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Consequences of rejecting qualia


To: David T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Consequences of rejecting qualia
Date: 22 January 2008 13:26

Dear Dave,

Thank you for your email of 9 January, with your fourth essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question:

'If there are no such things as qualia, that means that human beings do not really experience feelings or sensations, they only talk and act as if they do.' -- Discuss.

Reading your essay, my impression was that you were straining to find the appropriate hook to get into this question, and that you settled finally for stating what is the 'right thing to say' about feelings and sensations in the light of the critique of a private language.

There is no single correct way to approach this question dialectically. However, two possible approaches would be Wittgenstein's 'beetle in the box' argument, which addresses specifically the worry that the 'important thing' is being left out of account; and the controversy on 'disjunctive' theories of perception, which deny that there is a common element in, 'X perceives a pink elephant', 'X is under the illusion that he/she perceives a pink elephant', 'X is hallucinating a pink elephant'.

Is Wittgenstein's response, 'a nothing would serve as well as a something about which nothing can be said' adequate to satisfy the person who is provoked into making the statement quoted?

Does disjunctivism give a correct account of perception, or is there an overlooked alternative between viewing qualia as the common content in perception and denying any common element?

I hadn't thought much about disjunctivism until I had a rash of essays by my students taking the BA via the University of London external system. I've always assumed that disjunctivism was perfectly adequate to explain the difference between perception and illusion/ hallucination. In the latter cases there IS nothing that you *see*, you only 'seem-to-see'.

A few days ago I came across a piece I wrote in 1999 about the beetle in the box in my online notebook at, which reminded me how the argument still makes me dizzy. There is something about this question that leaves one perpetually unsatisfied.

My paper 'Truth and subjective knowledge' goes some of the way to alleviating the sense of vertigo, by recognizing that there are 'objects' which exist objectively, like your example of Nelson's Column, but which are (necessarily, I would argue) 'encrypted in the brain' in such a way as to be accessible, in principle, only to the owner of that brain.

These 'subjective objects' belong amongst the entities you allude to in talking of the 'many things involved' in the causal chain from object to perception. I don't know whether or not to say that they constitute an alternative to disjunctivism. At least the notion goes some way towards recognizing the uniqueness of the situation of the agent/ subject in relation to his/her own experiences, an acceptable rendering of the idea that there is indeed a 'something' about which 'nothing can be said'.

On the other hand, there is a more superficial reaction to this question which would simply assert that the meaning of terms such as 'experience', 'feeling', 'sensation' is 'given in the language game.' These are concepts associated with 'criteria' in Wittgenstein's sense, such that when those criteria are satisfied, there is no further question as to whether the subject in question is 'really' experiencing, feeling or sensing. There are indeed cases (the criteria-theorist) would go on to say, where the appropriate thing to say is that the person 'talks and acts as if they do' but these situations too have criteria.

Some lesser expositions of Wittgenstein attribute this view to Wittgenstein. Crispin Wright (in 'Truth and Objectivity') would be an example of a philosopher who has attempted to revive a theory of criteria which has some point of contact with what Wittgenstein said (I don't know whether his concern is really to expound Wittgenstein). But it is not Wittgenstein. The whole point of the extended dialectic in the Philosophical Investigations is to recognize the sense of 'unsatisfaction' and deal with it, rather than put forward a neat and tidy theory.

The 'common sense' view, so far as it is possible to ascertain it, is not the correct view, in this sense. It is the view that implies, e.g. that I don't know whether 'my blue' is the same as yours. There is ample evidence for this. It is implausible to argue that this view is a legacy of the history of metaphysics or epistemology. We find it 'natural' -- at least, when provoked -- to think in these terms, i.e. to believe in qualia/ private objects. Which at least partly explains why the problem is so gripping.

All the best,