A Functional Understanding of Qualia: The Necessity of Qualitative Terms*
Most forms of modern dualism entail the belief that qualitative terms play no role in determining behavior. They decide that behavior can be fully accounted in terms of physical facts, and that because qualitative terms cannot be physical, they are external to behavioral processes. This view demonstrates a misconception of qualitative terms, ramifying from the illogical position that the explanatory gap entails an ontological difference between physical and mental events. Actually, it is apparent that qualitative terms are necessary to the functionality of most sensory systems, and furthermore that the employment of such sensory systems realizes a very practical understanding of consciousness.
The Explanatory Gap
The mind-body explanatory gap is the problem of understanding exactly how mental processes correspond to physical processes. The correlation of “C-fibres firing” to the feeling of “pain” is an external observation that may be – all technical criticism aside – perfectly practical. However, it fails to address the private nature of pain at all; the reason for the specific feeling that occurs when one is punched in the face is more complex than a few electrical charges traversing the passages of one’s nervous system. Indeed, the correlation of pain with “C-fibres firing” must be justified either behaviorally or functionally, as the private feeling of “pain” may be unique for every person, and must be characterized as either playing a particular role in the process of mental events, or having particular behavioral consequences. The fact that no “explanation” exists for the nature of private feelings constitutes the explanatory gap.
The mistake that too many philosophers make is concluding that this explanatory gap realizes an ontological difference between physical and mental events. While science is yet to provide us with an understanding of how “C-fibres firing” is actually relevant to the feeling of pain, there is no evidence that contradicts the notion that there is really only one “pain” that two physically identical people experience in correlation to a punch in the face. There may be different types of C-fibres, or C-fibres may have slightly different functions in every human body, but this does not necessarily mean that a set of physical circumstances does exactly prescribe specific qualitative terms. Basic intuition concludes that there is a concrete ontological connection between mental and physical events; after all, modern science is overwhelmingly physical, and to presume that explanations for private feelings vary from person to person almost seems skeptical for the sake of skepticism (If we are all physically similar, then why should we feel things so differently?).
The question of whether or not the explanatory gap can be filled is an issue that profoundly affects how it should be approached. Those who conclude that it cannot may well believe that there really is an ontological gap implied from it; again, however, the fact that Laplacian modeling appears to be set so distant in the future of science makes it seem hyper-skeptical to do so. It is already possible to build a robot that behaves as if it experiences qualitative states, so without a concrete definition of consciousness it is most reasonable to assume that the problem of explanation is solvable. And there will be more on defining consciousness later.
Deaf Zombies and Auditory Ants
David Chalmers’ Conceivability Argument is exemplary of irrational conclusions drawn from the presence of the explanatory gap. In his attempt to evidence non-physical facts, he proposes the potentially important difference between a strictly physical world and ours, but ignores the need to establish some understanding of consciousness. The argument posits that a world is conceivable in which all of the physical facts are identical to those of our world, but in which there is no consciousness. Instead of people, Earth is populated by Zombies that behave exactly as we do, but that lack awareness of the operations of their bodies. The supposed conceivability of this position is meant to illustrate that there is no account of consciousness in a strictly physical model, as our automatic behaviors should be exactly the same as when they are accompanied by conscious experience.
The problem with Chalmers’ argument is that it is not conceivable. It is founded in the principle that the physical events that Zombies undergo do not necessitate consciousness, as they are totally automatic; however, it is most reasonable to assume that particular physical events are ontologically identical to particular mental events, especially those physical events that are involved in sensation.
Chalmers accepts Thomas Nagel’s loose understanding of consciousness as “what it is like to be” something, and explicitly states in his writings that “there is nothing that it is like to be a Zombie.” The problem with this position is that it is impossible for entities that are physically identical to people to have sensations without having qualitative terms. Indeed, any entity that has sensory systems collects information from its environment according to the structure of those systems. Aural systems receive vibrations and represent those that are sensible as “sounds”, which do not exist for creatures without them, just as occipital systems receive light, and represent its visible elements as “color”. Chalmers must conceive of sensation as some sort of abstract causal happening, and fails to recognize that a sensation is, by definition, the subjective representation of environmental information to the rest of the body. For a Zombie to behave exactly as a person would, it would have to perceive reality in the same sensory terms as a person does, as represented by its sensory systems; and these sensory terms must be qualitative terms, due to their implied subjectivity. The Zombie’s sensory systems must provide it with a reality within which to operate, for otherwise there could be no operation; there must be something that it is like to be a Zombie, and this is totally paradoxical.
For what may be a clearer understanding of this, imagine that you are standing in a room with a Zombie and a chair. There is a PA speaker in one of the walls of the room, through which the words “Sit down in the chair” are transmitted. For you, this is a simple command to abide; when the words are transmitted through the speaker, their vibrations strike your ears, which represent them as electrical impulses to the temporal lobe. From there, the temporal lobe represents the earlier impulses to the rest of the brain in the form of other impulses, eventually causing you to look at the chair, walk over to it, and sit down. For the Zombie, this is more difficult. The Zombie’s ears receive the same vibrations as yours, and transmit the same electrical impulses; however, for the Zombie to be a Zombie, its temporal lobe cannot represent these electrical impulses. For this to happen would be for the Zombie to experience aural qualitative terms, because the part of its brain responsible for establishing an aural reality would be operative, which in turn would realize that there is “something that it is like to be a Zombie”. Of course, you are as subject to physics as the Zombie was – but for you, there is a necessary ontological coordination between the processes of your brain and the qualitative terms of “hearing”.
An even simpler, though maybe less helpful version of the story replaces your presence in the room with an ant’s. An ant does not have ears, but senses vibration through its legs; so when “Sit down in the chair” comes through the speaker, its sensation by the ant’s legs gives the ant “something that it is like” to be the ant at that moment; similarly, for the Zombie to hear through its ears there must be “something that it is like to be the Zombie” at that moment, a distinct sensory reality from, say, the ant’s. But of course the Zombie cannot functionally hear, because it lacks the ability to represent aural sensations with qualitative feels.
*It should be noted that I use the term "qualitative term" rather than "quale" to realize the difference between a totally non-physical property and an ontologically physical property, respectively.