Re: More on qualia of consciousness and occam's razor

From: Pete Carlton <>
Date: Tue, 3 Feb 2004 14:55:53 -0800

On Feb 3, 2004, at 3:19 AM, Stathis Papaioannou wrote:

> I am using terms like "information" loosely when discussing subjective
> experience precisely because I cannot think of a way to formalise it.
> Perhaps its defining characteristic is that it cannot be formalised.
> One can imagine that if we made contact with an extraterrestrial
> civilization, however alien it is, we could eventually exchange
> information about the natural sciences, mathematics, history, anything
> "objective". It would effectively involve finding an algorithm to
> convert from one formal system to another, or one natural language to
> another. But although the aliens may be able to explain how their
> physiology has evolved so that gamma rays which are an odd multiple of
> a certain wavelength cause them to feel a pleasant sensation while
> even multiple rays cause them to feel a completely different,
> unpleasant sensation, we as humans would have absolutely no idea what
> these sensations are like to experience.

But even this goes way out in front of what we can possibly know. You
say we have no idea what these feelings are like to experience--but why
should we assume we even are entitled to ask this question?

To borrow a bit from Wittgenstein -- imagine you have completely
translated these aliens' language, and they tell you that each of them
has a box with something inside it. Although they talk a lot in rather
vague terms about what's in their box, they insist you can't really
know what is inside it. Now what is the logical conclusion here:
        a) There may or may not be something in the box.
        b) There's definitely something in the box, and I have absolutely no
idea what it is.

What on earth could possibly make someone conclude (b) here? It's not
logical at all. Yet this is what people conclude when they bend over
backwards talking about "qualia" and how ineffable they are.

Earlier you say:
> I'll grant you that the subjective experience of "red" etc cannot be
> derived from a theory of physics.

But this statement just assumes one philosophical position about mind,
and there are many out there.

> So, in addition to the empirical data, there is this extra bit of
> information, neither contained in the data nor able to be derived from
> it using the laws of physics: what it actually feels like to be the
> one experiencing the subjective sensation. If someone can think of a
> better way to describe it than "extra bit of information" or can come
> up with a way to formalise it, I would be happy to hear about it.

A better way to describe what, exactly? "What it actually feels like"?
  But why do you first commit yourself to the view that this question
makes any sense?

> I suppose there will still be some who insist that if you know all
> about the physiology etc. behind the alien response to gamma rays,
> then you know all there is to know. I think this response is analogous
> to the "shut up and calculate" attitude to the interpretation of
> quantum mechanics.

Yes, I am one of these people. You say "if you know all about", and
you must be taken seriously here: you would really have to know >all<
about it. But if you did, you would be able to entirely trace the
causal pathway from the receipt of the gamma rays, to whatever internal
responses go on inside the alien's body, to the subsequent report of "I
feel that pleasant, odd-multiple feeling". Let's say you had that
entire explanation written out. And "subjective experience" doesn't
appear anywhere on this list. So what reason on earth do you have to
assert that it exists?

Of course subjective experience exists in a way -- but it's just a way
of talking about things. It isn't a "primitive". When I see red, I
have a subjective experience of red, sure -- but all this means is just
that my brain has responded to a certain stimulus in the way it
normally does.

> Stathis Papaioannou
Received on Tue Feb 03 2004 - 19:04:50 PST

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