The raw-experience dogma: Dissolving the “qualia” problem


1. Defin­ing the prob­lem: The in­verted spectrum

Philos­o­phy has been called a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the ques­tions en­ter­tained by ado­les­cents, and one ado­les­cent fa­vorite con­cerns our knowl­edge of other per­sons’ “pri­vate ex­pe­rience” (raw ex­pe­rience or qualia). A philoso­phers’ ver­sion is the “in­verted spec­trum”: how do I know you see “red” rather than “blue” when you see this red print? How could we tell when we each link the same terms to the same out­ward de­scrip­tions? We each will say “red” when we see the print, even if you re­ally see “blue.”

The in­tu­ition that al­lows us to be differ­ent this way is the in­tu­ition of raw ex­pe­rience (or of qualia). Philoso­phers of mind have de­voted con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion to rec­on­cil­ing the in­tu­ition that raw ex­pe­rience ex­ists with the in­tu­ition that in­verted-spec­trum in­de­ter­mi­nacy has un­ac­cept­able du­al­ist im­pli­ca­tions mak­ing the men­tal realm pub­li­cly un­ob­serv­able, but it’s time for nihilism about qualia, whose claim to ex­ist rests solely on the strength of a prej­u­dice.

A. At­tempted solu­tions to the in­verted spec­trum.

One ac­count would have us ex­am­ine which parts of the brain are ac­ti­vated by each per­cep­tion, but then we rely on an un­ver­ifi­able cor­re­la­tion be­tween brain struc­tures and “pri­vate ex­pe­rience.” With only a sin­gle ex­am­ple of pri­vate ex­pe­rience—our own—we have no ba­sis for know­ing what makes pri­vate ex­pe­rience the same or differ­ent be­tween per­sons.

A sub­tler re­sponse to the in­verted spec­trum is that red and blue as ex­pe­riences are dis­tinct be­cause red looks “red” due to its be­ing con­sti­tuted by cer­tain re­sponses, such as af­fect. Red makes you alert and tense; blue, tran­quil or maybe sad. What we call the ex­pe­rience of red, on this ac­count, just is the sense of alert­ness, and other man­i­fes­ta­tions. The hope is that iden­ti­cal ob­serv­able re­sponses to ap­pro­pri­ate wave­lengths might ex­plain qual­i­ta­tive red­ness. Then, we could dis­cover we ex­pe­rience blue when oth­ers ex­pe­rience red by find­ing that we idiosyn­crat­i­cally be­come tran­quil in­stead of alert when ex­posed to the long wave­lengths con­sti­tut­ing phys­i­cal red. This com­pli­ca­tion doesn’t re­move the rad­i­cal un­cer­tainty about ex­pe­ri­en­tial de­scrip­tions. Emo­tion only seems more ca­pa­ble than cog­ni­tion of ex­plain­ing raw ex­pe­rience be­cause emo­tional events are mem­o­rable. The af­fect the­ory doesn’t an­swer how an emo­tional re­ac­tion can con­sti­tute a raw sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience.

B. The “sub­sti­tu­tion bias” of solv­ing the “easy prob­lem of con­scious­ness” in­stead of the “hard prob­lem.”

As in those ex­am­ples, at­tempts at an­a­lyz­ing raw ex­pe­rience com­monly ap­peal to the sub­sti­tu­tion pro­cess that psy­chol­o­gist Daniel Kah­ne­man dis­cov­ered in many cog­ni­tive fal­la­cies. Sub­sti­tu­tion is the un­thought­ful re­place­ment of an easy for a re­lated hard ques­tion. In the philos­o­phy of mind, the dis­tinct ques­tions are ac­tu­ally termed the “easy prob­lem of con­scious­ness” and the “hard prob­lem of con­scious­ness,” and er­rors re­gard­ing con­scious­ness typ­i­cally are due to sub­sti­tut­ing the “easy prob­lem” for the “hard,” where the easy prob­lem is to ex­plain some func­tion that typ­i­cally ac­com­pa­nies “aware­ness.” The philoso­pher might sub­sti­tute knowl­edge of one’s own brain pro­cesses for raw ex­pe­rience; or, as in the pre­vi­ous ex­am­ple, ex­pe­rience’s neu­ral ac­com­pani­ments or its af­fec­tive ac­com­pani­ments. Avoid­ing the “sub­sti­tu­tion bias” is par­tic­u­larly hard when deal­ing with raw aware­ness, an unar­tic­u­lated in­tu­ition; ar­tic­u­lat­ing it is a pre­sent pur­pose.

2. The false in­tu­ition of di­rect awareness

A. Our sense that the ex­is­tence of raw ex­pe­rience is self-ev­i­dent doesn’t show that it is true.

The the­ory that di­rect aware­ness re­veals raw ex­pe­rience has long been al­most sacro­sanct in philos­o­phy. Ac­cord­ing to the Bri­tish Em­piri­cists, di­rect ex­pe­rience con­sists of sense data and forms the in­du­bitable ba­sis of all syn­thetic knowl­edge. For Con­ti­nen­tal Ra­tion­al­ist Descartes, too, my di­rect ex­pe­rience—“I think”—in­du­bitably proves my ex­is­tence.

We do have a strong in­tu­ition that we have raw ex­pe­rience, the sub­stance of di­rect aware­ness, but we have other strong in­tu­itions, some turn out true and oth­ers false. We have an in­tu­ition that space is nec­es­sar­ily flat, an in­tu­ition proven false only with non-Eu­clidean ge­ome­tries in the 19th cen­tury. We have an in­tu­ition that ev­ery event has a cause, which de­ter­minists be­lieve but in­de­ter­minists deny. Se­questered in­tu­itions aren’t knowl­edge.

B. Ex­pe­rience can’t re­veal the er­ror in the in­tu­ition that raw ex­pe­rience ex­ists.

To cor­rect way­ward in­tu­itions, we or­di­nar­ily test them against each other. A sim­ple per­cep­tual illu­sion illus­trates: the pop­u­lar Mul­ler-Lyer illu­sion, where ar­row­heads on a line make it ap­pear shorter than an iden­ti­cal line with the ar­row­heads re­versed. In­vok­ing the more cred­ible in­tu­ition that mea­sur­ing the lines finds their real length con­vinces us of the in­tu­itive er­ror that the lines are un­equal. In con­trast, we have no means to check the truth of the be­lief in raw ex­pe­rience; it sim­ply seems self-ev­i­dent, but it might seem equally self-ev­i­dent if it were false.

C. We can’t cap­ture the in­ef­fable core of raw ex­pe­rience with lan­guage be­cause there’s re­ally noth­ing there.

One task in philos­o­phy is ar­tic­u­lat­ing the in­tu­itions im­plicit in our think­ing, and some­times re­ject­ing the in­tu­ition should re­sult from con­clud­ing it em­ploys con­cepts illog­i­cally. What shows the in­tu­ition of raw ex­pe­rience is in­co­her­ent (self-con­tra­dic­tory or vac­u­ous) is that the terms we use to de­scribe raw ex­pe­rience are limited to the terms for its refer­ents; we have no terms to de­scribe the ex­pe­rience as such, but rather, we de­scribe qualia by ap­ply­ing terms de­not­ing the or­di­nary cause of the sup­posed raw ex­pe­rience. The sim­plest ex­pla­na­tion for the ab­sence of a vo­cab­u­lary to de­scribe the qual­i­ta­tive prop­er­ties of raw ex­pe­rience is that they don’t ex­ist: a pro­cess with­out prop­er­ties is con­cep­tu­ally vac­u­ous.

D. We be­lieve raw ex­pe­rience ex­ists with­out de­tect­ing it.

One er­ror in think­ing about the ex­is­tence of raw ex­pe­rience comes from con­fus­ing per­cep­tion with be­lief, which is con­cep­tu­ally dis­tinct. When peo­ple uni­ver­sally re­port that qualia “seem” to ex­ist, they are only re­port­ing their be­liefs—de­spite their sense of cer­tainty. Where “per­cep­tion” is defined as a ner­vous sys­tem’s ex­trac­tion of a sen­sory-ar­ray’s fea­tures, peo­ple can’t re­port their per­cep­tions ex­cept through be­liefs the per­cep­tions some­times en­gen­der: I can’t tell you my per­cep­tions ex­cept by re­lat­ing my be­liefs about them. This con­cep­tual truth is illus­trated by the phe­nomenon of blind­sight, a con­di­tion in pa­tients re­port com­plete blind­ness yet, by dis­crim­i­nat­ing ex­ter­nal ob­jects, demon­strate that they can per­ceive them. Blind­sighted pa­tients can re­port only ac­cord­ing to their be­liefs, and they per­ceive more than they be­lieve and re­port that they per­ceive. Qualia nihilism an­a­lyzes the in­tu­ition of raw ex­pe­rience as per­ceiv­ing less than you be­lieve and re­port you per­ceive, the re­verse of blind­sight.

3. The con­cep­tual econ­omy of qualia nihilism pays off in philo­soph­i­cal progress

Elimi­nat­ing raw ex­pe­rience from on­tol­ogy pro­duces con­cep­tual econ­omy. A sum­mary of its con­cep­tual ad­van­tages:

A. Qualia nihilism re­solves an in­tractable prob­lem for ma­te­ri­al­ism: phys­i­cal con­cepts are dis­po­si­tional, whereas raw ex­pe­riences con­cern prop­er­ties that seem, in­stead, to per­tain to non­causal essences. If raw ex­pe­rience was co­her­ent, we could hope for a sci­en­tific in­sight, al­though no one has been able to define the gen­eral char­ac­ter of such an ex­pla­na­tion. Re­mov­ing a fun­da­men­tal sci­en­tific mys­tery is a con­cep­tual gain.

B. Qualia nihilism re­solves the pri­vate-lan­guage prob­lem. There seems to be no pos­si­ble lan­guage that uses non­pub­lic con­cepts. Elimi­nat­ing raw ex­pe­rience al­lows ex­plain­ing the ab­sence of a pri­vate lan­guage by the nonex­is­tence of any pri­vate refer­ents.

C. Qualia nihilism offers a com­pel­ling di­ag­no­sis of where im­por­tant skep­ti­cal ar­gu­ments re­gard­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of knowl­edge go wrong. The ar­gu­ments—Ge­orge Berkeley’s are their pro­to­type—rea­son that sense data, be­ing in­du­bitable in­tu­itions of di­rect ex­pe­rience, are the source of our knowl­edge, which must, in con­se­quence, be about raw ex­pe­rience rather than the “ex­ter­nal world.” If you ac­cept the ex­is­tence of raw ex­pe­rience, the ar­gu­ment is no­to­ri­ously difficult to un­der­mine log­i­cally be­cause con­cepts of “raw ex­pe­rience” truly can’t be analo­gized to any con­cepts ap­ply­ing to the ex­ter­nal world. Elimi­nat­ing raw ex­pe­rience pro­vides an effec­tive de­mo­li­tion; rather than the other way around, our be­lief in raw ex­pe­rience de­pends on our knowl­edge of the ex­ter­nal world, which is the source of the con­cepts we ap­ply to fabri­cate qualia.

4. Rely­ing on the brute force of an in­tu­ition is ra­tio­nally specious.

Against these con­sid­er­a­tions, the only ar­gu­ment for re­tain­ing raw ex­pe­rience in our on­tol­ogy is the sheer strength of ev­ery­one’s be­lief in its ex­is­tence. How much weight should we at­tach to a strong be­lief whose val­idity we can’t check? None. Beliefs or­di­nar­ily earn a pre­sump­tion of truth from the ab­sence of em­piri­cal challenge, but when em­piri­cal challenge is im­pos­si­ble in prin­ci­ple, the be­lief de­serves no con­fi­dence.