Monday, August 14, 2006

Are Salty Experiences Salty? Are Square Experiences Square?

It has often been noticed -- I won't try to track down the history of this observation, but Ned Block and David Chalmers come to mind, and Ignacio Prado states it nicely in a comment on my Aug. 7 post about Dennett on fictions -- that the language in which we describe sensory experience is often derivative of the language we use to describe the objects sensed. Asked to describe the taste experience I have biting into a potato chip, I might say "salty". Now probably I don't (or shouldn't?) mean that my experience itself is salty. Rather, it's the potato chip that's salty. My experience is only "salty" in the sense that it's the kind of experience typically caused by salty things -- it's an experience of the saltiness of something else. Likewise, I might say that my tactile experience of the carpet is "rough" and my olfactory experience of my wife's cooking is "oniony".

Asked to describe such experiences without recourse to the language of external objects, I'm stumped. I could try analogy: "It tastes like a rushing elephant!" -- but the metaphor is weak, and we're still in the language of external objects, anyway. I could say a few things using concepts that apply literally both to experiences and to external events: The taste experience had a sharp onset, then gradually faded. But this won't get us far. Likewise, I can say things like that it was pleasurable and that it made me want to eat more, but such remarks, again, don't have much specificity. In attempting to describe sensory experience accurately and in detail, we depend essentially on our language for describing sensed objects.

I've used tactile, gustatory, and olfactory examples so far. What about vision and hearing? It's clear -- I think it's clear! -- that taste experiences aren't literally salty, etc., in the same way external objects can be salty. The parallel observation is not as clear for auditory and visual experience. Are experiences of square things literally square? Are experiences of loud things literally loud? By analogy, it seems we should say no; but on the other hand I, at least, feel some temptation to say that there is something literally square in my visual experience of a square object -- a squarish sense-datum? And can auditory experiences literally differ in volume in the way external sound events can differ in volume (louder and quieter sense data)? My taste experiences plainly don't literally contain salt, but maybe my visual experiences of squares do literally contain four equally sized edges set a right angles to each other?

Aren't the senses all ontologically parallel? Why, then, is it so much more tempting to say that square experiences are square than that salty experiences are salty? (Color introduces a separate batch of primary-quality/secondary-quality confusions, so I'm avoiding it as an example.)

The description of emotional experience, I might add, seems to work a little differently, though it presents its own problems. We can try to locate it in space and associate it with bodily conditions (I felt a twisting in my gut); we can fit it into an emotional category (it was a feeling of sadness); but most people I've interviewed think such descriptions don't do full justice to the phenonema and feel frustrated when asked to describe their emotional phenomenology very precisely and accurately.

12 comments:

Tanasije Gjorgoski said...

Hi Eric,
I think I'm missing the distinction here:
What is salty experience supposed to mean if not experience of a thing as salty ? Or analogously, what is loud experience supposed to mean if not experiencing a sound as loud?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Tanasije, for helping me clarify myself if the post wasn't clear. I just hate being unclear!

I added a phrase to the original post that will hopefully stave off the idea that I'm denying that "salty" experiences are experience of things as salty.

I'm not sure if there's something deeper to your confusion though. The point is meant to be fairly intuitive and obvious. For example salty things contain salt. That's (part of) what makes them salty. Taste experiences don't contain salt (except insofar as brain processes [if that's what taste experiences are] in general contain salt). Analogously, rough things contain ridges and bumps, whereas tactile experiences of rough things don't contain ridges and bumps.

The key observation/question of the post is this. It seems, disanalogously, that both squares and visual square experiences have a kind of four-sidedness to them.

I don't know if that's clearer. Maybe it only reveals more clearly my confusion!

Pete Mandik said...

Eric, suppose that you and I see a rectangular phone booth about six feet from each of us. I would be no more inclined to say that my visual experience is rectangular than I would be to say that my visual experience is six feet away from me. You've already stated your hunch on rectangularity. What would you say of distance?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm not inclined to say my visual experience is six feet away. But I see a garden path argument here -- maybe this is what you have in mind! -- if my experience is literally square, then it has a shape; and if it has a shape, then it has depth (unless visual experiences are flat, which I'm disinclined to say, as I posted a couple months ago); and if it has depth, then it goes some distance forward; and if it goes some distance forward then maybe part of that experience is (literally!) six feet away.

Now I'm even more confused. Thought-provoking comment, as usual, Pete!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I could avoid all these problems if I simply abandoned the sense-data-ish intuition that there's something literally square in my experience of a square -- not just that we represent something outside as being square but that there's something in my experience that is four-sided.

Why is it so hard for me to let go of that? Am I simply benighted? Or is there some truth underlying that intuition that needs to be more clearly brought out and delineated?

Pete Mandik said...

Eric, you correctly perceived the garden path I was sending you down.

You know, non-representational rectangles and non-rectangular representations aren't your only option (though I do confess to leaning somewhat toward the latter). A third option is to follow Sellars and hold that impressions of rectangles are neither representations of rectangles nor rectangular themselves, but inner states that bear resemblances and similarites to other inner states that mirror the resemblances and similarities between outer objects.

Another way to put this third option is that while these inner states do not bear first-order resemblances to outer objects (since its highly problematic how a state can resemble an object) they nonetheless participate in second-order resemblances. Perhaps these second-order resmblances underwrite your rectangularity intuitions?

For what its worth, I'm a reconvering representationalist and find myself increasingly attracted to the Sellarsian view sketched above. A lot of what I'm concerned with in my recent work is whether what's bothering me about typical representationalism is the appeal to representation itself, or the rampant externalism among the current friends of representation.

More to come on Brain Hammer. Stay tuned!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm not sure I understand Sellars' view, but I'll definitely keep checking out the Brain Hammer to see what you develop there, Pete!

Russ said...

I think everyone's clear on this, but thought it's worth stressing that sense-datum theorists didn't take experiences to be, e.g, literally square or coloured; that's the sense-datum, and the sense-datum should be distinguished from the act of sensing (although both are required for the experience).

If you have the intuition that, e.g., your phone-box experience does contain something literally rectangular, why not accept that your experience does contain a rectangular thing (just as the sense-datum view of experience would say that the experience contains a rectangular sense-datum), but allow that this thing just is the phone box (so my experience does contain something six feet away).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for your comment, Russ! You're right that I'm being sloppy about the difference between the sense-datum and the experience of the sense-datum. I don't really mean to be doing serious sense-data theory exposition here, and I hope I'm not simply going over to H.H. Price! But I'm not sure how being clearer about that distinction helps. There's something in my experience and/or my sense data (I want to say) that's literally square, where there's nothing in my experience and/or sense data that's literally salty -- so the disanalogy that troubles me remains.

I'm not sure I'm quite ready to take your advice and say the experience literally contains the phone box either though. If I say this, then my taste experience presumably literally contains the salt, i.e. is salty -- so this cuts against my intuition (that the experience isn't literally salty) in the other direction.

Now in the end, maybe it's more important that the senses be treated analogously than that we preserve these intuitions. What I'm trying to figure out, then, is why I have these (perhaps erroneous) disanalogous intuitions. If I can get a satisfying diagnosis, then perhaps I can yield one (or both) of them up.

GF-A said...

I'm sure you already know this, but this question was very important to a lot of Early Modern philosophers, especially Locke (who's with Eric's view) and Berkeley (who's against). So you've got good company -- and good adversaries -- on both sides of the question. (A few more details of the history can be found in this shameless self-promotion, with some insightful comments from readers.)

Ignacio Prado said...

Thanks for the link!

I was just browsing through Nicholas Humphrey's new book today, Seeing Red, and he had interesting things to say about this topic in the first few chapters.

He starts with an experience of seeing a red light projected on a movie screen in a dark room.

He says that our experience can be broken down into these components:

(1) Perceiving a red screen (Objective component)

(2) Having a sensation of redness (Subjective component)

He then analyzes (2) adverbially:

(2*) A subject S having a sensation of redness = S seeing redly.

So it is not, as we rightly think to be odd, that we have a "red experience," where redness is the property of some problematically insubtantial thing a subject of experience has. Rather, the subject of experience undergoess a process that occurs in a red mode or manner.

Finally, Humphrey further analyzes "seeing redly" as a kind of spontaneous bodily expression:

(2**) S sees redly = S is redding, where "to red" is something like "to smile" or "to raise one's eyebrows."

I gather that the point of the rest of the book is to defend (2**)as a gateway to an intelligible and satisfactory solution to the mind-body problem, but I haven't gotten there yet!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thank for the comment and link, gf-a! You're absolutely right that this issue, or a closely analogous one, arises in the early moderns. I've recently become convinced that Locke's list of primary qualities has more to do with the state of corpuscularian physics at the time than with anything more enduring. But maybe I should rethink that; or think about whether some quasi-corpuscularian view might be under my own intuitions?

Thanks for the suggestion, Ignacio, to look at Humphrey's book. There's too much damn stuff on color -- and not enough on anything else -- but Humphrey's a smart guy; I should look at it!

There's something appealing, I admit, in the "adverbial" view: Surely we're talking about properties of processes, not separately existing entities. Well, not *surely* -- I don't know quite what it means to be a separately existing entity. (Maybe that's compatible with also being the property of a process?) But in another respect, I worry that the adverbial approach is a bit of a dodge. Maybe once I've read the Humphrey, I can work up some thoughts on that for this blog....