Monthly Archives: January 2009

Thoughts on qualia and phenomenology

It seems to me that the only way qualia can emerge as a legitimate philosophical question is for there to be an assumption of dualism. For qualia to make sense conceptually, there needs to be a subject, as apart from the world, experiencing the incoming flux of sensory data. This seems obvious since the whole idea of qualia sprung out of the phenomenology of subjects looking out upon the world, with a particular first-person perspective.

In the same vein, even the notion of intentionality, the directedness of mental life towards objects, depends upon the subject being distinct from the object. Without this metaphysical gap, there could be no epistemological intuition guiding our inherited supposition of dualism between subject and object. Spelled out in such plain terms, one might feel this is a strawman, but nevertheless, the metaphysical implications of such language are clear.

But, hear me out, if the fundamental division between self and world rests merely on a philosophical assumption, why should we not explore the implications of an alternative ontological framework? Historically, this alternative has been called “being-in-the-world.” I won’t go into the details right now, but I think I’ve discussed it elsewhere several times. Nevertheless, important for my purposes here, the human being is still capable of separating himself from the world, despite his fundamental orientation of ontological familiarity, through the use of conscious thought – which is representational. The ontology of thoughts seems clear: subject and object. According to the Heideggerian perspective, the ontology of people is not so clear cut.

So, with this alternative ontological framework of being-in-the-world in mind, what sense can we still make out of the notion of qualia? There is an experience of the world. We can strip this experience of its existential import through deliberation. We can think to ourselves about our own experience and contemplate what it is like to see the world. In such deliberation, we might think of ourselves as a separate – mental – entity that stands alone in the world of objects and people. After such contemplation, we might try our hand at constructing an ontology that includes ourselves as separate mental entities, and the world of objects that we reach out to through intentional consciousness. We would be basing our ontology, supposedly, on the phenomenology of experience – gathered through our very own cognitive contemplation upon experience as philosophers.

The mistake here would be to take this contemplation-driven ontology and immediately claim, “This is it! This is the way things are!” From a Heideggerian perspective, one could just as well claim from the start that there is no ontological wedge between subject and object, saying that instead, subject and object are replaced by being-in-the-world. If you fail to do this, and instead press on with a dualistic ontology, the language of phenomenology results in a subject intentionally directed towards an external world, which impinges its sensory data upon our minds, giving us the famous first-person experience of “qualia.”

By challenging the ontological assumptions implicit in this representationalist perspective, we can dismantle the philosophical scaffolding which supports the very notion of qualia, and subsequently, all of the derivative non-sense which has swollen contemporary philosophical journals.

Perhaps, if we are interested in spelling out the ontology of our total personality, and not just the conceptual web of belief in our heads, we should attempt to do phenomenology from a non-Cartesian perspective. After all, why should we expect an analysis of cognition, as distinct from a phenomenological understanding of absorbed coping, to reveal to us an ontology that gives due justice to the total phenomenon of our embodied, enacted situation?

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