Qualia and Some Rambling

I wonder why the ‘problem’ of qualia is a problem. Well, actually, I don’t. If you look back at Descartes and (most of the) early moderns, there was a big shift in thinking about the world, the self, experience and all that jazz. I won’t go through a history lesson but the dualism of Descartes seems to me to have pretty much set the table that all subsequent philosophical discussion was to sit at for its dinnertime discussions for the next half millennium and up to the present.

I’m not saying that the situation is Cartesian or bust, but I’m basically saying the situation is Cartesian or bust. Look again through philosophical history from Descartes onward – pretty much every idea about the self, reality, experience etc etc has been a reaction, modification or rejection of the basic Cartesian split. Look at the idealists (Berkeley, Edwards), who said that all reality was mental activity (in their case God’s, and then ours). Why? Well, all our experience is that of our own first person subjective mental objects – we know everything through experience, and if we only experience our own inner qualia,  well, then, esse est percipi. Then you have the whole primary-secondary quality debate – which again was a debate had at the Cartesian table.

Now, I’m not super super well-versed in idealism, so I can’t offer any super super great criticism, though it seems to me that to infer that all reality is mental from the fact that we experience only our qualia is a bit of a leap. I also happen to think that the whole issue goes away if you don’t affirm the Cartesian split as well as his abstraction of things like colour, heat (and locating them in consciousness, which he had abstracted from human nature as a whole), and everything but mathematical properties from everything. Say no to this, and it seems you don’t have to deal with the problem of qualia, or at least its normal formation. Qualia wouldn’t be a problem so much as an interesting aspect of our interaction with the world around us.

Again, I can’t offer a ground-breaking alternative at the moment, though I find both Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy as well as Thomas Torrance’s critical realism to be pretty helpful here.

‘If man is considered only as “thinking thing” poised upon himself over against the world out there, then the world can be brought within the knowledge of the detached subject only by way of observing phenomena, accounting for them through determining phenomenal connections, and reproducing them to rational representation. Thus the “world” is that which is constructed out of the states of man’s consciousness, not something with which he interacts as a personal agent: it is merely the subject of his objectivist and objectifying operations.’

‘But it is action, in which we personally behave in accordance with the nature of the things around us, that connects man and the world in a way that overcomes the detatched relation between man and nature.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 57)

Again, not decisive or anything but certainly interesting. I for my part would disagree with substance dualism – man is a unified whole and not composed of separate but interacting mind and body. Man is a unification of the material and immaterial – I can’t offer a detailed anthropology beyond that. Maybe that should be a forthcoming post. But at any rate – if man is a unified whole it seems that that gets rid of a lot of various issues and problems in philosophy.

2 thoughts on “Qualia and Some Rambling

  1. Chris Falter October 13, 2013 / 12:00 pm

    Rejecting substantive dualism does eliminate many issues, but it does introduce a few of its own. From the philosophical perspective, how do you avoid the reductionism that says man is nothing but atoms and love is nothing but neurotransmitters? From the religious perspective, we have to deal with many passages in the New Testament that seem to imply dualism:

    “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”
    “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”


    • whitefrozen October 13, 2013 / 12:11 pm

      Philosophically, it’s avoiding the reductionism that solves that issue IMO. In one sense we can say, yeah, love is chemical/neurological/what have you. What love *is*, however, cannot be reduced to the physical even if it does have physical aspects. That hardly is a silver bullet against reductionism, and I’ll devote a post to that issue soon 🙂

      Regarding the NT data: the reality of the material and immaterial cannot be denied. I like to think of it this way: instead of saying there is a physical reality and spiritual reality, there is one reality with different aspects, or levels, or stratifications, or whatever term. Although the NT to me seems to present a picture of this present reality not being replaced by a greater spiritual reality but rather more being more fully realized, if that makes sense. N.T. Wright talks a lot about this kind of thing. Again, not a decisive statement on the issue on my part, but space and time are a bit limited right now. Hopefully i can spell out more fully the various angles on these issues in the near future.


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