Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Ever-present Qualia as an Object of Study

Try sitting outdoors in a natural landscape for half an hour. After quieting yourself and becoming as receptive as possible to the surrounding world, consider this: Is there any content here beside the purely qualitative? From the sky and the distant hill to the grass, pine needles, or soil beneath your feet, do you not have to say, “The world I am experiencing simply is its qualities”? How many of us, during years or decades of creative work, will put such a problem to ourselves in this direct, observational, scientifically sanctioned way, as opposed to thinking about the problem in our studies or laboratories, with our thought mediated by a vast network of mental abstractions?

Now try subtracting from the content of your observation everything qualitative. In the case of the tree over there, remove the green of the foliage, the gray of the bark, the smell of sap, the rustling of leaves in the breeze, the felt hardness of the trunk...and what do you have left? Nothing at all. You do not even have geometric form, since without light and color there is no visible form, and without the different qualities of touch there is no felt form. Form is not something independent that we proceed to flesh out with qualities; it subsists in nothing but the qualities themselves.

-Steve Talbott, The Language of Nature


Talbott's piece is a defense of qualities against the all-quantifying intellectual devices of popular scientific inquiry. Though I have ceased to practice with zeal the wordplay of the amateur philosopher, I've long wondered how such a hard distinction between qualities and quantities endures. The quantifiable shares that very quality, after all.

Talbott goes on to emphasize the epistemological priority of qualia:

Objects changing their positions in space may give us certain mathematically describable relationships, but so, too, can points on a piece of graph paper. No one takes these points to be exerting a physical force upon each other. Neither could we think of planets as exerting a force upon each other unless we had an independent concept of force. As the graph paper illustrates, the mathematical relationships alone do not give us such a concept. Think about it all you wish, but a force is something real in the world, and you will never find a concept for it except through your own experience of the world.


Or as another quotation puts it, "You use the word 'force' and, when queried, you define it by law, field, and vector; but what you really have in mind is the force you feel in commanding your muscles." Science piggybacks upon metaphors analogically understood.

2 comments:

little-cicero said...

This ever-present quality you speak of is all in our perception, which skews the reality of the tree to make it "our experience" rather than the thing itself.

As a student of acting, I gravitate toward the idea that "What is it" is always a stupid question, because no matter what the answer, "It is what it is"- it's always redundant. Rather ask what the tree does, for that is the true identification of the tree in question. In the case of acting, the character is defined by his actions- any words used to label him result in a non-philosophical caricature.

Qualia as you put it seems to caricature even more than Forms. The qualities of the tree will help the artist to paint a picture, but that picture will always be a shadow. If you say, "the tree reflects brown light, rustles its leaves, turns sunlight into sugar and grows upward" you are telling truths that cannot be argued, because they do not rely on shifting perceptions, but are based on the firm rock of action.

Just a thought. I would go into my triist philosophy, but it might not relate. Please take a look at my blog where I've just posted on it.

Timothy Shaw-Zak said...

The epistemic priority of qualia is actually a close cousin of Positivist epistemology. It is pretty clear to me that in terms of 'priority', the inherited material is prior.

Secondly, the irreducible character of Qualia is completely illusionary. People do not realize the techniques by which their experience of sensations can be deepened in discrimination. "The" 5 senses are composed of many different specialized components, and there are numerous distinct sensory organs beside.

Thirdly, sensory processing in the thalamus, for one, allows senses to exert mutual influence. Sounds can influence the perception of color, touch can affect the perception of sound.

Here, once again, the primacy of qualia is refuted. The character synaesthesia can be inferred, but only based upon a concept of how sensation works. That is, an epistemology not founded on 'in it selfishness' but on truth.

The idea of 'qualia' resembles the thought of the fair weather philosopher. While sitting at a Desk reading Plato, they ask themselves how they know of the outside world.

Upon concluding that it is their own mind, They get a text message and leave Socrates on the page with his friends.