Posted by: Xhyra Graf | 17 February 2007

DeQuining Qualia

This section addresses Daniel Dennett’s interpretation and dismissal of the Qualia Concept.  In his paper Quining Qualia, Dennett’s main axe to grind seems to be that the concept of Qualia and the subsequent descriptions of it seem to be too fuzzy to be of any use.  This is not just a concern for continued empirical study, but is a claim that encompasses questioning the use of the term in previous or all philosophical discussion. 

My claim, then, is not just that the various technical or theoretical concepts of qualia are vague or equivocal, but that the source concept, the “pretheoretical” notion of which the former are presumed to be refinements, is so thoroughly confused that even if we undertook to salvage some “lowest common denominator” from the theoreticians’ proposals, any acceptable version would have to be so radically unlike the ill-formed notions that are commonly appealed to that it would be tactically obtuse–not to say Pickwickian–to cling to the term. Far better, tactically, to declare that there simply are no qualia at all. (Dennett, 1988)

While one must agree that if the descriptive content of the term Qualia is prohibitive of even discussion toward definition then there exists a serious problem, dismissal is never the correct solution to a pervasive issue.  It is the case with Qualia or more generally, the subjective quality of experience that it is part and parcel of what informs our thinking.  Oddly enough, the concept of an enduring, special self is a problem that will remain pervasive as long as it is largely ignored or debased.  The non-existent or inconsequential self tends to take on a defensive posture when approached in a disrespectful manner.  Therein is the foundation of how or why the historical problem of formulating an empirical approach to Qualia remains deeply embedded contemporarily.  What reasonable person would have the wish to maintain dialogue with a faction that, at bottom, views them as in many important respects, retarded in their intellectual growth?  It is better to take the route of a directed study of the structure of subjective experience in ways that do not attempt to explain it away without addressing its evidential force and possible causal aspects.

What Dennett’s essay amounts to is not a proper dismissal, per se.  His phlogiston example is not properly comparable because the phlogiston concept covered a small and clear area of the physical universe; when the correct version of a scientific theory came about it was a clear replacement for that concept.  A proper dismissal would require showing in detail once and for all that all aspects of the Qualia concept were non-viable and for this the proof is in the pudding.  I believe Dennett himself would admit that while he may have shown that the concept is fuzzy, he has not managed to provide a proof of non-existence that can be upheld over all areas of both conventional and philosophical thought.  Additionally, and even if somewhat mistaken, “thought” and consciousness have become inextricably intertwined; thought and thinking being used as the primary marker for consciousness.

This paper, at bottom, contends that “vagueness” is not a reason to ignore a concept.  If that methodology were to be standard, most empirical research would have come to a complete halt a long time ago.  In the face of these kinds of difficulties, there should be the attempt to draw out a clearer definition and/or come to an understanding of what perpetuates the difficulty, toward the goal of informing further research.  The Socratic elenchus that is or should be the model of all philosophical inquiry involving approaching the everyman for information, as a study of consciousness inevitably must be, does not assume a privileged or condescending stance on the part of the inquirer in the ability to elucidate commonly held thoughts and beliefs.  In fact, it is begun on the presumption of the opposite and continues by allowing the questioned avenues that provide motivation for further discussion.  The inquirer is obliged to use what indeed may be a further developed acuity for “philosophical thought”[ftn1] toward his own personal understanding of these widely held beliefs while enabling continued communication by upholding a certain modicum of mutual respect and sincere interest in the thoughts of the everyman.  The primary flaw of Dennett’s approach is that he fails to respect the thinking of those before him and even those contemporaries who quite plausibly stand on the same or higher level.  The assumption that “the other” is less informed, less reasoned or base their reason on experiences “not real” is counterproductive and leads to the writing of “debunking” theories which only contribute to extending the whole phenomenon of Qualia Concept fuzziness for longer than is necessary.

Of course, it is possible to give Dennett the benefit of the doubt; assuming that his method is simply an expository style that aims to call attention to the fact that an urgent need for further clarification of Qualia exists.  As a step clarification he delineates his interpretation of the salient features of qualia as (1) ineffable, (2) intrinsic, (3) private, (4) directly or immediately apprehensible in consciousness, stating that “Thus are qualia introduced onto the philosophical stage.”  However, from the outset he makes it clear that, [q]ualia are supposed to be special properties, in some hard-to-define way and claims “that conscious experience has no properties that are special in any of the ways qualia have been supposed to be special.”  Evidently he “want[s] to shift the burden of proof, so that anyone who wants to appeal to private, subjective properties has to prove first that in so doing they are not making a mistake.”  (Dennett, 1988) 

And so, Dennett draws the line in the sand, decidedly closer to qualia-phobes than qualia-philes, for addressing the vagueness of concepts and descriptions of Qualia.  These characteristics as described by Daniel Dennett seem to necessitate review and discussion by those who wish to move forward to productive philosophical investigation of qualia or the subjective quality of experience as having evidential force and thus causal aspects.  The next four sections will perfunctorily lay out his meaning of the four properties of qualia while noting some important errors in his descriptions.  This will make for easier reference as they are investigated in more depth after a review of qualia in relation to wholly subjective experience; perhaps uncovering some of the referred to “pretheoretical notions” and allowing for some clarification to be reached regarding the basis of a historical and persisting vagueness or slipperiness of the concept.


[ftn1] I use that term here in a directed fashion.  It remains to be seen if I feel the need to further elaborate on that.

See the Qualia as Untransferrable Post.  The Dennet post will be referenced there and from the four descriptives.

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