Home » Philosophy of Mind » Must We Quine Qualia?

Must We Quine Qualia?

George P. Simmonds
Oxford Brookes University


It is no secret that qualia possess a number of enemies in the philosophy of mind, and that the majority of these enemies advance from a materialist position allied to the methods of scientific reduction. Few of these opponents have done so with as much vigour as Daniel Dennett, however, who in his paper ‘Quining Qualia’ proposes we at long last put our cognitive fantasies to bed. In this paper I intend to analyse Dennett’s claim in interest of suggesting his dismissal of qualia exceeds the bounds of moderation.

Part I: Qualia

Qualia are the ‘raw feels’ of conscious experience, viz. what it is like to experience something [1]. A quale might manifest itself as a perceptual event, a bodily sensation, an emotion, a mood, or even – according to the likes of Strawson (1994) – a thought or disposition. They constitute the greenness of green, the saltiness of salt, the hotness of anger, and that thing  which ‘give[s] human consciousness the particular character that it has’ (Ramachandran & Hirstein, 1997, p.430). What is it like to gaze upon a setting sun, or a lunar eclipse? What is it like to feel joy? What is music like? These are all questions relevant to the subjective character of experience, a phenomenon which itself sits ‘at the very heart of the mind-body problem’ (Tye, 2013, preface).

It is not initially obvious how qualia might pose an expository hurdle to a materialist account of the human mind, for surely no such account intends to condemn our subjective experience to nonexistence? Indeed, not even Dennett doubts this reality; it is the special properties qualia’s supporters (hereon ‘qualophiles’) attribute to subjective experience that put philosophers like Dennett in a state of scepticism. Materialism’s reluctance to acknowledge these properties, at least in the case of qualia, has led some qualophiles to accuse science of advancing neglectful accounts of consciousness that fail to reduce all there is to be reduced. It is claimed, in fact, that modern reductionist theories are specifically insensitive to the presence of qualia, or rather that they are logically compatible with their absence. This is to say these special ‘raw feels’ could be present within scientific systems and yet remain undetected on account of those systems’ indifference to that which exists (or might exist) beyond their empirical parameters. The very fact that these intrinsically limited systems have yet to subdue qualia is, therefore, rather unsurprising (Nagel, 1974, pp.436-7).

The special properties materialists take issue with are implicit throughout the observations made by qualophilic authors. To bring light to these I will employ Churchland’s (1985) three-pronged content arrangement of Nagel’s ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ (1974).

The first of these characteristics concerns qualia’s immunity to the reductions found elsewhere in science. Qualia are an essential cornerstone to experience and the subjective perspective, and cannot therefore be ‘excluded’ in the way the subjective features of ordinary substances can. What is meant here is that we cannot ‘explain away’ qualia in the way we do certain other properties. We can understand ordinary substances without accounting for their subjective features, like their pigment or their scent, by attributing those features to ‘effects on the mind.’ Qualia, on the other hand, cannot be excluded in this way because they are intrinsic to subjective experience: they make subjective experience what it is (Nagel, 1974, p.437). Jackson (1992) compares this sort of irreducibility to that of aesthetic qualities, another reductionist quandary (p.131).

The second posits qualia as a different sort of phenomena to the observable states of the brain. This links to qualia’s being ‘essentially accessible’ from a solitary point of view (Churchland, 1985, p.1985). Only I can apprehend my own qualia, and I do so as a simple condition of my own consciousness. But I am conversely ignorant of the majority of my own brain states, which can be accessed by anyone and interpreted objectively without exhausting or even touching on their subjective impressions upon the consciousness. For qualophiles like Nagel this indicates that we cannot hope to understand qualia in terms of properties appropriate to the brain, since—by Leibniz Law—if my qualia are immediately accessible to me but my brain states are not, they cannot logically be one and the same (Nagel, 1974, pp.442-4). This argument is hardly confined to contemporary philosophy of mind, since Leibniz himself explored its themes in his own literature, but the continued failure of neuroscience to explain the sense of unity present in perceptual consciousness has ensured its longevity (see Kulstad & Lawrence, 2013, §1).

The third of these special qualities sees Nagel join forces with Jackson, another qualophile whose ideas appear to intersect with his own on what has been termed ‘the knowledge argument’ [2]. This claim, developed by Erwin Schrödinger, poses qualia as phenomena considerably beyond the scope of scientific knowledge. Jackson (1982) describes a scenario in which a woman, Mary, is from birth confined to a cell and exposed only to black, white, and shades of grey. Over time she is bestowed with a perfect knowledge of the outside world but, having never encountered colour qualia, remains hopelessly ignorant of its subjective character. This is to say she possesses a perfect knowledge of the ways in which light affects the human optical devices within the instances of colour, but cannot herself associate this knowledge with an actual experience of what colours look like. The argument continues, claiming that upon leaving her cell (perfect knowledge intact) Mary will encounter colours she knows about but has never actually experienced, and will thus learn something new about the nature of those colours and, more importantly, their impressions upon the human mind. This is a problem for materialism because if her knowledge were truly perfect before leaving the cell, Mary would learn absolutely nothing from her first brush with colour qualia. But this seems intuitively unreasonable sincethe objective terms employed by science do not appear to exhaust the subjective phenomena that inhere within our personal experiences (p.130). The point here is that subjective phenomena are inextricably linked to a single point of view and are thus inaccessible to the deliberately objective, ‘third-person’ inquiries of science (ibid. p.292).

The above three observations, advanced by Nagel, Jackson and their contemporaries paint a very ‘special’ picture of qualia. Needless to say these things sound unlike any normal phenomena we would readily associate with the natural world, and this is symptomatic of the properties attributed to them in their various philosophical expositions. In his own exposition, Dennett summarises these properties (with no small measure of embellishment) as follows: ineffability, intrinsicality, privacy, and immediacy of apprehension to the consciousness (Dennett, 1990, p.385).

Part II: Quining Qualia

Recall that Dennett does not deny that our experiences possess a subjective character, nor that this character may possess properties: he simply denies that our subjective experience ‘has properties that are special in any of the ways qualia have been supposed to be special’ (ibid. p.382). He believes the credulous acceptance of these qualities lies at the heart of the ‘mystery’ of consciousness and is, incidentally, the only thing keeping qualia intact. Once these features are removed, he says, there will remain nothing worthy of the term ‘qualia,’ only a hopelessly tangled ‘snarl’ we ought to abandon (Dennett, 1991, p.369).

The phrase ‘to quine,’ coined by Dennett himself, means to ‘deny resolutely the existence or importance of something real or significant’ (Dennett, 1987, online). This should not imply that he attributes either significance or importance to qualia, however; rather he acknowledges them as something whose existence seems obvious to most people and thus requires direct deconstructive attention. Dennett would like to reverse our intuitions concerning qualia in hope of removing them as the ‘final hurdle’ to a materialist account of consciousness; and goes about doing so in demonstrating that, upon reflection of our experience, there is indeed nothing we can convincingly classify ‘qualia’ without appealing to the supernatural. He employs a number of thought experiments, termed ‘intuition pumps,’ which serve to advance his argument. For the sake of brevity I will focus on those two which do so most convincingly on account of their attacking qualia’s most central properties.

In ‘intuition pump 7: Chase and Sanborn’ Dennett (1990) describes a scenario in which two coffee-tasters, having sampled the same coffee for six years, concurrently decide they no longer enjoy its flavour. Chase, the first taster, claims the coffee’s flavour has remained intact for the duration of his tasting it, and that it is his personal response to that flavour that has changed. Sanborn, on the other hand, believes it is the coffee’s flavour that has been altered, and that his personal responses have remained constant. In other words, Chase believes the coffee’s quale has remained the same while his responses have not, while Sanborn insists his own responses have been constant while the coffee’s quale has not (pp.389-90). Dennett notes that Chase and Sanborn are alike in at least one thing: their new-found distaste for the coffee; but given that the coffee itself has not physically changed it is clear that only one may be correct.

But which one? This question, or rather its insolubility, works as the thrust of this intuition pump: neither Chase nor Sanborn are able to decipher whether their relevant qualia have been altered, or whether their change in opinion is a result of their personal judgements. This is a problem for qualophiles because it entails that, despite all their ‘special’ properties, we can be completely wrong about our own qualia (since either Chase or Sanborn must be incorrect). Dennett insists that if qualia are to be seriously acknowledged as a component of experience, then we must—in light of their being intrinsic to subjective experience and immediately apprehensible to the individual—be aware of whether a change has occurred in our qualia, or in something else. Surely, he says, we must be able to detect shifts in qualia if they are indeed special in such a way. As this case quite clearly demonstrates, however, we are ultimately powerless in making these distinctions, leaving qualophiles lacking anything phenomenally concrete enough to claim their own (ibid. pp.389).

‘Intuition pump 9: the experienced beer drinker’ attempts to demonstrate that qualia are not intrinsic but fundamentally extrinsic. Dennett recalls that beer is ‘familiarly said’ to be an acquired taste, but notes that no one enjoys that flavour associated with that first ever sip of it; rather the taste improves as one continues one’s ‘education.’ A more pleasant taste is, so to speak, engendered by way of exposure, and the very fact that we enjoy the later taste must suffice in demonstrating that it is not identical to the first. This serves to challenge qualia’s intrinsicality, and thereby qualia as a whole, by suggesting that our very liking of something is capable of changing the way it tastes, that ‘a change in reactivity amounts to or guarantees a change in […] those qualitative or phenomenal features’ (ibid. p.397). This does not bode well for qualia, since if they are sensitive to external factors they are no longer the untouchable, intrinsic, and ever-so-personal objects described in qualophilic literature. They must instead be relational (ibid. p.407). What, Dennett wonders, is the point in qualia once we concede that they possess this property?

Dennett is at least successful in demonstrating that qualia are not what Campbell terms an ‘intractable obstacle to functionalism’ (Campbell, 2004, pp.27). Present in the writings of Nagel and Jackson are images of untouchable, almost sublime, qualia well beyond the reach of their sceptical opponents, but Dennett’s deconstruction seems to lay them out as things we can scrutinise in the way of any other object. By Dennett, qualia are simply nothing; they possess none of the ‘special’ properties that so characterise them, and what is left—that is, simple subjective experience—does not warrant a term of its own.

Part III: Keeping Qualia

The American philosopher and neurobiologist Owen Flanagan openly presents Dennett’s quining of qualia as ‘an overreaction,’ a knee-jerk response to conceiving of them in possession of the ‘special’ properties discussed above (Flanagan, 1994, pp.61-2). This conception of qualia, claims Flanagan, is neither orthodox nor indeed worthy of defence; he would have us return to qualia’s initial definition, that first-blush impression of them we apprehend before we introduce their ‘esoteric’ properties (ibid. p.73). Dennett himself makes reference to this initial definition, as ‘an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us’ (Dennett, 1990, p.381).

It is from this simple conception that Flanagan insists qualia can be naturalised in the removal of their special properties, a position from which he believes they can possess a considerable value to psychology, neuroscience, and the philosophy of mind. Dennett likens the problem of qualia to a snarled-up kite string that could in theory be unravelled but should for the sake of practicality be abandoned (Dennett, 1991, p.369). Flanagan claims to be ‘more hopeful’: he sees the problem of qualia to concern two kites, one embodying his own straightforward conception of qualia, the other their troublesome properties of which he would have us dispose. The kites are closely intertwined and may at first appear hopelessly trussed together, but Flanagan convincingly argues for a division not only being possible but actually worth our while (Flanagan, 1994, p.62).

What so distinguishes Flanagan’s account of qualia from those of Nagel et al. is that he allows for them to possess properties other than those available in the first person. We are quite right to conceptually separate qualitative aspects of experience from its content, but this should not entail any sort of mysterious properties on qualia’s part; they are simply what something feels like, ‘a mental event or state that has, among its properties, the property that there is something it is like to be in it’ (Flanagan, 1994, p.64). This allows qualia to adopt qualities quite contrary to the special ones earlier noted: they can be relational, effable, and legible to both science and the language it employs. When we apply Flanagan’s qualia to the case of Chase and Sanborn we can quite clearly see that no contradictions are created by the subjects’ failure to identify changes in their own qualia, as it is not supposed that they must reserve immediate access to them. Nor are there any insurmountable stumbling-blocks for science, since there is nothing in Flanagan’s ‘terms and conditions’ that states qualia are tethered to the first-person perspective. There is no reason a developed neuroscience would be unable to solve Chase and Sanborn’s conundrum (ibid. p.77).

What, then, is the point in qualia? asks Dennett. Flanagan is prepared for this question, and provides a number of reasons as to why we ought to stick with them. The most compelling of these concerns qualia’s communicative utility within both psychology and everyday discourse. The concepts borne out of qualia allow us to distinguish mental states ‘with feel’ from those ‘without feel,’ says Flanagan, and this is valuable to psychology because it aids the dichotomy between those mental states that are subliminal and those that are qualitative and conscious. The task of psychologists would, in other words, be made a great deal harder without qualia. These concepts are of assistance in ordinary conversation, too: our capacity to distinguish our perceptions, moods, and emotions is facilitated by the vocabulary characteristic of subjective experience; the ‘vernacular of qualia’ is of a great help to interpersonal communication (ibid. p.65-7). Language hardly becomes more efficient as it becomes more objective, after all.

Qualia are generally regarded as pests to materialism, and it is this attitude that Flanagan attempts to reverse. He would have us jettison qualia’s special properties, namely those creating ‘the problem of qualia’ in the first place, and focus simply on a reduced conception of them that allows for phenomenology, psychology, and neuroscience to work as ‘credible partners’ (ibid. p.85).

Part IV: Concluding Remarks

Dennett’s efforts aim to demonstrate that qualia are not worth our time. He  dismantles their alleged mystical properties and endeavours to expose them as undetectable, nonsensical, and ultimately useless. What remains once these properties are dismissed, he claims, warrants abandonment. Flanagan, too, supports the removal of these properties, but insists instead that what is left may be profitable in terms of its function within psychology, neuroscience, and the language attached to both. Though Dennett’s dissolution of the problem of qualia is valid, there is notably nothing to gain from forsaking what Flanagan would have us embrace. Dennett’s quining of qualia might thus be considered extreme.

‘It is greater to repair what we already possess than it is to greatly seek their replacement’ (Montaigne, 1989, p.416).


[1] ‘Qualia,’ deriving from the Latin adverb quālis, meaning ‘what sort’ or ‘what kind.’

[2] It ought to be made clear that Jackson expends considerable effort to distinguish his own version of ‘the knowledge argument’ from Nagel’s (see Jackson, 1982, p.128).

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1 Comment

  1. Budimir Zdravkovic says:

    I think qualia’s communicative utility is the reason we are able to even discuss things or use language. And it probably plays a key role in the emergence of meaning or meaningful experiences.

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