Monday, October 3, 2016

Qualia and value-laden why-questions

[Note added later: A version of this argument was first discovered by Kahane.]

Consider the famous story of Mary, the neuroscientist raised in a monochrome environment who finally sees an instance of red. It has famously been argued that no matter how much science she knew before she saw red, she learned something new when she saw red, and hence there is something more to the mental life than what science says. I've always been rather sceptical of this line of argument: it just didn't seem to me that a fact was learned.

But I am now thinking--as a result of a social experience--that there is an interesting way to argue that at least in some cases like Mary's one is learning a fact when one experiences a new quale. To know the answer to a why-question is to know a fact. After all, the answer to a why-question encodes an explanation, and explanations are given by means of facts.

Now suppose that Mary instead of leading a monochrome life led a charmed life and never felt any pain. One day she stubs her toe. She learns something by stubbing her toe: what pain feels like. But again we ask: is there a fact that Mary has learned? Here then is an argument:

  1. By learning what pain feels like, Mary learned why pain is bad.
  2. One learns why something is the case only by learning a fact.
  3. So learning what pain feels like is learning a fact.

I give the pain version of the argument not because I find it very plausible, but because I think some readers will find it plausible. I myself am not inclined to think that pain is intrinsically bad, and the reasons why pain is extrinsically bad were available to Mary prior to her stubbing the toe (she knew that pain distracts people from worthwhile pursuits, that it tends to go against people's desires, etc.) But even if I am not convinced by the pain case, I find it pretty plausible that there will be some value-based case where by learning what a quale is like one learns the answer to a why-question. I find particularly plausible aesthetic versions of this. Here's a case where I've had the relevant aesthetic experience: "Why is dark chocolate gustatorily valuable? Because it tastes like that!" Here's one where I haven't. Being largely insensitive to music (more a matter of the brain than the ears, I think), I don't experience music like other people do, and so I don't know why Beethoven is a great composer, though I know on the testimony of others that he is a great composer. But there are possible experiences--namely, those that normal people receive upon listening to Beethoven--such that the what-it-is-like of these experiences answers the question of why Beethoven is a great composer.

Of course, these examples won't help a value-nihilist. But why would anyone be a value-nihilist? (A question with a hook.)


Michael Gonzalez said...

Love the pun at the end there!

Pruss, if I may... I think several hundred years of philosophy have led to an incorrect presupposition that "learning" means "learning facts". For example, consider the following two sentences: "I learned how to swim." "I know how to swim."

These are both legitimate, coherent, and true statements using the words "learn" and "know" in ways that have nothing to do with propositions or the acquisition of facts. This should at least weaken the central problem that you have with the Mary case.

One can take this insight further and (perhaps) flip the whole issue on its head: viz: What if learning facts is actually a subset of the broader acquisition of particular skills/habits/competencies/etc? It certainly does seem to fill that role in the social games we play.... As usual, my perspective here is heavily influenced by Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty, but I think Alva Noe (at Berkley) gave a very interesting and compelling argument in this direction at a conference once. I'm pretty sure it's on YouTube....

In any case, I think that Mary (in seeing red) has indeed acquired a skill. She has engaged in an activity she had never engaged in before. Does that mean she learned a new fact? No. Does it mean qualia exist? I don't think so. I think it means that perception is a skilled behavior for coping with the world around us and bringing it into focus, and that we clearly "learn" and "know" how to do that, and what happens when we do it.

Michael Gonzalez said...

One tiny step further: Experiments indicate that, if Mary actually existed, she would actually be unable to perceive red objects even if finally presented with one. This fits my view quite well, since it's exactly what you would expect (she hasn't mastered the skill... she's in the same position as the person who has never swum being thrown into water for the first time). It doesn't fit the qualia view that well...

William said...

At least in monkeys, where of course we don't know with certainty what their qualia are like, there has been further research since the ones you have heard about, which suggests this is not so:

Alexander R Pruss said...

Another line of argument (inspired by some stuff Michelle Panchuk said in a recent SCP talk) is that knowing-what-its-like can stand in an evidential relation to what is clearly propositional knowledge. For instance, even if the what-its-like of pain doesn't *explain* why pain is bad, it clearly provides *evidence* that pain is bad. And that's probably enough to make it be factual knowledge rather than something like know-how.

Michael Gonzalez said...

William: I'll check that out. It sounds interesting.

Pruss: I still don't think that anyone running the "Mary" argument is saying she gained knowledge in the sense of "knowing that X". She just now knows what red looks like.

Michael Gonzalez said...

William: I checked out that link, and it is indeed interesting, but only further supported what I was saying. Did you notice this part?...

"For nearly 5 months the monkeys showed no change, but then suddenly they were able to correctly identify tests for red and green on the screen. Neitz is not sure what changed, but believes that rather than physical alteration to the neural pathways in the brain, it eventually became able to understand the new information it was receiving."

Again, my view would have predicted the lag time between getting the physical abnormality fixed and learning to see red. If a person is born without legs, they obviously cannot walk. If these researchers had injected a virus that caused them to start growing legs, the person would still have to learn the skill of walking.

Brian Cutter said...

Interesting post! Guy Kahane has an argument along these lines in a PPR paper from a few years back, "Feeling Pain for the very First Time: The Normative Knowledge Argument."

I like this variant on the knowledge argument, partly because it's fairly resistant to what I take to be the best response to Jackson's original knowledge argument, namely the old-fact-new-mode response. On the old-fact-new-mode picture, a given phenomenal concept ("*this* quality") picks out the same property as some (say) neurophysiological concept (where the neurophysiological concept and phenomenal concept are distinct, and not a priori related). Proponents of this view generally suppose that the neurophysiological concept is the concept that "captures," or perspicuously represents, the *nature* of the relevant property. I find it a bit odd to say that conceiving a property (like being in pain) under a *less* nature-revealing concept would put us in a *better* position to know why having that property is bad (or good, as the case may be).

William said...


The point is that we are some year this decade going to be able to cure someone of color blindness and hopefully video document that process, and the subject may be able to tell us how it feels from day one, I hope. Mary's scenario may be empirically tested this decade.

I agree that knowing-what-is-like is knowledge that cannot be totally expressed in words. That is because there are many concepts which are not completely expressible in propositions. They fail to translate into propositions because they are nonverbal. A subset of those nonverbal concepts are sensory qualia, and many others are motor skills. Some of these are learned quickly, some slowly.

Michael Gonzalez said...

William: I think it's absolutely wonderful that we may be able to cure color blindness. But, if we learned anything from the monkey experiment, it's that people can't just be given the equipment; they must also gradually learn the skill of seeing color. This lends strong support to the view of perception I was espousing. Mary would not see a red object immediately, but rather would gradually learn to.

And, the main point is that, since there are kinds of knowledge which are non-propositional, Pruss' main issue with the Mary argument need not be an issue at all. One can learn something even if that something is not a fact or judgment or concept or proposition. Thus Mary can learn what it is like to see red things without learning new "facts", as Pruss was worried about. Moreover, it is quite possible that the kind of "learning" and "knowledge" which DOES have to do with propositions is just a subset of the broader sense in which one learns "how-to".

Also, the idea of "qualia" seems to add nothing to this situation. Seeing a color is a skilled activity, and Mary has never learned or exercised that skill. It is that simple (or, at least, it seems that way to me).

Alexander R Pruss said...


Yup. Kahane has scooped me.


The naturalist certainly agrees that simply by learning biology and fluid mechanics, one doesn't learn how to swim. But that fact doesn't seem to be a challenge for naturalism. Likewise, if Mary's knowing what red is like knowing how to swim, it's no challenge for naturalism.

Also, know-how is structurally quite different from factual knowledge. Know-how is not subject to Gettier cases, for instance.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Pruss: I agree. I don't think the Mary case challenges naturalism. It just seemed to me that your central concern is addressed by acknowledging that "Mary isn't learning a fact" doesn't mean "Mary isn't learning something new".

As for the difference between the two kinds of knowledge, I think the insight of Noe on this is that the latter may be a subset of the former. It may be that ALL knowledge is "know-how" (knowledge of propositions or judgment being a sort of social "know-how"). Or perhaps they are both derivative of something more fundamental. This is a potentially long discussion (I've already deleted two paragraphs), so let me just say that Gettier considerations have to do with a particular definition of knowledge which may itself be misleading, given that it is formulated in terms of judgment. And it is possible that making judgments is a sort of social know-how, in which case the whole debate is reframed and Gettier's concerns are (perhaps) similar to an Olympic judge who disqualifies a swimmer for wading instead of swimming.