Forget Quining Qualia; We need to start Jaynesing Qualia!

Yes, this post is about qualia, that oh so enigmatic subject of discussion in contemporary philosophy of mind. The debates are heated. Positively oozing with philosophical deftness in argumentation, distinctions about distinctions upon distinctions, arguments for and against the existence of qualia, about what the definition of qualia is, about just about everything that can be said about qualia. So what are qualia? Do they exist? Is it a coherent concept? Where did the concept come from? Is it a piece of metaphysical baggage left over from prescientific soul theory or does it have any grounding in the world that can experienced, introspectively or experimentally and confirmed by the intersubjective community? These are tough questions.

First: definitions. Most philosophers today define qualia as the “subjective properties” of experience itself. They are “intrinsic”, “internal” (most say it is internal, though some have recently said it is external; turns out, both are wrong, as you will see later), “private”, “subjective”, and so on.They report that when they introspect on their experience, they are aware of qualia or that they are conscious of having qualia. They are aware that there is “something it is like” to have that particular experience while they are introspecting on that experience. Sensations are a species of qualia metaphysics. A good way to get a sense of what philosophers are talking about is to think about what it would be like to consciously experience the sensation “red” as you introspect on your experience of gazing at a red apple on your desk, under normal, well-lit conditions. Or imagine what it is like to have a toothache, or feel the warmth of a fire on a cold night.

Next, some properties of qualia. The most enigmatic property of qualia is their privateness. It doesn’t seem like I can, in principle, know what it is like to have the experience of another person (barring some neurophysiological oddity like Siamese brains or something). I can certainly make educated guesses about what it is like experience someone else’s perspective (novels and psychology are two good tools for this), but there is no way to really double-check or confirm what I think their experience is like. What’s curious about qualia privateness is that under normal social conditions, we use language to either express or hide what our experience is like, about what kinds of sensations we are having (e.g. whether we are in pain), what we are feeling, what are our emotional mood is, what we believe, desire, intend, and so on. Moreover, most people’s mind is amazingly adept at picking up nonverbal body cues about mental states, since much emotion gets directly “leaked” in complex feedback through external bodily components/schemas (especially the face, body posture, eyes, etc. ). If someone is standing in the corner feeling uncomfortable, it is likely that everyone else, if they pay attention, will be able to perceive that he or she is uncomfortable, and be correct in their judgement.

So, do qualia exist? This seems like an obvious “Yes”. You would have to be clinically insane to “quine” (eliminate) qualia from your metaphysical baggage, right? Well, Daniel Dennett is a pretty smart fellow, and he seems to have a lot of good insights about consciousness and qualia, so let’s think about why he would say that qualia are simply a “trick” of the brain, an illusion we can’t really help but experience, and have false (or confused) beliefs about. How could the common person have false and confused beliefs about his or her own consciousness? Isn’t that what he or she is most familiar with? Absolutely not, as this long and insightful quote from Julian Jaynes illustrates perfectly (to me at least):

The final fallacy which I wish to discuss is both important and interesting, and I have left it for the last because I think it deals with the coup de grâce to the everyman theory of consciousness. Where does consciousness take place?

Everyone, or almost everyone, immediately replies, in my head. This is because when we introspect, we seem to look inward on an inner space somewhere behind our eyes. But what on earth do we mean by “look”? We even close are eyes sometimes to introspect even more clearly. Upon what? Its spatial character seems unquestionable. Moreover we seem to move or at least “look” in different directions. And if we press ourselves too strongly to further characterize this space (apart from its imagined contents), we feel a vague irritation, as if there were something that did not want to be known, some quality which to question was somehow ungrateful, like rudeness in a friendly place.

We not only locate this space of consciousness inside our own heads. We also assume it is there in others’. In talking with a friend, maintaining periodic eye-to-eye contact (that remnant of our primate past when eye-to-eye contact was concerned in establishing tribal hierarchies), we are always assuming a space behind our companion’s eyes into which we are talking, similar to the space we imagine inside our own heads where we are talking from.

And this is the very heartbeat of the matter. For we know perfectly well that there is no such space in anyone’s head at all! There is nothing inside my head or yours except physiological tissue of one sort or another. And the fact that it is predominantly neurological issue is irrelevant.

This this thought takes a little thinking to get used to. It means that we are continually inventing these spaces in our own an other people’s heads, knowing perfectly well that they don’t exist anatomically; and there location of these “spaces” is indeed quite arbitrary. The Aristotelian writings, for example, located consciousness or the abode of thought in and just above the heart, believing the brain to be a mere cooling organ since it was insensitive to touch or injury. And some readers will not have found this discussion valid since they locate their thinking selves somewhere in the upper chest. For most of us, however, the habit of locating consciousness in the head is so ingrained that it is difficult to think otherwise. But, actually, you could, as you remain where you are, just as well locate your consciousness around the corner in the next room against the wall near the floor, and do your thinking there as well as in your head. Not really just as well. For there are very good reasons why it is better to imagine your mind-space inside of you, reasons to do with volition and internal sensations, with the relationship of your body and your “I” which will become apparent as we go on.

That there is no phenomenal necessity in locating consciousness in the brain is further reinforced by various adnormal instances in which consciousness seems to be outside the body. A friend who received a left frontal brain injury in the war regained consciousness in the corner of the ceiling of a hospital ward looking down euphorically at himself on the cot swathed in bandages, Those who have taken lysergic acid diethylamide commonly report similar out-of-the-body or exosomatic experiences, as they are called. Such occurences do not demonstrates anything metaphysical whatever; simply that locating consciousness can be an arbitrary matter.

Let us not mistake. When I am conscious, I am always and definitely using certain parts of my brain inside my head. But so am I when riding a bicycle, and the bicycle riding does not go on inside my head. The cases are different of course, since bicycle riding has a definitely geographical location, while consciousness does not. In reality, consciousness has no location whatever except as we imagine it has.  ~ The Origin of Consciousness, p. 44-46

I hope this quote shows why, instead of Quining qualia, we need to Jaynes them! Consciousness is a complex mental phenomena that greatly complicates matters when thinking about qualia. Take this having of a “mind-space”. Now subtract it. You are sleepwalking. A zombie. What it is like to be you without your mind-space? Clearly you can still perceive, but can you consciously feel those perceptions? It doesn’t seem like it. But should we say that the zombie doesn’t have qualia? I don’t think that follows, since it is intuitive to me that there is something it is like to lack a mind-space, and in fact I think the experience of experiencing the world without an actively imagined mind-space is the norm in the animal kingdom, and it is humans and their mind-spaces that is rare. So it is not obvious that we need to Quine qualia. Dennett was wrong about this, because he didn’t see clearly enough how reflective consciousness changes the “what it is like” of prereflective consciousness. Introspecting on qualia is itself a rare cognitive feat since the animal at the watering hole is not thinking to itself “Man, I better watch out for predators” it just simply is watching out for predators. Introspection on experience changes the what it is like of experience, and (many, but not all) philosophers who introspect on their experience and talk about qualia have not adequately addressed this difference being made by the special act of introspection itself. Jaynesing qualia helps us see both what needs to be explained (the difference between having and not-having a mind-space) and how to explain it.



Filed under Consciousness

4 responses to “Forget Quining Qualia; We need to start Jaynesing Qualia!

  1. So does this mean that self-consciousness as well as the unconscious are distributed throughout the environment and not simply located inside the skull? (I’m thinking specifically about some of the ideas you were exploring in your last blog on mind/brain identity). Isn’t there some constitutive relation between our projection of the internal mind-space between the eyes of another and our injection of our own supposed mind-space? In other words, couldn’t it be that our sense of identity is an inference based on our experience of others? Who says self-consciousness is intracranially produced and other-consciousness is learned through experience of the extracranial world? It seems more likely that individual brains/bodies learn how to experience themselves ‘as selves’ because of their relationships with other brains/bodies. Consciousness, then, is an emergent property, not just of neural networks, but of social networks.

    • Gary Williams


      That’s actually a pretty Jaynesian idea. He says on pg 217, for example,:

      “It is thus a possibility that before an individual man had an interior self, he unconsciously first posited it in others, particularly contradictory strangers, as the thing that caused their different and bewildering behavior. In other words, the tradition in philosophy that phrases the problem of logic of inferring other minds from one’s own has it the wrong way around. We may first unconsciously (sic) suppose other consciousness, and then infer our own by generalization.”

      So for Jaynes, being in a social sphere is necessary for the development of consciousness, especially since consciousness depends on language and language is a social phenomena. However, I think Jaynes would say that the circuitry that realizes or gives rise to consciousness is located inside the skull, but the circuits that generate consciousness need to be triggered/shaped/influenced by outside social factors in order to develop properly. So if you were an infant on an island that never grew up in the presence of others, I think Jaynes would say that this person could not develop consciousness. But I think we need to be careful about the idea of consciousness being distributed in the environment. It is still the brain that generates consciousness, but the brain would have never developed that capacity unless it was exposed to the right social stimuli. So in this sense consciousness is a social phenomena and can be said to emerge only in individuals that grew up around other people.

  2. Vic P

    No doubt you’ve struck a common sense note. No species ever existed as a group of individuals for survival. In the modern world we still build our cultures around a “celebration” of the organization whether it be a government, a corporate structure (“too big to fail”), organized religions, organized education or even sports teams identity. The brain is our “social interactive organ” of survival so in the modern world we build adaptations of “fun and interesting things” which were originally based in our species survival adaptation. Sports itself is full of survival memes including celebrations which are commemorative ocelebration of the successful hunt.

  3. Pingback: Some thoughts on Weisberg’s new paper “The Zombie’s Cogito: Meditations on Type-Q Materialism” | Minds and Brains

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