The Hypothesis Of Qualia

The Hypothesis Of Qualia

A Story by Scott Durham
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A position paper defending the views of Professor David J. Chalmers. This is an Academic Paper written for a Western Philosophy Class.

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A position paper supporting
 the hypothesis of the existence of Qualia.

    With apologies to the effect of relying upon the advanced opinions of my intellectual superiors, I am shamelessly adopting their opinions to clarify a position upon the subject of Consciousness, the paper in hand wishes to lend analysis and proof to the existence of qualia.
      A division in the philosophy of the mind begins to form in the wake of the subject of qualia, which has been defined and redefined over the past decades. 19th Century philosophers discussed the topic long before qualia bore its lyrical name.  
     Mind and the World Order (1929) by Clarence Irving Lewis made the first bold attempt at a modern definition.  In that book, Lewis states roughly that qualia are a smaller variety within the large family of universal experiences. While he draws a comparison to universals, these experiences exist individually and from within the consciousness of each separate being, and he asserts that because of the subjective nature of the laws that govern consciousness, they must be distinguished from objectivity. 
   As dialectic survey requires an opposition to automatic assumptions, in the field of Consciousness and the Philosophy of Mind, there is sufficient debate over the existence of qualia. 
This paper is a defense of the hypothesis that qualia does in fact exist.  
   
        I will support the hypothesis in question by referring to the writings and lecture material of NYU Professor David Chalmers, who contends the position that there is an existence of qualia.
       Qualia can casually be described as the raw sensation of experience.  It can be imagined in our own consciousness as this type of mental experience; the autonomous sensation one feels while observing the color red, or hearing a sound that can be either soothing or agitating. 
    In his paper, “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness” (Journal of Consciousness Studies, 1995)- Chalmers formulates the notion of a ‘hard problem of consciousness’, which moves beyond the ‘easy’ problems of cognition, such as discrimination, and/or integration of information. 
     The hard problem addresses the phenomenal experiences of consciousness, the contemplative identity of sensory images and the cautionary response to negative stimuli. 
     Several models and propositions have been offered in the hope of explaining qualia.
    Even though the word itself is absent from the text, there is an examination of subjective selection written into Thomas Nagel’s “What it is like to be a Bat”, (published in The Philosophical Review, 1974) wherein he argues that consciousness has a subjective character. 
    For the purpose of his illustration, he argues that we may imagine an existence as bats. We shouldn’t find it hard becoming a bat in the sense that we perceive them. We know enough to expect that we are stuck being nearsighted and possibly hanging upside-down from a ledge. These simple aspects of daily bat-life are only what we might experience ourselves while existing as a bat. It does not accurately portray what it is like for the bat to experience being a bat. This is the kind of subjective experience that he identifies with consciousness itself. He takes great pains to observe that although we can describe efficiently, how neurons work, we still have no explanation at hand for consciousness itself. We can describe any number of phenomenon associated with sentient beings, but in any of them consciousness can seem to be something that might be there or not. His primary contention is that, although science seems able to objectively describe things in such a way that no point of view is necessary, it should likewise acknowledge the presence of this ineffable subjective experience as well. Nagel doesn't suggest that such experience is necessarily beyond the bounds of analysis. Quite the contrary - he seems mostly to be advocating a greater study of it; that the whole is perhaps greater than the sum of its parts. 

    “it seems unlikely that any physical theory of mind can be contemplated until more thought has been given to the general problem of subjective and objective.”1 

      While it may seem like a subtle resignation, the statement is a forward challenge to those who take on the task of considering the Philosophy of the mind. I feel the truth of this statement because science improves with every pace. I can hope that the longer science walks with these subjects, the chances for improvement in the areas of definition can occur. 
    Research, and papers like these on the subject of qualia and consciousness, gives an attention to the topic that Nagel was hoping for by writing that line in his book; that there will be a time for contemplation on this matter. Perhaps he hopes it will follow a period of philosophical and scientific discovery that might put practical science at an advantage to understand it better. 
     The short analysis of Nagel’s paper identifies an existence of properties, similar to qualia without referring to it as such, that the idea could exist by description and not need to be specifically named would quietly prove the anonymous existence of qualia. Due to the fact that a completely telepathic language (pain anticipation, for one) can be communicated, translated, and conveyed with ease, our collective experience implants a sort of exterior qualia. 
     An awareness of the discernment of different sensations within the same category of experience, for instance, the prison system’s use of colors to control stress levels; indicates that there is a specific set of qualia in the subject of color. The colors trigger sensations that are not easily explained, but the environment makes use of the qualia that might produce negative outcomes by reducing the triggers for them. 
     The same system uses agitating color schemes to annoy troublesome inmates who are being punished. These triggers, born of remembered consequences, extend out to others by anecdotal response and before very long, others gain reference to as to how to act accordingly under whatever controlled environment is being provided.  
     What is the name of this thing we do not know how to describe properly? 
    To have determined the possibility of qualia must mean that we arrived here by some conscious employment, called qualia or not.
      To some degree, all of history and the shared conscious experience of basic things such as the weather, hunger, boredom, etc.- worked together to shape our collective consciousness.
     Our inner feelings about these various stimuli, can be either validating, or sometimes even more confusing. We simply do not know what others feel, in most cases we cannot help but presume, which makes one wonder if the person over there feeling the same experience, is receiving the same conscious signals in regards to qualia. When another person smells grape jelly, is the chemical sensory response the same as it is in everyone? Probably not.
    Because that is not possible, it makes very clear; the argument that qualia does exist. 
   It could end up being one of those qualities like hair, some people are blessed with an abundance, others are not. Some hair is easy to maintain, another variety might be tangly and difficult to keep straight.
   To assign degrees to qualia makes sense of the fact that two people struck by the same physical object might have different views on what just happened. These two conscious entities, both struck by the same imaginary baseball, would turn to tell you two completely different experiences. While the observer has perceived the feeling of being struck by the ball, he can insert his own reflective qualia into the narrative that he receives from the differing reports of those struck by the ball. The second person hit by the ball might say it was quite pleasant, nothing more than a tap on the arm, while the first person may roll on the ground in dire agony. If he relied purely upon the report of this first participant, it is likely that fear would be associated with standing on the batter’s box. The second participant, the sadist who enjoyed being hit by the ball would convince you that standing in the box is a fun time, nothing to be feared at all. The worst thing that could happen to you, being hit by the ball, is still quite enjoyable. Adrenaline does much to explain the chemical nature of these decisions, but it cannot explain the perception of the experience. Whether you have ever been hit by a ball or not, you are able to conceive in your mind that such an experience would be consequentially painful and there would be a physical sensation, most likely a bad one, when that ball hits you. People who watch a baseball game on television, some of whom have never touched a baseball or played the game, will sympathetically wince at the slow motion replay of a batter getting beaned by a fast ball.
  Where does this secondary consciousness emanate from? 
   It is a physical impossibility that the viewer might be sharing neurons and nerve endings remotely, telepathically even, with the brave ballplayer standing in the box. 
What does the sensation of secondary pain do to us that causes the wincing?
    There is no need to evade danger from this secondary point, because the ball is only the size of a pencil eraser. Removing subjectivity further, it is probably being thrown in a stadium halfway across the country, but still the sensation of the ball striking the hitter causes the same pain from Cincinnati to California, making a case for the universal element of qualia. 
    The myriad examples laid out in defense of qualia include many images, zombies, philosophical zombies, and color blind Mary. 
     Mary’s story, in short, relates the quandary of experience over study. We must place Mary in a world where she cannot see colors, this black and white existence is the place from which she studies the physical properties of color. She lives a very long life having only known of the descriptions of red, blue, and green. She has never experienced color by any other means than imagination. One day she is transported to a world where she can now see color. The difference between what she knew of color from a life of study, and that moment when she experienced the color visually, must mean that qualia exists. 
     I assert that in conjunction with Professor Chalmers and his hard problem of consciousness, the mind-body problem helps, if not to explain, to implicate that qualia must exist for the body and mind to subjectively communicate with one another. If all mental states are reduced to being chemical states, or supervening physical states, only then consciousness can be assessed as objective. Since a reduction as such has not yet  taken place, consciousness cannot reach that specific objective state. 
      One item of fascination for me that helps to prove the hypothesis is that I feel that when even the most mundane decisions are made in our daily lives, we express them from qualia. One aspect that helps me see qualia working in the background is the way people deal with shoe-laces. As one walks down a street and takes in the different uses and varieties of shoe-laces, you could ask; 
Why does this person have black laces instead of white? 
Why are the loops on my laces so tight, and somebody else’s not so tight? 
Can one become emotionally driven to require a certain shoe-lace etiquette?
 Maybe one person prefers that they are stuffed up under the tongue of the shoe, perhaps another has no laces at all!  

     There could be infinite reasons for shoe-lace application, not all of them are proof of qualia, but there is enough there to bargain with. 
   We do not even need to look above foot level, and the human has already expressed evidence of qualia. Perhaps as a child, the laces were tied in a certain fashion that maybe brings more psychological comfort, even though there could be physical discomfort from that particular style. The qualia that overrides the decision of physical comfort in this instance, is ineffable. You cannot point at a spot where it lives and show it to me, yet it is certainly evident by choices. Choices exist from, and find their origin in the subjective cognition. Our determined response could also be termed as inevitable when you look into the way survivors are selected. This is not to say that choices are purely evidence of qualia. As sophisticated an animal as humans have become, they still make more unconscious decisions as opposed to those by selective consciousness. There is a leading modern materialist insinuation that requires a physiological explanation for these conscious processes. Any such explanation demerits the existence of qualia by deferring to a Physicalist view. 
      When we get into proving the invisible, science can struggle to help us understand. If only for method’s sake, one must see results and reproduce them in a controlled environment. If we were able to walk out onto the street and lasso a consciousness or a qualia, maybe then we could point at it and say; 
“That’s why we are the way we are”- and even then, because of the randomness of the basic human interface, we still would be guessing from the dark. 
    Recognizing qualia as a topic of relevant discussion might be the limit of its proofing, but by accepting that an person’s consciousness is, at the very least, operating in a discrimination of events, that cuts a path through the wilderness of further understanding of the mechanics of consciousness. 
       




Section Two:
Opposition to The Case For Qualia;
    
   Just as fast as the case is being made for the existence of qualia, forming somewhere is a camp of modern philosophic analysis that holds qualia as a non-existent idea. In Physicalist orders, qualia presumes to be the synaptic transmission of material events. To refute the existence of a mental property, or to relegate it into a mere transaction between neuropathic terminals, reveals an unwillingness to experiment with conscious thought itself. 
   The opponents of qualia maintain that any state the mind can rise to, can be explained through its physical processes. The healthy skepticism does bring about a few obvious questions, often the opposing lecturer will include an example of homunculus control. It is sometimes suggested that what we perceive to be qualia, is simply a little green man in our head that pushes all the buttons. The work of Professor Daniel Dennett has gained a notoriety on this topic, and his outline of four properties ascribed to qualia provoke an understanding from the bottom side of the equation. 
     Dennett opposes qualia as an explanation, espousing a Materialist solution to Chalmers’ hard problem of consciousness, a solution that requires no qualia or subjective pattern of experience. 
     A specific demonstration that calls qualia into question is the one where Professor Dennett shows a video of two images passing over one another in a randomly opaque fashion.
     As we see the foreground image that obscures large portions of the checkered background, the colored squares in the background begin to change color. This change goes largely undetected even when the video is played over a second time. 
   By showing this example, Dennett reveals our willingness to produce our own brand of consciousness that is comfortable and easy to accept. Even in the conscious consideration of my own mind, I found that there was a strength in this argument. It is easy to see how the mind persuades itself into errant use, as Dennett plainly points out using this controlled stimuli. By providing examples that reveal how your conscious mind can trick itself, he helps us understand that these experiences which cannot be defined in metaphysical terms need not be so complicated as they are made out to be. The strongest model comes at the point of simplifying the presentation; by merely asking the viewer “did you actually see those colors, or did your mind just want you to?” 
The “ineffable” property ascribed to qualia eludes the materialist view of decision making that choices are made, correlating automatic chemical responses to sensory stimuli. No matter how many silent partners exist underneath, Dennett is correct in assuming that at the end of a stimuli transaction, neurons must fire, chemical exchanges must take place, which means that qualia can be shown to contradict themselves. 
     In considering a second part of decision making in the conscious mind, which is the integration of learned information to avoid danger. For the purpose of evidence I will forego the many established example scenarios and present one of my own:

Imagine you are standing in front of a burning house. What prevents you from walking right into the house as if it were not on fire? 
     Even if you can presume the outcome of burning up in the flames, the one overriding factor in remaining outside is the prospect of pain. Dennett succeeds in this instance, the actual chemical process of the pain is a trigger that can’t be denied. But what does the pain response emerge from? 
      While conceding that it is derived from practical experience, the mind has never itself been through the experience of catching on fire and burning, it must suppose that burning is bad from understanding the properties of heat. Professor Dennett’s style of reasoning would allow for these postulations: 

The body that frames the mind may know the sensation of heat and that an intense amount of heat in one small space might be a danger to the body. 
The conscious mind inside the body is being driven by this response to presumptive pain from burning, it makes the decision that entering the house would be dangerous while it is burning. 
While the factors that cause action cannot be accurately monitored in a metaphysical sense, the unknown motivation to preserve the body from danger cannot by itself be ascribed to qualia.
If qualia can be of assistance in getting you to the decision, the actions are in fact controlled by physical means. You cannot think yourself away from the house that is burning, walking will be necessary and that requires a chemical transmission as well as deterministic physical movement.

        Professor Dennett argues that the mental property of discrimination contradicts qualia as well. That one may subjectively choose one variety of choices over another set of choices by judicious contemplation of benefit or liability, Dennett maintains that we arrive at the point of choice by rehearsed improvement that comes about by seeking familiar chemical response. 
        I concur that the response to familiar scenes can have an impact in decision making. As consumers, we do engender a certain comfort in our familiar brands. Remember how many times in your life that you’ve heard someone say, 
  “This is decent steak sauce, but it’s not A-1!” This is because when the subject had used the specific sauce before, the experience was of high enough regard as to wish it be repeated. Was this purely a physical response? The sensory information did not need guidance beyond the taste buds, the content of the flavor either rang the subject’s bell or it didn’t, according to those of Dennett’s school, prior experience tasting the sauce helps because it was a physical choice the first time it was experienced. 
        If something as simple as the sense of taste can differentiate what sauce is appealing and which one might not be right for the dish in question, that would speak to the simplicity of choices without using the full scope of consciousness
     Ask a friend which brand of catsup (for that matter ask him how he spells Ketchup!) tastes the best and you will likely hear Dennett’s case against qualia being made better than I can explain it here in printed words. I believe the exchange would involve hearing your friend describe what tastes good about his favorite catsup. Heinz catsup might be from heaven according to your friend and just as passionately, his girlfriend might prefer Hunt’s. 

     What experience in the body has caused their loyalty to the brand of catsup that they prefer? 
     How can there be more than one favorite catsup when we all know that Del Monte rules the catsup world?
 
    When these opinions add up to how we discriminate in a simple idea like condiment choice, the case against qualia becomes stronger because it does not exist in a material sense, it cannot exist in any way other than a theoretical one. Just like the specific reason that they all like their own ‘ketchup‘, beyond the physical response of enjoying the taste, it can only be theory.
   Professor Dennett establishes that as decisions are made, there are layers of criteria being met on the physical plane that explain the process in which the decision was made. Just as certainly as one can point to the employment of qualia, an equally salient point is being made for the physical circumstance of consciousness. 
    Being an objective experience in the starting gate, makes possible any subjective experience down the road. 
    If you dodge the sharpened blade a hundred times, it was perhaps due to the first time you put your hand too close and experienced the consequence physically, materially, it left no room for doubt. 
    If you go near the blade a million more times, you would only need that first experience to remember the danger and to stay away from the blade. No effort is made to surrender to the unknown quantity of processes in the mind in Dennett’s view, if you survived standing next to the blade; it was purely a physical consequence. For whatever reason that the blade did not injure you, none of it can be explained by theory. You remain uninjured because there was no contact with the blade. 
      It seems odd to clarify this part, but there is no way that the blade has consciousness enough to have any practical input as to whether you survived or not. The choices that caused survival in this instance were immediate animal responses. Professor Dennett would likewise assert that no dream, no fairy dust on the brain, and for sure -no magic jelly was at play. 
      In the material sense, a process of preservation was conducted within the code of your mind’s computing element and Dennett sees no reason to explain the function any further. 
    Even when consciousness is set into a proposition of layers, as David Chalmers has supposed, each layer taken apart can be examined and explained away chemically. For instance, when I see the color blue and you see the same color- is it really blue for both of us? It wouldn’t necessarily have to be that way in Chalmers view, in Dennett’s opinion all experience is equal, all sensory reception is equal. Where Chalmers agrees that I may look at green and call it blue, and at the same time you see blue and call it green, neither one of us would be able to establish the singular truth of it. It could be red to everyone else for all we know. 
   The position of a materialist like Daniel Dennett maintains an adherence to grounded scientific basis. The unbounded free-thinking Chalmers can express the theory of qualia and can write about it, but no matter how strong his case is, he will never be able to mark it out on a piece of paper or reproduce qualia in the lab. Brains can be grown and cloned in a lab physically, what “it” is that animates the mind, might seem to be absent from the cloned brains. 
     Since this freestanding example of a “zombie” brain shows no qualia, it clarifies the point that conscious life is subjective while at the same time all brain activity is chemical at its source. While I could not carry the argument all the way to conviction, there is a middle ground in this rebuttal which settles the argument against the existence of qualia as plausible but not complete. Whatever points can be made to negate qualia, we must suppose that there is no supervening order to consciousness that guides by prior experience.

Conclusion Statement

      Trying to prove something that does not exist by physical evidence can leave even the most learned scholars betwixt. The mysterious concept of experiencing raw sensation within one’s own consciousness is a cause for this division between remarkably astute thinkers. 
     We try to boil down arguments to their base and provide anecdotal support, quotation support, even empirical evidence when the desperation to be understood is strong enough.
      If there had been a single being responsible for the creation of the mind and its body, and, we could ask about the existence of qualia in the recipe of the mind. Even if we were told exactly what it is and where it lies physically along the synaptic highway, the very hard problem of consciousness would not be solved. 
      In an optimist view of experience, I must attach my nature to endeavoring towards the understanding of qualia. I agree and support the hypothesis that in some fashion we may become capable of managing it to a degree that elevates the inner conversation that man has with himself.
    The nature of skepticism and dialectic struggle derives from our intellectual need of tangible proof for everything. As I conceded small points in the materialist argument, namely that no action may take place in the brain or body except by physical means, I assert one more time that I believe by the shelter of these arguments, and by the rational explanation laid forth by Professor Chalmers, that qualia does exist and that it does affect decision, cognition, and tenor of thought. 
     As thinkers, we gain ground in arguments and we look back upon the battlefields of smoldering theories, ideas like bodies, dying of war wounds in a field without sympathy. I wonder which of these schools will fade away first, the Physical or the Metaphysical.
     Curious though, I wonder how much we ignore by consciousness to help us feel better? 
     From behind your own eyes, are you capable of really comprehending the cognitive transfer to autopilot? Because it certainly happens. 
  It could be beneficial, or it could be dangerous, but we have to wait for the experiment to end and by then, who knows what the true evolution of our conscious development will result in.
  In the world of a hundred years from now we may still be chasing it, but both the skeptical/ and the supportive assessments of great thinkers like Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers will have been very helpful highway signs to guide us there.  

This paper was engineered by the reading and paraphrasing of these materials: 

“Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness”, by David J. Chalmers, published in Journal Of Conscious Studies, 1995

“Consciousness Explained” by Daniel Dennett, Back Bay Books 1992

“Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness”, by Daniel Dennett, The MIT Press, 2005

“Mind and the World Order: Outline of a Theory of Knowledge.” ( orig. 1929) by Clarence Irving Lewis, Dover reprint, 1956. 

“Absent Qualia, Fading Qualia, Dancing Qualia” by David J. Chalmers, published in Conscious Experience, edited by Thomas Metzinger. Imprint Academic, 1995.

“The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory”, by David J.  Chalmers, Oxford University Press, 1996 

Quotations from:

1- Nagel, Thomas (1974), “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, Philosophical Review, p. 450

© 2013 Scott Durham


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Added on July 29, 2013
Last Updated on July 29, 2013
Tags: Chalmers, Dennett, Qualia, Consciousness

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Scott Durham
Scott Durham

Phoenix, AZ



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