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Qualia and Wittgenstein's private language argument


To: Charles R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Qualia and Wittgenstein's private language argument
Date: 19th January 2011 13:03

Dear Charles,

Thank you for your email of 5 January, with your fourth essay for the Philosophy of Mind program, in response to the question, ''But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right and that only means that there we can't talk about 'right'.' (Philosophical Investigations Para 258). How effective, in your view, is Wittgenstein's Private Language Argument in attacking the notion of a 'quale'?'

One issue here is who has the 'right' to define a 'quale' -- philosophers of mind who defend some notion of qualia, or those who reject the notion of a quale outright. But there is no right or wrong about this. I am quite happy with your story about the various stages of awareness up to full self-conscious awareness of the quality of an experience. The story is fully consistent (as you argue) with an enlightened materialism. However, I would argue that we don't need the term 'quale' for this purpose. I have a better use for that term.

I'm also happy to accept the point that 'criteria' are loose and open-ended. Many, or most of the terms we use in everyday language are vague or have fuzzy boundaries. The opportunities for precision verification are limited. To 'agree in judgements', all that is required is that we roughly go along in the same way, something which is possible (as Wittgenstein explains) because we 'share a form of life'. He would be the first to accept that there are many cases in between 'clearly right' and 'clearly wrong' where there is no determinate answer.

But that's nothing to do with the notion of a 'private language' which he is attacking. Or, rather, his target is something which we are *tempted* to believe about the nature of experience which does not belong to any story about agreement in judgements or forms of life.

A lot of people are confused by the diary example. Of course you can keep a diary. Of course you can note the occurrence of a strange sensation which you've never had before, but which on occasions returns after the first time that you experienced it.

Let's say you are not able to explain the experience to anyone else. It's a complete mystery. Finally, in desperation (the sensation is getting increasingly intrusive and unpleasant) you go to a consultant and have an MRI scan. Every time you feel the experience, a specific area of your inner ear changes from red to purple. Further investigation reveals a benign growth which among other things affects your sense of balance. (Wittgenstein gives the example of measuring your blood pressure, but this is more 'colourful'.) When the consultant explains this to you, you recognize something you hadn't realized before, that the strange experience was related to a feeling of loss of balance but to other things as well.

Let's say this is the first time this condition has ever been noted. The consultant, Dr Heinrich Blatter coins the term 'Blatter's syndrome'. And now we have a 'definition' of S. In your diary, you have been unwittingly noting symptoms of Blatter's syndrome.

The point about the private language concept, however, is that 'a definition of the sign cannot be given'. This is the assumption of the thought experiment. Not that we are currently unable to define it, which is something different, but rather that, as a matter of logic, nothing could count as an adequate definition for the precise reason that I would be able to recognize when S occurred irrespective of whether there were any associated physical changes (which could be tracked by an MRI scanner, or Wittgenstein's blood pressure gauge).

Why would anyone imagine this? Why would they think that the occurrence of S has no causal antecedents in the physical world? Because it seems (or I am tempted to say that) when I experience S I just *know* what I experience in a way that I could not, in principle, be contradicted by any physical test or by any other person observing me. That's the illusion of the 'private object' (or 'quale' as I am calling it) which Wittgenstein seeks to combat.

On the assumption of mind-body dualism, mental events, being immaterial or non-physical do not belong to the order of nature. Any causal relations or regularities between the material and immaterial realms are governed, not by physical laws but by 'psycho-physical' laws. Now the question arises about regularity. Why shouldn't psycho-physical laws be 'regular'? why can't we rely on them? (So, for example, I can be confident that the spectrum of my colour impressions cannot undergo an 'inversion', as described in the unit -- look up 'spectrum inversion' in Google.) Maybe they are and maybe they're not. The point is that they don't have to be. Everything would remain exactly the same, from the point of view of science, or our forms of life, either way (as Wittgenstein would argue). It's a knob which turns, even though nothing in the mechanism turns with it.

So I disagree with what you say about zombies. Yes, at the present stage of knowledge we don't know for sure whether materialism or physicalism will be able to offer a complete explanation of consciousness. Maybe there is another aspect to the nature of the universe of which we are at present profoundly ignorant. In that scenario, there could be zombies which have all that is physically required but lack 'something' necessary in order to behave like a normal human being. They walk around in a jerky way. They are not moved by love songs. Although they are very good (not easily distracted) as manual labour. But that's not the hypothesis we are considering. The hypothesis is that there something in me, a quale, that my exact zombie double (who is just as capable as me of being moved by a love song or writing this email) would lack.

All the best,