I’ve often pondered that the hard problem of consciousness, the perceived problem of understanding how phenomenal consciousness can happen in physical systems, arises due to the fact that our intuitive model of the phenomenal is very different from our intuitive model of the physical, of the brain in particular.
As is usually the case, anytime you think you’re having an original observation, you should make sure someone hasn’t thought of it first. In this case, philosophers have. It’s called the phenomenal concept strategy (PCS). Peter Carruthers discussed it in his blog posts a few weeks ago, but in a manner that expected the reader to already be familiar with it. And Hakwan Lau brought it up on Twitter recently, spurring me to investigate.
It’s basically the idea that the explanatory gap between mind and body exists not because there’s a gap between physical and mental phenomena, but because there’s a gap in our concepts of these things.
Part of the value of this strategy, is that it supposedly helps physicalists answer the knowledge argument from Mary’s room: the thought experiment where Mary, a scientific expert in visual perception who has spent her entire life in a black and white room, leaves the room and experiences color for the first time, and the question is asked, does Mary learn something new when she leaves the room? According to the PCS, what Mary learns is a new phenomenal concept, which just expresses other knowledge she already had in a new way.
At first glance, this view seems to offer a lot. But as with all philosophical positions, it pays to look before you leap. Under the view, the reason this works is that phenomenal concepts are conceptually isolated. This isolation supposedly makes philosophical zombies conceivable.
“Conceivable” in this case is supposed to mean logically coherent, as opposed to merely imaginable. And the zombies in this case aren’t the traditional ones which are physically identical to a conscious being (and simply presuppose dualism) but functional or behavioral ones, systems that are different internally but behaviorally identical.
The idea is that it’s possible to imagine a being just like you but with different or missing phenomenal concepts.
David Chalmers uses this zombie conceivability to attack the PCS. His point seems to be that we eventually run into the same gaps in the concepts that we perceived to be in the originals. Peter Carruthers responds with a discussion involving phenomenal and schmenomenal states that I have to admit I haven’t yet parsed.
But my issue is that the concepts can’t be that isolated, because we can discuss them. Indeed, it seems dubious that there can be a being that is missing phenomenal concepts who can nonetheless discuss them.
That’s not to say that our concepts of phenomenal content can’t be isolated, but that isolation doesn’t seem inherent or absolute. It’s something we allow to creep into our thinking. It’s a failure to ask Daniel Dennett’s hard question: “And then what happens?”
I personally think qualia exist, but not in any non-physical manner. They are information, physical information that are part of the causal chain. There is no phenomenal experience which doesn’t convey information (although it may not be information we need at the moment). This information is raw and primal, so it doesn’t feel like information to us, but it is information nonetheless.
Consider the pain of a toothache. How else should the valence systems in the brain signal to the planning systems that there is an issue here which needs addressing? The only alternative is to imagine some form of symbolic communication (numbers, notations, etc), but symbolic communications is just communication built on top of the primal version, raw conscious experience.
This communication is primal to us because it is subjectively irreducible. We have no access to its construction and underlying mechanisms (which ironically can be understood in symbolic terms), therefore it seems like something that exists separate and apart from those mechanisms. In that sense, our concept of it is isolated from our concepts of those underlying mechanism. This might tempt us to see that concept as completely isolated.
But it’s only isolated in that way if we fail to relate it to why we have that phenomenal experience, and how we use it. If we touch a hot stove, our hand may reflexively jerk back due to the received nociception, but we also experience the burning pain. If we didn’t, and didn’t remember it, we might be tempted later to touch the stove again. A zombie needs to have a similar mechanism for it to be functional in the same way. (Maybe Carruthers’ “schmenomenal” states?)
In other words, phenomenal experience has a functional role. It evolved for a reason (or more accurately a whole range of reasons). That doesn’t mean it may not misfire in some situations, leaving us wondering what the functional point of it is, but that’s more a factor that evolution can’t foresee every situation, and of how strange the modern world is in comparison to our original ecological niche in places like the African savanna.
So, I think there is some value to seeing the explanatory gap in terms of concepts, but not in seeing those concepts as isolated in some rigid or absolute manner. They’re only isolated if we make them so, as we frequently do. And they’re not so consistently isolated that we need to let in zombies.
Of course, I’m approaching this as someone who most frequently falls within Chalmers’ Type A materialist category. Apparently the PCS is typically championed by Type B materialists, those who see a hard problem that needs addressing. So it may be that I was never the intended audience for this strategy.
Unless of course I’m missing something. Are zombies less avoidable than I’m thinking here? What do you think of the PCS overall?