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Essays on free will, qualia and spectrum inversion


To: Gordon F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essays on free will, qualia and spectrum inversion
Date: 22 May 2007 12:13

Dear Gordon,

Thank you for your emails of 12 and 18 May, with your essays for units 10-12 of Philosophy of Mind.

I will respond under each essay title.

'Summarize the argument that free will is impossible, whether on the assumption of determinism, or on the assumption of indeterminism. Do you see any loopholes that the defender of free will might exploit?'

You propose two ways of resisting this argument. First, we should give up 'either-or' thinking, and secondly that we should 'start thinking in terms of interactions rather than actions.'

Both of these proposals look initially attractive. Let's start with 'either-or' thinking.

A good question to ask about discussions of 'free will' is what sort of 'free will' we want. This is basically what Galen Strawson seems to be doing. We do in fact attribute responsibility to agents, and find some point in doing so. Yet, at the same time, there seems to be a sense in which no-one is 'ultimately responsible'. So, is this a case where philosophers define a notion of 'free will' which is useful for practical purposes (in other words, the strategy of 'compatibilism') while recognizing the ultimate (and ultimately terrible) metaphysical fact that no-one is 'really' free?

Once again, we seem to be faced with an 'either-or'. Is it practical freedom that interests you, or metaphysical freedom. Decide!

One possible way to unravel this would be to recognize, as Strawson does, the absurdity of the idea that one should 'want' metaphysical freedom. The clearer idea we have of such a notion, the more absurd it becomes. On the other hand, the more that we look at the 'practical' notion of freedom, the more subtle it becomes, and the less it appears a mere makeshift, or 'second best'.

In other words, the compatibilist would say, there is no 'either-or'. We arrive at the correct view of the reality human freedom by both routes - by revealing the absurdity of metaphysical freedom, and by articulating the notions of freedom and responsibility as these are actually applied.

Should we start thinking in terms of interactions rather than actions?

The difficulty I have with this is in seeing why the standard view of cause and effect cannot be applied to interactions. There is no degree of complexity at which the notion of cause and effect breaks down. What there is are systems where it is impossible to identify 'causes' and 'effects' because too many things are going on at once. In other words, all that's needed here is recognition of the limits of human knowledge in the light of, e.g., chaos theory. The master argument against free will does not require that real life systems be analysable into causes and effects. Determinism says that given the state of a system at a given time, only one sequence of events from that moment on is physically possible. Never mind how those events are generated.

What is true and important, is that to be an agent is to be involved in a constant process of 'making oneself'. We are, therefore, responsible not only for what we do on a given occasion but also for being the persons that we are because of all the decisions we have made in the past.

'Define a 'quale', giving some examples of qualia. What is the philosophical interest of the notion of a quale?'

My argument, 'we are not given A and B' is intended as a straightforward rejection of qualia. There are no such things. The attempt to 'identify' qualia or 'raw feels' with physical processes is misguided because it assumes the very thing that the materialist needs to reject, the notion of a 'logically private object', in Wittgenstein's sense.

There are no qualia, in the sense of 'logically private objects'. However, I am fully prepared to accept that there is an irreducible 'idiosyncrasy' in the way that people perceive which can never be eliminated by any amount of discussion or experimentation. This is not because 'no-one can see my private object' but for more subtle reasons: the story that one can tell about another individual's mental state is inexhaustible.

You can open a book and read every word, cover to cover. But human beings are not books, even when we think we can 'read someone like a book'. There is always room for surprises. The language which we use to describe our mental states to one another exists because of a large degree of commonalty in the way that we think and feel. But this is merely the backdrop to the recognition of each person's uniqueness.

It is not as if I know exactly how things are for me but I can only give you an approximation. I don't know myself, at least, not in the sense that I can say. If I could say, then you would know too, because I could tell you. We are as inexhaustible to ourselves as we are to others.

'Explore the philosophical issues that arise out of the thought experiment of spectrum inversion.'

I had a great deal of trouble with the part of the program which discusses spectrum inversion. As a matter of fact, this was a question which came up in the very last examinations which I sat, back in 1976 in Oxford, when I took my B.Phil.

We want to say that there are empirical conditions which would lead us to judge that two persons A and B call the same object 'red' while at the same time each sees the object as having a different colour.

There are various possible scenarios. For example, a drug which makes a human being's colour spectrum undergo an inversion. The individual who has been given this drug judges that a UK post box 'looks blue' and a US post box 'looks red'. In time the individual learns, or re-learns, the English vocabulary of colour words, and eventually is able to make colour judgements with sufficient proficiency that one would never know that, for that person, the colour scheme of the world has completely altered.

Let's assume that the way that the drug works is not a mystery, but that we can trace the permanently crossed connections in the retinal nerve and brain which result from taking the drug.

So far, so good. But what if this wasn't a drug, which only effects the individual who takes the drug, but some kind of genetic manipulation so that the crossed connections are passed to that person's offspring. Do we want to say that they also see the world differently from those who have not had the genetic treatment?

I am essentially following the same line as in unit 11 part (b). In relation to a given definition of 'normal' colour perception, or 'normal' circumstances under which the colours of objects are perceived we can define states which are 'abnormal' in various ways. Yet, in time, the abnormal becomes normal. It is very hard to accept that whether a subject's perception is 'normal' or not is not an all-or-nothing matter. There is no either-or, no cut-off point. Hence the attraction of qualia - which must, nevertheless, be resisted.

All the best,