Friday, July 27, 2007

Qualia: The real thing (by guest blogger Keith Frankish)

What is the explanandum for a theory of consciousness? The traditional view is that it is the qualia of experience, conceived of as ineffable, intrinsic, and essentially private properties -- classic qualia, we might say. Now classic qualia don't look likely to yield to explanation in physical terms, and physicalists typically propose that we start with a more neutral conception of the explanandum. They say that we shouldn't build ineffability, intrinsicality, and privacy into our conception of qualia, and that what needs explaining is simply the subjective feel of experience -- the 'what-it-is-likeness' -- where this may turn out to be effable (yes, there is such a word), relational, and public. Call this watered-down conception diet qualia. Though rejecting classic qualia, physicalists tend to assume that it's undeniable that diet qualia exist, and go on to offer reductive accounts of them -- suggesting, for example, that experiences come to have diet qualia in virtue of having a certain kind of representational content or of being the object of some kind of higher-order awareness.

Drawing a distinction between classic qualia and diet qualia (though not under those terms) is a common move in the literature, but I'm suspicious of it. I'm just not convinced that there is any distinctive content to the notion of diet qualia. To make the point, let me introduce a third concept, which shall I call zero qualia. Zero qualia are those properties of an experience that lead its possessor to judge that the experience has classic qualia and to make certain judgements about the character of those qualia. Now I assume that diet qualia are supposed to be different from zero qualia: an experience could have properties that dispose one to judge that it has classic qualia without it actually being like anything to undergo it. But what exactly would be missing? Well, a subjective feel. But what is that supposed to be, if not something intrinsic, ineffable, and private? I can see how the properties that dispose us to judge that our experiences have subjective feels might not be intrinsic, ineffable, and private, but I find it much harder to understand how subjective feels themselves might not be.

It may be replied that diet qualia are properties that seem to be intrinsic, ineffable, and private, but may not really be so. But if the suggestion is that they dispose us to judge that they are intrinsic, ineffable, and private, then I do not see how they differ from zero qualia. They are properties which dispose us to judge that the experiences that possess them have classic qualia -- in this case by disposing us to judge they themselves are classic qualia. If, on the other hand, the suggestion is that diet qualia involve some further dimension of seeming beyond this disposition to judge, then I return to my original question: what is this extra dimension, if not the one distinctive of classic qualia?

In short, I understand what classic qualia are, and I understand what zero qualia are, but I don't understand what diet qualia are; I suspect the concept has no distinctive content. If that's right, then the fundamental dispute between physicalists and anti-physicalists should be over the nature of the explanandum -- classic qualia or zero qualia -- not the explanans. The concept of diet qualia confuses the issue by leading us to think that both sides can agree about what needs to be

Footnote: This shows just how easy it is to be confused about qualia, even when it comes to the real thing.


Anonymous said...

I like this analysis, if I am understanding it right. I think it is correct to keep the distinction between judgments about subjective feel (WIIL) and the subjective feel itself a primary one. And I think you are right about diet qualia being a vacuous concept. I’m not sure there is much helpful analysis in the literature about what this word means -- not much explicit discussion about how philosophers use it, particularly when they are using it. In my opinion, ‘qualia’ is often used in a way that comfortably objectifies what is under investigation. As soon as the word is employed, consciousness has already been chopped up into time-slices and segmented via our English concepts, and the object of reference already comes with a non-subjective feel to it – it is, by definition, a bunch of those qualia things that hang in the universe after all.

And on my read, this was Nagel’s primary purpose of using the ‘what it is like to be’ reference: to keep a more neutral, flexible reference without a built-in premature reduction.

Anonymous said...


I love the post. I wish I had something intelligent to add besides my love, but I don't.

Anonymous said...

Hi Keith

You state near the beginning of your post that "Now classic qualia don't look likely to yield to explanation in physical terms and physicalists typically propose that we start with a more neutral conception." I do believe, however, that people like Henry Stapp are attempting to formulate just such an explanation in physical terms.

He has stated, in a recent presentation in Austria that "in classical physics the external events produce excitations of the brain, and these excitations are converted, by a process not integral to classical physics, to mental images, which, however,
can, according to classical physics have no effect on the physical world." He then argues that his interpretation of Quantum Mechanics "...provides a physics-based way for an intentional thought to inject the physical correlate of a mental concept into the physically described universe."

What is most striking about his thinking, from my perspective, is that it accords with our intuitive sense that our intentions arise from the interplay of psycholgically felt movtives and evaluations which themselves arise from the states of the brain.

Why not consider seriously a physcis-based framework which embraces one's internal experiences of effortful intention and one's subsequent experience of intended bodily actions?

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael, Pete, and Jim. Thanks for your comments. Some quick replies:

Michael: I'm in sympathy with your remarks. I certainly think we need to do some hard thinking about the nature of the explanandum and whether it should be cast in terms of first-order properties of experience – whether they are called 'qualia', 'phenomenal properties', or (for goodness' sake) 'what-it-likeness'. There are certain ways of setting up the problem of consciousness that make it pretty much insoluble in physicalist terms, and I think physicalists need to take a more sober view of what that they can and cannot explain. (I am speaking as a physicalist myself.)

Pete: Thanks for the love. I only wish my efforts evoked this reaction more often.

Jim: My aim wasn't really to claim that classic qualia are not physically explicable, but to consider what approach a physicalist should adopt if they aren’t. My target was those physicalists who want to have their phenomenal cake and eat it, so to speak. But having said that, I am dubious about physics-based explanations of mental phenomena. I don’t think that mentality is so special as to require explanation at that fundamental level. However, I will check out Stapp's work; I know some people rate it. Thanks for pointing me to it.

Best, Keith

Paul Torek said...

I understand why a physicalist-minded philosopher would want to dispute the claims of privacy and ineffability, but what's the beef with intrinsicness? Perhaps I misunderstand "intrinsic" in this context, but it suggests to me (A) that the quality of experience does not logically depend on the actuality of anything in the external world (I can experience red qualia without there being any actual 600-700 nm photons entering my eyes), and (B) it is likewise independent of my other experiences. And neither of those seems problematic.

On a different subtopic, I think that more needs to be said on the relation of zero qualia to the disposition to judge. Perhaps you intend that any disposition whatsoever, with any cause, counts as zero qualia. This leaves open the possibility of multiple, scientifically quite distinct causes of such dispositions. But if so, I suspect this multiplicity will provide the peg that the advocate of lite qualia can hang his hat on. Of these different types of neural events, some may strike us on reflection (reflection on all the various experiences associated with that event type) as "real subjective feels" and others as "cognitive illusions".

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul. Thanks for your comments. In this context intrinsic properties contrast with representational ones. The experience of seeing a red apple has the relational property of representing redness, but it is also supposed to have a 'reddish' feel to it, which is intrinsic and could conceivably be paired with quite different representational contents. Properties like this look more problematic for a physicalist since it is arguable that their existence cannot be reductively explained – as the various conceivability arguments purport to show.

I'm not sure I follow your second comment. I think of zero qualia like this. Take an experience E which is supposed to have classic qualia Q. E's zero qualia are the properties of E that dispose its possessor to judge that E has Q. I assume that zero qualia, like other dispositional properties, can have various different categorical bases, but I don’t see why that is relevant. Why would reflection on the neurology involved affect our judgements about the qualia? After all, qualia are supposed to be private, subjective properties, not neurological ones. But perhaps I am missing your point?
Thanks again.

Paul Torek said...

Ah, so I was barking up the right tree, at least. Most representational properties of experience either point (A) to the external world or (B) to other experiences. But if "intrinsic" just means nonrepresentational, then I am even more perplexed than you about how one is supposed to "lighten" qualia of their "intrinsic" load. Of the three properties mentioned, only this one seems to be stipulatively definitional of "qualia." The abandonment of the nonrepresentational seems to call for the use of another term. On the other hand, I'm still of the opinion that the conceivability arguments are just too poor to put significant pressure in favor of such a move.

My second idea is in danger of becoming moot, unless there is doubt that "lite qualia" can be separated from "zero qualia" by intrinsicness, while leaving open the questions of privacy and effability. If there is such doubt, then imagine that one of the categorical bases of the disposition to affirm red qualia was the presence of high levels of certain drugs in the bloodstream, which drugs also cause myriad perceptual and cognitive errors, and the drugs only cause such affirmations in situations of danger. Further, imagine that the usual categorical base underlying the affirmation of red qualia was absent. I think we would doubt that the drugs caused this person to experience subjective redness. Rather, they caused a cognitive/verbal error in describing the experience.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply Paul. I'm inclined to agree that intrinsicness is central to the concept of qualia, but not everyone agrees. For example, representational theorists, such as Dretske and Tye, continue to use the term. It's this 'lite' concept of qualia that I object to. I take your second point, too. There might be deviant causes of our judging that an experience has a red quale, and we might want to distinguish these cases sharply from the regular ones. But I wouldn't characterize the latter as ones where we 'experience subjective redness' – unless, of course, the normal cause of the judgement is a classic quale!