Removing the Head, or Destroying the Brain: Qualia, Part II

Take a closer look at the Wikipedia discussion on the definition of ‘qualia’.

Certain terms are so poorly defined that this can become an anti-criticism feature. No matter how thoroughly one meaning is shown to be nonsense / invalid / useless, people can just switch to the ‘true’ meaning of the word and go on as before. But there are certain regularities I’ve seen in the way people talk about ‘qualia’, and many of them occur in that discussion. What are the regularities and their implications?

Consider ‘ineffable’. If something is ineffable, there’s very little else we can say about it. One of the few things we can say is that an ineffable thing can’t serve to explain anything. It doesn’t dispel confusion and lack of understanding; labeling something as ‘ineffable’ is just a sign not to think about it. It’s a shorter way of throwing up your hands and giving up.

That’s not necessarily an incorrect response. But it means that you’re giving up.

We must also ask ourselves how the ineffability of the concept can be demonstrated. Are we merely asserting it after trying, and failing, to understand? Or can we rigorously show that understanding is impossible?

‘Incommunicable’ is even more troubling.

A very common error is to think of our minds and brains as singular, indivisible entities. They’re not homogeneous things. They consist of parts. For example, we have two hemispheres, each of which can function independently, although hemispheric specialization limits this. We have systems and subsystems that handle particular types of tasks, and those systems are built up out of individual neurons.

Our minds are nothing but communication. Communication between entities, on many different levels of implementation.

So how do incommunicable experiences enter into this entity composed of communication? We can’t remember such an experience, because ‘remembering’ requires encoding. And if we look at increasingly short-term memory, eventually we are forced to conclude that we can’t ‘remember’ the experience even as it occurs. The only aspect that could actually be processed is a simple signal that ‘qualia’ are being had. There might be different signals for different qualia, but those signals would be communicable — and how would they be tied to ‘different’ qualia, anyway?


2 Responses to “Removing the Head, or Destroying the Brain: Qualia, Part II”

  1. my impression of the qualia argument has always been that it is simply trying to separate a characteristic of the brain from the brain itself. You have sense data, qualia is what happens when a structure like the human brain interprets that data. Similarly, a waterfall can’t be separated into water and a steep drop and maintain its meaning.

  2. That’s not an unreasonable description of *some* kinds of qualia statements.

    There are lots and lots, though, that fall into the logically incoherent category I discuss above.

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