In the last post, I pondered the idea that the real difference between a realist and anti-realist stance toward a scientific theory is about how broad or narrow the scope of the theory might be, about it’s domain of applicability. An anti-realist takes a narrower view on scope; such as that the theory can be used to predict current observables, and that’s it. A realist takes a broader view on scope; the theory can be used to make predictions to at least some degree beyond current observables, although there can be different takes on just how far the theory’s implications can be followed.
At the end of that post, I noted this might have implications outside of just straight scientific theories. Consider the debate in consciousness studies between phenomenal realists and illusionists.
Phenomenal properties, aka qualia, are often seen as elements of subjective experience that are intrinsic, ineffable, private, and that we are directly acquainted with. Put another way, they’re seen as fundamental, irreducible, indescribable, unanalyzable, and inaccessible in principle from any third party observation, yet from the first person perspective we have direct and infallible access to them.
These phenomenal properties, if they exist, seem irreconcilable with what we know about the brain, or physics in general. It’s what causes philosophers to talk about the mind-body problem, explanatory gap, or hard problem of consciousness.
The intrinsic, ineffable, private, infallible attributes above were recognized by Daniel Dennett in his 1988 paper: Quining Qualia, in which he makes the case that qualia, as described, do not exist. Since then, many philosophers have backed away from these attributes, arguing that they’re considering something without those commitments.
However, as Keith Frankish pointed out in his 2012 paper: Quining Diet Qualia, this move is problematic. If we dispense with the attributes Dennett identified, then what separates qualia from just straight perceptual information, of a kind a machine might have? Using “qualia” or “phenomenal” to refer to this information, which I’ve often done myself on this site, doesn’t have the deep mystery noted above. Getting the mystery back involves reintroducing Dennett’s identified attributes, typically implicitly or under different names.
So if we’re going to talking meaningfully about phenomenal properties, then these attributes seem like a necessary part of the conversation. But here’s the question. Is the existence of these attributes a binary determination? Or could we be talking about a narrower versus broader scope?
Dennett himself in Quining Qualia implies a possible answer toward the end of the paper, when he considers why we think phenomenal properties are intrinsic, ineffable, private, and directly apprehensible. He notes that most of these attributes are practically true.
For example we don’t have the technology yet to examine thoughts and perceptions from the outside, making them practically private,. And, due to the complexity of many perceptions, and the limitations of language and introspection, base perceptions are practically ineffable. We also do have some level of internal access to those practically private internal states, making that access usually less fallible than third party observation.
So maybe the real bone of contention here is what the scope of these perceptual attributes might be. An illusionist will see the scope as narrow, more along the lines of practicality as identified by Dennett. A realist sees that scope as broader.
From the realist perspective, the illusionist is denying the obvious, ignoring the first person data. However, it seems like an illusionist can accept that data, but see the realist as pushing our intuitive model of perception and thought too far, leading to conclusions that there’s something intrinsic, fundamental, and irreducible about them, resulting in the sense of mystery, the hard problem of consciousness.
Looking back on an old post I made about whether qualia exist, I think this is the point I was trying to get at. But this insight, if accurate, doesn’t incline me to start using “phenomenal” and “qualia” in the limited sense again. Their use in the broader sense is just too pervasive, making use of them without careful qualification an invitation to confusion.
Still, it seems like understanding what the real bone of contention is between the camps can clarify many discussions. At least unless I’m missing something. Are there aspects of phenomenal properties I’m overlooking here? Or of either viewpoint?