Picking up around where I left off in the previous post, I want to look a little more closely at what happens when we try to apply the explanatory processes discussed there to the phenomena from which all explanations originate. As that post indicated, we start with the world that's presented to us -- or, really, with that world as already pre-organized into chunks and hierarchies of abstraction by the particular cultural imprint that we "learn". Upon that basis, we've collectively constructed very elaborate structures of explanation which embrace ever wider areas of experience, and in the process become ever more abstract (where "abstract" means less experiential content and more pure structure or form). One particular source or technique of such abstraction that's proven very effective because it can be applied in a very well-defined and repeatable manner involves the number system, which, combined with standardized units and sensitive measuring devices, allows us to construct "physical descriptions" that are almost entirely quantitative. And this, together with a realist/representationalist epistemology that views such descriptions/explanations as coming ever closer to the real nature of things, can lead to the rather odd view that quantities, rather than being just usable abstractions based upon an old and simple technique of counting, must be the basis for all physical descriptions at their root (with the clear implication that quantities are what lie at the core of "reality", whatever that's taken to mean).
Having painted ourselves into this corner, so to speak, it's not surprising that we have trouble when we try to turn this highly structured apparatus of abstraction back on the phenomena that it itself is made out of: namely, phenomenal experience, "feelings", or so-called "qualia". The problem is that it seems as though any physical description simply has no space in it for "feeling" as such, even though all such descriptions are founded upon just such feeling. And it's not just the fault of an over-emphasis on quantification -- with representational epistemology, we assume (in one sense quite appropriately) that what's real is what can at least be observed. But this assumption, when made in the context of the sort of self-investigation noted above, leads to a kind of runaway recursion (i.e., one with no stop-condition) , as we try to get a perceptual hold on these "feelings". And this in turn generates a kind of head-scratching perplexity -- and an almost comic image of investigators peering into the brain, hoping to catch sight of "seeing", or touch "touching", or hear "hearing".
And so qualia, or simple, basic "feelings", have become, in David Chalmers' now famous formulation, the "hard problem of consciousness". Unable to get a quantitative or even perceptual handle on such "feels", and yet faced with the embarrassing fact that they do seem to be there, scientists, being practical people, have tended just to ignore them or at least to have focused on what they had a hope of measuring. Philosophers, being less practical, have adopted a number of diverse tactics -- the time-honored one, since Descartes, of course, being the splitting of reality into dual realms, but others include spinning qualia off as some sort of puzzling side-effect called "epiphenomena", hoping that "feeling" might turn out to be one more bizarre "quantum" effect, or even locating "feeling" throughout the universe in some sort of pan-psychic "neutral monism".
It's interesting to compare this with the intuitions of people in general (i.e., non-philosophers). On the one hand, I've found that it's difficult to get people to appreciate that there's a problem with qualia at all -- they tend to view phenomenal experience simply as immediate, obvious and not inherently problematic; on the other hand, they have no problem denying such experience to a brick or even to a computer. And while this sort of intuition is philosophically naive, I think this might be one of those times when "common" sense has remained a better guide than more sophisticated analyses. In any case, one of the beneficial effects of the sort of epistemological inversion recommended previously is that it might allow us to, in a sense, demystify or normalize qualia -- instead of experience being viewed as some sort of strange and inexplicable irruption in the physical world, it's restored to its role as the substance of the world, and the fundamental stuff out of which all explanations or descriptions are built. And in that way, when we want to construct explanations for mental phenomena, we might actually be able to view qualia as functional -- as, e.g., necessary carriers of information that enable the critical loose connection between the two components of consciousness.