In university, my professor said that his position is that there are no qualia. He acknowledged that non-philosophers can find this position bizarre, but did not explain the rationale behind why he thought this. So what is the rationale behind this position?

  • 1
    Sounds like your professor was channeling Dennet et al., see SEP, Eliminative Materialism:"Dennett suggests our qualia concepts are fundamentally confused and fail to correspond with the actual inner workings of our cognitive system... Illusionism claims that introspection involves something analogous to ordinary sensory illusions; just as our perceptual systems can yield states that radically misrepresent the nature of the outer world". – Conifold May 20 at 10:09
  • 1
    @Dcleve Ineffability is not about not being able to talk about something. This would be quite strange, because then the word would not exist. But one would be quite mistaken if one assumed that what we talk about (and with, ie. words) were the same as the experience itself. There is some irreducible aspect to bodily experience that no description or movie etc. is able to get hold of. On the other hand, it is correct to cast doubt on qualia being ineffable in general. That's an aspect of the straw man Dennett built in order to be able to "explain qualia away". – Philip Klöcking May 21 at 21:24
  • 1
    @PhilipKlöcking -- Dennett claimed that one can dispose with 1st person empiricism, and do all psychology in the 3rd person, because "reports" are a 1:1 analog of the 1st person. This is untrue, for all internal experiences for two reasons. Our experiences have considerably more bandwidth than our "reports", and all experiences have aspects that translate poorly to "reports". Pragmatically nothing we experience is entirely ineffable, and nothing has no translation shortfall. This refutes W's "private language argument", all language is private, with only occasional partial "report" checks. – Dcleve May 24 at 1:17
  • 1
    @PhilipKlöcking -- Routledge, Philosophy Now, and 1000 word philosophy all agree that W argued that no language that does not have external checks on meaning, context, structure, etc, can be intelligible. IE, language must be 100% report. rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/private-language-argument/… philosophynow.org/issues/58/The_Private_Language_Argument 1000wordphilosophy.com/2014/07/14/… We agree language is not 100% report, so W is wrong. His view also says the last speaker of Etruscan did not actually know it. – Dcleve May 24 at 6:30
  • 1
    @Dcleve Wittgenstein often dramatized, which results in singular assertions being plain wrong, yes (in the case of Etruscan, there's still memory). But if, as eg. Sellars held, the meaning of language usage outside of reports (where I take report to mean public language usage), ie. in thought etc., is based on or analogous to, ie. derivative of report language, saying that the private language argument failed is a bit like saying Newton's Laws failed because they are based on absolute space-time. There is a very important point on the limits of language made. – Philip Klöcking May 24 at 7:07

The position is that of eliminative materialism, or of delusionism, relative to consciousness. The two are somewhat different.

Qualia are often cited by non-physicalists as direct evidence against physicalism. Many physicalists try to accommodate qualia and physicalism, and argue that the reasoning from qualia to non-physicalism is in error. For a committed physicalist who finds these arguments to be invalid, there is a problem:

IF one is convinced of the truth of physicalism, AND that the various efforts by philosophers to reconcile or explain qualia physically fail, THEN in order to continue to hold by physicalism, one must deny the reality/existence of qualia.

Note, this POV relies upon the presumption that physicalism is so well supported, that any apparent evidence against it must be an observational error.

This reasoning is rarely admitted to by its advocates. The only explicit statement of this reasoning process I have found was in Susan Blackmore's A Very Short Introduction to Consciousness. For Blackmore qualia was one of many observations or evidences about consciousness which she argued that physicalist explanations failed to explain/predict/accommodate. The accumulation of problems/failures, she considered provided a sufficient justification to depart from the more common physicalist view that consciousness is somehow an aspect of matter or processes, to the much less intuitive one that consciousness, and all the challenging data including "qualia" that are bundled with that term, does not actually exist.

Blackmore's excellent summary is only a summary. Works that spell out non-qualia/non-consciousness views in significantly more detail would include Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett, The Engine of Reason The Seat of the Soul by Paul Churchland, and The Astonishing Hypothesis by Francis Crick. Crick and Churchland argue a reductionist eliminativism, in which they suppose that better and better neurological characterization of the brain will eventually remove any need to think about "consciousness" as opposed to specific neurological states. Dennett does not rely upon reduction, but instead takes a behaviorism/functionalism approach in which behavior can be explained physically, so the only issue is that the pesky internal experiences can't -- and his work presents mental frameworks to try to make his denial of internal experience more plausible to his readers.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    What is the difference between qualia and sense-data? – Ameet Sharma May 20 at 16:42
  • 2
    @AmeetSharma the SEP article on qualia provides a useful discussion. plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia Qualia == sense-data is the 2nd definition described. Sense-datum theory was at one point the default view of sensing, but is not widely accepted among philosophers today, plato.stanford.edu/entries/perception-problem. The reasons to reject it -- appear to focus primarily on the compatibility between sense-datum theory (and indirect realism) with dualism. – Dcleve May 20 at 17:14
  • @AmeetSharma Sense-data usually is a technical term describing immediate, infallible knowledge via perception, oftentimes tied to the term impression (of sth being so and so). This idea is dead since Sellars' essay Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind where he dispels the Myth of the Given. Qualia in general are sensible qualities like smell, pain, colours, etc. Here, you do not have to state anything about the epistemic status, it is basically about the fact that our senses present the world to us in a certain way. Qualia are the only medium via which we consciously perceive the world. – Philip Klöcking May 21 at 21:04
  • @PhilipKlöcking - Was Sellars attacking the idea that there are some specific aspects of experience such as sense-data that are "given" in a way that other aspects of experience, like conceptual beliefs about sense-data, are not? "Qualia" nowadays can be understood to encompass the totality of what a conscious being is experiencing at a given moment, including conceptual thinking as well as sensory information, and not giving any privileged role to the latter--would Sellars' argument go against the idea that I have access to a unique truth about what my whole experience is at a given moment? – Hypnosifl May 21 at 23:07
  • @Hypnosifl -- here are two PhilSE questions discussing Sellars, one specifically on qualia philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/34176/… philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/23307/… – Dcleve May 22 at 1:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.