Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Qualia, First-Person Experience, and the Missing Black Hole

Defenders of reductionism have a tendency to make the following argument, to which I referred in my last post: Science has made all sorts of progress that was previously thought impossible. We therefore have good historical grounds for thinking that, with further progress, science will eventually resolve the remaining problems. At the very least, we have solid grounds for being skeptical about any a priori arguments to the effect that there is some domain of human experience that remains inexplicable from the standpoint of the sciences. There are two candidates commonly presented for such irreducibility: the raw-feels, or qualia, in our experience, and normativity. (In a later post I will discuss a third candidate, introduced by hermeneutics, which is in principle clearly irreducible, i.e., the horizon within which any scientific enterprise takes place.) Both candidates are sometimes grouped under the heading of first-personal experience, which is taken to be in principle irreducible. I want to question this grouping.
One common response to this line of thought is concisely stated by Richard, over at Philosophy, Etc, who argues that we cannot argue for the likelihood of successful reductionism on the basis of past scientific success because, “there are principled reasons to think these cases different. All those examples [that the reductionists] point to are instances of third-personal empirical phenomena. I grant that science is supreme in that domain. But, to turn the tables, it's never had any success outside of it. So there's no general reason to think that normativity or first-personal subjective experience are susceptible to purely scientific explanation.” (Similar arguments abound: Ricoeur points to something very much like it in the first conversation of What Makes Us Think? where he appeals to the first-personal lived body experience as irreducible to a third-personal one.) I absolutely grant that there is no reason to think that scientific cognition can fully grasp normativity. In fact, I seriously doubt that it can, since normativity governs the operation of scientific research. I am not sure the same goes for phenomenal properties.

It strikes me that one reason qualia are so mysterious and so dubious is precisely that they are not subject to any normative constraints whatsoever. Whether my mental state is one of jealousy or envy, fantasy or belief, malice or gratitude, is a question that might involve some normative factors. But I am tempted to think that qualia are entirely dissociated from such considerations. That I have a raw feel of some sort just tells me that I am having some sort of mental experience; what that experience is, on the other hand, will be determined by all sorts of other considerations, including normative ones. So I have trouble with questions such as “what is it like to have a belief,” or “what is it like to be outraged,” insofar as they are looking for a phenomenal description of these mental states. My problem is that I am not at all sure that there is anything “it is like” to be in such mental states. What there is, rather, is some sort of awareness that, within a normative framework of my psyche as a whole, becomes a mental state of a particular sort. But what makes that mental state a state of a certain sort, in turn, is normative.

So what do we do about something like the inverted spectrum argument, which would insist that there is also a first-personal raw feel that in turn is incorporated into a normative framework? For example, there is something it is like to see red, and it is only when I have that experience that I know that I am having an experience that falls under the concept of red experience. But Michael might, whenever he sees a fire hydrant, have a very different qualia—a qualia like the one I have whenever I see grass. And it is possible that, even when our brains are functioning in roughly similar ways, and we have roughly similar normative frameworks, my red and green experiences are completely reversed for him. The conceivability of such a scenario is supposed to show that something—qualia—is missing from whatever account of the world we have, even once normative factors are incorporated into the picture. But is it?

Here is what is suggested: you could have all the physical and normative conditions necessary for my seeing red, apply them to Michael, and, while he would be perceiving the same wavelength and processing it in the same way, something would be different. Does this make sense? Or does it make exactly the same sense as the following: We know all the necessary and sufficient conditions for creating a black hole. We reproduce these conditions. But it is conceivable that, although we now have a mass sucking up all forms of energy around it, behaving exactly like a black hole, yet we do not really have a black hole. I would submit that the two cases are virtually identical, and the second—the black hole case—makes no sense; nothing is missing, we have a black hole, not something identical to a black hole. The first seems to make sense, however. What has gone wrong? Could it be that the first case seems to make sense not because there is something over and above the physical and normative properties, but simply because we are still overly wedded to a view of the soul as a substance of an entirely heterogeneous kind?

What is the role of the first-person here? Well, I don’t think normativity is first personal: the entire point of norms is that they must apply intersubjectively. What about the supposed qualia? The first-personal aspect is supposed to be this: whatever third-personal knowledge we have about seeing red or feeling pain, there is a first-personal aspect we are missing. Is this irreducible? The idea is that when we know all the conditions for seeing red, we still don’t have the experience of seeing red. Similarly, if we know all the conditions for a black hole, we still don’t have the black hole. When we reproduce those conditions, on the other hand, we will have a black hole, and it is just odd to say that something—e.g., a real black hole—is still missing. Similarly, when we reproduce all the conditions for seeing red, we should be hard pressed to say that something is still missing from seeing red—because if we say that something is still missing, what we are saying is just that we haven’t produced all the conditions. What is inherently first-personal is just the result of reproducing all the conditions, just as the black hole is the result of reproducing all the conditions necessary for the existence of a black hole.

When we have all the natural (and normative) pieces needed for first-personal experience, we have first-personal experience. When we have all the natural pieces needed for a black hole, we have a black hole. The objection is: No, no! That’s just where you’re missing the point! When we have all the pieces needed for a black hole, we just have a black hole. But when we have all the pieces needed for first-personal experience, the experience is something superimposed on the pieces. What can this mean, I wonder?


  1. Please check out this reference which describes the origins & consequences of the perceptual strait-jacket in which we are ALL trapped. A strait-jacket that instantly objectifies everything and thus seeks to gain control and power over everything.

    The method that left brained analytical "philösophers" use.

    The power and control seeking "culture" thus created in the image of this perceptual straight-jacket INEVITABLY created the scenario described in this essay.

    But even that was/is the outcome of the drive to total power and control at the root of the entire Western "cultural" project.

    The Renaissance turning point was a period that and enabled this project to be dramatised on a really big-time global basis.

    Welcome to the desert of the "real".

  2. Wow! Philosophy-targeted spam! Now I know we've hit the apex of civilization...

    Anyone down with using the term "philösophers" from now on? Pretty cool, I tell ya...