The Mind: What is qualia?

1 08 2011
In my first installment on the mind, I discussed the question, “what is consciousness?”  One of theattributes of consciousness that I discussed was that of qualia (kwal’ ee ah) or the qualitative aspect of consciousness.  I mentioned that these are the states that have an experiential or sensory nature to them.  These sensations include sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound.  Each sensation like a pain, an itch, a tickle, etc., is known as a quale (kwal’ ee).So far, it seems like this idea would be fairly uncontroversial, but it actually presents many challenges and has been rejected by some philosophers as nonsensical.  These would be philosophers who hold a materialist (the world consists solely of particles in fields of force) or physicalist (the belief that all phenomena can be reduced to physical processes and properties).  The question is whether there are phenomena that cannot be accounted for within a materialist or physicalist worldview.  I believe that qualia is just such a phenomenon.

Consciousness is different than qualia, however, consciousness, as I said earlier, has a qualitative aspect to it.  NYU professor of philosophy, Thomas Nagel, presented an argument that has come to epitomize qualia in his “What it is like to be a bat” illustration.  Nagel argues that if physicalism is true, then consciousness and qualia must be reducible to physical explanations; however, he believes that the subjective experiences that we have cannot be so reduced.

Nagel asks us to think about a bat.  Bats navigate by sonar, or echolocation.  They send out signals that are processed by the bat’s brain to detect objects and to help it maneuver around objects and to detect and capture prey.  This is a bat form of perception, but it is completely different from human perception.  Nagel adds, “there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine.” (1)  Other bat behaviors include sleeping upside down, flying (with their own wings), eating rodents, etc.  And yet, even if we could mimic these behaviors, it would only tell us what it is like for me to be a bat, not what it is like for a bat to be a bat.

The problem is the same in reverse in that if there was a race of space aliens, let’s say, Martians, who possessed superior intellects to ours, it would be just as impossible for them to imagine what it would like for us to be us as it is for us to imagine what it is like for a bat to be a bat.

Another illustration that makes a similar point was developed by philosopher, Frank Jackson, developed the illustration,“What Mary Didn’t KNow.”  In this account,

Mary is confined to a black-and-white room, is educated through black-and-white books and through lectures relayed on black-and-white television. In this way she learns everything there is to know about the physical nature of the world. She knows all the physical facts about us and our environment, in a wide sense of ‘physical’ which includes everything in completed physics, chemistry, and neurophysiology, and all there is to know about the causal and relational facts consequent upon all this, including of course functional roles. If physicalism is true, she knows all there is to know. For to suppose otherwise is to suppose that there is more to know than every physical fact, and that is just what physicalism denies. (2)

As the story continues, Mary is freed from her black and white cell to experience the world of color.  She knows all there is to know about color, except what it is like to experience it.  She actually learns something that she could not have otherwise learned or known unless she experienced it first-hand.

Jackson argues that there is a type of knowledge that escapes the physicalist’s realm of knowledge.  In other words, Mary could know all physical facts about the universe, but still learn new knowledge upon her release the entailed that physical knowledge is not everything there is to know.

These two illustrations give an idea that qualitative experiences, or qualia, point us to a subjective aspect to ourselves that is not adequately accounted for in a purely physicalist or materialist accounting.  There is a subjective aspect to us, a “what it is like to be me,” that points us to the idea that we are more than just the sum of our physical parts.  There is much more that could be said about qualia, but this should give you a “feel” for what it’s all about.


(1) Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?”, The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974), 436.

(2) Frank Jackson, “What Mary Didn’t Know,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 83, No. 5. (May, 1986), p. 291.


Can Science and Religion Peacefully Coexist?

12 10 2010

University of Chicago professor of biology, Jerry Coyne, recently penned an article that appeared in USA Today entitled, Science and religion aren’t friends. In it, Coyne made the argument that “science and religion are fundamentally incompatible.” He cited the several books by New Atheists authors such as, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris which he says have exposed the “dangers of faith and the lack of evidence of the God of Abraham.” I’m not sure what this has to do exactly with his argument that science and religion are incompatible, since these are not science books, but rather deal mainly in philosophy, but we will set that aside for now.

Coyne does go on to assert that science has been nibbling away at religious explanations for natural phenomena, that evolution has taken a “huge bite” our of religion, and that recent work on the brain has shown no evidence for souls. He states that science is even studying the origin of morality, all with the goal of closing the gaps not yet filled by science.

Coyne acknowledges that Christians have written many responses to these works of the so-called New Atheists; however, he quips that they are merely attempts to demonize these authors while writing them off as “arrogant, theologically ignorant, and strident.” However, Dr. Coyne sticks to his guns in the midst of these attacks and claims, as a former believer, that it is all “bunk”; science and religion are two are different forms of inquiry. Or, as the late Harvard biologist, Stephen Jay Gould called them, nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA).

Of course, Coyne acknowledges that there are leading scientists who are Christians; however, he simply writes that off as those who hold “conflicting notions in their heads at the same time.” He compares this to making a case, based upon the rate of infidelity, that monogamy and adultery are “perfectly compatible.” However, he says, it is important to distinguish real truth from that which we only want to be true.

Finally, he goes on to argue that science “works” while religion does not. He says that religion leads to war and strife (citing the World Trade Center attack as an example), while science settles things peacefully. Science is based upon reason, doubt, and questions authority, while religion is based upon revelation, dogma and authority. He says that there is “no way of knowing if it’s [religion] true.” In fact, he asserts, religion calls on people to hold incompatible truths.

To support this point, Coyne gives two pieces of evidence. First, the problem of evil; using the inevitable reference to the Holocaust. How do religious people rationalize the existence of evil and the existence of a loving God? Second, he cites the contrast of how many scientists are atheists as compared to the general poplulation; and the negative relationship between religion and acceptance of evolution as a valid theory. So, let me examine his argument to see whether is withstands scrutiny.

I will state at the outset that historically speaking, the idea that science and religion are incompatible is a fairly recent phenomenon. When we examine the history of science, as I did in a class this past summer, we come to realize that science and religion have been more closely linked than many realize in our post-Darwin world. It was Darwin that was a turning point in the way that science and religion have interacted in our history. We can cite discovery after discovery that were made by people who were not only religious, but were even Christian ministers.

I think first of Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest who first proposed one of the most successful and confirmed theories in physics and cosmology, the Big Bang theory. It was atheist astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle, who coined the term “Big Bang” as a slur against Lemaître’s theory. Hoyle refused to accept the theory, not because the physics and the mathematics didn’t work, but because he didn’t care for the implications – it meant that the universe had a beginning, and he found that a hard pill to swallow. He held on to the steady state model (the universe neither expanded nor contracted, but was in a constant steady state) until the evidence made that position untenable. In fact, there were many scientists throughout history that saw their scientific endeavors as a way to understand the mind of God. So, I don’t see Gould’s nonoverlapping magisteria as a valid hypothesis.

Coyne also asserts in the article that we now know that the universe did not require a creator. He doesn’t explain in the article how he knows this to be the case. In fact, one of the only other persons that we know of who has made such a bold claim is Stephen Hawking, to whom Coyne later refers in his article. Hawking’s claims are extremely speculative, based upon M-theory or what is known as “Super String Theory.” Roger Penrose, a former colleague and research collaborator with Hawking and no theist himself, recently said that M-theory is too speculative to even be considered science. To date, it is believed that there are 10500 possible explanations for M-theory, beyond the bounds of what science could feasibly test. Being untestable and non-falsifiable, M-theory is stuck in the realm of metaphysics and outside the realm of physics. Therefore, Coyne’s and Hawking’s statements are overblown and without foundation.

One of the areas that I think is interesting and one to which Coyne alludes is the area of consciousness. Most materialists (those who believe that all of reality is made of matter) believe that the mind is simply a state of the brain, if even that. Some believe that the mind is simply a useful fiction. Whichever position that Coyne and other materialists take, they have a huge problem, that being that if the mind doesn’t exist, or is simply a brain state, then we are completely determined beings. If we are determined beings (without free will) then we don’t make choices or have intentional thoughts (about other things). If we lack these characteristics, then reason and rationality go out the window. Yet, reason and rationality are the foundation of science and the big hook on which he and other materialists hang their hat. So, if Coyne is right and there is no immaterial world (which is what he is ultimately getting at with his argument) then his argument is meaningless as it is just the determined output of his brain, something over which he had no control and for which he cannot verify or falsify for truthfulness. So, if Coyne is right, then he would never be able to know it. Yet he argues so forcefully and persuasively. I think that his argument works against him. He falls on the sword of his own argument.

But, it gets worse. He also argues that the Holocaust was an evil event. But how can we have evil events if we have no free will? How can we be guilty of that for which we had no control? Again, he implies libertarian free will, yet he has no basis for that. Nor does he have a basis for objective good and evil. For, if there is no transcendent standard of right and wrong, then we are merely speaking of preferences. He may not have liked what happened during World War II by the Nazis, but he certainly cannot call it evil, as that implies an objective standard.

Also, if our actions are merely the result of an evolutionary process that selects for survival, then why call behaviors that have survived this selection process evil? We should suppose that they have survival value, otherwise, they would have been selected against. Yet, we read our favorite news sites and they are filled with stories that our conscience would inform us are evil. What’s up with that? How is it that these behaviors survive and yet we consider them evil? I suppose that we merely have to hold these incompatible ideas in our heads if we choose to hold on to the neo-Darwinian model.

As for the number of scientists who are atheists, it is easy to cite statistics of the number of people who believe one idea or another, but statistics don’t determine truth, they only determine popularity, and truth is not a popularity contest. Nor can one assume the truth of macro evolution, which is far from solid science (not to be confused with micro evolution which is solid), and then criticize a group of people who don’t agree with it, even if their reasons are not grounded in scientific arguments. This doesn’t make them necessarily wrong, nor does it do anything to prove his thesis.

In the end, there are good reasons to believe that God exists. Those reasons, partly based on science, include: the origin of the universe; the fine-tuning of the universe; the existence of objective morals; the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the existence of the conscious mind, and many others. Yes, we do use science to give evidence of God’s existence and if Dr. Coyne has a problem with that, he is free to give evidence to explain these phenomena naturalistically. However, I don’t believe that some of these are explainable scientifically as they fall outside the realm of science. Still, science and religion can work together. Science was once even called the handmaid of religion. Whether that is true today, they are still able to work hand in hand as they have throughout history past.