Phenomenal realism and empirical depth

I think the only interesting positions regarding the metaphysics of qualia are dualisms like Chalmers’, idealisms like Dennnet’s, and identity theories like the Churchlands’. And only the latter two strike me as at all appealing. In this post I’d like to air the following beef with dualism: it constitutes an untenable combination of realism with a lack of empirical depth.

To spell this out, I’ll start by spelling out some terminology, especially what I take the relevant notions of idealism, realism, and empirical depth to be. Let realism about x be the view that x facts outstrip x beliefs and idealism about x to be the view that there is nothing more to x facts than our x beliefs. (Note that in other discussions of realism and idealism what is at stake might be a much broader notion of mind-dependence/independence than the notion of belief-dependnce/independence that I want to focus on here.) By “emprical depth” I mean that property of theories in virtue of which they have the kind of “surplus meaning” that guides scientific discovery and provides predictive and explanatory power.

I suppose that the best reasons for being a realist about anything have to do with the gains in empirical depth thereby achieved. In the physical sciences, being a realist about unobservable particles buys you predictive and explanatory power unavailable to a phenomenalist (a kind of idealist) that construes particle-talk as reducing to statements concerning sets of observations. This is not to say that idealism is always bad. If there were a domain which seemed to lack empirical depth, then we would have good grounds for being idealists about entities in that domain. Here’s a domain that lacks empirical depth: nice shirts. There’s probably not much we can predict or explain about nice shirts. Some shirts are nice, some are not, the end. The science of nice-shirt-ology is not forthcoming. A good position to take on nice shirts then is a kind of idealism: there are no facts about nice shirts (qua nice shirts) that outstrip what we think about nice shirts.

Enough about shirts. What about qualia? Does qualia-talk carry with it any empirical depth? It depends on who you ask. As best as I can tell from dualists, there’s not much empirical depth to be gained from qualia-talk. (Dualists famously maintain that attributing qualia buys you no explanatory or predictive power not had by attributions of zombie-hood.) Identity theorists however, get you empirical depth (for more on this point see “Consciousness, Data, Electricity, and Rock ” ) What I wonder about dualists is this. If qualia-talk lacks empirical depth then what justifies their phenomenal realism? Why not change teams to idealism and buy into something like Dennett’s “first-person operationalism”? Alternately, maybe they could change their mind about qualia-talk and trade shallows for depths.



Figure 1. Pete Mandik dived for empirical depth and Chris Eliasmith took this cool picture of him.

Fig 2. Nice shirt.

6 Responses to “Phenomenal realism and empirical depth”

  1. How about substance dualism as a position? It could predict and explain “paranormal” experiences like out-of-body and near-death experiences, psi phenomena, etc. I’m not quite a believer in such things, but there is some interesting empirical evidence it’s hard entirely to dismiss. Now we’ve got a real, empirical question on our hands!

  2. Pete Mandik says:

    Good point, Eric. Dualisms are not essentially empirically shallow. The philosophical arguments for dualism that I’m aware of, however, typically insulate the position from empirical testing.

  3. Peter Langland-Hassan says:

    If I may briefly vent the qualophilic perspective: qualia are not “posits” that gain acceptance into one’s ontology through their ability to explain otherwise mysterious phenomena. Rather, they are occurrent features of everyday experience that themselves stand in need of explanation. Pete’s claim that “the best reasons for being a realist about anything have to do with the gains in empirical depth thereby achieved,” is simply false. People are realists about life not because the concept of life allows one to plumb new explanatory depths, but because it is an obvious phenomenon that calls out for explanation.

    What justifies admitting qualia as explananda and not explanans? The way Pete would have it, the claims of qualophiles are no more legitimate than those of someone who posits hitherto undiscovered particles that are somehow unobservably embedded within molecules, doing no causal work.
    But this cannot be the nature of the qualophile’s claim, since, if it were, his claim would never have garnered years of philosophical and scientific scrutiny.

    Qualia must either be given an explanation, or it must be explained why one’s request for a (non-idealist) explanation of qualia is illegitimate. A mere appeal to the success of other “functionalist” theories doesn’t take us far–we should not conclude from our inability to understand something that we do understand it after all.

    Not that I’m a crazy dualist, of course.

  4. Anibal says:

    Near death experiences (NDE) we can consider them as generally produce by decreased oxygenation or reduce blood flow in the brain produce by cardiogenic shocks, cardiac arrests or effects of anaesthesia. So are linked to physical processes that allow us to exclude substance dualism.

    Although Eric is right in emphysizing their phenomenal reality from the perspective of the subjetc.

    I align myself with Mandik, Dennett or the Churchlands. And why to admitt qualia as explananda rather than explanans, is becuase maybe if we sustain a compatibilist vision around the subpersonal and the personal level assuming no priority among them, but neverthless, favouring the subpersonal level; we can describe the functional properties of enabling mechanisms acurrately and hence provide an explanation of some high order phenomena, such as qualia, depichering them in abstract terms, idealistic terms, revisionary terms or even eliminativistc terms.

  5. Pete Mandik says:

    Peter, I think you raise some pretty interesting points. Thanks for the comment. I stand by my point, though. Perhaps it can be made more convincing if I am more explicit about distinguishing belief in the existence of something from belief in realism about something. I think your analogy between life and qualia is pretty interesting. I suppose that there is something basic about our belief in living things. For example, we have believed that things are alive way before we’ve done any scientific theorizing. Further, there is probably a good case to be made that our cognitive grasp of life is rooted in a lot of innate stuff. For example, maybe newborns are capable of distinguishing biological from non-biological motion. However, here’s the key point: all of this stuff is consistent with people believing in the existence of living things while simultaneously being neutral on the question of realism about living things, that is, neutral on the question of whether facts about living things outstrip our beliefs about living things. That question, I suppose, isn’t basic or contemplated until we’ve done quite a bit of theorizing. Further, I think the best case to be made about biological realism involves the empirical depth of life and related concepts.

    Regarding the empirical depth of such concepts, consider the explanatory and predictive force of attributing life to something. Suppose there were a strange object that was found in someone’s back yard that at first glance looked like a rock but upon further examination was covered in a thin coat of slime once a day around noon and turned green around dusk. A pretty good explanation and guide to further predictions would involve attributing life to that object. And again, all this stuff about empirical depth and realism is fully consistent with saying that life is some obvious thing that calls out for an explanation.

    Regarding qualia, I think that there are qualia. I haven’t fully made up my mind about realism v. idealism about qualia (though I lean toward realism). I doubt, though, that our notion of qualia is anywhere near as basic or pre-theoretical as our notion of life. But even if it were, that wouldn’t contradict the claim that the best reasons for being a realist hinge on empirical depth.