Consciousness 2 – The Colour of Nothing

Commuting days until retirement: 437

When it comes down to basics, is there just one sort of thing, or are there two sorts of thing? (We won’t worry about the possibility of even more than that.) Anyone who has done an elementary course in philosophy will know that Descartes’ investigations led him to believe that there were two sorts: mental things and physical things, and that he thus gave birth to the modern conception of dualism.

Stone lion


As scientific knowledge has progressed over the centuries since, it has put paid to all sorts of beliefs in mystical entities which were taken to be explanations for how things are. A good example would be vitalism, the belief in a ‘principle of life’  something that a real lion would possess and a stone lion would not. Needless to say, we now know that the real lion would have DNA, a respiratory system and so on, all of whose modes of operation we have much understanding – and so the principle of life has withered away, as surplus to needs.

Descartes mental world, however, has been harder to kill off. There seems nothing that scientific theory can grasp which is recognisable as the something it is like I discussed in my previous post. It’s rather like one of those last houses to go as Victorian terraces are cleared for a new development, with Descartes as the obstinate old tenant who stands on his rights and refuses to be rehoused. But the philosophical bulldozers are doing their best to help the builders of science, in making way for  their objectively regular modern blocks.

Gilbert Ryle led the charge in 1949, in his book The Concept of Mind. He famously characterised dualism as the doctrine of ‘the Ghost in the Machine’: to suppose that there was some mystical entity within us corresponding to our mind was to be misled by language into making a ‘category mistake’. Ryle’s standpoint fits more or less into the area of behaviourism, also previously discussed. Then, in the 1950s, identity theory arose. The contents of your mind  colors, smells  may seem different from from all that mushy stuff in your head and its workings, but in fact they are just the same thing, if perhaps seen from a different viewpoint. There’s a name, the ‘Morning Star’, for that bright star that can be seen at dawn, and another one, the ‘Evening Star’, for its equivalent at dusk; but with a little further knowledge you discover that they are one and the same.

Nowadays, while still around, the identity theory is somewhat mired in technical philosophical debate. Meanwhile brain science has made huge strides, and at the same time computing science has become mainstream. So on the one hand, it’s tempting to see the mind as the software of the brain (functionalism, very broadly), or perhaps just to attempt to show that with enough understanding of the wiring of those tightly packed nerve fibres, and whatever is chugging around them, everything can be explained. This last approach  materialism, or in its modern, science-aware form, physicalism  can take various forms, one of them being the identity theory. Or you may consider, for example, that such mental entities as beliefs, or pains, may be real enough, but are ideally explained as  or reduced to  brain/body functions. This would make you a reductionist.

But you may be more radical and simply say that these mental things don’t really exist at all: we are just kidded into thinking they do by our habitual way of talking about ourselves folk psychology, as it’s often referred to. Then you would be an eliminativist  and it’s the eliminativists I’d like to get my philosophical knife into here. Although I don’t agree with old Descartes on that much (I’ll expand in the next post), I have an certain affinity for him, and I’m willing to join him in his threatened, tumbledown house, looking out at the bulldozers ranged across the building site of 21st century Western philosophy.

Getting rid of qualia  or not

Acer leaves

My acer leaves

I think it would be fair to say that the arch-eliminativist is one Daniel Dennett, and it’s his treatment of qualia that I’d like to focus on. Qualia (singular quale) are those raw, subjective elements of which our sensory experience is composed (or as Dennett would have it, we imagine it to be composed): the vivid visual experience I’m having now of the delicately coloured acer leaves outside my window; or that smell when I burn the toast. I’m thinking of Dennett’s treatment of the topic to be found in his 1988 paper Quining Qualia, (QQ) and in Qualia Disqualified, Chapter 12 of his 1991 book Consciousness Explained (CE: with a great effort I refrain from commenting on the title). Now the task is to show that, when it comes to mental things, all that grey matter and its workings is all there is. But this is a problem, because when we look inside people’s skulls we don’t ever find the colour of acer leaves or the smell of burnt toast.

Dennett quotes an introductory book on brain science: ‘”Color” as such does not exist in the world: it exists only in the eye and brain of the beholder.’ But as he rightly points out, however good this book is on science, it has its philosophy very muddled. For one thing, the ‘eye and brain of the beholder’ are themselves part of the world – the world in which colour, we are told, does not exist. And eyes and brains have colours, too. But not like the acer leaves I’m looking at. There’s only one way to get to where Dennett wants to be: he has to strike out the qualia from the equation. They are really not there at all. That acer-colour quale I think I’m experiencing is non-existent. Really?

Argument 1: The beetle in the box

Maybe there is some help available to Dennett from one of the philosophical giants  Wittgenstein. Dennett calls it in, anyway, as support for the position that ‘the very idea of qualia is nonsense’ (CE, p.390). There is a famous passage in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations where he talks of our private sensations in an analogy:

Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box … The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

I don’t see how this does help Dennett. It is part of Wittgenstein’s exposition known as the private language argument. He is seeking to show that language is a necessarily public activity, and that the notion of a private language known only to its one ‘speaker’ is incoherent. I think it’s significant that the example of a sensation he uses is pain, as you’ll see if you follow the link. Elsewhere Wittgenstein considers whether someone might have a private word for one of his own sensations. But, like the pain, this is just a sensation, and there’s no publicly viewable aspect to it.   But consider my acer leaves: my wife might come and join me in admiring them. We have a publicly available referent for our discussion, and if I ask her about the quality of her own sensation of the colour, she will give every appearance of knowing what I am talking about. True, I can never tell if her sensation is the same as mine, or whether it even makes sense to ask that. Nor can I tell for certain whether she really has the sensation, or is simply behaving as if she did. But I’ll leave that to Wittgenstein. His argument doesn’t seek to deny that I am acquainted with my ‘beetle’  only that it ‘has no place in the language game’. In other words, my wife and I can discuss the acer leaves and what we think of them, but we can’t discuss the precise nature of the sensation they give me – my quale. My wife would have nothing to refer to when speaking of it. In Wittgenstein’s terms, we talk about the leaves and their colour, but our intrinsically private sensations drop out of the discussion. Does this mean the qualia don’t exist? Just a moment I’ll have another look… no, mine do, anyway. Sorry, Dan.

Argument 2: Grown-up drinking

Bottled Qualia

Bottled Qualia

Another strategy open to Dennett is to point out how our supposed qualia may seem unstable in certain ways, and subject to change. He notes how beer is an acquired taste, seeming pretty unpleasant to a child, who may well take it up with gusto later in life. Can the adult be having the same qualia as the child, if the response is so different?

This strikes a chord with me. I started to sample whisky when still a teenager because it made me feel mature and sophisticated. Never mind the fact that it was disgusting  much more important to pretend to be the sort of person I wanted to be. The odd thing is  and I have often wondered about this  that I think I can remember the moment of realisation that eventually came: “Hey  I actually like this stuff!”

So what happened? Did something about these particular qualia suddenly change, rather as if I one day licked a bar of soap and found that it tasted of strawberries? Clearly not. So maybe we could say, that, although it tasted the same, it was just that I started to react to it in a different way  some neural pathway opened up in my brain that engendered a different response. There are difficulties with that idea. As Dennett puts it, in QQ:

For if it is admitted that one’s attitudes towards, or reactions to, experiences are in any way and in any degree constitutive of their experiential qualities, so that a change in reactivity amounts to or guarantees a change in the property, then those properties, those “qualitative or phenomenal features,” cease to be “intrinsic” properties, and in fact become paradigmatically extrinsic, relational properties.

He’s saying, and I agree,  that we can’t mix up subjective and objective properties in this way, otherwise the subjective elements – the qualia – are dragged off their pedestal of private ineffability and are rendered into ordinary, objectively viewable, ones. He goes on to argue, with other examples, that the concept of qualia inevitably leads to confusions of this sort, and that we can therefore banish the confusion by banishing the qualia.

So is there another way out of the dilemma, which rescues them? As with the acer leaves, my whisky-taste qualia are incontrovertibly there. Consider another type of subjective experience  everyone probably remembers something similar. You have been working, maybe in an office, for an hour or two, and suddenly an air conditioning fan is turned off. It was a fairly innocuous noise, and although it was there you simply weren’t aware of it. But now that it’s gone, you’re aware that it’s gone. As you may know, the objective, scientific term for this is ‘habituation’; your system ceases to respond to a constant stimulus. But this time I am not going to make the mistake of mixing this objective description with the subjective one. A habituated stimulus is simply removed from consciousness  your subjective qualia do change as it fades. And something like this, I would argue, is what was happening with the whisky. To a mature palate, it has a complex flavour, or to put it another way, all sorts of different, pleasurable individual qualia which can be distinguished. These put the first, primary, sharp ‘kick’ in the flavour into a new context. But probably that kick is all that the immature version of myself was experiencing. Gradually, my qualia did change as I habituated sufficiently to that kick to allow it to recede a little and allow in the other elements. There had to come some point at which I made up my mind that the stuff was worth drinking for its own sake, and not just as a means to enhance my social status.

Argument 3: Torn cardboard

Torn cardboard

Matching halves

Not convinced? Let’s look at another argument. This starts with an unexpected – and ingenious  analogy: the Rosenbergs, Soviet spies in the US in the cold war era, had a system to enable to spies to verify one another’s identity: each had a fragment of cardboard packaging, originally torn halves of the same jelly package (US brand name Jell-O). So the jagged tear in each piece would perfectly and uniquely match the other. Dennett is equating our perceptual apparatus with one of the cardboard halves; and the characteristics of the world perceived with the other. The two have co-evolved. Anatomical investigation shows how birds and bees, whose nourishment depends on the recognition of flowers and berries, have colour perception, while primarily carnivorous animals  dogs and cats for example  do not. But at the same time plants have evolved flower and berry colour to enable pollination or seed dispersal by the bees or birds. The two sides evolve, matching each other perfectly, like the cardboard fragments. And of course we are omnivores, and have colour perception too. When hunting was scarce, our ability to recognise the colour of a ripe apple could have been a life-and-death matter. And so it would have been for the apple species too, as we unwittingly propagated its seeds. As he puts it:

Why is the sky blue? Because apples are red and grapes are purple, not the other way around. (CE p378)

A lovely idea, but what’s the relevance? His deeper intention with the torn cardboard analogy is to focus on the fact that, if we look at just one of the halves on its own, we are hard put to see anything but a piece of rubbish without purpose or significance  it is given validity only by its sibling. Dennett seeks to demote colour experiences, considered on their own, to a similarly nullified status. Here’s a crucial passage. ‘Otto’ is Dennett’s imaginary defender of qualia  for present purposes he’s me:

And Otto can’t say anything more about the property he calls pink than “It’s this!” (taking himself to be pointing “inside” at a private, phenomenal property of his experience). All that move accomplishes (at best) is to point to his own idiosyncratic color-discrimination state, a move that is parallel to holding up a piece of Jell-O box and saying that it detects this shape property. Otto points to his discrimination-device, perhaps, but not to any quale that is exuded by it, or worn by it, or rendered by it, when it does its work. There are no such things. (CE p383 – my italics).

I don’t think Dennett earns the right to arrive at his concluding statement. There seem to me to be two elements at work here. One is an appeal to the Wittgensteinian beetle argument we considered (‘…taking himself to be pointing “inside”…’), which I tried to show does not do Dennett’s work for him. The second appears to be simply a circular argument: if we decide to assert that Otto is not referring any private experience but something objective (a ‘color-discrimination state’) then we have only banished his qualia by virtue of this assertion. The fact that we can’t be aware of them for ourselves does not change this. The function of the cardboard fragment is an objective one, inseparable from its identification of its counterpart, just as colour perception as an objective function is inseparable from how it evolved. But there’s nothing about the cardboard that corresponds to subjective qualia  the analogy fails. When I think of my experience of the acer leaves I am not thinking of the ‘color-discrimination state’ of my brain  I don’t know anything about that. In fact it’s only from the science I have been taught that I know that there is any such thing. (This final notion nods to another well-known argument – this time in favour of qualia – Frank Jackson’s ‘knowledge’ argument  I’ll leave you to follow the link if you’re interested.)

But this being just a blog, and this post having already been delayed too long, I’ll content myself with having commented on just three arguments from one physicalist philosopher. And so I am still there with Descartes in his tottering house, resisting its demolition. In the next post I’ll enlarge on why I am so foolhardy and perverse.

5 thoughts on “Consciousness 2 – The Colour of Nothing

  1. Great post.

    Qualia are interesting because the line between perception, thought and memory (and the supposedly referring object) are all blurred. Things taste different when I’m ill, my thoughts and expectations shape my experiences, and my mind edits experiences, both in memory and even real time. The latter was one of the more disturbing things I read in “Consciousness Explained”.

    Yet, does that do away with Qualia? It may do away with referring objects, but subjective experiences remain, whether they are mental or not. There appears to be a sensation of liking something, even if that sensation isn’t attached to the same object at any point in time. That I may like X at time A and dislike X at time B doesn’t invalidate the sensation (or qualia?) of like/dislike.

    Whether apples, oranges or my taste buds are real can be debated (shades of brain in a vat), but that there are associated experiences is not, as they are independent of the need for objects.

  2. Thanks again for commenting.
    We appear to be broadly in agreement. But your second paragraph raises an interesting question. There are not just the qualia themselves, but the fact that we may find them pleasant, unpleasant, or perhaps neutral. Is the like/dislike a quale in itself, or a property of the quale, or what? Maybe this leads us into the philosophy of emotion, another whole area that is somewhat neglected.

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