The cognitive scientist, Hakwan Lau, whose work I’ve highlighted several times in the last year, has been pondering illusionism recently. He did a Twitter survey on the relationship between the phenomenal concept strategy (PCS) and illusionism, which inspired my post on the PCS. (Meant to mention that in the post, but it slipped.) Anyway, he’s done a blog post on illusionism, which is well worth checking out for its pragmatic take.
As part of that post, he linked to a talk that Keith Frankish gave some years ago explaining why he thought qualia can’t be reduced to a non-problematic version that can be made compatible with physicalism. The video, which has Frankish’s voice but only shows his presentation slides, is about 23 minutes.
In many ways, this talk seems to anticipate the criticism from Eric Schwitzgebel that illusionists are dismissing an inflated version of consciousness, one that Schwitzgebel admits comes from other philosophers who can’t seem to resist bundling theoretical commitments into their definitions of it. He argues for a pre-theoretical, or theoretically naive conception of consciousness.
Frankish discusses the problems with what he calls “diet qualia”, a concept without the problematic aspects that Daniel Dennett articulates in his attempted take down of qualia, a conception that in some ways resembles what Schwitzgebel advocates for. But Frankish points out that diet qualia don’t work, that any discussion of them inevitably inflates to “classic qualia” or collapses to “zero qualia” (his stance).
Just to review, qualia are generally considered to be instances of subjective experience. The properties that Dennett identified are (quoted from the Wikipedia article on qualia):
ineffable; that is, they cannot be communicated, or apprehended by any means other than direct experience.
intrinsic; that is, they are non-relational properties, which do not change depending on the experience’s relation to other things.
private; that is, all interpersonal comparisons of qualia are systematically impossible.
directly or immediately apprehensible in consciousness; that is, to experience a quale is to know one experiences a quale, and to know all there is to know about that quale.
Illusionists usually point out that qualia can be described in terms of dispositional states, meaning they’re not really ineffable. For example, the experience of red can be discussed entirely in terms of sensory processing and the various affective reactions it causes throughout the brain. And doing so demonstrates that they’re not intrinsic or irreducible.
Privacy can be viewed in two senses: as a matter of no one else being able to know the content of the experience, or of no one being able to have the experience. The first seems like just a limitation of current technology. There’s no reason to suppose we won’t be able to monitor a brain someday and know exactly what the content is of an in-progress experience. The second sense is true, but only in the same sense that the laptop I’m typing this on currently has a precise informational state that no other electronic device has, a fact that really has no metaphysical implications.
There’s a similar double sense for qualia being directly or immediately apprehensible. In one sense, it implies we have accurate information on our cognitive states, something that modern psychology has pretty conclusively demonstrated is often not true. In the second sense, it says that we know our impression of the experience, that we know what seems to be, which is trivially true.
So, seen from an objective point of view, qualia, in the sense identified by Dennett, doesn’t exist. So the failure of the diet versions can seem very significant.
But I think there’s a fundamental mistake here. The dissolving of qualia in this sense happens objectively. But remember that qualia are not supposed to be objective. They are instances of subjective experience. This means that the way they seem to be, their seeming nature is their nature, at least their subjective nature.
Of course, many philosophers make the opposite mistake. They take subjective experience and think its phenomenal nature is something other than just subjective, that its objective reality is in some way obvious from its subjective aspects. But all indications are that the objective mechanisms that underlie the subjective phenomena are radically different from those phenomena, which is what I think most illusionists are trying to say.
Put another way, qualia only exist subjectively. But they only need to exist subjectively to achieve the status of being instances of subjective experience.
And they only need to exist that way to be subjectively ineffable and subjectively irreducible. Yes, the processing underlying qualia can be described in objective terms, but much of that description will involve unconscious processing below the level of consciousness, meaning that it won’t be describable from the subjective experience itself, or reducible from that experience.
Looking at it this way allows us to accept qualia realism, but in a manner fully consistent with physcialism. In other words, there’s nothing spooky going on here. In many ways, this is just an alternate description of illusionism, but one that hopefully clarifies rather than obscures, and doesn’t seem to deny our actual experiences.
Of course, a hard core illusionist might insist that subjective existence itself doesn’t count as really existing. Admittedly, it comes down to a matter of how we define “exists.” In other words, we’re back to a situation where there is no fact of the matter, just different philosophical positions that people can choose to hold.
Unless of course, I’m missing something?