A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Qualia and Natural Science

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on July 27, 2006

Over at Brain Hammer, Pete Mandik asks the question How do you know that you know what you are talking about when you talk about qualia?

I commented there, but I want here to expand on the connection between natural science and the concept of quale.

I find it hard to think of a qualia as some private things… In most cases I notice things in a publicly accessible space, i.e. in the world.
For example in the case of the neon color illusion presented on Brain Hammer, I’m noticing a translucent cyan-colored forms “floating” over the background containing black circles there (points to the monitor).
If someone asks me “what are you talking about?” in normal circumstances, I would use pointing, but my attention wouldn’t be to something  phenomenologically in me, but something which exists outside of me, and is publicly accessible, hence accessible to other’s attention too. In that act of pointing I would expect that other (having access to the same thing) possibly has same sort of “what that neon color spreading illusion is like” including “what that translucent cyan form is like”, including “what that specific cyan color is like”, etc… Again, because I see the thing in its specific appearance outside in the world.
After all it has to appear somehow, it can’t just appear and not be anyhow.

I guess the issue of qualia necessarily appears, because we use abstract concepts to cover the concrete experience. This being like specific something of the things we see, is necessary for recognizing the things, and building concepts. It is unimaginable how we would have concepts of different colors like red and green, if the colors we cover with concept red didn’t appear differently  then the colors we cover with the concept green. But once  the abstraction is built, and the the phenomenal world is conceptualized, it is easy to forget that concepts are built on the basis of that “appearing like specific something” of the things.
Further through mixing of the subject/predicate relation with that of equality, the problem is made bigger, as these (now abstract, and removed from being) concepts are further theoretically put in the relation of identity (instead of subject/predicate relation) with other concepts.
So, not just that is said that the things are e.g. a configuration of its parts, but that the things are merely a configuration of its parts.
In doing so, the “last pieces” of the starting qualitative appearance of the things in our being-in-the-world (how things appear to us in our lives) are removed. And of course the theory which does such reduction, when it completes the circle and through such theoretical analysis of the nature returns to the issue of perception stumbles with that fact that things are being like something which can’t be described with the theoretical concepts it ended-up in its reductionistic analysis.

Merleau Ponty has put it much more nicely in Phenomenology of Perception (1962):

The whole universe of science is built upon the world as directly experienced, and if we want to subject science itself to rigorous scrutiny and arrive at a precise assessment of its meaning and scope, we must begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world of which science is the second-order expression. – (preface, ix)

And on topic more closer to the issue of qualia in this context:

The traditional notion of sensation was not a concept born of reflection, but a late product of thought directed towards objects, the last element in the representation of the world, the furthest removed from its original source, and therefore the most unclear. Inevitably science, in its general effort towards objectification, evolved a picture of human organism as physical system undergoing stimuli which were themselves identified with their physico-chemical properties, and tried to reconstitute the actual perception on the basis… (p.13)

Note that this doesn’t render natural science “wrong”, just as providing the subject/predicate propositions in which of course subject can be more then what predicate says about it. Though of course the same issue appears even in the conceptualization itself,e.g. where the color’s appearing as specific color is not fully reducible to the fact that it is covered by the abstract concept (e.g. red, green and so on).
To end with yet another quote of Merleau Ponty (which includes little overstretched analogy for my taste, but I take it to be more metaphorical):

To return to the things themselves is to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks, and in relation to which every scientific schematization is an abstract and derivative sign-language, as is geography in relation to the country-side in which we have learnt beforehand what a forest, a prairie or a river is. (preface, viii)

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