Arguments for the existence of qualia

One trap that we must be wary of is adopt­ing be­liefs be­cause they are pop­u­lar among peo­ple who strive to think crit­i­cally or sci­en­tifi­cally, as op­posed to be­ing the re­sult of crit­i­cal or sci­en­tific think­ing. One good ex­am­ple of this is Ra­tion­alWiki which pur­ports to re­port the poli­ti­cal be­liefs which all Ra­tional(TM) peo­ple should hold. Similarly, I be­lieve that most peo­ple who be­lieve in ma­te­ri­al­ism do so on the ba­sis of ex­tremely poor rea­sons and with­out knowl­edge of some of the stronger ar­gu­ments for qualia ex­ist­ing. Maybe we should ul­ti­mately sup­port ma­te­ri­al­ism, but I get the im­pres­sion that many peo­ple jump to this con­clu­sion too quickly. Here are some points I be­lieve peo­ple should con­sider first

(I know some­one else in the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity wrote a post ar­gu­ing for con­scious­ness re­cently and I was mean­ing to read it, but I lost the link be­fore I had a chance)

Failure to bite the bul­let argument

If qualia don’t ex­ist, why is any­thing that you ex­pe­rience good or bad? In this case, things like plea­sure, pain and mean­ing are noth­ing more than ways that par­ti­cles can com­bine. But if this is the case, why are these com­bi­na­tions spe­cial or more im­por­tant than other com­bi­na­tions? Why should we try to make cer­tain com­bi­na­tions hap­pen and cer­tain com­bi­na­tions not?

It’s fairly com­mon to deny the ex­is­tence of the ob­jec­tively good or bad, but deny­ing the ex­is­tence of the sub­jec­tively good or bad is a much stronger claim. But ev­ery­one acts like this mat­ters and so it ap­pears some­what hyp­o­crit­i­cal. And there is an ar­gu­ment that we should con­tinue to act nor­mally on the ba­sis of meta-the­o­retic un­cer­tainty, but no-one makes that ar­gu­ment.

Pas­cal’s Wager Argument

This last point is ac­tu­ally a pretty strong ar­gu­ment for be­liev­ing in qualia. If they don’t ex­ist, noth­ing mat­ters, but if they do ex­ist then we benefit from act­ing as though they do ex­ist. There­fore, we should as­sume the later.

Ex­pected Ev­i­dence Argument

Claiming the ex­is­tence of qualia is of­ten seen as anti-sci­en­tific, some peo­ple would even go as far to say that they don’t see much differ­ence be­tween claiming the ex­is­tence of ghosts or qualia. One key differ­ence is that if ghosts ex­isted we would ex­pect ob­jec­tive ev­i­dence of them, even if the ex­per­i­ments would be hard to run. For ex­am­ple, we would ex­pect a greater rate of howl­ing in houses where some­one was mur­dered. Even if they could only in­ter­act with us psy­chi­cally, we would ex­pect a higher rate of men­tal ill­ness in these houses, even if the per­son liv­ing there had no idea of the past. Since if ghosts ex­isted we would ex­pect the ex­is­tence of ob­jec­tive ev­i­dence, the lack of any such ev­i­dence counts against them.

On the other hand, it’s not so clear that we should ex­pect any ob­jec­tive ev­i­dence of sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience. Ar­guably, the only ev­i­dence we should ex­pect of sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience is di­rect, sub­jec­tive ev­i­dence. So the ab­sence of ob­jec­tive ev­i­dence pro­vides no Bayesian ev­i­dence against the ex­is­tence of qualia.

Ini­tial Foun­da­tions Argument

How should we come to un­der­stand the world? It seems like we might want to first pick a class of phe­nom­ena to be the foun­da­tion and that this should be what­ever we are most cer­tain of ex­ist­ing. We will then need to de­cide on the best way of know­ing about that phe­nomenon and then choose a way of figur­ing out what other kinds of things might ex­ist in the uni­verse.

So what should our ini­tial foun­da­tions be? One op­tion is the ex­ter­nal phys­i­cal world, while the other is sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience. The later makes more sense to me as it de­scribes why we be­lieve in an ex­ter­nal world. It isn’t that we just as­sume it a pri­ori, but in­stead that we no­tice pat­terns in our sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience and then the­o­rise that there might be some ob­ject that ex­ists in­de­pen­dently of our ex­pe­rience caus­ing these reg­u­lar­i­ties. On the other hand, sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience makes much more sense to as­sume a pri­ori and hence more sense as an ini­tial foun­da­tion. In­deed, we could even say that this ap­proach is truer to the sci­en­tific method since we even sub­ject our be­lief in the ex­is­tence of the ex­ter­nal world to an em­piri­cal test. In other words, ob­jec­tive ex­pe­rience needs to be jus­tified in terms of sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience and not the other way round.

Tran­scen­dence Argument

Ar­guably the na­ture of an atom (or what­ever el­e­men­tary par­ti­cle we choose) tran­scends its mere math­e­mat­i­cal de­scrip­tion. Firstly, the claim that “THIS IS ALL THAT THERE IS TO IT” seems like a strong claim and one which we can never know for cer­tain. Surely, it is much more rea­son­able to main­tain that there is at least the pos­si­bil­ity of there be­ing some­thing in its na­ture be­yond this. In­deed, if there were not, this would seem to im­ply that a perfect simu­la­tion of an atom is an atom and this seems ab­surd.

Fol­low­ing this rea­son, why can’t there be an el­e­ment of con­scious­ness that tran­scends its mere math­e­mat­i­cal de­scrip­tion? And if a simu­la­tion of an atom is not au­to­mat­i­cally an atom, then per­haps a simu­la­tion of con­scious­ness isn’t au­to­mat­i­cally con­scious?

Re­la­bel­ing Argument

Let’s sup­pose I have a sys­tem with a vari­able x which takes val­ues be­tween 0 and 10. Sup­pose we define a sec­ond vari­able y which is also be­tween 0 and 10 which satis­fies x+y=10.

Is this a differ­ent sys­tem than the origi­nal? It seems this comes down to whether y is a new en­tity or just a re­la­bel­ling of x. The one thing that I would ex­pect to be un­con­tro­ver­sial here is that it is pos­si­ble for this new sys­tem to just be a re­la­bel­ling. Whether or not it is nec­es­sar­ily just a re­la­bel­ling would be much more con­tentious.

If we were to say that some­times in­tro­duc­ing a vari­able that like that could be more than just a re­la­bel­ling, then that would be to ac­cept that ob­jects can have a na­ture that is not fully en­cap­su­lated by their math­e­mat­i­cal defi­ni­tion as I pre­vi­ously ar­gued.

On the other hand, if cir­cum­stances like this are always just a re­la­bel­ling, then there is no differ­ence be­tween the sys­tem with y in it and the sys­tem with­out y in it. This be­comes im­por­tant when y is a much more com­pli­cated prop­erty, such as the amount of “pain” an or­ganism is ex­pe­rienc­ing. If the sys­tem is the same with the en­tity rep­re­sent­ing pain or with­out this en­tity, then it seems like it can’t have been im­por­tant. This im­plies that some­one in­sist­ing it was just a re­la­bel­ling must then bite the bul­let of qualia be­ing unim­por­tant.

Re­la­tional Argument

I’ll quote Con­scious­ness Comes First:

The is­sue is that phys­i­cal prop­er­ties are by their na­ture re­la­tional, dis­po­si­tional prop­er­ties. That is, they de­scribe the way that some­thing is re­lated to other things and/​or has the dis­po­si­tion to af­fect or be af­fected by those other things.
… How­ever, if all we ever have is re­la­tional/​dis­po­si­tional prop­er­ties—that is, if ev­ery­thing is only defined in terms of other things—then, ul­ti­mately, we have defined noth­ing at all.
It’s as though some­one cre­ated a very elab­o­rate spread­sheet and care­fully defined how the val­ues in ev­ery cell would be re­lated to the val­ues in all of the other cells. How­ever, if no one en­ters a definite value for at least one of these cells, then none of the cells will have val­ues.
In the same way, if the uni­verse is to ac­tu­ally ex­ist, its prop­er­ties can’t be ex­clu­sively re­la­tional/​dis­po­si­tional. Some­thing in the uni­verse has to have some kind of qual­ity in and of it­self to give all the other re­la­tional/​dis­po­si­tional prop­er­ties any mean­ing. Some­thing has to get the ball rol­ling.

This ar­gu­ment is very similar to the tran­scen­dence ar­gu­ment and the re­la­bel­ling ar­gu­ment in that it as­serts things can be more than their math­e­mat­i­cal de­scrip­tions, but still differ­ent enough that I felt it was worth­while in­clud­ing sep­a­rately. In­ter­est­ingly the ar­ti­cle ar­gues the con­scious­ness and con­scious ob­ser­va­tions are what ac­tu­ally get the ball rol­ling, al­though I haven’t thought this through enough to have a strong po­si­tion yet.

Against the Illu­sion Argument

Some peo­ple say con­scious­ness or qualia are just illu­sions. At best, this seems like a re­ally bad anal­ogy. For ex­am­ple, if I think I see an oa­sis, but it is ac­tu­ally an illu­sion, then it is the oa­sis that is illu­sion­ary and not my ex­pe­rience of see­ing. In other words, if an ex­pe­rience is an illu­sion, then we still have the ex­pe­rience of see­ing that illu­sion. And any dis­cus­sion of illu­sions where the illu­sion isn’t ex­pe­rienced seems to be a very mis­lead­ing way of us­ing that term.

Ar­gu­ments against consciousness

I’ll finish by not­ing that there are some very strong ar­gu­ments against con­scious­ness too. For quite a while I felt that the epiphe­nom­e­nal the­ory was the most plau­si­ble, but there are two dev­as­tat­ing cri­tiques. The first is the evolu­tion­ary ar­gu­ment, it seems ab­surd that pos­i­tive qualia would line up with events that are evolu­tion­ary ad­van­ta­geous and nega­tive qualia would line up with events that are evolu­tion­ary dis­ad­van­ta­geous if qualia has no causal mechanism to im­pact evolu­tion. And the sec­ond is that it sure looks like qualia has a causal im­pact, since we are dis­cussing them right now. So to be­lieve in the epiphe­nom­e­nal the­ory is to be­lieve qualia for a rea­son com­pletely in­de­pen­dent from us ac­tu­ally hav­ing qualia.

Th­ese are very strong ar­gu­ments, but I nonethe­less worry about clos­ing the door on this de­bate too quickly as there are quite pos­si­bly the­o­ries that we haven’t con­sid­ered yet, es­pe­cially when there ap­pear to be very strong ar­gu­ments for qualia as well.