Some thoughts and feelings on Subjectivity [draft]

I had a little bit of a twitter dialog with Tom Clark, who writes for It is, to my mind, just about the best comprehensive project on what naturalism is all about.

My relationship to Tom's work is something like that 'Die, Heretic' joke. The punch line is that, despite two characters in the joke both being Christian, both being Protestant, both being Baptist, and so on, they have have a falling out because they are affiliated with different variants of the 'Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region'. 

I think that captures the nature of my difference with Tom on this topic. Instead of different Northern Conservative Baptists, the difference is over qualia, as it is understood on a foundation of naturalistic worldview.

I think it makes sense to think of Qualia, the fancy word for the stuff of our senses: tastes, colors, hot things, cold things, smells, etc. to say that they are in the brain and, 'really there', which is to say, just as real as everything else in the brain. The brain has neurons? Electrical signals? Well, it also has qualia. 

Some people put qualia in a second-tier status. The 'real' stuff is brain activity, and qualia is just 'associated' with it as a 'correlate'. It isn't any specific real thing, but instead kind of haunts the brain.

I disagree with this, because it is just tough to be a naturalist, believe qualia is real, and believe it is the kind of nothing that haunts the brain. 

The worst offenders will say it 'emerges', 'supervenes', 'correlates' and will mean something by that which you can never really pin down. The non-offenders can use these terms safely, but they are for practiced professionals. The point of being a naturalist is that we think that all the things that are real, are part of the natural world. In my book, to go through all the effort to say that there are no to ghosts, gods, spirits, magic, and then make room for qualia as a thing of their kind, is not very good. They are ghostly, but we aren't supposed to have ghostly things. The principles are meant not just to respond to specific things, like gods, spirits, essences, but also to guard against new prospective entrants yet to be thought up. 

We do, however, have things that are not, well, things. Wind, for one. And waves. Some people like to say Qualia is like this. That's fine. Those things are real. At least I like to think so. 

But not everyone thinks like me. One of Tom's arguments on this front is that, the stuff of the natural world is accessible to third parties. Qualia are 'by definition' not in this category, since they are tied to subjectivity, and subjectivity belongs to just one person, and that's that. I have a number of issues with this. 

And at this point, I'll break things out into sections, to keep this organized.

- Subjectivity, or, drawing an outline around the 'self'
- Being 'open to view'
- The problem with the 'Open To View' test, as a test
- We can get there without a test
- You want examples? Well okay, here are some examples
- It even happens in one person
- Arguing from incredulity

Subjectivity, or, drawing an outline around the 'self'

First, there's an assumption here about subjectivity. Which is that we are, fundamentally, isolated and unitary in our experience of subjectivity, and that the essence of subjectivity is such that it can only ever be that way. A lot of the argument about qualia depends on just accepting this and moving on to argue about other stuff. But not so fast. Just as a starting point, I think if we survey the range of things that smart people have said about this, at a bare minimum we can not agree that is should be the default view. Derek Parfit's 'glass tunnel' monolog is about the loss of faith in this idea of subjectivity, and, depending on your flavor of enlightenment, religious introspection, or altered state of consciousness epiphany aided by certain chemicals, a lot of the most profound thinking on this topic has been emphatic about the fact that subjectivity itself is not a matter of you being a single, closed off thing, but about being the type of thing that is continuous with the rest of the universe. This will become important later, because a lot of this argument about 'subjectivity' are about the idea that minds couldn't possibly come together.

Being 'open to view'

Tom insists that, if qualia are real, they should be open to view, so to speak, to others. This appears to be the signature test at the center of his argument. That is, if I'm looking at an apple, and have apple qualia, someone could open up my brain, and see the the apple qualia somewhere in there. Moreover, they could somehow distinguish these as my apple qualia, somehow witnessing it would impart the information that they were part of my subjective experience, their property of being qualitative-to-me.

I think this has a bunch of problems with it, all gnarled together. First, it makes it sound like this should all be easy, which is not how this works. Germs are perfectly real, are in principle open to view, yet only actually and practically open to view if you know how to look for them, have a good enough theory to know what they are and therefore know that you are indeed looking at them, and know how to orchestrate an experimental setup that renders them actually open to view.

And so it is with so many things, so many physical attributes, chemical properties, physical processes, and so on. Why should it be surprising that the search for 

but are not easily open to view. I see no indication of sensitivity to this type of answer, which to me is an early hint that 

and are not obvious and can only actually be observed under circumstances specifically orchestrated to bring them into view.

 We don't at all have a working theory of consciousness. The absence of answers relates, more than anything, to the nature of one of the hardest questions on one of the most miraculous things living creatures can do, (being conscious, having qualia). It would be one thing if we had solved it. 

The problem with the 'Open To View' test, as a test

But that's just the first problem with the 'open to view' test. The second is that this boils it down to a 'test', a test that makes the whole philosophical question reduce down to a little set-piece experiment. For one, I think we have good reason to suggest that what happens in one mind could happen in another, which makes it irritating to have to prove to the satisfaction of a skeptic insisting that literal, real worldintances of such must be produced. It is strange that, for a subject where most participants are perfectly comfortable with trolley problems, Mary's Room, that in this case, the rules are changed and it becomes necessary to produce specific, real world instances.

We can get there without a test

If you believe in the principles as they would apply to one person (they have qualia, qualia are real, real means they are some specific thing happening in the brain), that should carry over to the next person, because nothing about naturalism has changed in switching from one observer to the other. And that should be enough to show that what happens in me could happen in you. That sets the grounwork for talking about what a literal example of being 'open to view' would depend on. This is all to say, we can reason about the nature of qualia, any 'test' would be downstream from the nature of qualia itself. 

and the test of being 'open to view' is downstream from this reasoning.

All the hubbub about a test seems to forbid a different kind of answer that would be much simpler, which is that we could just understand qualia in terms of its neural correlates in a single individual, and call it a day. A theory of consciousness would, of course, need to give literal answers explaining what qualia is, and why 

 could include qualia, and, theory in hand, we could identify what brain states correspond to what qualia, and, finding those brain states to be there, be satisfied that qualia are there and really being experienced, and know that a sufficiently similar brain state in another person would amount to experiencing the same qualia, and this equivalence between qualia would be sufficient to answer the question of third party observability. (Yes, just assuming into existince a theory of consciousness that incorporates qualia as thoroughly physical is a non-trivial assumption, but the point is not that this is lightly assumed, but that, since it can be assumed, it can be part of a coherent answer as to why we should believe qualia are physical, without having to literally produce a specific instance the way Tom believes. The counter argument would not be 'there is not a proven instance of a shared experience' but instead would be 'that chain of reasoning breaks down because assertion XYZ is unfounded due to this argument.'). 

You want examples? Well okay, here are some examples

The next problem I have is perhaps the simplest, which is just that it can be met with a direct answer. 'Qualia would have to be demonstrated to be observable by a third party.' Oh, well let me stipulate some examples where that might happen. It's a loaded question, because, if you believe 

 it's not really meant to seek answers, and in fact considers the question already closed by definition. It's intended to show that you won't find an answer, to exhort you to believe it, and then proceed to its conclusion. The idea driving this objection is that, reproducing the 'qualia' of someone else's experience in your 'theater' of consciousness could never serve to prove that you were witnessing someone elses's qualia in real time. You're only ever watching it as it is reproduced in your 'theater', and bringing in someone elses qualia will only be additional qualia in your theater. There's a quality of pre-emptiveness about this, because it seems eager to proceed from the lack of examples to a general principle that no such thing can happen. It even seems to come with an intuition that such things, if real, should exist in numerous examples all over the place. To me, these are red flags of a kind of recklessness.

So, when it comes to literal examples, well, it's disappointing to have to even participate in the exercise because it suggests failure of imagination, but let's go for it. What would it be like for 'qualia' to be observed 'from the outside'? Well, first of all, a real world example would be unusual, and rare. This I think is important to emphasize, because this 'challenge' seems to equivocate between two things, one being the lack, or rarity, of real world practical examples, which is being taken, or mistaken, for a difficulty in the principle itself. So such examples would be rare, unusual, and involve speculation that would feel like sci-fi. But here we go: we know, for instance, that there are rare cases of conjoined twins who share bodily functions, and share sensations, and share signals going to their brains. You could imagine a case where the thing shared between them is consciousness. And, again with the caveat that this is venturing into sci fi thought experiment territory, you could imagine something like a brain to brain interface orchestrated purely for the purpose of witnessing qualia of another person.

Does that prove anything? Well, no. But it shows that this type of question is a matter of investigating, of figuring out the details. A lot of such a set up work turn on all kinds of things about brain function, about which processes are connected to which activity. How *would* one interface between two brains? How *would* you tell between merely seeing and actually witnessing other qualia in the first person- it would have to do with detailsa bout how signals are exchanged, and which critical processes need to be truly 'shared' to be 'sharing' the same theater, and how to orchestrate it so that you nevertheless retain an independent sense of identity, or return to your sense of self after the fact, as a fully fledged witness of another person's qualia. But, what the processes are, etc, is a matter of answering all kinds of empirical questions about brains and brain processes, not a matter of pre-emptively declaring a philosophical principle and calling it a day.

Here one might be tempted to say that any such shared instance is an instance of a single subject, because that's what subjects are, 'by definition.' But that, again, is a very specific assumption about the nature of the 'self' as a single thing with firm boundaries, when instead, it may be like bubbles, joining into one, and separating.

It even happens in one person

Our own brains are, throughout our lives, being repaired, maintained, restored. The stuff that makes up our brain when we are a baby is probably not the same as when we get old. Within the space of a single person, this 'hand off' of the self is occuring. The favorite philosophy example is the ship of Theseus, where one by one, all of the planks of the ship are swapped out, and eventually the ship as a whole is made of entirely new material. If our brain is such a ship, then our subjectivity is 'handed off' from a past brain to a future brain. In the hand-off from past to present self, both have a hand, so to speak, on qualia, both witness them. If this transferability is possible, it certainly seems like the cases of conjoined twins, or some sci-fi brain-to-brain interface would require no more than that.

Rembember that the problem is supposed to be that qualia could not be witnessed 'from the outside', they belong to a self, and only one self. But if you have past and present selves, and the arc of your life involves an exchange from one to the other, and qualia hold true across those, and we can speak on behalf of our past self and say that they, too, had qualia.

But actually, that raises an interesting question. Perhaps, if you need a test, you should also be skeptical of anyone's claims that they had qualia in the past. 

One chilling suggestion about anaesthesia is that perhaps you actually do, in the moment, feel everything happening to you during a surgical procedure, but the effect of anaesthesia is that you just forget it. Or, a theory that I kind of entertain every time I go swimming, is that perhaps initial shock of cold water is every bit as painful as you imagine it to be, but only so for a fraction of a second, and it is quickly gone as your body adjusts to the water.

Arguing from incredulity

Another problem is arguing from incredulity. But I will develop this later. I have stuff to do!