A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Qualia As Metaphysical Issue

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on November 30, 2006

I think that the problem of qualia is introduced by taking the wrong first step in the contemporary philosophy.

A simplified sketch of how we approach things from scientific point:
We see something, let’s name it A, and then by measurements, dividing and analysis, or in general through scientific method we figure out that A is B – e.g. we see an apple and find it to be such and such configuration of molecules, or that A as a phenomenon (e.g. lightning) is such and such B regularity (electric discharge in the atmosphere), and so on. Now, it is good that philosophy takes science seriously so far, namely as telling us that A is B. But usually step further is taken, and that is what I think is a wrong step – The results of science are interpreted as A=B, and it is gone even one step further and any ontological importance to A is negated. It is found acceptable to leave out A from our basic ontology and put the description of the situation solely in terms of B – it is thought that doing so we don’t leave out anything important in our story about the world.

But it is easy in so doing to forget what one is doing. What A was, was a thing with all those things, e.g. in case of apple – redness, taste, form and so on. In reducing A to B, we are in fact abstracting from and removing the redness, taste, form and so on, and we are abstracting the world in the terms of notions which happen to be good for science. Those scientific notions  like numbers, causality, space, time, thing  and so on, don’t really come from outside of our thinking – they are subset of the notions we have and are on same level with the ones we are removing – namely color, taste etc… What those later notions are guilty of is that they don’t present themselves as approachable by scientific method (most importantly measurement).

But now, once we remove those notions, and limit ourselves to the notions like movement, force, position, moment, number, equation, etc… and when we find our model of the brain and the world as whole fully described in those notions, of course we won’t find those things we already removed! As much as one might search and combine those colorless, tasteless, etc… abstractions (thing, space, causality, number, etc..), they won’t get back what was removed.

So, that is where I think the problem of qualia lies. It is not problem that Philosophy of Mind can solve, because it is a problem of a wrong metaphysics. The problem is introduced at the first step.


8 Responses to “Qualia As Metaphysical Issue”

  1. Marcus said

    Mr. Gjorgoski,

    I am inclined to agree.

    During discussions in the philosophy of mind, I wince when I overhear a sentence prefaced with, “Something that feels like…”

    I agree, perhaps not to the extent of Dennett (denying qualia entirely), but I am a bit put off by how qualia is defined even by physicalists (viz. Kim in “…or something near enough”, etc.).

    I am almost disappointed, that, just when things were taking a turn for the better in the philosophy of mind (i.e. in the 50’s and 60’s), philosophers seemed to argue for the existence of qualia, by definition, as something that cannot be understood naturalistically (for this, I am sympathetic to the plights of Searle).

    Namely, it boils down to the case that qualitative aspects of mind *seem* , by aspects of “qualitative feel,” “redness,” etc. (Ugh) to be mysterious and extraneous to the physio-chemical processes of the brain, and it seems that qualia have been defined as something removed from those processes.

    As much as I respect them, it seems Chalmers (property), Jackson (substance), et al. have brought us back to the fuzziness and intangibility of mind that we hoped be discarded with Cartesian dualism.

    As hard and stiff at their theories may sound, the Churchlands, Quentin Smith, and Papineau, et al. seem to be going in the right direction. More discussion of strong supervenience, biological processes, and – perhaps – a little more reductivism(!), would be in good order to de-fuzz the *intrinsic* fuzziness of qualia; as it seems to be constantly stipulated as a defining aspect that it *cannot* be understood without irreducibility.

    So, qualia : physicalism :: abstracta : nominalism ?

    Rambling again,


  2. Hi Matt, thanks for your comment,

    I don’t share your belief that the notion of supervenience is helpful. I would say that after accepting that in terms of specific scientific approach we abstracted the world to specific notions of quantity, movement, forces, positions in time and space, etc… we should be ready that we won’t be able to “reconstruct” (be it by supervenience or some other trick) notions like color,sweetness,being, and so on. Notion like color just don’t have anything to do with notions like movement, mass, position, neurons etc… Exact sciences like physics, neuroscience, or “exact” approaches like computationalism, in such way I think shouldn’t care at all about qualia. As exact sciences their vocabulary is and should be limited.

    Also, I’m not saying that philosophy should accept that the world is nothing more than its reduction in terms of those abstract notions. That’s why I think that instead of supervenience we should talk about abstraction. So to say, this world we live in is physical world, but this world we live in isn’t merely physical.
    If we speak about things in the world in terms of the notions of physics, the relations of the things of which we talk will fall under necessary relations of physical laws (also under necessary mathematical and logical laws connected to the notions used). So the world is mathematical, logical and physical in that sense.
    But for there to be genuine supervenience, the world to be merely physical and two worlds W1 and W2, would be different only if they are different as physical worlds. But in case of abstraction, W1 and W2 can be different, even they are not different as physical worlds.

    Does this make any sense?

  3. Jason McDowell said


    I like reading your articles against strict reductionism! I don’t know that I agree with you, but that might just be because I don’t understand yet.

    That last part of what you said:

    “But in case of abstraction, W1 and W2 can be different, even they are not different as physical worlds.”

    In what sense would W1 and W2 be different? Would it be in the interpretation of what the “stuff” in the world means?

    Is W1 and W2 like this situation: imagine that you have two identical sequences of bits B1 and B2. B1 “is” a “picture”. B2 “is” a “sound”.

    They are the same bits, we are just interpreting them (for example) as a JPEG picture or as an MP3 sound. We say that B1 “is” a picture and B2 “is” a sound, even though what they really are is a sequence of bits…

  4. Hi Jason, I’m glad you like those posts, and thanks for your comments.

    As for your question, I would say no – it isn’t matter of interpretation, but real difference, a difference which can’t be put in terms of certain abstractions. (namely physical notions).

    For sure it is clear that in sense of logic, from “X is A”, and “Y is A” it doesn’t follow necessarily that X is Y, that Y is X, nor that X=Y. (e.g. “banana is a fruit”, “cherry is a fruit”. Doesn’t follow that “cherry=banana”)
    So, in this pure logical sense, if we use DCP to refer to a specific dynamics of a specific configuration of parts, (or some other similar physical description) we can say that from the facts that “W1 is DCP” and “W2 is DCP” it doesn’t necessarily follow that W1 is W2, W2 is W1, nor that W1=W2.

    Hope this helps clearing up my point of view.

  5. Jason McDowell said

    Ah, thank you for the explanation.

    I understand your use of “is” versus “=”. I understand how a “banana is a fruit” and a “cherry is a fruit” and that it does not follow that “cherry = banana”.

    I realize as I think about this that my thinking starts with assumptions of reductionism. It seems to me that the reason a cherry is not a banana is that has a different configuration of parts. If the configuration of parts were sufficiently similar I think they would be the same.

    Say you have two different bananas from the same tree. They are slightly different but they are both still “bananas”. It makes sense to me that different configurations of parts can yield the same whole in some way. But I don’t see how the same configuration of parts can yield two different wholes. Is a banana different from a cherry for some reason other than having different molecules and such?

    Am I off the track? We’re thinking about abstraction and how W1 and W2 can be different even if they have the same physical substance.

    Another thing that I am wondering about is when you say:

    “I would say no – it isn’t matter of interpretation, but real difference, a difference which can’t be put in terms of certain abstractions. (namely physical notions).”

    Where is this difference stored? I think you’re saying that it wouldn’t be a quality of the physical system, or the dynamics of the physical system, or the history of the physical system… but where else would the difference *be*? I am reminded of your conversation with Neo and Zeo from last week. Is this dualism? Zeo says “No, it isn’t dualism”… right?

  6. Hi Jason,

    I used bananas vs. cherries as an example of the logical part. I guess I shouldn’t have as it was clear enough without the example, and it seems it have just added confusion.
    Let me return to “W is DCP” proposition. (W taken to be a whole, and DCP a dynamical configuration of parts)

    Reductionists would say that DCP has the independent existence, and then they might differ in what they say about W. Depending on W, one might argue that W should be eliminated (that it is e.g. merely a folk-physics/psychology term), that it should be taken as emergent phenomenon (I guess those would count as dualist, but probably they will be some kind of asymmetrical dualists, because the one part emerges because of the other), that it should be taken as an abstract pattern which has some kind of dependent existence(e.g. as Neo was arguing that patterns in The Game of Life are real, following Dennett I guess) and so on…
    From holistic position, I would say that W has the independent existence, and that DCP as abstraction has only dependent existence.

    Because of this, this holism isn’t dualism. Holism wouldn’t say that there is DCP with independent existence, and then there is something else – (e.g. mental essence – MESS), and that together those both things constitute the whole, so that the whole is configuration of DCP and MESS (some kind of interactionism). It would say that “the whole is the specific DCP”, “the whole is the specific MESS”, “the whole is the specific XYZ”. Depending on what kind of abstractions one does on the whole, and relations between those, abstraction DCP might be more or less related with abstraction MESS, XYZ, or not.

    As for the differences of W1 and W2 which are both same DCP, it is the whole that are different. It is a reductionist thinking to require different aspects to be “stored” or have independent existence, and that they together constitute the whole.
    So, in general all differences are because the wholes are different. But different abstract differences, e.g. between DCP1 and DCP2 will be in the space of DCP abstractions, so differences in e.g. configuration, movement, speed, mass, or some other physical notion.

  7. mitchell porter said

    I completely agree with your diagnosis of the origin of the problem. I would add that the problem persists because everyone assumes the metaphysics of naturalism as a starting point, even the new dualists. In particular I think the halting steps towards renewed phenomenological studies that analytic philosophy is now taking are inhibited by a sort of atomist prejudice, which makes it difficult to be a realist about anything more than sensory qualia – the self, for example. A patch of phenomenal color is just like a pixel and so people are comfortable with that, but the “unity of consciousness” is especially problematic, because its constitutive relations are unlikely to be reducible to the elementary relations whose existence is countenanced by naturalism. Methodologically, I think it is much better to proceed from a Cartesian agnosticism a la Husserl; and if one wants in advance some alternative physical ontology to guide the ontological speculation that will ultimately be necessary, there’s always the “quantum mind” school of thought.

  8. Hi Mitchell,
    Seems we agree on this issue to a large extent.
    I guess I’m more skeptical about possibility of success of “quantum mind” approaches. I think that to a certain extent brain can be described using functionalists and computationalist models, but for any “quantum things” happening there I think they would be too complex to “capture” by formalisms/descriptions. Though of course, it is possible that we notice such things happening without understanding them.

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