’t say anything directly about them. All speech is, as it were, second order: it’s about experiences, not the described experience itself. When we think of any objective aspect, we summon up the appropriate concepts and put them over in words; but when we attempt to convey the haecceity of an experience it drops out as soon as we move to a conceptual level. Description, for once, cannot capture what we want to convey.

There’s nothing in all this that suggests anything wrong or incomplete about physics; no need for any dualism or magic realm. In a lot of ways this is simply the sceptical case approached more cautiously and from a different angle. It does leave us with some mystery though: what is it for something to be particular; what is the nature of particularity? We’ve already said we can’t describe it effectively or reduce it theoretically, but surely there must be something we can do to apprehend it better? This is the problem of reality…

[Many thanks to Sergio for the kind review here. Many thanks also to the generous people who have given me good reviews on; much appreciated!]

Locke with flowersThe problem of qualia is in itself a very old one, but it is expressed in new terms.  My impression is that the actual word ‘qualia’ only began to be widely used (as a hot new concept) in the 1970s.  The question of whether the colours you experience in your mind are the same as the ones I experience in mine, on the other hand, goes back a long way. I’m not aware of any ancient discussions, though I should not be at all surprised to hear that there is one in, say, Sextus Empiricus (if you know one please mention it): I think the first serious philosophical exposition of the issue is Locke’s in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

“Neither would it carry any imputation of falsehood to our simple ideas, if by the different structure of our organs, it were so ordered, that the same object should produce in several men’s minds different ideas at the same time; e.g. If the idea, that a violet produced in one man’s mind by his eyes, were the same that a marigold produces in another man’s, and vice versa. For since this could never be known: because one man’s mind could not pass into another man’s body, to perceive, what appearances were produced by those organs; neither the ideas hereby, nor the names, would be at all confounded, or any falsehood be in either. For all things, that had the texture of a violet, producing constantly the idea, which he called blue, and those that had the texture of a marigold, producing constantly the idea, which he as constantly called yellow, whatever those appearances were in his mind; he would be able as regularly to distinguish things for his use by those appearances, and understand, and signify those distinctions, marked by the names blue and yellow, as if the appearances, or ideas in his mind, received from those two flowers, were exactly the same, with the ideas in other men’s minds.”

Interestingly, Locke chose colours which are (near enough) opposites on the spectrum; this inverted spectrum form of the case has been highly popular in recent decades.  It’s remarkable that Locke put the problem in this sophisticated form; he managed to leap to a twentieth-century outlook from a standing start, in a way. It’s also surprising that he got in so early: he was, after all, writing less than twenty years after the idea of the spectrum was first put forward by Isaac Newton. It’s not surprising that Locke should know about the spectrum; he was an enthusiastic supporter of Newton’s ideas, and somewhat distressed by his own inability to follow them in the original. Newton, no courter of popularity, deliberately expressed his theories in terms that were hard for the layman, and scientifically speaking, that’s what Locke was. Alas, it seems the gap between science and philosophy was already apparent even before science had properly achieved a separate existence: Newton would still have called himself a natural philosopher, I think, not a scientist.

It’s hard to be completely sure that Locke did deliberately pick colours that were opposite on the spectrum – he doesn’t say so, or call attention to their opposition (there might even be some room for debate about whether  ‘blue’ and ‘yellow are really opposite) but it does seem at least that he felt that strongly contrasting colours provided  a good example, and in that respect at least he anticipated many future discussions. The reason so many modern  theorists like the idea is that they believe a switch of non-opposite colour qualia would be detectable, because the spectrum would no longer be coherent, while inverting the whole thing preserves all the relationships intact and so leaves the change undetectable. Myself, I think this argument is a mistake, inadvertently transferring to qualia the spectral structure which actually belongs to the objective counterparts of colour qualia. The qualia themselves have to be completely indistinguishable, so it doesn’t matter whether we replace yellow qualia with violet or orange ones, or for that matter, with the quale of the smell of violets.

Strangely enough though Locke was not really interested in the problem; on the contrary, he set it out only because he was seeking to dismiss it as an irrelevance. His aim, in context, was to argue that simple perceptions cannot be wrong, and the possibility of inconsistent colour judgements – one person seeing blue where another saw yellow – seemed to provide a potential counter-argument which he needed to eliminate. If one person sees red where another sees green, surely at least one of them must be wrong? Locke’s strategy was to admit that different people might have different ideas for the same percept (nowadays we would probably refer to these subjective ideas of percepts as qualia), but to argue that it doesn’t matter because they will always agree about which colour is, in fact yellow, so it can’t properly be said that their ideas are wrong. Locke, we can say, was implicitly arguing that qualia are not worth worrying about, even for philosophical purposes.

This ‘so what?’ line of thought is still perfectly tenable. We could argue that two people looking at the same rose will not only agree that it is red, but also concur that they are both experiencing red qualia; so the fact that inwardly their experiences might differ is literally of no significance – obviously of no practical significance, but arguably also metaphysically nugatory. I don’t know of anyone who espouses this disengaged kind of scepticism, though; more normally people who think qualia don’t matter go on to argue that they don’t exist, either. Perhaps the importance we attach to the issue is a sign of how our attitudes to consciousness have changed: it was itself a matter of no great importance or interest to Locke.  I believe consciousness acquired new importance with the advent of serious computers, when it became necessary to find some quality  with which we could differentiate ourselves from machines. Subjective experience fit the bill nicely.


Banca RuritaniaPersonhood Week, at National Geographic is a nice set of short pieces briefly touring the issues around the crucial but controversial issue of what constitutes a person.

You won’t be too surprised to hear that in my view personhood is really all about consciousness. The core concept for me is that a person is a source of intentions – intentions in the ordinary everyday sense rather than in the fancy philosophical sense of intentionality (though that too).  A person is an actual or potential agent, an entity that seeks to bring about deliberate outcomes. There seems to be a bit of a spectrum here; at the lower level it looks as if some animals have thoughtful and intentional behaviour of the kind that would qualify them for a kind of entry-level personhood. At its most explicit, personhood implies the ability to articulate complicated contracts and undertake sophisticated responsibilities: this is near enough the legal conception. The law, of course, extends the idea of a person beyond mere human beings, allowing a form of personhood to corporate entities, which are able to make binding agreements, own property, and even suffer criminal liability. Legal persons of this kind are obviously not ‘real’ ones in some sense, and I think the distinction corresponds with the philosophical distinction between original (or intrinsic, if we’re bold) and derived intentionality. The latter distinction comes into play mainly when dealing with meaning. Books and pictures are about things, they have meanings and therefore intentionality, but their meaningfulness is derived: it comes only from the intentions of the people who interpret them, whether their creators or their ‘audience’.  My thoughts, by contrast, really just mean things, all on their own and however anyone interprets them: their intentionality is original or intrinsic.

So, at least, most people would say (though others would energetically contest that description). In a similar way my personhood is real or intrinsic: I just am a person; whereas the First Central Bank of Ruritania has legal personhood only because we have all agreed to treat it that way. Nevertheless, the personhood of the Ruritanian Bank is real (hypothetically, anyway; I know Ruritania does not exist – work with me on this), unlike that of, say, the car Basil Fawlty thrashed with a stick, which is merely imaginary and not legally enforceable.

Some, I said, would contest that picture: they might argue that ;a source of intentions makes no sense because ‘people’ are not really sources of anything; that we are all part of the universal causal matrix and nothing comes of nothing. Really, they would say, our own intentions are just the same as those of Banca Prima Centrale Ruritaniae; it’s just that ours are more complex and reflexive – but the fact that we’re deeming ourselves to be people doesn’t make it any the less a matter of deeming.  I don’t think that’s quite right – just because intentions don’t feature in physics doesn’t mean they aren’t rational and definable entities – but in any case it surely isn’t a hit against my definition of personhood; it just means there aren’t really any people.

Wait a minute, though. Suppose Mr X suffers a terrible brain injury which leaves him incapable of forming any intentions (whether this is actually possible is an interesting question: there are some examples of people with problems that seem like this; but let’s just help ourselves to the hypothesis for the time being). He is otherwise fine: he does what he’s told and if supervised can lead a relatively normal-seeming life. He retains all his memories, he can feel normal sensations, he can report what he’s experienced, he just never plans or wants anything. Would such a man no longer be a person?

I think we are reluctant to say so because we feel that, contrary to what I suggested above, agency isn’t really necessary, only conscious experience. We might have to say that Mr X loses his legal personhood in some senses; we might no longer hold him responsible or accept his signature as binding, rather in the way that we would do for a young child: but he would surely retain the right to be treated decently, and to kill or injure him would be the same crime as if committed against anyone else.  Are we tempted to say that there are really two grades of personhood that happen to coincide in human beings,  a kind of ‘Easy Problem’ agent personhood on the one hand and a ‘Hard Problem’ patient personhood?  I’m tempted, but the consequences look severely unattractive. Two different criteria for personhood would imply that I’m a person in two different ways simultaneously, but if personhood is anything, it ought to be single, shouldn’t it? Intuitively and introspectively it seems that way. I’d feel a lot happier if I could convince myself that the two criteria cannot be separated, that Mr X is not really possible.

What about Robot X? Robot X has no intentions of his own and he also has no feelings. He can take in data, but his sensory system is pretty simple and we can be pretty sure that we haven’t accidentally created a qualia-experiencing machine. He has no desires of his own, not even a wish to serve, or avoid harming human beings, or anything like that. Left to himself he remains stationary indefinitely, but given instructions he does what he’s told: and if spoken to, he passes the Turing Test with flying colours. In fact, if we ask him to sit down and talk to us, he is more than capable of debating his own personhood, showing intelligence, insight, and understanding at approximately human levels. Is he a person? Would we hesitate over switching him off or sending him to the junk yard?

Perhaps I’m cheating. Robot X can talk to us intelligently, which implies that he can deal with meanings. If he can deal with meanings, he must have intentionality, and if he has that perhaps he must, contrary to what I said, be able to form intentions after all – so perhaps the conditions I stipulated aren’t possible after all? And then, how does he generate intentions, as a matter of fact? I don’t know, but on one theory intentionality is rooted in desires or biological drives. The experience of hunger is just primally about food, and from that kind of primitive aboutness all the fancier kinds are built up. Notice that it’s the experience of hunger, so arguably if you had no feelings you couldn’t get started on intentionality either! If all that is right, neither Robot X nor Mr X is really as feasible as they might seem: but it still seems a bit worrying to me.

pixelated eyeYou’ve heard of splitting the atom: W. Alex Escobar wants to split the quale. His recent paper (short article here) proposes that in order to understand subjective experience we may need to break it down into millions of tiny units of experience.  He proposes a neurological model which to my naive eyes seems reasonable: the extraordinary part is really the phenomenology.

Like a lot of qualia theorists Escobar seems to have based his view squarely on visual experience, and the idea of micro-qualia is perhaps inspired by the idea of pixels in digitised images, or other analytical image-handling techniques.  Why would the idea help explain qualia?

I don’t think Escobar explains this very directly, at least from a philosophical point of view, but you can see why the idea might appeal to some people. Panexperientialists, for example, take the view that there are tiny bits of experience everywhere, so the idea that our minds assemble complex experiences out of micro-qualia might be quite congenial to them.  As we know, Christof Koch says that consciousness arises from the integration of information, so perhaps he would see Escobar’s theory as offering a potentially reasonable phenomenal view of the same process.

Unfortunately Escobar has taken a wrong turning, as others have done before, and isn’t really talking about ineffable qualia at all: instead, we might say he is merely effing the effable.

Ineffability, the quality of being inexpressible, is a defining characteristic of qualia as canonically understood in the philosophical literature. I cannot express to you what redness is like to me; if I could, you would be able to tell whether it was the same as your experience. If qualia could be expressed, my zombie twin  (who has none) would presumably become aware of their absence; when asked what it was like to see red, he would look puzzled and admit he didn’t really know, whereas ex hypothesi he gives the same fluent and lucidly illuminating answers that I do – in spite of not having the things we’re both talking about.

Qualia, in fact, have no causal effects and cannot be part of the scientific story. That doesn’t mean Escobar’s science is wrong or uninteresting, just that what he’s calling qualia aren’t really the philosophically slippery items of experience we keep chasing in vain in our quest for consciousness.

Alright, but setting that aside, is it possible that real qualia could be made up of many micro-qualia? No, it absolutely isn’t! In physics, a table can seem to be a single thing but actually be millions of molecules.  Similarly, what looks like a flat expanse of uniform colour on a screen may actually be thousands of pixels. But qualia are units of experience; what they seem like is what they are. They don’t seem like a cloud of micro-qualia, and so they aren’t. Now there could be some neuronal or psychological story going on at a lower level which did involve micro units; but that wouldn’t make qualia themselves splittable. What they are like is all there is to them; they can’t have a hidden nature.

Alas, Escobar could not have noticed that, because he was too busy effing the Effable.

What follows is a draft passage which might eventually form part of a longer piece: I’d appreciate any feedback. – Peter


scribeLet’s ask a stupid question that may not even be answerable. How many qualia are there? It is generally assumed, I think, that this is like asking how long  is a piece of string: that there is an indefinite multiplicity of qualia, that in fact, for every distinguishable sensation there is a matching distinct quale.

As we know, colour is always to the fore in these discussions, and the most common basic example of a quale is probably the colour quale we experience when we see a red rose. I think it is uncontroversial that all sensory experiences come with qualia (uncontroversial among those who believe in qualia at all, that is), although the basis for that appears to be purely empirical; I’m not aware of any arguments to show that all categories of sensory experience must necessarily come with qualia. It would be interesting and perhaps enlightening if some explorers of the phenomenal world reported that, say, the taste of pure water had no accompanying qualia – or that for some, slightly zombish people it had none, while for others it had the full complement of definite phenomenal qualities. To date that has not happened (and perhaps it can’t happen?); it seems to be universally agreed that if qualia exist at all, they accompany every sensory experience.

I think it is generally believed that feelings, phenomenal states with no direct relation to details of the external world, have qualia too. Pain qualia are often discussed, with feelings of hunger and pleasure getting occasional mentions; qualia of emotions are also mentioned without provoking controversy. It seems in fact that all experience is generally taken to have accompanying qualia, including dream or hallucinatory experience, and perhaps even certain memories.

In fact there seems to be an interesting, debatable borderline in memory. Vividly recalling a piece of music in real time seems, I would say, to have the same qualia as hearing it live through the ears (Or are the qualia of memories fainter? Do qualia, as a matter of fact, vary in intensity? Or is that idea a kind of contamination from the effable experiences that pair with each quale? It could be so, but then if there is no variation in intensity qualia must be sort of binary, fully on at all times – or fully off – and that doesn’t feel quite right either.) In general the same might be claimed for all those memories that involve some ‘replay’ of experience or feelings; the replay has qualia. Where nothing is held before our attention, on the other hand, there’s nothing. The act of merely summoning up a PIN number as we use it does not have its own qualia; there’s nothing it is like to recall a password, though there might be something it is like to search the memory for one, and something unpleasant it is like to panic when we fail.

There is certainly room for some phenomenological exploration around these areas, but that more or less exhausts the domain of qualia as I understand it to be generally recognised. I think, however, that it actually stretches a little further than that. There is, in my view, something it is like to be me, something properly ineffable and separable from all the particular sensations and feelings that being me entails. If this is indeed a quale (and of course since this is an ineffable matter I can only appeal to the reader’s own introspective research) then I think it’s in a category of its own. We might be tempted to assimilate it to the feelings, and say it’s the feeling of existing. Or perhaps we might think it’s simply the quale that goes with proprioception, the complex but essential sense that tells us where our body is at any moment. Those are respectable qualia no doubt, but I believe there’s a quale of being me that goes beyond them.

To that we can add a related and problematic entity which uniquely links the Hard and Easy problems, a phenomenal state we could call the executive quale, that of being in charge. We feel that consciousness is effective, that our conscious decisions have real heft in respect of our behaviour.

This, I think, is the very thing that many people are concerned to deny: the feeling of being causally effective; but to date I don’t think it has been regarded as a quale. For some people, who wish to deny both real agency and real subjectivity, the conjunction will seem logical and appealing – to others perhaps less so…

structureKristjan Loorits says he has a solution to the Hard Problem, and it’s all about structure.

His framing of the problem is that it’s about the incompatibility of three plausible theses:

  1. all the objects of physics and other natural sciences can be fully analyzed in terms of structure and relations, or simply, in structural terms.
  2. consciousness is (or has) something over and above its structure and relations.
  3. the existence and nature of consciousness can be explained in terms of natural sciences.

At first sight it may look a bit odd to make structure so central. In effect Loorits claims that the distinguishing character of entities within science is structure, while qualia are monadic – single, unanalysable, unconnected. He says that he cannot think of anything within physics that lacks structure in this way – and if anyone could come up with such a thing it would surely be regarded as another item in the peculiar world of qualia rather than something within ordinary physics.

Loorits approach has the merit of keeping things at the most general level possible, so that it works for any future perfected science as well as the unfinished version we know at the moment. I’m not sure he is right to see qualia as necessarily monadic, though. One of th best known arguments for the existence of qualia is the inverted spectrum. If all the colours were swapped for their opposites within one person’s brain – green for red, and so on – how could we ever tell? The swappee would still refer to the sky as blue, in spite of experiencing what the rest of us would call orange. Yet we cannot – can we? – say that there is no difference between the experience of blue and the experience of orange.

Now when people make that argument, going right back to Locke, they normally chose inversion because that preserves all the relationships between colours.  Adding or subtracting colours produce results which are inverted for the swappee, but consistently. There is a feeling that the argument would not work if we merely took out cerulean from the spectrum and put in puce instead, because then the spectrum would look odd to the swappee.  We most certainly could not remove the quale of green and replace it with the quale of cherry flavour or the quale of distant trumpets; such substitutions would be obvious and worrying (or so people seem to think). If that’s all true then it seems qualia do have structural relationships: they sort of borrow those of their objective counterparts.  Quite how or why that should be is an interesting issue in itself, but at any rate it looks doubtful whether we can safely claim that qualia are monadic.

Nevertheless, I think Loorits’ set-up is basically reasonable: in a way he is echoing the view that mental content lacks physical location and extension, an opinion that goes back to Descartes and was more recently presented in a slightly different form by McGinn.

For his actual theory he rests on the views of Crick and Koch, though he is not necessarily committed to them. The mysterious privacy of qualia, in his view, amounts to our having information about our mental states which we cannot communicate. When we see a red rose, the experience is constituted by the activity of a bunch of neurons. But in addition, a lot of other connected neurons raise their level of activity: not enough to pass the threshold for entering into consciousness, but enough to have some effect. It is this penumbra of subliminal neural activity that constitutes the inexpressible qualia. Since this activity is below the level of consciousness it cannot be reported and has no explicit causal effects on our behaviour; but it can affect our attitudes and emotions in less visible ways.

It therefore turns out that qualia re indeed not monadic after all; they do have structure and relations, just not ones that are visible to us.

Interestingly, Loorits goes on to propose an empirical test. He mentions an example quoted by Dennett: a chord on the guitar sound like a single thing, but when we hear the three notes played separately first, we become able to ‘hear’ them separately within the chord. On Loorits’ view, part of what happens here is that hearing the notes separately boosts some of the neuronal activity which was originally subliminal so that we become aware of it: when we go back to the chord we’re now aware of a little more information about why it sounds as it does, and the qualic mystery of the original chord is actually slightly diminished.

Couldn’t there be a future machine that elucidated qualia in this way but more effectively, asks Loorits?  Such a machine would scan our brain while we were looking at the rose and note the groups of neurons whose activity increased only to subliminal levels. Then it could directly stimulate each of these areas to tip them over the limit into consciousness. For us the invisible experiences that made up our red quale would be played back into our consciousness, and when we had been through them we should finally understand why the red quale was what it was: we should know what seeing red was like and be able for the first time to describe it effectively.

Fascinating idea, but I can’t imagine what it would be like; and there’s the rub, perhaps. I think a true qualophile would say, yes, all very well, but once we’ve got your complete understanding of the red experience, there’s still going to be something over and above it all; the qualia will still somehow escape.

The truth is that Loorits’ theory is not really an explanation of qualia: it’s a sceptical explanation of why we think we have qualia. This becomes clear, if it wasn’t already, when he reviews the philosophical arguments: he doesn’t, for example, think philosophical zombies, people exactly like us but without qualia, are actually possible.

That is a perfectly respectable point of view, with a great deal to be said for it. If we are sceptics,  Loorits’ theory provides an exceptionally clear and sensible underpinning for our disbelief; it might even turn out to be testable. But I don’t think it will end the argument.


scalpelExistential Comics raises an interesting question (thanks to Micha for pointing it out). In the strip a doctor with a machine that measures consciousness (rather like Tononi’s new machine, except that that measures awareness) tells an unlucky patient he lacks the consciousness-producing part of the brain altogether. Consequently, the doctor says, he is legally allowed to harvest the patient’s organs.

Would that be right?

We can take it that what the patient lacks is consciousness in the ‘Hard Problem’ sense. He can talk and behave quite normally, it’s just that when he experiences things there isn’t ‘something it is like’; there’s no real phenomenal experience. In fact, he is a philosophical zombie, and for the sake of clarity I take him to be a strict zombie; one of the kind who are absolutely like their normal human equivalent in every important detail except for lacking qualia (the cartoon sort of suggests otherwise, since it implies an actual part of the brain is missing, but I’m going to ignore that).

Would lack of qualia mean you also lacked human rights and could be treated like an animal, or worse? It seems to me that while lack of qualia might affect your standing as a moral object (because it would bear on whether you could suffer, for example), it wouldn’t stop you being a full-fledged moral subject (you would still have agency). I think I would consequently draw a distinction between the legal and the moral answer. Legally, I can’t see any reason why the absence of qualia would make any difference. Legal personhood, rights and duties are all about actions and behaviour, which takes us squarely into the realm of the Easy Problem. Our zombie friend is just like us in these respects; there’s no reason why he can’t enter into contracts, suffer punishments, or take on responsibilities. The law is a public matter; it is forensic – it deals with the things dealt with in the public forum; and it follows that it has nothing to say about the incorrigibly private matter of qualia.

Of course the doctor’s machine changes all that and makes qualia potentially a public matter (which is one reason why we might think the machine is inherently absurd, since public qualia are almost a contradiction in terms). It could be that the doctor is appealing to some new, recently-agreed legislation which explicitly takes account of his equipment and its powers. If so, such legislation would presumably have to have been based on moral arguments, so whichever way we look at it, it is to the moral discussion that we must turn.

This is a good deal more complicated. Why would we suppose that phenomenal experience has moral significance? There is a general difficulty because the zombie has experiences too. In conditions when a normal human would feel fear, he trembles and turns pale; he smiles and relaxes under the influence of pleasure; he registers everything that we all register. He writes love poetry and tells us convincingly about his feelings and tastes. It’s just that, on the inside, everything is hollow and void. But because real phenomenal experience always goes along with zombie-style experience, it’s hard for us to find any evidence as to why one matters when the other doesn’t.

The question also depends critically on what ethical theories we adopt. We might well take the view that our existing moral framework is definitive, authorised by God or tradition, and therefore if it says nothing about qualia, we should take no account of them either. No new laws are necessary, and there can be no moral reason to allow the harvesting of organs.

In this respect I believe it is the case that medieval legislatures typically saw themselves, not as making new laws, but as rediscovering the full version of old ones, or following out the implications of existing laws for new circumstances. So when the English parliamentarians wanted to argue against Charles I’s Ship Tax, rather than rest their case on inequity, fiscal distortion, or political impropriety, they appealed to a dusty charter of Ine, ancient ruler of Wessex (regrettably they referred to Queen Ine, whereas he had in fact been a robustly virile King).

Even within a traditional moral framework, therefore, we might find some room to argue that new circumstances called for some clarification; but I think we would find it hard going to argue for the harvesting.

What if we were utilitarians, those people who say that morality is acting to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number? Here we have a very different problem because the utilitarians are more than happy to harvest your organs anyway if by doing so they can save more than one person, no matter whether you have qualia or not. This unattractive kind of behaviour is why most people who espouse a broadly utilitarian framework build in some qualifications (they might say that while organ harvesting is good in principle actual human aversion to it would mean that in practice it did not conduce to happiness overall, for example).

The interesting point is whether zombie happiness counts towards the utilitarian calculation. Some might take the view that without qualia it had no real value, so that the zombie’s happiness figure should be taken as zero. Unfortunately there is no obvious answer here; it just depends what kind of happiness you think is important. In fact some consequentialists take the utilitarian system but plug into it desiderata other than happiness anyway. It can be argued that old-fashioned happiness utilitarianism would lead to us all sitting in boxes that directly stimulated our pleasure centres, so something more abstract seems to be needed; some even just speak of ‘utility’ without making it any more specific.

No clear answer then, but it looks as if qualia might at least be relevant to a utilitarian.

What about the Kantians? Kant, to simplify somewhat, thought we should act in accordance with the kind of moral rules we should want other people to adopt. So, we should be right to harvest the organs so long as we were content that if we ourselves turned out to be zombies, the same thing would happen to us. Now I can imagine that some people might attach such value to qualia that they might convince themselves they should agree to this proposition; but in general the answer is surely negative. We know that zombies behave exactly like ordinary people, so they would not for the most part agree to having their organs harvested; so we can say with confidence that if I were a zombie I should still tell the doctor to desist.

I think that’s about as far as I can reasonably take the moral survey within the scope of a blog post. At the end of the day, are qualia morally relevant? People certainly talk as if they are in some way fundamental to value. “Qualia are what make my life worth living” they say: unfortunately we know that zombies would say exactly the same.

I think most people, deliberately or otherwise, will simply not draw a distinction between real phenomenal experience on one hand and the objective experience of the kind a zombie can have on the other. Our view of the case will in fact be determined by what we think about people with and without feelings of both kinds, rather than people with and without qualia specifically. If so, qualia sceptics may find that grist to their mill.

Micha has made some interesting comments which I hope he won’t mind me reproducing.

The question of deontology vs consequentialism might be involved. A deontologist has less reason — although still some — to care about the content of the victim’s mind. Animals are also objects of morality; so the whole question may be quantitative, not qualitative.

Subjects like ethics aren’t easy for me to discuss philosophically to someone of another faith. Orthodox Judaism, like traditional Islam, is a legally structured religion. Therefore ethics aren’t discussed in the same language as in western society, since how the legal system processes revelation impacts conclusion.

In this case, it seems relevant that the talmud says that someone who kills adnei-hasadeh (literally: men of the field) is as guilty of murder as someone who kills a human being. It’s unclear what the talmud is referring to: it may be a roman mythical being who is like a human, but with an umbilicus that grows down to roots into the earth, or perhaps an orangutan — from the Malay for “man of the jungle”, or some other ape. Whatever it is, only actual human beings are presumed to have free will. And yet killing one qualifies as murder, not the killing of an animal.

poppyIt may be a little off our usual beat, but Graham Hancock’s piece in the New Statesman (longer version here) raised some interesting thoughts.

It’s the ‘war on drugs’ that is Hancock’s real target, but he says it’s really a war on consciousness…

This extraordinary imposition on adult cognitive liberty is justified by the idea that our brain activity, disturbed by drugs, will adversely impact our behaviour towards others. Yet anyone who pauses to think seriously for even a moment must realize that we already have adequate laws that govern adverse behaviour towards others and that the real purpose of the “war on drugs” must therefore be to bear down on consciousness itself.

That doesn’t seem quite right. It’s true there are weak arguments for laws against drugs – some of them based on bad consequences that arguably arise from the laws rather than the drugs – but there are reasonable ones, too. The bedrock point is that taking a lot of psychoactive drugs is probably bad for you. Hancock and many others might say that we should have the right to harm ourselves, or at any rate to risk harm, if we don’t hurt anyone else, but that principle is not, I think, generally accepted by most legislatures. Moreover there are special arguments in the case of drugs. One is that they are addictive.  ‘Addiction’ is used pretty widely these days to cover any kind of dependency or habit, but I believe the original meaning was that an addict became physically dependent, unable to stop taking the drug without serious, possibly even fatal consequences, while at the same time ever larger doses were needed to achieve relief. That is clearly not a good way to go, and it’s a case where leaving people to make up their own minds doesn’t really work because of the dependency. Secondly, drugs may affect the user’s judgement and for that reason too should arguably be a case where people are not left to judge risks for themselves.

Now, as a matter of fact neither of those arguments may apply in the case of some restricted drugs – they may not be addictive in that strongest sense and they may not remove the user’s ability to judge risks; and the risks themselves may in some cases have been overstated; but we don’t have to assume that governments are simply set on denying us the benefits of enhanced consciousness.

What would those benefits be? They might be knowledge, enhanced cognition, or simple pleasure. We could also reverse the argument that Hancock attributes to our rulers and suggest that drugs make people less likely to harm others. People who are lying around admiring the wallpaper in a confused manner are not out committing crimes, after all.

Enhanced cognition might work up to a point in some cases: certain drugs really do help dispel fatigue or anxiety and sharpen concentration in the short term. But the really interesting possibility for us is that drug use might allow different kinds of cognition and knowledge. I think the evidence on fathoming the secrets of the Universe is rather discouraging. Drugs may often make people feel as if they understand everything, but it never seems to be possible to write the insights down. Where they are written down, they turn out to be like the secret of the cosmos apprehended by Oliver Wendell Holmes under the influence of ether; later he discovered his notes read “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout”.

But perhaps we’re not dealing with that kind of knowledge. Perhaps instead drugs can offer us the kind of ineffable knowledge we get from qualia? Mary the colour scientist is said to know something new once she has seen red for the first time; not something about colour that could have been written down, or ex hypothesi she would have known it already, but what it is like. Perhaps drugs allow us to experience more qualia, or even super qualia; to know what things are like whose existence we should not otherwise have suspected. Terry Pratchett introduced the word ‘knurd’ to describe the state of being below zero on the drunkenness scale; needing a drink to bring you up to the normal mental condition: perhaps philosophical zombies, who experience no qualia, are simply in a similar state with respect to certain drugs.

That seems plausible enough, but it raises the implication that normal qualia are also in fact delusions (not an uncongenial implication for some). For drugs there is a wider problem of non-veridicality. We know that drugs can cause hallucinations, and as mentioned above, can impart feelings of understanding without the substance. What if it’s all like that? What if drug experiences are systematically false? What if we don’t really have any new knowledge or any new experiences on drugs, we just feel as if we have? For that matter, what about pleasure? What if drugs give us a false memory of having had a good time – or what if they make us think we’re having a good time now although in reality we’re not enjoying it at all? You may well feel that last one is impossible, but it doesn’t pay to underestimate the tricksiness of the mind.

Well, many people would say that the feeling of having had a good time is itself worth having, even if the factual element of the feeling is false. So perhaps in the same way we can say that even if qualia are delusions, they’re valuable ones. Perhaps the exalted places to which drugs take us are imaginary; but just because somewhere doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it isn’t worth going there. For myself I generally prefer the truth (no argument for that, just a preference) and I think I generally get it most reliably when sober and undrugged.

Hancock, at any rate, has another kind of knowledge in mind. He suggests that the brain may turn out to be, not a generator of consciousness but rather a receiver, tuned in to the psychic waves where, I assume, our spiritual existence is sustained. Drugs, he proposes, might possibly allow us to twiddle the knobs on our mental apparatus so as to receive messages from others: different kinds of being or perhaps people in other dimensions. I’m not quite clear where he draws the line between receiving and existing, or whether we should take ourselves to be in the brain or in the spiritual ether. If we’re in the brain, then the signals we’re receiving are a form of outside control which doesn’t sound very nice: but if we’re really in the ether then when the signals from other beings are being received by the brain we ought to lose consciousness, or at least lose control of our bodies, not just pick up a message. No doubt Hancock could clarify, given a chance, but it looks as if there’s a bit of work to be done.

But let’s not worry too much, because the idea of the brain as a mere receiver seems highly dubious.  We know now that very detailed neuronal activity is associated with very specific mental content, and as time goes on that association becomes ever sharper. This means that if the brain is a receiver the signals it receives must be capable of influencing a vast collection of close-packed neurons in incredibly exquisite detail. It’s only fair to remember that a neurologist as distinguished as Sir John Eccles, not all that long ago, thought this was exactly what was happening; but to me it seems incompatible with ordinary physics. We can manipulate small areas of the brain from outside with suitable equipment, but dictating its operation at this level of detail, and without any evident physical intervention seems too much. Hancock says the possibility has not been disproved, and for certain standards of proof that’s right; but I reckon by the provisional standards that normally apply for science we can rule out the receiver thesis.

Speaking of manipulating the brain from outside, it seems inevitable to me that within a few years we shall have external electronic means of simulating the effects of certain drugs, or at least of deranging normal mental operation in a diverting and agreeable way. You’ll be able to slip on a helmet, flick a switch, and mess with your mind in all sorts of ways. They might call it e-drugs or something similar, but you’ll no longer need to buy dodgy chemicals at an exorbitant mark-up. What price the war on drugs or on consciousness then?

dennettProfessors are too polite. So Daniel Dennett reckons. When leading philosophers or other academics meet, they feel it would be rude to explain their theories thoroughly to each other, from the basics up. That would look as if you thought your eminent colleague hadn’t grasped some of the elementary points. So instead they leap in and argue on the basis of an assumed shared understanding that isn’t necessarily there. The result is that they talk past each other and spend time on profitless misunderstandings.

Dennett has a cunning trick to sort this out. He invites the professors to explain their ideas to a selected group of favoured undergraduates (‘Ew; he sounds like Horace Slughorn’ said my daughter); talking to undergraduates they are careful to keep it clear and simple and include an exposition of any basic concepts they use. Listening in, the other professors understand what their colleagues really mean, perhaps for the first time, and light dawns at last.

It seems a good trick to me (and for the undergraduates, yes, by ‘good’ I mean both clever and beneficial); in his new book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking Dennett seems covertly to be playing another. The book offers itself as a manual or mental tool-kit offering tricks and techniques for thinking about problems, giving examples of how to use them. In the examples, Dennett runs through a wide selection of his own ideas, and the cunning old fox clearly hopes that in buying his tools, the reader will also take up his theories. (Perhaps this accessible popular presentation will even work for some of those recalcitrant profs, with whom Dennett has evidently grown rather tired of arguing…. heh, heh!)

So there’s a hidden agenda, but in addition the ‘intuition pumps’ are not always as advertised. Many of them actually deserve a more flattering description because they address the reason, not the intuition. Dennett is clear enough that some of the techniques he presents are rather more than persuasive rhetoric, but at least one reviewer was confused enough to think that Reduction ad Absurdum was being presented as an intuition pump – which is rather a slight on a rigorous logical argument: a bit like saying Genghis Khan was among the more influential figures in Mongol society.

It seems to me, moreover, that most of the tricks on offer are not really techniques for thinking, but methods of presentation or argumentation. I find it hard to imagine someone trying to solve a problem by diligently devising thought-experiments and working through the permutations; that’s a method you use when you think you know the answer and want to find ways to convince others.

What we get in practice is a pretty comprehensive collection of snippets; a sort of Dennettian Greatest Hits. Some of the big arguments in philosophy of mind are dropped as being too convoluted and fruitless to waste more time on, but we get the memorable bits of many of Dennett’s best thought-experiments and rebuttals.  Not all of these arguments benefit from being taken out of the context of a more systematic case, and here and there – it’s inevitable I suppose – we find the remix or late cover version is less successful than the original. I thought this was especially so in the case of the Giant Robot; to preserve yourself in a future emergency you build a wandering robot to carry you around in suspended animation for a few centuries. The robot needs to survive in an unpredictable world, so you end up having to endow it with all the characteristics of a successful animal; and you are in a sense playing the part of the Selfish Gene. Such a machine would be able to deal with meanings and intentionality just the way you do, wouldn’t it? Well, in this brief version I don’t really see why or, perhaps more important, how.

Dennett does a bit better with arguments against intrinsic intentionality, though I don’t think his arguments succeed in establishing that there is no difference between original and derived intentionality. If Dennett is right, meaning would be built up in our brains through the interaction of gradually more meaningful layers of homunculi; OK (maybe), but that’s still quite different to what happens with derived intentionality, where things get to mean something because of an agreed convention or an existing full-fledged intention.

Dennett, as he acknowledges, is not always good at following the maxims he sets out. An early chapter is given over to the rules set out by Anatol Rapoport, most notably:

You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

As someone on Metafilter said, when Dan Dennett does that for Christianity, I’ll enjoy reading it; but there was one place in the current book where I thought Dennett fell short on understanding the opposition. He suggests that Kasparov’s way of thinking about chess is probably the same as Deep Blue’s in the end. What on earth could provoke one to say that they were obviously different, he protests. Wishful thinking? Fear? Well, no need to suppose so: we know that the hardware (brain versus computer) is completely different and runs a different kind of process; we know the capacities of computer and brain are different and, in spite of an argument from Dennett to the contrary, we know the heuristics are significantly different. We know that decisions in Kasparov’s case involve consciousness, while Deep Blue lacks it entirely. So, maybe the processes are the same in the end, but there are some pretty good prima facie reasons to say they look very different.

One section of the book naturally talks about evolution, and there’s good stuff, but it’s still a twentieth century, Dawkinsian vision Dennett is trading in. Can it be that Dennett of all people is not keeping up with the science? There’s no sign here of the epigenetic revolution; we’re still in a world where it’s all about discrete stretches of DNA. That DNA, moreover, got to be the way it is through random mutation; no news has come in of the great struggle with the viruses which we now know has left its wreckage all across the human genome, and more amazing,  has contributed some vital functional stretches without which we wouldn’t be what we are. It’s a pity because that seems like a story that should appeal to Dennett, with his pandemonic leanings.

Still, there’s a lot to like; I found myself enjoying the book more and more as it went on and the pretence of being a thinking manual dropped away a bit.  Naturally some of Dennett’s old attacks on qualia are here, and for me they still get the feet tapping. I liked Mr Clapgras, either a new argument or more likely one I missed first time round; he suffers a terrible event in which all his emotional and empathic responses to colour are inverted without his actual perception of colour changing at all. Have his qualia been inverted – or are they yet another layer of experience? There’s really no way of telling and for Dennett the question is hardly worth asking. When we got to Dennett’s reasonable defence of compatibilism over free will, I was on my feet and cheering.

I don’t think this book supersedes Consciousness Explained if you want to understand Dennett’s views on consciousness. You may come away from reading it with your thinking powers enhanced, but it will be because your mental muscles have been stretched and used, not really because you’ve got a handy new set of tools. But if you’re a Dennett fan or just like a thoughtful and provoking read, it’s worth a look.