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X is a conscious agent. X has the ability to have raw subjective conscious experiences, aka qualia. But beyond merely experiencing qualia, X also has the ability to interpret their qualia, by assigning labels and concepts to them via natural language, and make inferences and decisions based on this interpretation.

Question: How can X know if their interpretation of their qualia is correct?

So, in the case of X we have:

  • raw conscious experiences
  • interpretations of those raw conscious experiences

One option is to be skeptical of all interpretations, denying that anything can be inferred with certainty from one's own subjective conscious experiences, leading to a position along the lines of epistemological solipsism.

But another option is to have a more charitable and nuanced position: maybe some interpretations are in fact correct and some interpretations are not, and we just need to figure out a method to tell them apart. But if we adopt this view, then we face another challenge: what is this method supposed to be, and how do we know if the method itself is actually accurate?

To make the pondering of these matters more concrete (and interesting), let's consider the following examples:

  • Example 1: X has a subjective conscious experience of seeing and touching a cup. The raw experience involves seeing a distribution of colors and feeling the sensation of touching what appears to be something solid. X's interpretation of this raw experience, using language, would be something like "there is an objective 3D solid object that I'm holding in my hands, which I call a cup, in an objective real physical world".

  • Example 2: X has a subjective conscious experience of visiting a paradise in heaven during a Near-Death Experience (NDE). The raw experience involves having the experience of leaving their body, perceiving other-worldly colors and sounds, experiencing ecstatic emotions to a degree never experienced before on earth, experiencing the feeling of being transported at super high speed through space to a place that looks like a paradise, encountering other-worldly entities, etc. X's interpretation of this complex set of raw experiences would be (in short): "All of this is objectively real". Not exactly an NDE, but a somewhat similar Biblical example of what I just described can be found in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4:

    I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.

  • Example 3: X has the subjective conscious experience of being abducted by aliens. X's interpretation of their raw experience is that aliens actually objectively exist and that the abduction they experienced was real (as opposed to having hallucinated the whole thing).

So, what should X do about their subjective conscious experiences? Should X be skeptical of all interpretations? Should X be skeptical of only some interpretations (a specific subset)? Are there specific categories of conscious experiences the interpretation of which should be distrusted, and other categories of conscious experiences the interpretation of which should be trusted? Should X go with the flow and trust all their interpretations? Should X trust their intuition and common sense? Should X believe that aliens and other-worldly entities exist if their interpretation of their qualia tells them so? Should X believe that cups exist if their interpretation of their qualia tells them so?

By the way, a related question: Which view is theoretically more virtuous: (1) metaphysical solipsism, (2) everything is real or (3) some things are real and some are hallucinations?

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  • My younger cousin is a literature professor. I say, "Hellfire doesn't burn me anymore." She says, "Dante invented hell to intimidate people and control their behavior!" I trust my experience. I can transform hellfire into holy water. I trust that she cannot decode the intended meaning of my experience. And I trust her expression in the context of the conversation. I have had many waking visions (hallucinations) arising in parallel with my ability to deal with others in the so-called domain of reality. I could go to heaven or hell in a heartbeat meanwhile the others are in and of this world. Dec 28, 2023 at 19:22
  • Berkley: There once was a man who said "God Must think it exceedingly odd If he finds that this tree Continues to be When there's no one about in the Quad." || Anon: Dear Sir, Your astonishment's odd. I am always about in the Quad. And that's why the tree Will continue to be Since observed by Yours faithfully, God || From here Dec 29, 2023 at 1:05
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    What cup? All I see is a bunch of swirling quantum fields. Humans see what we see because of the resolution level of our senses. If we had better resolution we wouldn't see cups at all.
    – user4894
    Dec 29, 2023 at 3:58
  • X cannot know for sure, because there is no single canonical interpretation of reality.
    – Corbin
    Dec 29, 2023 at 16:54
  • Please rephrase to indicate that you are assuming an objective reality, rather than a participatory reality; such an assumption is too important to hide in the comments.
    – Corbin
    Dec 29, 2023 at 18:55

5 Answers 5

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Perhaps a useful notion here is calibration. With other types of sensors, such as thermometers, ammeters, odometers, and so on, a degree of confidence in their readings can be obtained by comparison with values determined by other devices. If everybody who encounters what you experience as a cup declares it to be a cup, then you might have more confidence in your interpretation than in the case where they all refer to your cup as a cigar. Of course, they could be conspiring to gaslight you, and to the committed solipsist they don't exist, so there's no guaranteed way to check.

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    More to the point, if a subject doesn't trust his impression that this is a cup, he presumably has no good reason to trust his impression that others agree that this is a cup. Dec 30, 2023 at 10:05
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There is no way that X can be certain that their interpretations of their subjective experiences are "correct". All X can be certain of is the fact they have subjective experiences. There's no way, that I can see, around skepticism.

However, at the end of your question you ask very different questions.

So, what should X do about their subjective conscious experiences? Should X be skeptical of all interpretations? Should X be skeptical of only some interpretations (a specific subset)? Are there specific categories of conscious experiences the interpretation of which should be distrusted, and other categories of conscious experiences the interpretation of which should be trusted? Should X go with the flow and trust all their interpretations? Should X trust their intuition and common sense? Should X believe that aliens and other-worldly entities exist if their interpretation of their qualia tells them so? Should X believe that cups exist if their interpretation of their qualia tells them so?

These questions are asking what X should do. If X is having a discussion where philosophical skepticism is relevant then they should be skeptical of all interpretations. If X is going to the store to buy milk they probably shouldn't be skeptical bout the existence of the universe at that moment.

Skepticism tells us that everything we believe we know is just that, a belief. However, we are still free to believe what we like even though we don't have universal justification for those beliefs. Different people can choose different things to guide their beliefs.

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Consider Example 1.
I can perform a double blind experiment where I and 'Fred' are both asked to independently examine and describe a series of objects using agreed measuring and descriptive techniques. If Fred and I are equally competent and (not drunk or high or ... ) our double blind results for a cup and for similar objects will be close. Our colour comparisons using agreed reference criteria will be similar. Our descriptions of dimension, orientation, location and mass will be similar. Our results will be within expected margins of error and competence.

For the above to be true, either

  • We both must be sensing and describing a similar reality, that has consistent and independent meaning within a common reference frame.

or

  • My total reality and Fred's must be part of a common "linked" whole (matrix style) where not only Fred's and my senses are an illusion dependent on an external 'system', but, quite possibly, Fred and I are also illusory portions of a greater whole.

It's not obvious (to me) how the correct option can be chosen with certainty.

Occam may have some difficulty deciding which is the 'preferred' option.

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My answer refers to the first part of your question:

How do we know if our interpretation of our raw conscious experiences is accurate?

I understand and agree that a quale is a typical type of raw data, which results from the first steps of mental information processing.

  1. But the question is not whether a quale is right or wrong:

    A quale is the result of a subjective process. If the quale is a colour perception, then the quale results from the processing of a physical stimulus in the visual cortex. As a result we have the perception of the colour green or red or … violett. In our subjective classification the colours red, orange, …, violett close to the chromatic circle of distinguishable colours.

    But we know from physics that light is an electromagnetic wave. The possible wavelengths are a continuum of wavelenghts, some shorter than the wavelenght registered as the quale red, others longer than the quale violett. These wavelenghts have a linear order, they do not close to a circle.

    Hence the structure and arrangement of qualia is totally different from the structure and classification of electromagnetic waves. Who will say what is right or wrong?

  2. The question is about the usual processing or an unusual processing:

    At most one can compare in certain cases the qualia of different humans resulting from the same physical stimulus. A minor type of colour blindness is at hand when people cannot distinguish between the colours blue and yellow. More far-reaching is synestesia, e.g., to hear colours or to taste sounds. Here the afferent nerve tracts are further processed not in the usual, but in a different domain of the cortex.

    Synestesia shows that the interpretation of a quale depends on the location where it is processed in the cortex. Hence one must distinguish between the usual quale and an unusual quale resulting from a given sense stimulus.

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    This answer presupposes the existence of an objective external physical reality causing the qualia perceived by a conscious agent, but this assumption would be challenged by an epistemological solipsist.
    – Mark
    Dec 28, 2023 at 23:09
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    @Mark I agree. But one cannot rebut a solipsist by philosophical argumentation.
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 28, 2023 at 23:32
  • @JoWehler "*At most one can compare in certain cases the qualia of different humans resulting from the same physical stimulus. *" If we could do that, we wouldn't have to argue about anything and yet we do. Qualia by definition is subjective. We cannot compare our qualia. I know when I experience redness what it is for me, but I don't know what it is for anyone else. Dec 30, 2023 at 10:11
  • @Speakpigeon Please note that intentionally I said in certain(!) cases. I gave the example where one person cannot distinguish two colours which an other person can distinguish in the same external situation. That's a case where we can conclude that the qualia of the two persons are different.
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 30, 2023 at 13:35
  • @JoWehler Sure, but this is an inference. You do not actually compare the qualia of different humans. Dec 30, 2023 at 17:38
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The Inner Light Theory of Consciousness

https://www.dspguide.com/InnerLightTheory/paper.htm

There are two relevant concepts called The Information-Limited SubReality (ILSR) and The SubReality Generating Machine (SRGM) in the Brain:

Using the "brain in the vat" as a guide, we will now define the physical phenomenon called an Information-Limited Subreality. Two observers, which we will call the outer observer and the inner observer, exist in a physical universe. The outer observer has the ability to perceive this universe directly, without distortion or misrepresentation. This means that the reality perceived by the outer observer is genuine; it originates from and represents exactly what it seems to, an external physical universe. In comparison, the inner observer is in a much more complex condition, being totally unable to observe the physical universe. This handicap results from the information accessible to the inner observer being systematically distorted by some process. Moreover, this distortion is not random, but has two key characteristics. First, it blocks all knowledge of the physical universe to the inner observer. Second, the distorted information is completely consistent with another physical universe, one that could exist, but doesn't. Of course, the inner observer does not know that what he perceives is an illusion; it is as real to him as real can be. It is the only reality that he knows. But the outer observer can see this situation as it truly is, a false reality that is generated by manipulating information. For this reason, the outer observer would refer to the experiences of the inner observer as an Information-Limited Subreality. Since this is such a long name, we will call it an "inner reality" for short. Likewise, we will refer to the reality experienced by the outer observer as the "outer reality." Of course, the inner observer would not use any of these terms; to him there is only reality.

Galileo and Einstein both perform thought experiments (similar to the concept of the ILSR) where the physical Observer is located inside a closed cabin with no view of outside reality. Galileo considers how the Observer perceives being at rest or in uniform linear motion as indistinct states of "external reality". Einstein considers how the Observer perceives the force of acceleration as due to a rocket in empty space or local gravity as indistinct states of "external reality." The author tries to apply this logic to the first person (solipsistic) view of the mind. But Galileo and Einstein are simultaneously using their knowledge as Observers with the assumption that the attributes of the physical Observer can exist inside the cabin or outside the cabin or there can be two Observers in distinct locations with distinct perceptions. All this is the operation of their mind with the ability to map the self to distinct perceptions in the mind.

If local reality is generated subjectively, as the product of a mental process, then faith and doubt about perceptions of reality are further attributes of the reality being generated by the SRGM. The idea of the brain as a machine that generates Reality or SubReality is an attribute of the Reality or SubReality so I would doubt that the brain is in fact the source of the SRG.

In May and June 2022 I had two operations to remove my appendix. The specimen from the first operation had no appendix tissue. Shortly after the first operation I had the first out-of-body experience in my life where I had only an intellect trapped behind a glass wall. Some technicians were typing at computer equipment with the intention to break my will so the surgeon could take over my mind. This nightmare caused much torment and distress in the context with the idea that the surgeon did not intend to cause me distress yet was distressing my intellect intentionally as the means to some nefarious end. In the other dimension of SubReality I knew that the stress on my body going into sepsis, awaking from anesthetics, and being pumped with pain killers distorted the usual or typical (normal?) functioning of my SRG.

Faith and doubt, or trust and doubt, are subjective perceptions in the personal or private subreality we cannot point to these as objective objects existing in external reality!

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  • Einstein was incorrect (or incorrectly attributed) in saying that external acceleration applied to objects within a closed space is identical for gravitational attraction (static) acceleration and acceleration of the observers "box". In the former case the acceleration has a gradient proportional to the square root of the distance to the external attractor. In the latter case the acceleration field is constant. Einstein's (attributed) claim is correct for a point source in a closed "box". Dec 29, 2023 at 8:01
  • @Russel McMahon - Equivalence Principle youtube.com/watch?v=eU2hGIrBULA is the idea in Physics that mass of a body is the same when measured on a balance in the field of gravity or when measured by its rate of acceleration under the influence of a net force. Einstein imagines performing the balance experiment inside a closed elevator box that could be externally accelerated by a rocket or could be externally located in a gravitational field. I recall a physics lecture where the deformity of the shape of a massive body might be different when caused by gravity vs acceleration? Dec 29, 2023 at 18:01
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    I assume that following is obvious to you - just noting 'for completeness'. : On a balance at a point in a box is fine, as long as you don't try it in more than one location along the acceleration vector. As above, in a rocket you get the same result at any point along the acceleration axis within the box (assuming Newtonian mechanics- relativity may affect this but it's 11:30pm on new years eve so I won't even start to think about it :-) ). Whereas, if gravity is involved the acceleration decreases along the acceleration axis as you get further away from the attracting mass. Dec 31, 2023 at 10:33

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