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On Dennett’s Denial of Qualitative Experience

by Bill Meacham on October 12th, 2021

A few weeks ago I hosted an online seminar for the Philosophy Club on Daniel Dennett’s surprising assertion that our experience has no qualitative or phenomenal features. I have posted the video on YouTube at https://youtu.be/vOLskYrMTMo, but it is two hours long, so here is a summary.

Dennett’s paper “Quining Qualia” attempts to convince us that there are no such things as qualia. “Qualia” is an unfortunate term of art in philosophy of mind. A plural term, it refers to the personal, subjective qualities of our experience; and it’s unfortunate because it has a number of different meanings.(1) Hence it’s unclear what an individual one would be. You would expect the singular to be “qualium,” but in the literature the singular is “quale” (pronounced “kwol-ay”).(2) And the plural of that term ought to be “quales,” but such is not the case.

Here is Dennett’s introduction to the term:

‘Qualia’ is an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us. As is so often the case with philosophical jargon, it is easier to give examples than to give a definition of the term. Look at a glass of milk at sunset; the way it looks to you—the particular, personal, subjective visual quality of the glass of milk—is the quale of your visual experience at the moment. The way the milk tastes to you then is another, gustatory quale, and how it sounds to you as you swallow is an auditory quale. These various ‘properties of conscious experience’ are prime examples of qualia.(3)

Dennett’s thesis is that “there are no such properties as qualia.”(4) In other words, he denies that there are any subjective, qualitative features of episodes of being conscious. The redness of a red apple, the greenness of a green one, the pain of a headache, the taste of a good Pilsner, the coolness of a morning breeze—all these are illusory, says Dennett; they don’t really exist.

Stated baldly like that, the thesis seems ridiculous. Subjective, qualitative features of being conscious may be ontologically different from physical things in that they are private, not public, but that hardly means they don’t exist.

Dennett tries to get us to understand his point of view by means of various “intuition pumps.” These are imaginative scenarios designed to undercut our everyday intuition that of course the color of an apple as it appears to us exists. Here’s one:

Suppose a red apple is set on the table before us. We can all agree that something is there, that it is an apple and that it is red. Those are the objective, public facts. But is my subjective quality of redness the same as yours? Perhaps if I could get in your mind somehow I might find that the color as it appears to you is different from the color as it appears to me. Is such a state of affairs possible? The standard answer to this conundrum is that (a) in normal life there is no way to verify or disprove the proposition that my quality of redness is different from yours and that (b) it doesn’t matter. We both learned words for color by being shown public colored objects, so our verbal behavior will match even if we experience entirely different subjective colors. This thought experiment shows that subjective qualities are irrelevant. But does it show that they don’t exist?

Here’s another intuition pump: Imagine two coffee tasters, Mr. Chase and Mr. Sanborn. They are in quality control, and their job is to ensure that the flavor of the coffee their company makes is consistent over time. After a few years Chase complains that although the flavor of the coffee has remained the same, he doesn’t like it as much any more. Sanborn complains that the flavor of the coffee has not remained the same; it has changed, and now he doesn’t like it any more either. One of them says the flavor has not changed, and the other says the flavor has changed. Which one is right? There’s no way to tell from their accounts of their subjective experience alone.(5)

Dennett observes that there are several ways to explain what has happened to these two gentlemen. In Chase’s case, perhaps the way the coffee tastes to him is the same as before (his coffee-taste qualia are unchanged), but his aesthetic standards have changed. Or perhaps his aesthetic standards are the same, but unbeknownst to him coffee now tastes different; its subjective flavor has shifted imperceptibly, little by little. Or perhaps it is some combination of the two.

Similarly for Sanborn. Perhaps the coffee does indeed taste different from before, and his aesthetic standards are the same. Or perhaps the coffee actually tastes the same, but his aesthetic standards have shifted, imperceptibly, little by little. Or perhaps it is some combination of the two.

In both cases, there are two neurophysiological factors to consider: perceptual processes that produce the felt sensations and cognitive processes that produce the aesthetic judgments about them. Maybe one has changed and the other has remained the same, or vice versa, or both have changed. We can’t tell without further testing, for instance having the two do blind taste tests to see whether they can really discriminate between slightly different flavors and whether they can detect instances of the same flavor. Dennett’s point is that the subjective aspects of each person’s experience alone can’t answer the question of what really happened since they first started tasting coffee.

Regardless of the outcome of tests, however, something private remains, right? The etiology of their experience doesn’t change the fact that each of them knows how the coffee tastes in the moment of tasting. Dennett’s objection to this observation is instructive. He says

But if absolutely nothing follows from this presumed knowledge—nothing, for instance, that would shed any light on the different psychological claims that might be true of Chase or Sanborn—what is the point of asserting that one has it?(6)

What is the point indeed? From a purely objective, third-person point of view, Dennett is right. Subjective qualities don’t matter, and it is useless to talk about them. But can we then infer that they don’t exist?

Dennett is not a dummy. The key to understanding him is that his whole approach to subjective qualities and to our capacity to be conscious in general is from a third-person point of view. This has been the case since early in his career. In 1987 he wrote “I propose to see … just what the mind looks like from the third-person, materialistic perspective of contemporary science.”(7) This approach is evident in several passages in “Quining Qualia.”

Far from being directly or immediately apprehensible properties of our experience, [qualia] are properties whose changes or constancies are either entirely beyond our ken, or inferrable (at best) from ‘third-person’ examinations of our behavioral and physiological reaction patterns.(8) (emphasis added)

Speaking of coming to like the taste of cauliflower after having detested it, he says

There is in any event no reason to be cowed into supposing that my cauliflower experiences have some intrinsic properties behind, or in addition to, their various dispositional, reaction-provoking properties.(9) (emphasis added)

Speaking of wearing glasses that invert the visual field, he says

Only a very naive view of visual perception could sustain the idea that one’s visual field has a property of right-side-upness or upside-downness independent of one’s dispositions to react to it.(10) (emphasis added)

What’s important to Dennett is what can be observed publicly: actual reactions and dispositions to react. Wondering about recognizing a bird call after hearing it once, he goes so far as to identify experience with overt reaction:

Nor can I know whether I would react the same (have the same experience) if I were presented with what was, by all physical measures, a [second bird call sound] identical to the first.(11) (emphasis added)

What’s going on here is a sort of willful blindness. Dennett starts by considering only third-person, objective evidence. Then he offers lots of intuition pump scenarios to show that the qualities of subjective experiences have no explanatory role to play. Then he asserts that therefore such subjective qualities don’t exist. The flaw is obvious: by what rule of inference can you move from something having no explanatory role to its non-existence? There is none.

If Dennett had been more explicit about his parameters in this paper—that he restricts his program to third-person observation—then his theory would at least elicit fewer howls of outrage.(12) If all you are going to consider is third-person objective evidence, then first-person subjective qualities are indeed irrelevant because you can’t measure them. Within that framework you can reasonably assert that for practical purposes they don’t exist. But that works only within the framework.

Dennett asserts that there can be no first-person science.(13) That’s plausible, but we are doing philosophy, not science. Philosophy in its original sense as the search for wisdom cannot afford to overlook the first person. Comments in the seminar by former teacher Phil Chan of San Diego illustrate what I am talking about.(14)

Chan once had a husband and wife in his class on color theory. The husband was a machinist whose approach to projects was to find ways to measure them. He wanted accuracy and precision. Trying to get a particular shade of red, he asked for the exact proportions of red and yellow pigments. But there was no way to tell because different paint manufacturers have different formulations with slightly different hues. His wife had a different approach. She would mix the colors on her palette and look at the result to see if it was what she wanted. If not, she would add a bit of this or a bit of that until she got the desired shade. The husband’s approach was quantitative, objective and measurable; the wife’s approach was experiential, subjective and feeling. Hers worked better.

The objective, third-person, scientific approach to inquiry has given us lots of wonderful things, like computers and medicines and all the other accoutrements of modern life. But a first-person, subjective approach to the qualities of things we experience gives us a richer understanding of life as it is lived and the possibility of acquiring the wisdom to live it well.


Notes

(1) Tye (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), “Qualia.”

(2) Kind (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy), “Qualia.”

(3) Dennett, “Quining Qualia,” p. 381.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Idem., pp. 389-391.

(6) Idem., p. 392.

(7) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 7.

(8) Dennett, “Quining Qualia,” p. 396.

(9) Idem., p. 399.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Idem., p. 405.

(12) See, for instance, Strawson, “The Consciousness Deniers.”

(13) Dennett, “The Fantasy of First-Person Science.”

(14) Meacham, et. al. “On Dennett’s Denial of Qualitative Experience” starting at 1:50:30.

References

Dennett, Daniel. “Quining Qualia.” A. Goldman, ed. Readings in Philosophy and Cognitive Science. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1993, pp. 381-414. Online publication https://ia801304.us.archive.org/22/items/FritjofCapraTheTurningPoint/Daniel%20C.%20Dennett%20-%20Quining%20Qualia.pdf as of 23 August 2021.

Dennett, Daniel. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990.

Dennett, Daniel. “The Fantasy of First-Person Science.” Online publication https://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/papers/chalmersdeb3dft.htm as of 10 October 2021.

Kind, Amy. “Qualia.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Online publication https://iep.utm.edu/qualia/ as of 9 October 2021.

Meacham, Bill, et. al. “On Dennett’s Denial of Qualitative Experience.” Online video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOLskYrMTMo as of 10 October 2021.

Strawson, Galen. “The Consciousness Deniers.” New York: New York Review of Books, 13 March 2018. Online publication https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/03/13/the-consciousness-deniers/ as of 5 August 2018.

Tye, Michael. “Qualia.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Online publication https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2021/entries/qualia/ as of 9 September 2021.

From → Philosophy

2 Comments
  1. Thank you for this. I’ve read bits and pieces of Dennett, so I wasn’t aware of his consistent third person stance. l like to say that science is about the mind independent world – the world that doesn’t depend on humans to exist. But understanding ourselves is mind-dependent. I’m not surprised that Dennett shies away from morality since that cannot be fully understood from a third person point of view: example: moral dumbfounding – believing a behaviour such as brother sister incest is immoral, but not being able to justify why it is. Human institutions are not machines that can work by turning on a switch, they require our active participation, and that means our subjective interpretations are always involved. The whole question of meaning is rendered meaningless without subjectivity. The richness and creative potential of meaning cannot be captured at all by a third person view.
    You make an excellent point about the difference between philosophy and science. I see philosophy as a very long term inquiry into what it means to be human. Part of that inquiry is scientific knowledge, but an equally important part is our subjective knowledge about ourselves.

  2. Lenny Gibson permalink

    My friend Ann-Sophie, the author of “Smellosophy” has an interesting take: https://youtu.be/9RRkmxoB2Wc

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