Friday, February 10, 2006

Disliking Qualia

I've said in the past that when discussing phenomenal conscious experience, I disliked talking about "qualia". The "hard problem" of consciousness is better appreciated by stressing the first-person nature of experience. The term qualia tends to evoke disembodied contents of experience, which the materialist has an easier time trying to explain.

Uriah Kriegel, writing yesterday on Desert Landscapes, spoke about his own dislike of qualia (in response to a comment on this post). I thought his explanation was helpful. [UPDATE: 3 March 2009. I removed the broken links to the defunct Desert Landscapes blog] Here's what he said:

The reasons I don’t like qualia talk are two.

Less important is the fact that some people use the term for properties that are definitionally non-representational and non-functional, while others use it as for properties that are definitionally those properties that make a mental state phenomenally conscious. On the latter definition, qualia may or may not be representational or functional. Much confusion ensues, when often someone might accuse someone else of qualia eliminativism and the charge remain ambiguous as between (i) the willingness to embrace representationalism or functionalism about consciousness and (ii) the willingness to claim that consciousness doesn’t exist.

More important is the fact that it connotes a conception of phenomenal character that I think is mistaken. On my view, the phenomenal character of my sky experience – the bluish way it is like for me to have the experience – has two component: qualitative character (bluishness) and subjective character (for-me-ness). The problem with qualia talk is that it connotes a conception of phenomenal character as nothing more than what I call qualitative character. My view, of course, is that this conception is flat wrong, and there’s more to phenomenal character than qualitative character. Now, I realize that this is controversial and many people would be happy to identify phenomenal and qualitative character, and leave what I call subjective character out of phenomenal character. But I think this should be treated as a substantive phenomenological claim, not something that just comes with the definition of phenomenal character. When people use the term qualia for phenomenal character, they effectively write off subjective character without argument. (They don’t necessarily have to, but that’s just what the term “qualia” connotes, simply in virtue of its phonological affinity to “qualitative.”)


Tom C said...

Interesting. I have a feeling (probably wrong) that the word 'qualia' didn't come into common philosophical use until about thirty years ago. But it may be that the problem itself wasn't discussed much before that.

Steve said...

Michael Tye's account in the SEP article I linked to suggests qualia is a successor to an older mentalistic sense-datum theory, and depending on the details of the account, it can share that theory's flaws.