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Do oysters experience qualia?


To: Reiner L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Do oysters experience qualia?

Dear Reiner,

Thank you for your email of 28 October, with your essay for the Associate Program in response to the question, 'Can oysters experience qualia?'

The first point to make is that qualia are a philosopher's term of art. A philosopher who says, 'There are no such things as qualia' is not saying the same thing as a philosopher who says, 'There are no such things as feelings'. The former is rejecting what he sees as a false philosophical theory about inner states - inner states as 'private objects' or 'Cartesian mental events' - while accepting the reality of feelings as such. Followers of Wittgenstein would come into this category. The latter - Churchlands, for example - believes that we all are victims of a false philosophical theory, namely folk psychology. We have 'feelings' (in scare quotes) only to the extent that this way of talking is, or appears, indispensable to us because of our pathetically limited knowledge.

However, even the Churchlands would accept that there is a significant difference between flowers - which exhibit an automatic response to sunlight which is akin to the 'reflex arc' in the human nervous system - and, say, bats, where the link between input and output is mediated by information processing. So there would be a legitimate sense in which one could ask, 'Do flowers feel?'. Even if as the Churchlands believe there are really no such things as 'feelings', there is still a point in raising this question, and answering, 'No'.

In these terms, how would one answer the question, 'Do oysters feel'? There are sea creatures which we would classify along with sophisticated plants, for example the sea anemone. If oysters belong in this category, then they don't 'feel'. On the other hand, if oysters are closer to fish, then they do. I actually don't know the answer to that question.

There are philosophers who have been tempted by the theory of 'panpsychism', a metaphysical theory famously put forward by A.N. Whitehead in 'Process and Reality'. You mention Chalmers 'proto-experiences'. To me this seems, in affect, to be giving up on the mind-body problem altogether. If everything has feelings, then this paradoxically vindicates the Churchlands view. With respect to possession of feelings, you and I are no different in principle from a sunflower, or a toaster.

You say, 'Oysters are so alien to us that we have no qualms to swallow them alive, just as crocodiles have no hesitation to tear humans to pieces.' Surely, we would not do this to Martians, however 'different' they appeared to us, provided we were convinced that they were intelligent, conscious subjects. Our attitude to oysters - as to beetles or flies - is partly governed by our inability to 'see' the kinds of behaviour and reactions that one can see in a horse or a chimp, or even a crocodile. This is a kind of irrationality. However, if oysters turned out to be biologically like plants then there would be no basis on which one could mount an objection to 'eating them alive'.

(Which reminds me of a very funny scene in Notting Hill with a dinner guest who refuses to eat carrots which have been 'killed'!)

Leaving the question of oysters to marine biologists, there are still two issues: one concerning the legitimacy of 'qualia' and Nagel's notion of 'what it is like to be x', and the other concerning the contrast between the feelings of bats or oysters, and human beings.

Although you don't consider the latter question, your remark about driving is very relevant here. Dennett in his first book 'Content and Consciousness' distinguished two forms of awareness: the first (awareness1) relates to the ability to make introspective reports about ones feelings. The second (awareness2) relates to the ability to perform actions which are guided by perceptual input. A driver who has reached his destination but can't remember driving there would be a case of awareness2.

In his book 'The Animals Issue', Peter Carruthers develops the idea of two kinds of 'consciousness' - one involving the mastery of language and one which does require language - to argue the controversial case that animal pain isn't really PAIN as we would understand it, because it lacks the necessary self-reflective element.

You are right that, in a sense, we can never know what it is like to be any non-language possessing creature for the very reason that awareness of what an experience is like involves language. Cases like reaching your destination and now knowing how you did so are hardly illuminating ('OK, you admit that it happens sometimes - now imagine what it would be like if it happened always!').

However, there is still a point in saying that choosing bats for his philosophical example rather than cats doesn't get Nagel anywhere. If Nagel did imagine that he could get some mileage of this, then he was wrong.

Do 'most physicists' claim that qualia are identical with brain events? We really need to be clear what we mean by qualia. If you mean, 'private objects' or 'Cartesian mental events' in the sense rejected by Wittgenstein's private language argument (and Dennett) then this variety of identity theory is fatally flawed.

One way to see this which doesn't rely on the private language argument is to point out the conceptual impossibility of distinguishing identity from 1-1 correlation. The 'Australian materialists' such as Smart claim that they are putting identity forward in the spirit of Occam's razor. This is the 'contingent identity' thesis attacked by Kripke in 'Naming and Necessity'. If there is any possible world where the relation is not identity but 1-1 correlation, then there is no possible world where the relation is identity. However hard you push the two things together, they remain two.

On the other hand, functionalism of the Dennett variety rejects qualia. There are true statements about what a subject feels, or believes, these statements being analysed in functional terms. But there are no mental 'objects' which terms that purport to refer to a feeling or belief actually refer to. This is eliminativism, but not of the Churchland variety.

Davidson's argument for token identity belongs here. Identity is the conclusion of the argument, not the premise, as you appear to represent it. If there is psycho-physical causality, and if there are no psychophysical laws, then the only explanation can be one of identity. However, because the identity is only token-token, there is no way, even in principle, of identifying a mental event by looking at someone's brain.

You raise the question of 'epiphenomenalism' in the context of Jackson's argument. The light makes Mary put on her sunglasses. It also causes her to experience a quale of dazzling bright yellow. In Dennett's terms there is a functional role for conscious awareness of one's experiences. In another situation, Mary might put on her sunglasses 'without thinking' as the light gets brighter. There is room for debate over just what this role is, and therefore room for the thesis that, in fact, our conscious awareness pulls no real weight in our decision making. Some research has been done which seems to suggest that many of our decisions are 'made' before we become consciously aware of making them.

What is more interesting from the point of view of the qualia issue is the epiphenomenalism which arises from Chalmers' use of the zombie argument. Physically indistinguishable zombie Mary exclaims, 'Ooh the bright light!' and puts on her sunglasses. But there is nothing mentally happening 'inside'. If that is possible, then the quale of 'dazzling yellow' plays no causal role ever, in principle. There is a much stronger argument against this than the evolutionary one, namely, that by hypothesis zombie Mary can 'agree' with everything that Chalmers says, insisting that she has qualia just as vehemently as non-zombie Mary.

I've written more than I would normally write in response to an essay - and still feel that it isn't enough. I did find this difficult, because you raise so many issues, to the extent that this almost looks like a mini-introduction to the mind-body problem. It would be quite possible to develop all four of your portfolio essays from themes raised here (though I don't know if you want to do this).

All the best,