Thursday, October 27, 2005

Qualia: the "hard problem" as runaway recursion

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.

1 comment:

  1. Blogger Jel said...
    I am very much in agreement (I think!)

    Qualia seemed like a "hard problem" to me for a long time.

    Then I started thinking. I'd heard the thought experiments about "What if my green is your blue?" or "What if someone was a p-zombie?" and to me the most important thing to note was that we talk about qualia. We come up with these questions (even as a kid I remember my friends and I spontaneously and independently coming up with the spectrum-switch idea).

    Therefore, instead of trying to explain "qualia as such"...I realized that for qualiaphiles and qualiaphobes alike, everyone agrees that humans "talk about qualia" and that why (and how) we generate these verbal formulations, why these strange hypotheticals occur to us and seem to make sense *as* questions...demands explanation.

    Afterall, how could we talk about them if they we're epiphenomena that had to effect back on the brain. Even if qualia aren't a thing, even if the concept is incoherent...still, what (and why) are we referring to when we speak *of* qualia?

    And it intrigued me, why was color the "archetypal" quale as opposed to, say, shape or number? We ask "what if my blue is experienced as your green?" and it makes sense...but "what if my seeing two things is like your seeing three things?" doesn't make nearly as much intuitive sense as a question; it's hard to imagine and remain coherent. Likewise, while we might imagine pitches being shifted or timbre being perceived differently, we don't imagine the *relative* structure of a musical piece could change (i.e., it doesn't make as much sense that you could hear Happy Birthday as my Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.)

    My conclusion from these considerations was this: when we describe the experience of qualia, what we're describing is simply the insufficiency of language to fully model most sense data. There is a "superabundance" of data provided by our senses, but language is unable to capture and communicate it all.

    This is why, I think, color is especially archetypal as a Quale. We can perceive millions of colors, but have only a handful of basic color terms; there's a lot we experience sensorily that linguistic construction doesn't comprehend.

    This would seem to explain all the qualities of qualia. They're incommunicable and private exactly because they describe the excess of sense-data that language can't communicate. They're immediate and intrinsic because they refer to our immediate sense data prior to linguistic construction.

    Further, it seems that it's also part of language's disconnect from the senses. Even if we can name with exact quantitative precision the hue, saturation, and value of a color...hearing this abstract linguistic model doesn't actually activate our rods and cones or optic nerve or neurons in the occipital lobe. We can vaguely map the word "red" to memories of red, but anything more specific we're not skilled at activating from verbal cues like this (and even memory pales [Ive heard it is deliberately "muted" by the brain] in comparison to actual current sensory information unless you're on a hallucigen or something).

    To me what we're talking about when we talk about qualia is easy to explain. Are they real? Well, yes, but they're not a thing. What we're referring to is the (real) experience of the superabundance of sense-data compared to the insufficient efforts of language to capture and communicate it all.

    10:20 AM, May 29, 2016