Re: The return of the revenge of qualia, part VI.

From: Chris Capel (
Date: Sat Jul 23 2005 - 08:27:14 MDT

On 7/21/05, Tennessee Leeuwenburg <> wrote:
> Chris:
> The point is that our individual *cannot learn* from physics alone,
> what the experiencing of seeing a red rose is like. If she could learn
> from physics alone, then she would not experience anything new,
> period. She would be entirely un-surprised by what she experienced,
> even though it was the first time, because she would know what to
> expect.

Point taken.

> This is, per se, interesting. This is where the debate lies. It was
> not my intent to prove an argument with this, but it seemed that some
> people were unfamiliar with the intuitive appeal of "qualia", and I
> thought the thought experiment would help.

Oh, I dunno. I think there are probably better thought experiments to
give a person an intuitive feel for what qualia might actually be. But
the experiment does serve that purpose, as long as "knowing
everything" has certain common-sense restrictions that I think are
probably wrong.

> On 7/22/05, Eliezer S. Yudkowsky <> wrote:
> > > One day she lands on Earth at the end of her mission. Upon opening the
> > > hatch, she casts her eyes first on an enormous bunch of red roses
> > > which have been given to her.
> > >
> > > "Oh", she says, "so that's what it's like".
> > >
> > > Has she learnt anything new about colour? If you accept that she has,
> > > then qualia must be real, because she already knew everything that
> > > science could inform her about the world and about colour. There must,
> > > therefore, be something real about colour which is not addressed by
> > > science.
> >
> > Not that I'm still at the stage of my career when this sort of thing seemed
> > mysterious to me, but:
> >
> > What new predictions can the scientist make once she actually sees a
>bunch of red roses?
> She can make new qualitative predictions. Even if I were to accept
> (which I don't), that minds are reducible to brains, perfect physical
> knowledge could stil only make predictions at the physical level.
> Without a qualitative understanding of "how that feels" to a person,
> the scientist would be un-able to provide a proper description of
> experience / qualia.

If you were to accept that minds are reducible to brains, I don't
think you have to throw qualia out the window. I think that an
ultimate knowledge of the workings of the brain would show a clear
cause-effect chain between any given neural pattern and the behavior
it gives rise to. To induce what the state of mind of the person might
be given these two (very large) pieces of information is a
straightforward next step. You see certain neural patterns, the person
is seeing red. Others, and the person is angry. Others, and the person
feels a slight sense of derealization combined with a bit of
hypnogogic imagry. A person that knows everything about the brain
would supposedly be able to read emotions and states of mind like this
from neural patterns.

And supposedly, though I think you'll disagree here, they would be
able to imagine what it would feel like for /them/ to have those
states of mind, even if their experience with those states of mind is
small. Much as a skilled musician can look at a sheet of music and
hear the melody without ever playing it or having heard it, a person
with enough skill reading maps or snapshots of neural activity would
be able to imagine the feeling. Perhaps such a feat would be beyond
human intelligence.

OK, let's bring in a superintelligent alien race, and assume they have
their own inner life. They have a visual modality, but it's based only
on infrared and lower (?) frequencies. So could this alien race know
what it feels like to see blue simply by reading a neural map of a
human? Well, with enough information about the human's brain, (again,
assuming reductionism,) they could run in their own minds a simulation
of that human's brain at full speed. (They could probably connect some
sensory data to the inputs of the human, so that the brain wasn't
completely deprived of input.) This way they can intimately observe
every electrical pulse in the whole brain of a live, thinking,
simulated human. Just as the skilled human reader, except much more
skilled, they can read and understand the human's thoughts better than
the person could tell them.

As the alien lets the human leech of a few of the alien's neurons,
time passes, and the alien becomes more familiar with the process of
reading the mind of the human, eventually the alien begins to develop
a sort of primitive skill in performing the task, as the human's mind
becomes more an extension of the alien's, the same way a keyboard or
stilts or a vehicle become an extension of a human's body when handled
with skill. I think we can call this sort of skill developing a new
sensory modality, if a layered one. It's something humans are good at.
If the alien becomes good enough at this, the alien will be able to
experience a qualia associated with the human's when the human
experiences the qualia of seeing blue. The alien's qualia will at
first be self-conscious--the experience of observing someone else
experience blue. But in the same way that a robotic hand with feedback
sensors letting a human control it from a distance will be experienced
as a literal extension of the human's qualitative experience, as part
of the human's body, eventually this extra layer will disappear with
the increasing skill of the alien. At this point, what's to say
there's any meaningful difference between the qualia the alien
experiences and that which the human does?

I suppose one could view this as an argument against qualia, but I see
it only as an argument against non-reductionism. I think qualia are
only special in the same way that quantum particles (forgive me if
this terminology is wrong) are special--they're the extremely
primitive building blocks with which a certain kind of model of the
universe is constructed. A subjective model of the universe starts
with qualia and builds from there. In this model, quantum particles
are an extremely high-level phenomenon, being far removed from the
qualia, which are the building blocks. In an objective viewpoint,
however, these quantum particles are the extremely low-level phenomena
and the qualia are extremely high-level and invisible. Being objective
as they all are, hard reductionists assume that the qualia have to be
explained using objective terms, or else they don't exist in the
objective universe. That's a bit unfair, though. The physical
particles in the brain that appear to perfectly track qualia can (we
assume) be objectively observed and verified. But the objective
viewpoint can only offer an objective explanation, and qualia are, by
definition, the building blocks of the subjective viewpoint. Building
blocks in worldviews have no underlying principles, and as such,
nothing can explain them except as referred to from a different
viewpoint. We do this going from the subjective viewpoint to the
objective. We cobble together all of our subjective experience, and,
by trial-and-error, discover patterns and principles. This becomes the
scientific method. By careful application, we eventually come to
observe the existence of quantum particles, the building blocks of the
objective viewpoint. But our discovery doesn't lend these particles
any of the immediacy that qualia have for us, because we are bound to
our subjectivity. While the viewpoints contain each other, in a
circular fashion, nonetheless, the subjective is the beginning of the
circle, for us. And it seems that the main imbalance between the two,
and perhaps the thing that causes so much confusion, is that the human
neural architecture is capable of assimilating other viewpoints and
making them its main mode of thought, whereas the objective viewpoint
has no primary sentience that we know of.

Sorry if none of this directly addresses your concerns, but I do think
it does provide evidence that qualia, (if they completely track
physical, neural processes,) can be experienced, and thus "described"
or "predicted" by other sentience with only a physical knowledge of
the brain processes giving rise to the qualia.

Chris Capel

P.S. This reply is a bit late, as the gmail web interface ate my
draft. Try to avoid changing the subject in a saved draft to the same
as an existing thread in your inbox.

"What is it like to be a bat? What is it like to bat a bee? What is it like=
 to be a bee being batted? What is it like to be a batted bee?"
-- The Mind's I (Hofstadter, Dennet)

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