Brain Hammer Poll: Figuring Out What It’s Like

Where Do They Make Balloons?

Originally uploaded by Pete Mandik.

Could a person figure out what it is like to see red if that person had…

1. never seen anything before?
2. only seen shades of gray before?
3. only seen shades of blue and yellow before?
4. only seen shades of purple and orange before?
5. only seen pink before?

19 Responses to “Brain Hammer Poll: Figuring Out What It’s Like”

  1. Ken says:

    One problem with these cases is the possibility of developmental disorders resulting from one or another lack of the exercise of vision. I believe disorder do happen for things like oriented line detectors, but I’ve not heard about color. At any rate, are we to suppose that there are no disorders that arise because of these visual deprivations? And one presumably has to worry that “disorder” might include not being able to figure out what it is like to see red. Sounds kind of a like a disorder of color blindness or lack of color imagery.

  2. Pete, shouldn’t the question be a bit more specific? Is this person supposed to figure out it what it is like for a ‘normal person’ to see red? What it would be like for them to see red if they were a normal person?

  3. Hi Pete,

    I would say “No” to all questions.
    Though there is certainly some gray zone where “shades of orange and purple” might be classified as “red” too. But I guess, we should ignore those cases.

  4. michael metzler says:

    I take it that ‘figure out’ is a metaphor for the processes of the unconscious mind. Otherwise, I don’t think I understand the question; I’m not sure what it would be to literally figure out how to see a particular sort of color. But if metaphor, it seems this would be a strictly empirical question. We at least know (I think) that the brain is specially designed to produce red phenomenology to track red objects. Given this special innate ability, and given our astounding abilities at simulating this phenomenology while not tracking our environment, it is not clear to me why we should suppose that our brain could not ‘figure out’ ‘what it is like’ to see red in the absence of retinal stimulation (or whatever). Is there any data anyone knows about that would confirm or disconfirm this? But perhaps I missed the point of the question. . .

    michael metzler

  5. Pete Mandik says:

    To Whom It May Concern:

    Feel free to interpret the question along the following lines.

    1. Yes or No? There exists at least one metaphysically possible world in which there is at least one person such that the person is able to see red but has never seen anything before and figures out what it is like to see red.
    2. Yes or No? There exists at least one metaphysically possible world in which there is at least one person such that the person is able to see red but has only seen shades of gray before and figures out what it is like to see red.

    And so on.

  6. From the Concerned:

    what it is like for whom?

  7. With the clarification above: for that one person in that one possible world, my answers are all ‘yes’ . . .as long as it is the unconscious mind of that one person that does the figuring out. I can’t imagine why not. I even find this all plausible and verifiable in our own world. This much Dennett (2007) got right I think.

  8. Pete Mandik says:

    Richard: add “for that person” between “what it is like” and “to see red”.

  9. [...] Anyhow, here is the ‘what it is like’ thread I stuck my sticky paws into. I usually keep to myself, so I thought I would share the experience with everyone. The Brain Hammer is the blog run by Pete Mandik. [...]

  10. R says:

    Well, maybe I’m a bit over my head here, but I would say no to both. At least according to what I think Rosenthal’s (2005) HOT model states.

    According to that model, there is only a “what it’s like” for a given state if that state is conscious . And for someone to a have conscious experience of red that person must be able to have some sort of comparative concept of red. I presume if you’ve never seen red, you can never have a comparative concept of it.

    However, if you are saying we would then expose them to red, person 2 would be okay.

    I think……

  11. R,

    Good point; the phrase ‘figure out’ does seem to bear this epistemological component too. To me, there is an important distinction here between your unconscious mind producing the experience of ‘what it is like’ to see red — a real possibility on my view and something that does not require a pre-existing concept — and the subsequent knowledge of what it is like to see red. It was the former scenario I had in mind, but perhaps ‘figure out’ requires the gaining of this phenomenal knowledge and not just the possibility of the experiential state. It might be good to specify the motivation for the language ‘figure out’ here.

  12. well in that case, how the hell are we supposed to know?

  13. Jason Zarri says:

    I’m having some difficulty understanding what you mean by the “figuring out” terminology. First, what exactly has a person achieved when they have figured out what it is like to see red? Does it mean that such a person is now able to imagine seeing red, or that they can actually induce perceptual experiences as of redness (or “as of red objects”, if you find “perceptual experiences as of redness” problematic) in themselves? Being able to imagine redness, it seems to me, does not necessarily entail that one knows what it is like to see red. For example, it seems I can imagine being in pain; yet when I imagine this I don’t wince or feel any actual discomfort. I may desperately try to avoid painful experiences, but I feel no similar motivation to avoid imagining painful experiences. If there were someone who had never experienced pain, but who could imagine being in pain at will, could they really count as knowing what it is like to be in pain? Perhaps they could, but I think that if they did know what it is like to be in pain, it wouldn’t be in virtue of being able to imagine pain.
    On the other hand, if “figuring out what it’s like to see red” means that the person could induce in themselves actual experiences of red, what would it show? That perceptual experiences can be ‘deduced’, as it were, from some sort of propositional knowledge? Here we come to another difficulty with “figuring out”: Does the process of figuring out involve discursive reasoning, or does it instead involve doing some kind of phenomenological experiment (or perhaps both)? To make up my own example, suppose we have a color scientist who has only seen shades of pink and blue. Suppose further that this color scientist wants to know what this “redness” other people talk about is really like, so they view a shade of pink and then try to imagine “something like this, only further from blue on the color wheel”. If successful, would this process count as “figuring out” what it is like to see red?

  14. Pete,

    Wow! Thank you for the link. This is perhaps one of the most relevant articles I have seen to what I’ve been up to recently. Many lines of discussion are very helpful for me, particularly the references to the neurobiological stuff. I really like your discussion about “unconscious perception”. And I agree with Dennett’s point about Swamp Mary, which was my previous “2007” reference above. The discussion about “egocentric representation” is very cool, and I wonder if this is the sort of thing that grounds subjectivity, albeit via point of view – that very particular way we track our embodiment. Is this your own idea? I don’t recall seeing a citation there. I also like the discussion about the hierarchy of the processing loop: from specific to the abstract.

    I think I have one central worry that developed progressively as I read through the essay though. On my view, you would appear to be conflating linguistic abstraction, or even the categorizing feature of ‘concepts’ as understood through our linguistic practice, with the mind’s unconscious binding of objects (and similar processing that results in conscious experience). I think the first step you make in doing this is by assuming that the knowledge of what it is like is propositional. This is in fact precisely what I think the knowledge of what it is like is not. (I think Jackson originally made this distinction too, arguing that Mary did not learn anything interesting at all with respect to ‘what it is like’, but rather simply learned a new fact.) I’m also suspicious about Beaton’s idea (or what appears to be the idea) that blindsight gives evidence for the fact that conscious experience entails the ability to report. Is there work that justifies this generalization from blindsight? Further, it is not clear to me that what we naturally consider a ‘concept’ is necessary for Mary to “detect and respond to red stimuli”. And as for the hierarchy of processing: I’m still not seeing the clear connection between abstract information content at V5 and what we take to be the categorization use of concepts. For example, it is not clear that color constancy in more abstract processing of visual perception is abstract in the way a categorizing concept is – the mind selects, processes, and binds, leading to a simplified production of conscious tracking, but once this process is complete, it does seem to come to us as a simple given (even though it is not). Isn’t experience a paradigm case of what is specific and concrete? Yet, Churchland’s comments about discrimination practices is certainly interesting. . .

    I’m not yet convinced about your concluding point – I can’t be; I’ve written to much to the contrary! I take the element of surprise involved with Mary seeing red to be a strong way to make the central point of the story; but I think Mary’s emotions are not THE point. Hence, it seems problematic to claim degrees of the knowledge of what it is like in virtue of the level of surprise Mary feels. The reasons for the lack of surprise in your example seem independent of the special character of the experience under consideration.

    This post is too long (sorry), so just one more quick comment: you want to treat “kinds of experience” in isolation, such as visual perception. But I argue that the unity of consciousness, similar to what Chalmers and Bayne proposed, make this impossible. Visual perception will be an element subsumed under the total ‘what it is like to be’. And it is for this reason that description cannot predict the specific character of an upcoming experience.

    Thanks again for the link and any further comments about this would be helpful!

  15. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Jason,

    I didn’t define any of the relevant terms, like “figuring out” because I was curious, among other things, what the poll takers mean by them.

  16. Pete Mandik says:

    p.s. If you want to know what I think about “figuring out” etc., follow the link I mentioned to Michael above.

  17. Ignacio Prado says:

    Hi Pete,

    I think the answer is ‘yes’ to all, if the information that the person is using to infer what it’s like is stipulated to be ‘complete’ in some sense, as it is in the Mary case.

    Also, you might want to add a pedantic proviso such as ‘infer what’s like without having to change the physical constitution of one’s brain with any neuro-engineering.’

    Uniting the world against privacy intuitions,

  18. Chris says:

    Michael Metzler says, “I usually keep to myself.”

    It’s for good reason that so many people call you a pathological liar