Qualia, Consciousness, and Materialism

Submitted by Ken Watts on Fri, 06/22/2007 - 15:09

PZ Myers, over at Pharyngula, has posted a solid rebuttal of a "thought experiment" advanced by Michael Egnor at the Discovery Institute.

This kind of thing happens almost daily somewhere on the web, but the comments in this case include a discussion that I think is both interesting and important.

It involves the existence of qualia, and it seems to me that this is one of the fundamental questions of our time.

Never heard of qualia? The word is just philosophicese (never heard of philosophic-ese?) for a very normal, and extremely common part of your experience. The "redness" of red, the "blueness" of blue, the sound of water running, the itchiness of an itch, the pain you feel when you stub your toe, are all qualia.

It's common for many people in the sciences—not all, by any means—to take the position that qualia do not exist, that they are an illusion. If I understand these people correctly, they argue that we only "think" we see a difference between red and blue, when in fact all that is really happening is certain patterns of behavior among the neurons in our brains. It's something like Asimov's Robots, explaining patiently that although they appear to have feelings and experiences, they really don't.

The question is important for several reasons:

  1. It's important to understand, as far as we can, the relationship between our inner world—the subjective experience of consciousness—and the outer, objective world. It's important for purposes of psychology, and for purposes of understanding ourselves in general.
  2. It's important philosophically. Qualia are at the heart of the problem of consciousness.
  3. It's important for the development of science. For some time now, science has made incredible leaps by focusing entirely on the outer, objective, world. And this is not coincidental. Early scientific advances were made possible, in part, because we distinguished between those qualities that were inherent to matter, and those which rightfully belong to the observer. But it would be a big mistake if we allowed this momentum to lead us into the delusion that those subjective qualities simply did not exist, without first offering some kind of proof.
  4. It's important politically. You can argue as long and as loud as you want that we are just robots in regard to this question, but if you can't prove it, the average person (and that includes me) is not going to believe you. By abdicating the field, on the basis of a sort of faith in materialism, you leave that field, and the evidence of everyone's experience, in the hands of people who take it as evidence for a medieval world-view: souls, as defined by religion.

In short, the insistence that something which we all experience every waking moment is an illusion, made on the basis that it doesn't fit into our current world-view, and without any further proof, seems to me to smack of the very kind of thought that one would usually attribute to a creationist. Ignore or explain away the evidence, and hold fast to your world-view at all costs.

It's unscientific.

The existence of qualia would not prove any kind of traditional dualism. There are a great many possible ways of understanding them, if they do exist.

At least, that's what I think today.