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My Absent Career 10: Contra Quality

So, taking this extreme parsimony approach leads me to sharply distinguish between things that are and things we think there are. A good many of our most favoured ideas are projective. Qualia are the primary example for me (because I first learned of them as an undergraduate). For those who are not familiar with the term, a quale (plural, qualia) is the first person experience of a state of being, such as experiencing seeing red. Likewise, qualia are generalised to an argument that there is something, some je ne sais quoi, that is in experience generally that cannot be reduced to physical things. By extension, consciousness is not a physical thing.

I’m greatly simplifying this view. The versions that are about, such as David Chalmers’, are much more nuanced, but I am delivering them this way to underwrite my claim: why think that qualia are things? Experiencing pain or red are not things, they are processes. Being conscious is not to “have” consciousness. I can deny the irreducibility of the processes without restricting myself to third person accounts alone. First person experience and activity is just the same as the processes that make first person perspectives possible. I see from my location, but nothing in having a location is necessarily irreducible to third person coordinates.

The mistake, I now think, is the making of verbs and adjectives into nouns. Thinking does not imply distinct thoughts. Being conscious of something (internal or external) does not imply consciousness as a quality, any more than a thermometer reporting the temperature implies the separate existence of “temperature” irreducible to physics. It merely implies that there is physics. And physics, in these contexts, is the set of processes that thermodynamics and molecular chemistry make happen biologically.

Extreme parsimony makes us doubt the reality of other qualitative things: functions in biology, information and meanings, and (my particular bugbear at present) theoretical concepts separate from quantitative models. Kuhn famously said mass has different referents in Einstein and Newton, and that they are incommensurable, and yet, no physicist has any trouble these days talking about the two in a singular context. Wittgenstein (who is influential on my thought) said that if a lion could talk we would not understand him. Both Kuhn and Wittgenstein make an error of expectations here, I believe. Kuhn has radically distinct disciplinary matrices (earlier, paradigms) and Wittgenstein has radically different Lebensformen (forms of life), both of which are supposed to deliver all the sense and thus all the reference for the scientist, lion or humans. But such things do not exist as free-floating rationales (to steal one of Dennett’s felicitous phrases), but as processes within a larger context. Both of Kuhn’s scientists are human, in a shared set of traditions and yes, language games. Both humans and the lion are mammals, in ecological environments. We share so much that one wonders if the problem of communication is not thedifferences in the Lebensform but the lack of shared language games. And if that were radically incommensurable, we simply could not ever understand other people at all, let alone translate between languages. Vide Quine’s rabbit.

But we do, ergo, something is wrong with that approach.*

* Of course, this is just Ockham’s Razor given free reign…


  1. AC Harper AC Harper

    “The mistake, I now think, is the making of verbs and adjectives into nouns.”

    I’ve thought for a while that reification is a really seductive mistake. I’d argue (although I would need a lot of study to tease out the details) that our mental processes are based on predictive processing. Predictive processing builds on learned (and possibly innate) values to deliver ‘speedy’ thought and reactions to environmental challenges and affordances. We need to react quickly to prevent being killed, to avoid having our status diminished, or seize the ripe fruit before anyone else.

    Speed is more important than fine detail and one of the ways of speeding up predictive processing is to render complicated perceptions as ‘good enough things’. We are likely to have a whole repertoire of responses for ‘handling’ things, and plenty of language built on this principle.

    So what if we reify gods or spirits, or our own experiences? As long as our evolutionary fitness is protected the reification is a useful byproduct of our speed of processing. Who worries about making of verbs and adjectives into nouns – apart from theologians and philosophers (etc) and it might explain why theology and philosophy (and possibly economics) never seem to get a grip on Real Life, for there is nothing to grip.

    • Interesting point. I agree that we are rapid pattern recognisers. But that doesn’t mean that we have a category “things” that we reduce patterns to. Arguably we are more inclined to see processes and intentions. And yes, there is selection for our cognitive processes, but not for the categories we construct. They are the byblows of selection for cognitive capacities (and long precede humans, or indeed hominins). As Darwin noted, it is hard to believe our metaphysical specualtions are the results of anything but a modified monkey brain:

      “With me the horrid doubt always arises, whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” [Darwin to Wiliam Graham, 3 July 1881]

      But despite the abuse of this passage by anti-Darwinians, Darwin is talking about metaphysical notions, such as the existence of God. Darwin’s full argument, made in response to Graham’s book The Creed of Science, is this:

      “You would not probably expect anyone fully to agree with you on so many abstruse subjects; and there are some points in your book which I cannot digest. The chief one is that the existence of so-called natural laws implies purpose. I cannot see this. Not to mention that many expect that the several great laws will some day be found to follow inevitably from some one single law, yet taking the laws as we now know them, and look at the moon, what the law of gravitation — and no doubt of the conservation of energy — of the atomic theory, &c. &c. hold good, and I cannot see that there is then necessarily any purpose. Would there be purpose if the lowest organisms alone destitute of consciousness existed in the moon? But I have had no practice in abstract reasoning and I may be all astray. Nevertheless you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly and clearly than I could have done, that the Universe is not the result of chance. But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

      I have discussed this before.

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