Moving Some Furniture Around in Mary’s Room

As far as important papers in the philosophy of mind go, Frank Jackson’s Epiphenomenal Qualia and What Mary Didn’t Know are pretty high up on the list of must-reads. They’ve spawned a mass of literature devoted to picking apart just what Mary did or didn’t know made all the more intriguing because Jackson himself later distanced himself from the argument. Every possible response to the argument has been (seemingly) given, and there’s ample reason to regard anyone writing on it the same as someone writing on substance dualism – interesting, no doubt, but somewhat well-worn.  Continue reading


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.