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Qualia and Consciousness February 23, 2009

Posted by njl4807 in Philosophy of mind.

During my presentation in class, I talked about how Dennett argues that qualia is a concept that is not useful and that there is no reason to discuss.  I think that it is very important to make a distinction in order to take qualia from the concept that Dennett would argue is completely useless to turn it into a concept that can be useful for an understanding of neurological processes.

The most interesting and, in my opinion, reasonable voice that I found during my research on the subject was Dr. V.S. Ramachandran.  He argues that the concept of qualia is one that is key for a complete understanding of the processes in the brain and for an understanding of consciousness.  Before further discussion, here is a video of him actually discussing and elaborating on the subject:

One of his interesting arguments (at around 3:20 in the video) is how the concept of qualia is linked to consciousness and also linked to a “self”.  He says:

There is no such thing as free floating qualia; it’s an oxymoron without a self experiencing it.  Likewise, a self without qualia, without any sensations, memories, subjective sensations, is meaningless.

His argument is that qualia and self, being thusly dependent on eachother, co-evolved during human evolution and that their development was critical for the emergence of language.  I don’t think that he and Dennett, who would disagree with the concept of qualia, are necessarily in conflict either.  Dennett’s stricter definition of qualia restricts the concept in a way that makes it useless, while Ramachandran revisits it with a slightly different and, in this case, much more useful definition.

Mary’s Room

The other subject that seemed to be of some interest for discussion during class was Mary’s Room.  This time I found some excellent, open license, graphics to go along with its explanation.

So the thought experiment goes:

Is there something about Mary?

Is there something about Mary?

Mary lives and has always lived in a black and white room.  She has never experienced any colors.

Marys TV has an impressive number of channels.

Mary's TV has an impressive number of channels.

Mary learns by reading from black and white books and watching debates and lectures on a black and white television screen.

All she sees is tasty.

All she sees is "tasty".

Mary becomes a brilliant scientist and through her studies gains a complete physical understanding of the world.  She learns everything about human vision and everything that happens when we see a color.

Luckily, her room was surrounded by a rather colorful field.

Luckily, her room was surrounded by a rather colorful field.

Mary, using her scientific brilliance, engineers a daring escape from her black and white room.  She experiences colors for the first time.

The question provoked by this experiment is whether upon first seeing color if Mary learns anything that she did not already know from her prior understanding.  Is the subjective experience of color something that cannot be understood physically?

The issue with this thought experiment is that it is by design misleading.  Mary’s “complete” physical knowledge of the universe is not something that we can truly fathom.  Daniel Dennett argues basically the same thing, stating that if Mary already truly knew “everything about colour”, that knowledge would include a deep understanding of why and how human neurology causes us to sense the qualia of colour. Mary would therefore already know exactly what to expect of seeing red, before ever leaving the room.

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