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Philosophical considerations on qualia


To: Siobhan M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Philosophical considerations on qualia
Date: 3rd March 2010 12:44

Dear Siobhan,

Thank you for your email of 21 February, with your fourth essay for the Pathways Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, 'Define a 'quale' giving some examples of qualia. What is the philosophical interest in the notion of a quale?'

This is an excellent piece of work which shows not only that you have made a determined effort to think about the difficult topic of qualia, but also that you have been prepared to do some useful research. By skill or luck, you have found two accounts, from Dennett and Block, which identify a key issue of debate, although I can see that the materials provided by your Pathways units would not have been sufficient to enable you to identify the precise point on which the dispute over the definition of a quale turns.

My article 'Truth and subjective knowledge' at supplies the missing material. But more of that in a moment.

According to Humpty Dumpty, 'I can define a word to mean whatever I want it to mean' (or words to that effect). This is true in a sense. I can define 'hubshkub' to mean the feeling you are trying to decide what colour socks to wear today and realizing at the very same time that it really doesn't matter what colour you choose. It would not be a very useful term (not a lot of conversational opportunities to employ it). But logically, a term doesn't have to be particularly useful in order to have a meaning. All that is required is that it has a possible use.

The definition of a quale is a matter of philosophical debate. Not because either Dennett is wrong and Block is right, or the other way around. They are both 'right.' They have both defined a term whose meaning we can investigate. But which definition is more fruitful? which approach leads to greater insight into the nature of the mind, the definition of a quale as something-to-be-rejected (Dennett) or the definition of a quale as something-to-be-provisionally-accepted? (Block).

Note that on Dennett's view, 'quale' does, and doesn't have a meaning. It is logically equivalent to 'round square', although in the latter case, the contradiction is manifest. ('My task is to teach you to pass from disguised nonsense to manifest nonsense' says Wittgenstein.)

It would be a substantial philosophical claim to successfully identify Dennett's 'quale' with Block's 'quale'. What that would mean, in effect, is that any putative mental item which escapes an 'intentional, functional or cognitive analysis' is necessarily a 'quale' in Dennett's sense.

I think that philosophical claim is wrong. I believe that my article referred to above shows this, although I am not sure because this wasn't the original aim of the article. My aim was to defend the idea that:

'...there is a very real sense in which knowledge of my subjective experiences is available to me in a way that it is impossible in principle to communicate to others. Not because my subjective experiences are private objects in the sense attacked by Wittgenstein. But because the only adequate way to access what is in a brain, is to be the owner of that brain.'

On the view I argue for, the brain is not a 'computer' running a 'program'. There could be no such thing as a 'brain reading machine'. All the things you describe, 'experience and value moments that are purely subjective and are in that sense both private and original', things that we struggle and fail to express, that inspire us to write poetry or compose music, are ultimately 'in' the brain. But they are in principle inaccessible to anyone who is not the owner of that brain.

Which brings us to the precise point (as I see it) of the notion of a quale. What I said in the previous paragraph is logically beyond criticism, even though I am making a claim which could be defeated (if some genius discovers the human 'brain program' or invents a 'brain reading machine' or whatever). It's a defensible claim, so far as our present knowledge is concerned.

However, the temptation is to think that this isn't enough. We have to erect a wall around the purely subjective which logically cannot be breached, regardless of the future progress of science. This is the thought which leads to the idea that whatever it is that I have cannot, ultimately be part of the 'objective' world, period. Hence the 'subjective knowledge' which I describe in my article gets identified with qualia, in Dennett's sense.

There is something paradoxical about the idea that we are trying to 'define' a term which does not have meaning. The point, however, comes from the fact that human beings are subject to 'philosophical temptations', and there is a need to articulate what those temptations are and why they lead us to hold views which are 'nonsensical', although we do not realize this.

C.I. Lewis is an example of a philosopher who gave into the temptation, even as he made statements about the nature of subjectivity which, as you argue, were in themselves sound and defensible. The subsequent infatuation of analytical philosophers with 'sense data' and 'protocol statements' (essential items in the logical positivist program of Rudolph Carnap) are evidence that for a considerable period of time the temptation proved too strong to resist.

All the best,