Consciousness? Sounds Phenomenal.

Consciousness is phenomenal consciousness. By this, I mean that consciousness is characterized primarily by what Searle calls its ‘first person ontology’. Consciousness is fundamentally a ‘what it is like’ kind of thing. Flanagan notes that consciousness may have depths we can’t access, features we can’t grasp, and a good deal more that lies beyond our cognitive capabilities – this is all true. However, if consciousness exists, it is phenomenal, and while this surely isn’t the entire story, it’s certainly the most important part – I’m clearly marking myself out here as part of the tribe who see consciousness’s fundamental nature as qualitative.

There are, of course, those who disagree, and among those who disagree the most vocally is Daniel Dennett. In his well known essay, ‘Quining Qualia‘, he sets out to rid us of the notion of qualia by way of his also-well-known intuition pumps (thought experiments). There’s a number of them in the essay (I count 11) but most of them operate with the same logic, and its the logic of these intuition pumps, the mechanics of the pumps, that I want to look at, rather than the water that comes out – and I’ll use intuition pump #7 as the test case for all of this.

Dennett claims that two coffee tasters, Chase and Sanborn, who work for Maxwell House, cannot be sure that the experience (qualia) of their coffee that they had six years ago is the same qualia they have now. Chase believes that the taste of the coffee is the same – it’s his own tastes that have evolved. Sanborn believes that the taste of the coffee itself has changed, not his own taste. From this (to cut a long story short) Dennett derives the idea qualia do not explanatory (or any other kind) of work – if we can’t figure out who is right or wrong about all this – then qualia simply need to be eliminated:

There is a strong temptation, I have found, to respond to my claims in this paper more or less as follows: “But after all is said and done, there is still something I know in a special way: I know how it is with me right now.” But if absolutely nothing follows from this presumed knowledge–nothing, for instance, that would shed any light on the different psychological claims that might be true of Chase or Sanborn–what is the point of asserting that one has it? Perhaps people just want to reaffirm their sense of proprietorship over their own conscious states.

If it doesn’t do any work, why even bother saying that one has qualia? It’s difficult to argue with this conclusion, unless one looks a bit deeper at the logic by which Dennett’s answer makes sense – and if we look a bit deeper at said logic, we find that qualia actually hasn’t been eliminated at all.

In ‘Mind, Matter, Nature’, James Madden summarizes Dennett’s position helpfully:

The point is that neither Sanborn nor Chase can be certain that’s what his qualia are; they don’t know whether they’re having the same tasting state they did 6 years ago. No introspective analysis of how things feel can solve this problem for Chase and Sanborn, though a neurological study of both men and a chemical analysis of the coffee could go a long way toward resolving a dispute. Dennett believes that this poses a problem for quaila because the idea that one should consult an outside expert and perform elaborate behavioral tests on oneself in order to confirm what quaila one had, surely takes us too far from our original idea of qualia as properties with which we have a particularly intimate acquaintance. Since the discrepancy between Chase and Sanborn cannot be solved by any reflection on their internal, private and experiences, and it could be addressed by an objective third person investigation, we have reason to doubt that supposed quietly undo any work at all on explaining behaviors and attitudes. (p. 145)

Here we see Dennett’s logic at work: what qualia are supposed to explain are our behavioral responses to various external stimuli. These can be checked by a third-party, and there’s no need of qualia. Therein lies the rub, however. Dennett’s logic which drives his intuition pumps is predicted upon behaviourism:

Qualia do not make any difference for our attitudes and behaviors, so there is no reason depposit osit them in our account of sensations. This argument, however, “presupposes that only behavior needs explaining. The opponent will hold the qualia are an explanation in their own right”. In other words, Dennett assumes that there is nothing more to explain than are behavioral responses to stimuli and not our intrinsic conscious experiences. The proponents of the various qualia arguments claim to show the qualia are the basic, irreducible data of experience. They posit them not to explain our behaviors, but to articulate an undeniable fact of consciousness: that is there are ways that things feel to us. Dennett assumes that the only ‘seemings’ that need explaining are our dispositions to react and report…’ (p. 147)

In other words, Dennett ‘begs the question against phenomenal consciousness’ (Block). However, even granting that Dennett is correct about the confusions of qualia, it doesn’t follow that there are no qualia, as he asserts above. What follows is that qualia exist, but don’t do any explanatory work with regard to our behaviour from a third person perspective. To assert that because of this qualia don’t exist is merely to beg the question against phenomenal consciousness. Thus, even granting Dennett’s conclusions – that qualia are often confusing – it does not follow that there are no qualia. We therefore have little reason to doubt the existence of qualia based on the strength of Dennett’s intuition pumps.

3 thoughts on “Consciousness? Sounds Phenomenal.

  1. PeterJ March 14, 2016 / 6:22 am

    I struggle to understand Dennet’s thinking. He appears to be lost in a fantasy world. Both men knew they were drinking coffee – how did they know that? Oh yes, qualia. Pretty reliable then.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joshua March 14, 2016 / 6:44 am

      Dennett’s makes perfect sense – if you accept the behaviour-ish logic that drives his thinking. That, of course, need not be accepted, so we are free to call him on his fantasy land dwelling.

      Liked by 1 person

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