The supposedly hard problem of consciousness and the nonexistence of sense data: Is your dog a conscious being?

by [anonymous]2 min read4th Aug 201219 comments

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Of dogs and cows
Are dogs conscious? My guess, you think so: that’s why they’re termed “sentient.” We assume that dogs see the world much as we do, despite being receptive to different information; they experience the same conscious data of sense as we experience. You, nevertheless, might be prepared to concede the ultimate unfathomability of the question, but if not, consider a related question: when did consciousness first arise in the course of organic evolution?

The reason the questions are obscure deserves scrutiny. I think I know you’re conscious because you say you know what I’m saying when I mention “consciousness” or “experience,” but the limits of my knowledge of consciousness are telling: I will never find some physical structure to explain it. This isn’t due to lack of empirical research or of theoretical ingenuity. To explain an observation, you must describe it, and the language used for describing conscious experience is the same language used for describing the object the experience refers to. The most I can do to describe the experienced “brownness” is achieved by referring to its cause. When I see a brown cow, I can only describe the raw experience as “brown”: the color that ordinarily gives rise to the experience. Thus, I necessarily omit from the description exactly what I want to explain: the qualitative character of the “brown” experience.

Apparent self-evidence
If qualitative consciousness existed, it would be utterly inexplicable; yet, the evidence of direct experience seems self-evidently to support its own existence. This seemingly immediate awareness of our raw mental states seems to be just what it is like to be ourselves. (Thomas Nagel.) Regardless of the apparent indubitability of the intuition that we have raw experiential states, this intuition remains nothing more than belief, and beliefs are subject to illusions that mislead us systematically.

One reason you might resist the conclusion that qualitative experience is illusory is wholesale distortion of reality regarding objects of seemingly immediate awareness seems implausible just because of our intimate connection with our own experience, but scientific developments can render seemingly unrelated philosophical positions plausible. The work of neurologists, such as Oliver Sacks, should caution against the prejudice that some experiences are so basic they resist radical distortion and fabrication. An example Sacks describes is a brain-damaged patient who mistook his wife for a hat. Neuroscientists conclude that cognitive functions are assemblies of modules, making it less startling that beliefs can be so radically wrong.

There’s also a conceptual reason for the reluctance of philosophers and scientists to reject the intuition of raw sense experience: lack of clarity about how to characterize the prewired belief responsible for the illusion. The intuition seems too complex and sophisticated to accommodate innate belief; philosophers trying to nail down the precise content of the belief that qualia exist have had recourse to thought experiments remote from actual experience, and nobody seems to have characterized the essence of qualia. My suggestion: the illusion of qualitative awareness is the belief that we when we perceive or imagine objects, we have independently real experiences characterizable only by the terms used to describe the external object itself. Qualia are inherently ineffable contents of perception or imagination.

The illusion’s evolution
This definition also suggests an evolutionary explanation for the illusion of qualitative experience. Thought doesn’t depend on the illusion of consciousness, as one can easily conceive of an intelligent being without illusory beliefs about the nature of the thinking process, but the illusion of consciousness might have encouraged the development of thinking. Perhaps human ancestors evolved the innate belief that they have experiences with properties corresponding to those of their referents because this belief encouraged our ancestors to make mental models of the world—encouraged them to engage in the offline thinking unique for our species. Objectified conscious experience could encourage mental-model making by generalizing the prior insight that you can predict one external object by manipulating a similar external object. Our ancestors would then need only substitute internal objects for external ones.

Bypassing “sense data” in the theory of knowledge
According to one longstanding theory in epistemology, sense data are our only basis for knowing the external world. This doctrine, taken to its logical conclusion, leads to skepticism about the external world’s existence: sense data, supposedly our window to the world, became an insuperable barrier to cognition, for if all our knowledge is nothing but construction from sense data, our sense data are all we know. We can’t get out of our own minds.

The reason the sense data theory leads to skeptical conclusions goes back to ineffability. If we know the world by sense data, you can draw conclusions about the world only through analogy, that is, by forming a relationship between two descriptions. Ineffable sense data have nothing in common with a world of things, except their names —such as “brownness.”

Two illusions
This account of raw experience as an adaptive illusion brings clarity to the argument that free will is illusory. The sense of free will, I concluded, is the misperception that experienced deciding causes behavior. But “experience” doesn’t exist. Compatibilist free will is incoherent because it assumes the causal efficacy of unreal raw experience.
[Cross-posted at http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/2012/08/160-supposedly-hard-problem-of.html]
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Taboo "exist" and "reality" and rewrite your post.

[-][anonymous]8y -2
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Qualia are neither a barrier ("sense data") to knowledge of the physical world, nor are they illusory. Rather, qualia are a constant concomitant to perception of the physical world. The best hypotheses to explain our experience involve positing both qualia and the rocks, trees, and animals that the "sense-data" of certain philosophers would screen off.

Try this experiment. Set an apple on the table and look at it. Now approach closer and keep looking at it.

Your experience changes during this experiment. However, the apple doesn't seem to change, the table doesn't seem to change, etc. Your experience involves more redness, but the apple hasn't gotten any redder, nor seemed to. Some of our experience amounts to cognition or alleged cognition of the external world - the apple is red, it is sitting on the table, etc. But some does not - it is just an internal aspect of the way we sense the world. Philosophers call the latter "qualia".

Drugs or sleep deprivation or psychosis may cause someone to hallucinate an apple. If they have enough relevant history, they may correctly doubt that the apparent apple really exists. But they won't doubt that they are having an experience. What does that experience involve? Qualia, but no external object. If the hallucinator says "I hope the apple is real, because I'm hungry" the word "apple" in that sentence does not refer to the qualia. (Nor does "the apple" said by someone having a veridical experience.) It does not refer at all.

Armchair philosophy cannot reveal the full and exact reference of terms, "qualia" included. Understanding the reference of terms requires doing science. The exact reference of many (any?) terms doesn't exist, due to semantic vagueness. There is no exact number of hairs you need in order not to be bald. There may likewise be no exact cutoff in evolution between sentient and nonsentient organisms. But the existence of dusk and dawn doesn't stop the difference between night and day being like, well, the difference between night and day.

Some of our experience amounts to cognition or alleged cognition of the external world - the apple is red, it is sitting on the table, etc. But some does not - it is just an internal aspect of the way we sense the world. Philosophers call the latter "qualia".

You're the victim of the basic cognitive fallacy called substitution (Kahneman). In place of the difficult problem (the existence of raw experience), you substitute the easy problem of our ability to recognize our own internal states. Philosophers have distinguished the two problems, and have even dubbed them the hard and easy problem of consciousness. While I deny the problem is very hard (except perhaps emotionally, if you're religiously committed to raw experience as your essence), it remains true that you have substituted the easy problem for the hard. In short, that's not what "philosophers have called qualia."

Armchair philosophy cannot reveal the full and exact reference of terms, "qualia" included. Understanding the reference of terms requires doing science.

This must be a revisionist version of Yudkowskyism. Somewhere Eliezer points out that science is merely an institution that proves things so rigorously that every moron must accept it. He points out (in an essay I can't locate--help would be appreciated) that the Greeks already saw the impossibility of actual infinities.

In short, that's not what "philosophers have called qualia."

That would have a chance to be convincing if you stated an alternative account of what philosophers have called qualia. Saying "raw experience" leaves everything open, including the possibility that some internal aspects of the way we sense the world are raw experience.

As for science, if it makes you happy - or if it doesn't - I wish to revise my statement: understanding the reference of terms as well as possible requires doing empirical work. (Science is just the best way of doing that, not the only one.) That doesn't commit us to infinities, just to a non-vicious circularity, of the Neurath's Boat variety.

I can't compare my views on semantics to Yudkowsky's, because I doubt I read all the relevant sequence posts.

That doesn't commit us to infinities, just to a non-vicious circularity, of the Neurath's Boat variety.

Not my point. I'm saying whether actual infinities exist physically does not appear to be empirical (or else is resolved by empirical evidence we already have), and there are good rational grounds--endorsed by Yudkowsky, if I'm not mistaken--for rejecting actual infinities, grounds that already existed for the classical Greeks, who rejected the concept . The comparison was between the contention that qualia don't exist and the contention that absolute infinities don't exist: speculative but rationally grounded.

I wish to revise my statement: understanding the reference of terms as well as possible requires doing empirical work.

It requires empirical evidence, but that's not to say we don't have it, absent experiments. But here, we're not really talking about the reference of concepts but whether the concepts could even have referents--because of conceptual incoherence.

That would have a chance to be convincing if you stated an alternative account of what philosophers have called qualia.

Philosophers don't have an account of qualia, but philosophers of mind do have a consensus about what qualia are not, which is what you said qualia are. So, you haven't correctly defined what "philosophers call qualia"; you've defined the topic of the "easy question of consciousness."

The motivation of the lead essay is to give a (novel) account of the illusion of qualia; it's in red. But if you're saying you don't know what I'm talking about when I refer to raw experience, then either you're "lying" or I'm wrong, as I do in fact rely on your ability to understand me when I speak of raw experience--at least after reading the philosophers of mind, who mainly accept a concept of qualia distinct from the "easy question" you address. These philosophers work hard at pumping your intuitions to be sure you grasp the concept in question. Shoemaker's inverted-spectrum thought experiments are particularly useful. You can probably guess what's involved; and if so, you really do understand the concept of qualia and how the "hard question" is distinct from the "easy question."

Saying "raw experience" leaves everything open, including the possibility that some internal aspects of the way we sense the world are raw experience.

What it leaves open is the subject of this discussion. To have the discussion, we must agree in our basic intuitions about qualitative experience. I'm actually not sure whether you're saying we disagree on our intuitive understanding of the concept of "raw experience," but given that understanding, we can then talk about whether it makes sense to say that unknown neural processes might constitute raw experience. Let's take it more modestly: which account of raw experience, neural underpinnings or illusion (as described in the red in the main article), best explains the intuition.

The advantages of the illusion account are:

  1. We are spared finding explanation for a fact that would be so ill-suited to the reigning scientific ontology that nobody who has understood the problem claims to have any idea what kind of theory might explain this fact;

  2. We have a solution to the long-standing problem of why there's no private language. (Wittgenstein saw that there could not be, but didn't intelligibly explain why.) There's no private language because what we always assume a private language would have to be anchored to--qualitative experience--doesn't exist.

  3. We are delivered from the dominant form of epistemological skepticism--that based on sensationalism.

Now, what is gained conceptually by accepting raw experience as an empirical reality that can be nailed down neurologically.

  1. Only the implausibility that a single belief held very strongly is false--which is to say, we gain hardly anything.

It's more sensible to conclude that we have a single very wrong belief.

Updated with last section 11:09 PM. August 7

If I understand the analogy to Greek arguments against actual infinities, you are claiming that the concept of "qualia" contains a contradiction. The claim in red:

independently real experiences characterizable only by the terms used to describe the external object itself

could generate a contradiction, I suppose, if we add the plausible premise that qualia are known to us. Then we have unthinkable facts we claim to know.

But that puts a lot of pressure on the claim in red, as a supposed interpretation of philosopher-talk about qualia. Especially when I've just outlined a case, the apple-table experiment, in which qualia are not characterizable only by terms used to decribe the apple. Rather, they are ostended also by terms used to decribe the relation between the person and the apple.

David Chalmers describes one of the easy problems of consciousness as:

the ability of a system to access its own internal states

But this is not equivalent to my account. Rather, my account goes on to state that the internal states need not correlate perfectly to the external objects. Thus, in Shoemaker's inverted spectrum, my internal state when perceiving a Fuji apple might be type-identical to your internal state when perceiving a Granny Smith apple, and not identical to your state when perceiving a Fuji. This is a mere conceptual possibility, but there are imaginable ways that neurology might turn out that would confirm or deny that possibility. For a made-up example, it might be that the visual cortex uses high- to low-frequency wave patterns to encode the visual spectrum, but some people have red on the high-frequency neural-wave end and others on the low-frequency end. In that case, a person might undergo surgery to remap the retina-to-cortex pathways, and experience spectrum inversion for themselves.

As for the supposed advantages of the illusion account, private language absence has other candidate explanations. And there are plenty of alternatives to epistemological sensationalism; we don't need rescue from it. As for scientific ontology, identifying qualia with types of brain activity is well within those bounds. Note that on this view, the "hard" problems are mostly illusory, even though qualia are not.

In particular, the view Chalmers calls "type B materialism" predicts the very "explanatory gap" that Chalmers tries to use to ground a nonphysical account of consciousness. The reason an "explanatory gap" appears is simply that it is one thing to be in the brain state of imagining, say, redness. It is quite another brain state to think about brain activity that goes on when we imagine redness, or to observe a brain in an fMRI where the subject is viewing red things. Because thinking about brains never puts us in the same state as does imagining redness, it can seem that there is a disconnect. The thinker will never find the image of redness floating into mental view just on account of thinking about synapses and networks. Philosophers who insist on that sort of "explanation" will be dissatisfied. My account of qualia explains why these philosophers are dissatisfied. Thus it helps to explain, without speculative evolutionary theory, why many philosophers (and regular folks in philosophical moods) are drawn to metaphysical adventurism about the mind.

Thanks for the clarity.

I will never find some physical structure to explain it.

Eliezer wrote a nice cautionary tale against such statements.

There are fMRI studies like this one that are are trying some clever methods that may begin to reveal such structures. Qualia are obviously a real phenomena experienced by either all people or a great many people, so the whole project of coming up with philosophical reasons to close off scientific inquiry into them seems misguided. We can be materialists without insisting that there are no important mysteries remaining to understand about material!

It's not a matter of closing off inquiry. Rational argument (metaphysical analysis) is never certain. I wouldn't say I'm more than 85% or 90% sure of the correctness of these conclusions. I don't believe actual inifinities exist (sorry, you can't do ontology if you taboo "exists"!)—but that doesn't mean I would close off scientific inquiry into theories that assume they do exist. Deny that qualia exist doesn't close off scientific inquiry, but what you're suggesting is closing off rational thinking about what could be true.

Not at all the same. Yudkowsky points out that science can explain events and things in ways that a layman may not even conceive. Here, the question is whether it even makes sense to call qualia an event.

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To explain an observation, you must describe it, and the language used for describing conscious experience is the same language used for describing the object the experience refers to.

Generally the way to handle such problems is to discuss them at a meta-level and then formalize the similarity between the meta-level and the problem itself. Godel first described in natural language a formal model for writing down logical sentences about arithmetic and encoding them as integers and an arithmetic algorithm for manipulating these sentences and their proofs and then formalized his description of the system as an integer that could be interpreted by the formal model itself, demonstrating that logical systems can speak about themselves.

Similarly I can say "I experience consciousness" and then tell you how your brain uses neurons to turn that sentence into a bunch of neural impulses that you understand. Then I can take the sentence "I can say 'I experience consciousness' and then tell you how your brain uses neurons to turn that sentence into a bunch of neural impulses that you understand." (EDIT: with 'tell you how your brain uses neurons' actually replaced with the physical description of what happens) and encode it as the very set of neural impulses actually produced by your brain when you heard the first sentence and the similarity between reality and the meta-level is complete. The description of how your brain turns neural impulses into an understanding of a statement about consciousness is now encoded in the very language of those neural impulses, assuming that neural impulses can actually be quined in this way. Our brains may not have complex enough connections to consciously hold the model of the portion of our brains that we use to understand models, but it is possible in theory. If it's possible then you can then think about exactly how your brain turns a sentence about consciousness into meaning and it will exactly mirror the actual process your brain used to turn the sentence into the meaning you experience.

I can't think of a better way to understand consciousness.

you can then think about exactly how your brain turns a sentence about consciousness into meaning and it will exactly mirror the actual process your brain used to turn the sentence into the meaning you experience.

We don't experience meanings. An organism without qualia could--without contradiction--grasp the meaning of a sentence.

We don't experience meanings. An organism without qualia could--without contradiction--grasp the meaning of a sentence.

Ah, I did misunderstand you when I read the post. My point is that descriptions of neurons and neural interactions is the correct language to talk about conscious experience and qualia. Consider the following sentence instead: "When I see the color red, this is the neural result it has on my brain. When you see the color red, this is the neural result it has on your brain." Depending on how similar our brains are we may be able to come to a consensus on which neural processes implement the qualia "red" and decide whether my "red" is also your "red", while also allowing us to both understand how "red" is implemented in our own brains. I think we will probably need to understand our own conscious experience before being able to compare specific qualia.

[-][anonymous]8y 0

What is up with this font.

Do you mean Verdana or has the post been edited?

Downvote explanation? Very confused.

I think it's a cool font!

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